Posts tagged: Essay

A sense of fair play

I found this clip on YouTMonkeyube the other day, exploring whether or not capuchin monkeys have a sense of fair play and I found the implications somewhat deeper than immediately obvious.

There are two segments – the first demonstrating cooperation between two monkeys in pursuit of food, the second pitting the two monkeys against each other.  It was the second segment that particularly intrigued me.  The monkeys, Vulcan and Virgil, are taught to “buy” a treat with a plastic token.  Vulcan buys a cracker, which is tasty enough, but then he sees Virgil gets a grape in exchange for his token.  Now a grape is much tastier in monkey world than a cracker, and Vulcan clearly feels short changed.  The transactions continue, with the same different treatment of the two, and Vulcan gets more and more agitated until eventually he wins a grape too.

What grabbed my attention was not even noted by David Attenborough’s narration – once Vulcan spotted the preferential treatment of Virgil, he never once accepted that lower reward of the cracker again.  He turned it down flat, every time.

I went for a walk to think about it.

All Vulcan knew was that Virgil was getting grapes and he was getting crackers and he didn’t like that.  But he didn’t take the cracker and continue to demand a grape.  He knew that one token got him one treat, and his treats weren’t as good as Virgil’s, even though the two were doing exactly the same thing.  Clearly Vulcan was not hungry enough or otherwise motivated to eat the cracker anyway and try again later.  He wanted his fair does right then and there and he wasn’t taking no for an answer.

There is a clue here to underlying evolutionary pressures.  Monkeys have learned, or evolved (same thing for these purposes), certain behavior patterns in response to certain conditions.  This experiment quite cleanly demonstrated an escalatory response to an unfair situation.  It was better to risk a worse outcome, no treat, in response to inequality than it is to accept the inequality itself, (or, at least, to be seen to accept it).

What would be the consequences of accepting the cracker that were so undesirable?  Had Vulcan accepted the cracker would he have been accepting a subordinate position with respect to Virgil?  Clearly he is already subordinate to the effectively all-powerful, human experimenter, but, from Vulcan’s point of view, would it have risked giving the experimenter the idea that Vulcan was somehow “cheaper” than Virgil, encouraging further inequalities down the line?

Of course, we have much in common with these monkeys.  We are perpetually faced with unfair situations and must decide on appropriate responses with a view to future consequences.  Sometimes the response is apathy because that’s cheaper than  putting up a fight, although it may turn out to be far from free, and apathy creates further apathy as the inequalities become entrenched.  Sometimes the response is to fight, despite the costs which are perceived as less than those of apathy, up to and including death.  In the case of these monkeys, we see the fundamental mechanics of the decision.  Is it conscious?  Is it learned?  Is it instinctive (evolved)?  I’d say all three, in both us and the monkeys, and not least because all three are intimately related.

All this might lead you to reflect on the eons of experience of the generations before you informing the emotions you feel next time some jerk in an expensive car cuts you off.

(While writing this, it also occurred to me that with this video we also have some illustration of the mechanics of gambling.  One monkey sees another monkey put a coin in a slot and pull a lever.  Many coins fall out, all in a heap.  Monkey see, monkey do.  First monkey puts a coin in the slot and pulls the lever.  Nothing comes out.  Monkey feels affronted. What he might, in other circumstances, call his sense of justice is tweaked and causes him to insist, to fight back, to put another coin in the slot and pull the lever again.  And so on.)

Air France Flight 447 and me

Air France flight 447 Empennage Retrieval

Air France flight 447 Empennage Retrieval

It was all over the night before, even before I went to bed, although not to sleep.  228 people were already dead, and I spent the night cursing the heat, humidity and noise from everyone else’s air conditioner.  With mine on, sleep would have been completely impossible with the sound of a small jet engine and rushing air in the room, even given the cooler air.

Only when my alarm clock yanked me out of a sweaty and fitful doze were people starting to get worried.   Urgent attempts at radio contact were being made, radar screens being studied with concern.  By the time I dragged myself through the shower, dressed, checked out and refused to pay the 10% “service charge” (cash only, they said, ‘sure, but I gave them 5% anyway), the worst had been realized, if not faced, and people were trying to decide what to do.

Ramon drove me quickly through dark and largely empty streets which had been start-stop traffic everywhere every other time I’d been on them.  Once on the freeway, oncoming traffic started to pick up as the city’s workers began the day – a stream of white lights heading towards us, just the one set of red lights in front.

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

At the airport, I thank Ramon for his services and tip him handsomely.  He’d taken me to see Christ the Redeemer the day before; between my lazy Spanish and his native Portuguese, more or less mutually comprehensible, we’d discussed Rio’s music scene and what it was like to live there.

Inside the wreck of a terminal, I check in, and collapse awkwardly in a cheap metal chair to wait for the VIP lounge to open.   The chair remains oddly prominent in my memory; very shiny, very light, very flimsy.  (By now, most of the wreckage has gone, sunk; just a few bits and pieces, some bodies and luggage remain bobbing in the waves, still quite high from the storm.)  For a few minutes, I try to stay awake browsing the ridiculously priced souvenirs in a shop when it opens, then others arrive and begin the work of opening the café.  I hope for a coffee, but their lack of hurry is palpable and I’m too tired to insist.  The sky starts to lighten outside.

A woman in uniform and heels walks down the corridor and into the VIP lounge and I follow.  Peeking through the door, I ask, are you open?  A face similarly in need of coffee makes a weak attempt at a smile and beckons me in.

Coffee, finally, from a machine, tastes more or less right, but is inevitably disappointing given that I’m drinking it in Brazil and it really should be better than that.  The wireless internet doesn’t work.  But one of the workstations lets me read the news.  The BBC, for my sins.

Breaking news … a plane … Air France … to Paris … left Rio last night … Missing … somewhere over the Atlantic …

Wait.   What?

I’m in Rio, at the airport.  I look outside, there are planes, but no Air France.

I go back to reception.  Does she know anything?  Her eyes go wide, looks confused.  No.  Her face goes white.  She’s got friends at Air France.  She lunges for the phone.

The TVs are on now, CNN is talking about something inconsequential.  Eventually, the thread of banality is interrupted.  News just coming in, a plane has gone missing, Air France, Rio, Paris.

The receptionist and I, now temporary friends in anxiety, swap information – me what I can find on the internet and see on CNN, she what she can learn from what contacts she can reach.  Nothing and nothing.

The Andes from the air

The Andes from the air

It’s time to go.  Compartmentalize what I am about to do (fly) and what seems to have happened last night (unknown) and put one foot in front of the other, not putting the two together.  I am a little late and escorted the short walk from ticket collection to the gate.  Does my escort know anything?  No, know anything about what?  I explain quickly.  She looks doubtful, but once at the gate she asks two colleagues and gets shushed immediately, don’t scare the passengers – there’s only me, and I told her.

Taxiing out to takeoff, I see a group of uniformed men accumulating next to a military aircraft hanger.  A rescue team?  I wish them well, but, although none of us know it yet, it’s too late anyway.  Later they will say “likely to have struck the surface of the sea in normal flight attitude, with high vertical acceleration”.  Very sanitary – they flew, down, into the water.

The pilot engages power, and we’re gone.

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