Category Archives: Nature-Nurture

Does Our Paleolithic Past Shape Our Modern Survival Instinct?

The latest National Geographic Roundtable Question: Survivor-style television has grown increasingly popular over the years and done a great job of illustrating our brain’s fascinating built-in survival instinct. What role do you think our ancestral instincts play today in helping us survive, thrive and accomplish our goals? How much of our ancestral survival instincts are innate verses learned?

First, the innate vs. learned part of the question. This is a false dichotomy. We have evolved to learn. We probably have “built in” mechanisms to learn new things. This means that when we have learned something new, that new skill or information is a product of something innate and something from our environment. (See: Culture Influences Brain Function and IQ Varies With Context.)


National Geographic Channel’s Brain Games: The Survivor Brain premieres Sunday, March 20, at 9/8c on National Geographic Channel

In this episode, host Jason Silva meets several people in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who personify the word “survivor,” and puts their brains to the test in a battery of challenges engineered to demonstrate what it takes to be a super survivor. The group gathers to deconstruct the brain science behind human survival: how we evolve to survive and what role our ancient instincts play today in keeping us alive … or getting in the way. Neuroscientist Dr. Bart Russell from Lockheed Martin tests one group’s cognitive performance under stress. Dr. John Huth of Harvard University, who wrote a book on how to find our way when we are lost, tests the brain’s ability to remember details. Dr. Alex Jordan of the University of Texas puts the survivors to the ultimate test, but they’ll have to accept that the key to surviving may be a collective effort. We learn common characteristics of survivors — whether hardy or fragile — and discover what can be done to tap into the brain’s built-in survival instinct.


The degree to which this is important should not be underestimated. Humans pay a high evolutionary cost for this ability to learn. We have developed over evolutionary time a mostly novel stage of development that we call “childhood” during which we are vulnerable and demand a great deal of parental investment, far beyond our nearest primate relatives. Childbirth in humans is dangerous to both mother and child compared to other mammals, and this is in large part because of our large (but mostly “empty” brains at birth. Childhood involves the internal organization of that brain due to experiential learning aided by built in learning mechanisms. This takes years, and results in a young adult adapted not to our paleolithic past, but to our current cultural environment. (See: The Oystercatcher and the Clam)

In other words, we are adapted, by evolution, to be adaptable to the particular context in which we live. For this reason, our actual (in the sense of current, now) set of survival skills are adapted to the present because we are shaped by evolution to be able to do that.

Having said that it is still true, as demonstrated in the National Geographic special, that we are products of our past. We are endowed, for better or worse, with automatic reactions to the environment such as the stress reactions and the famous “four F’s” of fighting, fleeing, feeding, and sex. Our learned abilities incorporate these basic limbic (brain and endocrine) functions, but these functions are powerful and often produce less than ideal results.

There is a debate in evolutonary psychology and related fields over the degree to which specific abilities, including survival abilities, are shaped mainly by our paleolithic past vs. our cultural and more immediate developmental past. An example that is sometimes used is the bartender vs. file clerk test. Here’s how that goes, simplified.

Several subjects are given this problem. You are a file clerk and you go on vacation for a time, and a temp takes over your job while you are gone. On your return you have the sense that the temp messed up some of your files. You are faced with a set of labeled folders that may or may not have been filed incorrectly. Your job is to open the absolute minimum number of folders to test the hypothesis that they are correctly filed. there is in fact only one correct answer to this question. A majority of subjects fail to arrive at the correct answer.

Alternatively, several subjects are given this other problem. You are a bartender and a specified number of people (the same number as filed in the previous setting) are sitting at a table in your bar asking for various drinks. Some of the drinks contain alcohol, some don’t. You suspect one or more of the individuals sitting at the table are lying about their age, so you need to ask for ID. Your job is to ask the absolute minimum number of people for their ID. There is exactly one answer to this problem, and the underlying logic (and answer) is identical to the file clerk problem. A majority of subjects arrive at the correct answer.

