Ask Me Anything Ask Us Anything! Brian Hare & Vanessa Woods discuss why survival of the fittest is overrated

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Vanessa and Brian

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Hello Internet,

We are Vanessa and Brian and we study human and animal cognition at Duke University. We just wrote a book called Survival of the Friendliest which we hope will correct the popular misconception of ‘survival of the fittest’. Especially now, we need to understand why being friendly is a more successful strategy. We’ll start with exhibit A - our dogs. Dogs are the second most successful mammal on the planet, besides us, while sadly, their wolf cousins are endangered everywhere they are found.

Ask us anything - in particular about how friendliness is a great strategy, especially during a world wide pandemic and with a politically fractured society. Ask us about why bonobos are the animal we wish we were, and about how dogs will save the world. Caveat - this is the first time we've done this together - note we put the wrong date on our picture because we took it last night - forgive us in advance and we'll do our best to answer all your questions and curiosities!

Here’s a video that might get you started….

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaeA8qx4qrc
 
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sward

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So a few questions from a community development group I'm in (they've a bit varied so bear with me)

Do pack animals experience toxic members like online gaming communities do?

What can we learn from survival of the friendliest to help encourage our community to adhere to covid mask wearing guidelines?

If it's survival of the friendliest and dogs are the best at this, what strategy are cats using? :D
 
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Vanessa and Brian

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Do pack animals experience toxic members like online gaming communities do?

If by 'toxic members' you mean aggressive, then of course, some dogs are more aggressive than others. But this does not mean these aggressive individuals are successful. In fact in feral dogs, who live without humans, the pack does not follow the most dominant dog - they follow the dog with the most affiliative relationships (or friends)

What can we learn from survival of the friendliest to help encourage our community to adhere to covid mask wearing guidelines?

With any policy that relies on cooperation, social norms are always helpful - if everyone is wearing a mask, or everyone thinks everyone is wearing a mask, then others are more likely to wear one too. This towel study is a good example: towel study. We'd also predict that messaging around 'We are all in this together against Covid' would be more successful than splitting different groups according to whether or not they wear masks.

If it's survival of the friendliest and dogs are the best at this, what strategy are cats using?

Haha.... those enigmatic felines. Who knows what they are thinking?
 
Nov 16, 2020
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So, can you explain how or why we seem to have lost our "friendly" attributes over the last several decades? I'm over 65 and I've never seen experienced a society as polarized as what we are living in now. No one seems "friendly" unless you know them on a personal level.
 
I am a much bigger fan of bonobos than I am of chimps on the basis of peaceful vs aggressive. But aren't bonobos endangered/threatened whereas chimps are not (or less so )? Is this an exception to survival of the friendliest?

Why do dogs bark so much? The dog next door barks INCESSANTLY. It is not being friendly, it is oppressive to my mental health (it is with all my effort that I exercise some control as I write this). What is it with them, all up in your face? Live quietly so that others may quietly live, PLEASE!!
 

Vanessa and Brian

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So, can you explain how or why we seem to have lost our "friendly" attributes over the last several decades? I'm over 65 and I've never seen experienced a society as polarized as what we are living in now. No one seems "friendly" unless you know them on a personal level.
Your bewilderment is completely understandable. It's one of the reasons that in 2016, we were ready to turn in the book with a warning that the darker side of our nature could always raise its head. The book thus far was that we are both the kindest and cruelest human ever to exist - kind to those we see as like ourselves and cruel to those we see as outsiders. At the time Obama was the president, Hilary was going to be the next president, but in the 6 months that followed the election we realized we needed to do more. So we came up with solutions to harness the better angels of our nature and short circuit our tendency to dehumanize.

If you look at human history over the past several centuries, human violence has actually been declining.

But things can always be better, just as they can always get worse. The key take away is that in order to work together, we need to exapand our definition of who belongs.
 

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Vanessa and Brian

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So, can you explain how or why we seem to have lost our "friendly" attributes over the last several decades? I'm over 65 and I've never seen experienced a society as polarized as what we are living in now. No one seems "friendly" unless you know them on a personal level.
I am a much bigger fan of bonobos than I am of chimps on the basis of peaceful vs aggressive. But aren't bonobos endangered/threatened whereas chimps are not (or less so )? Is this an exception to survival of the friendliest?

So fun to find a bonobo fan!! The endangered status of most animals is due to human activity. But if we look at the strategy from an evolutionary point of view, the friendliness of bonobos males toward females is such a successful reproductive strategy that the most successful male bonobos are far more successful at fathering offspring than even the most successful alpha male chimpanzee.

