Boys like trucks girl like dolls, the SSSM takes another hit
December 8, 2005 9:23 PM   Subscribe

Some 25 million years ago, humans and vervet monkeys diverged from a common ancestor. In very rough terms, perhaps one and a quarter million human generations, or five million vervet generations, have been brought forth upon the Earth since that common ancestor lived. Of course, many differences have evolved between humans and vervets in those 25 million years: among other things, human parents choose toys for their children; vervet parents do not.

But after all that time and genetic change, and despite studies attributing human children's toy preferences to adult stereotypes, a new study by Dr. Gerianne Alexander finds that vervet males, like human boys, prefer toy trucks and balls, while vervet females and human girls prefer dolls and toy cooking pots. What's more, the vervets play with the toys much as human children do: males roll trucks on the ground, females inspect dolls (apparently) for genitalia. Previously on MetaFilter: Pinker vs. Spelke, Gender and Brain morphology, Harvard president Larry Summers and his daughter's "baby truck".
posted by orthogonality (80 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
That's really, really strange.
posted by brundlefly at 9:29 PM on December 8, 2005


Do these monkeys actually know what a truck is? Or a cooking set?

I used to love to play with toy trucks when I was a little girl. Then again, I'm not straight, so maybe that's just proving the point.
posted by Auguris at 9:39 PM on December 8, 2005


Auguris writes "Do these monkeys actually know what a truck is? Or a cooking set?"

Almost certainly not.

Dr. Alexander speculates that part of the attraction is the color of the objects; how females would feel about a pink truck has apparently not been studied:
She says the toys preferred by boys – the ball and the car – are described as objects with the ability to be used actively and be propelled through space. Though the specific reasons behind the monkeys' preferences have yet to be determined, she says, the preferences for these objects might exist because they afford greater opportunities for rough and active play – something characteristic of male play. Also, the motion capabilities of the object could be related to the navigating abilities that are useful for hunting, locating food or finding a mate.

Males, she says, may therefore have evolved preferences for objects that invite movement.

On the other hand, females may have evolved preferences for object color, relating to their roles as nurturers, Alexander notes. A preference for red or pink – the color of the doll and pot – has been proposed to elicit female behaviors toward infants that enhance infant survival, such as contact.
posted by orthogonality at 9:44 PM on December 8, 2005


About 15 years ago, in 5th grade, my son designed a similar experiment for Science Fair and got similar results. He asked his classmates to sign up either for a toy truck or a doll, and presented statistically his finding: boys wanted trucks, girls wanted dolls. I had some difficulty to explain why he hasn't even received a ribbon.
posted by semmi at 9:47 PM on December 8, 2005


The cooking pot example unsettles me. It can't really mean the same thing to a monkey that it does to a person, but the reporters seem to have latched onto it in all the linked articles, presumably because it looks like such a vivid example. I'd be very curious to read the study--it seems like interesting research, but I worry that it's being dumbed down to fit a stock Evolutionary Psychology Controversy story.
posted by moss at 9:56 PM on December 8, 2005


Oops, looks like the discussion got there ahead of me--should have previewed. Anyway, interesting post.
posted by moss at 9:59 PM on December 8, 2005


i guess the girl monkeys played with the cooking toys because they know how to cook and have a conception of the complicated process thereof and realize that their societal role is in the kitchen. this just proves that bitches better make me some more spaghetti or they are going to get slapped again.

clearly the male monkeys also know how automobiles were supposed to work and i'm sure that they took them apart and tricked out the engine and put a spoiler on and then drank beer. Oh, and the girl monkeys drank margaritas. the important thing is that uppity broads stay in their place, in the home making babies.

this is silly. monkey behavior is not human behavior, and studies like this make me sad. why do 'scientists' like this have to go around with poorly-conceptualized experiments reinforcing the status quo? does she seriously think that the behavior of monkeys who are selecting objects that have no meaning to them are reflective of human behavior? also: her publication list is so much jargon i can't believe it.

i weep openly friends.
posted by fuq at 9:59 PM on December 8, 2005


semmi writes "I had some difficulty to explain why he hasn't even received a ribbon."


Because the ,Standard Social Science Model -- an outgrowth of Rousseau and of Locke's tabula rasa, theories of development -- explains human preference as the result of cultural stereotypes. The SSSM posits that humans can learn any culture, so eliminating gender inequality is simply a matter of not teaching our children gender stereotypes.

This studies supports the idea that some gender differences are innate rather than taught, and suggests that those differences evolved because they were selected for in the natural environment of primates (but not necessarily in humans' current environment).

The SSSM is hostile to the idea that gender differences are innate, because to them it suggests inequality is innate. Rather than awarding ribbons to research suggesting innate gender differences, they tend to vomit.
posted by orthogonality at 10:00 PM on December 8, 2005


Very interesting. Thanks, orthogonality.
posted by Devils Slide at 10:01 PM on December 8, 2005


Ahem. Mock the methodology all you want. This example seems telling ...

females inspect dolls (apparently) for genitalia

Nothing ever changes.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 10:03 PM on December 8, 2005


Interesting.

Regarding the divergence, I wonder why the flying spaghetti monster decided to do things that way.
posted by wakko at 10:09 PM on December 8, 2005


fuq writes "this is silly. monkey behavior is not human behavior"

So, do you reject studies that show similar reactions in monkeys and humans -- both kinds of primates -- to diseases or drugs? Are studies of the effects of AIDS or smoking on monkeys also invalid?

Or do you only reject studies that relate monkey behavior to human behavior?

The heart is an organ that circulates blood; baboon hearts are similar enough to human hearts that we've attempted to transplant them into human babies. The brain is an organ that generates behavior. Both brains and hearts are produced by the action of genes. If monkey biology is similar to human biology, why would monkey behaviors be too different to provide us insight into human behavior?

What do you make of the studies of vervet vocalizations, which explain vervets make different sounds to warn of different types of predators? Will studying these vocalizations help us understand the origins of human speech?
posted by orthogonality at 10:10 PM on December 8, 2005


they were selected for in the natural environment of primates (but not necessarily in humans' current environment).

So some innate gender differences either did or didn't exist in the common ancestor, they exist in the monkey, but they do not exist in humans? What was the evolutionary advantage in having these differences either dissappear in humans (if they existed in the ancestor) or appear only in the monkeys (if they didn't already exist in the ancestor)?
posted by scheptech at 10:11 PM on December 8, 2005


Science news in the popular press is some of the most idiotic stuff out there, but this takes the cake. Girl Monkeys like pots and pans? Are pot and kettle really vervete monkeys?

Seriously though claming that a baby monkeys appreciation for pots and pans is indicative of female psychology is just ridiculous.
posted by Paris Hilton at 10:11 PM on December 8, 2005


So some innate gender differences either did or didn't exist in the common ancestor, they exist in the monkey, but they do not exist in humans?

I think the theory is more that some innate gender differences may have been selected for in natural environment of primates. We can (maybe, if you believe this study) still see this in the monkeys, and supposedly in humans as well. The point about these gender differences no longer being selected for in humans wasn't meant to imply that humans don't have innate gender differences, just that we've evolved past the evolutionary necessity for them, but we're stuck with them anyway.

But of course, this doesn't really prove one way or the other if there actually are innate gender differences in humans.
posted by stopgap at 10:28 PM on December 8, 2005


orthogonality, i am a student of anthropology so i actually believe that humans are more than the sum of their biology. monkeys cannot destroy all life on earth as effectively as humans can, and humans do many incredibly complicated with their brains that monkeys defiantly do not, like having multiple cultures for example. biological processes are far removed from cultural processes.

as for vocalizations, i hear vervet black metal is actually not so good because monkeys are bad drummers. i'm also drunk.
posted by fuq at 10:28 PM on December 8, 2005 [1 favorite]


I hate to politicize a rare non-political mefi debate, but I can't help but wonder how your standard conservative would react to/spin this. Acceptance of a common ancestor supports innate differences between men and women. Hmm... What's more important, pro-religion-over-science or pro-gender roles? I guess your standard liberal encounters the same problems in reverse.

fuq - nicely done sir.
posted by Wingy at 10:49 PM on December 8, 2005


hadn't the monkeys already been socialized to do certain things, and dissuaded from others? hadn't the monkeys been socialized already to act in ways appropriate and allowed by their parents and the rest of of the group?
posted by amberglow at 10:49 PM on December 8, 2005


amberglow writes "hadn't the monkeys already been socialized to do certain things, and dissuaded from others?"

