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SOCIAL EVOLUTION FORUM
On Slates and Tweets: A Reply to David Sloan Wilson on Ancient Warfare and the Blank Slate
Instead of thinking of human nature as being either pacifist or bellicose, Michael Shermer suggests that we should think of aggression and violence as emotions and behaviors that evolved in response to free riders, bullies, challenges, and threats to the survival and flourishing of individuals and groups.
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An Evolutionary Approach to Sustainability Science
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                    [post_content] => War is not the necessary outcome of evolution. Image by Paul Keller, via Wikimedia.

 

Michael Shermer, the world’s most famous skeptic, recently posted a tweet that read “Sorry blank slaters & Peace & Harmony Mafia: Evidence of a prehistoric massacre extends the history of warfare.”

He was referring to recently discovered archeological evidence that one small group of people massacred another small group of people 10,000 years ago in Kenya.

I couldn’t resist tweeting a reply to Michael, who I count as a respected colleague and friend: “I have to ask: how does an ancient massacre bear upon any of the assumptions of ‘blank slate’ psychology?”

There ensued an eruption of tweets that came and went, like so many other disturbances of the Twitterverse.  The matters at stake are anything but ephemeral, however, and bear upon the very nature of human psychology and culture from an evolutionary perspective. A blog post doesn’t provide much more opportunity for serious thought than a tweet, but I’ll try to say just enough to map out the intellectual territory and link to the deep end of the pool (the academic literature).

The concept of the human mind as a blank slate implies that people are unconstrained in how they behave. That is why I was puzzled by Michael’s tweet. If the human mind is a blank slate, then why couldn’t “war” have been written upon it as well as “peace” 10,000 years ago in Kenya?

Michael responded to my reply with this tweet: “Blank slate assumption: war is a modern invention w/no relation to our evolutionary propensity to aggression”. To my mind, that’s like mixing apples and oranges. How far warfare extends back in human history is one matter. The open-ended flexibility of the human mind is another. I don’t care how much they have been conflated in the past. If we’re interested in our capacity to behave in almost any fashion, then an ancient massacre tells us nothing. Zero. Zip.

So let’s get back to the central question of the human capacity to behave any which way.  But first let me tell you about two other blank slates.

The blank slate of natural selection.

As nearly everyone knows, natural selection requires three ingredients: variation, selection, and heredity. When these ingredients are met, then traits evolve that adapt organisms to their environments.  It is common for evolutionists to assume that all traits are heritable, in which case organisms are blank slates that selection can write anything upon. This is often called “adaptationist thinking” or “natural selection thinking” and it is arguably the most powerful tool in the evolutionary toolkit.

Even though evolutionists indulge in their own brand of blank slate thinking all the time, they do not defend it as literally correct. They know that not all traits are heritable, that phenotypic variation is constrained by developmental pathways, and all that. Thus, they easily back away from their blank slate assumption, but they still legitimately defend it as a valuable heuristic that is true much of the time.

The blank slate of the vertebrate immune system.

Immunologists distinguish between the “innate” and “adaptive” components of the immune system. The terms are a little confusing, because the “innate” component is a mind-bogglingly complex set of adaptations that evolved by natural selection to protect us from the onslaught of disease organisms. What makes them innate is that they are automated and don’t change during the lifetime of the organism. This is sometimes called “closed phenotypic plasticity” in the evolutionary literature.

The adaptive component of the immune system is capable of adapting defenses against disease organisms during the lifetime of a vertebrate organism. Briefly, the body produces approximately 100 million different antibodies. Each is capable of attaching to a narrow range of organic surfaces. Antibodies that succeed in attaching to disease organisms that evade the innate component of the immune system differentially proliferate. In other words, the adaptive component of the immune system is an open-ended evolutionary process that evolved by genetic evolution and adapts vertebrate organisms to their disease environments during their lifetimes.

Are immunologists justified in employing a blank slate assumption concerning what can evolve by the adaptive component of the immune system? Yes, in exactly the same sense as evolutionists employ adaptationist thinking for the study of genetic evolution.

The blank slate of human psychology.

Now let me ask you to think of the human capacity for behavioral and cultural change as like the vertebrate immune system. There is both an innate and adaptive component, which result in forms of closed and open behavioral phenotypic plasticity respectively. The adaptive component of human behavioral and cultural flexibility justifies the same kind of blank slate adaptationist thinking employed by evolutionists (based on heritable genetic variation) and immunologists (based on the variation and selection of antibodies). It’s that simple.

B.F. Skinner, the psychologist associated with the “blank slate” tradition more than any other, wrote this abstract for his 1981 article in Science magazine titled “Selection by Consequences”:

Selection by consequences is a causal mode found only in living things, or in machines made by living things. It was first recognized in natural selection, but it also accounts for the shaping and maintenance of the behavior of the individual and the evolution of cultures. In all three of these fields, it replaces explanations based on the causal modes of classical mechanics. The replacement is strongly resisted. Natural selection has now made its case, but similar delays in recognizing the role of selection in the other fields could deprive us of valuable help in solving the problems which confront us.

