Saturday, January 28, 2006

Can primates trust strangers?

Chimpanzees are generally hateful, and almost all primates are fundamentally xenophobic. Brain scans suggest humans (genus Pan) are programmed for fear and hatred of the Other. Will peace require genetic reengineering?

Robert Sapolsky, a primatologist, has written a review of human nature, published, oddly enough, in Foreign Affairs. It's fascinating. Primates turn out to be more flexible than had been though; dystopia is not inevitable. Humans may be particularly malleable.
Foreign Affairs - A Natural History of Peace - Robert M. Sapolsky

...In exploring these subjects, one often encounters a pessimism built around the notion that humans, as primates, are hard-wired for xenophobia. Some brain-imaging studies have appeared to support this view in a particularly discouraging way. There is a structure deep inside the brain called the amygdala, which plays a key role in fear and aggression, and experiments have shown that when subjects are presented with a face of someone from a different race, the amygdala gets metabolically active -- aroused, alert, ready for action. This happens even when the face is presented 'subliminally,' which is to say, so rapidly that the subject does not consciously see it.

More recent studies, however, should mitigate this pessimism. Test a person who has a lot of experience with people of different races, and the amygdala does not activate. Or, as in a wonderful experiment by Susan Fiske, of Princeton University, subtly bias the subject beforehand to think of people as individuals rather than as members of a group, and the amygdala does not budge. Humans may be hard-wired to get edgy around the Other, but our views on who falls into that category are decidedly malleable.
Emily wonders if the amygdala has the same response to the "deformed" and disabled. One can imagine the same mechanism underlying analysis of genetic fitness of potential mates.

Sapolsky describes recent studies of primate culture; their behavior can be changed. In some environments male Baboon nerds can mate well, particularly if the tyrants are fighting elsewhere. There is hope, though I suspect the genetic reengineering option will be on the table if we're still around in 70 years.

I wonder how Baboons would do with dogs? I suppose they'd eat the dogs fairly quickly and messily, but I've long wondered how dogs changed alliances in human primates.

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