Sure. Vervets (like most primates) are very social, and likely socialized. Ans we have strong evidence of cultural transmission in monkeys -- no serious researcher sees culture as a purely human creation, anymore.

But the vervets hadn't previously been exposed to human toys, or socialized to prefer certain toys based on their gender.

The SSSM argument is human boys play with trucks, and girls with dolls, because their parents and other adults encourage playing with "gender appropriate" toys, and discourage playing with "gender inappropriate toys", and that without those parentally imposed stereotypes, gender preferences wouldn't be shown -- because we're all "equal".

While I agree we're all equal, I think this study shows there are real and innate gender differences, regardless of parental influence. That in turn suggest that the SSSM contention that gender roles are culturally constructed isn't, overall, correct.

Now, again, if gender differences are innate, it doesn't argue for inequality: I don't think, as one commenter suggested, that "bitches" ought to be sapped around unless they stay in the kitchen. But I do think that if we are to understand behavior, we have to understand its biological basis.

No one seriously argues -- anymore -- that physical behavior isn't biologically based; evolutionary psychology just asks that that we see behavior as ultimately a manifestation of physical processes.
posted by orthogonality at 11:02 PM on December 8, 2005 [1 favorite]


Do vervet monkeys throw as much shit as MeFi citizens?
posted by five fresh fish at 11:02 PM on December 8, 2005


Monkeys are just lazy people, the trick is being hairy.
posted by MetaMonkey at 11:06 PM on December 8, 2005


Yeah I think at the monkey level a pot is a kinetic toy like a truck or a ball. They explain it away as females having a preference for the color of the pot. That seems pretty weak.

They also say that the monkeys were equally likely to enjoy playing with a stuffed dog regardless of gender but the girls preferred a doll. Was it a doll of a monkey? If it was a doll of a human it doesn't make sense to me that a monkey's gender would cause it to prefer playing with a representation of one different species and not another. Humans wouldn't consider a stuffed monkey a particularly feminine toy.
posted by I Foody at 11:08 PM on December 8, 2005


it goes without saying that scientific work in this area - of this kind - must and will continue, so long as the human mind is able to observe, study and discuss animal behavior critically, and then ask the question, 'could the study of these phenomena lead to a greater understanding of ourselves?'.

philosophers, i think, have a greater appreciation of the potential of this kind of research, but they also benefit from a much more critical understanding of the methodology that supports these so-called "discoveries of deep-rooted behavioral differences". it is somewhat strange to me that fifty years ago BF Skinner buried, in rather dramatic style, what he called "inferential mental behavioralism", and yet today's public newspapers are still being suckered by those who claim to have "made amazing new observations of monkeys that suggest larry summers is right or wrong".

skinner's hard-line argument is, when studying other people's behavior, there is absolutely no causal relationship between the mental phenomenon that occurs in his head and our supposed observation of that phenomenon. there is no link between that guy over there drinking from his cup and me saying, "he drank from his cup because he is thirsty!". a social scientist might say to me - well, you were right! a philosopher would say - yeah, but it was just a guess. fiction. because he was thirsty - i just made that up.

i hope im making sense..
posted by phaedon at 11:12 PM on December 8, 2005


Dolls have genitalia?
posted by stbalbach at 11:15 PM on December 8, 2005


Some 25 million years ago, humans and vervet monkeys diverged from a common ancestor.

“And sorry I could not travel both...
I took the one less travelled by,
and that has made all the difference.”
posted by LeLiLo at 11:46 PM on December 8, 2005


Acceptance of a common ancestor supports innate differences between men and women. Hmm...

Well, if monkeys have innate gender differences and humans have the same differences we're forced to accept something of a coincidence. The monkeys show the same gender differences we do except theirs is innate and ours is learned? Our cultures developed differences which mimic the monkeys innate differences? Or is it more likely we have innate differences as well?
posted by scheptech at 12:01 AM on December 9, 2005


I read (this is way back in college) that children played with "gender appropriate toys" even when researchers and parents tried their best not to influence or bias them in any way, and in some cases even encourage them to play with toys associated with the opposite sex. When left to their own devices, the majority of children invariably played with the toys traditionally associated with their own sex . Of course, you can't fully eliminate societal values unless you raise your kid in a test tube, but the researchers and parents did try to reduce those influences as much as possible.
posted by Devils Slide at 12:33 AM on December 9, 2005


Do adult vervets like to construct bad research experiments other animals in order to feel better about themselves? Maybe then, I'll buy this study.
posted by allen.spaulding at 2:00 AM on December 9, 2005


Wait, I'm confused. There were trucks and pots 25 million years ago?
posted by quite unimportant at 2:02 AM on December 9, 2005


Why is the outcome only (apparently - I admit I didn't read all the links) being interpreted as behavioural? What about hormonal/biological? I'm ignorant without looking it upt - as to the low level respective titres of oestrogen/testosterone among kiddies but what if say there's a difference between girls/boys that is reflected by similar differences in the monkeys.

Thus you could equate toy preference with skill predeliction as determined by hormonal regulation. Testosterone has a potentiating influence over early hand-eye, explosive type exploits doesn't it? And lack of testosterone (if in fact this is true) reduces such activity predelictions - or at least doesn't statistically favour them.

Shoot me down - I'm just riffing.
posted by peacay at 2:34 AM on December 9, 2005


Peacay, your questions seems confused to me. I don't know what you mean by "behavioral". The studies seem to me to be interpreted as affirming a biological basis for differential behavior among vervet monkeys, implicitly affirming the same for humans and denying a cultural origin. Your speculation about hormonal effects are just another aspect of biological behavior differentiation.

Like others, I am completely flabbergasted specifically about the "pots" but also generally. That article reads to me like (not so subtle) satire written by someone on the nurture side of the debate.

I might be mistaken, but I'd bet a bunch of money that fuq's a cultural, not physical, anthropologist. Cultural anthropologists form the core of the nurturist camp among scientists and anything they claim on this matter should be taken with a grain of salt because they professionally have an enormous amount of professional investment in the nurturist view.

This article and even the discussion in this thread are examples of what's so wrong about the context within which this arguments occurs. It's far, far too ideological; and what results from this are perverse studies like this one that find a preference for cooking pots(!) among female monkeys or, on the other side, absurd assertions that sex differentiation in human behavior is entirely cultural. It's nuts and it's infuriating.

Assuming the article presents this study accurately—which I hope isn't the case—then I can't understand how such a study even got funding in the first place. (Or, perhaps I shouldn't be confused on this point: there's many who wold be particuarly eager to fund such a study.) The selection of objects presented to these monkeys seems to me to be so profoundly overloaded with the human cultural context that it must necessarily be toxic to any interpretations of the results.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:12 AM on December 9, 2005


To further confound the issue, let me present "Rat Sex and You", in which Concordia psychology professor Jim Pfaus explains that rat sexuality isn’t all that different from our own.

Many a female Mefite will agree, I'm sure.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 4:58 AM on December 9, 2005


orthogonality: No one seriously argues -- anymore -- that physical behavior isn't biologically based; evolutionary psychology just asks that that we see behavior as ultimately a manifestation of physical processes.

From my point of view, one of the primary reasons why I'm drifting from an advocate of Evolutionary Psychology to a more skeptical position is because Pinker, (and to a larger degree, his online disciples) are arguing against a straw man which ignores quite a bit about what developmental psychology has been saying about the relationships between genetics and behavior. I think the turning point for me was Pinker's attempt to mangle Watson's "dozen infants" out of its context of Social Darwinism and Eugenics to a refutation of a hypothesis that didn't exist yet.

