All posts by Garry Peterson

Prof. of Environmental science at Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University in Sweden.

Evolution of Cooperation

The New Scientist has an good review of recent research on the evolution of cooperation – Charity begins at Homo sapiens. This research goes beyond ideas about kin selection. Experimental research has shown that people will punish unfairness even when there is nothing to gain. This work suggests that rule enforcement strongly supports the maintenance of cooperation.

Further support for the idea that strong reciprocity is an adaptation in its own right comes from the theoretical studies of economist Herbert Gintis of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, anthropologist Robert Boyd of the University of California at Los Angeles, and others. They set up a computer model in which groups of individuals interacted, and watched how their behaviour evolved. Individuals were set up in the model to behave initially either as cheats or as cooperators, and in personal interactions the former came off best. When groups competed with one another, however, cooperation came into its own: groups with more cooperators were likely to flourish.

But that was only the start. The individuals, whether initially cooperators or cheats, were also programmed to copy successful behaviour. In simulations with groups ranging from 4 to 256 individuals, the team found that altruism could evolve. The benefits that cooperation conferred on a group outweighed its costs to individuals – but only in groups of less than about 10. Ancestral human hunter-gatherer bands are thought to have numbered 30 or more individuals, so how could cooperative behaviour have evolved and spread in these groups?

The answer lies in the fact that strong reciprocity is not simply a matter of cooperation; it also requires punishment of those who fail to toe the line. When the team added punishment to their models, they found it made a huge difference. In a second round of simulations, they included a new kind of individual: the “punishers”. These punishers were not only willing to cooperate with others but also to punish cheats. By making cheats pay for their antisocial actions, they tipped the balance towards cooperation. This time, competition between groups led to the emergence of cooperation in groups of up to 50 individuals (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 100, p 3531).

altruism graph

Could competition between small groups of our ancestors somehow have turned them into strong reciprocators? Gintis, Boyd and their colleagues believe so. What’s more, subsequent research by Fehr, working with economist Urs Fischbacher of the University of Zurich, suggests that as humans came to live in larger groups, their attitudes towards reciprocity may have become even more hard-line. Using a similar model to Gintis and the others (Nature, vol 425, p 785pdf), they found that cooperation can become the default behaviour in large groups provided punishers are willing to punish not only those who cheat, but also those who fail to punish cheats. “In this case,” Fehr says, “even groups of several hundred individuals can establish cooperation rates of between 70 and 80 per cent.”

This work is important, because understanding how cooperation emerges and persists is vital in understanding and designing human institutions, and in understanding the emergence of complex systems in general.

Scientific Grey Areas

The New Scientist has an interesting article – 13 things that do not make sense – where there is a mimatch between theory and evidence – places where something strange is going on – but it isn’t exactly clear what. They include the Placebo Effect, homeopathy, and cold fusion.

1 The placebo effect
Don’t try this at home. Several times a day, for several days, you induce pain in someone. You control the pain with morphine until the final day of the experiment, when you replace the morphine with saline solution. Guess what? The saline takes the pain away.

This is the placebo effect: somehow, sometimes, a whole lot of nothing can be very powerful. Except it’s not quite nothing. When Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin in Italy carried out the above experiment, he added a final twist by adding naloxone, a drug that blocks the effects of morphine, to the saline. The shocking result? The pain-relieving power of saline solution disappeared.

So what is going on? Doctors have known about the placebo effect for decades, and the naloxone result seems to show that the placebo effect is somehow biochemical. But apart from that, we simply don’t know.

Benedetti has since shown that a saline placebo can also reduce tremors and muscle stiffness in people with Parkinson’s disease (Nature Neuroscience, vol 7, p 587). He and his team measured the activity of neurons in the patients’ brains as they administered the saline. They found that individual neurons in the subthalamic nucleus (a common target for surgical attempts to relieve Parkinson’s symptoms) began to fire less often when the saline was given, and with fewer “bursts” of firing – another feature associated with Parkinson’s. The neuron activity decreased at the same time as the symptoms improved: the saline was definitely doing something.

We have a lot to learn about what is happening here, Benedetti says, but one thing is clear: the mind can affect the body’s biochemistry. “The relationship between expectation and therapeutic outcome is a wonderful model to understand mind-body interaction,” he says. Researchers now need to identify when and where placebo works. There may be diseases in which it has no effect. There may be a common mechanism in different illnesses. As yet, we just don’t know.

