Acquire, Use, Exploit – In that order

I’ve recently been to the  2014 Winter Meeting of ASAB (the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour) in London. A really nice conference with a focus on collective behaviour (how do individuals behave in groups, how do individuals influence group dynamics, and so on). There were many excellent talks. One of my favourites was delivered by Niels Dingemanse (Max Planck Institute, Germany) on Interacting Personalities and the importance of Social Environment (which inevitably reminded me of my bumblebee projects).

Another talk that is closely related to what I do came from Alecia Carter (University of Cambridge). She presented results from the Namibian Baboon project she and her colleagues are involved in. She collected data for several networks that are simultaneously present in the baboon group, e.g. proximity, grooming, and aggression networks. The researches hid food items and recorded how the information spreads through the network. One question that the scientists asked was: which of the recorded networks would best predict the information diffusion? Surprisingly, it was the proximity network that best predicted who received the information when.

A second result of this study suddenly struck me: possessing information is not equal to receiving a reward that is connected to this information. Of course, this is completely intuitive (right?), but as a computational biologist I sometimes simplify the world a little bit too much. Alecia described how some individuals received the information (acquisition), while others did not. Some individuals that knew where the desired food items were went there (use), while others did not. And finally, as a consequence of the strict dominance hierarchy in baboons, a dominant individual would eat first, before subordinate individuals could get access to the remaining food items (exploit).

I wonder how important this factor is for general learning models. How important are different networks that are present in parallel, and how important are dominance and hierarchies? Excited to see some computational models in the near future!

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Why are humans so nosy? – A second thought

‘[A] primate group is an implicit social contract (it is a collective solution of the problem of predation)’, Robin Dunbar writes in his recent book Human Evolution and continues, ‘social contracts are always susceptible to being broken by freeriders – those who take the benefits of the contract but don’t pay the cost, thereby benefiting doubly at everyone else’s expense.’ He concludes this thought with: ‘individuals who exploit fellow group members impose a burden that these eventually become unwilling to bear.’

Sometimes there is nothing that we like more than being a freerider, but in general we don’t like freeriders at all. There is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in everyone of us. Sometimes we justify this robbed piece of cake or sip of milk by saying it is an exception, but if we are on the other side we feel betrayed. In fact, we dislike free riding so much that human societies came up with a huge collection of socially unaccepted behaviours and attitudes.

The oldest written version might be the Ten Commandments, don’t kill, don’t lie and so on. Human societies are so successful (remember, I see this as a biologist) because humans cooperate so much. Cooperation, however, can only efficiently work when cheating is reduced to a minimum. The more complex interactions become the more possibilities to cheat emerge and thus the more rules we write down and accept to keep cooperation viable. Say for example collaborations in science (European Space Agency), politics (European Union), and care (WHO), or international companies (Airbus). But also think about it more locally, like volunteering for your community, investing time and energy into the society you’re a member of.

Cooperation can only work if we accept one another (at least temporarily) to share resources. We do not constantly kill each other because we can achieve more when we work together. We do not fight each other all the time (I’m currently sitting in a train to London with cheerful football fans, families and other people and so far – no casualties) because we believe in and rely on the social rules and norms we were raised with. You could save money and buy a smartphone or you can pickpocket it. Yet, we don’t like to get robbed, because stealing is socially unaccepted, and thus might exclude us from the cooperative community, which provides us with profound benefits.

How you behave in a certain society, what you do or contribute, depends on how likely it is to encounter a freerider and how the society deals with freeriding. And this brings me back to my earlier post Why are humans so nosy? In that post I concluded that we are nosy because there is the potential that we learn from other people’s mistakes. With the above paragraphs I hope I can convince you to also make the point: we are nosy because we want to know: how does my society deal with freeriders, and therefore: what can I do in this society (e.g. don’t go out at night, or wear expensive gadgets), what can I say (free speech?), where can I go (are there places that are less save than others? and more along this line.

Additional to my earlier post I claim here that we are also nosy to gather information on how to be a successful member of a society.

ReferencesI :
Dunbar, Robin. Human Evolution. Penguin Group, 2014, p. 38