Saturday, January 19, 2013

Vikram Gandhi's "Trickster Documentary," Kumaré - A Review

In 2011, Vikram Gandhi released a "trickster documentary" called Kumaré, in which he adopts the persona of a Hindu guru named Sri Kumaré, and gathering a small New Age flock. At the end of the film, he reveals the prank he has played on these earnest seekers of wisdom, the "Great Unveiling." Despite its moral and ethical problems, reviewer Erik Davis at Aeon, calls it "one of the more thought-provoking and unexpected takes on the dynamics of modern spirituality."

The review is very lengthy and well worth the read - here are a couple of snippet to pique your interest.

Trickster and tricked

All gurus try to undermine their followers' egos and expectations, so does it matter if the teacher is a real fraud?

Erik Davis
18 January 2013

Meeting with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Photo by Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos

~ Erik Davis is a writer, culture critic and independent scholar. His latest book is Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica. He lives in San Francisco.
Kumaré provides a number of easy yucks and painful gotcha moments. But in a manner that Gandhi himself did not seem to anticipate, his story winds up being more emotionally nuanced and even charming than its prankster précis implies. 
Rather than setting up an atheist’s honey-pot, Gandhi actually staged something more interesting, and more ambiguous: a theatre of awakening that transforms himself as well as his students. His sceptical and rather self-serving prank turns out, from a certain angle, to be weirdly spiritual, stirring up, at least for people familiar with modern gurus such as Gurdjieff or Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the prickly conundrums of trickster spirituality. The irony is that it’s not clear that Gandhi himself really grokked the implications of his ruse, or the depths contained within his alter-ego’s self-reflexive teaching that ‘you are your own guru’. To do that, one needs to undo Gandhi’s origami fold of artifice and authenticity in a way that his documentary, with its refusal of real analysis, does not.
* * * * * * *
Here, then, is the greatest irony of Kumaré: what appears on the surface to be a debunking of gurus winds up underscoring the ongoing resilience of seeker spirituality. Placing Gandhi’s experiment within the sort of informed historical context that Gandhi himself was not willing (or able) to provide, Kumaré might be seen as a goofy, low-calorie echo of crazy 20th-century gurus such as Aleister Crowley, Gurdjieff and Rajneesh, all of them mystical tricksters who aggressively played with the expectations and projections of their students. With his shadowy past and constantly shifting set of personas, Gurdjieff regularly booby-trapped the teaching environment with unexpected and sometimes outrageous behavior. He believed that authentic awakening required ‘shocks’ (not unlike the Great Unveiling), and would reportedly hire aggressively annoying people to show up at spiritual gatherings just to push people’s buttons. 
Though all these men were spiritual authoritarians whose very real excesses (and duplicities) have led some to reject categorically the idea of the guru, they were also influential pioneers of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ sensibility that has become so widespread in the contemporary world. One of the reasons the trickster plays an important role in this evolving spiritual culture is that an important current in that culture uses scepticism, disenchantment, and even pranks as opportunities for liberation — the swords that slaughter the Buddhas you meet on the road.

TED Book: Radical Openness by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams

This new offering from TED Books looks interesting, Radical Openness: Four Unexpected Principles for Success. And at only $2.99 for the e-reader versions (for the Kindle), quite affordable.

A brand new TED Book: Radical Openness

17 January 2013

At TEDGlobal 2012, Don Tapscott gave us an beautiful metaphor for how society could function: like a starling murmuration. By flying as a group — dipping and diving as a single unit — starlings successfully ward off predators through cooperation. While there is leadership, there is no discernable leader.

Tapscott shares much more of his vision of cooperation in the new TED Book, Radical Openness: Four Unexpected Principles for Success. In it, Tapscott — with co-author Anthony Williams — looks at how, around the world, people are connecting and collaborating in new ways. They give examples of how smart organizations are shunning their old, secretive practices and embracing the values of transparency and collaboration. Meanwhile, movements for freedom of information are exploding like never before. Overall, Tapscott and Williams show how this new philosophy is affecting many facets of our society, from the way we do business to whom we chose to govern us.

But while radical openness promises many exciting transformations, it also comes with new risks and responsibilities. Tapscott and Williams ask: How much information should we share and with whom? And what are the consequences of disclosing the intimate, unvarnished details of our businesses and personal lives?

Radical Openness is available for the Kindle and Nook, as well as through the iBookstore. Or download the TED Books app for your iPad or iPhone. A subscription costs $4.99 a month, and is an all-you-can-read buffet.
Check out Tapscott’s 2012 TED Talk.

Ken Wilber - Response to Critical Theory in Defense of Integral Theory

Apparently the long drought of new writing from integral philosopher Ken Wilber has come to an end, which can only mean his health has improved considerably - that alone is great news. He says he has completed Sex, Karma, Creativity, which is volume 2 of the Kosmos Trilogy, first volume being Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1996).

These pieces are two long endnotes, and one excerpt, written "in response to recent articles on Critical Theory and Integral Theory, and, while appreciating certain aspects of Critical Theory, come out strongly in favor of Integral Theory." As Bruce Alderman mentions in his post about these new excerpts, Wilber likely means "critical realism" in his title, which is a very different thing than critical theory.

For clarity, critical realism "highlights a mind-dependent aspect of the world, which reaches to understand (and comes to understanding of) the mind independent world." Wilber's main point here, with which I disagree, is that CR in hardly integral because he denies the role of consciousness in the evolution of the universe - he describes the CR position as "ripping consciousness out of the Kosmos and leaving “the real” to be merely a denuded “ontology”."

What fails to be mentioned here is that we can combine CR philosophy - the idea that there is an ontologically "real" universe out there, the mind independent world - with the fields of emergence and complex adaptive systems, thereby removing the anthropocentric necessity of consciousness being an organizing principle of the universe.


