The genealogy of morals

by Chris Bertram on September 23, 2003

There’s been much blogospherical and press comment about the recent report that capuchin monkeys have a built-in sense of fairness. In case anyone missed the story here’s “Adam Cohen’s summary in the New York Times”:http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/21/opinion/21SUN3.html?ex=1064721600&en=64f9933e4a7be38d&ei=5062&partner=GOOGLE :

bq. Give a capuchin monkey a cucumber slice, and she will eagerly trade a small pebble for it. But when a second monkey, in an adjoining cage, receives a more-desirable grape for the same pebble, it changes everything. The first monkey will then reject her cucumber, and sometimes throw it out of the cage. Monkeys rarely refuse food, but in this case they appear to be pursuing an even higher value than eating: fairness.

bq. The capuchin monkey study, published last week in Nature, has generated a lot of interest for a scant three-page report buried in the journal’s letters section. There is, certainly, a risk of reading too much into the feeding habits of 10 research monkeys. But in a week when fairness was so evidently on the ropes — from the World Trade Organization meeting in Cancún, which poor nations walked out of in frustration, to the latest issue of Forbes, reporting that the richest 400 Americans are worth $955 billion — the capuchin monkeys offered a glimmer of hope from the primate gene pool.

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More Broadswords, Less Crime?

by Henry on September 23, 2003

I mentioned Caroline Bradley and Michael Froomkin’s “paper”:http://intel.si.umich.edu/tprc/papers/2003/240/VirtualReal.pdf on law in MMORPGs (massively multi-player online role-playing games) earlier today. Its argument is straightforward – these online communities offer a nice way to test legal scholars’ (and social scientists’) arguments about how different rules will affect behaviour and exchange. By looking at how this or that rule in an online game affects how players behave online, we can (with plenty of provisos and cautionary footnotes) reach interesting conclusions about social behaviour more generally.

My tuppence worth: one theory has already been ‘tested’ in this way; the argument that easing restrictions on weapons and their use will lead to a drop in violent crime. If you grant the assumption that MMORPGs are analogous to everyday life (a whopping assumption to be granting, I’ll admit), then the evidence is unequivocal. A society where each can use weapons against each without restriction is likely to deteriorate into Hobbesian anarchy. People will positively beg for a Leviathan to come in and put an end to the Warre of All against All.

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by Ted on September 23, 2003

Jim Henley has a good post about an excerpt from the new memoir of Mariane Pearl, widow of the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. (The book can be purchased here.)

Jim Henley’s analysis of the kidnapper’s emails is very good, but the excerpt itself is extraordinary. Mariane Pearl writes in the present tense, giving it an immediacy that makes it hard to read.

Every little detail—the type of camera used, the make of the weapon threatening Danny, the way words are used—is analyzed, and everyone has a theory. I let everybody play out his or her line because I want to get hooked by one. But through it all, I know this is my husband.

In the chatter, I hear Randall ask, “Do you recognize the wedding ring?”

“Yes,” I say. “It’s loose on his finger. It’s always been loose.”

The room falls silent.

Language Log

by Brian on September 23, 2003

Via Kai von Fintel, I see there’s a new blog Language Log being run by four very talented linguists. I was very pleased to see that Geoff Pullum, author of my favourite academic book, agrees with me about the learned/said controversy that erupted here soon after CT opened.