Tag Archives: Behavioral Biology

Best Bird Book Of the Year So Far: What The Robin Knows by Jon Young

There was a dead rabbit in the middle of the road today. I suspected such a thing, nearby, just out of sight, and edible, because I noticed some crows taking off whenever a car went by. Then, when I went over, I could see the rabbit that they were feasting on between drive-bys.

I had been looking for rabbits lately, because of this: the cat had switched to hanging out by the upstairs window, the better to observe the just arriving Juncos (snow birds, it is fall). She had previously spent most of her time observing rabbits from the lower, ground level windows, until just the other day when, rather suddenly, all the rabbits disappeared. Until then, there was always a rabbit or two. In fact, the entire city had been recently invaded by rabbits, according to several reports, and now they seemed to be disappearing quickly. This, I assume, means that the coyotes finally got busy. Or, an epidemic of tularemia. Either way, something happened.

I once had a cat that was partly outdoors on Cape Cod. Well, the cat was indoors, but would escape. We’d go looking for it and always find it in a bush (a different bush every time) surrounded by no rabbits. All the other bushes would have rabbits nearby. But not the one with the cat in it. (Until, again, the coyotes showed up and ruined the rabbit-test method of finding the cat!)

Have you seen the film Dead Birds? See it if you can. This is a very important ethnographic film, of the old style, by Gardner, of a place in Highland New Guinea. Part of the story actually has to do with live birds, not dead ones, and how they are used by sentries at the outskirts if the village lands, during times of conflict, to detect the arrival of enemy combatants. You watch the birds, and you are watching the hidden predators.

Or you can listen to them. Or you can listen to the monkeys. Anything with an alarm call. I could engage you with story after story, if you and I both had the time, of finding very interesting and elusive critters out in the bush, mainly in Africa, by following up on the predator avoidance behavior of primates or birds.

And, this brings us to what I think is one of the best bird books ever.

What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young is an exploration of nature based on this premise: the robin knows everything about its environment, and this information is regularly conveyed via the bird’s call, or its behavior. By observing that behavior or understanding the robin’s vocalizations, you can poach that information and also know a lot about the immediate environment, which may be your own back yard, the area near your camping site, the wooded gully the enemy may approach you by, or a nearby park.

And, of course, it isn’t just the robin, it is all the animals including birds, insects, and everything else. But Young is talking about birds, and it is certainly true that in most or possibly all habitats, it is the birds that, owing to their diurnal and highly visible and sound oriented nature, are telling you all this information about your mutual surroundings as well as about the bird itself.

To me, birding (and nature watching in general) is not so much about lengthening one’s list (though that is always fun) but, rather, about observing and understanding behavior. Young explores this, teaches a great deal about it, and places this mode of observation in the context of countless stories, or potential stories, about the world you are sharing with the birds you are watching.

This is a four or five dimensional look at a multidimensional world. Lucky for us humans, as primates, we share visual and audio modalities, and mostly ignore odor, and we have overlapping ranges in those modalities (to varying degrees). But birds fly (most of them, anyway) and are small and fast and there are many of them. In many places we live, we are the only diurnal visually-oriented non-bird. Indeed, while I’m sure my cat communes with the rabbits at a level I can’t possibly understand, I’m pretty sure I get the birds in ways she could not possibly get her paws around. (Which is why we don’t let her out of the house. She would prefer to eat them, rather than appreciate them!)

From the publisher, about the author:

Growing up near the Pine Barrens in New Jersey, Jon Young studied as a tracker and naturalist. For three decades, he has taught and mentored children and adults, combining Native skills practiced worldwide with the tools of modern field ecology, emphasizing the nearly lost art of understanding bird and animal language. The founder of OWLink Media, 8 Shields Institute, and the Shikari Tracking Guild, he consults with programs around the world. Jon has written or produced numerous books, audio, and multimedia projects. His website is www.birdlanguage.com. Married with six children, he lives in the woods above Santa Cruz, California.

Lots of science in this book, well documented and referenced. Simple black and white but very engaging graphics. So far my favorite bird book of the year.

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.)

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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.

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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.

Aging: Even Opie. An evolutionary perspective

I’m not going to say that Ron Howard is old or anything, but he isn’t Opie any more. (And, in fact, it has been fascinating and inspiring to watch his career, by the way.) Anyway, Howard produced a new documentary with National Geographic called “Breakthrough: The Age of Aging, which premieres Sunday, November 29 at 9 pm et on National Geographic Channel. And, pursuant to this, National Geographic’s web site is sponsoring a Roundtable on the topic. The roundtable addresses the question, “By treating aging as a disease are we just prolonging the inevitable or can we change the course of our lives?”

The short answer to this is, I’m not really sure, but I think it is helpful to put aging, and changes in human patterns of aging, in a broader anthropological and evolutionary perspective.

LOS ANGELES - Priya Balasubramanian studies the science of aging.??(photo credit:  Asylum Entertainment)
LOS ANGELES – Priya Balasubramanian studies the science of aging.??(photo credit: Asylum Entertainment)
People have long lived long, even hunter gatherers in the Stone Age, as to modern hunter gatherers. In fact, hunter gatherers may have had longer and healthier lives than some of their errand cousins who went and invented agriculture and animal husbandry. In some cases we know from archaeology that populations engaged in early experiments with agriculture experienced dramatic decreases in overall health, and presumably, life span. This may have been a combination of larger groups sharing more diseases, unsanitary conditions developing in a more settled lifestyle, and a diet based on a smaller range of foods one ends up when casting off the foraging way of life. Eventually, in regions where this has been observed, things got better, either as a result of cultural adaptation or genetic changes.