January 17th, 2013

The following are two long endnotes, and one excerpt, from my recently finished book, Sex, Karma, Creativity, which is volume 2 of the Kosmos Trilogy, whose first volume is Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. They were written, in part, in response to recent articles on Critical Theory and Integral Theory, and, while appreciating certain aspects of Critical Theory, come out strongly in favor of Integral Theory. –Ken Wilber

Chapter “Individual and Social,” endnote 4:

[1] 4. Integral Theory (IT) and Critical Realism (CR) share many items in common, but there are some deep differences as well. To begin with, Critical Realism separates epistemology and ontology, and makes ontology the level of the “real”; whereas, for Integral Theory, epistemology and ontology cannot so be fragmented and fractured, but rather are two correlative dimensions of every Whole occasion (part of the tetra-dimension of every holon). Realism maintains that there are ontological realities that are not dependent upon humans or human theories—including much of the level of the “real”—including items such as atoms, molecules, cells, etc.—and IT agrees, with one important difference: IT is panpsychic (a term I’m not fond of, preferring “pan‑interiorist,” meaning all beings have interiors or proto-consciousness, a la Whitehead, Peirce, Leibnitz, etc.)—to wit, atoms do not depend upon being known by humans, but they do depend upon being known by each other. The “prehension” aspect of atoms (proto-knowing, proto-feeling, proto-consciousness) helps to co-enact the being or ontology aspect of the atoms for each other—their own epistemology and ontology are thus inseparable and co-creative. The atom’s prehension is part of its very ontology (and vice versa), and as each atom prehends its predecessor, it is instrumental in bringing it forth or enacting it, just as its own being will depend in part on being prehended/known/included by its own successor. If, for the moment, we leave Quantum Mechanics out of the picture (see below), none of this depends on humans for its existence or being, and yet the atom’s prehension-feeling-knowing is an intrinsic part of this level of the “real.” Consciousness is not something that can be sucked out of being to leave an awareness-free “ontology” lying around waiting to be known by some other sentient being; consciousness, rather, goes all the way down, and forms part of the intrinsic awareness and intrinsic creativity of each ontological being or holon. Whitehead’s “ultimate category”—namely, “the creative advance into novelty”—is part of the prehension of each and every being in existence, and the creative-part cannot be ripped from the being‑part without severe violence. To postulate the most fundamental level of reality as merely ontology—being without knowing or consciousness or creativity—is basically a 1st-tier move that shatters the Wholeness of this and every real occasion.

Likewise, spiritual transcendence (Eros) reaches all the way down as well. In IT’s neoWhiteheadian view, each new moment comes to be as a subject (with all 4 quadrants), and it prehends (tetra-prehends) its predecessor, which is now an object (in all 4 quadrants) for this new subject. The new subject “transcends and includes” the old subject (now as object), and thus they mutually co-create each other: the old subject that is now object and is included in the new subject helps shape the new subject itself, by the simple fact of being included in it, actually embraced by it, and thus to some degree determining it. Likewise, the new subject, in including the old subject, is instrumental in bringing it forth or enacting it, co-creating its very being as a new object as it does so—and the new subject then adds its own degree of creativity, consciousness, or novelty, and thus actually co-creates a new being in the very act of prehensive unification. This “transcend and include” goes all the way down to the smallest micro‑subatomic particles, and all way through the actual meso developmental levels (where, as Kegan puts it for human development, “the subject of one level becomes the object of the subject of the next”—which is the meso view of Whitehead’s prehension—namely, that “the subject of this moment becomes the object of the subject of the next”—but acting now on a larger, higher, more complex, more conscious level), and all the way to the macro practices of meditation, where transcendence is the overall goal and occurs through the objectification of state-stages from gross to subtle to causal to True Self to ultimate Spirit (with each state-stage transcending and including its predecessor—the subject of one becoming the object of the next). This Eros (which certainly can be viewed as spiritual) is a primary driver of evolution itself, starting all the way back with the Big Bang and all the way through to ultimate Enlightenment. As Erich Jantsch put it, evolution is “self-organization through self-transcendence,” and that “transcend and include” is the very form of the moment-to-moment unfolding of reality.

Further, what CR describes as “real”—or “the intransitive level”—is actually and mostly turquoise reality. This is not the same “real” that is found at the red level, the amber level, the orange level, the green level, or the indigo level. If CR described what it meant by “ontology” to someone at red, they would flatly disagree, with CR’s version of ontology being “over their heads.” In fact, what most sophisticated thinkers today call “ontology” is actually the turquoise level of being-consciousness—and not as a mere description, but a real ontic-epistemic structure of the universe. These levels of being-consciousness are not just levels of a human being, but levels of the Kosmos itself (and those different levels are different worlds!). So I am certainly not saying that this “turquoise reality” or ontology isn’t real, only that it is inseparable from the prehensive-knowing-consciousness of the turquoise level of being-consciousness itself. There is no way around this—precisely because of panpsychism (such as subscribed to by Leibnitz, Whitehead, or Peirce). The turquoise level looks at the atomic level, the molecular level, the cellular biological level, etc., and concludes they have a reality in and of themselves—an ontology—but not only is it describing those levels as what they look like from turquoise—even if we ignore that part—they are overlooking the prehensive-consciousness-knowing dimension of the atoms, molecules, and cells themselves, an epistemic dimension that co-creates the ontic dimension with the being aspect of those holons (and vice versa)—again, epistemology and ontology are two different dimensions of the same Wholeness of the real occasion, and cannot be fragmented without genuine violence to the Kosmos.

Thus, for example, take molecules during the magic era. “Molecules” did not “ex-ist” (meaning, “stand out”) anywhere in the magic world—there was nothing in the consciousness of individuals at magic that corresponded with “molecules.” But we moderns—we at turquoise—assume that the molecules existed nonetheless—if they didn’t ex-ist, they did what we might call subsist (I agree). This is similar to CR’s transitive (ex-ist) and intransitive (subsist)—with one major exception: as noted, IT is panpsychic—epistemology and ontology—consciousness and being—cannot be torn asunder. What we call “pre-human ontology” is actually a pre-human sentient holon’s epistemic-ontic Wholeness, and not merely a disembodied, floating, “view-from-nowhere” ontology. A molecule’s prehension-knowing-proto-feeling is an inseparable part of its being-ontological makeup at the molecular level, and both are necessary to co-create each other. Ignoring prehension (and consciousness) just leaves ontology-being for the molecule, and epistemology-consciousness is just given to humans (or higher mammals), not to all sentient beings—they only get being, not knowing. But if a human consciousness-knowing is not involved in co-creating the ontology of atoms, molecules, or cells, their own consciousness-prehension is involved, all the way down (a la Peirce and Whitehead).