Those who put a lot of stock in our brains being shaped by our paleolithic past believe that this is because we evolved in a context where identifying liars is important, so we are innately good at that, while file clerking is a modern endeavor, so we are not evolved to be good at that. The alternative explanation is that we each grew up, as cultural beings, in an environment where learning to detect liars is important, so we got good at that, but very few of us grew up as file clerks, so most of us are bad at that.

I personally lean towards the latter, and I look at the costly trait of childhood as the mechanism by which this situation emerges.

Tales of the Ex-Apes

Jonathan Marks’ new book is called “Tales of the Ex-Apes: How We Think about Human Evolution

I’ve got to tell you that when I first saw the title of this book, the letters played in my head a bit. Tails of the Ex-Apes. That would be funny because apes don’t have tails. Or Tales of the Exapes. Pronounced as you wish. Perhaps in an Aztec accent.


Staley_2009_author_lJon Marks is a colleague and a friend from way back. He is a biological anthropologist who has engaged in critical study of central biological themes, such as genetics, and he’s said a few things about race. He wears black, often does not shave, and has probably been a member of the Communist Party, or at least, taught a class or two on Marxist Theory. So, a book by Marks on “how we think about human evolution” (the subtitle) is not going to be about human evolution, but how we frame questions about human evolution, and how the process of unraveling answers to these questions revel our own biases. Dialectical stuff. Like that.

In the book Jon says interesting things about basic anthropological theory, thought, and key touchstone figures and topics like Darwin and kinship. On the more biological side of things, species, adaptations, gene trees, and phylogeny. The destructive core of the book is an anti-reductionist critique of evolutionary theory and the constructive core of the book is an bio-cultural argument as it applies to doing anthropology, as well as how it applies to the human (or just prehuman?) transformation to a self considering sort of sentient being that bothers to write books about the process of asking questions about itself. Humans are a product of lived experience, but not just that. Humanness is the product of the sum of human’s cultural history. And, actually, science, which is an important human thing, does not escape that framework, something I probably agree with (^^see the subtitle of my blog^^). Marks writes,

… we see the human species culturally. Science is a process of understanding, and we understand things culturally. We hope that we can observe and transcend the cultural biases of our predecessors, but there is no non-cultural knowledge. As a graphic example, consider the plaque that was attached to Pioneer 10 … Why was NASA sending pornography into outer space? … Because they wanted to depict the man and woman in a cultureless, natural state. But surely the shaves, haircuts, and bikini waxes are cultural! As are the gendered postures, with only the man looking you straight in the eye. In a baboon, that would be a threat display; let’s hope the aliens … aren’t like baboons.

And so on. Like that. Great book.

If you are teaching a course in human evolution, you might seriously consider using this as a second reading because of the critical treatment of material surely left unexamined by your textbook. Also, it would give the students a fairer sense of what they are in for if they chose Anthropology as a major, for better or worse. This is not introductory material, but the prose would work for any college student. Also, the text is well footnoted.

The book will be out any day now, scheduled for September. Available in various formats, very much worth the read.

Driving The Patriarchy: Demonic Males, Feminism, and Genetic Determinism

Behaviors are not caused by genes. There is not a gene that causes you to be good, or to be bad, or to be smart, or good at accounting, or to like bananas. There are, however, drives. “Drives” is a nicely vague term that we can all understand the meaning of. Thirst and hunger are drives we can all relate to. In fact, these drives are so basic, consistent and powerful that almost everyone has them, we share almost exact experiences in relation to them, and they can drive (as drives are wont to do) us to do extreme things when they are not met for long periods of time. While eating disorders are common enough and these affect a hunger drive, it is very rare to find a person thirst themselves to death.
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Falsehoods: Human Universals

There are human universals. There, I said it. Now give me about a half hour to explain why this is both correct and a Falsehood. But first, some background and definition.
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Why do women shop and men hunt?

Or, when the hunting season is closed, watch teh game (the guys), or when there are no sales, admire each other’s shoes (the gals)?