Skinner got one thing right and another thing wrong in this passage. He was right that human behavioral and cultural flexibility has an open-ended component similar to the adaptive component of the vertebrate immune system, which justifies the same kind of adaptationist blank slate thinking employed by evolutionists and immunologists. He was wrong that this kind of thinking replaces “explanations based on the causal modes of classical mechanics”. In evolutionary parlance, this is like saying that thinking in terms of ultimate causation replaces thinking in terms of proximate causation. Skinner’s reluctance to open the black box of proximate mechanisms led to the demise of the tradition of behaviorism in academic psychology—although it remains alive and well in branches of applied psychology, where the goal is to actually accomplish behavioral and cultural change. Every evolutionist worth his or her salt knows that a fully rounded evolutionary approach requires attention to both proximate and ultimate causation, or “function”, “phylogeny”, “mechanism” and “development”, to use Niko Tinbergen’s useful fourfold distinction. I am reaching the limits of a blog post, but the bottom line is that “blank slate” adaptationist thinking is as essential for the study of human psychology and culture as it is for the study of genetic evolution and immunology. The polarizing distinction between “Evolutionary Psychology” and the “Standard Social Science Model” was a wrong turn from which we all need to recover. If you have enjoyed dipping your toe into this subject, then I invite you to dive into the deep end of the pool with this 2014 article published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences titled “Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change”.  My co-authors, Steven C. Hayes, Anthony Biglan, and Dennis Embry, are accomplished applied behavioral scientists who come from the Skinnerian tradition and are experienced at accomplishing positive open-ended behavioral change. BBS is a commentary journal, which means that our target article is followed by approximately two-dozen commentaries from our academic colleagues and our reply, giving a sense of the spectrum of current scientific opinion that is out there. In the future, I hope that my friend Michael Shermer and other skeptics about the blank slate concept will base their blog posts and tweets on what is taking place at the deep end of the pool, rather than massacres that took place in the distant past. [post_title] => In Defense of the Blank Slate [post_excerpt] => David Sloan Wilson comments on a twitter exchange with Michael Shermer and asks "how does an ancient massacre bear upon any of the assumptions of ‘blank slate’ psychology?" [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => in-defense-of-the-blank-slate [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-01-28 09:24:45 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-01-28 14:24:45 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120003972 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 9 [filter] => raw ) [1] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120003955 [post_author] => 48 [post_date] => 2016-01-22 11:58:22 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-01-22 16:58:22 [post_content] =>
Human warfare is shocking and an evolutionary puzzle, via Getty Images.

The most atrocious acts of violence humans commit have been in warfare. Through the course of human history we have left countless children orphaned and violently raped millions of women. We have found untold means to torture enemy combatants deliberately inflicting pain beyond what most living organisms may have experienced. We have displayed the skulls of our enemies as trophies in our homes, or worse, used them as cups to consume our beverages. It seems that few things we do are as morally depraved as our behavior in warfare. Yet, it is not the egregious violence and moral depravity that makes human warfare stand out. Deliberately torturing others may be a special human quality, but there is ample violence, injury and pain endured by animals in the struggle to obtain resources, reproduce and avoid death. What is truly shocking about human warfare is that large numbers of reproductively capable, unrelated, and unfamiliar individuals die in combat for benefits that are widely shared. From our closest living relative in the animal kingdom, to the highly cooperative eusocial insects—no animal cooperates in war in this manner. Chimps raid neighboring communities, but in the several decades of observing them, no chimp in the attacking party has been killed. They only attack when they outnumber the opponent sufficiently so that the attackers are unscathed. And the chimps that gang up for a raid know each other well, as they hail from the same community. Ants readily sacrifice their lives in inter-colony battles, but the ants that do so are sterile individuals. They are giving up their lives to increase the fitness of the reproductively capable queen they are genetically related to. Reciprocity and relatedness suffice to explain chimp and ant wars. Human warfare calls for a novel explanation. But does human warfare stand out in the animal kingdom if kings, states, and other centralized political institutions are taken out of the picture. Perhaps our weird behavior is a result of powerful rulers who can coerce us to do anything, including give up our lives. Answering this question has taken me a place in East Africa where different pastoral societies wage wars for cattle, pastures and water. The Turkana, the people I work with, are egalitarian herders. They make a living in the semi-arid savanna of northwest Kenya by keeping cattle, camel, goat, and sheep, and seasonally moving to find pastures and water. Periodically they mobilize and raid other settlements to acquire cattle and pastures, and to take revenge for previous attacks. These attacks give the impression that human warfare does indeed require a novel explanation. Turkana warriors are not coerced by any authority. Yet in some areas of the Turkana one out of five males die in warfare. Of the males who survive to adulthood, one out of two die in warfare. You may be tempted to think that in an egalitarian small-scale society everyone is either a friend or relative, and so this is simply cooperation with one’s kith and kin. But this is not the case. The Turkana number a million people, and are divided into about two-dozen different sub-territories. On Turkana raids hundreds of men from different territories come together. For a typical warrior most of his fellow combatants are neither kin nor close associates. Many are strangers. So, really, why do these men go on raids, trusting that the strangers they are fighting with will do their part? Some may say it is obvious why these men participate in warfare. After all, cattle are food, wealth, and the path to marriage. And cattle have feet—drive them away and you can make a fortune overnight. Not only so, without a fight they would lose their territory, and what is life for a herder without good pastures? And lets not forget, it is reproductive-aged men wielding AK-47s who go on these raids. The mix of youth, testosterone, and firearms—how can war not transpire? Yet, acknowledging these motives—cows, pastures, and firearms—gets us only so far. AK-47-wielding, young, unmarried men have plenty of reasons to have a dustup with other men of their community. They share pastures and water, and vie for the same women. Yet, in quarrels with each other, they put aside their AK-47s, and hash out disputes with their herding sticks and wrist blades. If you think it is the desire for cows, then consider that there are cows everywhere. The neighboring family has cows, the settlement across the river has cows, and herders in distant Turkana settlements have cows. Yet, Turkana men pass up on these hundreds of thousands of cows, and instead will travel large distances until they reach the settlement of people who do not consider themselves Turkana, before they raid cattle. And yes, territory is precious. But, remarkably, Turkana from one territory typically allow Turkana from other territories to graze in their pastures, and such sharing is especially common in the dry season when grass and water are scarce. Yet, if the Toposa encroach, the Turkana of the area will mobilize a retaliatory raid. Earlier in this post I noted that warfare is where moral depravity seems to abound. But perhaps the question to ask is why we have moral concerns at all, and why they extend to an arbitrary set of people who are neither relatives nor friends. Why does a Turkana herder pass up on the cows of some distant stranger, to go and raid the cows of some other distant stranger? Why use sticks to fight with some people, and AK-47s to fight with others? Why let some strangers graze in your scarce pastures and kill others for venturing too close? And is that set of people we have moral concerns towards just arbitrary, or is there some logic to our moral inclusivity? Answering this can help make sense of a lot of the violence that we want to understand and limit. It would be a place for evolutionary thinking to make a useful contribution. And it has. Over the last couple decades, the field of cultural evolution has developed a game-changing idea—the theory of cultural group selection. Posited originally by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd 1, and honed further by Joseph Henrich 2, the theory reveals that the cultural capacity of humans creates conditions for group selection to occur. Not genetic group selection, but selection among culturally distinct groups. Peter Turchin has applied this theory to answer questions of human history such as why empires rise and fall 3, and how cooperative states emerged 4. My work on Turkana warfare provides empirical support for cultural group selection in a non-state society 5. Together with Matthew Zefferman I’ve posited that cultural group selection can subsume existing evolutionary theories of warfare and account for many of the bizarre features of human warfare 6. There is more to be done to evaluate the theory of cultural group selection…but as of now the theory tells us that the moral sphere of humans readily extends to include culturally similar people. This is useful because it implies that we could possibly expand the moral sphere by creating perceptions of cultural similarity. Finding the common thread that connects disparate cultures may not be just a cliché, but an evolutionarily backed-up path to peace. Works Cited:
  1. Boyd, R. & Richerson, P. J. Culture and the evolutionary process. (University of Chicago Press, 1985).
  2. Henrich, J. Cultural group selection, coevolutionary processes and large-scale cooperation. J. Econ. Behav. Organ. 53, 3–35 (2004).
  3. Turchin, P. War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires. (Plume, 2006).
  4. Turchin, P. Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. (Beresta Books, 2015).
  5. Mathew, S. & Boyd, R. Punishment sustains large-scale cooperation in prestate warfare. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 108, 1091–6490 (2011).
  6. Zefferman, M. R. & Mathew, S. An evolutionary theory of large-scale human warfare: Group-structured cultural selection. Evol. Anthropol. 24, 50–61 (2015).
[post_title] => The Paradox of Human Warfare Explained [post_excerpt] => Human warfare is an evolutionary puzzle that can be explained by selection among cultural groups. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => the-paradox-of-human-warfare-explained [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-01-22 11:58:22 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-01-22 16:58:22 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120003955 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 4 [filter] => raw ) [2] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120003936 [post_author] => 30 [post_date] => 2016-01-18 08:12:22 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-01-18 13:12:22 [post_content] =>
Image Credit: The Streets of Denver via NASA Earth Observatory.