Further, when we actually get down to explaining what this subsistence reality is—the “real”—it changes with each new structure (red, amber, orange, green, etc.). What we glibly call “atoms” ex-ist at orange; those become sub-subatomic particles at green (mesons, bosons, gluons, etc.); those become 8-fold-way quarks at teal; those become 11-dimensional strings at turquoise. We can’t say what the atomic level is except from some structure of being-consciousness, and each structure discloses a new ontology, a new world. (That ontology is there, is real, but is co-created by the prehensive holons at that level.) Again, this is not to reduce ontology to epistemology, but rather claim they are complementary aspects of the same Whole occasion. (In short, I disagree with both Kant and Bhaskar—or I agree with them both, depending on how you look at it.)

This reminds me of Varela and Maturana’s brilliant analysis of the world (the “reality”) of a frog. Prior to Varela and Maturana, most biologists followed some form of eco-systems theory and described the reality of the frog as existing in various systems of nature. But Varela and Maturana pointed out that that was actually what the frog’s reality looked like from the scientist’s point of view, but not from the frog’s. The frog’s “view from within” (zone #1) consisted only of various patches of color and motion, smells and sounds; it did not have the cognitive capacity to stand outside itself and picture the entire system of which it was a part—only the scientist did that (using zone #8). Reality, for the frog, was the immediate view from zone #1, and the best the scientist could do was attempt to capture that using zone #5—a 3p x 1-p x 3p—namely, the objective scientist, while studying an objective organism (3p), attempts to take the organism’s “view from within” or “biological phenomenology” (1-p)—two phrases Varela often used. Varela pointed out that this “view from within” was not the actual 1st-person view of the frog itself that the scientist is directly observing (that would be the frog’s zone #1), but the exterior version of the frog’s inner view (or zone #5; i.e., the view from the inside of the UR, not the inside of the UL). The point is that the frog enacts its own reality—its own epistemology or consciousness brings forth and co-creates its own ontology or world (the closest to which the scientist can get is zone #5)—and the scientist himself likewise enacts, or can enact, his own view of the frog’s reality, which many scientists believe is generally a systems view (#zone 8), but more truthfully is a zone #5 version. But in both cases, the being and knowing are two dimensions of the same actual occasion, whatever it is. But merely using a systems view is a deeply anthropocentric view of the frog’s real world, and claiming to know the frog’s actual world (zone #1) by using the scientist’s tools (zone #8) does grave violence to the frog’s actual interior.

Thus, according to IT, the level of the “real” described by CR doesn’t exist as CR describes it. Rather, in IT’s view, in actuality it is either the product of both the prehensive-feeling-knowing plus holonic-being-isness of each of the holons at the particular level of the real being described (e.g., quarks, atoms, molecules, genetics) and their relations—all of which are tetra-enacted and tetra-evolved; and/or it is the result of the way the world emerges and is tetra-enacted at and from a particular level of consciousness-being (e.g., turquoise) of the scientist. In the latter case, the real is not created by its mere description by the particular level of consciousness-being, but rather actually emerges as a level of the real with the emergence of the deep structures of the particular level of being-consciousness. (Again, these levels of being-consciousness are not just levels of human beings but levels of the real Kosmos.) These levels of being-consciousness (red, amber, orange, green, turquoise, et.) are not different interpretations of a one, single, pregiven reality or world, but are themselves actually different worlds in deep structure (an infrared world, a red world, an amber world, an orange world, a green world, a turquoise world, etc., each of which is composed of Nature’s or Kosmic habits tetra-created by the sentient holons at those levels, as are atomic, molecular, cellular, etc. worlds).

The deep structures of these worlds are the nondual epistemic-ontic Whole occasions, but this doesn’t prevent them from being fallible when it comes to humans’ attempts at disclosing and discovering and describing the real characteristics of the Whole; i.e., the surface epistemic-ontic approaches are fallible (which is one of the reasons that multiple methodologies—epistemologies that co-enact and co-create correlative ontologies—and vice versa)—are so important: the more methodologies used, the likelier the deeper Wholeness (the deeper unity of being-consciousness) will be accurately disclosed and enacted in more of its dimensions.

These deep features of the real are—a la Peirce—not eternal pregiven realities of a one world, but Nature’s habits that have been engraved in the universe through the interaction of semiotic-sentient beings (that go all the way down—including quarks and atoms—which is why there are proto-conscious-feeling-knowing beings present from the start to actually create habits—they are living and conscious beings capable of forming habits!—instead of prehension-free ontologies that have no living choices, and thus must blindly obey laws, something both Peirce and I, among others, find unintelligible. Further, according to Peirce, it is the fact that each semiotic being—all the way down—has in its tripartite makeup an interpretant that means the holon’s being is determined in part by interpretation, all the way down—and this, he says, is “inescapable”).

Which brings us to another point. Originally, CR was created as a way to explain and justify the results of scientific experiments (as Karl Popper asked, paraphrasing, “How is it that science actually works? It works because there is a real ontology that can rebuff it”). But it is not clear at all that the types of realities disclosed by science and scientific experiments are the same ones that work with morals, hermeneutics, aesthetics, and introspection, to name a few of the multiple methodologies that exist out there and address different object domains and zones. To claim that only scientific experiments give “real” results is perilously close to scientism, and simply adding other disciplines on top of science is actually to reduce those dimensions to merely scientific methodology itself. Reducing all dimensions to science certainly strikes me as being far from an integral move. I am much more satisfied with the (at least) 8 fundamental methodologies that disclose different object domains (and whose injunctions or paradigms enact or bring forth or co-create those various domains, which, again, are not just lying around out there waiting to be stumbled on by a scientific methodology—that belief is what Sellars calls “the myth of the given.”)

(More recently, Bhaskar has introduced spiritual realities and consciousness into his scheme. But dumping consciousness on top of an ontological scheme that was developed without it is, well, cheating. The whole scheme has to be done over, using consciousness as an intrinsic part of the scheme from the very beginning, and not simply importing it after the scheme has been developed without it. The chances that the scheme will have anything real to do with actual consciousness is slim indeed, as consciousness becomes a dues ex machina to the main frame.)

