Rational Chimps, Hobbits and Starch-Eating Humans

Monies of the Apes [Chimps Show ‘Economic Rationality’]

Economists claim to work on the basis of rationality. One example was a scheme whereby Tom and Sam would split a sum of money, but only if they agreed on the split. Tom would decide the split and Sam could accept or reject it. In their view, Tom ought to take most and Sam should accept this. Much to their surprise, mostly the split was fair. When it wasn’t fair, the man or woman who thought they were being cheated would be content to get nothing rather than be treated like that.

Now they’ve finally found a population that does behave ‘rationally’. Chimps.

“Unlike humans faced with these games, chimpanzee responders accepted any nonzero offer, whether it was unfair or not. The only offer that was reliably rejected was the 10/0 option (responder gets nothing). The researchers conclude that chimpanzees do not show a willingness to make fair offers and reject unfair ones. In this way, they behave like selfish economists rather than as social reciprocators.”[Q]

Humans feel the need to be part of something, but also expect ‘fair treatment’. Which can vary a lot and people will accept large inequalities if their society’s traditions seem to sanction and justify it. Tolerance of traditional injustice surprises outsiders but seems natural to ‘insiders’. People actually exist in a social context, and could not exist without it. The legend of Tarzan of the Apes remains immensely popular, yet is profoundly false. Heroes like Sharp and Bond and Indiana Jones are heroic exaggerations. But a human raised by apes would be little better than an ape.


A couple of other interesting finds. It seems that the ‘Flores Hobbits’ were real after all. It’s not just their skulls that look like the vanished ape-humans, the wrist is just the same:

“Tocheri, an expert in the evolution of the human wrist, could see right away that the hobbit’s wrist bones looked just like those of a chimpanzee or an early hominin such as Australopithecus – and had none of the specialisations for grasping that are seen in the wrist bones of modern humans…

“‘The modern human wrist hasn’t looked like this for at least 800,000 years, and maybe much longer,’ says Tocheri. ‘It was immediately apparent to me that the hobbit is the real deal.'” [R]

Which leaves the problem of how they got to an isolated island. Assuming they were smarter than chimps, I suspect that they had a few human friends helping them. That they were taught advanced tool-use and also boats, if they were not taken there as a dumping-ground. My guess is that the hobbit’s true ‘shire’ will be found elsewhere among the many islands of Indonesia. High ground where a primitive population might have hung on but diminished in size, until someone decided to move them to prevent disputes. Legends of the ‘little people’ of Flores say that they were mischievous and stole things – that they could not understand the social rules of modern humans, I’d suppose.


Looking back to the much deeper past, it seems that humans didn’t just get a taste for meat when they diverged from the other apes. We eat bread as well as meat, even the most expensive meals include starch as well as protein. Everyone was obsessed with ‘man the mighty hunter’, and of course meat leaves behind visible signs in the form of bones. But it seems that was only half the story:

“Humans carry extra copies of the salivary amylase gene… they use the copies to flood their mouths with amylase, an enzyme that digests starch. The finding bolsters the idea that starch was a crucial addition to the diet of early humans, and that natural selection favored individuals who could make more starch-digesting protein.

“Other primates eat mainly ripe fruits containing very little starch. A new ability to supplement the diet with calorie-rich starches could have fed our large brains and opened up new food supplies that fuelled our unrivalled colonization of the planet…

“When early humans mastered fire, cooking starchy vegetables would have made them even easier to eat… At the same time it would have made extra amylase gene copies an even more valuable trait.”[S]

[See also How Cooking Made Us Human]


[Q] [http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071005104104.htm]

[R] New Scientist, issue 2623, 29 September 2007, page 14

[S] [http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/09/070909184006.htm]

From Newsnotes, October 2007.

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