Altruism, Greed and Skulls

What an exhilarating week!  We’ve been detectives, anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers.  All in the pursuit of big questions like, “What sets humans apart from other species?” and “Are we fundamentally motivated by competition or altruism?”

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For the next two weeks we have skulls on loan from the academy of sciences.  We’ve been using these skulls to explore questions of what make us human.  We started by looking at the teeth of several different animals, including us humans.  We ate different food to try and make hypotheses about the functions of our different kinds of teeth. An important observation was made about how canines, which are used for ripping, are pronounced in animals that eat meat.  We have far less pronounced canines than other omnivores.

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Patrick and Lola shared a theory that this is because we use tools to cut our food and fire to cook it.  Perhaps one of the things that distinguishes us as a species is that we cook.  This is an idea that Michael Pollan expands upon in the first episode of his new series Cooked.  We watched and discussed this show as a follow up to our exploration of skulls.  Another theme emerged during this documentary is how much food creates community.

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Some of the most exciting and engaged moments we had this week happened as we explored how cooperation and sharing define us as a species.  We started this exploration with a BBC documentary with anthropologist Alice Roberts called What Makes Us Human.  In this documentary behavioral scientists create a situation in which chimps have to cooperate in order to get a reward.  Each chimp only helps to the extent to which they get a reward and don’t help the other partner if something goes wrong.  However, when they recreated this experiment with human toddlers they found that the young kids would share their reward if they had worked together to achieve it.  This launched an exploration that included two provocative games that modeled social pressures and difficulties that occur around sharing and cooperation.  There are more in depth descriptions of the rules of these games on the Exploratorium website.  These games were responsible for some of the more heated and interesting discussions that we had all week. Fortunately we’ve got more games like these to play and reflect upon in the coming weeks.  Another source of interesting conversation came from the ted talk The Science of Greed.  

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It is always exhilarating and exhausting to visit the Exploratorium and I think it is always best to go with a purpose in mind.  Their science of sharing exhibit fits so perfectly into the themes that we are exploring in this arc.  Students got to play games that modeled the tragedy of the commons, the freeloader phenomenon, the prisoner’s dilemma and other activities that revealed biases and stereotypes that we hold.  They recorded information regarding the decisions they made and their feelings around their decisions and those of the their partner. This coming week, we will be able to reflect upon our experiences with each activity.

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We have enjoyed the feedback we have been receiving from a number of families around the blog posts being written at home and the opportunities it has created to have family discussions around what we are learning and what your child is interested in this arc. We truly look forward to reading their posts over the arc now that they have more freedom around the prompt and direction they choose to take with their blog post each week.

Next week we will be continuing our look into what makes us human by studying some neuroscience.  We will be dissecting sheep brains!