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If Mutations Go Viral, Adaptationism is Less Pitiful
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(10,000 year old skulls found at Nataruk in Kenya - Image Credit: Marta Mirazón Lahr)
On January 21, 2016 I posted a tweet that read:

Sorry blank slaters & Peace & Harmony Mafia: “Evidence of a prehistoric massacre extends the history of warfare.” http://bit.ly/1PpHvv7

The reference is to those who adhere to the blank slate theory of human nature and those rather aggressive anthropologists who insist that war is a recent invention and that our ancestors lived in relative peace and harmony with one another and nature. The link is to a recent archaeological study that uncovered the fossilized remains of 27 prehistoric hunter-gatherers who were massacred around 10,000 years ago at a place called Nataruk near Lake Turkana in Kenya. Most of the skeletons showed signs of a violent death: blunt-force trauma to the head, broken hands (some of which were bound), shattered knees, cracked ribs and, most revealing, arrowhead projectile points in the skull and thorax and arrow lesions in the neck. The research team, headed by Dr. Marta Mirazon Lahr from Cambridge University, concluded that one band of people was most likely attacked by another band, explaining:

The deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war. These human remains record the intentional killing of a small band of foragers with no deliberate burial, and provide unique evidence that warfare was part of the repertoire of inter-group relations among some prehistoric hunter-gatherers.

It is difficult for archaeologists to interpret motive from fossils, but Lahr suggested:

The Nataruk massacre may have resulted from an attempt to seize resources—territory, women, children, food stored in pots—whose value was similar to those of later food-producing agricultural societies, among whom violent attacks on settlements became part of life. This would extend the history of the same underlying socio-economic conditions that characterise other instances of early warfare: a more settled, materially richer way of life. However, Nataruk may simply be evidence of a standard antagonistic response to an encounter between two social groups at that time.

In response to my tweet, my friend David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist and anthropologist, tweeted in response:

I have to ask: how does an ancient massacre bear upon any of the assumptions of ‘blank slate’ psychology?

I replied:

Blank slate assumption: war is a modern invention w/no relation to our evolutionary propensity to aggression.

Debating deep questions in 140 characters is problematic at best, so David penned a thoughtful essay titled “In Defense of the Blank Slate”, in which he expanded his tweet into a thesis:

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?

Why indeed? David goes on to discuss the various uses of the blank slate concept in evolutionary theory, such as “the adaptive component of human behavioral phenotypic plasticity,” and the important distinction between levels of causation as outlined by Niko Tingergen: function, phylogeny, mechanism, and development. But here I think David is using the blank slate concept in a way different from how I was thinking of it (restrained, as it was, by 140 characters), and how most people use it, and as such I don’t think David is a blank slater at all and his essay is more prescriptive (how we should think about human nature) than descriptive (how people do think about human nature). So allow me to expand beyond the twitterverse and into the blogosphere with an explanation, which will be shorter than the chapter-length treatment I give it in my 2015 book The Moral Arc. When it comes to war, the general idea among blank slaters seems to be that if it is ancient and part of our prehistoric past (as indicated by the butchered remains at Nataruk), then that implies an evolutionary heritage, which suggests a genetic component, which carries an implication of biological determinism, which means we will forever be stuck with war because you can’t change human nature. By contrast, if war is a recent invention and the product of civilization and its discontents (overcrowding, limited resources, expanding territories, imperialism, and the like), that means it is a learned phenomenon that carries the inference of cultural determinism, which means we can change war by changing culture. The overlap of the theory of the blank slate with that of the noble savage has a long historical trajectory thoroughly documented by Steven Pinker in his luminous and wide-ranging 2002 book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, starting with the translation of the medieval Latin term tabula rasa, as “scraped tablet,” which when applied to the mind means it is empty of innate ideas, concepts, emotions, and the like. John Locke is credited with popularizing it in his 1690 An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, when he asked readers to “suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters, without any ideas. How comes it to be furnished?” His answer, empiricism, is more commonly thought of as experience or culture. Around that time, in 1670, the British poet John Dryden penned this expression of humans in a state of nature: I am as free as Nature first made man / When wild in woods the noble savage ran. In 1755, the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau canonized the noble savage into Western culture by proclaiming:

So many authors have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, and requires a regular system of police to be reclaimed; whereas nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious good sense of civilized man.