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least briefly mention the claims made on behalf of Quantum Mechanics (QM), which has, if nothing else, been taken as the most successfully precise scientific model ever invented (one estimate put it at a million times more precise than Newtonian physics). The central concern of QM centers around what is called the “collapse of the wave packet” (which means, simplistically, this: around 1925-6, both Heisenberg and Schroedinger came up with a set of mathematical equations describing the existence of a subatomic particle. Heisenberg’s was a complicated S‑matrix equation, and Schroedinger’s a simpler calculus wave. They were quickly shown to be interchangeable in results, and thus Schroedinger’s wave equation, being the simpler of the two, soon became the standard form of QM—“the collapse of the wave packet” refers to the collapse of Schroedinger’s wave equation version). Max Planck (who had introduced the quantum revolution in 1905 by suggesting that energy does not come in a continuum but rather exists in discrete packets or quanta) noticed that if you take the square of the results of the Schroedinger equation, you would get the probability of the specific location (and/or a set of other characteristics) of the particle in question (but you get only two characteristics at a time—and—the catch—the more you find of one, the less you can find of the other). The results of this inability to determine both variables was able to be put in a precise form as what became famously known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which basically brought an end to strict causality in the physical sciences (and presumably removed “causality” from the Realists level of the “real”). But the real kicker came from the fact that, prior to actually measuring the particle to gain some information about it, the particle existed only as a probability—you literally couldn’t say it existed or it didn’t exist. Moreover, the type of measurement that you performed on the particle determined the type of being that you actually evoked—different measuring methods gave you different beings with different qualities. This lead John Wheeler to say that we lived in a “participatory-observation” universe. QM has now been found applicable in scales from the very smallest to the very largest, as well as in brain interactions, biology, etc., and remains, for what it does, “the most successful physical theory of all time.”

What is remarkable about this theory is how firmly it unites epistemology and ontology—the two, in fact, co-evoke each other. A different epistemology brings forth a different ontology, and a different ontology will correlate with a specific and different epistemology—each of them, as it were, bringing forth the correlative dimension (or co-creating it).

I don’t want to over-emphasize the role of QM in Integral Theory. I do want to point out, however, that—starting with Karl Popper—the role of science in CR has been pervasive, but science has been changing in profound ways that CR seems not to have kept up with. If ever there was a case of “means of knowing” governing in many ways “modes of being,” QM is it, undeniably. And given that QM is the most successful physical theory in history, one’s “ontology” should probably line up with it.

I might mention that it’s not just the existence of the 4 quadrants that is important—many theorists include the 4 quadrants—but rather their being 4 different dimensions of the same occasion, moment to moment, that is distinctive with IT. The 4 quadrants, further, go all the way down, and this means that consciousness itself goes all the way down, as in intrinsic part of the very fabric of the Kosmos itself. This is what sets Integral Theory apart from so many other theories. Aspects of consciousness—which itself is primarily an opening or clearing in which subjective and objective phenomena can emerge—include:

—creativity (as part of the very opening in which newness and novelty can appear, and the means by which it can appear)

—an automatic epistemic-prehension of the preceding moment (which co-creates or helps bring forth the being or ontology of the present moment—its being “grasped” is what brings it forth, and its being prehended by an interpretant, a la Peirce, is what gives the unavoidable interpretive twist to its being)

—while, at the same time, the include part (of transcend and include) means the previous moment, once subject but now object of the new subject, is included or literally taken into the being of the new subject, thus altering the new subject’s very being or ontology in the specific act of inclusion—again, epistemology-consciousness and holonic-being are co-creative and co-determining as two aspects of the Whole real occasion. Sucking epistemic-consciousness-feeling out of the holon, leaving only its dead and denuded being or ontology is effectively to kill the being in question, and anthropocentrically to transfer all the epistemic-knowing-feeling-consciousness dimensions to humans alone, who then propose theories about this denuded level of being that they call “the real.” This is tragic.

—also, as regards the “include” part of “transcend and include”—while the transcend part is Eros, or Spirit-in-action (or Spirit-in-self-organization), and is injecting Spiritual creativity into every moment (thus making evolution “self-organization through self-transcendence,” as Erich Jantsch put it)—while that is happening, the include part is taking care of those aspects generally known as “causality” and induction. If the degree of creativity or novelty in a holon-being is extremely small (as with, say, a quark), then the previous moment’s including component will be by far the strongest determinant of the new subject, and the new subject will seem completely deterministic (having little creativity to counter the causality). But Whitehead points out that no being’s creativity is absolutely zero, only vanishingly small, and thus strict determinism or strict causality doesn’t exist (the same as maintained by QM). Further, the higher on the Great Nest that a holon appears, the more novelty and creativity it possesses—so a physicist can predict where Uranus will be, more or less, a 1000 years from now, but no biologist can tell you where my dog will be 1 minute from now. But for those holon-beings with little creativity, the “transcend and include” mechanics accounts for an answer to Hume’s critique of both causality and induction (i.e., accounts for their existence, even as both become less and less the higher the degree of development and evolution).

I do want to repeat that there is much in CR that I appreciate. I particularly appreciate having an ally against the relativism of extreme postmodernism (even if, alas, I still find problems in how CR goes about doing this, by ripping consciousness out of the Kosmos and leaving “the real” to be merely a denuded “ontology”). But its heart is in the right place, one might say, and Bhaskar himself is a truly extraordinary human being, and everything a philosopher should be, in my humble opinion (it reminds me, somewhat grandiosely, I guess, of what Habermas said about Foucault after their famous meeting—“He’s a real philosopher”—praise indeed from Habermas). The funny thing is, several theorists have pointed out how CR and IT can be brought into general (and even quite close) agreement, with a few fundamental changes: me, accept ontology as “the real”; and CR, accepting epistemic-ontic as correlative dimensions of the same actual Wholeness of sentient holons going all the way down. As I read CR, I keep seeing it subtly—very subtly—reducing everything to ultimate anchorage in the essentially prehension-free Right-Hand quadrants (and I’m sure CR sees IT as subtly reducing everything to the Left-Hand quadrants). But my position is, and remains, that all 4 quadrants are equally real, equally present, tetra-enacting, and tetra-evolving, and anything less than that (along with levels, lines, states, and types, fulcrums and switch-points, Integral Methodological Pluralism, and Integral Post-Metaphysics) can scarcely be called “integral.”
Read the other two excerpts, beginning here.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Nassim Nicholas Taleb Talks About Antifragile at the RSA

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is the author of Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder - in this video he talks about the book at The RSA. This video is only a highlights reel, so if you would like to hear the whole discussion, listen to the podcast (linked to below).

