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SOCIAL EVOLUTION FORUM
Each Of You Is A Multitude
Our picture of life is going through a major shift. Ed Yong's book I Contain Multitudes reveals that the grand game of genes and genomes isn't played quite like we'd thought (e.g. a genome generally doesn’t contain all the genes an organism needs, symbiosis isn’t rare, it's the rule).
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An Evolutionary Approach to Sustainability Science
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Image: Quinlan Pfiffer, via Flickr.

Forty years ago, the notion that cultural change can be understood as a system of inheritance caught the popular imagination. The concept of “memes” as cultural units analogous to genes was popularized in the writings of Richard Dawkins—creating a great deal of controversy similar to what arose around E.O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology, published in the same year as Dawkin’s influential work on this subject. Richard Dawkins really stirred things up with his best-selling book in 1976, The Selfish Gene. He did this in two ways: (1) with his story about genetic “selfishness” that gave license to those who wanted to be literal about it and say evolution is all about self-interest, greed, and otherwise selfish behavior; and (2) by introducing the concept of “memes” as cultural units of heredity that play a functional role similar to genes in biological reproduction for the transmission of cultural information. There were two main problems with interpretations of selfish genes—one having to do with an over-emphasis on genes as the only hereditary unit worthy of consideration (often called gene-centrism as it was a narrowing of biology to a myopic treatment of all biological traits being reducible to the traits of individual or groups of genes). The other being a misinterpretation of selfishness as an anthropomorphizing of genes as literally being miniature selfish people. This  gave the rugged individualists of the world free reign to claim that science was on their side when they formulated economic and political philosophies to serve themselves and their peers. Luckily, a great deal of progress has been made on the selfish gene front. We now know that reductionisms of all kinds are inadequate for dealing with the real-world complexities of biology in the flesh. There is not one, but at least four, hereditary systems recognized by biologists today. Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb lay this out clearly in their 2006 book, Evolution in Four Dimensions, as they walk through the research literature on genetics, epigenetics, behavioral repertoires, and symbolic culture as four distinct pathways where traits are “heritable” in appropriately defined fashion. Similar progress has been made with the study of altruism and “prosocial” behaviors. It is now widely known that rational self-interest in economics is too narrow a view to encapsulate the richness of real human nature. Books like David Sloan Wilson’s Does Altruism Exist? And E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth are but a sampling among a great diversity of works showing how much the research community has advanced its understandings of social behavior in the last 40 years. Unfortunately, the controversies around cultural memes have not been as productive. Read the cultural evolution literature today and you will find three largely distinct camps:
  1. Those who dismiss meme theory as wrong-headed and disproven.
  2. Those who embrace meme theory as richly productive and vindicated by evidence across many fields.
  3. Those who don’t have strong opinions one way or the other and are waiting to see how the chips fall.
I personally sit in the second camp, having used meme theory to guide my research on the spread of ideas and behaviors across social systems in both digital (social media) and physical environments. What I find interesting about the Camp 1 people—those who dismiss meme theory outright—is that their reasons seem to be based on the fallacies associated with Dawkins’ first major controversy and have little to do with the progress made in memetics research in the forty years since the term was introduced into the intellectual discourse. A summary of the main argument against meme theory is this: There is a great deal of evidence showing that human minds do not replicate information perfectly (or even with high fidelity). Thus it is impossible to conceive of a meme that begins in one mind and somehow is replicated in the mind of another with enough informational integrity to be called a hereditary unit.  In other words, the complex process of communication is reduced (that pesky reductionism again) to “thought units” with defined features that must be recreated without noise or error in two or more minds. Students of cognitive linguistics will recognize a particular metaphor here—the Conduit Metaphor for communication that has been richly explored by scholars like Michael J. Reddy and George Lakoff. In this metaphor, a thought is treated as an “object” that passes through some kind of conduit between one mind and another. It is among the most common conceptual representations for teaching and learning (even though it is empirically incorrect). Linguistic examples include phrases like “Are you getting what I’m saying?” and “The instructor passes on knowledge to students.” Here’s what I find interesting about this argument… it presumes that a number of advances were never made since the year 1976! Specifically, I am thinking of three areas where significant progress has been made during the last forty years: the birth of complexity science in the early 1980’s, developments in the study of human conceptualization and cognitive linguistics since the mid-70’s, and the explosion of digital media in the age of personal computers and later via the internet.  Let us look at each of these in turn. Birth of Complexity Science Scientific reductionism has declined throughout the mid-to-late 20th Century with the rise of systems thinking across many different fields.  Systems thinking arose with cybernetics, information theory, and early computing that made possible the rapid advances in fields like ecology (with ecosystem modeling of population dynamics), meteorology (with numerical weather forecasting for studying emergent patterns in the atmospere), and economics (with systems modeling of ecological throughputs like the famous Limits to Growth study by the Club of Rome). In the early 1980’s an interdisciplinary research center called the Santa Fe Institute was founded to convene the rag-tag cadre of scholars working across fields like these around what has come to be known as complexity science. The focus of this new science is the emergent patterns and systemic behaviors for phenomena where a large number of interacting parts give rise to often paradoxical and unpredictable behaviors. It is the anti-thesis of reductionism—a research program that has given rise to sweeping advances in theoretical biology, the study of social organization, self-organizing processes, and more. When Dawkins introduced the concept of memes in 1976 there were few who thought in terms of emergent complexity. A language has gradually developed around concepts like self-organized criticality, emergence, pattern formation, and diffusion-limited aggregation to model, simulate, and visualize the interactions within a complex system that give rise to emergent outcomes. Without such a language, it is difficult to conceive of memes as dynamic, emergent patterns of social information arising from many interacting parts. Developments in Human Conceptualization The mid-1970’s were a time of great progress for many fields. Around the time that meme theory was capturing the public imagination there were several researchers giving name to recognizable patterns of human thought and behavior that emerge over and over again. In sociology and linguistics, it was frame semantics that explored the conceptual structure of social settings and thought processes. Social psychologists and anthropologists talked about script theory as a way to make sense of routine behaviors that people “act out” in common social interactions. Computer scientists and information theorists grappled with image schemas as a way to represent modular logical structures in algorithms as they created software for machine learning. What all of these approaches shared in common was an emphasis on distinct conceptual structures that can be discerned and analyzed for their inherent logic, roles and relationships, and heuristic uses by people as they navigated the complexities of real-world social environments. They led to the development of research methodologies that are now routinely used to study political discourse, conduct ethnographic research, engage in branding and marketing exercises, and more. An example of a “recurring thought structure” in politics is the concept of tax relief—which uses the metaphor that a tax is a burden to introduce an inferential logic about fairness, suffering, and relief. This concept is used over and over again in politics. It has been translated into slogans, political speeches, editorial commentaries, and dinner table debates more times than can be counted. Applied to meme theory, this body of tools and techniques demonstrates that researchers across many fields have found value in the perspective that culture can be studied as information patterns that arise in a variety of social settings routinely and with modular elements that are readily discernible in each new instance. The claim that information patterns do not replicate is contradicted by the evidence for image-schematic structures (like the metaphor for taxes above with its distinctive inferential logic and recognizable use cases). Explosion of Digital Media Add to these developments the explosion of digital media since the advent of personal computers in the 1980’s and ascension of the Internet for public use in the 90’s up to the present. There are now so many technological tools for digital reproduction of content (where replication is done with such high fidelity that it cannot be questioned) that the theory of memes is vindicated on technical grounds alone. Consider the digital storage of 1’s and 0’s to generate an image for our profile picture on Facebook (which is created in an identical manner for each user who views it). Or the spread of “internet memes” where distinct lineages of descent-with-modification have been studied for the spreading patterns of ideas as they hybridize, mutate, and quite literally evolve leaving a data trail that can be analyzed with unprecedented methodological rigor. An example is this study of information diffusion on Facebook. Digital media represents a phase transition in cultural research—sometimes called the Big Data Explosion or the “dataclysm” by social scientists who analyze patterns in the massive datasets now used to study emotional sentiments on Twitter, track themes with keyword searches of text on Lexus-Nexus, or deconstruct narrative tropes in the media. The theory of memes is highly valued by researchers who take an epidemiological approach to the spread of information. Some ideas are more “contagious” than others for psychological reasons that are becoming known with greater clarity and insight with each passing year. For example, this study looking at campaign donations as a kind of social contagion. Network scientists are mapping out the spread of ideas and behaviors in real time with tracking algorithms that monitor the World Wide Web. Discourse analysts are characterizing the composition of themes and frame semantic structures that shape how various publics think and feel about important topics. Weaving It All Together Combine these three major domains of progress—complexity science enters the scene, human conceptualization is now studied with great rigor, and so much of human culture has gone digital—and it is clear that meme theory has been highly generative and productive in the study of human culture. It is time to update our debates about cultural transmission to include developments like these. The old debates that reduce all of biological evolution to genes have fallen into disuse. We can now do the same for their analogues in the study of culture.  