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Human encroachment is obliterating chimpanzee culture
We are destroying who they are.
- A study finds that human impact is decimating the cultures of chimpanzee communities in the wild.
- Unique localized behaviors are being reduced by 88 percent.
- Socialized learning in chimps has finally been established, just in time to be destroyed.
People who enjoy travel have seen this trend becoming more and more pronounced even in human populations: There's an increasing homogeneity among our cultures, a loss of local identity as we increasingly eat the same foods, watch the same movies, and covet the same gizmos. A similar thing is occurring to chimpanzees, but it's even more fundamental. The culprit, though, is the same: Us.
At least we (sort of) intend to be doing it to ourselves — our primate cousins are losing their tapestry of cultures through no fault of their own.
Image source: Ari Wid / Shutterstock
It took some time for field studies of African chimpanzees to mature to the point that a pattern became clear, but by 1999, and a cumulative 151 years of observation, researchers — including Jane Goodall — published compelling evidence that chimpanzee communities develop their own local cultures.
The paper reported: "We find that 39 different behavior patterns, including tool usage, grooming and courtship behaviors, are customary or habitual in some communities but are absent in others where ecological explanations have been discounted."
The idea was not immediately accepted, but by now, a substantial amount of evidence exists of cultures across a range of species. Humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine have taken up "lobtail feeding." A hot trend spreading through the capuchin world is poking each others' eyes. Some orangutans say goodnight by blowing a raspberry. Chimp culture is no longer in dispute.
The irony, of course, is that it's now disappearing thanks to human encroachment. As Ammie Kalan, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and co-author of a new study examining this trend, tells The Atlantic, "It's amazing to think that just 60 years ago, we knew next to nothing of the behavior of our sister species in the wild. But now, just as we are truly getting to know our primate cousins, the actions of humans are closing the window on all we have discovered."
Local chimpanzee behaviors
Image source: Kalan, et al/CherylRamalho / Shutterstock
Chimpanzee behavior diversity has been "documented in a variety of contexts," says the study, "including communication, thermoregulation and extractive foraging. Chimpanzees are also proficient tool-users, using sticks, leaves and stones to access honey, insects, meat, nuts and algae."
Because the observed behaviors are unique to local population groups, they can't be attributed to instinctive behavior, and it's believed that, once introduced or invented, "Many of these behaviors are inferred to be socially learned and therefore cultural," according to the study's authors. (They don't completely rule out the possibility that genetic and environmental influences play some part. Still, the presence of these activities occurs "irrespective of resource or tool abundance," and new behaviors are continually discovered by researchers when observing a new chimpanzee group for the first time. (There's been ample controlled experimentation that confirms chimps' ability to learn new things.)
The study's researchers looked at 31 chimpanzee behaviors that appear in 144 different chimp communities. They observed 46 communities specifically for this study and incorporated existing data from an additional 106 groups, an exceptionally large data set overall.
What the paper finds
The data reveals that in chimpanzee communities experiencing significant human impact, the likelihood of local behaviors appearing drops by a stunning 88 percent. The conclusion was inescapable, even though the researchers employed an extremely forgiving standard: If a behavior was observed even once, they recorded it as present — this means our impact might actually be even more extreme than the study reports.
The authors also questioned whether there could possibly be a mistake in the manner in which the data was being analyzed. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. "However we divided up the data, we got the same very obvious pattern," says Kalan, confirming their worst fears for the "disturbance hypothesis" the study was investigating.
The disturbance hypothesis
The disturbance hypothesis considers that even when chimp populations survive complete decimation, the damage inflicted by human exploitation of their habitat can still be profound "due to resource depletion or a breakdown in opportunities for social learning." With habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation — also, poaching — communities shrink and are dispersed over long distances, and this reduces "population size, gregariousness and long-distance dispersal, weakening behavioral transmission."
The study notes that the world population of the great apes is declining 2.5-6 percent a year. On top of that, "Our results suggest that chimpanzee populations are losing their characteristic sets of behavioral traits, and that a number of not yet discovered behaviors may be lost without having ever been described."
The authors suggest that as we look to do a better job at preserving remaining habitat in the future, we add in a new metric, "culturally significant units." They conclude "a more integrative approach to conservation is needed," a standard that "considers behavioral diversity in addition to population size and trends for wildlife management."
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?