When we look into the past, it is too easy to compress our ancestry into a caricature of primitive humanity, and based that conception on the wrong model. For example, it is said that “people were shorter back then.” Often, that is true, but the shorter people were actually poor urban dwellers in late medieval European settlements where diet was poor and disease demanded more energy of the immune system than average, so growth was sacrificed. If we look at pre-agricultural foraging populations, we often see relatively tall people. This is a bit enigmatic because so many modern forager groups are short statured. The explanation for that is probably that forager groups who are still around today, or have been extant over the last century or so, eek out their existence in relatively marginal habitats, the better parts of the landscape taken over by farmers and herders.

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See: “If this was the Stone Age, I’d be dead by now”
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So, we should expect that prehistoric lifespan varied across time and space, and as I noted, there were probably always elderly people, but just not too many of them, compared to today. It has become axiomatic to note in modern day conversations that many of our diseases, in the West, are “diseases of civilization.” This is a combination of health effects, but one of the most important is the lack of disease of the past because they have been addressed, at least for now, at least for a subset of the human population. Antibiotics alone probably allow a much larger proportion of the human population to survive long enough to experience age-related disease.

A good part of Howard’s documentary is about the science of aging. We want our scientists to figure out how to beat aging, or at least, slow it down. But this is not easy. Humans are primates, and primates are mammals. The very earliest mammals probably evolved to die young. That seems counterintuitive but it really isn’t. Life History Theory predicts that organisms will be selected to produce some sort of balance (or bias, imbalance) of three major energy shunting systems: growth, maintenance (including the immune system), and reproduction. Humans reproduce slowly, producing one (or two) offspring at a time, and putting a lot of effort into each one. This goes along with a long lifespan, because in order to produce a small number of high-quality offspring one must take some time. This, however, places additional demands on the immune system. In order to keep up with evolving microbes and the overall ravages of time, we need to spend a fair amount of effort on keeping from being too sick. And, we happen to be large, for a primate. That probably relates to predator pressure and a few other factors. So while we are selected to live a long time compared to the average primate (and certainly, the average mammal) we can only go just so far.

But perhaps more importantly, we (humans, and to a somewhat lesser extent, primates in general) are modified versions of mammals, and there are indications that mammals were never originally designed (by natural selection) to live long lives. Early mammals were probably small, and small goes along with a short lifespan in the mammalian world. Remember, those early mammals were living along side dinosaurs! (There were large early mammals but modern mammals, including all the more recent large one, probably evolved from a subset of them that were on the small side.) In a world where the smallest dinosaurs were larger than the largest mammals (or close to that) mammals were probably more often prey than predator. The best strategy if the most likely cause of death is being scarfed up by something larger is to live fast, have one or two litters of offspring, and do the whole “circle of life” thing really fast.

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See: How Long Is A Human Generation?
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One strong piece of evidence that a live fast and die young strategy applied to early mammals is the fact that mammal females are born already containing all the egg cells they will ever produce. This is the primary determinant of reproductive lifespan for human females. Organisms that are born ready to reproduce tend to have that strategy of rapid early reproduction followed by an early death. One of the more extreme examples of this is aphids. Aphids have two modes of reproduction, but in one of them, female aphids are born gravid. While human females are not born pregnant, they are born with the eggs ready to go.

Not only have humans (following the primate lead) extended their lifespan and slowed down their reproduction, but they ave added, apparently, another phase of life: Post reproductive. Human females in foraging societies around the world are productive members of their families after they have stopped being fertile. This seems to not make sense from a Darwinian perspective. Why not just keep reproducing until you die? Probably for two reasons. First, they can’t, because human lifespans are already extended to the limit of our phyolgeneticaly constrained abilities. Second, that post-reproductive period probably enhances Darwinian fitness. Studies have shown that elder women in foraging societies contribute significantly to the health and wellbeing of their own children’s offspring. Grandmothers are an adaptation!

Crocodile Nomadism: Size Matters

Every now and then an animal shows up where it is unexpected. Why just the other day a black bear had to be coaxed out of a tree down by the middle school, a couple of blocks form here. Even though our marshes, woodlands, and small patches of prairie house cougars, coyotes, deer, and all the smaller critters, both bears and wolves are not at present endemic to the Twin Cities suburbs.

When the unexpected appearance of a wild animal happens, there are usually one three factors at play. A migratory animal (typically a bird) is a bit off course, or lands where it normally flies over. The loon in the puddle by the gas station a couple of years ago, the rosette spoonbill up at the lake a few years ago, etc. A second reason, often used to explain moose in Massachusetts several years back, until it was realized that they were simply moving into the region, is disease. Some brain disease cause some mammals to wander aimlessly and that could result in the animal wandering far out of its range. The third reason which almost always applies, I think, to the occasional wolf or bear sighting ’round these parts, is dispersal. Without dispersal, nothing would be anywhere. Obviously. (Dispersal is linked to expansion of range, of course.)

And that, dispersal, is probably what is going on when a 3 meter long crocodile shows up at your barbecue in Queensland Australia. That, and of course, the steaks on the barbie which are irresistible to megafauna carnivores.