I am not suggesting that memes are THE way to make sense of social learning and cultural evolution (as there are other very important frameworks like gene-culture coevolution and dual-inheritance theory that provide additional bridges between culture and biology). But we can now recover the baby from the thrown-out bathwater and see how a dynamic systems point-of-view melded with advances in other social sciences is highly productive and generative for shaping the research practices of the future. Looking at meme theory forty years later, we can see that much more is now known and there are things we collectively have figured out how to do that would seem like magic to the 1976 mind of a social scientist. I hope this article stimulates a healthy dialogue and debate so we can move toward the goal of consilience across fields and get away from the narrowing binaries of “true/false” and “right/wrong” in future conversations. It is not that meme theory is right or wrong, but rather that it has been (and will continue to be) highly valuable for cultural research across the social and biological sciences. [post_title] => A Forty Year Update on Meme Theory [post_excerpt] => When Richard Dawkins introduced the concept of memes in 1976 there were few who thought in terms of emergent complexity. Much has changed in the intervening years. 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Model of a female Homo antecessor of Atapuerca practicing cannibalism by Jose Luis Martinez Alvarez from Asturias, España via Wikimedia Commons.
  One of my aunts was once asked during an interview for a position in the criminal justice field “Is there any kind of criminal you don’t feel you could work with?” “Yes,” she replied. “Have you ever seen ‘The Silence of the Lambs?’ I don’t do cannibals.” My aunt is an extremely kind woman, who cheerfully works with hardened criminals without batting an eye. Her refusal to work with this class of criminals—along with a long list of lurid horror movies--illustrates how repugnant our society finds cannibalism. We view it as highly deviant and pathological, limited to the worst of people (such as Jeffrey Dahmer). But at the same time, exceptions have been carved out for when this practice is considered appropriate. In cases of starvation, cannibalism for survival purposes is generally accepted as a necessity, such as the final Franklin expedition when sailors had to eat their own shipmates, or in 1972 when members of a Uruguayan rugby team stranded in the mountains of Argentina were forced to eat their dead teammates. Cannibalism has also been tolerated for medical reasons, such as during the 16-18th centuries, when elite Europeans who condemned the practice by ‘uncivilized’ societies engaged in it themselves, consuming Egyptian mummies, fresh human blood, and ground up bones.  Today, some American women eat their own--or other women's-- placentas after childbirth, believing it has healthful or spiritual benefits. And symbolic or literal cannibalism forms an integral part of religious traditions around the world, including Christianity. Speaking to the strength of this taboo,  I would expect people who engage in these exceptions might push back against the idea that they are cannibalistic practices, despite their meeting the definition*.  But, as we will discuss here, cannibalism has been a part of human cultures since long before we became modern H. sapiens. Bioarchaeologists identify cannibalism in the archaeological record by a suite of characteristic modifications to the skeleton, including:
  • Defleshing cutmarks
  • Longitudinal breakage patterns similar to those seen on butchered animals (to extract nutritious bone marrow)
  • Tooth marks from gnawing
  • “Pot polish”: characteristic polishing that is the result of bones coming into contact with a cooking vessel while being boiled
Biochemical analysis can also give insights into the practice of cannibalism. The presence of human myoglobin within human coprolites indicates the consumption of human tissues. And using biochemical analyses, Trujillo-Mederos et al. (2015) were able to determine that the remains of eighteen people killed and eaten in rituals at the Late Preclassic Period site of Tlatelcomila, near present-day Mexico City, were cooked in a variety of ways (including boiling and grilling) and eaten with chilies. Anthropologists generally distinguish between two types of cannibalism: “endocannibalism,” in which the consumed individuals are from the same group as those who eat them, and “exocannibalism” in which people outside the group are consumed. The former has been interpreted as being motivated by a variety of factors, including spirituality, honor, bereavement, and social control. The latter is more often interpreted as an act of violence or contempt. (Carbonell et al. 2010). As in contemporary groups, this practice in past groups was motivated by a variety of reasons including starvation, warfare, and ritual.  It can be difficult to distinguish between the latter two motivations from skeletal remains unless there is clear archaeological context (Larsen 2015). For example, the Upper Paleolithic Magdalenian assemblage at Gough’s Cave site shows extensive modifications to the bones including gnawing and cutting, but also the fashioning of skull-cups from the crania, suggesting “that cannibalism was probably not survival cannibalism but a customary one that included ritual practices involving the shaping of human skulls into skull-cups.” (Bello et al. 2015). However Mays and Beattie (2015) note that starvation-motivated cannibalism in the archaeological record can be identified by patterned modification to skeletal elements:
Survival (or starvation) cannibalism generally follows a sequence in which body parts requiring least effort in processing are utilised first. Initially, flesh is cut from an articulated corpse, and large muscle groups are often targeted. If further calories are needed, there may be corpse dismemberment and, finally, processing of bones to extract fat from medullary cavities and cancellous bone (Read, 1974; Turner & Turner 1999; Rautman & Fenton, 2005). If cold conditions favour preservation of the corpse, this may potentially allow sustenance to be obtained over a prolonged period (Read, 1974; Rautman & Fenton, 2005).
  Bioarchaeologists have identified cannibalistic practices in many ancient societies—so many, in fact, that a comprehensive overview is way beyond the scope of this blog post. But what particularly interests me is just how ancient it is: symbolic cannibalism is seen (as mentioned above) at the Upper Paleolithic Gough’s Cave site in England, and cannibalism was also not at all uncommon among archaic humans. The oldest evidence for cannibalism comes from the ~1 million year old H. antecessor remains at the Gran Dolina site at Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain.  Neandertal remains from Krapina in Croatia (~130,000 YBP), Moula-Guercy cave and Les Pradelles in France, Zafarraya and El Sidrion in Northern Spain, and the early modern H. sapiens from the Herto site in the Middle Awash region of Ethiopia (~160,000 YBP) also all show bone modifications consistent with butchering.  And a recent paper by Rougier et al. (2016) adds additional evidence that Neandertal cannibalism was widespread. Neandertal remains reanalyzed from the Troisième caverne from Goyet (Belgium), which date to 40,500-45,500 cal YBP, show evidence of butchering for both food and the creation of bone retouchers (used to modify stone tools) . It is unknown whether the use of Neandertal remains for retouchers was a symbolic act, or simply expediency**. So although we may shudder at the thought of eating people, the archaeological record shows us that cannibalism has actually been an integral part of human evolutionary history. Exactly how it may have shaped our evolution is unclear. Certainly it has allowed individuals to survive under extreme circumstances; could it have preserved populations that would have otherwise gone extinct? It’s tempting to speculate that this might have been a crucial survival strategy in the case of H. antecessor, but additional evidence is needed. Oh, and my aunt? She got the job, and has been working to improve the lives of incarcerated people since. She hasn't had to work with any cannibals.     *As a cradle Catholic, I've often engaged in one such practice, but without an anthropological perspective I would never have characterized the Eucharist as a cannibalistic act, despite that being the literal meaning behind the doctrine of transubstantiation! **as a side note, mitochondrial DNA recovered from remains at Troisième caverne show them to be genetically similar to other Neandertals from Feldhofer (Germany), Vindya (Croatia), and El Sidrón (Spain). This finding of similarity over wide geographic distances supports one current hypothesis that Neandertals had an extremely low effective population size.   References and further reading Bello SM, Saladié P, Cáceres I, Rodríguez-Hidalgo A, Parfitt SA. 2015. Upper Palaeolithic ritualistic cannibalism at Gough’s Cave (Somerset, UK): The human remains from head to toe. Journal of Human Evolution 82: 170-189. Carbonell E, Cáceres I, Lozano M, Saladié P, Rosell J, Lorenzo C, Vallverdú J, Huguet R, Canals A, and de Castro JMB. (2010). Cultural Cannibalism as a Paleoeconomic System in the European Lower Pleistocene. Current Anthropology 51 (4): 539-549 Larsen CS. 2015. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behavior from the Human Skeleton, 2nd edition. Cambridge Studies in Biological and Evolutionary Anthropology, Cambridge University Press. Larsen CS 2014 Our Origins: Discovering Physical Anthropology, third edition. W.W. Norton & Company: New York. Mays S, Beattie O. 2015. Evidence for End-stage Cannibalism on Sir John Franklin’s Last Expedition to the Arctic, 1845. International Journal o fOsteoarchaeology doi: 10.1002/oa.2479. Rougier H, Crevecoeur I, Beauval C, Posh C, Flas D, Wißing C, Furtwängler A, Germonpré M, Gómez-Olivencia A, Semal P, van der Plicht J, Bocherens H, Krause J. 2016. Neandertal cannibalism and Neandertal bones used as tools in Northern Europe. Sci Rep 6:29005 doi: 10.1038/srep29005 Trujillo-Mederos A, Bosch P, Pijoan C, Mansilla J. 2015. Savory recipes and the color of the Tlatelcomila human bones. Archaeometry 58(4): 688-704. DOI: 10.1111/arcm.12178 [post_title] => Cannibalism and Human Evolution [post_excerpt] => Cannibalism is one of the oldest of human taboos. However, a recent study in Nature provides evidence that Neandertal cannibalism was widespread. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => cannibalism-and-human-evolution [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-08-09 15:01:41 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-08-09 19:01:41 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120005197 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 2 [filter] => raw ) [2] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120005205 [post_author] => 30 [post_date] => 2016-08-04 18:01:38 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-08-04 22:01:38 [post_content] =>