- A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
- It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
- The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Welfare as an investment<p>The <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/welfare_vnber.pdf" target="_blank">study</a>, carried out by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard University, reviews 133 welfare programs through a single lens. The authors measured these programs' "Marginal Value of Public Funds" (MVPF), which is defined as the ratio of the recipients' willingness to pay for a program over its cost.</p><p>A program with an MVPF of one provides precisely as much in net benefits as it costs to deliver those benefits. For an illustration, imagine a program that hands someone a dollar. If getting that dollar doesn't alter their behavior, then the MVPF of that program is one. If it discourages them from working, then the program's cost goes up, as the program causes government tax revenues to fall in addition to costing money upfront. The MVPF goes below one in this case. <br> <br> Lastly, it is possible that getting the dollar causes the recipient to further their education and get a job that pays more taxes in the future, lowering the cost of the program in the long run and raising the MVPF. The value ratio can even hit infinity when a program fully "pays for itself."</p><p> While these are only a few examples, many others exist, and they do work to show you that a high MVPF means that a program "pays for itself," a value of one indicates a program "breaks even," and a value below one shows a program costs more money than the direct cost of the benefits would suggest.</p> After determining the programs' costs using existing literature and the willingness to pay through statistical analysis, 133 programs focusing on social insurance, education and job training, tax and cash transfers, and in-kind transfers were analyzed. The results show that some programs turn a "profit" for the government, mainly when they are focused on children:
This figure shows the MVPF for a variety of polices alongside the typical age of the beneficiaries. Clearly, programs targeted at children have a higher payoff.
Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser<p>Programs like child health services and K-12 education spending have infinite MVPF values. The authors argue this is because the programs allow children to live healthier, more productive lives and earn more money, which enables them to pay more taxes later. Programs like the preschool initiatives examined don't manage to do this as well and have a lower "profit" rate despite having decent MVPF ratios.</p><p>On the other hand, things like tuition deductions for older adults don't make back the money they cost. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is less time for the benefactor to pay the government back in taxes. Disability insurance was likewise "unprofitable," as those collecting it have a reduced need to work and pay less back in taxes. </p>
What are the implications of all this?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="ceXv4XLv" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="3b407f5aa043eeb84f2b7ff82f97dc35"> <div id="botr_ceXv4XLv_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/ceXv4XLv-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/ceXv4XLv-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/ceXv4XLv-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>Firstly, it shows that direct investments in children in a variety of areas generate very high MVPFs. Likewise, the above chart shows that a large number of the programs considered pay for themselves, particularly ones that "invest in human capital" by promoting education, health, or similar things. While programs that focus on adults tend to have lower MVPF values, this isn't a hard and fast rule.</p><p>It also shows us that very many programs don't "pay for themselves" or even go below an MVPF of one. However, this study and its authors do not suggest that we abolish programs like disability payments just because they don't turn a profit.</p><p>Different motivations exist behind various programs, and just because something doesn't pay for itself isn't a definitive reason to abolish it. The returns on investment for a welfare program are diverse and often challenging to reckon in terms of money gained or lost. The point of this study was merely to provide a comprehensive review of a wide range of programs from a single perspective, one of dollars and cents. </p><p>The authors suggest that this study can be used as a starting point for further analysis of other programs not necessarily related to welfare. </p><p>It can be difficult to measure the success or failure of a government program with how many metrics you have to choose from and how many different stakeholders there are fighting for their metric to be used. This study provides us a comprehensive look through one possible lens at how some of our largest welfare programs are doing. </p><p>As America debates whether we should expand or contract our welfare state, the findings of this study offer an essential insight into how much we spend and how much we gain from these programs. </p>
Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.
- When most of your life is spent doing one thing, it matters if that thing is unfulfilling or if it makes you unhappy. According to research, most people are not thrilled with their jobs. However, there are ways to find purpose in your work and to reduce the negative impact that the daily grind has on your mental health.
- "The evidence is that about 70 percent of people are not engaged in what they do all day long, and about 18 percent of people are repulsed," London Business School professor Dan Cable says, calling the current state of work unhappiness an epidemic. In this video, he and other big thinkers consider what it means to find meaning in your work, discuss the parts of the brain that fuel creativity, and share strategies for reassessing your relationship to your job.
- Author James Citrin offers a career triangle model that sees work as a balance of three forces: job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle. While it is possible to have all three, Citrin says that they are not always possible at the same time, especially not early on in your career.