Why do dogs bark so much? The dog next door barks INCESSANTLY. It is not being friendly, it is oppressive to my mental health (it is with all my effort that I exercise some control as I write this). What is it with them, all up in your face? Live quietly so that others may quietly live, PLEASE!!
I'm so sorry about the barking.

Barking was a super helpful strategy in a time where humans needed an alarm system - so dogs were heavily selected to bark - at strangers, prey animals etc. Wolves don't really bark so this is something that we selected for. Unfortunately, it's not very adapting in an urban, suburban environment. You could perhaps ask your neighbor to keep their dog inside the house during the day?
 
Nov 19, 2019
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Is there a way to teach kids in school about this concept? When I was younger, we were pretty much always taught to compete and think of our own futures. Is there a way to sort of balance that out with an emphasis on being friendlier throughout life?
 

Vanessa and Brian

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Why do teenage girls have such a torrid time with friendships?
Is there a way to teach kids in school about this concept? When I was younger, we were pretty much always taught to compete and think of our own futures. Is there a way to sort of balance that out with an emphasis on being friendlier throughout life?
We did not delve into the delicate and complicated teenage mind, but we did find out some interesting information on the way kids might be taught to foster cooperation. So In a traditional classroom structure, children are in constant competition for their teacher’s approval. This inherent conflict—in which the success of one child threatens the success of another—can foster a toxic environment.

There was a psychologist called Eliot Aaronson in the 1970s. Instead of the teacher holding court over the class, asking questions, singling out some students and neglecting others, Aronson suggested transferring a small portion of knowledge, and its associate power, to each student, and then at the end, the group was assessed as a whole.

It was called the “jigsaw” method, because each child in a group had a piece of knowledge to contribute to a coherent lesson. Working this way for just a few hours each week had powerful effects. After only six weeks, Aronson found that both the white and minority children liked the members of their jigsaw group (this was post segregation when tensions were still high) regardless of their race, more than they liked the other children in their classrooms. They liked school better, and their self-esteem improved. Jigsaw children academically outperformed children in competitive classrooms, and minority children showed the biggest improvements of all. Jigsaw children empathized with others more easily. Once the children had become friends, it became safe to introduce a more standard, competitive model of teaching back into the classroom. Cooperative learning methods were repeated with similar results, time after time, in hundreds of different studies and in thousands of classrooms around the US.

I've asked teachers and principals over the past few years what happened to Jigsaw classrooms. there are some elements of cooperative learning, but not the way Aronson implemented it, or mashed up together with a lot of other techniques and it seems to have been lost? Maybe it is time to bring it back?
 
Nov 11, 2019
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To your knowledge, is there a method of inducing altruistic behavior in online community engagement that is recursive and self-sustaining? Preferably without resorting to emulation of others?

What prompted the very first selfless act of kindness and compassion on the part of our animalistic human progenitors?
 
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Mar 25, 2020
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So with so many insights emerging from bonobos and dogs, what's the next direction for this field? Where are the remaining gaps that you hope to fill in with future research?
 
Sep 1, 2020
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How does friendliness look as a long term strategy when uncooperative individuals can have so much impact? (it only takes one Julius Cesar to burn down the library of Alexandria, and it only takes one person ignoring restrictions to infect a new city)

Wouldn't evolutionary benefits only apply to social animals, and not necessarily to kind/friendly animals? - and doesn't the formation of tight-knit social groups only lead to larger conflicts between groups instead of individuals?
 
Nov 16, 2020
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Your bewilderment is completely understandable. It's one of the reasons that in 2016, we were ready to turn in the book with a warning that the darker side of our nature could always raise its head. The book thus far was that we are both the kindest and cruelest human ever to exist - kind to those we see as like ourselves and cruel to those we see as outsiders. At the time Obama was the president, Hilary was going to be the next president, but in the 6 months that followed the election we realized we needed to do more. So we came up with solutions to harness the better angels of our nature and short circuit our tendency to dehumanize.

If you look at human history over the past several centuries, human violence has actually been declining.

But things can always be better, just as they can always get worse. The key take away is that in order to work together, we need to exapand our definition of who belongs.
I very much appreciate your reply and thank you for an expeditious reply.
 