Nassim Nicholas Taleb Talks About Antifragile at the RSA

06 Dec 2012

Radical philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb offers a blueprint for how to live - and thrive - in a world we don't understand, and which is too uncertain for us to even try to predict.
Discussant: Rohan Silva, senior policy adviser to the Prime Minister at No 10 Downing Street.
Chair: Fraser Nelson, editor, The Spectator

Ravel Plays Ravel: The Haunting, Melancholy ‘Oiseaux Tristes,’ 1922

Brief but beautiful . . . from Open Culture. Maurice Ravel is one of my favorite composers for the piano, and his Piano Concerto in G Major (included at no extra charge below this post) is probably my favorite composition of all time - not for its technical brilliance, although there is that, but for its unabashed joy.

Ravel Plays Ravel: The Haunting, Melancholy ‘Oiseaux Tristes,’ 1922

January 17th, 2013

Yesterday we featured a piano-roll recording of the French composer Claude Debussy playing his “La soirée dans Grenade” in 1913. Today we bring you a lyrical and melancholy work recorded in 1922 on a similar device by Debussy’s younger friend and rival, Maurice Ravel. It’s called ”Oiseaux tristes,” or “Sad birds.”

The impetus for composing the piece came in 1904, when Ravel heard a second-hand account of something Debussy had said. According to Alexis Roland-Manuel, Ravel’s friend and biographer, Debussy had told the pianist Ricardo Viñes that when writing his experimental piece, “D’un cahier d’esquisses,” he had been “dreaming of a kind of music whose form was so free that it would sound improvised, of works which would seem to have been torn out of a sketchbook.” Viñes recounted Debussy’s statement at a meeting of “Les Apaches,” a group of radical writers, artists and musicians, of which Ravel was a member. Ravel responded by saying that he was ready to put Debussy’s dream into action. He drew his inspiration from an experience he had one morning in the forest at Fontainbleau. Ravel’s friend and former music school classmate Émile Vuillermoz remembered:
He was staying with friends and one morning he heard a blackbird whistling a tune and was enchanted by its elegant, melancholy arabesque. He had merely to transcribe this tune accurately, without changing a note, to produce the limpid, poetic piece which spiritualises the nostalgic call of this French brother of the Forest Bird in Siegfried.
After the meeting, Ravel set to work on the E-Flat Minor “Oiseaux tristes,” which he dedicated to Viñes and included in his five-piece suite, Miroirs. “Oiseaux tristes is the most typical of my way of thinking,” Ravel wrote in his 1928 autobiographical sketch. “It evokes birds lost in the oppressiveness of a very dark forest during the hottest hours of summer.”

Ravel recorded “Oiseaux tristes” and four other pieces in London on June 30, 1922, using a Duo-Art reproducing piano. Unlike the Welte-Mignon machine used by Debussy in 1913 (Ravel also made a pair of recordings on the Welte-Mignon at about the same time as Debussy) the Duo-Art system did not automatically record the dynamics of the performance. So when Ravel played “Oiseaux tristes” at the studio in London, there was an engineer seated next to him at a console, turning dials to capture the dynamic modulations in his playing. Afterward, Ravel listened to a playback on a pianola and, satisfied with the results, signed his name on the original roll.

Maurice Ravel: Piano Concreto in G Major, Hélène Grimaud, pianist.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Lux Aeterna: A Journey of Light, From Distant Galaxies to Small Drops of Water

Beautiful . . . from Open Culture.

Lux Aeterna: A Journey of Light, From Distant Galaxies to Small Drops of Water

January 17th, 2013

In years past, we’ve shared with you two animations by Cristóbal Vila — first Nature by Numbers, which captured the ways in which mathematical concepts (Fibonacci Sequence, Golden Number, etc.) reveal themselves in nature. And then Inspirations, a short film celebrating the mathematical art of M.C. Escher. Now Vila returns with Lux Aeterna, a 3D study of light. On his web site, Vila describes the essence of the film.

[It's] a look at light from several points of view. On one side it’s a powerful radiation emitted by the most distant stars in the universe, and also by our Sun; light floods everywhere in nature, from the largest things to the smallest, creating interesting and beautiful effects; humans always used light as a symbolic and spiritual element; and it’s an intriguing physical phenomenon deeply studied by science too.

Vila’s site also hosts a series of screenshots that take you into the making of the film. Down the line, the Spanish artist plans to record a series of video tutorials in Spanish fully demonstrating the creative process. If you follow him on Twitter or Facebook, he’ll let you know when they’re ready for viewing. Incidentally, you can catch Open Culture on Twitter andFacebook too. Hope to see you there.

Aaron Swartz - Guerilla Open Access Manifesto (July 2008)

Must reading . . . Aaron Swartz died for these beliefs, for opposing the privatization of knowledge.

Guerilla Open Access Manifesto by Aaron Swartz July 2008

Posted on January 15, 2013
by OrsanSenalp

  1. Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.
  2. There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.
  3. That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.
  4. “I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it’s perfectly legal — there’s nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is something we can, something that’s already being done: we can fight back.
  5. Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.
  6. Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.
  7. But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.
  8. Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.
  9. There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.
  10. We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.
  11. With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?

Aaron Swartz
July 2008, Eremo, Italy

NPR's On Being - The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi

From Krista Tippett's NPR show, On Being, a wonderful episode from last spring (2012) on the poetry and faith of the Sufi master, Rumi. Enjoy!


March 8, 2012

The 13th-century Muslim mystic and poet Rumi has long shaped Muslims around the world and has now become popular in the West. Rumi created a new language of love within the Islamic mystical tradition of Sufism. We hear his poetry as we delve into his world and listen for its echoes in our own.

Voices on the Radio

Fatemeh Keshavarz - Keshavarz is professor of Persian & Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, and the author of several books, including Reading Mystical Lyric: The Case of Jalal aI-Din Rumi.

Additional Unheard Cuts: Rumi

A Great Wagon

When I see your face, the stones start spinning!
You appear; all studying wanders.
I lose my place.

Water turns pearly.
Fire dies down and doesn't destroy.

In your presence I don't want what I thought
I wanted, those three little hanging lamps.

Inside your face the ancient manuscripts
Seem like rusty mirrors.

You breathe; new shapes appear,
and the music of a desire as widespread
as Spring begins to move
like a great wagon.
Drive slowly.
Some of us walking alongside
are lame!


Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.


Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense.


The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.

I would love to kiss you.
The price of kissing is your life.

Now my loving is running toward my life shouting,
What a bargain, let's buy it.


