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People behave just like the apes they are

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Street Journal is about how predictably “primate” we all are in the

Generally, junior professors write long and unsolicited emails
to senior professors, who reply with short ones after a delay; the
juniors then reply quickly and at length. This is not because the
seniors are busier, for they, too, write longer and more punctually
when addressing their deans and funders, who reply more briefly and
tardily. The asymmetry in length and speed of reply correlates with

When a subordinate chimpanzee grooms a dominant one, it often
does so for a long time and unsolicited. When it then requests to
be groomed in turn, it receives only a brief grooming and usually
after having to ask a second time.

This gorgeous little juxtaposition of tales comes from a new
book by Dario Maestripieri of the University of Chicago, who is
both a professor and a primatologist (and a primate). His book, called “Games Primates Play,” is devoted
to ramming home a lesson that we all seem very reluctant to learn:
that much of our behavior, however steeped in technology, is
entirely predictable to primatologists.

He observes two university colleagues in a coffee shop and notes
how the senior one takes the chair with the back to the wall (the
better to spot attacks by rivals or leopards), is less attentive to
her colleague’s remarks than vice versa, stares down her colleague
when a contentious issue comes up and takes the lead on walking out
the door at the end-all of it neatly corresponding to the behavior
of two baboons when one is dominant.

(A new member of a committee on which I served once asked me why
a senior colleague was being so horrible to him. I replied: “Oh,
it’s because when a new male baboon joins a troop, it’s traditional
for the alpha male to beat him up before becoming his best
friend-soon he’ll think the world of you.” I was right.)

Dr. Maestripieri’s most intriguing chapter is entitled
“Cooperate in the Spotlight, Compete in the Dark.” He describes how
people, like monkeys, can be angels of generosity when all eyes are
on them, but devils of spite in private. Famously, the citizens of
New York City turned to crime when the lights went out in the
blackout of July 13, 1977-not because they were evil but because
the cost-benefit calculus was altered by the darkness.

Dr. Maestripieri then offers a fascinating analysis of the
conundrum of peer review in science. Peer review is asymmetric: The
author’s name is known, but the reviewers remain anonymous. This is
to prevent reciprocal cooperation (or “pal review”): I’ll be nice
about your paper if you’re nice about mine.

In this it partly works, though academics often drop private
hints to each other to show that they have done review favors. But
peer review is plagued by the opposite problem-spiteful criticism
to prevent competitors from getting funded or published. Like
criminals in a blackout, anonymous reviewers, in the book’s words,
“loot the intellectual property of the authors whose work they
review” (by delaying publication while pinching the ideas for their
own projects) and “damage or destroy the reviewed authors’
property” (by denying their competitors grants and

Studies show that peer reviewers are motivated by tribal as well
as individual rivalry. Says Dr. Maestripieri: “I am a Monkey-Man,
and when I submit a grant application for peer review, I am
terrified that it might fall into the hands of the Rat-People. They
want to exterminate all of us…(because our
animals are cooler than theirs).”

His answer (and it applies to far more fields than science) is
total transparency with the help of the Internet. The more light
you shine, the less crime primates commit. Once everybody can see
who’s reviewing whose papers and grant applications, then not only
will spite decline, but so will nepotism and reciprocity. Anonymity
alters the cost-benefit balance in favor of competition;
transparency alters it in favor of cooperation.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  evolution  rational-optimist  wall-street-journal