New Worlds: Cooperation is its own reward

If you want to know why people cooperate with one another, ask dolphins.

dophin 88 (photo credit: )
dophin 88
(photo credit: )
If you want to know why people cooperate with one another, ask dolphins. That in a sense is what University of Haifa psychobiologist Dr. Richard Schuster and graduate student Amir Perlberg did. After studying how dolphins behave in pairs, they questioned the assumption about selfishness being the exclusive motivation for any act. Observing the underwater mammals at Eilat's dolphin reef, they were amazed at the extent of cooperation between pairs of these animals, which tend naturally to do things together - from hunting to courting and protecting themselves from preying fish. Even when the dolphins swam by to be petted by divers, they did so in pairs. Schuster pointed out that this required a great deal of effort and coordination so that each could be petted at almost the same time and for the same amount of strokes. It would have been easier for them to swim by one at a time. "The reason for this cooperation," he concluded, "was not only the material 'profit.' It was also - and sometimes only - the pleasure from the very fact of performing this cooperative and coordinated act. The dolphins cooperate because they enjoy doing things together, even if the price is more effort and less petting," Shuster says. His dolphin research has implications for human beings. "Dolphins and people are intelligent species, and very sensitive to social relations." Human beings, he continues, derive pleasure from doing things together, just as animals do. People enjoy hunting together, dancing together, playing together without receiving any reward for such acts, except for the momentary pleasure of togetherness, Schuster states. "Our research shows that cooperative behavior itself can be rewarded only by undertaking a joint act even if the immediate benefit is small or even does not exist," he continues. "In such cases, cooperation pays off in the distant future as a result of strengthening social relations between those who have learned to work together." J&J LINKS UP WITH YISSUM A fund for innovative science at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has been established by university's Yissum technology transfer company and the Johnson & Johnson corporate office of science and technology. The contribution from Johnson & Johnson will be matched by the university and Yissum. A few days ago, the technology transfer arm of the Weizmann Institute - Yeda - announced a similar deal with Johnson & Johnson to establish a joint fund supporting research at the Rehovot institute. The purpose of the Yissum fund is to identify and encourage innovative research ideas. The focus will be on propositions which have the greatest potential for becoming major scientific breakthroughs or to be of great commercial possibility. The fund was officially launched at a recent ceremony attended by senior officials from Johnson & Johnson, Yissum and HU. GOOGLING THE EARTH Satellite and aerial images used by the Web site Google Earth ( are changing the way we respond to disasters. A commentary in a recent issue of Nature looks at the very different responses to Hurricane Katrina and the Pakistan earthquake. Illah Nourbakhsh, along with US scientists and Google engineers, asks whether opening such operations to the wider public could shift their role to that of active contributor, allowing image updates in real time. Today, relief workers need high-resolution satellite imagery, which is not always available, but in the future photos taken using mobile phones and camcorders could provide added value. In recent relief efforts in New Orleans and Pakistan, the software and its ability to accept overlays from other sources was invaluable to rescue efforts. In the aftermath of Katrina tools were developed to handle high-resolution aerial images made available daily. In Pakistan, where no images were available from aircraft surveillance, Google Earth acquired, processed and published images taken by a commercial satellite, making them publicly available and allowing rescue teams to focus their efforts. In a related news feature, Declan Butler discusses how scientists are taking up Google Earth and other virtual globes to share 3D data with colleagues and the public. From satellite tagging of animals movements and behavior to recording the density and drift of Arctic ice, scientists are using Google Earth to display complex 3D data in new visually appealing ways. The eventual impact of virtual globes will be nothing less than the realization of a "digital Earth," as envisioned by former US vice-president Al Gore in 1998, experts predict. Commenting on these developments, Gore told Nature how his concept was "to use the Earth itself as an organizing metaphor for digital information." DRIVER ALERTNESS WITH SCENT Perhaps the next safety mechanism for cars could be periodic sprays of peppermint and cinnamon scents. Research by a psychologist at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia has shown that such odors can keep drivers more alert and decrease their frustration behind the wheel. Dr. Bryan Raudenbush found that cinnamon also decreases driver fatigue. The study builds on Raudenbush's past research, which indicated that the odors of peppermint and cinnamon enhance motivation, performance and alertness, decrease fatigue and serve as central nervous system stimulants.