Resilience of Great Barrier Reef

On March 10th, the Christian Science Monitor an article on Terry Hughes work on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. In particular how its management is being changed by resilience ideas.

In the past, researchers would study tropical-reef response to single events – such as a hurricane, tropical cyclone, or coral bleaching – to evaluate its ability to bounce back.

“People wrote about these as one-off events,” explains Dr. Hughes, a professor at James Cook University in Townsville. “But on longer time frames – from decades to centuries – those are recurrent events. We’re now asking: How can this system, on a scale of thousands of kilometers, absorb recurring disturbances without going belly-up? Resilience is about the system absorbing changes” and conservation managers “being proactive in anticipating them.”

Scott Wooldridge is developing a “state of the reef” computer model at AIMS that will allow conservation managers to rank the resilience potential for different reefs or reef segments. The model has the potential for use worldwide. So far, he’s included three elements: adequate levels of grazing fish on the reef to keep algae at bay, water quality, and increased heat- tolerance among coral – which he acknowledges is the weakest link in the chain in terms of biological research.

The model points to some disturbing results. Australia – and specifically, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority – may have chosen the wrong approach when it set up its no-take areas, he says.

His preliminary results suggest that the northern third of the reef probably should get the most conservation attention. The park agency, by contrast, set aside ecologically representative areas scattered throughout the reef. That made sense at the time, Dr. Wooldridge says, given what scientists then knew. But the northern segment is more pristine and faces fewer stresses because fewer people live and visit there. While it will likely feel the bleaching effects of climate change more strongly at first than reef sections farther south, it still stands a good chance of surviving. Thus it will be able to provide the larvae that will ride prevailing currents south to reseed portions of the reef that are under greater multiple stresses.

It’s a controversial notion, Wooldridge acknowledges, and calls into question the strategy over which the government spent so much time and political capital.

“With proper management, you can still have a viable reef by 2050,” he says. “But the implications are that we need to conserve more in the north.”

Telling Stories About the Future

Last week, on March 10th, I gave a lecture at McGill on the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, about my assessment and my participation in it. Prior to my talk I was interviewed by the McGill Reporter, McGill’s offical newspaper, which published an article on my talk.

The storyline we choose has yet to be written, but Peterson hopes that it will reflect the lessons of the Millennium Assessment. “Ecological decisions have both local and global impact,” he cautioned. “And all scenarios have associated benefits and risks.” Scenarios that are based on a proactive strategy, such as the technological strategy, tended to do well under changing environmental conditions, while more reactive strategies, such as the one told by the “global orchestration strategy,” can do better, but only under stable conditions.

The work of the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment will start to be released on March 30th.

Resilience and the power of weak ties

A March 7th New York Times article reports on work by scientists who have studied the resilience of groups under pressure argues that decentralized groups are more resileince than strongly connected ones to criticism and internal quarrels.

Evidence from personality profiles and from studies of military, corporate and space flight crews suggests that looser ties between group members can be a strength, if the team includes individuals who can generate collective emotion when needed. And the Yankees have several of them.

“So much of psychology and sociology emphasizes the importance of communicating and creating strong bonds to improve group performance, but in a lot of situations that is just not how it works,” said Dr. Calvin Morrill, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, who has studied group behavior in competitive corporate situations and in high schools. “Baseball is an odd mix of an individual and team sport, and an ideal example of where a diffuse team with weak ties to one another may help the overall functionality of the group.”

….

When a common purpose is shared, loosely tied groups can function better than strongly bonded ones when it comes to containing dissent or bickering, research suggests. In studies of neighborhood organizations and corporate teams, social scientists have observed that members with weak ties can withdraw from disagreements without disrupting the group or their own work.

On a tightly knit team, by contrast, a falling out between key members can divide a squad, forcing people to take sides, psychologists say. “The idea is that any sort of problem is likely to ripple more strongly and quickly through a close group than one with weak ties,” said Dr. Mark Granovetter, a professor of sociology at Stanford.

Psychologists who have studied the personality profiles of people who face far greater pressures than winning in October – including special-operations forces and astronauts – agree that those who do well share distinct qualities: they tend to be independent, confident, able to tolerate uncertainty and socialize easily with others.

“But they are not too outgoing, not socially needy, not the sort of people who need others for support,” said Dr. Lawrence Palinkas, an anthropologist at the University of California, San Diego, and the chief adviser to the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, which studies spaceflight.

