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3.0 out of 5 stars Inheriting behavioural patterns from our pre-human ancestors, 9 Sept. 2012
This review is from: Games Primates Play: An Undercover Investigation of the Evolution and Economics of Human Relationships (Paperback)
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Maestripieri, a Professor of comparative human development and evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago, argues that the inheritance by humans of behavioural patterns from distant, non-human ancestors is as real as the inheritance of structural items - that, just as we can spot the traces of a common ancestor in the structure of some relatively complex organ, so we can see behavioural patterns in human beings that reflect responses that have proved to be behaviourally useful to the common ancestry that we share with our cousins, the apes. Some more basic reactions, like the fear response, almost certainly take us further down the tree of life to even more distant ancestors.

Maestripieri obviously feels the need to prove his point: apparently some scientists argue that the very recent and dramatic development of the human brain means that 'all bets are off' - that our recently gained mental complexity means that we can ignore any possible influence of ancient behaviour patterns: human behaviour, on this analysis, will transcend, or is, at least, capable of transcending, any evolutionary influences. Maestripieri argues, at the conclusion of his book, that 'our new mental powers have not replaced the psychological and behavioural dispositions that we have inherited from our primate ancestors.'

Not being an expert in the field, I rather thought that we had crossed this bridge some time ago. Konrad Lorenz did a good job of popularising ethology, the science of animal behaviour, and I thought that Desmond Morris, in The Naked Ape, had argued compellingly for a link between primate behaviour and human behavioural traits. Presumably the scientists are still arguing about whether our behavioural traits are indeed inherited from other species or are a parallel but uniquely human response.

I think that this reveals my minor disappointments with this book. I don't need to be sold on the idea that our behaviour is derived in part from our distant ancestors, but I would like to see a larger number of detailed examples from Maestripieri's research that seem to confirm that this is true. Maestripieri does offer some fascinating insights into our behaviour by comparing, for example, the way we behave in confined spaces (elevators) with strangers, to similar behaviour in macaques. In one of his most compelling sections, he outlines three entirely believable `career strategies' that might be employed by humans in modern corporations, and compares these with directly comparable scenarios in which apes of relatively junior status attempt to rise up the social ranking of their own groups. Without giving away the answer, direct and early challenges of the head honcho are not recommended; serious networking and alliance-building before launching a well-timed coup are more likely to succeed.

But for much of the rest of the book, Maestripieri gives us examples of human behaviour (the tendency of his Italian compatriots to indulge in various forms of nepotism and mild corruption, for example) and then, in effect, says,'You can see that kind of behaviour in monkeys too.' Because we are all so instinctively (ha ha ) expert in the subtleties of human behaviour, his account of our behaviour tended to leave me a little underwhelmed. Maestripieri is no novelist, and his accounts of our behaviour often left me thinking, `Yes, yes, I know all about that, so tell me about the primates.' Maestripieri does indeed give us some fascinating detail about primate behaviour that does, indeed, potentially illuminate the likely motivation for aspects of our own behaviour, but my overall impression was that Maestripieri was so keen to popularise his material that he failed to give us enough insight into his expert field - primatology - and gave us instead a slightly lightweight tour of human behaviour, albeit one that is illuminated by the fact that many elements of this behaviour almost certainly does represent behavioural `algorithms' inherited from our more or less distant ancestors. I would have far preferred a detailed and heavyweight tour of M's research with primates, and have been left, to some extent, to draw my own conclusions.

But I may be making too much fuss about this: this is still a highly enjoyable book and a useful contribution to the growing body of evidence as to how large areas of human behaviour are far from `rational' in the way that we like to believe.

I was particularly interested in Maestripieri's comments on the demonstration of 'market' behaviour in apes and other intelligent animals: when a resource is scarce, they are prepared to go to a lot more trouble ('expense') to acquire it. Once again I may be quibbling, but the author in several instances states that these examples of animal behaviour 'illustrate' biological market theory,or are 'exactly as predicted by biological market theory' as if the theory were the reality and the behaviour were the proof, whereas what we are seeing is clearly the very genesis of market behaviour: when animals reach a certain level of sentience, they realise that some resources, in some circumstances, are worth more effort than others. 'Market theory' is not some law of physics that is 'illustrated' by animal behaviour, it is our inadequate attempt to explain the complexity of how humans (and animals) behave in these circumstances. The failure to explore in more depth these fascinating examples of market behaviour in animals rather undermined, for me, the book's claim to be 'an undercover investigation of the evolution and economics of human relationships' - Maestripieri's conclusion seems to be: 'human behaviour illustrates biological market theory in the same way as does animal behaviour' which, for me, puts the cart (the theory) before the horse (the behaviour). Cleaner fishes, for example, have apparently worked out that they need to be nicer to occasional customers ('floaters') than regulars ('residents') because the occasionals won't come back if they don't get good service, but the residents have no choice. Now THAT is interesting: it puts cleaner fish on an evolutionary par with most marketing professionals. (And I assume the cleaner fish's 'residents' feel like you and I do when the local storekeeper breaks off in the middle of serving us to take a phone call from a client who can't be bothered to turn up in person.)

I do have one other particular issue to raise: in some passages, Maestripieri talks as if some of the great apes are aware that testicles are an essential part of reproduction - that ripping off an enemy's testicles would leave him unable to reproduce, and that allowing another ape to hold one's own testicles is an act of great trust, for the same reason.

Aristotle thought that testicles were simply 'weights' that held the really vital internal ducts in the right place - that is, he knew, of course, that castration leads to infertility, but didn't think that the testicles themselves were the source or even receptacles of semen. Since Aristotle was a bit hazy on the subject, can we really assume that the great apes are anatomically clear on the matter? Or do they rip off enemies' testicles just because they can, and is letting a fellow ape hold your gonads an act of trust just because it really hurts if he doesn't treat them nicely?

It's just a thought.
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