We live in an age of information overload. Humanity now creates more information in a year than it did in a millennium — most of which does not get translated into knowledge. A mere trickle manages to become wisdom acted upon by society.

This is a serious problem. And it has a solution:

New scientific fields need to be branded and marketed so that the knowledge they embody can be learned and put to use where needed. Simply sitting behind the curtain in an ivory tower won’t cut it in today’s media deluge of (mis)information.

I say this as a practitioner who currently has the task of branding a new field of science. My collaborators and I are in the middle of a process to birth the field of cultural evolution by forming a scientific society that coordinates research, builds community, and informs the synthesis of knowledge that makes up this vibrant, multi-disciplinary field.

We have a rare advantage in that most people have never heard of cultural evolution. They don’t know it exists. People working on social change all over the world have no idea that a scientific body of knowledge is perfectly situated to transform their practices — away from poking around in the darkness and into a mode of rigorous design science for guided evolution of social norms, ideas and stories, technologies, institutions, and practices.

But first, the story needs to be told. It must have iconic images associated with it. Just like the Coca-Colas and Harley Davidsons of the world, the field of cultural evolution needs to be carefully constructed around belief systems and identities, emotional sensibilities and artifacts. In a word, it needs to be branded.

What does it mean to brand something? According to marketing expert David Airey, the definition of an iconic brand is this:

It should offer the “go to” product or service within its market, delivering what people think of first when they want what the brand sells. So if I’m looking for something online, I think of Google. If I want a quick sandwich made with care, I think of Subway. If I want to furnish a house without spending a fortune, then there’s IKEA.

So what do people currently think of when trying to create social change? Where do they go to learn about it? Many apply to MBA programs or perhaps get a degree in public administration. Or they go into psychology because this is a field that studies human behavior. Maybe — if they are especially savvy and outside the mainstream — they enter a history program specializing in social justice or social movements, or get their degree in public health where they sift through case studies of large-scale prevention programs designed to improve health outcomes.

What they don’t do is think of just one iconic place that is the “go to” for social change. And in today’s world of converging global threats (think climate change) and dysfunctional institutions (how corrupt the political process has become), there are a LOT of people wanting to work in the arenas of positive social change.

It is easy to think of iconic brands in the business world. Simply grab your iPhone or hit up that running shoe store. But what about intellectual domains? People need to know where to go so they can learn things they need to know.

There was a TED Talk fad a few years ago — when people thought this was the place to learn about “ideas worth spreading”. But in the long run this learning environment proved inadequate for creating systemic and structural change (which is desperately needed now and in the future).

Watching an 18 minute talk can be inspiring and informative, but it doesn’t produce the results young people are looking for in our broken world today.

Which is why I feel so strongly about branding cultural evolution successfully. People need to know that a proper integrative science is coming into existence at the very juncture in history when it is needed most. Humanity is going through the most turbulent period of global change our species has ever known — and we are flying blind while doing it because we don’t have the conceptual tools to make sense of it collectively. At least not yet.

So imagine five years from now that there has been a successful marketing effort to spread the gospel of cultural evolution.

  • When a terrorist bombing strikes some public space in the world, people automatically think about the research on identify fusion in tribal rituals that give rise to loyalty bonds. Or maybe they think about the various ways that wealth inequality and economic desperation provide breeding grounds for pathways to radicalization.
  • When a political contest is clearly shown to be corrupt, people think in terms of incentive structures that “select for” deception, lying, polarization, and turning off the majority of voters to preserve status quo systems of power.
  • When a new technology appears on the scene, people recognize how it arose through iterations in the past as part of the “adjacent possible” for any evolutionary search algorithm that is exploring the possibilities for matching previous technologies to new problems.