Whether such independent, loosely tied people ultimately succeed as a unit depends not only on strong management, researchers say, but on the presence of individual group members who can circulate through disparate parts of the team, reduce conflict and help generate collective spirit when it is needed.

In one continuing investigation of a highly diverse high school of 1,600 students, Dr. Morrill found that a single 16-year-old white skateboarder had been critical to the reduction of conflict. “He moves between black, Asian, Hispanic and white groups, and he’s one of these kids who’s always bringing good news,” he said. “He’s a very important person in this school.”

Avian Innovation

Louis Lefebvre, from the department of Biology at McGill, recently compared the ability of birds to innovate using thousands of reports of feeding innovations birders have observed and published. Crows and jays were the most innovative. Chickens and turkeys were the least. Also, from comparing successful and unsuccessful introductions of birds, it appears that more innovative bird species appear to be more successful invaders (Sol et al 2002. Behavioural flexibility and invasion success in birds. Anim. Beh.).

From the BBC:

Dr Lefebvre said that many of the novel feeding behaviours he included in the work were mundane, but every once in a while, birds could be spectacularly inventive about obtaining their food.

During the war of liberation in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, a soldier and avid bird watcher observed vultures sitting on barbwire fences next to mine fields waiting for gazelles and other herbivores to wander in and get blown to smithereens.

“It gave them a meal that was already ground up,” said Dr Lefebvre.

“The observer mentioned that once in a while a vulture was caught at its own game and got blown up on a mine.”

Stewart Brand on Long Term Thinking and Cities

From an article in the Portland Tribune:

Brand, whose current lecture is titled “The Future of Cities as if the Past Mattered,” makes a distinction between long-term planning and long-term thinking, favoring the latter because we can’t know the future.

“Institutions max out at 40 to 50 years; some universities have lasted a thousand years. Religions — some poop out pretty quickly — while cities vary enormously, such as capitals of dynasties. Jerusalem has been an important town for 2,000 years.”
He compares aerial photos of earthquake-devastated Turkey from the 1990s with those of recently tsunami-ravaged Asia.
“All the buildings went down except the mosques,” he says. “This is because some parts of civilization move faster than others.” Islam is ancient, but modern businesses bought off the government to get around building codes, he says.

After the Tsunami

UNEP has just released a report
After the Tsunami: Rapid Environmental Assessment

It can also be downloaded as a 9mB pdf file.

UNEP recommends:

[Rebuilding should be done] in a manner that preserves natural resources for the benefit of the local communities who were hardest hit by the disaster, a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says. Vulnerability mapping is urgently needed to pin point coastal sites where homes, hotels, factories and other infrastructure should be banned or restricted. …. This makes sense not only in respect to tsunamis but also with respect to storms surges, floods, hurricanes and other extreme weather events.”

The New Scientist has a short article about the report. They write:

Fresh water supplies including groundwater, irrigation channels and even wells, were severely contaminated in all seven of the tsunami-hit countries studied by UNEP – Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, the Seychelles, Yemen and Somalia. All the freshwater sources on many islands – including all of Sri Lanka’s wells – are thought to be polluted.

Water sources have been poisoned by sea water, sewage, human and animal decomposition and oil leaks, the report found. Toxic materials from damaged buildings have also been a problem, including asbestos, radioactive products and heavy metals. On beaches in Somalia, for example, the tsunami stirred up nuclear and hazardous waste deposits that had been dumped during the country’s long civil war.

Eric Falt, a UNEP spokesperson, told New Scientist that lessons could be learnt from the disaster, and much of the environmental damage need not be repeated. “It’s an opportunity for planners to do things differently; to not build so close to the sea and for shrimp farmers not to repeat the destruction of mangroves,” he said.”

Wildlife appears to have fared better than other environmental aspects. But many of Sri Lanka’s important turtle nesting sites were destroyed and there are reports that these severely endangered creatures are being eaten by desperately hungry local people.

However, there has also been some good news – turtles on Tanjung Bungah beach in Malaysia have taken advantage of the lack of tourists to begin breeding. More than 30 baby Olive Ridley sea turtles emerged onto the usually packed beach on 16 February, prompting a local campaign for a protected nest area.

WorldChanging (Best of 2004)

The WorldChanging weblog discusses sustainability and green design from a broad range of perspectives. Recently they posted a collection of links to their best articles from 2004.

They asked their contributors to each pick three favorite stories, along with short explanations of their choices.

The articles provide a good introduction to the site. They range from discussions of climate futures, to design, urban sustainability, and the need for a new type of environmental movement.