Likewise, there are rather too many quotes from Skinner admitting the existence of biological factors to justify the EP attacks on him. It is ironic that Skinner at the base grounded his behaviorism on evolved instincts to repeat behaviors that avoid harm, and seek pleasure. Pinker starts off his How the Mind Works by claiming similar degrees of evolved flexibility in human behavior. Radical behaviorism was not based on denying the view that there was a biological mechanism under it all. It just insisted that in the absence of fine-grained non-descructive tools for exploring that mechanism, that our only way of describing what goes on is by describing the relationship between measurable environmental inputs and behavioral outputs.

Developmental psychology models that include biological factors and genetic factors have been floating in circulation, and even in professional practice for decades. Outside of some ideological firefights, the naive SSSM model that denies the existence of biological and genetic factors just isn't in common practice. What *IS* argued is that a large degree of the variance in regards to human behavior is empirically due to environmental factors.

For that matter, Dr. Alexander own home page (linked in the FPP) says: "Our research is based on the complementary role of hormones and socialization in the development of human sex differences, including sex differences in human psychopathology. Sex-linked cognitive abilities in adulthood are thought to be a long-term consequence of both social-cognitive (reinforcement, modeling, gender schemas) and biological (genetic and hormonal) factors in early development."

Adult stereotypes do explain a fair volume of the variance in toy selection. Girls do voluntarily pick up and engage in techie toys, math, and science when given an environment where it is advantageous to do so. Entire professional fields have been changed from "masculine" to "feminine" on time scales that can't be explained by evolution. Information Technology has over the last 150 years changed from masculine to feminine to masculine. Medicine became "feminized" in the USSR, with a corresponding loss in social status. These are the sorts of interesting human phenomena that social science models can successfully describe better than evolutionary psychology.

And I'm less hostile to the (lower-case) evolutionary psychology claim that some of the biological variance can be explained in terms of evolution. But the key here is "variance." The Knight Ridder article is a typical piss-poor attempt to boil the results of a study down to an 8th grade reading level of science illiterates. For fuck's sake, it's impossible to engage in an intelligent discussion of this study with the information provided:

Like little boys, some male monkeys moved a toy car along the ground. Like little girls, female monkeys closely inspected a doll's bottom. Males also played with balls, while females fancied cooking pots.

What is meant by "some" in the study? Why was "some" dropped from the next sentence? How were the behavioral differences counted? How was significance measured and what was the effect size?

Many studies have shown that men tend to be better at mathematics and spatial reasoning, while women outdo men in verbal and language skills.

Again, what is meant by "better"? Which studies is the journalist referencing? How are these skills measured?

And to throw in the obligatory anecdote. Last month, I went to see my nieces, aged approx. 3 and 6. The eldest was given a mechanical coin bank that sorts coins by weight. The youngest was given a doll playset. The youngest played with the coin bank until it broke, then voluntarily followed me to the other room to watch me fix it, and spent another hour putting more coins into it, stopping only for cake. The eldest took to the doll playset.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:38 AM on December 9, 2005


ortho, i'm with you on the fact that our behavior is a mix, but using human toys (which are gendered in terms of function, movement and colors/shapes) to test monkeys would ensure a weird reaction. Why not use the things a monkey would actually see in the wild or at a refuge? It reads as inherently biased to me simply in how it's set up.

The results of this speak far far more to socialization to me--boy monkeys get more physical freedom and move more than girl monkeys. girl monkeys stay closer to the other females (and their babies) and don't get to hunt and roam. Girl monkeys also learn to sit around and more closely examine things (like the newborns/siblings or bugs or berries or leaves, etc (see the colors of the pot, etc), instead of moving/chasing things.
posted by amberglow at 5:41 AM on December 9, 2005


(or, what Kirk said so much better)
posted by amberglow at 5:46 AM on December 9, 2005


Interesting/infuriating link; I heartily agree with EB about the cloud of ideology inevitably surrounding such studies and discussion thereof. We may have to evolve a bit more before we're capable of thinking clearly about this stuff.
posted by languagehat at 5:47 AM on December 9, 2005


Nice post orthogonality. I've made clear before the extent to which I'm not realyl convinced by predominantly evolutionary arguments for human behavior. They just smack of selective vision and a limited sense of human nature and potential. This study makes a great headline, there's no doubt, but it's confusing when you stop to think about it because it's really hard to see how the monkeys might think of pots and cars differently, unless they had seen pots and cars. The researcher's argument seems weak to me, and to the extent that we can accept it, seems to obviate the conclusions that she wants to draw. A preference for color may be tied to gender, but does not translate into a preference or apptitude for particular gender roles. Or at least it doesn't without more research proving why it might.

I can understand monkeys treating a human doll and a dog doll differently, humans look a lot like monkeys, although probably not as much vice versa for a human toddler.
posted by OmieWise at 6:19 AM on December 9, 2005


amberglow writes "using human toys (which are gendered in terms of function, movement and colors/shapes) to test monkeys would ensure a weird reaction"


Well precisely, that's the point. The vervets have no referents for the toys, no gender stereotypes for them, no cultural traditions about them.

So we have to answer the question, why then do male vervets play with trucks twice as much as dolls, but female vervets play with dolls twice as much as trucks?

Now, you claim socialization but you're begging the question.

To me, "socialization" means being influenced -- rewarded or punished -- by others of the same species. I think we'd agree that while, say, eating is a rewarding experience, it's "intrinsically" rewarding -- no other member of the species is needed to make eating rewarding, and thus the mere act of eating isn't something we'd call socialized. Conversely, the avoidance of eating of otherwise palatable food because of a taboo would be socialization. Are we on the same page here?

But even if you're right about socialization, for other vervets to reward males for, or to discourage females from, playing with trucks, requires that we assume the other vervets recognize trucks as "male" toys.

And if other vervets can recognize toys as "male", we assume the males playing with them can do the same. So socialization or not, we still have to explain why vervets see trucks as "male".

So even if your hypothesis is correct, why don't males roll dolls along the ground? Why don't females examine the bottom of trucks for genitalia?

And if, as you hypothesize, males play with trucks because they "get more physical freedom and move more", then we have to ask, why do male vervets get more physical freedom and move more? Is this "socialized" or innate?

And if moving more is socialized, why is that socialized?

Ultimately, we see that males prefer trucks and females dolls. So even if that's because teh vervets are "socilaized", what is it they are recognizing?


The problem with "socialization" -- at least in the sense that gender is culturally constructed, and that their only underpinning is stereotypes, is you have to ask, why doesn't a society exist where the roles are reversed? And despite the strenuous attempts of cultural anthropologist, we have yet to find a human society where boys prefer dolls and girls trucks. Even when liberal socially conscious parents attempt to give boys dolls and girls trucks, why do the boys treat the dolls like trucks and the girl treat the trucks like dolls?

Why, if gender roles are merely based in stereotypes, are they so resistant to re-assignment? Why did John Money's experiment result not in a happy girl but a male who ultimately killed himself? Why do the same roles turn up in vervets, who don't use tools or toys in the wild, who don't learn gender roles from their parents or peers?
posted by orthogonality at 6:39 AM on December 9, 2005 [1 favorite]


EB: I've found it wise to take mainstream news summaries of primary sources with a grain of salt.

ortho: Both brains and hearts are produced by the action of genes. If monkey biology is similar to human biology, why would monkey behaviors be too different to provide us insight into human behavior?

Certainly monkey behaviors do provide us with insight into human behavior. However, it seems that the claim you are making is that findings involving monkeys invalidate findings regarding parental stereotyping. My reading of the studies involved is that parental stereotyping does explain much of the variance involved in toy choices.

languagehat: Interesting/infuriating link; I heartily agree with EB about the cloud of ideology inevitably surrounding such studies and discussion thereof. We may have to evolve a bit more before we're capable of thinking clearly about this stuff.