Insights such as these should be common sense. They aren’t because few are learning about the science of cultural evolution. Similar things can be said about advances in the social sciences writ large — or in other arenas likecollaborative finance, organizing practices for social movements, materials research for breakthrough engineering designs, and much more.

The richness of new knowledge is mostly being neglected and overlooked in our information-excessive media landscape. It is time to start promoting stories about what is known to supplant the promotion of stories designed to obfuscate and confuse.

Let us begin to apply what we know about how to spread ideas to the process through which new ideas are created. From this day forth, every new science will need to be branded and marketed if it is to provide value to its constituents — and to society overall.

[post_title] => Why New Scientific Fields Need Branding [post_excerpt] => New scientific fields need to be branded and marketed so that the knowledge they embody can be learned and put to use where needed. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => why-new-scientific-fields-need-branding [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-08-04 18:01:38 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-08-04 22:01:38 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120005205 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 3 [filter] => raw ) [3] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120005182 [post_author] => 42 [post_date] => 2016-08-02 16:09:35 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-08-02 20:09:35 [post_content] => The dynamic of science and politics that was at the heart of an argument between Thomas Jefferson and Count Buffon in the second half of the 18th century is eerily similar to the climate change “debate” occurring today. A dangerously wrong idea takes hold not because followers understand it, but because it taps into what they desperately want – need? – to believe. Or at least that is the argument I want to make by outlining what happened when two of the more brilliant men of their time faced off more than two hundred years ago. Here’s how I summarize the bare bones of the story in the Prologue to my book Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America. "…It was one thing for the Europeans, particularly the French, to refer to Americans as upstarts, malcontents, and threats to the monarchy — in a sense many of them were all that. It was another matter entirely to suggest that all life forms in America were degenerate compared to those of the Old World. Yet that is precisely what Count Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon, one of France’s most distinguished Enlightenment thinkers, and one of the best-known names in Europe at the time, claimed. In his massive encyclopedia of natural history, Histoire Naturelle, Buffon laid out what came to be called the theory of degeneracy. He argued that, as a result of living in a cold and wet climate, all species found in America were weak and feeble. What’s more, any species imported into America for economic reasons would soon succumb to its new environment and produce lines of puny, feeble offspring. America, Buffon told his readers, is a land of swamps, where life putrefies and rots. And all of this from the pen of the preeminent natural historian of his century. There was no escaping the pernicious effects of the American environment—not even for Native Americans. They too were degenerate ….The environment and natural history had never before been used to make such sweeping claims, essentially damning an entire continent in the name of science. Buffon’s American degeneracy hypothesis was quickly adopted and expanded by men such as the Abbé Raynal and the Abbé de Pauw, who believed that Buffon’s theory did not go far enough. They went on to claim that the theory of degeneracy applied equally well to transplanted Europeans and their descendants in America…. Thomas Jefferson understood the seriousness of Buffon’s accusations, and he would have none of it. He was convinced that the data Buffon and his supporters relied upon was flawed… And Jefferson quickly realized the long-term consequences, should the theory of degeneracy take hold. Why would Europeans trade with America, or immigrate to the New World, if Buffon and his followers were correct? Indeed, some very powerful people were already employing the degeneracy argument to stop immigration to America. … Jefferson led a full-scale assault against Buffon’s theory of degeneracy to insure that these things wouldn’t happen. He devoted the largest section of the only book he ever wrote — Notes on the State of Virginia — to systematically debunking Buffon’s degeneracy theory, taking special pride in defending American Indians from such pernicious claims. The author of the Declaration of Independence employed more than his rhetorical skills in Notes. Jefferson produced table after table of data that he had compiled, supporting his contentions. As minister to France, Jefferson knew Buffon, and even dined with him on occasion. He was confident that the Count was a reasonable, enlightened man, who would retract his degeneracy theory if he were presented with overwhelming evidence against it. Notes on the State of Virginia was just one weapon in Jefferson’s arsenal. Jefferson also wanted to present Buffon with tangible evidence—something the Count could touch. He tried with the skin of a panther, and then the bones of a hulking mastodon that had roamed America in the distant past, but Buffon didn’t budge. Jefferson’s most concerted effort in terms of hands-on evidence was to procure a very large, dead, stuffed American moose — antlers and all — to hand Buffon personally, in effect saying “see.” This moose became a symbol for Jefferson — a symbol of the quashing of European arrogance in the form of degeneracy. Jefferson went to extraordinary lengths to obtain this giant moose. Both while he was being chased from Monticello by the British in the early 1780s, and then later while he was in France drumming up support and money for the revolutionary cause in the mid-to-late 1780s, Jefferson spent an inordinate amount of time imploring his friends to send him a stuffed, very large moose. In the midst of correspondences with James Monroe, George Washington, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin over urgent matters of state, Jefferson found the time to repeatedly write his colleagues — particularly those who liked to hunt — all but begging them to send him a moose that he could use to counter Buffon’s ideas on degeneracy. … Eventually… the seven-foot-tall stuffed moose made it to Jefferson, and then to Buffon. Yet, despite Jefferson’s passionate refutation, the theory of degeneracy far outlived Buffon and Jefferson; indeed, it seemed to have a life of its own. It continued to have scientific, economic, and political implications, but also began to work its way into literature and philosophy…” Nearly every time I stand before an audience and tell this tale someone in the audience asks a question akin to this: “I bet Count Buffon would be a climate change denier, if he was around today, right?” Wrong, he was way too smart for that. He was, after all, one of the leading French Enlightenment thinkers of his day. I could find no evidence that Buffon had political motives when publishing the theory of New World Degeneracy (the case is less clear for Buffon’s groupies like Raynal and de Pauw). He genuinely thought his idea had scientific merit. In that sense, this story differs from the climate change deniers, where the political motives of the promulgators of that misguided idea are evident. But, more importantly, Buffon’s ideas spread like wildfire. Histoire Naturelle was a best seller. Buffon’s ideas on American degeneracy were translated into German, Dutch, English and other languages. New World degeneracy ideas became so mainstream that there was a contest held in France on whether the discovery of America had been beneficial or harmful to the human race. Despite it being a best-seller, most people of the day hadn’t actually read Buffon, in part because Histoire Naturelle was very expensive. Instead people heard tell of his ideas in the newspapers, salons, pubs and restaurants across Europe (and eventually America). And, of course, they self-selected the information sources to the newspapers, salons, pubs and restaurants that fit their political (as well as epicurean) tastes. Which is to say everyone in Europe talked about the idea of New World Degeneracy, everyone had an opinion about it, but almost no one had a clue about what the data (Buffon or Jefferson’s) showed. They wanted to believe this New World, a potential existential threat to their vaunted position on the world stage, was inferior to their own. So they believed it. [post_title] => What Thomas Jefferson, Count Buffon, and A Giant Moose Can Teach Us About How Easily Dangerous Ideas Take Hold [post_excerpt] => A dangerously wrong idea takes hold not because followers understand it, but because it taps into what they desperately want – need? – to believe. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => what-thomas-jefferson-count-buffon-and-a-giant-moose-can-teach-us-about-how-easily-dangerous-ideas-can-take-hold [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-08-02 16:20:47 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-08-02 20:20:47 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120005182 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 1 [filter] => raw ) [4] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120004959 [post_author] => 54 [post_date] => 2016-06-16 05:24:24 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-06-16 09:24:24 [post_content] =>
Rust-infected flax leaves. By Carl Davies, CSIRO, via Wikimedia Commons.

