If you saw someone punching a stranger in the street, you might think poorly of them. But if you found out that the stranger had slept with the assailant’s partner, had kicked a kitten, or was Justin Bieber, you might think differently about the situation. You might even applaud the punch-thrower.
When we make moral judgments, we do so subtly and selectively. We recognise that explicitly antisocial acts can seem appropriate in the right circumstances. We know that the enemy of our enemy can be our friend. Now, Kiley Hamlin from the University of British Columbia has shown that this capacity for finer social appraisals dates back to infancy – we develop it somewhere between our fifth and eighth months of life.
We are a cooperative ape, and a fair one. We work together to put food on the table and once it’s there, social rules compel us to share it around equitably. These two actions are tied to one another. In a new study, Katharina Hamann from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has shown that three-year-old children are more likely to fairly divide their spoils with other kids if they’ve worked together to get them.
The same can’t be said of chimpanzees, one of our closest relatives. Sharing comes less naturally to them, and it doesn’t become any more likely if they’ve worked together to get a meal.
“Control! Control! You must have control.” – Yoda
Pay attention. Put that down. Stop doing that. Eat that later. Would you, just, behave? These phrases are a familiar part of family life, as parents try to drum a sense of self-control into their children. Right from the start, they are taught to restrain their impulses, focus on their goals, and control their choices. This seems like a wise move, but how could you tell if such instruction actually affects a child’s fate?
Ideally, you would follow a group of children into adulthood, to see how their degree of self-control affects the course of their lives. You’d need to catch up with them at regular intervals to look at their health, mental state, finances and more. You’d need to meticulously plan the study decades before the important results came in, and you’d need to keep in close touch with the volunteers so they stick with the study. In short, you’d need to have set up the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study.
The Dunedin Study was the brainchild of Phil Silva, and its wide-ranging team include Terrie Moffit and Avshalom Caspi, a husband and wife duo who work at Duke University and King’s College London. The study began way back in 1975, with 1037 children who were born in Dunedin, New Zealand between April 1972 and March 1973. The researchers became their occasional companions through most of their lives, up till the age of 32. At 11 separate points, Moffit and Caspi measured the recruits’ health, wealth and more. And amazingly for a study of this sort, 1014 of the children are still alive and involved.
There’s a chemical that can subtly shift your childhood memories of your own mother. In some people, it paints mum in a more saintly light, making them remember her as closer and more caring. In others, the chemical has a darker influence, casting mum as a less caring and more distant parent.
All of this becomes heavily ironic when you consider that the chemical in question – a hormone called oxytocin – is often billed as the “hormone of love”, and even marketed as “Liquid Trust”. As a new study shows, the reality is much more complicated. Describing oxytocin as the “hormone of love” is like describing a computer as a “writing tool” – it does other things too, some of which aren’t pleasant.
This is an old article, reposted from the original WordPress incarnation of Not Exactly Rocket Science. I’m travelling around at the moment so the next few weeks will have some classic pieces and a few new ones I prepared earlier.
From an animal’s point of view, the most important things in the world around it are arguably other animals. They provide mates, food, danger and companionship, so as an animal gazes upon its surroundings, it needs to be able to accurately discern the movements of other animals. Humans are no exception and new research shows that we are so attuned to biological motion that babies just two days old are drawn to extremely simple abstract animations of walking animals.
Animals move with a restrained fluidity that makes them stand out from inanimate objects. Compared to a speeding train or a falling pencil, animals show far greater flexibility of movement but most are nonetheless constrained by some form of rigid skeleton. That gives our visual system something to latch on to.
We depend on a special organ to digest the food we eat and you won’t find it in any anatomy textbook. It’s the ‘microbiome’ – a set of trillions of bacteria living inside your intestines that outnumber your own cells by ten to one. We depend on them. They wield genes that allow them to break down molecules in our food that we can’t digest ourselves. And we’re starting to realise that this secret society within our bowels has a membership roster that changes depending on what we eat.
These changes take place across both space and time. Different cultures around the world have starkly contrasting diets and their gut bacteria are different too. As we grow older, we eat increasingly diverse foods, from the milk of infancy to the complex menus of adulthood. As our palate changes, so do our gut bacteria.