Daylight, full of small dancing particles
and the one great turning, our souls
are dancing with you, without feet, they dance.
Can you see them when I whisper in your ear?


They try to say what you are, spiritual or sexual?
They wonder about Solomon and all his wives.

In the body of the world, they say, there is a soul
and you are that.

But we have ways within each other
that will never be said by anyone.


Come to the orchard in Spring.
There is light and wine, and sweethearts
in the pomegranate flowers.

If you do not come, these do not matter.
If you do come, these do not matter.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Brené Brown - Shame vs. Guilt

I had to share this recent post from Brené Brown's (Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead and The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are among other books) Ordinary Courage blog on shame versus guilt.

She explicates the basic point I have been making here for years - guilt is the sense that I have done something wrong, and it can help us change and grow, it's adaptive (as Brown says below); shame is the sense that I am wrong, and it keeps us stuck in suffering, it's crippling.

shame v. guilt

monday, january 14, 2013
Based on my research and the research of other shame researchers, I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful - it's holding something we've done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging - something we've experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

I don't believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.

From Daring Greatly:

I believe the differences between shame and guilt are critical in informing everything from the way we parent and engage in relationships, to the way we give feedback at work and school.

From Daring Greatly

A couple of weeks ago Steve McCready (a friend on Twitter) sent me a link to a fascinating blog post from researcher Dan Ariely. I love Dan's work and highly recommend his book, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonestly.

In a set of experiments, the researchers investigate a very subtle difference in language and labeling. They don't look at it through the shame/guilt lens so we may be evaluating different constructs, but I think it's very interesting (although counter to what I've found and believe).

"In a series of three experiments, participants were given a chance to claim unearned money at the expense of the researchers. There were two conditions in each experiment, and the only difference between them was in the wording of the instructions. In the first condition participants were told that researchers were interested in “how common cheating is on college campuses,” while in the second, they wondered “how common cheaters are on college campuses.

This is a subtle but, as it turned out, significant difference. Participants in the “cheating” condition claimed significantly more cash than those in the “cheater” condition, who, similar to when we tempted people who had sworn on the bible, did not cheat at all. This was true in both face-to-face and online interactions, indicating that relative anonymity cannot displace the implications of self-identifying as a cheater. People may allow themselves to cheat sometimes, but not if it involves identifying themselves as Cheaters."

I believe that if we want meaningful, lasting change we need to get clear on the differences between shame and guilt and call for an end to shame as tool for change. That also means moving away from labeling.

What do y'all think? What's been your experience? Could Dan's research tell us how to motivate better behavior while the findings about shame and guilt point to the danger of labeling in the process of changing behavior? Lots of good questions! I heart my job (and my grad students who push me).

The RSA - Unleashing Greatness: Getting the best from an academised system

The RSA has released a new report, Unleashing greatness: Getting the best from an academised system, which is available for a free download at the included link. To Launch the RSA / Pearson Think Tank Academies Commission final report, Christine Gilbert, former Head of Ofsted presents the key recommendations of the report, following consideration of evidence submitted since May 2012.
Unleashing greatness: Getting the best from an academised system

The scale and speed of the Academies programme is dramatic: from 2003 academies in May 2010 the total number had reached 2456 by November 2012. The Academies commission was asked to consider both the impact of the academies programme to date and what should happen when the majority of schools may be academies. The Commission’s report, published here, looks at the opportunities and risks associated with academisation, and makes important recommendations as to how further change might be implemented so that all children and young people experience the benefits of academisation.

Dowload Unleashing greatness: Getting the best from an academised system (PDF 3.4MB)
Here is the talk given by Ms. Gilbert:
Unleashing Greatness?

10th Jan 2013

Listen to the audio
(full recording including audience Q&A)
Please right-click link and choose "Save Link As..." to download audio file onto your computer.

Launch of the RSA / Pearson Think Tank Academies Commission final report 

Christine Gilbert, former Head of Ofsted presents the key recommendations of the RSA / Pearson Think Tank Academies Commission, following consideration of evidence submitted since May 2012.

An expert panel will examine the new educational landscape which has emerged with the implementation of the academies programme and discuss responsibilities for teachers, governors, parents and policymakers.

Discussants to include: Andreas Schleicher, deputy director of education, OECD; Dr Vanessa Ogden, headteacher, Mulberry School for Girls; and David Carter, executive principal, Cabot Learning Federation

Chair: Matthew Taylor, chief executive, RSA

Read the Report: Unleashing greatness: Getting the best from an academised system

Suggested hashtag for Twitter users: #acadcomm

The Academies Commission

Set up by the RSA and the Pearson Think Tank, with sponsorship from The Cooperative and CfBT, the ‘Speed Commission’ is chaired by former Head of Ofsted Professor Christine Gilbert. She is joined by Commissioners Professor Chris Husbands (Director of the Institute of Education), and Brett Wigdortz (CEO, TeachFirst).

The Commission addressed two principal questions: What are the implications of complete academisation for school improvement and pupil attainment? How can improvement and attainment best be secured within an academised system? As such it focuses on issues of governance and accountability, and on outcomes for all pupils.

2013 Edge Question: What *Should* We Be Worried About?

It's that time of year again, when John Brockman, founder of Edge, asks leading thinkers in a variety of fields to answer a burning question. Previous questions have included the following:
This years question, posed to 152 contributors (but only 151 responses), is What *Should* We Be Worried About?

Gary Marcus, writing for The New Yorker, asked himself the question.

January 15, 2013


Gary Marcus

...This year, Brockman’s panelists (myself included) agreed to take on the subject of what we should fear. There’s the fiscal cliff, the continued European economic crisis, the perpetual tensions in the Middle East. But what about the things that may happen in twenty, fifty, or a hundred years? The premise, as the science historian George Dyson put it, is that “people tend to worry too much about things that it doesn’t do any good to worry about, and not to worry enough about things we should be worrying about.” A hundred fifty contributors wrote essays for the project. The result is a recently published collection, “What *Should* We Be Worried About?” available without charge at John Brockman’s ... [MORE]
Marcus is one of the many contributors to this year's question. However, the best response that I have read so far, and I am only skimming them this morning before working out, is from Monty Python alum and brilliant filmmaker, Terry Gilliam:

I've Given Up Asking Questions

Terry Gilliam - Screenwriter, Film director, Animator, Actor; Member, Monty Python Comedy Troupe; Director, Brazil; Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas 
I've given up asking questions. l merely float on a tsunami of acceptance of anything life throws at me... and marvel stupidly.
Nice - I'm guessing this is the one non-response. Enjoy the other answers.


