I know Marc Hauser, and I trust him. I worked with him for a few years as a colleague on the faculty in the Anthropology department on various administrative matters (such as graduate admission and undergraduate program development) and we taught together. We are very different kinds of people, and did not always see eye to eye (well, we disagreed on one thing, once), but the same can be said of almost any two people from those days and that department, to some degree.
I’ve just heard about the “investigation” into his lab and the retraction of, so far, one paper produced in that lab regarding the cognitive ability of the primates he studies, Saguinus oedipus, the cotton top tamarin.
I have written before about the “Hauser Effect” and therefore I feel a need to look into the current allegations that scientific research misconduct happened in Hauser’s primate research lab in William James Hall. Could it be that the Hauser Effect is really just misconduct? Alternatively, could it be that what is seen as misconduct is really the Hauser effect? Could it be that there is some complex interconnected process going on here that happened one way in Hauser’s lab but happens generally in science (and human thinking in general)?
Very simply put, the Hauser effect has two levels of manifestation, one particularistic and one general. The particularistic level is this: Researchers working with the usual Old World primates, such as chimpanzees, baboons, and macaques, discover a phenomenon that can only be seen in chimpanzees to the exclusion of the other primates, suggesting that it is a capacity relevant to ape evolution, not found in other primates, and potentially relevant in some general way to human evolution.
Then, Marc Hauser produces a paper in which he shows that his monkeys can do it too. His monkeys, the cotton top tamarins, are New World monkeys of the family Callitrichidae. Mark got his monkeys to pass the Gallup Test. He got his monkeys to count. I heard the other day that he had his monkeys dancing backwards and in high heels. While chewing gum.
(OK, I’m joking about the last one, but the others are true.)
The more general form of the Hauser effect is this: You have a phylogenetic tree, with one branch consistently showing a set of derived traits, derived with respect to the rest of the tree. Like, apes can pass the Gallup test (can you recognize that the thing you see in the mirror is YOU and not just some other primate?). That’s not the Hauser effect. The Hauser effect is when another branch, one not adjacent to (or even near) the derived branch, consistently shows similar derived traits, again and again, almost mockingly of the nice neat pattern seen elsewhere on the evolutionary tree.
There are three explanations that I’ve considered for the Hauser effect: 1) The trait s really there in all or most members of the larger tree in some form that is usually invisible except in certain lineages because of the way we generally interface with the animals. For instance, at one point in time we could see the Gallup effect in orangs and chimps but not in gorillas, in a test setting, but researchers had in fact observed one gorilla using a mirror with clear self recognition, outside of the context of the test. Gorillas, perhaps, are doing something differently in the laboratory setting. Or the putative results of elephants having various cognitive abilities, but whereby those abilities must be tested for using different, non-visual, modalities in order to make comparisons with highly visual apes. 2) Parallelism. Always interesting, in this case not as interesting as other possibilities. In this case, the ability just happened to evolve twice, perhaps because off some similarity in ecological or social context (a very likely explanation for the cotton-top’s behavior). 3) The master experimenter phenomenon. A master designer of experiments, and Marc Hauser is one, could overcome reason 1 and find the effect if it is there. Marc would have gotten Koko the gorilla to check her hair in a mirror during the lab tests rather than only as a casual activity in the hallway on the way back to her enclosure. But a master experimenter may also be able to do something else, which no one else can do. A master may be able to make earthworms sing jingle bells, fleas design new kinds of computer circuits, and giraffes tap dance. Well, I exaggerate. A master experimenter can make dolphins dance, horses count, and New World monkeys act like chimps. And yes, that mention of horses is a reference to clever Hans.
Clever Hans was the horse that could to math. We now think, looking back on Clever Hans, who performed the trick for many audiences over many years, that the horse’s keeper unwittingly gave clues to the horse telling it when to stop enumerating with it’s hoof. Ask the horse “Hans, what is five minus two” and the horse knows to start stomping its hoof. Then, an unconscious cue is given by the horse’s keeper … like a poker player’s tell … when the horse hits the number ‘three’ and this tells Hans to stop. So, it turns out that the horse can’t do math. But it can read subtle cues unknowingly exhibited by a human that no other humans picked up on for years. Stupid horse.
For whatever reason, Marc Hauser’s monkeys did things that were surprising. Considering how little we know about the landscape of behavioral capacities of New World Monkeys (as opposed to the much more studied Old World Monkeys like macaques and baboons) we might be able to conclude that the NWM branch is simply more ape-like than the OWM branch of primates. This is surprising, interesting, and untested … more work would have to be done with more New World Monkeys. But there may be reasons to not be that surprised. New World Monkeys spend more time in multi-species associations than OWM’s do. Callitrichids have an unusual mating and offspring rearing system that may require more personal political savvy than other monkeys, or at least, a different kind. There are all kinds of reasons that Marc’s monkeys impress, technically it is always a case of the Hauser effect (as narrowly defined above) regardless of the reason. The reason being, in my mind, either that the monkeys are different, or that Marc is smarter than the average experimenter, possibly too much smarter.
Fraud or misconduct never crossed my mind. I have read nothing about the specific accusations, and I have no secret inside knowledge. And, in fact, I wanted to get these thoughts down on ‘paper’ and on my blog for others to see before I learned anything more about Marc’s situation.
I’m like the neighbor who is interviewed after the spectacular arrest of the guy down the street for some over the top crime.
“Marc kept to himself, in his lab. He produced his papers, got on with his job. Nobody ever thought he would carry out misconduct. He wasn’t the type. I can’t believe this is happening.”
That’s what I think.