How God corrupts creatures great and small

Only Mitchell and Webb's Bad Vicar can save them - Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

After Archbishop Desmond Tutu refused to share a platform with Tony Blair on 30 August, he offered a brief explainer in the Observer. “Leadership and morality are indivisible,” he said. “Good leaders are the custodians of morality.” (Blair had not been a good leader.)

It was a sticky subject for Tutu to broach and critics accused him of hypocrisy, pointing to platform partners he has chosen in the past. He also got Blair’s problem the wrong way round: Blair believes only too strongly in the indivisibility of leadership and morality. Like Tutu, though, he extends this belief to the indivisibility of morality and religion. And there’s the difficulty.

Religious morality is not quite like other kinds of morality, because instead of consulting your sense of right and wrong, you’re consulting the moral sense of an invisible being who takes sides depending on who believes in him the hardest. With God on your side, there is a certain feeling of moral immunity. Historically, then, it is unsurprising that leaders lucky enough to have divine guidance made grand, sweeping decisions with little concern for detail – decisions like taking on a “moral” war.

The skewing effect of a compassionate God can be seen even on lower, pettier levels. In exams, students who believe in a forgiving deity are far more likely to cheat, and in lab studies, Christian participants who spend ten minutes writing about God’s merciful nature showed increased levels of petty theft when assigned a money-based task afterwards. More recently, a comprehensive study found that crime rates are significantly higher in places where people believe in divine redemption.

Researchers looked at belief surveys conducted between 1981 and 2007, which covered 143,000 people from 67 countries. In places where the belief in heaven was stronger than the belief in hell, the level of crime was significantly higher. Take a country where belief in heaven is strong and you’ll find a significantly higher national crime rate. The belief in hellfire seemed to have the opposite effect – scaring people into good behaviour, even when earthly policing systems failed.

Too nice

The researchers thought that a belief in the ultimate insignificance of mortal doings along with an opportunity for regular slate-wiping doesn’t necessarily make for good behaviour. Blair’s God, it seems, may have been too nice to him. But redemption could still be at hand. His God just needs to get a little more Old Testament.

How to effect the change? Well, since Tutu is out as a platform partner, perhaps Blair could be set up with Mitchell and Webb’s Bad Vicar. He’d set him straight. Here he is in full swing:

“Aren’t you all entitled to your half-arsed musings on the Divine. You’ve thought about eternity for 25 minutes and think you’ve come to some interesting conclusions. Well let me tell you, I stand with 2,000 years of darkness and bafflement and hunger behind me, my kind have harvested the souls of a million peasants, and I couldn’t give a ha’penny jizz about your internet assembled philosophy.”

Tony Blair. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”