Pinker draws the historical link between beliefs about human nature and war: “First among the authors that Rousseau had in mind was Thomas Hobbes,” whose theory of human nature could best be described as an ignoble savage. As Hobbes wrote in his classic 1651 book Leviathan:

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

As Pinker demonstrates, one reason intellectuals prefer Locke’s and Rousseau’s theory of human nature—one that combines the blank slate and the noble savage—over Hobbes’s bellum omnium contra omnes, is that “for centuries the stereotype of the savage was used as a pretext to wipe out indigenous peoples and steal their lands.” But as Pinker insightfully reminds us, “surely it is unnecessary to paint a false picture of a people as peaceable and ecologically conscientious in order to condemn the great crimes against them, as if genocide were wrong only when the victims are nice guys.” Nor, he adds, does a realistic theory of human nature—one that includes an evolved capacity for violence and war—“mean that our species has a death wish, an innate thirst for blood, or a territorial imperative.” If I am reading David’s analysis correctly he rejects the blank slate model of human nature, as do I, and instead embraces a model that includes evolved templates and programs with which culture and experience interact. So this really comes down to the empirical question of whether or not warfare—or violent conflict—was part of our Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA) and thus part of our evolved nature. In The Moral Arc I provide copious evidence that it was, but I also propose that instead of thinking of human nature as being either pacifist or bellicose, 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 in the EEA. That is, the data I review are meant less to settle the debate that has long raged about what humans were like in a state of nature and instead build on the logic of our moral emotions and how they direct us to respond one way or another to other sentient beings who, in turn, respond to our actions accordingly. The full development of this idea, and the massive dataset demonstrating that violent conflict was part of our evolutionary heritage (into which the Nataruk massacre discovery fits well) is much too long for an essay such as this, so I will conclude here by noting that an underlying goal in the study of the nature and causes of violence and war—whatever the correct blend of biology, culture, and circumstance turns out to be—is to attenuate them. Because the stakes are so high, emotions in those who conduct such studies run deep (see, for example, the journalist John Horgan’s tireless defense of the war-is-recent position and his interpretation of the Nataruk find). The economist and evolutionary theorist Samuel Bowles, who has written about the evolution of cooperativeness, said it best in a casual remark to me when I interviewed him for my book:

It seems to be a highly ideologically charged debate, which is unfortunate, because finding that war was frequent in the past, or that out-group hostility might have a genetic basis says something about our legacy, not our destiny.

[post_title] => On Slates and Tweets: A Reply to David Sloan Wilson on Ancient Warfare and the Blank Slate [post_excerpt] => 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. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => on-slates-and-tweets-a-reply-to-david-sloan-wilson-on-ancient-warfare-and-the-blank-slate [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-02-01 12:52:59 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-02-01 17:52:59 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120003984 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 3 [filter] => raw ) [1] => 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] => 10 [filter] => raw ) [2] => 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 ) [3] => 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 ) [4] => 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 ) ) [post_count] => 5 [current_post] => -1 [in_the_loop] => [post] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120003984 [post_author] => 35 [post_date] => 2016-02-01 06:03:26 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-02-01 11:03:26 [post_content] =>
(10,000 year old skulls found at Nataruk in Kenya - Image Credit: Marta Mirazón Lahr)
On January 21, 2016 I posted a tweet that read:

Sorry blank slaters & Peace & Harmony Mafia: “Evidence of a prehistoric massacre extends the history of warfare.” http://bit.ly/1PpHvv7

The reference is to those who adhere to the blank slate theory of human nature and those rather aggressive anthropologists who insist that war is a recent invention and that our ancestors lived in relative peace and harmony with one another and nature. The link is to a recent archaeological study that uncovered the fossilized remains of 27 prehistoric hunter-gatherers who were massacred around 10,000 years ago at a place called Nataruk near Lake Turkana in Kenya. Most of the skeletons showed signs of a violent death: blunt-force trauma to the head, broken hands (some of which were bound), shattered knees, cracked ribs and, most revealing, arrowhead projectile points in the skull and thorax and arrow lesions in the neck. The research team, headed by Dr. Marta Mirazon Lahr from Cambridge University, concluded that one band of people was most likely attacked by another band, explaining:

The deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war. These human remains record the intentional killing of a small band of foragers with no deliberate burial, and provide unique evidence that warfare was part of the repertoire of inter-group relations among some prehistoric hunter-gatherers.

It is difficult for archaeologists to interpret motive from fossils, but Lahr suggested:

The Nataruk massacre may have resulted from an attempt to seize resources—territory, women, children, food stored in pots—whose value was similar to those of later food-producing agricultural societies, among whom violent attacks on settlements became part of life. This would extend the history of the same underlying socio-economic conditions that characterise other instances of early warfare: a more settled, materially richer way of life. However, Nataruk may simply be evidence of a standard antagonistic response to an encounter between two social groups at that time.

In response to my tweet, my friend David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist and anthropologist, tweeted in response:

I have to ask: how does an ancient massacre bear upon any of the assumptions of ‘blank slate’ psychology?

I replied:

Blank slate assumption: war is a modern invention w/no relation to our evolutionary propensity to aggression.

Debating deep questions in 140 characters is problematic at best, so David penned a thoughtful essay titled “In Defense of the Blank Slate”, in which he expanded his tweet into a thesis:

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?

