Posts tagged: evolution

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.)

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