Harold Henry Flor spent most of the 1930s in the greenhouse of the North Dakota Agricultural College at Fargo, making flax plants sick. Flor worked in crop pathology, a brutally practical field of study. Crop pathologists work to find out what bacteria or fungi or microorganisms make economically important plants sick, then try to find a way to kill those pathogens, or to breed plants to resist them. The process can resemble engineering more than natural history — infect plant A with fungus B, record the results, move on to fungus C. Yet with precisely that process, Flor prepared the way for a new branch of evolutionary biology. Over years, Flor tested different strains of flax rust on different lines of flax, noting which rust strains could infect and damage each flax line. He systematically mated pairs of plants and pairs of rust strains and tested their offspring against each other. And slowly he built up a dataset to describe the genes that determine whether flax plants can resist rust infections, and whether rust can overcome the plants' defenses to establish infection. There wasn't a clear hierarchy; gene variants that let plants resist one rust strain might not be much use against another strain. As Flor wrote in the first paper he published reporting his discoveries:
These facts suggest that the pathogenic range of each physiological race of the pathogen is conditioned by pairs of factors [gene variants] that are specific for each different resistant or immune factor possessed by the host variety.
Flor called this "gene-for-gene" infection. The statistical geneticist Charles Mode created a mathematical model of the evolutionary changes implied by these flax-rust genetic interactions: In a hypothetical population of flax with many different resistance variants, plants carrying the variant that protects against the most common rust strains would prosper, and leave more offspring, and in a few generations every plant in the population would be their descendents, carrying that resistance variant. This would create an advantage for a rust strain carrying a new gene variant that can overcome the successful plant resistance variant. Such a lucky mutant would quickly spread, creating natural selection favoring a new plant resistance variant, and the cycle would begin again. Mode called this evolutionary back-and-forth in host and pathogen "co-evolution." Half a century later, coevolution (the hyphen disappeared almost immediately) has been referenced or examined in thousands of studies, and merits a section to itself in the just-released Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Biology. I was lucky enough to be asked to write the introductory chapter [PDF] to that section, which gave me an excellent excuse to dig into the history of research on coevolution, and to think about its future. The idea that a major source of the natural selection shaping the evolution of living things is other living things traces back to The Origin of Species, wherein Charles Darwin muses about clover flowers and pollen-carrying bees "becoming modified and adapted in the most perfect manner to each other." But the modern, systematic study of coevolution really didn't get underway until the middle of the Twentieth Century. Flor's studies on the genetics of flax and rust and Mode's model-building laid the groundwork for thinking about the short-term evolutionary dynamics of interacting species. At about the same time, Paul Ehrlich and Peter Raven compiled information about the relationships between large groups of butterfly species and the plants on which their larvae feed, showing that the associations ran deep into evolutionary history — which suggested that many groups of butterflies diversified into many different species after their ancestors evolved the capacity to penetrate the defenses of a previously inaccessible group of host plants. This suggested that coevolution could shape the formation and extinction of species over millions of years. In other words, interactions between species — a fundamental consequence of biodiversity — may help to generate more biodiversity. Those of us who study coevolution have spent much of the decades since those early studies trying to understand how, exactly, this happens. Studies of the reconstructed historical relationships between living species, have shown that groups of species engaged in highly specialized interactions tend to be more diverse than related groups of species that lack such interactions. Experimental and ecological studies of contemporary populations, however, have often failed to pinpoint the kind of selection that can help to create new species. Consider one iconic example. Some orchids attract pollinating moths with nectar, offered at the bottom of a long, tubular spur, which runs back from an opening below the stamens and pistil. A moth must reach its proboscis down the spur to reach the nectar, bumping against the flower as it does so and picking up or depositing pollen. The spur, then, must be long enough that the moth has to stretch to reach the nectar, to make contact with the flower; but moths with longer probosces can collect more nectar with less effort. The result should be an "arms race" of coevolutionary selection favoring first longer spurs, then longer probosces, and so on --- Darwin famously followed something like this logic to predict that an orchid with a dramatic, foot-long nectar spur must be matched by a moth with a similarly long proboscis, decades before anyone found such a moth. [caption id="attachment_120004930" align="aligncenter" width="640"]A sphinx moth, Xanthopan morgani, with a very long proboscis, as predicted from an orchid. By Esculapio, via Wikimedia Commons. A sphinx moth, Xanthopan morgani, with a very long proboscis, as predicted from an orchid. By Esculapio, via Wikimedia Commons.[/caption] While that plant-moth arms race might be easy to envision, it's less easy to see how it might lead to the formation of new species of orchids or moths — both species should evolve in one direction until one or the other reaches some physiological limit, then remain closely matched. Well, imagine not one arms race, but many. These different races occur in semi-isolated populations scattered across the landscape. Constraints against longer spurs or longer probosces could differ from place to place — maybe orchids grow in some places with poor soil nutrients, which limit their growth, or maybe long probosces make for awkward flight in open, windy habitats. Or maybe some sites have different, more efficient pollinators with shorter tongues, like hummingbirds. Those differences, then, could lead the various populations of orchids and moths to spin off on their own coevolutionary journeys — and, eventually, to form different species with very different nectar spurs and probosces. This idea, that coevolution may promote biodiversity not in and of itself, but in concert with other ecological and evolutionary forces, is at the heart of John Thompson's "geographic theory mosaic of coevolution" — meaning mosaics of populations, scattered across patchy, geographically variable environments. Some sites in a mosaic may not even support true coevolution — may not even have both species present — but over the whole system, coevolution interacts with different environmental conditions to promote and maintain new genetic diversity. Thompson, and scientists inspired by his thinking, have started to document how these much more complex processes operate in a variety of living communities, including at least one plant-pollinator interaction quite like Darwin's orchid. Fully describing and understanding geographic mosaics of coevolution is intensive work, potentially involving long-term field surveys, carefully designed experiments in natural and controlled settings, and population and molecular genetic studies. Some elements of these have become much, much easier since Flor's day — in particular, modern DNA sequencing methods allow us to identify and describe specific genes that might be involved in coevolutionary intractions much faster than his laborious controlled crosses. But, as with Flor's foundational work, modern coevolutionary studies need long hours spent in careful observation spent of the interacting species. To those of us who specialize in species interactions, ferreting out the natural history and evolutionary dynamics of our favorite organisms is all part of the fun.