This is, of course, a parody of the sociobiological, or in modern parlance, the “evolutionary psychology” argument linking behaviors that evolved in our species during the long slog known as The Pleistocene with today’s behavior in the modern predator-free food-rich world. And, it is a very sound argument. If, by “sound” you mean “sounds good unless you listen really hard.”

I list this argument among the falsehoods, but really, this is a category of argument with numerous little sub-arguments, and one about which I could write as many blog posts as I have fingers and toes, which means, at least twenty. (Apparently there was some pentaldactylsim in my ancestry, and I must admit that I’ll never really know what they cut off when I was born, if anything.)

Before going into this discussion I think it is wise, if against my nature, to tell you what the outcome will be: There is not a good argument to be found in the realm of behavioral biology for why American Women shop while their husbands sit on the bench in the mall outside the women’s fashion store fantasizing about a larger TV on which to watch the game. At the same time, there is a good argument to be made that men and women should have different hard wired behavioral proclivities, if there are any hard wired behavioral proclivities in our species. And, I’m afraid, the validity from an individual’s perspective of the various arguments that men and women are genetically programmed to be different (in ways that make biological sense) is normally determined by the background and politics of the observer and not the science. I am trained in behavioral biology, I was taught by the leading sociobiologists, I’ve carried out research in this area, and I was even present, somewhat admiringly, at the very birth of Evolutionary Psychology, in Room 14A in the Peabody Museum at Harvard, in the 1980s. So, if anyone is going to be a supporter of evolutionary psychology, it’s me.

But I’m not. Let me ‘splain….
Continue reading Why do women shop and men hunt?

A good day for birds.

This was not an intensive bird watching day. This was a day driving to the cabin, sitting in the cabin writing, looking out the window, driving to run an errand, going to town for dinner, sitting in the cabin looking out the window some more, etc.

But the birds insisted on performing. So I thought I’d give you a list.,

En route north from the Twin Cities:

  • Two probable trumpeter swans heading west.
  • A flock of about 45 cormorants heading north. Leech Lake look out!
  • Near Fort Ripley: Rough Legged Hawk?
  • Blue Jay
  • Nisswa, overlookng Round Lake: Bald Eagle in tree
  • Lesser Scaup (small flock)

At the Cabin (Woman Lake):

  • Bald Eagle 1 (or two) of our nesting pair. Bald Eagle 3 (yearling).
  • Loons 1 and 2 feeding.
  • Loons 1 and 2 feeding with otter.
  • Loons 1 and 2 getting harassed by BE 3
  • Loons 1 and 2 joined by interloping male Loon 3, displays, much ado for a while, Loon 3 leaves (unlike three years ago, when one of the two males died in the ensuing fight)
  • White throated sparrow
  • Hooded mergansers (2 males breeding plus 1 female)
  • Red breasted nuthatch
  • White breated nuthatch
  • Phoebes
  • BC Chickadees
  • Various woodpeckers (sound only)
  • Common Goldeneye (sitting on edge of ice in the lake)


  • RW Blackbirds
  • Loon

South of Longville

  • Bald Eagle sitting alone in the forest.
  • The above does not count numerous LBB’s unidentified.

Race, Gender, IQ and Nature

ResearchBlogging.orgNature, the publishing group, not the Mother, has taken Darwin’s 200th as an opportunity to play the race card (which always sells copy) and went ahead and published two opposing views on this question: “Should scientists study race and IQ?

The answers are Yes, argued by Stephen Cici and Wendy Williams of the Dept of Human Development at Cornell, and No, argued by Steven Rose, a neuroscientist at Open University.

I would like to weigh in.

Continue reading Race, Gender, IQ and Nature

The Myers – Rue Debate And Why They Had to Taser Me

Last night, the Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists club (C.A.S.H.) presented a debate between PZ Myers and Loyal Rue on the question: Can religion and science co-exist? I witnessed this event and would like to tell you what happened.

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Study Suggests Increased Rate of Human Adaptive Evolution

There is a new paper, just coming out in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that explores the idea that humans have undergone an increased rate of evolution over the last several tens of thousands of years. Continue reading Study Suggests Increased Rate of Human Adaptive Evolution