They are mum’s first gift to her newborn baby on the day of its zeroeth birthday – bacteria, fresh from her vagina. Vaginal bacteria are among the trillions of microscopic hitchhikers that share our bodies with us. Collectively known as the ‘microbiota’, these passengers outnumber our own cells by ten to one. Children partly inherit their microbiota from their mothers. During birth, they pass from the largely bacteria-free conditions of the womb through the microbe-laden vagina into the equally bacterial outside world.
Being slathered in vaginal microbes might not seem like much of a treat from our adult perspective, but to a newborn, it’s a key event. The microbiota are important partners, influencing our physiology and our risk of disease. Now, Maria Dominguez-Bello from the University of Puerto Rico found that the way we enter the world determines the identities of our first bacterial colonisers. Babies delivered by Caesarean section end up with a very different portfolio to those who are born naturally.
In the 1970s, a group of deaf Nicaraguan schoolchildren invented a new language. The kids were the first to enrol in Nicaragua’s new wave of special education schools. At first, they struggled with the schools’ focus on Spanish and lip-reading, but they found companionship in each other. It was the first time that deaf people from all over the country could gather in large numbers and through their interactions – in the schoolyard and the bus – Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) spontaneously came into being.
NSL is not a direct translation of Spanish – it is a language in its own right, complete with its own grammar and vocabulary. Its child inventors created it naturally by combining and adding to gestures that they had used at home. Gradually, the language became more regular, more complex and faster. Ever since, NSL has been a goldmine for scientists, providing an unparalleled opportunity to study the emergence of a new language. And in a new study led by Jennie Pyers from Wellesley College, it even tells us how language shapes our thought.
By studying children who learned NSL at various stages of its development, Pyers has shown that the vocabulary they pick up affects the way they think. Specifically, those who learned NSL before it developed specific gestures for left and right perform more poorly on a spatial awareness test than children who grew up knowing how to sign those terms.
Two children, Anne and Carla, have worked together to make a cake and they have to split it between them. Anne says that she’s the bigger cake aficionado and deserves the lion’s share. But Carla demands the bigger slice since she did most of the cooking. A nosy third party, Brenda, argues that the only fair call would be for the two girls to split the cake equally. Which is the right path?
There’s no obvious right answer and different people will probably side with different viewpoints. Dilemmas like this have been the subject of much philosophical debate, and they’re a common part of everyday life. How do you allocate pay rises between your staff? How should the UK’s new government split its budget among its various departments?
According to Norwegian scientist Ingvild Almås, our attitudes to such questions change during our childhood and adolescence, as we start changing our opinions on what counts as ‘fair’. Children tend to shun any form of inequality – they’d agree with Brenda. But as they enter the turmoil of adolescence, they become more meritocratic and are happier to divide wealth according to individual achievements, as Carla suggested. As their teens draw to a close, they (like Anne) pay greater heed to efficiency, making choices of maximum benefit to the group.
People with Williams syndrome are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. They are incredibly sociable, almost unnervingly so, and they approach strangers with the openness that most people reserve for close friends.
Their sociable streak is the result of a genetic disorder caused by the loss of around 26 genes. This missing chunk of chromosome leaves people with a distinctive elfin face, a risk of heart problems, and a characteristic lack of social fear. They don’t experience the same worries or concerns that most of us face when meeting new people. And now, Andreia Santos from the University of Heidelberg has suggested that they have an even more unique trait – they seem to lack racial bias.
Typically, children start overtly gravitating towards their own ethnic groups from the tender age of three. Groups of people from all over the globe and all sorts of cultures show these biases. Even autistic children, who can have severe difficulties with social relationships, show signs of racial stereotypes. But Santos says that the Williams syndrome kids are the first group of humans devoid of such racial bias, although, as we’ll see, not everyone agrees.
Santos compared the behaviour of 20 white children with Williams syndrome, aged 7 to 16, and 20 typical white children of similar backgrounds and mental ages. To do so, she used a test called the Preschool Racial Attitude Measure (PRAM-II), which is designed to tease out traces of gender or racial biases in young children.