References

Darwin C. 1862. The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects New York: D. Appleton and Company. Ehrlich, P. and P. Raven. 1964. Butterflies and plants: A study in coevolution. Evolution 18:586–608. doi: 10.2307/2406212 Flor, H. H. 1956. The complementary genic systems in flax and flax rust. Adv. Genet. 8:29–52. doi: 10.1016/s0065-2660(08)60498-8 Grant, V. 1949. Pollination systems as isolating mechanisms in angiosperms. Evolution 3:82–97. doi: 10.2307/2405454 Loegering, W. Q., and A. H. Ellingboe. 1987. H.H. Flor: Pioneer in phytopathology. Annu. Rev. Phytopathol. 25:59–66. doi: 10.1146/annurev.py.25.090187.000423 Mode, C. J. 1958. A mathematical model for the co-evolution of obligate parasites and their hosts. Evolution 12:158–165. JSTOR. doi: Thompson, JN. 2005. The Geographic Mosaic of Coevolution Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Yoder JB. 2016. Coevolution, Introduction to. In: Kliman RM (ed.), Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Biology. Vol. 1: 314–21. Oxford: Academic Press. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-800049-6.00185-2 Zhang F., C. Hui, A. Pauw. 2012. Adaptive divergence in Darwin’s race: How coevolution can generate trait diversity in a pollination system. Evolution 67(2):548–60. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2012.01796.x [post_title] => Why Coevolution is the Key to Understanding Biodiversity [post_excerpt] => Interactions between species — a fundamental consequence of biodiversity — may help to generate more biodiversity. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => why-coevolution-is-the-key-to-understanding-biodiversity [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-06-16 05:24:24 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-06-16 09:24:24 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120004959 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [5] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120004936 [post_author] => 40 [post_date] => 2016-06-15 02:22:52 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-06-15 06:22:52 [post_content] =>
"Deseo" (Desire) by Jose Camilo Palacio Constain, via Flickr.

In Part 1 of this series on the origin of human sexuality, I borrowed a phrase from the biologist Robert Sapolsky, who once referred to humans as “tragically confused” in terms of the way we mate. As he put it, we’re not quite a classically monogamous species, but neither are we a winner-take-all polygamous species either. Instead, we seem to be a little from column A and a little from column B (and maybe something from columns C and D too). I’ve been trying to think of a way to explain why I think this is an apt description, where some of that confusion originates, and what are some of the potential pitfalls when thinking of human mating patterns. Analogies are imperfect, as some information is always lost in the transfer between concepts, so forgive me if this falls short. And it’s a sports analogy too, but bear with me; I’ll keep it brief. During the first year I played Little League baseball as a kid, one of the coaches told us that when we played defense we should be ready to field the ball at all times (or at least, be ready to get out of the way or knock the ball down to defend yourself). A hard-hit baseball can really hurt, especially for a young kid who has stopped paying attention because they became distracted by the flock of geese flying overhead (true story). Anyway, he taught us that the best defensive position was to have your glove ready and stand crouched while facing the batter, with our toes pointed slightly inward, or “pigeon-toed.” That may not be textbook coaching, but he explained that by having both feet pointed inward we could quickly pivot and “push off” to our left or right, reacting to where the ball was hit. For whatever reason, I’ve remembered that for more than thirty years. The lesson stuck. I think “pigeon-toed” is a decent metaphor for much of human behavior, including our sexuality. We are a highly adaptable species, capable of moving in a range of directions by reacting to, and in turn modifying, the world around us. That flexibility is one of our species’ greatest assets – along with other genetic and physiological adaptations – in that it allows us to live on every continent and adjust to a range of social and ecological conditions. Of course, behavioral flexibility is not unique to humans. The very essence of behavior is that it allows organisms to respond to circumstances, whether it be plants growing towards sunlight or water, anemones swimming away from predators, enormous herds of wildebeest migrating in search of land to graze, or chimpanzees sizing up the complex political situation within their troop. This is pretty basic stuff. However, when thinking about sexual behavior, it may help to stop and remind ourselves that evolution did not design organisms to be static things, or genetically determined automatons. One of the potential pitfalls when describing a species’ behavior, particularly for a general audience, is the temptation to use single-word descriptions. For example, among our hominoid relatives, gorillas are said to be polygynous, gibbons are monogamous, and chimpanzees are polygynandrous (or multimale/multifemale). Certainly, behavioral patterns exist, and these are very reasonable assessments of these species’ mating patterns, but one word cannot be all-encompassing. This matters because, although we like to think categorically, behaviors are complex, variable, and dynamic. Rigid definitions usually mean that some complexity must be shaved off in order to fit into a discrete category more cleanly. The problem is not that the above labels have no merit; it’s that they have a tendency to overshadow the variation that exists within a species. It's also true that our vocabulary helps shape the way we think about a given species, especially for ourselves. Several respected researchers have suggested that human mating patterns do not fit into a single category, and that the best fit for our species is a combination of monogamy/ polygyny (Dixson 2009; Gray and Garcia, 2013; Opie et al 2013). That is, some aspects of our evolved biology and behavior are more consistent with monogamous species (ex. the neurobiology of romantic love and pair-bonding), while other traits hint at polygyny (ex. slight sexual dimorphism, the fact that many cultures allow men to have more than one wife). Peter Gray and Justin Garcia specified this categorization a bit further, arguing that our biology is “consistent with slight polygyny/ mostly monogamy” (p. 142, emphases not in original), adding that “slight polygyny has been stamped into our human form” (p. 38). Elsewhere, in another paper about casual sex and so-called sexual “hookups,” Garcia et al. (2012) referred to “the biological centrality of the pair-bond” to describe human mating behavior, indicating how important this type of relationship is for our species. Our ability to fall in love and form strong pair-bonds does not negate that casual sex and other types of sexual relationships exist. Instead, it is merely a reminder that where there is a core, there is also a periphery. Others have suggested that the framing of the evolution of human sexuality has traditionally been somewhat male-centric, and that a fuller appreciation of the wide array of human mating practices is needed. For example, Katherine Starkweather and Raymond Hames (2012) found 53 societies in the ethnographic record that allowed a woman to take more than one husband (i.e., polyandry), indicating that this practice was not as rare as once believed. This raises the question: how common does polyandry have to be in order to consider it a part of the human mating repertoire? On that note, Sarah Hrdy (2000) questioned how “natural” single-male mating systems (monogamy, polygyny) were for female primates on the whole, asking where polyandrous mating might fit into things:
“The existence of one-male mating systems does not prove that females “naturally” gravitate to them. Typically monandrous (copulating with just one partner) mating systems are maintained by one male excluding rivals or by other circumstances that distort female options. As with many other animals, primate females (including women) can benefit reproductively from polyandrous matings. Understanding this takes us beyond narrow research programs intent on demonstrating “universal” differences between the sexes, and allows us to study females as flexible and opportunistic individuals who confront recurring reproductive dilemmas and tradeoffs within a world of shifting options.” (2000: 75)
I think this is another place we can get tripped up when describing human mating patterns. It’s another reminder how important it is to acknowledge the range of behaviors that exist, while resisting overly simplistic categorizations. There are many acknowledgements of this mating plurality in the cultural ether, in addition to Sapolsky’s description of humans as being “tragically confused.” Perhaps the most famous example comes from the advice columnist and author Dan Savage, who coined the term “monogamish” to describe his own married life, but also people generally.  In an interview with “Big Think,” the primatologist and psychologist Laurie Santos called humans “a funny puzzle,” sort of pair-bonded, but sometimes with a tendency to seek out multiple partners (for both men and women). Wednesday Martin, author of the book “Primates of Park Avenue,” recently wrote an essay about “female flexuality,” adding that “we have yet to wrap our minds around how much female sexuality has to do with context.” Similarly, anthropologist Greg Downey described human sexuality as “flexible, even contradictory.” Chris Ryan, one of the authors of the book “Sex at Dawn,” referred to humans as “sexual omnivores,” given the range of sexual practices in cultures around the world. And so on, and so on. These thinkers all come from slightly different perspectives. What they have in common is that they suggest that our species is not so easy to pin down, or at least not with a single label. We are complex. Ryan’s phrase “sexual omnivores” provides us with yet another useful analogy (uh-oh, not another one). Perhaps asking what “the” human mating pattern is, is something like asking what “the” human diet is. As true omnivores (in the dietary sense), humans can eat organisms from nearly every branch of life – plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, algae, etc. We have species-wide nutritional requirements that are built into our biology (amino acids, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, etc.), but the ways that we construct our diets will vary by time, ecology, and culture. A strength of this diet-versus-mating analogy is that we do not always have our nutritional requirements or our sexual desires at a fully conscious level. Nor did we ever need to be professional dietitians to consume a healthy diet. Instead, we learned what to eat from the generations who came before us. Those diets did not have to be perfect; they just had to be good enough to get the job done. Upon moving to a new area, our ancestors would have made due with whatever foods were available, and by trial and error put together a functional diet that provided a range of nutrients. Again, flexibility is one of our best assets. Likewise, we may have requirements or desires related to our social and sexual relationships – love, companionship, sex, pleasure, self-esteem , etc. – and here too, we may not always have an explanation for our desires at our fingertips. Humans are undoubtedly evolved organisms, and in that way we are just like every other organism. In terms of our sexual behaviors, evolution has given us biological impulses including sexual desire and romantic love, and these have genetic roots. In turn, individuals learn cultural norms as to the ways those impulses might be appropriately expressed. After all, as the anthropologist Agustin Fuentes wrote, human behavior is not strictly the product of genes or culture, but instead is “naturenurtural” (2012:16). Of course, there is one more step. Individuals do not just passively receive cultural norms; they also construct them. And different cultures, at different times, have come up with various prescriptions to balancing our erotic desires and needs. Finally, one of the obvious benefits of being a flexible, or “pigeon-toed,” species is the ability to pivot and adjust to diverse diets, or diverse relationship structures: monogamy, polyandry, polygyny, sexual hookups, serial monogamy, non-monogamy, etc. But one of the potential problems with this is that if one foot is pointed at too exaggerated of an angle – to continue with the metaphor – then it can become difficult to walk straight. We may even trip ourselves. This brings us full circle, back to Sapolsky’s portrayal of humans as tragically confused. Our adaptability prepares us to go in a number of directions. But there is also the potential for conflict and confusion if parts of ourselves are going in different directions simultaneously.   Series: "On the Origin of Human Sexuality" Part 1. The Tragically Confused Species Part 2. Is the Human Species Sexually Omnivorous? Part 3. Coming soon...   References Dixson A. 2009. Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems. Oxford. Link Fuentes A. 2012. Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature. University of California Press. Link Garcia JR, Reiber C, Massey SG, Merriwether AM. 2012. Sexual hookup culture: A review. Review of General Psychology. 16(2):161-176. Link Gray PB, Garcia JR. 2013. Evolution and Human Sexual Behavior. Harvard.  Link Hrdy SB. 2000. The optimal number of fathers: Evolution, demography, and history in the shaping of female mate preferences. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 907: 75–96.Link Opie C, Atkinson QD, Dunbar RIM, Shultz S. 2013. Male infanticide leads to social monogamy in primates. PNAS 110 (33): 13229-13230. Link Starkweather, KE Hames R. 2012.  A survey of non-classical polyandry. Human Nature 23(2): 149-72. Link [post_title] => Is the Human Species Sexually Omnivorous? [post_excerpt] => Asking what “the” human mating pattern is, is like asking what “the” human diet is. As true omnivores, humans can eat organisms from nearly every branch of life. Our sexuality is much the same. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => is-the-human-species-sexually-omnivorous [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-06-15 16:46:56 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-06-15 20:46:56 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120004936 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 2 [filter] => raw ) [6] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120004951 [post_author] => 41 [post_date] => 2016-06-14 11:00:23 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-06-14 15:00:23 [post_content] =>
The author gazing with her son (left); a rhesus monkey mother gazing with her infant. Photo credits: Sarah Burns-Spielvogel (left) and Peggy O'Neill-Wagner (right).