Contributors [ 152 ] | View All Responses [ 151 ]

—John Naughton, The Observer


We worry because we are built to anticipate the future. Nothing can stop us from worrying, but science can teach us how to worry better, and when to stop worrying.


Tell us something that worries you (for scientific reasons), but doesn't seem to be on the popular radar yet—and why it should be. Or tell us something that you have stopped worrying about, even if others do, and why it should be taken off the radar.



Geoffrey Miller, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, William McEwan, Helena Cronin, Dan Sperber, Martin Rees, Barbara Strauch, John Tooby, David Gelernter, Brian Eno, Seth Lloyd, W. Daniel Hillis, David M. Buss, David Bodanis, Benjamin Bergen, David Rowan, Nicholas G. Carr, Kevin Kelly, Lisa Randall, Evgeny Morozov, J. Craig Venter, Andrian Kreye, Terry Gilliam, Jennifer Jacquet, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Robert Sapolsky, Kate Jeffery, Lawrence Krauss, Tim O'Reilly, Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán, Bart Kosko, Timo Hannay, Helen Fisher, Michael Norton, Jessica Tracy, Haim Harari, Bruce Sterling, Vernor Vinge, Frank Wilczek, Sam Harris, Lee Smolin, P. Murali Doraiswamy, Marco Iacoboni, Andrew Lih, Richard Foreman, Arianna Huffington, Xeni Jardin, Christine Finn, Scott Sampson, Gino Segre, Joseph LeDoux, John Naughton, Steven Strogatz, Bruce Schneier, Kai Krause,Mario Livio, Rolf Dobelli, Randolph Nesse, Gregory Benford, Ursula Martin, David Berreby, Bruce Parker, Paul Saffo, Bruce Hood, Giulio Boccaletti, Stewart A. Kaufman, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, William Poundstone, Victoria Stodden, Marcel Kinsbourne, Douglas T. Kenrick, Gavin Schmidt, Sherry Turkle, Stuart Firestein, Ed Regis, Daniel Haun, Joel Gold, Alison Gopnik, Seirian Sumner, Keith Devlin, Susan Blackmore, Larry Sanger, Gary Klein, Dave Winer, Rob Kurzban, Melanie Swan, Timothy Taylor, Amanda Gefter, Anton Zeilinger, Donald D. Hoffman, Leo M. Chalupa, Noga Arikha, Brian Knutson, Kirsten Bomblies, Tor Nørretranders, Jonathan Gottschall, Esther Dyson, Anthony Garrett Lisi, Simon Baron-Cohen, Daniel L. Everett, Nicholas A. Christakis, Stephon Alexander, Margaret Levi, Stephen Kosslyn & Robin Rosenberg, David Dalrymple, Andy Clark, Seth Shostak, Azra Raza, M.D., David Pizarro, Tania Lombrozo, Adam Alter, Thomas Metzinger, Matt Ridley, Paul Kedrosky, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Virginia Heffernan, Luca De Biase, Terrence J. Sejnowski, Steve Giddings, Karl Sabbagh, Dylan Evans, Laurence C. Smith, Neil Gershenfeld, Eric J. Topol, Stanislas Dehaene, Satyajit Das, Carlo Rovelli, James J. O'Donnell, Robert Provine, Rodney A. Brooks, George Dyson, Max Tegmark, Gary Marcus, Daniel Goleman, Michael Shermer, Douglas Rushkoff, Roger Highfield, David Christian, Juan Enriquez, Charles Seife, Aubrey De Grey, Nicholas Humphrey, Peter Woit, Scott Atran, Colin Tudge, Clifford Pickover, Mary Catherine Bateson, Steven Pinker, Roger Schank, Howard Gardner, Daniel C. Dennett


Thanks to George Dyson for suggesting this year's Edge Question and to Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, Steven Pinker , and Nicholas Humphrey for their continued support.


The 2013 Edge Question: Online Buzz

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The 22nd Century Mind: Dr. Derek Cabrera at TEDxWilliamsport

Derek Cabrera is the co-author of Thinking at Every Desk: Four Simple Skills to Transform Your Classroom (2012), as well as the insanely expensive Systems Thinking: Four Universal Patterns of Thinking (2009).

From his digplanet biography:
In 2007, frustrated with his experiences teaching ivy league students, Cabrera and his academic colleague Laura Colosi, also a Ph.D. from Cornell, founded an movement in education called "Thinking at Every Desk" (or T@ED).[1] They created T@ED to ensure that thinking skills were taught to every student nationwide and eventually worldwide. Since its founding, numerous offshoots have been created internationally, in South Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia. Cabrera works with educators from K-12 to college and even with organizations to infuse thinking skills into existing curricula using the Patterns of Thinking method (also known as DSRP), which Cabrera created. In the DSRP method, students are encouraged to explore any given concept by recognizing and explicating the distinctions, systems, relationships, and perspectives that characterize the concept. They then physically model the concept using a tactile manipulative Cabrera invented called ThinkBlocks,[10] or graphically represent the concept in terms of DSRP using DSRP diagrams.[11]
His Pattern of Thinking Method, DSRP, stands for distinctions, systems, relationships, and perspectives, which he asserts are foundational patterns to all human thought (cognition).
D, S, R, and P are implicit in all thinking and Cabrera believes that people can improve their thinking skills by learning to explicitly recognize and explicate (e.g., metacognition) the distinctions, systems, relationships, and perspectives underlying anything they wish to understand more deeply or with greater clarity.[12]
Interesting stuff.

The 22nd Century Mind: Dr. Derek Cabrera at TEDxWilliamsport
Dr. Derek Cabrera holds a PhD from Cornell University, is an author and internationally recognized expert in cognition, systems, and learning, and taught at Cornell University. Derek is currently a senior research scientist at Cabrera Research Labs in Ithaca, New York. He is speaking today about learning with the 22nd Century Mind.

Milk of Human Kindness Also Found in Bonobos (New York Times)

From the New York Times, this is a cool article on one of our primate cousins, one the more social and generous of the primate species (perhaps we can learn a bit from them). The findings are interesting - bonobos will gladly share food with strangers, but only if the stranger provides social interaction. That does not seem too far removed from the days when a traveler could a hot meal and a blanket in exchange for a song or two, or some stories.

