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SOCIAL EVOLUTION FORUM
Darwin Was No Darwinian
“Darwin was no Darwinian,” declared Martin Luther King Jr. He’s right, and it’s a bad break for Darwin that his name is used to distort his own ideas about humans. Ross Douhat says that Breaking Bad illustrated the clear “Darwinian logic” of an older cruel “tribal” code (that’s “neither liberal nor Judeo-Christian”). Douhat believes a […]
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An Evolutionary Approach to Sustainability Science
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Could a single mutation arise in many individuals simultaneously? Image: "Ghost in Me" by Ramos Alejandro, via Flickr.

I always account for virally-induced mutation when I imagine the evolution of our genome. That's because I'll never forget this quote. Who could?
“Our genome is littered with the rotting carcasses of these little viruses that have made their home in our genome for millions of years.” - David Haussler in 2008
Or this...
"Retroviruses are the only group of viruses known to have left a fossil record, in the form of endogenous proviruses, and approximately 8% of the human genome is made up of these elements." (source and see this)
Exciting virus discoveries aside, we're constantly mutating with each new addition to the human lineage. Thanks to whole genome sequencing, the rate of new mutation between human parent and offspring is becoming better known than ever before. We each have new single nucleotide mutations in the stretches of our DNA that are known to be functional (very little of the entire genome) and that are not (the majority of the genome). These are variants not present in our parents’ codes (for example, we might have a ‘T’ where there is a ‘A’ in our mother’s code). And there are also deletions and duplications of strings of letters in the code, sometimes very long ones. Estimates vary on parent-offspring mutation rate and that's because there are different sorts of mutations and individuals vary, even as they age, as to how many mutations they pass along, for example. Still, without any hard numbers (which I've left out purposefully to avoid the mutation rate debate), knowing that there is constant mutation is helpful for imagining how evolution works. And it also helps us understand how mutations even in coding regions aren't necessarily good nor bad. Most mutations in our genome are just riding along in our mutation-tolerant codes—where they will begin and where they will go no one knows! And it's with that appreciation for constant, unpredictable, but tolerated mutation—of evolution's momentum, of a lineage's perpetual change, selection or not—on top of a general understanding of population genetics that just makes adaptation seem astounding. It makes it difficult to believe that adaptation is as common as the myriad adaptive hypotheses for myriad traits suggest. That's because this new raw material for adaptation, this perpetual mutation, really is only a tiny fragment of everything that can be passed on. But, what's more, each of those itty bitty changes could be stopped in its tracks before going anywhere. The good, the bad, and the neutral, they all need luck to pass them onto the next generation. That's right. Even the good mutations have it rough. Even the winners can be losers! Here are the ways a mutation can live or die in you or me: [caption id="attachment_120004076" align="alignright" width="300"]The Brief or Wondrous Life of Mutations, Wow. The Brief or Wondrous Life of Mutations, Wow. (click for larger image)[/caption] This view of mutation fits into that slow and stately process that Darwin described, despite his imagination chugging away before he had much understanding of genetics. Of course, bottlenecks or being part small populations would certainly help our rogue underdogs proliferate, and swiftlier so, in future generations. Still, trying to imagine how any of my mutations, including any that might be adaptive, could become fixed in a population is enough to make me throw Origin of Species across the room. By "adaptive," I'm talking about "better" or "advantageous" traits and their inherited basis ... that ever-popular take on the classic Darwinian idea of natural selection and competition. For many with a view of mutation like I spelled out above, it's much easier to conceptualize adaptation as the result of negative selection, stabilizing selection, and tolerant or weak selection than it is to accept stories of full-blown positive selection, which is what "Darwinian" usually describes (whether or not that was Darwin's intention). One little error in one dude's DNA plus deep time goes all the way to fixed in the entire species because those who were lucky enough to inherit the error passed it on more frequently, because they had that error, than anyone passed on the old version of that code? I guess what I'm saying is, it's not entirely satisfying. But what if a mutation could be less pitiful, less lonely, less vulnerable to immediate extinction? Instead, what if a mutation could arise in many people simultaneously? What if a mutation didn't have to start out as 1/10,000? What if it began as 1,000/10,000? That would certainly up its chances of increasing in frequency over time, and quickly, relative to the rogue underdog way that I hashed out in the figure above. And that means that if there was a mutation that did increase survival and reproduction relative to the status quo, it would have a better chance to actually take over as an adaptation. This would be aided, especially, if there was non-random mating, like assortative mating, creating a population rife with this beneficial mutation in the geologic blink of an eye. But how could such a widespread mutation arise? This sounds so heartless to put it like this, but thanks to the Zika virus, it seems to me that viruses could do the trick. [caption id="attachment_120004077" align="alignright" width="300"]Electron micrograph of Zika virus. (Wikipedia) Electron micrograph of Zika virus. Image: Cynthia Goldsmith, via Wikipedia.