A team of researchers led by Craig Franklin, of the University of Queensland has been tracking crocodiles in the region for several years now. They discovered that smaller crocs don’t wander much, and the largest ones, those approaching five meters, don’t either. The small crocs are hiding out in good spots, and the larger ones are highly territorial, dominating a particular water hole. The in between size, mainly around 3 – 3.5 meters, are the the most nomadic. Some have traveled up to 1,000 kilometers over a year’s time, and up to 60 kilometers a day.

The team is now upgrading their equipment to include tracking devices that last longer.

You can observe the movements of some of their research subjects at the Franklin Eco-laboratory web site, here.

When is the best time to give birth?

After, not before, you get to the hospital, I always say.

But seriously, Robert Martin, the famous primatologist, has an interesting piece in Psychology Today exploring this question. Go read it. I’ve got a few thoughts spurred by this research I’ll list briefly here.

First, it seems that wild primates give birth during their daily down-time, the period of time that they are generally inactive. Dirunal primates do so more at night, nocturnal primates do so more during the day. Various reasons have been proposed. I’ve not read the primary literature on this, but in my ignorance I wanted to propose a possible (maybe additional, maybe already covered) idea. It has been suggested that this is to avoid predation. It could also be the case that the down time itself happens when it does for the same reason, to avoid predation while resting. Consider just diurnal primates for a moment. Resting is probably a time that primates are more likely to be preyed on for one specific reason: they don’t have as many eyes scanning from as many angled over a large area. This would apply only to social primates, especially those that sometimes forage in multi-species groups. So, resting times would be times of lower vigilance, so those times are ideally placed during times when predators are less active. Nocturnal/crepuscular primates are least active during the part of the day that primates are less active, and diurnal primates that start to hunt in the morning may have fed by them.

I quickly add that this is a counterintuitive idea (the part about resting being placed during the low-risk time of the day). The assumption is usually that resting means you are quiet and hard to find, so less susceptible to predation. But the predators already know where the primates are, and can find them. Being more active may make primates more visible to other primates including human primatologists (arboreal monkeys can be hard to spot when they are just sitting there … usually you spot them when branches are swaying and calls are sounding). So it would be a tradeoff between increased vigilance associated with foraging (because you are out and about and observant), decreased vigilance associated with foraging (because you are busy stuffing your face with goodies), increase vigilance because you are resting (because you can sit there and look around without distraction) and decreased vigilance because you are resting (because you are zoning out and if you are hiding among thick vegetation have less of a view). Being a primate is complicated.

Like other diurnal primates, humans seem to give birth more at night. This is perhaps the baseline starting point for humans further developing a nocturnal active phase to their activities, which for a long time has been thought an important part of evolution. We social beings invent fire and this produces a sitting around the fire thing where we use language to do stuff. Sex too. Diurnal primates not only feed and move about during the day, but also have sex during the day, and in the open. The human pattern is to generally have sex at night, and more privately. This is what happens, perhaps, when you take a monogamous bird/gibbon-like mating system and deploy it in a highly social primate.

So the night time behavioral niche includes a number of activities, including sex, gossip, and popping out babies. All closely related things.

Anyway, go read Robert Martin’s article.

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.

Anyway…

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.

A kiss is not a kiss…

The authors of a new paper note that “one of the principal ways in which we interact using our faces is kissing.” This reminds me of an old National Lampoon joke on how the French were famous for inventing sex acts with the face. But I digress.

This paper looks at neural imaging responses of subjects who observe, in photographs, various kinds of kissing. The two main variables are who is kissing (by gender) and the nature of the kiss.

One of the authors is my friend and colleague, Sheril Kirshenbaum. She wrote the book on kissing. No, seriously, she wrote this book, which I’ve reviewed here.

From the abstract of the paper:

With a few exceptions, the literature on face recognition and its neural basis derives from the presentation of single faces. However, in many ecologically typical situations, we see more than one face, in different communicative contexts. … Although there is no obvious taxonomy of kissing, we kiss in various interpersonal situations (greeting, ceremony, sex), with different goals and partners. Here, we assess the visual cortical responses elicited by viewing different couples kissing with different intents. The study thus lies at the nexus of face recognition, action recognition, and social neuroscience. Magnetoencephalography data were recorded from nine participants in a passive viewing paradigm. We presented images of couples kissing, with the images differing along two dimensions, kiss type and couple type. We quantified event-related field amplitudes and latencies. In each participant, the canonical sequence of event-related fields was observed, including an M100, an M170, and a later M400 response. The earliest two responses were significantly modulated in latency (M100) or amplitude (M170) by the sex composition of the images (with male-male and female-female pairings yielding faster latency M100 and larger amplitude M170 responses). In contrast, kiss type showed no modulation of any brain response. The early cortical-evoked fields that we typically associate with the presentation and analysis of single faces are differentially sensitive to complex social and action information in face pairs that are kissing. The early responses, typically associated with perceptual analysis, exhibit a consistent grouping and suggest a high and rapid sensitivity to the composition of the kissing pairs.

Interesting research, part of the bigger picture of how human perception operates in an important social context. I asked Shiril Kirshenbaum for a quick comment and she told me that one of the most interesting parts of this work is “that usually we think of science writing as something that happens after research or discovery. But here we have a nice example demonstrating that the relationship can go both ways where new science has been driven by the storytelling.”


