Being Human

5 Jul

There was an excellent programme on the BBC two nights ago. This was presented by six-month pregnant Prof. Alice Roberts of University of Birmingham, (by old alma mater). She is an anatomist and started by discussing the physiological differences between apes and men. Then there was a most interesting experiment started in the Max Planck Institute in Germany. There were two young chimps in separate cages, separated by a space. A plank was set in front of the cages. At either end of the plank was a loop though which a length of rope was threaded, with one end of the rope given to each chimp. On the plank were two halves of a banana as rewards. The only way the chimps could obtain the reward was by co-operating in pulling on the rope at the same time. This worked in most cases , but if one chimp was slower to pull the rope, the faster would gain her reward and then let go of her end of the rope, meaning the slower could not get the banana.

A similar experiment was carried out on children, except with marbles as token rewards, and the distribution of rewards could be varied by the apparatus. It still required the children to co-operate. When any child found they had a disproportionate reward they would voluntarily and very quickly share the reward equally. It seems that humans are programmed not just to co-operate, but also the share rewards in an equitable way. This behaviour in some way appears to give us an evolutionary advantage. Those that insist on having a greater reward in any society are deviating from this behaviour. It is also suggested that the societies in which most people are happiest are those where the difference between the richest and the poorest is the least, not the overall wealth of the country. Yet we laud and try to emulate the rich, even those who have inherited their wealth. In the words of Gordon Gekko, ‘Greed is good!’ Perhaps we should have an urgent rethink of our position on this. For example, game shows mostly eliminate contestants, either for failing tests or because they are voted out in a political or popularity vote. I can’t call to mind a single game show where co-operation and equitable division of spoils produces the winners. Let’s have some natural justice, just for once.

I passed by his garden and marked with one eye
How the Owl and the Panther were sharing a pie
The Panther had pie-crust and gravy and meat
While the Owl had the dish as his share of the treat.
When the banquet was over, the Owl as a boon
Was kindly permitted to pocket the spoon
While the Panther took knife and fork with a growl
And concluded the banquet by …………..*

* The only words which make sense here are ‘eating the Owl’, a name I have given to a novel I wrote in which the villain wants everything.

 

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