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TVOL1000 Profile: Christopher Lynn

Christopher Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology and director of evolutionary studies at the University of Alabama. He studies the diversity and evolution of non-conscious cognitive behaviors that underlie cooperation, ritual, and recreation. He has worked in Costa Rica, the US, and American Samoa. He is editor of Evolution Education in the American South: Culture, Politics, and Resources in and Around Alabama (Palgrave Macmillan 2017) and has published in Anthropology of ConsciousnessEvolutionary Behavioral SciencesEvolutionary PsychologyReligion, Brain and BehaviorAnthropology NowJournal of Cognition and CultureEthosAnnals of Anthropological Practice, and American Journal of Human Biology.

I blog about “cheap thrills through evolution” and think the evolutionary worldview is fun. In my work, I apply it to everything from Pentecostal speaking in tongues to tattooing to smartphones to relaxing by the fire.

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The most fun I have with the evolutionary worldview is in challenging students to apply it to any subject. In our “Evolution for Everyone” course, they must compose a 3-page project proposal that applies the evolutionary worldview to their major. “I dare you,” I tell them on the first day, “to give me a major we can’t connect to evolution.”

“Hotel management?” a student hazarded once.

“Easy,” I boasted. “We can approach that through basic behavioral economics. The appeal of any given hotel is based on the comforts it can provide humans, which are related to the most fundamental evolved characteristics of mammals—where we sleep, what we eat, and—if we’re being honest—our ability to have sex. The problem is not how to connect evolution and hotel management but where to start.”

No matter what you’re up to, what you’re watching on Netflix (and chill?), what you’re reading, it can be related to evolutionary principles. For instance, like the rest of the US, I’m currently wishing I could afford a ticket to the Broadway musical Hamilton, am listening to the soundtrack on my family’s cross-country treks, and have been inspired to read the biography by Ron Chernow upon which it is based. The development of the US economic system Hamilton undertook as the first Secretary of Treasury was so sophisticated and specific to the American circumstances and his own experiences with colonial mercantilism and politics that it could easily be analyzing using niche construction modeling. And the clashes among Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson provide so much insight into evolved human cognition and chimpanzee politics that they almost enable us to understand the election of Donald Trump.

“After this exhaustive investigation,” writes Chernow, “his opponents still rehashed the stale charges of misconduct. He had learned a lesson about propaganda in politics…no character, however upright, is a match for constantly reiterated attacks, however false. If the charge was made often enough, people assume in the end that a person so often accused cannot be entirely innocent.”

Consistent with Mark Schaller’s behavioral immune system theory, humans seem to err to the side of caution, especially when environments are unstable. Though electing Trump may seem to defy caution, he barrages the public with propaganda that seems to mollify (and stoke) fears. Labeling his opponent as “Lying Hillary” and DC as a “swamp that needs draining” effectively planted a bugaboo of deception and disease in the minds of voters. Our evolved impulse is to avoid disease, but our behavioral immune response is nonspecific and not especially charitable. This same system can help us understand aversions to strangers, people of other skin colors, food we’re not familiar with, the elderly, those who are overweight, people who engage in same-sex relations, and so on. 

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