A kiss is not a kiss: visually evoked neuromagnetic fields reveal differential sensitivities to brief presentations of kissing couples. 2015. Cogan, Gregory, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Jeffry Walker, and David Poeppel. NeuroReport, August 18, 2015.

Baby Cries Cause Concern For Mothers Of Other Species

It has long been known by humans that female mammals can be attracted with the call of a young in distress. There is a famous documentary film of the Hadza, a foraging group in Tanzania, in which this method is used by young boys to trap Dasssies (rock Hyrax). First you catch a baby Dassie (not hard) then you hid and bit it in the neck so it cries out, then when the momma Dassies come to rescue it you shoot them at short range with an arrow or whack them with a stick. Adult Efe Pygmy hunters sometimes imitate the call of a young Duiker (a forest antelope) in distress in order to draw in females. I’ve spent a fair amount of time hanging around with adult male Efe hunters and never saw this work, but they claim it does and I tend to believe them.

Now, researchers have demonstrated cross-species response to distress calls by young. They recorded distress calls by various mammals such as seals, dogs, cats, and humans. Never mind how they got the distress calls. Anyway, they played these for White Tailed Deer females and got a response. The mother deer moved towards the recordings. These baby mammals all have similar pitched calls. The researchers also recorded bats and lowered the pitch to be within that range, and the deer responded to this as well.

Presumably there is strong selection on responding to distress calls of young, but not strong selection on being selective, probably because the circumstances do not arise that often.

More here.

Whitey Bulger Convicted, and the Trivers Willard Hypothesis

Whitey Bulger has finally been convicted of a small percentage of all the bad things he is said to have done. The Boston Globe has the details.

James J. “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious Boston gangster who rampaged through the city’s underworld for decades before slipping away from authorities and eluding a worldwide manhunt for more than 16 years, was convicted today in federal court of charges that will likely keep him in prison for the rest of his life.

Don’t count on that. Whitey has slipped from the clutches of justice several times before. He’ll probably make a break for it between the court house and the jail, and if not, he’ll break out by pretending to be laundry or something in a few weeks.

Anyway, I started making references to Whitey Bulger back when he was just … retiring … and I live in the Boston Area, because he provided me with a good analogy in teaching about behavioral biology. So, whenever Uncle Whitey gets in the news I like to repost that. So …. from an earlier post (which still refers to him as a fugitive) we have this ….


Thumbnail image for 0470656662.jpgThis may or may not be a recent photograph of fugitive Whitey (James) Bulger of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang. Most of you won’t know who Whitey Bulger is. He is actually on the FBI’s ten most wanted list. He may have been spotted in Italy last Spring, and the FBI is just now asking for assistance from anyone who knows where he might be. (That’s not gonna work.)

Whitey was top dog in Boston’s Winter Hill gang. His brother was a Senator for the Commwealth of Massachusetts, and served as Senate President for several years.

It is said that Whitey was an FBI informant, and that his handler, FBI Special Agent John Connolly, tipped Whitey off that he was about to be indicted on racketeering charges. No problem. Whitey had left stashes of cash in safe deposit boxes all around the world, in preparation for the day he had to go on the lam. So he took off in 1995, and the FBI has not been able to catch up. Special Agent Connolly is pulling a ten year vacation in the stir.

I remember when Whitey disappeared, and ever since then, I’ve used him almost annually in lecture material describing the Trivers-Willard hypothesis. It goes like this:

Thumbnail image for 0470656662.jpgThis may or may not be a recent photograph of Robert Trivers, of the Trivers-Willard Hypothesis. The Trivers-Willard model (I prefer to call it a “model” rather than a “hypothesis” because it is not specific enough to really be a hypothesis … it’s a model that generates lots of hypotheses) states that selection should favor the ability to differentially bias investment in offspring by sex if the two sexes have differential variances in reproductive success, and if there is any way to predict offspring rank. That’s a bit thick, so it requires some examples and further explanation. Maybe a story about a mobster would help..

OK, so an example: Red deer (also known as Elk) give birth to one offspring (max) per year. Males compete for access to or to be chosen by females. So, only a small percentage of male red deer mate in a given year, a significant percentage may never mate at all, and a very small percentage sire many many little red deer. Male red deer have a high variance in reproductive success. If you tried to predict how many offspring a given randomly chosen male would have, knowing nothing at all, your best guess would be the average number of offspring red deer have in an average lifetime. But you would be wrong almost every time because the actual number is highly variable. Male red deer have high variance in RS.

Females, on the other hand, have a pretty standard number of offspring. There is not much competition among them, they can always find a male to mate with, etc. If you needed to guess how many offspring a particular randomly chosen female red deer would have in a life time, you could guess the average, and you would be right on or very close. Female red deer have low variance in RS.

So, male and female red deer have differential variance in RS. Males high, females low.

If a female red deer could somehow “predict” the likelihood of her offspring getting to mate, i.e., if she could tell if any offspring she had in the present year (male or female) would be average vs. high ranking, then selection should favor the evolution of a mechanism to actually give birth to the appropriate sex offspring (thus biasing investment in one sex or the other). It turns out that she can. A female red deer that is herself average or lower-quality (thin, ill, injured) is likely to give birth to an offspring that will be either low ranking or average. But if the mother-to-be red deer is high ranking, she is likely to give birth to an individual who will grow up to be high ranking.