Nov 19, 2020
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How does friendliness look as a long term strategy when uncooperative individuals can have so much impact? (it only takes one Julius Cesar to burn down the library of Alexandria, and it only takes one person ignoring restrictions to infect a new city)

Wouldn't evolutionary benefits only apply to social animals, and not necessarily to kind/friendly animals? - and doesn't the formation of tight-knit social groups only lead to larger conflicts between groups instead of individuals?
Excuse me for answering this but I wrote a couple (one a threw out 'cause bad sourcing wowee) papers on this subject, or something somewhat related to it: why do we have a need for warfare? Why would warfare be logical as an option for survival if it means killing a group?

Asocial behavior is punished; the gene pool is then no longer being supplied by them. Extremely asocial behavior does not reproduce, it tends to die. Individual acts of asocial behavior are nearly always outliers. Yes, an outlier can cause damage, but the temple of Alexandria only harmed our overall knowledge, not our ability to survive. It is not 'much damage'- note that the burning of Alexandria was a drop in the pool of disasters, and far more was happening in the world, especially in the east, than that.

This is all essentially evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology is a very touchy field; it is related to eugenics, horrors, etc. Bad people. But understanding how our ideas came to be so commonplace is important. Sadly, it is misused by bigots.

I have to mention this because it can be taken the wrong way.

In any case, there are some strong arguments for why there were not larger conflicts until later on in human development. And yes, there were conflicts- and today in less developed nations there is an incredibly high rate of 'conflict' or bush warfare, reaching into the 90% chance per year for every village/tribe in those regions. The common explanation is 'for mates', but that is rather chauvinistic lobbying.

Consider there are two tribes of moderate size on an island. The island is large enough for them both. It is covered in dense jungle; they have tools, but not chainsaws. Clearing a section of the jungle is not a matter of manpower, but of the work of an entire generation. That generation will not see the fruits of their labor; they do it for their children's survival.

Consider the two tribes coexisted peacefully until they realize they are starting to run out of potable water, arable land, or resources in general- or simply they keep bumping into one another on patrols and causing shouting fights.

Paradoxically, the group which is most aggressive but also the most inclusive and tightknit wins this, as they will be the aggressors and decide that the time it takes to work land is not worth the time it takes to, say, take over their land. When your people are hungry, sometimes there is no other choice- you are doing an act of selflessness towards your family, but it is directed at an outgroup.

By then succeeding, the penchant for violence is potentially passed on, and especially the skill for organization, hunting, and tactical decision making ahead of time (presceint thought, sapient thought)

Survival of the fittest is a misnomer, and makes the implication of 'superior'. It is not survival of the strongest. It is survival of the most appropriately adapted to its conflicted position. When it becomes a survival issue in not bashing in your neighbor's skull, being friendlier is naturally being nicer; the rest of your neighbors will come after you, next.

In war, we act this out in a very grandiose way- there is always a small belief that your actions are somehow protecting your family and people. Genghis Khan is the outlier of the outliers.

We are social animals, by the way.


Is wanting to build community instinctual or is it something we are taught?
Instinctual. Children do not see things like differences as quickly as we do; they make social groups independent of bias.

Racism is taught. As is classism, etc.
 

mknott

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Nov 12, 2019
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Great to see you folks here!

Do you feel that the pace of online communication has generated a sense of hopelessness for a lot of people? Individuals are still just people and humans haven't fundamentally changed, but the pace of discussion and scale of it is beyond anything we've ever had and it seems to be brutal on expected societal norms.

In my daily life I have happy walks with my dog and talk with so many different and awesome people. Bring that online however and it's riven with dread because everyone is tribal and the topics are so clearly drawn by those tribal lines. I can understand why there's an assumption the world is worse, but do you believe this is a phenomenon we can find a balm for and if so what is it?
 
Mar 4, 2020
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It's human nature. Social media exposed it, and everyone's in denial. So we blame others. And try to convince ourselves that we are basically good.

Whoever told you that man is basically good, has lied to you.

Social media separated us. We use to have a common civility and a common courtesy that allowed all to keep their personal beliefs, but that is gone now.

Everybody has to classify now. It will get worse. And it will get faster. It's the way sewer drains work.
 
Mar 19, 2020
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It's human nature. Social media exposed it, and everyone's in denial. So we blame others. And try to convince ourselves that we are basically good.

Whoever told you that man is basically good, has lied to you.

Social media separated us. We use to have a common civility and a common courtesy that allowed all to keep their personal beliefs, but that is gone now.

Everybody has to classify now. It will get worse. And it will get faster. It's the way sewer drains work.
Did you get unbanned? I saw your post earlier and it said banned.
 
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