Well, I have to disagree with this. I think that most of the fireworks go on in the popular press that try to reduce this to a nature vs. nurture issue. While IME most practicing biologists and practicing psychologists think about the question in terms of "how much of each?" or "which systems model provides the best explanation of how these factors work?"

OmieWise: I'm not convinced that it's a bad study. I'm convinced that we are looking at a bad summary of a study. It's impossible to talk about this study in specific without at least an abstract or a more sophisticated summary.

So in defense of this study, modest evolutionary psychology proposes that the primate mind has specialized ways of understanding and learning about the universe. We use different parts of the brain for understanding how things move, and understanding social interaction. Trucks use one form of cognition. Dolls use a different form of cognition. It's fairly well established that both sex hormones and environmental factors affect how those forms of cognition develop.

(I'm using modest evpsych here to distinguish it from Big EvPsych which tries to explain human behavior through just so stories about what our paleolithic ancestors must have been like.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:42 AM on December 9, 2005


May be that to vervet monkeys a car is a thing with four moving parts, and a pot is something with an internal enclosure.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:46 AM on December 9, 2005


...And if moving more is socialized, why is that socialized?

Ultimately, we see that males prefer trucks and females dolls. So even if that's because teh vervets are "socilaized", what is it they are recognizing? ...


Well, for humans i've read that it starts at birth--males are handled and moved more vigorously and often than females, and physical action is more often part of parents' interaction with boys. Girl's clothes are even cut more restricting and tighter, further limiting freedom of movement.

There's a lot we don't know about the study--did the boy monkeys examine the dolls, find them inert, and move on? They certainly couldn't have recognized it as a truck or as something that moves. Did they see other monkeys pushing the trucks during an examination of the toys and that movement attracted them? That's what i think it was--there was movement which caught the eye, which the boy monkeys had already been socialized for, and the girls had already been socialized (by caring for siblings/other babies or something and watching mom) to be nurturing and for a generally more inert, less-physical examination of the world around them.
posted by amberglow at 6:52 AM on December 9, 2005


The heart is an organ that circulates blood; baboon hearts are similar enough to human hearts that we've attempted to transplant them into human babies. The brain is an organ that generates behavior. Both brains and hearts are produced by the action of genes. If monkey biology is similar to human biology, why would monkey behaviors be too different to provide us insight into human behavior?

This is just about the dumbest argument you could possibly make. This argument boils down to "physiology is similar so brains must be too." This is patently false. You cannot, in any meaningful way, compare the behavior of monkey children and human children at any stage of development. The differences are absolutely enormous. Further, we have a pretty good "working model" for how hearts work. No such model exists for behavior or the brain. So trying to compare one to the other is just blind hoping and guessing--and not very intelligent guessing at that. Lastly, until evolutionary psychologists begin providing testable hypothesis and models they are just bullshitting around telling just-so stories. Again, there is absolutely no reason to believe evolution of primates would select for differences in gender on the level of, say, spatial ability. fuq was right; this study is crap.
posted by nixerman at 6:52 AM on December 9, 2005 [1 favorite]


Were the toys demonstrated for them? Did a researcher pick up and cuddle the doll? Did he or she roll the truck around? Or were they just lined up in a row, sitting there?
posted by amberglow at 6:53 AM on December 9, 2005


ortho: So we have to answer the question, why then do male vervets play with trucks twice as much as dolls, but female vervets play with dolls twice as much as trucks?

I can't find this rather imprecise claim in any of the linked articles.

But even if you're right about socialization, for other vervets to reward males for, or to discourage females from, playing with trucks, requires that we assume the other vervets recognize trucks as "male" toys.

Even if there is no socialization factor for vervets, we do know that socialization is a factor that explains a fair chunk of variance in humans. From what I can tell, there is too much evidence out there that toy preferences can be influenced by social context to deny that it exists. Toy companies invest billions of dollars and make billions of dollars gambling on this fact.

And despite the strenuous attempts of cultural anthropologist, we have yet to find a human society where boys prefer dolls and girls trucks. Even when liberal socially conscious parents attempt to give boys dolls and girls trucks, why do the boys treat the dolls like trucks and the girl treat the trucks like dolls?

Actually, from what I can tell, in the U.S. boys do play with dolls. And perhaps most importantly, they play with dolls using the same kinds of cognition that girls use with dolls, (imaginative role play). For market reasons, toymakers use the term "action figure" rather than "doll." But I think that it's a bit of a fallacy to say that boys don't play with dolls, or treat the dolls like trucks.

So again to make it abundantly clear. It would not surprise me if hormonal sex differences did explain some of the variance. But I also think that there are a lot of things that hormonal sex differences can't explain.

Why, if gender roles are merely based in stereotypes, are they so resistant to re-assignment?

Well, I don't know of many people who make the claim that gender roles are "merely" based in stereotypes.

On the other hand, if gender roles are "merely" based in evolutionary biology, why is it that we have seen many aspects of gender roles change on time frames that can't be explained in terms of changes in gene frequency in the human population? For example, Bell feminized large chunks of their technical workforce over a few decades in the first half of the 20th century for reasons that had more to do with cutting costs than feminism. The same thing happened to librarians, typists, and secretaries across multiple industries in the same time period.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:12 AM on December 9, 2005


Whoops, that should be that hormonal sex differences can't explain all of the variance in toy choices, because we know that social context explains at least some of the variance.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:16 AM on December 9, 2005


Brilliant post, orthogonality.
posted by shoepal at 7:44 AM on December 9, 2005


To be pedantic, most studies in human behavior assume a multi-factor model. So the true model is something like:

A + B + C + D + ... ~ X

(Overly simplistic, but better than the either/or that dominates this discussion.)

If you find A, all you can say is that A + Unknown ~ X.

If you find B, all you can say is that B + Unknown ~ X.

Finding either A or B does not exclude the other from being part of the model.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:50 AM on December 9, 2005


Damn, you people are touchy about monkeys playing with toys.

This is just about the dumbest argument you could possibly make. This argument boils down to "physiology is similar so brains must be too." This is patently false. You cannot, in any meaningful way, compare the behaviour of monkey children and human children at any stage of development.

So, Nixerman, upon reflection, does it seem to you that you may have overstated you case a bit here?
Given that we share nearly all of or evolutionary history with monkeys, how is it possible that there are no meaningful insights to be gleaned from such comparisons?

humans do many incredibly complicated with their brains that monkeys defiantly do not, like having multiple cultures for example

Fuq, when you sober up, I invite you to google chimpanzees and culture. I think you may learn a few things that could be useful to you in your chosen field.
They do, in fact have technological cultures that differ between various populations. Discovering primate culture was one of the most fascinating days I spent as a student.

Well done, Orthogonality. I'm sorry that many are not reading with the same care you took in writing.
posted by Zetetics at 7:56 AM on December 9, 2005


Oh, one more post. Evolutionary biology also uses a multi-factor model:

Genes + Environment + DevelopmentalNoise ~ ObservedTrait

So for example, a large chunk of agricultural science depends on how much improvement you can get from breeding vs. environmental control.

The end result is that I don't see what the big deal is. Biological science does not assume that genes can explain everything, and social science is a multi-factor discipline anyway.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:27 AM on December 9, 2005


This actually came out in 2002. Reading the article, the claim that the male monkeys played with the "boy toys" twice as much as the "girl toys" (and vice versa for the female monkeys) is roughly accurate.

I agree, though, that the hypotheses seem bizarre, especially since they show a picture of the doll and it looks pretty damn abstract (i.e., there's at best a conceptual resemblance to a real infant). In the discussion, the authors mention that female vervets have been found to have a preference for red/pink things, and the bowl was red while the doll was pink. So a better title for this might be "female vervets prefer red toys," but then that doesn't sound nearly as controversial.
posted by myeviltwin at 8:30 AM on December 9, 2005


For those with access to the journal Evolution and Human Behavior the article can be read here. I am an ecological, not evolutionary, biologist, but there are a few things that bother me about their methodologies.