Under these conditions, she should have a female offspring if she’s average or low ranking, but a male if she’s high ranking. And that, it turns out, is what red deer actually do.

That should be clear. But in case it isn’t, let’s take it down do real life, and bring in the gangsters.

You check the mail this afternoon, and there is a letter from a law firm you have never heard of. It says that your Great Aunt Tillie (whom you’ve also never heard of) just died, and left you with $1,000 in her will. The check is enclosed.

Thumbnail image for 0470656662.jpgThis may or may not be a recent photograph of a male red deer. Holy crap. Found money! What are you going to do with it? So you and your close advisors (your roommates, your cat, etc.) discuss it and you narrow it down to two choices. Choice A and Choice B.

Choice A is to go to your broker and buy $1000 worth of a nice, relatively safe mutual fund. The fund will buy and sell reliable blue chip stocks, thus spreading the risk over several companies, and over time you can expect to get a return of 50 bucks a years, easy.

Choice B is to buy 1000 one dollar lottery tickets. Your chances of winning are slim, but if you do, you will win 87 million dollars.

So, what do you do? The obvious sane choice is to buy the mutual fund.

But what if your cousin is Whitey Bulger? Whitey Bulger, as head of the Winter Hill Gang, is said to have owned the director of the Commonwealth Lottery agency.The connection between Whitey Bulger and the Lottery has never been proven. They don’t have a shred of evidence. He was, however, indicted for 21 counts of RICO-Murder. It is said that one of the things that tipped off authorities about this is that some of his relatives were winning the lottery a little more often than they should have. So, say your cousin is Whitey Bulger, and last time you saw him (at a family wedding) he told you … “hey, if you ever want to take a “chance” on the lottery, let me know … I can make that work for you…”

So now, you have two choices.

Choice A: Invest in a mutual fund and gain a return of 50 bucks a year (that’s dollars, not elk); and

Choice B: Buy 1000 PowerBall tickets and have a great deal of certainty of winning 87 million dollars.

What would you do?

In case it isn’t already clear. the baby male elk is a lottery ticket, the baby female elk is a mutual fund, but the female can guess pretty accurately if the lotter ticket (male offspring) will pay off. Because the elk’s cousin is Whitey Bulger. See?

Does parasite load really matter?

In behavioral biology there is a fair amount of attention to individual quality, which may be determined by genes or parasite load or energy balance, or some interaction among these (and other) factors. Individual quality is honestly indicated by some trait or behavior; a large bright thing hanging of your head, a long bout of complex and energetic dancing, or a very loud complicated song, may be impossible to achieve in an individual with insufficient energy or some sort of disease. Therefore, other individuals looking to choose a mate can observe the traits or behaviors and do what the old guy in the cave said: “Choose wisely.”

Here is one of the nicest demonstrations of the relationship between parasite load and reproduction that I’ve seen in a while. And, as is so often the case, we gain valuable knowledge by closely observing great tits.

Photo Credit: OneTrack via Compfight cc

Does Your Genealogy Reveal Amazing Anthropological Stories?

I gave a talk at the Brookdale Public Library last night as part of the celebration of DNA day. DNA Day, or DNAD for short, was created about the time of the “completion” (more or less) of the Human Genome in 2003, and is set to be on the date of the publication of the famous research on the structure of DNA.

The point of the talk was to link behavioral biology and the anthropological study of kinship with the practice of conducting personal genealogy. There was a time when I did a fair amount of genealogical research, in connection with historic archaeology, which in turn was part of writing environmental impact assessments for publicly funded projects such as sewer systems, power plants, road improvements, and such. It is useful to know something about the people who lived on affected properties (or in affected buildings) back in the 18th or 19th century when assessing the potential significance of cultural resources, and genealogical research is part of that. Also, property research and genealogical research often go hand in hand.

At the time, I noticed a few interesting possible patterns emerging in the genealogical data, though I was never able to devote enough time to any of the projects to really narrow them down. For instance, one pair of families that lived mostly on or near Cape Cod, Massachusetts seemed to intermarry more than one might expect, almost resembling the time honored practice of “sister exchange” in some cases. Also, the two parallel families, who frequently engaged in property related ventures together, seemed to mainly follow two distinct geographically based economic strategies; one family lived mainly in the interior and farmed (among these farms was the first commercial cranberry operation in the US) while the other family lived mainly on the coast and engaged in shipping. Among the latter, one individual held the record for a time in the number of days to leave a Massachusetts port in a clipper ship, sail to Canton to load up with stuff, and return.

For decades, cultural anthropologists fixated on kinship (and associated marriage patterns and inheritance rules) as a central organizing principle in culture. This made sense for a lot of reasons. It seemed that any given culture had a sterotypical system of specifying relationships between people. These systems were not random or even that diverse; all the kinship systems studied across the world could be categorized into a few standard patterns. Perhaps one of the most striking things to European and American (Western) anthropologists was the frequent reference to kinship. In some societies, many individuals were referred to almost exclusively by kinship terms, with individuals’ given names rarely uttered. Social relations beyond just marriage or inheritance seemed to be determined by kin relations. And so on.