  A great historical transition is underway in the biological and social sciences, one that brings with it a number of exciting new possibilities for humanity to guide itself through collective actions while addressing the myriad converging threats of the 21st Century.  We are now embarking on a path to unify the social and biological sciences with the arts and humanities. I have joined the Evolution Institute as a Culture Designer in Residence to coordinate and guide this process.

For a primer on culture design --> Go here.

This is a scientific revolution that is already many decades in the making. (A partial history can be found in articles like this and is elaborated in books like this.) It will take many more decades to fully play itself out. But there is an urgency to catalyze the evolution of the social sciences and make significant strides in the next 3-5 years -- a case made in our preliminary analysis of the Grand Challenges for Cultural Evolution where we identified social issues like ecological harm, wealth inequality, violent conflict and the pace of technological change as areas where the field of cultural evolutionary studies is poised to make significant contributions for society. We have initiated a collaborative project that is designed specifically to be this catalyst. It is the Cultural Evolution Society, midwifed throughout 2015 in a series of developments that enable us to enter the new year at a sprinter’s pace, guiding its formation into a fully-fledged entity in the next six months. We have two goals with this project:
  1. Give birth to a highly prestigious and scientifically rigorous professional society that advances the theory and practice of cultural evolutionary studies.
  2. Build capacity for this community of researchers and practitioners to coordinate efforts and achieve more together than any of us working on our own.
Our ad hoc steering committee is comprised of lead researchers from anthropology, archeology, cultural evolutionary studies, evolutionary biology, cross-cultural psychology, and the mathematical study of history (known as “cliodynamics”). We formed voluntarily after a workshop held in College Park, Maryland in March of last year. Since that time, more than 1200 founding members from 54 nations around the world have signed up to help birth the society. Our membership is comprised of researchers from several hundred universities, as well as a significant minority with 25% working as social change practitioners away from the academy.  We have received a $217,000 planning grant from the John Templeton Foundation to create the society—on a timeline starting December 1st, 2015 and ending in the summer of 2017—that funds my position to serve as coordinator throughout this period. We just met for a second meeting December 20-22nd, again in College Park. A very productive meeting unfolded as we formed committees to create bylaws, nominate and elect officials, begin organizing the first annual conference, and to explore innovative approaches to tackling the grand challenges for cultural evolution—informed by the detailed survey analysis from a questionnaire sent to our membership in the fall that was referenced above. So we are now in a strong position to apply the tools of culture design to the field of cultural evolution. A summary report from our meeting can be found here:

Birthing Cultural Evolution Society

(Click Image for PDF)

A brief sketch of the approach we have outlined so far is the following:
  • Establish a democratic process for our founding members to set an agenda for the society and answer the “Big Questions” for our field—tackling grand challenges with a strong focus on interdisciplinary research that breaks down institutional silos and moves toward a unified body of integrated social sciences.
  • We will do this by a combination of centrally coordinated and self-organizing approaches. Centralized coordination will be employed to set up the platforms for collaboration—via normal activities including peer-review journals and annual conferences, and through more innovative approaches as we build out partnership networks.  Self-organizing approaches will be enabled using web forums like the one this blog is posted on and the possible future development of mobile apps and other peer-to-peer interaction tools.
We envision a series of collaborative research projects, many of them self-organized and vetted by our members coming together on their own, with technical and educational support from the society to assist them.  Some of the concerns and challenges for this approach were discussed in our meeting (and are discussed in the report above).  At the same time we recognize that it is very early-stage and the community will set its own course with a democratically elected leadership in the months ahead. In this manner, we will be able to incubate a canon of educational and research materials for wide dissemination, build up and share open databases for comparative studies, and provide grant management (possibly even grant offerings) at lower overhead cost to encourage collaboration across institutions and research fields. Suffice it to say, this is a very inspiring project. An 18 month road map can be found in the summary report. Sketched briefly here, we envision standing up the society in the following rough timeline: 18 Month Road Map For those of you who have already signed up as founding members, I look forward to working with you on all of this in the next year and a half.  If you haven't become a founding member yet, please do so by going here and filling out this online form. Here's to an inspiring and productive 2016! [post_title] => Birthing the Field of Cultural Evolution [post_excerpt] => We are now embarking on a path to unify the social and biological sciences with the arts and humanities. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => birthing-the-field-of-cultural-evolution [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-01-18 08:12:22 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-01-18 13:12:22 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120003936 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 2 [filter] => raw ) [3] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120003829 [post_author] => 50 [post_date] => 2015-12-30 08:00:34 [post_date_gmt] => 2015-12-30 13:00:34 [post_content] =>
"Howler Monkeys" by Steve from Washington, DC, USA. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia.
  There's a persistent belief in creationist circles that the theory of evolution is a house of cards that will collapse if an astute, open-minded person just looks at it hard enough. To facilitate this process, creationists pass around lists of questions which they are certain evolutionists "can't answer." The questions emphasized vary from group to group, but the suggested tactic is the same: publicly confront an evolutionist, ideally a professor or teacher, and confound him or her with questions that will expose the structural weaknesses of the theory. From Creation Today:
NOTE TO STUDENTS: Make a copy of this challenge to evolutionists and ask your teacher or professor to give you answers to these questions. If they cannot, you have a right to be skeptical that what they are teaching about evolution is true. Also, give copies to your fellow students so that they, too, will be aware that there are huge flaws in the theory of evolution. It is still a theory, not a "fact."
The questions from the source above include things like:
What are the odds that the evolutionary process, proceeding by random changes, would produce human beings, plus millions of species of animals, birds, fish and insects, all with symmetrical features, i.e., one side being a mirror image of the other? We take symmetry in all these creatures for granted, but is that a reasonable outcome for a random process? Where are the trillions of fossils of such true transitional forms? What are the odds that, of the millions of species of animals, birds, fish and insects, a male of each species developed at the same time and in the same place as a female of the same species, so that the species could propagate? Why are there two sexes anyhow?
Of course, anyone who has taken a high school introductory biology course should be able to answer questions like these (or point out exactly how they are flawed.) I say "should be able", but unfortunately that is not always the case. This semester I taught an introductory university course in physical anthropology in which we intensively studied human evolution, beginning with basic concepts in genetics and evolutionary theory and finishing with an overview of the hominin fossil record. (I used Clark Spencer Larsen's "Our Origins" as the textbook). I discovered early in the semester that about half the class was not well prepared for this material: many knew absolutely nothing about human evolution, and a sizable number knew very little about evolution in general. It's not the students' fault. Science education in Kansas (where I teach) has been under attack for some time by a coalition of religious groups trying to prevent the teaching of evolution in public high schools, and I suspect that my students' lack of preparation might be at least partially attributable to this. But that's a subject of another, longer post in the future. Regardless of how little they know coming in to the course, I want my students to walk out of the classroom with a solid knowledge of how evolution works. In five years' time, they may have forgotten the morphological differences between the teeth of Australopithecus afarensis and Homo erectus , or the phylogenetic relationships of Denisovans to Neandertals and H. sapiens as inferred from ancient genomes (although I hope they don't!), but if they have a basic understanding of how evolution works as a process, they should be able to understand the significance of new fossil or genetic discoveries. Similarly, if they understand the difference between science and pseudoscience, they should be able to evaluate factual claims. The difficulty