Why indeed? David goes on to discuss the various uses of the blank slate concept in evolutionary theory, such as “the adaptive component of human behavioral phenotypic plasticity,” and the important distinction between levels of causation as outlined by Niko Tingergen: function, phylogeny, mechanism, and development. But here I think David is using the blank slate concept in a way different from how I was thinking of it (restrained, as it was, by 140 characters), and how most people use it, and as such I don’t think David is a blank slater at all and his essay is more prescriptive (how we should think about human nature) than descriptive (how people do think about human nature). So allow me to expand beyond the twitterverse and into the blogosphere with an explanation, which will be shorter than the chapter-length treatment I give it in my 2015 book The Moral Arc. When it comes to war, the general idea among blank slaters seems to be that if it is ancient and part of our prehistoric past (as indicated by the butchered remains at Nataruk), then that implies an evolutionary heritage, which suggests a genetic component, which carries an implication of biological determinism, which means we will forever be stuck with war because you can’t change human nature. By contrast, if war is a recent invention and the product of civilization and its discontents (overcrowding, limited resources, expanding territories, imperialism, and the like), that means it is a learned phenomenon that carries the inference of cultural determinism, which means we can change war by changing culture. The overlap of the theory of the blank slate with that of the noble savage has a long historical trajectory thoroughly documented by Steven Pinker in his luminous and wide-ranging 2002 book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, starting with the translation of the medieval Latin term tabula rasa, as “scraped tablet,” which when applied to the mind means it is empty of innate ideas, concepts, emotions, and the like. John Locke is credited with popularizing it in his 1690 An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, when he asked readers to “suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters, without any ideas. How comes it to be furnished?” His answer, empiricism, is more commonly thought of as experience or culture. Around that time, in 1670, the British poet John Dryden penned this expression of humans in a state of nature: I am as free as Nature first made man / When wild in woods the noble savage ran. In 1755, the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau canonized the noble savage into Western culture by proclaiming:

So many authors have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, and requires a regular system of police to be reclaimed; whereas nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious good sense of civilized man.

Pinker draws the historical link between beliefs about human nature and war: “First among the authors that Rousseau had in mind was Thomas Hobbes,” whose theory of human nature could best be described as an ignoble savage. As Hobbes wrote in his classic 1651 book Leviathan:

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

As Pinker demonstrates, one reason intellectuals prefer Locke’s and Rousseau’s theory of human nature—one that combines the blank slate and the noble savage—over Hobbes’s bellum omnium contra omnes, is that “for centuries the stereotype of the savage was used as a pretext to wipe out indigenous peoples and steal their lands.” But as Pinker insightfully reminds us, “surely it is unnecessary to paint a false picture of a people as peaceable and ecologically conscientious in order to condemn the great crimes against them, as if genocide were wrong only when the victims are nice guys.” Nor, he adds, does a realistic theory of human nature—one that includes an evolved capacity for violence and war—“mean that our species has a death wish, an innate thirst for blood, or a territorial imperative.” If I am reading David’s analysis correctly he rejects the blank slate model of human nature, as do I, and instead embraces a model that includes evolved templates and programs with which culture and experience interact. So this really comes down to the empirical question of whether or not warfare—or violent conflict—was part of our Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA) and thus part of our evolved nature. In The Moral Arc I provide copious evidence that it was, but I also propose that instead of thinking of human nature as being either pacifist or bellicose, 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 in the EEA. That is, the data I review are meant less to settle the debate that has long raged about what humans were like in a state of nature and instead build on the logic of our moral emotions and how they direct us to respond one way or another to other sentient beings who, in turn, respond to our actions accordingly. The full development of this idea, and the massive dataset demonstrating that violent conflict was part of our evolutionary heritage (into which the Nataruk massacre discovery fits well) is much too long for an essay such as this, so I will conclude here by noting that an underlying goal in the study of the nature and causes of violence and war—whatever the correct blend of biology, culture, and circumstance turns out to be—is to attenuate them. Because the stakes are so high, emotions in those who conduct such studies run deep (see, for example, the journalist John Horgan’s tireless defense of the war-is-recent position and his interpretation of the Nataruk find). The economist and evolutionary theorist Samuel Bowles, who has written about the evolution of cooperativeness, said it best in a casual remark to me when I interviewed him for my book:

It seems to be a highly ideologically charged debate, which is unfortunate, because finding that war was frequent in the past, or that out-group hostility might have a genetic basis says something about our legacy, not our destiny.

[post_title] => On Slates and Tweets: A Reply to David Sloan Wilson on Ancient Warfare and the Blank Slate [post_excerpt] => 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. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => on-slates-and-tweets-a-reply-to-david-sloan-wilson-on-ancient-warfare-and-the-blank-slate [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-02-01 12:52:59 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-02-01 17:52:59 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120003984 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 3 [filter] => raw ) [comment_count] => 0 [current_comment] => -1 [found_posts] => 256 [max_num_pages] => 52 [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] => 0345bc5bf0ee40690c5a8d09fa1b28fa [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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