First, the animals were in mixed gender groups when the toys were presented to them and the authors make no mention of how this might have affected their results (versus single gender groups or testing each animal alone).

Second, the toys were presented one at a time and then removed before the next toy was presented. It's not that a female chose the doll over the car, it's that when the doll was in the room the females, on average, had higher amounts of "contact time" with it.

The links in the FPP also made one major error in reporting the results of this study. While the study found that females, on average, had more contact time with "feminine" toys than "masculine" there was not a significant difference between the amount of contact time males had with "feminine" and "masculine" toys. The authors' conclusion from this is that "this difference between male vervets and boys may indicate that toy preferences in boys are directed by gender socialization to a larger degree than are toy preferences in girls." That would not have been my conclusion.
posted by hydropsyche at 8:45 AM on December 9, 2005


myeviltwin: To me it strikes me as imprecise without knowing how this was measured. Also, are we contrasting mean or median time between groups? What was the distribution of the ranges? I find it hard to believe that out of 44 individual males and 44 individual females. I find it hard to believe that all members of both groups had the same score, and it was roughly twice as much in males as in females. Are we talking 1 vs 2 or 50 vs 100?

Which is a major complaint I have about most science news pieces. "Twice as much" is a meaningless statement that can't be evaluated without more information about the measures used, and the distribution of scores.

Also, sexually dimorphic behavior in another primate? Not really news. The age-old question is how much this says about sexually dimorphic behavior in human beings. Given how much human behavior is socially mediated, the answer is an open question. And as I've said before, establishing genetics as a factor does not eliminate culture as a factor.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:54 AM on December 9, 2005


hydropsyche:
I agree with your first two points, but the last is arguable and depends on the measure you look at. I.e., "females compared to males had higher percent contact with the ‘‘feminine’’ toys, P= .01, and males compared to females had higher percent contact with the ‘‘masculine’’ toys, P= .05."

It's only when you compare masculine vs. feminine toy use within males that the effect is nonsignificant (though the trend is in the right direction). This could easily reflect a lack of power as their samples are not huge.

KJS:
The scores are actually percentages (out of the total play time, what percentage of the time were males vs. females playing with masculine vs. feminine toys). Of course you're right that there's variability between individuals, but that's why you have formal statistical tests to show that there is a real difference (with a specified percentage chance of error). I don't think it's realistic to expect mainstream news pieces to start including p-values. For that, you need to read the paper.
posted by myeviltwin at 9:11 AM on December 9, 2005


Brilliant post, orthogonality.

Well, good post, anyway. But orthogonality is so heavily invested in "proving" that we're just like monkeys and traditional sexual stereotypes are hard-wired into us that it's making the discussion a bit tiresome.
posted by languagehat at 9:12 AM on December 9, 2005


Given that we share nearly all of or evolutionary history with monkeys...

Again, this is nonsense. About the "common evolutionary history" bit--this is a self-defeating argument. Common sense would indicate that, given the state of the world, the differences between humans and primates vastly outweigh any biological similarities. A reasonable person not afflicted with orthogonality's genetic determinism would say that, yes, there's a 99% similarity in DNA but that 1% difference must be the critical X-factor. And the basic notion that biological similarities might somehow impose cultural and behavior similarities is just sloppy thinking. Or maybe we should start studying fish to learn about humans? After all, the few million years we have in common with primates are nothing compared to the fact that life itself began in the seas and spent much longer there?

...how is it possible that there are no meaningful insights to be gleaned from such comparisons?

Well, I don't know, how is it possible? Is this supposed to be a rhetorical question? This is the same sort of wishful thinking that most evolutionary psychology boils down to. Until you can provide a coherent model that demonstrates how such comparisons can be scientifically made between evolutionarily similar creatures, there are no "meaningful insights" to be drawn from such comparisons. You are just throwing stuff against the wall and hoping something sticks.

This study is broken from day one because the initial assumption that the behavior of monkey children can be "compared" to human children is an enormous assertion to make and one that is, on its face, very flawed. If the goal was to demonstrate differing levels of spatial ability in monkey children that would be one thing. But this study, and the way it's being presented (including this post), is more interested in drawing wild conclusions than in doing any real science.
posted by nixerman at 9:27 AM on December 9, 2005 [1 favorite]


These are interesting questions, but I'd be happier with a result like "males roll trucks on the ground, females inspect dolls (apparently) for genitalia" if it was obtained from observations conducted by non-male, non-female beings who had never lived on Earth.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:32 AM on December 9, 2005


myeviltwin: The scores are actually percentages (out of the total play time, what percentage of the time were males vs. females playing with masculine vs. feminine toys).

In which case, "twice as much" in comparing two ratios strikes me as being a bit sketchy.

Of course you're right that there's variability between individuals, but that's why you have formal statistical tests to show that there is a real difference (with a specified percentage chance of error). I don't think it's realistic to expect mainstream news pieces to start including p-values. For that, you need to read the paper.

I'd rather see effect sizes myself. It is quite possible to get ridiculously small p-values for trivial effect sizes. By ignoring variability, you end up with mars/venus dichotomies that don't hold up well in looking at individual people.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:35 AM on December 9, 2005


I'd rather see effect sizes myself. It is quite possible to get ridiculously small p-values for trivial effect sizes. By ignoring variability, you end up with mars/venus dichotomies that don't hold up well in looking at individual people.

That's certainly true, but they way you get a small p-value with a small effect size is with a very large n. They only had 60 monkeys, so that's probably not an issue here.
posted by myeviltwin at 10:42 AM on December 9, 2005


I am really failing to see what an apparent preference for red objects among female baby vervet monkeys, contrasted with an apparent lack of such a preference among male baby vervet monkeys, has to say about the relation of biology to gender roles. Seriously. I don't.
posted by kyrademon at 11:17 AM on December 9, 2005


Enron Hubbard's Rat Sex article is good.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:31 AM on December 9, 2005


"But orthogonality is so heavily invested in 'proving' that we're just like monkeys and traditional sexual stereotypes are hard-wired into us that it's making the discussion a bit tiresome."

Yes, and nixerman stridently takes the extreme opposing view. And I think that his insistence that he's the rigorous thinker is belied by his sentence, "Common sense would indicate that, given the state of the world, the differences between humans and primates vastly outweigh any biological similarities" is fatally marred by the fact that there's no rigorous definition of cultural difference while there are several for varieties of biological difference.

I've mentioned this before, but near the beginning of George Williams's seminal book Adaptation and Natural Selection, he makes the very important and seldom recognized point that while conventional wisdom thinks of increasing "complexity" as you move "up" the taxonomy of life, the reality is that the definition of "complexity" in this case is both extremely unrigorous and anthropocentric. In other words, I think that nixerman is likely very wrong to make the claim that there's a huge behavioral distinction between humans and other primates—instead, I suspect that from the perspective of an alien intelligence, we'd look and behave much more alike than not. The principle I'm aluding to in this assertion can be seen by way of facial recognition. We perceive great differences in faces while, in truth, the differences are very small. Of course we're going to think that we're quite exceptional in all ways among primates. To argue this, especially on the basis of "common sense" is thoroughly without rigor.

Anyway, in response to KirkJobSluder, I was referring to the difficulties we have in the larger culture—like here—in thinking and discussing this stuff. It doesn't preclude good science, of course, but I think that it makes it difficult.

EP is to the academic blog "Crooked Timber" what obesity is to MeFi. Productive discussion becomes almost impossible on that normally extremely erudite and quite polite and open-minded blog. In my experience I've seen the most aggressive, extreme, most ideologically-driven arguments coming from the anti-EP camp—nixerman is a good example. They almost invariably push me in the direction of the EP camp because their bias is so obvious in that they have even an emotional and certainly a huge intellectual investment in a worldview that is axiomatically anti-EP. Generally, I find the bias on the EP side to be more subtle because to have any credibility at all the biased researchers have to at least disguise that their aim is to reify the status-quo. In contrast, the anti-EP crowd are unabashedly defending an academic status-quo. I can't really say which I more trust or distrust. I think the style of argument does turn me off of the anti-EP crowd.