for me was figuring out how to present these ideas when the course is already jam-packed with information the students needed to learn in order to advance. So I tried something new. One of the questions that some creationists (and people who simply don't know a lot about evolution) frequently ask to challenge evolution is: "If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?" (I see this question asked every single day on Twitter, thanks to the account of @TakeThatDarwin who retweets creationists). In the past I've simply rolled my eyes at how ridiculous the question is--in fact, several groups like Answers in Genesis, strongly urge their readership not to use it--but I recently realized that it nicely gets at some very serious and common misunderstandings about evolution. I decided to experiment with using it to further students' critical thinking. I gave this question to students to answer several times throughout the course. First, I used it as a means of (anonymously) assessing their knowledge about evolution as a process early in the course. About a fourth of the class gave confused answers to it, and another fourth could answer it partially but without sufficient detail. After we had gone through basic concepts of evolutionary theory, genetics, and primate phylogenies (but before we got into the hominin fossil record), I made it the subject of an in-class discussion, so students could learn from each other's answers. At that point, they had the basic tools to answer the question, and those who participated in the discussion were able to answer it in some detail. Finally, as a means of reinforcing students' knowledge at the end of the course, I gave it as the last extra credit question on the final exam. Nearly everyone who chose to answer this question received full credit. I was looking for two parts in their response: 1. A recognition that we did not evolve from monkeys--or other living primates-- but instead share a common primate ancestor. (Bonus points for recognizing that the category 'monkey' is paraphyletic and is a colloquial term, not a scientific taxon). 2. An understanding that evolution doesn't work in a linear fashion, with one species replacing the last. There are many good analogies to use in teaching this concept; I like to use the analogy of a family tree: that is, I and my sister are both descended from the same parents, yet we exist at the same time. This approach allowed the class to confront some of the major misconceptions of evolution, including the idea that modern animals transform into other kinds of modern animals, that there is a predetermined "order" to evolution, and that evolution is a "finished" process. It served as a platform to discuss several important concepts: adaptations, natural selection, heredity, and that evolution occurs in populations, not individuals. I saw a distinct progression in students' reasoning on this question over the course of the semester, and I think that it proved to be pretty useful in the end. Another approach I used to supplement the textbook (because the findings were so new they weren't in the textbook) was to show students two video clips offering two very different perspectives on the newest hominin fossil, Homo naledi. The first was by Kent Hovind (I started at 9 minutes in, and we watched for about 10 minutes or so).
The second was by National Geographic, and included clips from paleoanthropologist Lee Berger who discovered H. naledi.
I asked students to identify two or three testable claims presented in each video, and think about what kinds of evidence would be needed to test these claims. This sparked a very lively and (I think) helpful discussion in class which covered radiometric dating methods and their limitations, how to interpret clues about behavior from the fossil record, and a brief discussion on how fossil discoveries are portrayed in the media. We ended by discussing how new information about human ancestors--derived from fossils, archaeology, and genetics--is evaluated by the scientific community. While I'm on break, in addition to catching up on all the writing I didn't have time for during the semester (how do people stay on top of all of this?), I'm looking for more materials that would be good for these kinds of exercises in critical thinking. I just found the Institute for Creation Research's document summarizing the "scientific" case against evolution, and I think that there are some very useful instances of misconceptions that could work well as the basis for student research and discussion. For example, the following statement could serve as a useful starting point for students to think critically about taxonomy, evo-devo, and both early and later primate fossil records:
Fossil discoveries can muddle over attempts to construct simple evolutionary trees -- fossils from key periods are often not intermediates, but rather hodge podges of defining features of many different groups. . . . Generally, it seems that major groups are not assembled in a simple linear or progressive manner -- new features are often "cut and pasted" on different groups at different times. As far as ape/human intermediates are concerned, the same is true, although anthropologists have been eagerly searching for them for many years. Many have been proposed, but each has been rejected in turn.
But I'd like to find more. To any professors who teach evolution who read this blog, I want to ask: In addition to assigned readings, traditional lectures, and labs, what approaches do you use for teaching on the fundamentals of human evolution (or evolutionary theory)? Do you do something similar? To anyone else who reads this blog, I want to ask: How did you first learn about evolution, and human evolution in particular? Have you ever changed your mind on the subject? If so, what caused you to change your mind? [post_title] => Why There Still Are Monkeys: Lessons Learned From Teaching Evolution In Kansas [post_excerpt] => I used creationist propaganda in the classroom to teach students about the misconceptions people have over evolution. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => why-there-still-are-monkeys-lessons-learned-from-teaching-evolution-in-kansas [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2015-12-30 08:16:07 [post_modified_gmt] => 2015-12-30 13:16:07 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120003829 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 53 [filter] => raw ) [4] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120003783 [post_author] => 52 [post_date] => 2015-12-21 08:00:20 [post_date_gmt] => 2015-12-21 13:00:20 [post_content] =>
"Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!" by Marcus Bockmann, via Flickr.