Over time, however, a couple of things happened. Three, probably. For one, even though all societies seemed to have a kinship system and all kinship systems could be classified into a short list of patterns, it also seemed that the kinship system observed by different anthropologists visiting a given “culture” at different times and places was sometimes different. Either kinship systems were more diverse or dynamic than previously thought, or their role in organizing society was weaker than imagined, as a system that is in flux would seem a poor starting point for a culture’s organization. Also, anthropologists were confused and confounded by the apparent fact that only some kinship systems mirrored an underlying biological reality very well. Many societies had and “underdetermined” system where, for instance, all the women and men in the generation above “ego” were called mother and father, respectively, even though they could not all be mothers and fathers. Other systems were “overdetermined” whereby individuals seemed to be classified into categories that broke atomistic biological systems down to smaller parts. Finally, it became a pattern in cultural anthropology to build up a way of thinking about culture and then, no matter how useful that way of thinking became, to toss it out and replace it with another. Models of culture among anthropologists were, it turns out, more dynamic than kinship systems within cultures!

About the same time that cultural anthropologists were both figuring out kinship and beginning to discard it as intractable or uninteresting, biologists were busy linking genetic relationships to behavior, a form of study that would eventually take shape in Sociobiology, Behavioral Biology, and Darwinian Anthropology, and Evolutionary Psychology (and no, none of those terms are really interchangeable, though there is overlap). Eventually it would become apparent to many of us that the “overdetermined” kinship systems actually do reflect an underlying biological reality, and we could understand why a patrilineal system with female exogamy and prescribed cross cousin marriage made sense from a behavioral biological point of view. Too bad the biologists and the cultural anthropologists were not more in sync, because we might have had some interesting conversations.

When a married man dies, his wife may become the wife (maybe the second or third wife) of his brother. When a man is married to more than one woman, it is more convenient for many involved in that relationship if at least two of the women are sisters. Under some conditions, more than one man will reside with and father the children of one woman, and in some cultures that is openly acknowledged, while in most, it is not. As mentioned earlier, women are often exchanged between patrilines over time, sometimes in the practice of sister exchange. Cousins, in some cases a particular kind of cousin, are often preferred marriage partners. And so on and so forth. These are all practices that have been identified in a number of societies. These practices are often explicitly defined, even given a name. There is probably a reasonable correspondence between a society’s economic base (or other factors) and whether or not any one of these practices is found. These things are seen all around the world.

However, most of these practices are explicitly or implicitly either prohibited or frowned upon, or simply ignored and unacknowledged, in Western society. Western society is one place where a fair number of people engage in systematic genealogical research. What this means is that when people do this genealogical research, they may be missing something, missing patterns, revealed by the relationships in their ever growing and ever more detailed family trees.

The other day, Amanda, Julia and I watched a film made by my sister, set in a geologically complex, active, and interesting part of the world. As someone with more than a passing knowledge of geology, I was enjoying the background as much as the foreground in that film. I especially appreciated the amazing thrust fault that showed up in many of the scenes, not to mention the broken ancient peneplains raised up by mountain building. At one point I stopped the film, rewound, and made everyone else notice these details! (I know, that must have been annoying.)

This is how I feel about Americans doing genealogy. As an anthropologist and behavioral biologist, I want those folks to at least have a chance to notice some of the interesting things they must be seeing here and there in their research.

After my talk audience members shared their observations. In fact, each of them could point to things in their genealogies that at first perplexed them, but that now they suddenly felt a better understanding of.

And, as individuals, they will never look at their cousins in the same way again.


Image from Wikipedia Entry on Kinship

The Kiss

Valentine’s Day is coming up, so it is time to think about kissing. Pursuant to this, Sheril Kirshenbaum, author of “The Science of Kissing,” has made the Kindle version of her excellent book available at a discounted price through February 18th. The book is here: The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us. (Sheril is also the co-author of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future.)

The Science of Kissing Book Cover
The Science of Kissing
Further details as well as a video (don’t worry, it’s work safe) are here, on Sheril’s site.

Also pursuant to Valentine’s Day, I thought it appropriate to repost my original review of Sheril’s book which comes with a story about a kiss:

The Kiss

I went out with a friend. We were both between relationships, and we both knew somehow that this was a date though it was never called a date. And we had a perfectly good time: Good food, good conversation, good drinks. She drove.

When it came time to go home, she drove me to the urban neighborhood I lived in and parked on the street near my house. As we were saying our good-byes, she enigmatically unhooked her seat belt. I wondered why. Then, I discovered that she wanted the freedom of movement to lean across the console and give me a kiss. It was a good kiss. It was actually a series of good kisses, and it went on for a while.

And suddenly, there was a loud rapping on the window of the car. We stopped kissing and that’s when we noticed that we had steamed up the windows a bit. So I cracked the window on which the rapping had occurred and there was a policeman staring in with his flashlight.
Continue reading The Kiss

Is Childhood The Most Important Human Adaptation?

Human infants require more care than they should, if we form our expectations based on closely related species (apes, and more generally, Old World simian primates). It has been said that humans are born three months early. This is not accurate. It was thought that our body size predicted a 12, instead of 9 month gestation, and some suggested that Neanderthals would have had such, but this research conclusion has been set aside based on new analysis. But it is still true that developmentally, human children do not reach a stage of development that allows some degree of self care for a very long time compared to apes. The actual sequence of development is not directly comparable: It is not the case that after a certain amount of time humans reach a specific stage reached earlier in the lifecycle by Chimpanzees, as the differences are more complicated than that. For the present purposes, we can characterize the human condition for early development like this: Human babies are more helpless in more ways and for longer than comparable ape babies.
Continue reading Is Childhood The Most Important Human Adaptation?