[/caption] I'd been trapped in thinking that viruses cause unique mutations in our genomes the way that copy errors do. But why should they? If they infect me and you, they could leave the same signatures in our genomes. And the number of infected/mutated could increase if the virus is transmitted via multiple species (e.g. mosquito and human, like Zika). If scientists figure out that the rampant microcephaly associated with the Zika virus is congenital, wouldn't this be an example* of the kind of large-scale mutation that I'm talking about?  *albeit a horrifying one, and unlikely to get passed on because of its effects, so it's not adaptive whatsoever. If viral mutations get into our gametes or into the stem cells of our developing embryos, then we've got germ-line mutation and we could have the same germ-line mutation in the many many genomes of those infected with the virus. As long as we survive the virus, and we reproduce, then we'll have these mutant babies who don't just have their own unique mutations, but they also have these new but shared mutations and the shared new phenotypes associated with them, simultaneously. Why not? Well, not if there are no viruses that ever work like this. We need some examples. The mammalian placenta, and its subsequent diversity, is said to have begun virally, but I can't find any writing that assumes anything other than a little snowflake mutation-that-could. Anything else? Any traits that "make us human"? Any traits that are pegged as convergences but could be due to the mutual hosting of the same virus exacting the same kind of mutation with the same phenotypic result in separate lineages? I've always had a soft spot for underdogs. And I've always given the one-off mutation concept the benefit of the doubt because I know that my imagination struggles to appreciate deep time. What choice do you have when you think evolutionarily? However, just the possibility that viruses can mutate us at this larger scale, even though I know of no examples, is already bringing me a little bit of hope and peace, and also some much needed patience for adaptationism. *** Update: I just saw this published in The New York Times, asking whether microcephaly and other virus-induced birth defects are congenital. Answer = no one knows yet. [post_title] => If Mutations Go Viral, Adaptationism is Less Pitiful [post_excerpt] => Could a single mutation arise in many individuals simultaneously? 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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 ) [2] => 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 ) [3] => 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 ) [4] => 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 ) ) [post_count] => 5 [current_post] => -1 [in_the_loop] => [post] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120004075 [post_author] => 43 [post_date] => 2016-02-10 08:00:51 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-02-10 13:00:51 [post_content] =>
Could a single mutation arise in many individuals simultaneously? Image: "Ghost in Me" by Ramos Alejandro, via Flickr.

I always account for virally-induced mutation when I imagine the evolution of our genome. That's because I'll never forget this quote. Who could?
“Our genome is littered with the rotting carcasses of these little viruses that have made their home in our genome for millions of years.” - David Haussler in 2008
Or this...
"Retroviruses are the only group of viruses known to have left a fossil record, in the form of endogenous proviruses, and approximately 8% of the human genome is made up of these elements." (source and see this)
Exciting virus discoveries aside, we're constantly mutating with each new addition to the human lineage. Thanks to whole genome sequencing, the rate of new mutation between human parent and offspring is becoming better known than ever before. We each have new single nucleotide mutations in the stretches of our DNA that are known to be functional (very little of the entire genome) and that are not (the majority of the genome). These are variants not present in our parents’ codes (for example, we might have a ‘T’ where there is a ‘A’ in our mother’s code). And there are also deletions and duplications of strings of letters in the code, sometimes very long ones. Estimates vary on parent-offspring mutation rate and that's because there are different sorts of mutations and individuals vary, even as they age, as to how many mutations they pass along, for example. Still, without any hard numbers (which I've left out purposefully to avoid the mutation rate debate), knowing that there is constant mutation is helpful for imagining how evolution works. And it also helps us understand how mutations even in coding regions aren't necessarily good nor bad. Most mutations in our genome are just riding along in our mutation-tolerant codes—where they will begin and where they will go no one knows! And it's with that appreciation for constant, unpredictable, but tolerated mutation—of evolution's momentum, of a lineage's perpetual change, selection or not—on top of a general understanding of population genetics that just makes adaptation seem astounding. It makes it difficult to believe that adaptation is as common as the myriad adaptive hypotheses