I did it with my daughter. I did it with my son (as depicted above). Mothers the world over do it. We gaze, almost reflexively, at our infants’ faces. And not just for brief moments, but for long, uninterrupted spells. It turns out, we’re not alone: nonhuman primate mothers gaze at their infants, too. Chimpanzees, geladas, and macaques have all been documented engaging these face-to-face interactions, and there are unpublished reports of other species (such as bonobos) engaging in them, too. Why does this behavior persist across primate taxa? (And why is it seemingly absent in other mammals?) A unique study published today by our laboratory may begin to answer this question. In a combined observational and experimental study of rhesus monkeys, we explored how variations in early face-to-face interactions between mothers and infants influence infants’ later social development. In our observational study, we found that monkey infants whose mothers engaged in a particular type of face-to-face interaction – mutual gazing – more frequently with them in the first month of life, were more sociable later in infancy and into monkey toddlerhood: they spent more time in social contact with other monkeys, and they initiated more social interactions like grooming and play. These findings are important, as they are the first to demonstrate that variability in neonatal mother-infant interactions shape the later expression of social development. At a proximate level, it’s possible that monkey moms who engage in mutual gazing with their infants are also in physical contact with them more frequently, and this physical contact is what drives the infants’ later sociality. At an ultimate level, it is possible that these two traits – mutual gazing and enhanced sociality – are pleiotropic, meaning they independently resulted from influences of the same gene. Our experimental study addressed these hypotheses. In a group of infant monkeys reared in a nursery by human caregivers, without the typically-occurring interactions from their mothers (but, importantly, still given typical interactions with same-aged peers), we randomly assigned 1/3 of the infants to receive standard care, 1/3 to receive extra physical handling only, and 1/3 to receive extra handling and face-to-face interactions in the first month of life. Intriguingly, only the infants in the handling-plus-face-to-face group were more social later: at 2 months (monkey infancy), eyetracking assessments revealed that they looked longer at pictures of (unrelated and unknown) monkeys in a social setting as compared to abstract photos. The other groups showed no difference in looking times between the two stimuli. At this age, the handling-plus-face-to-face infants also spent more time in social interactions with their peers than infants in the other two groups – and the other two groups did not differ from each other. Thus, it appears that the experience of neonatal face-to-face interactions in particular is promoting the greater sociality we observed later in development. Importantly, these effects are not driven by increased physical contact. Our findings suggest that neonatal face-to-face interactions such as mutual gazing exist in both human and nonhuman primates because they evolved in gregarious species exhibiting enhanced sociality. Of particular note is that all the primates – including humans – that have been documented engaging in mother-infant mutual gazing are highly social species that live in multi-male, multi-female groups. All of them use social tactics to secure resources required for survival and reproduction. As human and nonhuman primates alike rely on subtle and complex facial gestures for communication, it makes sense that we moms would begin to expose our infants to these intricate expressions from the get-go. Primates living in large, stable social groups rely on advanced social skills to both coordinate their behaviors with others in the group and to solve conflicts arising from resource competition. Thus, by imparting advanced social skills in infancy via face-to-face interactions, primate caregivers may be promoting social competence that is critical for survival in complex societies.   References

Bard, K. A. et al. Group differences in the mutual gaze of chimpanzees(Pan troglodytes). Dev. Psychol. 41, 616–624 (2005).

de Waal, F. Chimpanzee Politics: Sex and Power Among Apes (Jonathan Cape, 1982).