Evolutionary Psychology: Careful, some practitioners may be carrying a kitchen knife!

Darwinian Psychology, or really, any “Psychology” that claims to be science, will operate under the assumption that the human brain, as an organ, has arrived at its modern form through the process of evolution, which includes a certain amount of design through Natural Selection. It does not take that much additional sophistication to realize that the human brain is not only good at, but absolutely requires for typical functioning, a great deal of learning. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the typical human brain functions as it does because of information provided by the genes that were shaped by evolutionary forces and information provided via learning, from some combination of culture and personal experience, which by the way, could also be subject to Darwinian selection (and includes the behaviors generated by other human brains, which in turn, were subject to Darwinian selection).

A simplified model for the development of typical behavior in humans might include these elements:

1) Behavior that emerges no matter what because genes make that happen. If you want to go see some of that, sneak up behind a friend and poke them with a sharp object. They will let out a primal sound and jump. They didn’t need to learn that.

2) Behavior that would not be observed at all were it not for enculturation or learning in the individual. If you want to see some of that, check out the languages people speak. Regardless of how language itself emerges in individuals, one is not genetically programmed just to speak French. One learns one’s language, and the language one uses is a very important behavior.

3) Behavior that is only “normal” (normative in antro-speak) or “typical” when it develops as a combination of those two things (canalized learning). This is a bit harder to explore. Looking at language in a different way than above might be one. Another might be looking at individuals with an upbringing that deprived them of the usual cultural inputs, like some of the classic “wild child” examples.

(I’m avoiding defining what “behavior” is to allow this discussion to fit into one blog post!)

This is basic Evolutionary Biology. A lot of people think that what I just described is Evolutionary Psychology. If it is, then Evolutionary Psychology has broadened its mission considerably, which would be fine. But Evolutionary Psychology is more narrowly defined than this. Specifically, Evolutionary Psychology assumes the existence of “modules” in the brain, mainly in the cerebrum (but there is no reason for them to not involve other brain structures) that are distinct neural systems that allow individual humans to carry out specific behaviors. From Cosmides and Tooby’s Primer on Evolutionary Psychology:

We have all these specialized neural circuits because the same mechanism is rarely capable of solving different adaptive problems. For example, we all have neural circuitry designed to choose nutritious food on the basis of taste and smell – circuitry that governs our food choice. But imagine a woman who used this same neural circuitry to choose a mate. She would choose a strange mate indeed (perhaps a huge chocolate bar?). To solve the adaptive problem of finding the right mate, our choices must be guided by qualitatively different standards than when choosing the right food, or the right habitat. Consequently, the brain must be composed of a large collection of circuits, with different circuits specialized for solving different problems. You can think of each of these specialized circuits as a mini-computer that is dedicated to solving one problem. Such dedicated mini-computers are sometimes called modules. There is, then, a sense in which you can view the brain as a collection of dedicated mini-computers – a collection of modules. There must, of course, be circuits whose design is specialized for integrating the output of all these dedicated mini-computers to produce behavior. So, more precisely, one can view the brain as a collection of dedicated mini-computers whose operations are functionally integrated to produce behavior.

While some of these behaviors might be in some form general to mammals (or primates or vertebrates or some other taxonomic group) they only count as proper modules if they exist in humans as human-specific capacities that are adaptations each shaped by a particular “environment of evolutionary adaptiveness,” altered over time through natural selection, to function a certain way. To be very clear: The functioning of these modules is primarily determined by neural systems that are specified by genes that were, in turn, shaped by natural selection.

The gasp and jump behavior noted above would be a bad example of a “human behavior” for this sort of study because although there are certainly human aspects to it, it is mainly a more general behavior. Try it with your cat and see what happens. A great example from Evolutionary Psychology would be cheater detection. Even if the detection of “cheating” behavior might be found in non-human animals, humans seem to do this in unique human ways. One study that supports and exemplifies this (which I’m a bit familiar with because I helped with it) compared human ability to solve a basic logic problem under different conditions. Briefly, humans were given two different problems, both with the same underlying logic and with the same logically determined answer, but framed in very different contexts. In one setup, the humans were asked to solve the problem in the context of an esoteric filing problem that a file clerk might encounter. In the other context the humans were asked to evaluate the honesty of individuals trying to get a drink at a bar, from the point of view of the bartender. In both cases there would have been an exhaustive, multi-step solution (such as asking everybody for their ID no matter what, or looking in every single file folder to see if everything was filed correctly) but there was also a clear and unambiguous least-step most efficient solution (ask only certain people for their ID, or look in only certain file folders), and the test subjects were asked to provide that efficient solution. In the case of the filing problem, people were shown to be really bad at finding the solution. In the case of the more human problem, where subjects were being asked to asses the chance that people were lying, they did rather well. This suggests that humans have an ability, built into the brain, to handle lying and cheating by other humans. (Here is an example of a recent related study.)

Evolutionary Psychology says that humans evolved to do this during a period of “evolutionary adaptiveness,” living in social groups where detecting cheaters conferred a fitness advantage, or not doing so caused a fitness disadvantage. Moreover, this capacity exists as a brain “module” that develops in individuals by virtue of genetic programming, with the genes doing that developmental programming having been under selection during that period.

