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Mon Dec 10, 2012, 05:29 AM


If life isn't fair, why are we born with the sense that it should be? More monkey tests...

Darwin understood that competition was an important factor in evolution, but it wasn’t the only factor....In The Descent of Man he wrote, “Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring...”

Sarah F. Brosnan and colleagues conducted a series of behavioral tests with a colony of chimpanzees...in order to find out how they would respond when faced with an unfair distribution of resources...Chimpanzees are known to be highly individualistic where food is concerned, so Brosnan and colleagues sought to determine whether these earlier results (with capuchins) could be replicated in a more competitive species. The researchers first trained all 16 chimpanzees to exchange an inedible token for a food reward and then assessed their food preferences (it turns out that chimpanzees always prefer grapes to a similarly sized piece of carrot)...

However, chimpanzees in this study went beyond the basic tenets of the social contract and demonstrated what could be considered the foundation of social solidarity. In 95 trials chimpanzees that received a grape were significantly more likely to refuse the high-value reward when their group mate only received a carrot (p = 0.008). Even those who benefitted from inequality recognized that the situation was unfair...

When we were children we wouldn’t have understood that using financial derivatives to repackage subprime loans in order to resell them as AAA-rated securities was an unfair thing to do.... But we did know it was unfair when our sibling got a bigger piece of pie than we did. We began life with a general moral sense of what was fair and equitable and we built onto the framework from there. Chimpanzees, according to this study, appear to have a similar moral sense. The intricacies of what we judge to be fair or unfair would seem to have more to do with human cognitive complexity than anything intrinsically unique to our species. In other words, what we’re witnessing here is a difference of degree rather than kind.

What this also suggests is that we’ve been swindled. The Andrew Carnegies of the world have led us to believe that they are an exception to the social contract; fairness and equality may be fine for the little people, but for masters of industry it is best to leave such quaint ideas by the wayside. But he was as wrong about this as he was about the way that evolution operates. As we move to regulate financial markets it might be wise to consider Darwin’s understanding of human society and follow the lead of our ape cousins. By emphasizing cooperation and sympathy with other members of our society we stand a better chance of success than each of us working alone. But if the situation is unfair we should refuse to perpetuate it, even if that means giving up a larger share of the pie for ourselves.


The problem with giving up a larger share of our own pie is that if it's not done as part of a larger movement, in solidarity, it's main effect can wind up being condemning ourself to poverty while other less scrupulous folks take the share we relinquished.

I think the bigger problem is that so much unfairness is disguised within a labyrinthine financial structure that separates cause & effect & offers competing narratives of fairness ("Bill Gates deserves his wealth, he worked for it!"

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Reply If life isn't fair, why are we born with the sense that it should be? More monkey tests... (Original post)
HiPointDem Dec 2012 OP
Delphinus Dec 2012 #1
HiPointDem Dec 2012 #2

Response to HiPointDem (Original post)

Mon Dec 10, 2012, 07:13 AM

1. Fascinating!

I really appreciate you posting this - thank you!

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Response to Delphinus (Reply #1)

Mon Dec 10, 2012, 05:18 PM

2. i think so too. it seems to appear in primates at a very early age, suggesting that there is some


kind of genetic preference for fairness.

the ptb are often found discussing genetic traits supporting the competitive/unfairness world view, but rarely discuss the other side much.

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