I find it interesting that you've moved away from strong EP to a weaker version. I have some sense that this is partly or mostly a response to Pinker. I've not read Pinker, believe it or not (you know how it is when you haven't read something everyone else has read and you're "supposed" to have read it so you never do?), but I am well aware of many of his arguments and his stance. Seems to me that he takes an extreme position that is not necessarily representative of most of the real EP researchers like Cosmides and Toomy.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:21 PM on December 9, 2005


Whoa, there nixerman. You're waving those hands pretty furiously.
I haven't been able to read the original paper, only the abstract, but I don't think the authors are asserting what you think. The goal of this kind of study is not to "demonstrate" one thing or another. However, if it turns out that observed patterns of variablity in the behaviour of juvenile male and female vervets closely resembles the patterns of human children with regard to behaviour that is widely believed to be socially learned in humans, that's interesting.

I don't think It says anything, directly, about gender roles. What it may do is undermine some of the assumptions in similar experiments in humans. Clearly, the fact that humans can recognize these objects as being representative of trucks, or cooking pots, is not at all relevant to this experiment. If male and female monkeys show the same patterns of preference for objects (not toys - objects), it suggests that other , non-representational characteristics (e.g., color, shape, movement) may account for the preferences. Therefore, anyone wishing to claim that boys prefer trucks and girls prefer dolls and pots, would have to take into account that males may be inherently less interested in pink things (insert obvious counter example here) and that many objects designed to be toys for girls are pink.
Further, if such preferences are shared by juvenile monkeys and humans, it seems perfectly reasonable to suspect that such preference were acquired during our shared evolutionary history.

As an aside, there are interesting similarities in the behaviours of fish and humans. With primates, much more so.
posted by Zetetics at 12:26 PM on December 9, 2005


Speaking of EP...
posted by Gyan at 12:26 PM on December 9, 2005


That's a great article, Gyan. For various reason, I am very much inclined to defend the modular hypothesis, less so the strong stone-age environment of adaptation one.

I don't deny that we've seen that the human is functionally elastic in many areas. But I don't know exactly what "elastic" means and how one rigorously quantifies more and less elasticity, and, especially, how this might validate or invalidate an extreme adaptationally functional view or an extreme "general computing" view. Furthermore, we already have a bunch of data on the gross level of quite a bit of modularity in the brain. Anyway, I recall a very strong epiphany sort of moment when I discovered the EP adaptationist functionalist view of the brain. It explains so much while, in contrast, the opposing view seems to me to be manifestly anthropocentric which predisposes me to being critical.

I simply will not accept human exceptionalism as axiomatic. How true this is or not of course varies widely, but I believe I hear echoes of a judeo-christian human exceptionalism, and the deeply related chauvinism, from even those who would be aghast if they were to recognize this.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:39 PM on December 9, 2005


So... it’s ok to have sex with vervet monkeys ?
posted by Smedleyman at 1:09 PM on December 9, 2005


"Given that we share nearly all of or evolutionary history with monkeys...

(nixerman) Again, this is nonsense. About the "common evolutionary history" bit--this is a self-defeating argument."


nixerman, I feel I should point out that since evolution on earth started some 3.5+ billion years ago, and we split from the vervets about 25 million years ago, this means that we share some 99.285% of our evolutionary history with the vervets.

It's not a self-defeating argument; I'd say it tends to be rather illuminating.
posted by zoogleplex at 2:19 PM on December 9, 2005


If the experiment showed that there was no gender preference for toys among young vervets, would that tell us anything about human beings? Would we be talking about it?
posted by hydropsyche at 2:23 PM on December 9, 2005


Well I needed a benchmark in stupidity. The credo "don't post drunk" should be extended to "don't post when really really tired and not quite all there".
posted by peacay at 2:49 PM on December 9, 2005


EB: dumb that down for me--"EP adaptationist functionalist view of the brain" means what?
posted by amberglow at 3:01 PM on December 9, 2005


we share some 99.285% of our evolutionary history with the vervets.

And they have hardwired gender differences that we lost but reconsitituted socially? I wonder why we lost them and what was so advantageous about them that we made them back up again.
posted by scheptech at 3:16 PM on December 9, 2005


hydropsyche writes "If the experiment showed that there was no gender preference for toys among young vervets, would that tell us anything about human beings? Would we be talking about it?"

I'd have been somewhat less intrigued, but would have posted it, yeah. No one study is The Answer, but either way, it's a damned interesting data-point.

In general, the parsimonious hypothesis is that humans are likely the same as other primates unless there's an adaptive reason for us (or them) to have evolved a change.

Had the study just said there was no preference, my immediate thought would have been, "well, sure, how would vervets recognize (and distinguish between) toys". But then the study would have suggested that that faculty evolved sometime after 25 million years ago. And that in itself would be a very interesting datum, worth discussion.

Had the study gone so far as to claim there were no innate sex differences, it would have been unprecedented in the animal kingdom and well worth posting for that claim.

So yeah, whether a study shows similarity to or differences from humans, it helps to fill in our knowledge as so is extremely interesting.
posted by orthogonality at 3:22 PM on December 9, 2005


"EB: dumb that down for me--'EP adaptationist functionalist view of the brain' means what?"

The beginning of Gyan's linked article explains this stuff pretty well. Basically the idea is that as primates, then we humans, evolved, the ability to perform specific cognitive tasks were selected for. Thus the human brain isn't, metaphorically (almost literally, I guess), a general purpose computing machine. Instead, it's a bundle of specific abilities to perform specific tasks.

The types of experiments that support this view tend to show diferential abilities at accomplishing two different tasks that are, on an abstract level, identical. If the brain were solving these tasks as one large, abstracted, cognitive problem-solver, then people should be able to perform the two tasks with equal facility. Instead, these researchers have found that it's easier for people to peform these tasks when the problem is stated in contexts that are the things that actual people actually do. In the case of many of these things, the cognitive task that is easier for people is the one in a social context. The implication is that this sort of human social context is very old and a specific trait for solving this narrowly-defined social problem was selected for specifically.

One reason this makes a lot of sense to me is because I have a lot of trouble seeing how the human brain could have evolved into the general purpose thinking machine we assume that it is. It's much, much easier to imagine specific traits solving specific tasks being added as our brains grew in relative size.

The part about "the stone age" has to with the implications of this theory. If these abilities are specific and not generalized—that is, they're individual functional cognitive units—then it's much harder to imagine they would have evolved recently enough to exist within the environment that humans have lived in since the beginning of recorded history. Instead, the assumption is that most of these tasks are deeply associated with, I'm guessing, our social and language needs that would have existed since very early on.

One key part of the adaptationist view of selection is the idea of the "environment of adaptation" that is specific to to specific traits. The environment of adaptation in which most of humans' cognitive skill are assumed to be very old.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:43 PM on December 9, 2005


EB: Anyway, I recall a very strong epiphany sort of moment when I discovered the EP adaptationist functionalist view of the brain. It explains so much while, in contrast, the opposing view seems to me to be manifestly anthropocentric which predisposes me to being critical.

I'm wondering which EP you are balancing against which opposing view? I'm rather fond of the distinction between the modest EP view that some aspects of cognition are evolved adaptations, and the grand EP view that everything about homo sapiens can be explained using "just so stories" about homonids on the range.

It is my feeling that the modest EP view is fairly well tolerated by disciplines such as psychology, while the grand EP view has some pretty basic flaws. The biggest one is that Cognitive and Behavioral psychology work as empirical descriptions of how humans behave.