for myriad traits suggest. That's because this new raw material for adaptation, this perpetual mutation, really is only a tiny fragment of everything that can be passed on. But, what's more, each of those itty bitty changes could be stopped in its tracks before going anywhere. The good, the bad, and the neutral, they all need luck to pass them onto the next generation. That's right. Even the good mutations have it rough. Even the winners can be losers! Here are the ways a mutation can live or die in you or me: [caption id="attachment_120004076" align="alignright" width="300"]The Brief or Wondrous Life of Mutations, Wow. The Brief or Wondrous Life of Mutations, Wow. (click for larger image)[/caption] This view of mutation fits into that slow and stately process that Darwin described, despite his imagination chugging away before he had much understanding of genetics. Of course, bottlenecks or being part small populations would certainly help our rogue underdogs proliferate, and swiftlier so, in future generations. Still, trying to imagine how any of my mutations, including any that might be adaptive, could become fixed in a population is enough to make me throw Origin of Species across the room. By "adaptive," I'm talking about "better" or "advantageous" traits and their inherited basis ... that ever-popular take on the classic Darwinian idea of natural selection and competition. For many with a view of mutation like I spelled out above, it's much easier to conceptualize adaptation as the result of negative selection, stabilizing selection, and tolerant or weak selection than it is to accept stories of full-blown positive selection, which is what "Darwinian" usually describes (whether or not that was Darwin's intention). One little error in one dude's DNA plus deep time goes all the way to fixed in the entire species because those who were lucky enough to inherit the error passed it on more frequently, because they had that error, than anyone passed on the old version of that code? I guess what I'm saying is, it's not entirely satisfying. But what if a mutation could be less pitiful, less lonely, less vulnerable to immediate extinction? Instead, what if a mutation could arise in many people simultaneously? What if a mutation didn't have to start out as 1/10,000? What if it began as 1,000/10,000? That would certainly up its chances of increasing in frequency over time, and quickly, relative to the rogue underdog way that I hashed out in the figure above. And that means that if there was a mutation that did increase survival and reproduction relative to the status quo, it would have a better chance to actually take over as an adaptation. This would be aided, especially, if there was non-random mating, like assortative mating, creating a population rife with this beneficial mutation in the geologic blink of an eye. But how could such a widespread mutation arise? This sounds so heartless to put it like this, but thanks to the Zika virus, it seems to me that viruses could do the trick. [caption id="attachment_120004077" align="alignright" width="300"]Electron micrograph of Zika virus. (Wikipedia) Electron micrograph of Zika virus. Image: Cynthia Goldsmith, via Wikipedia.[/caption] I'd been trapped in thinking that viruses cause unique mutations in our genomes the way that copy errors do. But why should they? If they infect me and you, they could leave the same signatures in our genomes. And the number of infected/mutated could increase if the virus is transmitted via multiple species (e.g. mosquito and human, like Zika). If scientists figure out that the rampant microcephaly associated with the Zika virus is congenital, wouldn't this be an example* of the kind of large-scale mutation that I'm talking about?  *albeit a horrifying one, and unlikely to get passed on because of its effects, so it's not adaptive whatsoever. If viral mutations get into our gametes or into the stem cells of our developing embryos, then we've got germ-line mutation and we could have the same germ-line mutation in the many many genomes of those infected with the virus. As long as we survive the virus, and we reproduce, then we'll have these mutant babies who don't just have their own unique mutations, but they also have these new but shared mutations and the shared new phenotypes associated with them, simultaneously. Why not? Well, not if there are no viruses that ever work like this. We need some examples. The mammalian placenta, and its subsequent diversity, is said to have begun virally, but I can't find any writing that assumes anything other than a little snowflake mutation-that-could. Anything else? Any traits that "make us human"? Any traits that are pegged as convergences but could be due to the mutual hosting of the same virus exacting the same kind of mutation with the same phenotypic result in separate lineages? I've always had a soft spot for underdogs. And I've always given the one-off mutation concept the benefit of the doubt because I know that my imagination struggles to appreciate deep time. What choice do you have when you think evolutionarily? However, just the possibility that viruses can mutate us at this larger scale, even though I know of no examples, is already bringing me a little bit of hope and peace, and also some much needed patience for adaptationism. *** Update: I just saw this published in The New York Times, asking whether microcephaly and other virus-induced birth defects are congenital. Answer = no one knows yet. [post_title] => If Mutations Go Viral, Adaptationism is Less Pitiful [post_excerpt] => Could a single mutation arise in many individuals simultaneously? 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