‘Games Primates Play’ by Dario Maestripieri and ‘Darwin’s Devices’ by John Long

Studies of primates and robotic fish offer clues about how life developed and why we behave as we do

Dadu Shin for the boston globe

In “Games Primates Play’’ Dario Maestripieri, a University of Chicago professor and author of the cleverly titled “Macachiavellian Intelligence: How Rhesus Macaques and Humans Have Conquered the World,’’ sifts our understanding of monkey behavior for insights into human behavior. Since the human brain has evolved to cope with many of the same social problems and situations that influenced the evolution of monkeys’ brains, it makes sense that their behavior patterns, while perhaps appearing different on the surface, might be similar at a deeper level.

“[T]echnology and clothes cannot disguise the inheritance of our primate past,’’ Maestripieri writes. “They have simply changed the arena in which we act out our age-old rituals.’’ Relations between human beings, then, like those between monkeys, are mostly about establishing dominance, recruiting support, and promoting kin in the competitive arena that is the social world.

There is much evidence indicating that our behavior is shaped by programming that lies far beneath the surface. Consider, for instance, that people are more likely to pay for coffee on an honor system if pictures of human eyes are posted nearby. Obviously these individuals do not believe that they are being observed; the influence seems to operate on an unconscious, sub-rational level, Maestripieri suggests.


That such influences are unconscious indicates to Maestripieri that our decisions are not as voluntary as we assume them to be. But while being influenced by photographs of eyes may seem somewhat bizarre, Maestripieri views our deep programming as predominantly rational since it was passed along to us by a series of ancestors for whom it conferred an evolutionary advantage. Behaving ourselves when we feel as though we are being watched makes sense for creatures like us, given how dependent we are on the tolerance and support of others to survive and thrive.

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By such criteria, though, it is also rational to cheat and exploit others when people are not looking. It is unsurprising, then, that Maestripieri thinks that our actions, like those of other primates, are best understood by means of the conceptual tools developed by economists and social scientists who study game theory and rational choice.

Conceptually speaking, selfishness is tricky territory. Maestripieri makes a classic mistake when he writes that since the result of kin-directed altruism is in essence to promote the survival of one’s own DNA (since it is largely shared with close relatives), such nepotism is “really selfishness in disguise.’’ On such a view, even a person who sacrifices her life for her children gets counted as selfish. But such thinking confuses the person with her genes. Being programmed to promote one’s genes is not the same as being programmed to promote one’s selfish interests; indeed, as Richard Dawkins would remind us, the two demands frequently conflict.

In general, the danger of viewing humans through the lens of simpler animals is that the things that make us distinctively human - the subtleties of our thought, behavior, and motivation - will tend to be underemphasized or ignored. Maestripieri reveals his simplistic view of human nature when he writes that “[i]n the end, we all want the same things: money, power, fame, sex, love, and children.’’ At one point he tells stories about three fictional Microsoft employees who adopt various strategies for climbing the corporate ladder, which he then compares to the social strategies of three actual macaque monkeys. This is potentially interesting, but he does not offer enough detail in either set of stories to ground interesting or enlightening comparisons.

“Games Primates Play’’ might have been a more satisfying read if Maestripieri had imparted more of the flavor of his day-to-day research with rhesus monkeys. Surely there must be some stories there! The latter complaint cannot be lodged against John Long’s “Darwin’s Devices.’’ Long, who studies evolution by building robotic “organisms’’ - fish, mostly - that are modified (i.e. “evolve’’) according to their successes or failures at feeding and avoiding predators, manages to balance fairly detailed and frequently entertaining accounts of the nuts and bolts of robot research with occasional forays into big picture, what-does-it-all-mean thinking.


Particularly interesting is Chapter 5, “Life of the Embodied Mind,’’ in which Long argues that most of us tend to place too much emphasis on the brain as the cognitive center, ignoring the important ways in which other parts of an organism’s body can also contribute to cognition. Though I was not completely convinced by Long’s claims, his discussion was both intelligent and philosophically informed, a rare thing in contemporary science writing.

Long is, moreover, thoughtful and fair when considering a critique which, if successful, would undermine his entire enterprise: Since robots are artificial, why think that building evolving robots can tell us anything about the evolution of fish under real world conditions? The answer, at least in part, is that robots, while artificial in some sense, are still actual physical things. This is in stark contrast to the main alternative, computer simulations of organisms. Such models do have their advantages: You can let thousands of them interact and run through thousands of generations in a very short time. But they are also much more removed than robots from physical realities, so are less accurate substitutes.

“Darwin’s Devices’’ is mostly devoted to pure scientific research, the author’s enthusiasm for which is apparent and infectious. The book ends, though, with a sobering chapter on the possible military uses of robot technology, an endeavor in which Long acknowledges his complicity. “As long as we work on fish and robotic fish,’’ he writes, “even if we publish openly, we are part of a new arms race, a race among fifty-six countries to weaponize robots.’’ In this world, it seems, pure research does not remain pure for long. Having just absorbed Maestripieri’s somewhat bleak view of human nature - that we are, in the final analysis, nothing more than monkeys dressed up to look nice, constantly seeking dominance and ready to take advantage of one another at the first opportunity - this struck me as a sobering thought indeed.

GAMES PRIMATES PLAY: An Undercover Investigation of the Evolution and Economics of Human Relationships

By Dario Maestripieri

Basic, 302 pp., illustrated, $27.99

DARWIN’S DEVICES: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology


By John Long

Basic, 273 pp., illustrated, $26.99

Troy Jollimore is author of “Love’s Vision’’ and “At Lake Scugog: Poems.’’ He can be reached at