In terms of measuring the "elasticity" of human thought, people have been doing this since James and Watson. Just as an example, you can do your classical pretest-treatment-posttest experiment and observe behavioral change over time using a variety of test conditions. You can do massive correlational studies and estimate the variance due to factors like SES and the size of the community. You can do cross-cultural studies of behaviors such as family structure, language and politeness. All of the above will provide you with some measures of that "elasticity" and will show that the human mind is pretty darn elastic.

I don't find that EP really explains much beyond providing some badly validated, "just so stories" for interesting quirks of human cognition. Many key questions in human psychology have to do with how to take advantage of cognitive elasticity: managing phobias and stress, learning a new skill, breaking a bad habit, understanding the seasons, mastering a new language.

These are the areas in which Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology own EP backwards, forwards, and upside down while munching falafel. Until EP provides a theory for how to help a novice become competent, and the competent become expert, it's just not very useful for me.

I simply will not accept human exceptionalism as axiomatic.

Well, I don't know that human exceptionalism is accepted as axiomatic outside of EP. In fact, one of the older criticisms raised against Behaviorism is that it works from the premise that humans are not exceptional. Behaviorism proposes that a similar learning theory applies at least to most vertebrates. Training a soldier how to send morse code is not that much different from training a chicken to play tick tack toe.

I think there is an argument to be made for exceptionalism however. There are cognitive behaviors that normal humans perform frequently, but are performed by only a few other species, if at all. A second argument to be made for exceptionalism is that if we take the strong evidence for mind as a function of brain anatomy, then we should expect for many aspects of cognition to be unique to each species.

It also seems to me that EP just invokes a different type of exceptionalism by arguing that human nature is human nature because of our natural history as inventive savanna primates. While C&BP folks are just content to say that a behavior has only been observed in humans and present a model of how the behavior has been observed to work.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:10 PM on December 9, 2005


Thus the human brain isn't, metaphorically (almost literally, I guess), a general purpose computing machine. Instead, it's a bundle of specific abilities to perform specific tasks.

No wonder we're having great difficulty having a modern society.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:27 PM on December 9, 2005


ortho: In general, the parsimonious hypothesis is that humans are likely the same as other primates unless there's an adaptive reason for us (or them) to have evolved a change.

This is of course assuming that a given behavior is genetic and therefore within the domain of evolution, rather than a learned response to environmental stimulus, or cultural transmission. This is a whopping assumption that even many animal behaviorists would be cautious about.

EB: One reason this makes a lot of sense to me is because I have a lot of trouble seeing how the human brain could have evolved into the general purpose thinking machine we assume that it is. It's much, much easier to imagine specific traits solving specific tasks being added as our brains grew in relative size.

Well, to start with, I'm wondering exactly who is considering the mind a "general purpose thinking machine?" The mind-as-computer metaphor always had some problems with it, but was dead and smelling bad at least 10 years ago.

So of course the mind is not one large, abstract, general problem solver. On the other hand, the mind is not specialized to the point of "specific tasks" either. While we may have a "mind organ" for recognizing friend or foe, we have no idea how to recognize friend or foe in advance. While we may have a "mind organ" for learning complex sets of sensor-motor behaviors, we have no idea if we are going to throw a spear or ride a bicycle.

Perhaps most importantly we have some mind organs that allow us to think in terms of some pretty abstract processes, leading to things like the theory of relativity, and songs about Pi.

So to bring this back around to the FPP, babies start learning information about their local context at least at birth, and possibly before they are born. Before a year they are learning to recognize similar objects, and engaging in some complex non-verbal negotiations with their caregivers. By the time they can start forming narrative memories at age three, they have mastered a large chunk of what will be their native language.

Given that the primary goal of infancy is to learn as much as possible about one's local context in preparation for toddling around under decreasing supervision and support from mommy, is it really possible to argue that is not to some degree socially mediated?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:01 PM on December 9, 2005


Yeah, probably in the same way language is. It's inherent, but it needs a social context to be fully realized.

I think you've read too much Gould, what with your repeated criticism of "just so" stories. :) It seems common for people to think that these aren't falsifiable ideas—but they are.

"It also seems to me that EP just invokes a different type of exceptionalism by arguing that human nature is human nature because of our natural history as inventive savanna primates."

It would seem that to you because you take it as axiomatic that humans are exceptional. I don't know what "human nature" is. The last few decades have seen more and more previously thought to be uniquely human cognitive tasks to be found in other animals. Our own self-study in every context began from a profoundly exceptionalist bias; I think we have a long way to go before we're in range of something approaching objective truth, such as it may be. I think we vastly overrate ourselves.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:24 PM on December 9, 2005


EB: I think you've read too much Gould, what with your repeated criticism of "just so" stories. :) It seems common for people to think that these aren't falsifiable ideas—but they are.

I think they are falsifiable ideas if we could have a time machine to produce a better view of the paleolithic and neolithic. However, many of these "just so stories" involve circular reasoning. We know that such and such modern behavior must have evolved in thus and so paleolithic social environment. How do we know that the paleolithic social environment must have been thus and so? Because of such and such modern behavior!

It would seem that to you because you take it as axiomatic that humans are exceptional. I don't know what "human nature" is. The last few decades have seen more and more previously thought to be uniquely human cognitive tasks to be found in other animals.

I'll set aside my evolved aggression response triggered by a socially-mediated interpretation that you either failed to read my statements before responding, or have chosen to respond with a bald-faced falsehood. I'll also give you a free pass at not recognizing the sarcasm in my use of Pinker's phrase, "human nature."

I don't consider it "axiomatic" that humans are exceptional. After all, I pointed out that many cognitive behaviors are shared between humans and animals. However many cognitive behaviors have been observed only in humans. Saying that a behavior has only been observed in humans and a few other species, is no more a claim to axiomatic exceptionalism than noting that we have observed only one planet with continental and liquid oceans. And yet, no one raises the same ideological claims against geologists and oceanographers that you invoke against C&BP.

But there is a latent contradiction in your argument in that you can't argue for EP, and argue against the premise that individual species are going to have different cognitive abilities. Claws, teeth, hormones, enzymes, relationships with parasites, and bones are evolved responses to local environments, and different from species to species. If cognition is also an evolved adaptation to local environments, then why should we assume that cognition will be the same from species to species.

If this is exceptionalism, so be it. The between-species variations in animal behavior are legion, and we can learn as much about cognition not just by identifying the similarities, but also by identifying the contrasts as well. Some species of monkeys never learn to recognize themselves in a mirror. Humans don't have strong olfactory cognition. Bumble bees have different social structures from honey bees.

Our own self-study in every context began from a profoundly exceptionalist bias; I think we have a long way to go before we're in range of something approaching objective truth, such as it may be. I think we vastly overrate ourselves.

I don't see what the problem is. You send a rat through a maze, and measure how quickly the rat learns to minimize false turns. You send a human being through a maze, and measure how quickly the human learns to minimize false turns.

If anything, EP tends to run into problems of bias because it attempts to ground its findings in some kind of a mythology regarding our ancestors in the deep past. In contrast, as a C&BP, I can simply say that there are observed limits on the quantity of information that human beings can hold in "working memory." Doubtless, this is an evolved adaptation. We don't want to imprint ephemera unless it is important. But we might not know it is important at the time it is perceived.

We can work with this theory and test it without knowing if it applies to other animals. We also don't need to know about it's history in the deep past. We can use it to develop practical advice, like "deliver information in small chunks" or "limit the number of menu items."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:01 PM on December 9, 2005


"I think they are falsifiable ideas if we could have a time machine to produce a better view of the paleolithic and neolithic. However, many of these 'just so stories' involve circular reasoning. We know that such and such modern behavior must have evolved in thus and so paleolithic social environment. How do we know that the paleolithic social environment must have been thus and so? Because of such and such modern behavior!"

That's a strawman and what's remarkable about it is that it's pretty much the creationists' argument against evolution. There's this idea that remoteness in time equates to unprovable (or unfalsifiable). Which simply isn't the case. Based upon the hypothesis underlying what you're dismissing as "just so" stories, there's a number of things that can be investigated—just like there are in any other experiment. There's nothing particularly special about this remoteness in time. We study all sorts of things that are enormously remote from us in one form or another.