An alternative explanation … but still evolutionary and still scientific … might be that the ability to detect cheating emerged in individuals who, over their lifetime, experienced the need to do so and learned, and/or received from their culture through the processes of enculturation, the ability to do so. In this explanation there may well have been gene-level selection to facilitate some sort of data processing or reasoning, and perhaps most importantly, learning, without which individuals would not be very good at developing a cheating detection mechanism.

In both cases, one could say that there is a “mental module” … a neural structure in the brain that is good at doing some thing. In both cases one could say that the module emerged as part of the evolutionary process. Indeed, I regard the result of this and similar experience as very strong evidence that there are modules in human brains that are really good at doing certain things, and that are sufficiently specialized that they are also bad at doing similar but in some sense “unnatural” versions of the same thing. In an Evolutionary Psychology version, the module was mostly built neurologically because of genetically specified development. In a more general Darwinian Psychology, brains are selected (though evolutionary process) to be good at learning how to do this sort of thing.

One way to test this would be to raise a group of babies in a cultural environment in which it was not necessary to ever detect cheaters, but where day to day activities of import required being really good at file clerking. If Evolutionary Psychology is right and Darwinian Psychology is wrong, then the adults that emerge from that experience will test the same way on the previously described experiment (or maybe a little different, but the pattern would be the same). If Darwinian Psychology is right and Evolutionary Psychology is wrong, then when confronted with a test for cheater detection vs file clerking, the test subjects will excel at file clerking and be lousy cheater detectors.

It is possible, of course, that both things happen: there could be genetically determined human-unique modules AND a set of general learning capacities.

ResearchBlogging.orgIn fact, much of the better research in Evolutionary Psychology addresses the potential combination or overlap between these developmentally distinct explanations. A recent paper by Fessler et.al is a great example of this. The paper, “Weapons Make the Man (Larger): Formidability Is Represented as Size and Strength in Humans,” tests the idea that when assessing the degree to which one should regard a foe as formidable, humans narrow down their assessment into a generalized variable that is very likely to have emerged as a cognitive tool during our Old World Primate/Ape ancestry: Size. They conclude “… knowing that a man possesses a gun or a kitchen knife leads people to assess him as larger and more muscular. In conjunction with prior work, our studies thus provide strong preliminary evidence that the conceptual dimensions of size and strength are employed to represent relative formidability.” To me, that is an excellent example of a study of evolved human capacities, done by a team of researchers who call themselves “Evolutionary Psychologists,” which does not ignore, but rather incorporates, the most likely scenario for the evolution of the human mind; human brains are the product of millions of years of evolution and specific human capacities emerge as a conjuncture of innate abilities and drives (attention to “bigness”) and individual culturally mediated experiences (understanding of the artifacts of violence) combined and fine tuned by forces that are worthy of further exploration.

(I would note that the lead author on this study, Dan Fessler, would be one of the first authors I’d point someone to whom might be interested in reading some “good Evolutionary Psychology.”)

“Evolutionary Psychology” can be viewed as distinct form a more general “Darwinian Psychology” which simply says that the brain is shaped by evolutionary forces, or a “Behavioral Biology” that might derive from both human and non-human primate studies, which could assert that typical human behaviors are the result of an unspecified (but knowable) combination of evolved genetically determined capacities or drives, and learning. hese are very different ideas, but many people conflate or confuse them.

Brains evolved. Sometimes, when criticizing Evolutionary Psychology, as I’ve done now and then and as Rebecca Watson recently did, those who call themselves “Evolutionary Psychologist” react in an interesting way. They claim that the criticisms are unscientific. They may label the critics as “creationists” or “science denialists.” I some cases, a defender of the subfield may even resort to cherry picking among the perceived attacker’s prior writings to falsely show that they hold certain beliefs. This sort of reaction has been observed of others who undergo criticism by people who really do hold similar fundamental views, but who do not agree in total with a particular position. I wonder if this reaction is a human universal of some sort. Perhaps, even, a module. It would be interesting to see this developed as a research project.

Fessler, D., Holbrook, C., & Snyder, J. (2012). Weapons Make the Man (Larger): Formidability Is Represented as Size and Strength in Humans PLoS ONE, 7 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0032751

See also:

?EP: The fundamental failure of the evolutionary psychology premise

?EP: The fundamental failure of the evolutionary psychology premise

Is evolutionary psychology worthless?

Reason.tv: Stone Age Minds – A conversation with evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby

How Girls Evolved to Shop

Rebecca Watson gave the following talk at Skeptcon. It is funny, well done, and critiques a Pop-Evol-Psy concept or two, which I have also addressed (Why Do Men Hunt and Women Shop?, Understanding Sex Differences in Humans: What do we learn from nature?, Falsehoods: Human Universals, A Tutorial in Human Behavioral Biology, Driving The Patriarchy: Demonic Males, Feminism, and Genetic Determinism, Race, Gender, IQ and Nature, What is the most important human adaptation?, How Do You Get Sexual Orientation and Gender in Humans?, Men = Testosterone Damaged Women!, Sex and Gender in An Odd Primate), as Rebecca notes, thank you Rebecca! I don’t agree with everything Rebecca said about the role of men and women in forager societies, but that isn’t too important to her talk.

The original video is HERE. Please be so kind as to go and “like” it, as there will be many haters who will bother to go and “unlike” it because they are haters.

CLICK HERE for my followup post on this. And, HERE is another, related post.