The article is open access from the PLoS ONE system, link with abstract and introduction is below.

Milk of Human Kindness Also Found in Bonobos

Jingzhi Tan - Two bonobos shared food and affection at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary.

Published: January 7, 2013

Bonobos will happily share their food with a stranger, and even give up their own meal — but only if the stranger offers them social interaction, evolutionary anthropologists at Duke University report in the journal PLoS One. The researchers, Jingzhi Tan and Brian Hare, say their findings may shed light on the origins of altruism in humans.

Along with chimpanzees, bonobos are among the closest primates to humans. Chimpanzees, however, do not display similar behavior toward strangers.

“If you only studied chimps you would think that humans evolved this trait of sharing with strangers later,” Mr. Tan said. “But now, given that bonobos do this, one scenario is that the common ancestor of chimps, humans and bonobos had this trait.”

The subjects were all orphaned bonobos at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In one phase of the study, bonobos were given a pile of food, then given the opportunity to release a stranger or a group mate (or both) from other rooms.

The bonobos chose to release strangers and share their food. Not only that, but the just-released bonobo would then release the third.

“This was shocking to us because chimpanzees are so xenophobic,” Mr. Tan said. “They won’t approach a stranger unless they outnumber them.”

The apes did have a limit — they would not share their own food when no social interaction was involved.

They were, however, willing to help a stranger get food even without social interaction. Mr. Tan compared this to certain human acts of kindness.

“It’s like when you donate money and you don’t tell people,” he said, “so there’s no way for you to get any benefit.”

A version of this article appeared in print on January 8, 2013, on page D3 of the New York edition with the headline: Milk of Human Kindness Also Found in Bonobos.

Bonobo parents with infant

Here is the abstract and introduction from the whole article. The whole text is available by following the link below.

Bonobos Share with Strangers

Jingzhi Tan1,* and Brian Hare1,2


Humans are thought to possess a unique proclivity to share with others – including strangers. This puzzling phenomenon has led many to suggest that sharing with strangers originates from human-unique language, social norms, warfare and/or cooperative breeding. However, bonobos, our closest living relative, are highly tolerant and, in the wild, are capable of having affiliative interactions with strangers. In four experiments, we therefore examined whether bonobos will voluntarily donate food to strangers. We show that bonobos will forego their own food for the benefit of interacting with a stranger. Their prosociality is in part driven by unselfish motivation, because bonobos will even help strangers acquire out-of-reach food when no desirable social interaction is possible. However, this prosociality has its limitations because bonobos will not donate food in their possession when a social interaction is not possible. These results indicate that other-regarding preferences toward strangers are not uniquely human. Moreover, language, social norms, warfare and cooperative breeding are unnecessary for the evolution of xenophilic sharing. Instead, we propose that prosociality toward strangers initially evolves due to selection for social tolerance, allowing the expansion of individual social networks. Human social norms and language may subsequently extend this ape-like social preference to the most costly contexts.


One of the most puzzling human behaviors from an evolutionary perspective is our species' propensity to share with non-relatives and even strangers [1], [2]. Across numerous cultures and early in development, humans engage in spontaneous helping and costly sharing with strangers [3], [4]. Some have suggested this human form of sharing is inconsistent with the predictions of kinship theory and reciprocal altruism (see [1], but see [5]) while others have proposed our species has evolved unique motivation and cognition for sharing [6][9].

Nonhuman primates are known to help and voluntarily share food with other groupmates (e.g.[10][16]). This prosociality, or voluntary behavior that benefits others [17][21], can be driven by selfish or other-regarding motivations [17], [22]. Therefore, while a primate can be prosocial even if pursuing selfish goals, they only demonstrate other-regarding forms of prosociality if their actions do not result in immediate selfish benefit (see SI for disambiguation of prosocial, other-regarding and altruistic behaviors). A number of experiments have now shown that a variety of primates will even help another individual obtain food when there is no immediate, tangible reward for their help (chimpanzees: [4], [23][27]; old world monkeys: [28]; new world monkeys: [29][31]). This type of prosociality suggests in some contexts primates also have other-regarding motivations (but see critique of this interpretation by [9]). However, there remains little evidence that nonhuman primates show any form of prosociality toward non-group members [7], [9], [13], [31], [32]. Primates typically compete against non-group members, resulting in agonistic intergroup relations [33]. This hostility goes to the extreme in chimpanzees that opportunistically kill neighbors [34], [35] and sometimes even immigrants[36][38]. Therefore, it is unlikely that most primates have tolerance levels that would allow for prosocial or other-regarding tendencies toward strangers. Moreover, designing such an experiment for most primate species would be extremely difficult given the high potential for stress, injury and aggression.

Bonobos are known for relatively high-levels of tolerance within and between groups when compared to chimpanzees [34], [39][43]. In the wild, bonobos have even been observed to have affiliative intergroup interactions. For example, females from neighboring communities have been seen traveling together for days, feeding in the same trees and even participating in socio-sexual behavior ([39], [40], also see [44]). In a preliminary experiment seven bonobos were given the opportunity to voluntarily share with another bonobo [12]. All three bonobos paired with a non-groupmate voluntarily shared their food while only one of the four bonobos paired with an in-group shared. No aggression of any form was ever observed. This suggests that with the relative tolerance of bonobos they can afford such prosociality with strangers. In turn, sharing with a stranger might aid them in extending their social network and in forming new “friendships” [5], [45]. However, it remains unclear whether the observed prosociality represents a preference to share with strangers over groupmates. In addition, it is unclear if the voluntary sharing observed only represents a selfish tactic to obtain a novel social interaction or whether bonobos will also share with strangers if there is no immediate, tangible reward. Therefore, we conducted four experiments with 15 wild-born bonobos that are orphans of the bushmeat trade living at Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo [46]. We designed these experiments based on the relative costs and benefits of the prosocial behavior to the actor and this serial design allowed us to identify whether the prosocial motivation is selfish or other-regarding (Table 1). In experiment 1 and 2 we presented bonobos with a task in which they could choose whether to share food and physically interact with either a groupmate or stranger. In experiment 3 and 4 we presented bonobos with a second task in which they could either ignore or help another bonobo in obtaining out-of-reach food. In this second task helping allowed no immediate benefit to the actor (e.g. physical interactions) and the cost of helping was altered between experiment 3 and 4 (see Table 1).