"Saying that a behavior has only been observed in humans and a few other species, is no more a claim to axiomatic exceptionalism than noting that we have observed only one planet with continental and liquid oceans. And yet, no one raises the same ideological claims against geologists and oceanographers that you invoke against C&BP.

Well, first of all, yes they do. Except they aren't "ideological". They're rigorous. Because we have only one planet and one world ocean to investigate, any claim of any kind of exceptionalism is automatically suspect. The very nature of exceptionalism is that it's the exception. Why assume that this geology or this oceanography is unique in any sense, or even uncommon? Until we have proof that this is so, our premature judgments that this is the case are simply unreasonably chauvinistic. Yet such judgments are, in fact, the majority view. The majority view is that this planet in almost all of its attributes is unimaginably expceptional, perhaps completely unique. That's simply an absurd notion whether it's common or not.

What you originally wrote was this:

"I think there is an argument to be made for exceptionalism however. There are cognitive behaviors that normal humans perform frequently, but are performed by only a few other species, if at all. A second argument to be made for exceptionalism is that if we take the strong evidence for mind as a function of brain anatomy, then we should expect for many aspects of cognition to be unique to each species.

It also seems to me that EP just invokes a different type of exceptionalism by arguing that human nature is human nature because of our natural history as inventive savanna primates. While C&BP folks are just content to say that a behavior has only been observed in humans and present a model of how the behavior has been observed to work."


Your first paragraph has two unsupported assumptions that are essentially begging your argument. The first is that the cognitive behaviors of humans that are rare or unique in other species are ubiquitous and characteristic of humans. Your assumption is that they are because you clearly have in mind a whole host of different varieties of abstract thinking. The second is neither true nor false sufficiently to make the point relevant and neither is its contrary. I do not at all see why a brain model of the mind requires great differentiation and ubiquity of examples of uniqueness between species. This is certainly not true for, say, the other organs that mammals have in common. They are far more alike than different.

Your claim that C&BP models are less biased because they say no more and no less than how humans behave is why I claimed that you are necessarily asserting a distinct "human nature". When a biologist or anatomist or whomever studies an animal, they certainly do not do so in an isolation away from what they know about other animals and biology in general. It would be absurd to do so, actually. Yet this is what you're insisting be done with regard to the study of humans. That's exceptionalism.

The underlying problem here is confirmation bias. We are naturally (or culturally!) inclined to see ourselves as set apart from other animals, to see our cognition and self-awareness as special, to see ourselves as enormously different from the rest of the animals on Earth. And for the same reason that faces seem very distinct from each other to us but are, in fact, far, far more alike than they are different, we also see ourselves and our behavior as more distinct than it is.

When an animal behaviorist examines an animal in the context of what we think we know about its evolution, no one complains that the scientist is merely coming up with "just so"stories that are unfalsifiable and dismissive of the plasticity of the animal brain! As a matter of fact, in keeping with our tendency to exceptionalism, it's usually been exactly the opposite: we deny that animals might have culturally learned behaviors and see them as reductive automatons. In every sense we start from the assumption that there's an enormous gulf between humans and the other animals on this planet. That's a very questionable assumption to make on its face and doubly so when it's made by humans.

"If anything, EP tends to run into problems of bias because it attempts to ground its findings in some kind of a mythology regarding our ancestors in the deep past."

And, again, that statement could have come from a creationist who is, just as you are, scornful of the ability to know the relevant information from the distant past and most particularly in the implicit desire to look at humans outside of the context of the natural world. The points of view are quite similar for a good reason: anthropocentricism.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:21 AM on December 10, 2005


EB: Ohh, fuck it. Lets step back a bit. You seem to be stuck arguing a strawman of my position by taking bits and pieces out of context, to show exceptionalism, and ignoring cases where I don't assume exceptionalism. How about you just drop the preconceptions and listen a bit? Here are the arguments I see you making:

1: We can construct narrative theories about the evolution of human cognition in the deep past.

As I've posted many times before, I have a history in both biology and psychology. One of the things that evolutionary biologists and paleobiologists freely admit is that that fossil evidence for animal behavior and soft tissue structure is rare. Archaeologists also freely admit that some artifacts are preserved, while others decay over time.

The end result is that there is a lot of hypotheses that we can't test in regards to fossil organisms or early humans due to lack of evidence. My primary concern about grand EP is that in most papers it makes sweeping claims about ancestral human behavior during time periods where our information about ancestral humans consists of a few dozen fragmented skeletons, and two trackways of footprints.

As I've said multiple times before, I don't object to petite EP that invoke a kind of a behavioral cladistics by pointing out that our ability to see our selves in the mirror, is shared with chimps, but not shared with baboons. Before you go off again on how this is just equivalent to creationist claims, I'd point out that this is how evolution is explored in microbiology.

2: Saying a feature "unique or uncommon" is exceptionalist

In a couple of places, you seem to argue that the identification of any phenomenon as unique or uncommon (with the sample of what we have observed) is exceptionalism. To me, this strikes me as absurd. Admitting that we know of only one Gulf Stream, one Mons Olympus, and one Great Red Spot, isn't exceptionalism. It's stating the facts of our observations of hundreds of bodies within our solar system. If at some point our telescopes reach a resolution where we can see features on other planets in fine detail, then we can revise our claims as to the unique and uncommon occurrence of these events.

Likewise, I was very careful to write that there are cognitive abilities that have only been observed in humans and a few other species. Very carefully qualified. Perhaps there are species of birds that recognize themselves in the mirror. At that point, I'll be forced to accept the new evidence. But you can't expect me to accept claims to a broader distribution of a trait in the absence of evidence. We can't claim that a cognitive trait exists only in humans. We can only confess to the methodological limitations of learning how other species think.

3: C&BP is anthropocentric and claims a distinct human nature.

This is a pretty blatant case of you cherry-picking out examples that support your claims, and ignoring examples that don't support your claims. As I've mentioned a few times before, Behaviorism is explicitly anti-athropocentric in that the learning process of a human is not fundamentally different from the learning process of a rat or pigeon.

However, where you get into Cognitivism, the methodologies get more complex. So for example, our model of working memory is based on experiments where participants are given a stimuli, and asked to repeat or recite the stimuli. It's highly probable that other animals have a working memory, but that requires different methodologies, and interpreting across different methodologies requires a bit of a grain of salt.

When you say that I'm insisting on ignoring what we know about the cognition of other species. I must insist that you read what I have read closer. To the extent that we can know about how other species engage in cognition, of course that should inform our theory. But I don't think that a theory becomes useless simply because it has only been observed to apply to human beings.

3: contrast vs. commonality

Evolutionary biology centers on explaining and exploring both the commonalities and the differences between species. If cognition is an evolved adaptation, and if human beings are qualitatively different enough from primates to justify a different species designator. Then we would expect qualitative difference in cognition as well. These differences would be expected given that one of the diagnostic characteristics of Homo is a greatly expanded brain capacity.

4: "As a matter of fact, in keeping with our tendency to exceptionalism, it's usually been exactly the opposite: we deny that animals might have culturally learned behaviors and see them as reductive automatons. In every sense we start from the assumption that there's an enormous gulf between humans and the other animals on this planet. That's a very questionable assumption to make on its face and doubly so when it's made by humans."

Speak for yourself when you say "we" here. I don't make any of these assumptions.

5: You are concerned with rigor.

You have not said one word about methodology, data or interpretation. You have also argued a strawman, ignored evidence contradicting your view, made unsupportable claims about what can be said given fossil evidence. This leads me to believe that your position is more motivated by ideology than by scientific rigor.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:00 AM on December 10, 2005


I was probably not cherry-picking so much as, ironically, confirmation bias about what I was sure you were saying. Sorry.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:15 AM on December 10, 2005


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