  2015 was a momentous year in findings on 100,000+ years of human evolution (see Pääbo 2015). It also marked the 30th anniversary of the seminal Higuchi et al. (1984) paper on sequencing ancient DNA from the quagga, an extinct equine (see Hagelberg et al 2015 for an excellent review). Thirty years on, large strides in sequencing technologies and statistical methods to reconstruct evolutionary processes (see Racimo et al. 2015 for a review of methods) have methodically tried to piece together a portrait of the past, not without its fair share of contentions. If there’s one thing to be said about studies of human genomic variation, it’s data, data, and more data (eg. 2500+ genomes reconstructed as part of the 1000 Genomes Project -, ~320 African genomes – Gurdasani et al. (2015), 100+ ancient genomes reconstructed by Allentoft et al. (2015)) Here I summarize some of these studies (geographically structured for no real reason) and wait with my RSS feeds open for what 2016 will bring! The Out-of-Africa Bottleneck While the Out-of-Africa bottleneck hypothesis has long been settled, its effect on modern, and archaic human genomes are hot topics as yet. Do et al. (2015) kicked off the year’s grand findings with their observation of a greater mutational load in Denisovans than in modern humans, or in Neanderthals. Whereas both simulations and empirical evidence from analysis of accumulations of deleterious mutations in modern humans outside of Africa indicate no apparent differences in the efficacy of natural selection due to the bottleneck’s founder events in European versus African humans as previously suggested (Lohmueller et al. 2008). Their study suggests a more complex relationship between standing genetic variation, in combination with founder effects, demography in driving mutational load in modern humans outside of Africa (see Henn et al. (2015) for a summary of recent findings on mutational load). Pagani et al. (2015) also reported the sequencing of 200+ genomes from Egyptian and Ethiopian peoples, and resolve evidence for the Northern route (via Egypt and Sinai) versus the Southern route (via Ethiopia and the Arabian peninsula), with more affinity in haplotypes from Egypt with non-African modern humans. An interesting study by Gallego Llorente et al. (2015) sequence an ancient (~3000 year old) Ethiopian male (“Mota”) genome to date the “back-to-Africa” colonization to at least 3000 ybp. Using the “Mota” as an unadmixed African reference, they also trace up to 7% of extant African ancestry to Eurasia, much greater than previously determined, with 0.2-0.7% of Neanderthal ancestry in the Yoruba and Mbuti. Recently, Alves et al. (2015) propose a complex model that supports long distance dispersal events to previously occupied demes during the Eurasian range expansion, and contraction during the last glacial maximum to explain subsequent genetic diversity distributions. Admixture with other hominidae Since last year’s findings of differential Neanderthal admixture in anatomically modern humans outside of Africa (particularly in Eastern Asians versus Europeans – Sankararaman et al. 2014, summarized in Pääbo 2015), numerous studies have attempted to address plausible scenarios of introgression and subsequent differential purging of Neanderthal alleles from humans. Kim and Lohmueller (2015), and Vernot and Akey (2015) study causalities in differential introgression of Neanderthals with modern East Asians versus Europeans, and reject models of a single wave of migration from Neanderthals into humans, bottlenecks, and differential selection, and support for secondary migrations from an unknown “ghost” population, or from Neanderthals to be consistent with the data. Two recent manuscripts (Harris and Nielsen 2015, Juric et al. 2015) use simulations to describe the overall depletion of Neanderthal ancestry across modern humans outside of Africa owing to differences in efficacy of selection in early generation hybrids, and the role of Hill-Robertson Interference (recombination and drift effects). Rogers (2015) also describes the potential role of chromosomal rearrangements in differential introgression between Neanderthals, Denisovans, and modern humans. With the availability of two more Denisovan genomes (Sawyer et al. 2015), and more archaic genomes in the pipeline, I daresay that fun projects about differential introgression between anatomically modern and archaic hominids have only just begun. Dynamic history of Eurasia Allentoft et al. (2015) described Bronze age population genomics in Eurasia using low-coverage genomes from 100+ ancient individuals, pointing to large scale migration events in the early Bronze age potentially leading to the spread of Indo-European languages. Among their interesting finds include the existence of high frequencies of skin pigmentation SNP’s in Bronze Age Eurasia, and low frequency of lactose tolerance, indicative of a much more recent onset of positive selection for lactose tolerance in Europe. In a similar study, Haak et al. (2015) also report the lactose tolerance finding, and join the language debate by documenting a similar massive migration event around 4500 ybp and its role in the evolution of Indo-European languages in Europe. Both studies are summarized by Novembre (2015). As Novembre puts it, “If genes were moving en masse, it is likely that words were too”, and also points to the importance of ancient DNA research in addressing age old social and political questions in “a more open and humane framework”, a statement that definitely rings true in the America studies that follow. Meanwhile in the Americas Skoglund et al. (2015) reported on the admixture history of Native Americans prior to their migration to the Americas via the Bering Strait, more than 15,000 ybp, pointing to a much more diverse ancestry of the first settlers than previously described. Rasmussen et al. (2015) also established the ancestry of the Kennewick Man to be predominantly Native American, with several modern Native American groups being derived from a population closely related to him, laying to rest the age-old controversy around his origins. As the Smithsonian reported (before, and after), sequencing more Native American genomes is key to bring forth a detailed picture of how America was peopled. Elsewhere, and more data! Numerous other studies –Schroeder et al. (2015), Sudmant et al. (2015), Bahcall (2015) and allied Icelandic genome papers, Ayub et al. (2015) also report genomic variation in current human populations – invaluable contributions to filling in the gaps in sampling, and unaddressed questions. It should be no surprise that all the papers I’ve referenced here (and the ones that I have missed) have laid the plans for a fun 2016! In the famous words of Yoda,
Much to learn you still have, my old padawan…This is just the beginning!
Happy Holidays from the team at SEF! References: Allentoft, Morten E., et al. "Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia." Nature 522.7555 (2015): 167-172. Alves, Isabel, et al. "Long distance dispersal shaped patterns of human genetic diversity in Eurasia." Molecular biology and evolution (2015): msv332. Ayub, Qasim, et al. "The Kalash Genetic Isolate: Ancient Divergence, Drift, and Selection." The American Journal of Human Genetics 96.5 (2015): 775-783. Bahcall, Orli G. "Population genomics: Population-scale sequencing in Iceland." Nature Reviews Genetics 16.5 (2015): 257-257. Do, Ron, et al. "No evidence that selection has been less effective at removing deleterious mutations in Europeans than in Africans." Nature genetics 47.2 (2015): 126-131. Gurdasani, Deepti, et al. "The African Genome Variation Project shapes medical genetics in Africa." Nature 517.7534 (2015): 327-332. Haak, Wolfgang, et al. "Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe." Nature (2015). Hagelberg, Erika, Michael Hofreiter, and Christine Keyser. "Ancient DNA: the first three decades." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 370.1660 (2015). Harris K and Nielsen R. The genetic cost of Neanderthal introgression. bioRxiv doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/030387 Henn, Brenna M., et al. "Estimating the mutation load in human genomes." Nature Reviews Genetics (2015). Higuchi, Russell, et al. "DNA sequences from the quagga, an extinct member of the horse family." (1984): 282-284. Juric I, Aeschbacher S, Coop G. The strength of selection againt Neanderthal introgression. bioRxiv doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/030148 Kim, Bernard Y., and Kirk E. Lohmueller. "Selection and Reduced Population Size Cannot Explain Higher Amounts of Neandertal Ancestry in East Asian than in European Human Populations." The American Journal of Human Genetics (2015). Llorente, M. Gallego, et al. "Ancient Ethiopian genome reveals extensive Eurasian admixture throughout the African continent." Science 350.6262 (2015): 820-822. Lohmueller, Kirk E., et al. "Proportionally more deleterious genetic variation in European than in African populations." Nature 451.7181 (2008): 994-997. Novembre, John. "Human evolution: Ancient DNA steps into the language debate." Nature 522.7555 (2015): 164-165. Pääbo, Svante. "The diverse origins of the human gene pool." Nature Reviews Genetics 16.6 (2015): 313-314. Pääbo, Svante. "The contribution of ancient hominin genomes from Siberia to our understanding of human evolution." Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences 85.5 (2015): 392-396. Pagani, Luca, et al. "Tracing the Route of Modern Humans out of Africa by Using 225 Human Genome Sequences from Ethiopians and Egyptians." The American Journal of Human Genetics (2015). Racimo, Fernando, et al. "Evidence for archaic adaptive introgression in humans." Nature Reviews Genetics 16.6 (2015): 359-371. Rasmussen, Morten, et al. "The ancestry and affiliations of Kennewick Man." Nature (2015). Rogers, Rebekah L. "Chromosomal rearrangements as barriers to genetic homogenization between archaic and modern humans." arXiv preprint arXiv:1505.07047 (2015). Sankararaman, Sriram, et al. "The genomic landscape of Neanderthal ancestry in present-day humans." Nature 507.7492 (2014): 354-357. Sawyer, Susanna, et al. "Nuclear and mitochondrial DNA sequences from two Denisovan individuals." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2015): 201519905. Skoglund, Pontus, et al. "Genetic evidence for two founding populations of the Americas." Nature 525.7567 (2015): 104-108. Sudmant, Peter H., et al. "An integrated map of structural variation in 2,504 human genomes." Nature 526.7571 (2015): 75-81. Vernot, Benjamin, and Joshua M. Akey. "Complex history of admixture between modern humans and Neandertals." The American Journal of Human Genetics 96.3 (2015): 448-453. 1000 Genomes Project Consortium. "A global reference for human genetic variation." Nature 526.7571 (2015): 68-74. [post_title] => 2015 – A Year in Human Evolution [post_excerpt] => Here's my quick summary of 2015 in human population genomics - can't wait to see what the new year will bring! [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => 2015-a-year-in-human-evolution [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2015-12-20 17:28:30 [post_modified_gmt] => 2015-12-20 22:28:30 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120003783 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 1 [filter] => raw ) ) [post_count] => 5 [current_post] => -1 [in_the_loop] => [post] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120003972 [post_author] => 15 [post_date] => 2016-01-28 08:00:44 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-01-28 13:00:44 [post_content] => War is not the necessary outcome of evolution. Image by Paul Keller, via Wikimedia.   Michael Shermer, the world’s most famous skeptic, recently posted a tweet that read “Sorry blank slaters & Peace & Harmony Mafia: Evidence of a prehistoric massacre extends the history of warfare.” He was referring to recently discovered archeological evidence that one small group of people massacred another small group of people 10,000 years ago in Kenya. I couldn’t resist tweeting a reply to Michael, who I count as a respected colleague and friend: “I have to ask: how does an ancient massacre bear upon any of the assumptions of ‘blank slate’ psychology?” There ensued an eruption of tweets that came and went, like so many other disturbances of the Twitterverse.  The matters at stake are anything but ephemeral, however, and bear upon the very nature of human psychology and culture from an evolutionary perspective. A blog post doesn’t provide much more opportunity for serious thought than a tweet, but I’ll try to say just enough to map out the intellectual territory and link to the deep end of the pool (the academic literature). The concept of the human mind as a blank slate implies that people are unconstrained in how they behave. That is why I was puzzled by Michael’s tweet. If the human mind is a blank slate, then why couldn’t “war” have been written upon it as well as “peace” 10,000 years ago in Kenya? Michael responded to my reply with this tweet: “Blank slate assumption: war is a modern invention w/no relation to our evolutionary propensity to aggression”. To my mind, that’s like mixing apples and oranges. How far warfare extends back in human history is one matter. The open-ended flexibility of the human mind is another. I don’t care how much they have been conflated in the past. If we’re interested in our capacity to behave in almost any fashion, then an ancient massacre tells us nothing. Zero. Zip. So let’s get back to the central question of the human capacity to behave any which way.  But first let me tell you about two other blank slates. The blank slate of natural selection. As nearly everyone knows, natural selection requires three ingredients: variation, selection, and heredity. When these ingredients are met, then traits evolve that adapt organisms to their environments.  It is common for evolutionists to assume that all traits are heritable, in which case organisms are blank slates that selection can write anything upon. This is often called “adaptationist thinking” or “natural selection thinking” and it is arguably the most powerful tool in the evolutionary toolkit. Even though evolutionists indulge in their own brand of blank slate thinking all the time, they do not defend it as literally correct. They know that not all traits are heritable, that phenotypic variation is constrained by developmental pathways, and all that. Thus, they easily back away from their blank slate assumption, but they still legitimately defend it as a valuable heuristic that is true much of the time. The blank slate of the vertebrate immune system. Immunologists distinguish between the “innate” and “adaptive” components of the immune system. The terms are a little confusing, because the “innate” component is a mind-bogglingly complex set of adaptations that evolved by natural selection to protect us from the onslaught of disease organisms. What makes them innate is that they are automated and don’t change during the lifetime of the organism. This is sometimes called “closed phenotypic plasticity” in the evolutionary literature. The adaptive component of the immune system is capable of adapting defenses against disease organisms during the lifetime of a vertebrate organism. Briefly, the body produces approximately 100 million different antibodies. Each is capable of attaching to a narrow range of organic surfaces. Antibodies that succeed in attaching to disease organisms that evade the innate component of the immune system differentially proliferate. In other words, the adaptive component of the immune system is an open-ended evolutionary process that evolved by genetic evolution and adapts vertebrate organisms to their disease environments during their lifetimes. Are immunologists justified in employing a blank slate assumption concerning what can evolve by the adaptive component of the immune system? Yes, in exactly the same sense as evolutionists employ adaptationist thinking for the study of genetic evolution. The blank slate of human psychology. Now let me ask you to think of the human capacity for behavioral and cultural change as like the vertebrate immune system. There is both an innate and adaptive component, which result in forms of closed and open behavioral phenotypic plasticity respectively. The adaptive component of human behavioral and cultural flexibility justifies the same kind of blank slate adaptationist thinking employed by evolutionists (based on heritable genetic variation) and immunologists (based on the variation and selection of antibodies). It’s that simple. B.F. Skinner, the psychologist associated with the “blank slate” tradition more than any other, wrote this abstract for his 1981 article in Science magazine titled “Selection by Consequences”:

Selection by consequences is a causal mode found only in living things, or in machines made by living things. It was first recognized in natural selection, but it also accounts for the shaping and maintenance of the behavior of the individual and the evolution of cultures. In all three of these fields, it replaces explanations based on the causal modes of classical mechanics. The replacement is strongly resisted. Natural selection has now made its case, but similar delays in recognizing the role of selection in the other fields could deprive us of valuable help in solving the problems which confront us.

Skinner got one thing right and another thing wrong in this passage. He was right that human behavioral and cultural flexibility has an open-ended component similar to the adaptive component of the vertebrate immune system, which justifies the same kind of adaptationist blank slate thinking employed by evolutionists and immunologists. He was wrong that this kind of thinking replaces “explanations based on the causal modes of classical mechanics”. In evolutionary parlance, this is like saying that thinking in terms of ultimate causation replaces thinking in terms of proximate causation. Skinner’s reluctance to open the black box of proximate mechanisms led to the demise of the tradition of behaviorism in academic psychology—although it remains alive and well in branches of applied psychology, where the goal is to actually accomplish behavioral and cultural change. Every evolutionist worth his or her salt knows that a fully rounded evolutionary approach requires attention to both proximate and ultimate causation, or “function”, “phylogeny”, “mechanism” and “development”, to use Niko Tinbergen’s useful fourfold distinction. I am reaching the limits of a blog post, but the bottom line is that “blank slate” adaptationist thinking is as essential for the study of human psychology and culture as it is for the study of genetic evolution and immunology. The polarizing distinction between “Evolutionary Psychology” and the “Standard Social Science Model” was a wrong turn from which we all need to recover. If you have enjoyed dipping your toe into this subject, then I invite you to dive into the deep end of the pool with this 2014 article published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences titled “Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change”.  My co-authors, Steven C. Hayes, Anthony Biglan, and Dennis Embry, are accomplished applied behavioral scientists who come from the Skinnerian tradition and are experienced at accomplishing positive open-ended behavioral change. BBS is a commentary journal, which means that our target article is followed by approximately two-dozen commentaries from our academic colleagues and our reply, giving a sense of the spectrum of current scientific opinion that is out there. In the future, I hope that my friend Michael Shermer and other skeptics about the blank slate concept will base their blog posts and tweets on what is taking place at the deep end of the pool, rather than massacres that took place in the distant past. [post_title] => In Defense of the Blank Slate [post_excerpt] => David Sloan Wilson comments on a twitter exchange with Michael Shermer and asks "how does an ancient massacre bear upon any of the assumptions of ‘blank slate’ psychology?" [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => in-defense-of-the-blank-slate [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-01-28 09:24:45 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-01-28 14:24:45 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120003972 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 9 [filter] => raw ) [comment_count] => 0 [current_comment] => -1 [found_posts] => 255 [max_num_pages] => 51 [max_num_comment_pages] => 0 [is_single] => [is_preview] => [is_page] => [is_archive] => [is_date] => [is_year] => [is_month] => [is_day] => [is_time] => [is_author] => [is_category] => [is_tag] => [is_tax] => [is_search] => [is_feed] => [is_comment_feed] => [is_trackback] => [is_home] => 1 [is_404] => [is_embed] => [is_comments_popup] => [is_paged] => [is_admin] => [is_attachment] => [is_singular] => [is_robots] => [is_posts_page] => [is_post_type_archive] => [query_vars_hash:WP_Query:private] => 7b8fedc0dcf0e3ac7f4020f021e808a8 [query_vars_changed:WP_Query:private] => [thumbnails_cached] => [updated_term_meta_cache] => [updated_comment_meta_cache] => [stopwords:WP_Query:private] => [compat_fields:WP_Query:private] => Array ( [0] => query_vars_hash [1] => query_vars_changed ) [compat_methods:WP_Query:private] => Array ( [0] => init_query_flags [1] => parse_tax_query ) )
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