Dettmer, A. M. et al. First-time rhesus monkey mothers, and mothers of sons, preferentially engage in face-to-face interactions with their infants. Am. J. Primatol. 78, 238–246 (2016).

Ferrari, P. F., Paukner, A., Ionica, C. & Suomi, S. J. Reciprocal face-to-face communication between rhesus macaque mothers and their newborn infants. Curr. Biol. 19, 1768–1772 (2009).

Mancini, G., Ferrari, P. F. & Palagi, E. Rapid facial mimicry in geladas. Sci. Rep. 3, 1527 (2013).

Richman, A. L. et al. Maternal behavior to infants in five cultures. New Dir. Child Dev. 40, 81–97 (1988).

Silk, J. B., Alberts, S. C. & Altmann, J. Social bonds of female baboons enhance infant survival. Science 302, 1231–1234 (2003).

[post_title] => Why Gazing At Babies May Be So Irresistible [post_excerpt] => A new study finds that monkey mothers who engaged in mutual gazing with infants more frequently during their first month showed those same infants being more sociable later in life. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => why-gazing-at-babies-may-be-so-irresistible [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-06-14 11:11:48 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-06-14 15:11:48 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120004951 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) ) [post_count] => 7 [current_post] => -1 [in_the_loop] => [post] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120005268 [post_author] => 23 [post_date] => 2016-08-15 03:05:08 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-08-15 07:05:08 [post_content] =>
Image: Quinlan Pfiffer, via Flickr.

Forty years ago, the notion that cultural change can be understood as a system of inheritance caught the popular imagination. The concept of “memes” as cultural units analogous to genes was popularized in the writings of Richard Dawkins—creating a great deal of controversy similar to what arose around E.O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology, published in the same year as Dawkin’s influential work on this subject. Richard Dawkins really stirred things up with his best-selling book in 1976, The Selfish Gene. He did this in two ways: (1) with his story about genetic “selfishness” that gave license to those who wanted to be literal about it and say evolution is all about self-interest, greed, and otherwise selfish behavior; and (2) by introducing the concept of “memes” as cultural units of heredity that play a functional role similar to genes in biological reproduction for the transmission of cultural information. There were two main problems with interpretations of selfish genes—one having to do with an over-emphasis on genes as the only hereditary unit worthy of consideration (often called gene-centrism as it was a narrowing of biology to a myopic treatment of all biological traits being reducible to the traits of individual or groups of genes). The other being a misinterpretation of selfishness as an anthropomorphizing of genes as literally being miniature selfish people. This  gave the rugged individualists of the world free reign to claim that science was on their side when they formulated economic and political philosophies to serve themselves and their peers. Luckily, a great deal of progress has been made on the selfish gene front. We now know that reductionisms of all kinds are inadequate for dealing with the real-world complexities of biology in the flesh. There is not one, but at least four, hereditary systems recognized by biologists today. Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb lay this out clearly in their 2006 book, Evolution in Four Dimensions, as they walk through the research literature on genetics, epigenetics, behavioral repertoires, and symbolic culture as four distinct pathways where traits are “heritable” in appropriately defined fashion. Similar progress has been made with the study of altruism and “prosocial” behaviors. It is now widely known that rational self-interest in economics is too narrow a view to encapsulate the richness of real human nature. Books like David Sloan Wilson’s Does Altruism Exist? And E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth are but a sampling among a great diversity of works showing how much the research community has advanced its understandings of social behavior in the last 40 years. Unfortunately, the controversies around cultural memes have not been as productive. Read the cultural evolution literature today and you will find three largely distinct camps:
  1. Those who dismiss meme theory as wrong-headed and disproven.
  2. Those who embrace meme theory as richly productive and vindicated by evidence across many fields.
  3. Those who don’t have strong opinions one way or the other and are waiting to see how the chips fall.
I personally sit in the second camp, having used meme theory to guide my research on the spread of ideas and behaviors across social systems in both digital (social media) and physical environments. What I find interesting about the Camp 1 people—those who dismiss meme theory outright—is that their reasons seem to be based on the fallacies associated with Dawkins’ first major controversy and have little to do with the progress made in memetics research in the forty years since the term was introduced into the intellectual discourse. A summary of the main argument against meme theory is this: There is a great deal of evidence showing that human minds do not replicate information perfectly (or even with high fidelity). Thus it is impossible to conceive of a meme that begins in one mind and somehow is replicated in the mind of another with enough informational integrity to be called a hereditary unit.  In other words, the complex process of communication is reduced (that pesky reductionism again) to “thought units” with defined features that must be recreated without noise or error in two or more minds. Students of cognitive linguistics will recognize a particular metaphor here—the Conduit Metaphor for communication that has been richly explored by scholars like Michael J. Reddy and George Lakoff. In this metaphor, a thought is treated as an “object” that passes through some kind of conduit between one mind and another. It is among the most common conceptual representations for teaching and learning (even though it is empirically incorrect). Linguistic examples include phrases like “Are you getting what I’m saying?” and “The instructor passes on knowledge to students.” Here’s what I find interesting about this argument… it presumes that a number of advances were never made since the year 1976! Specifically, I am thinking of three areas where significant progress has been made during the last forty years: the birth of complexity science in the early 1980’s, developments in the study of human conceptualization and cognitive linguistics since the mid-70’s, and the explosion of digital media in the age of personal computers and later via the internet.  Let us look at each of these in turn. Birth of Complexity Science Scientific reductionism has declined throughout the mid-to-late 20th Century with the rise of systems thinking across many different fields.  Systems thinking arose with cybernetics, information theory, and early computing that made possible the rapid advances in fields like ecology (with ecosystem modeling of population dynamics), meteorology (with numerical weather forecasting for studying emergent patterns in the atmospere), and economics (with systems modeling of ecological throughputs like the famous Limits to Growth study by the Club of Rome). In the early 1980’s an interdisciplinary research center called the Santa Fe Institute was founded to convene the rag-tag cadre of scholars working across fields like these around what has come to be known as complexity science. The focus of this new science is the emergent patterns and systemic behaviors for phenomena where a large number of interacting parts give rise to often paradoxical and unpredictable behaviors. It is the anti-thesis of reductionism—a research program that has given rise to sweeping advances in theoretical biology, the study of social organization, self-organizing processes, and more. When Dawkins introduced the concept of memes in 1976 there were few who thought in terms of emergent complexity. A language has gradually developed around concepts like self-organized criticality, emergence, pattern formation, and diffusion-limited aggregation to model, simulate, and visualize the interactions within a complex system that give rise to emergent outcomes. Without such a language, it is difficult to conceive of memes as dynamic, emergent patterns of social information arising from many interacting parts. Developments in Human Conceptualization The mid-1970’s were a time of great progress for many fields. Around the time that meme theory was capturing the public imagination there were several researchers giving name to recognizable patterns of human thought and behavior that emerge over and over again. In sociology and linguistics, it was frame semantics that explored the conceptual structure of social settings and thought processes. Social psychologists and anthropologists talked about script theory as a way to make sense of routine behaviors that people “act out” in common social interactions. Computer scientists and information theorists grappled with image schemas as a way to represent modular logical structures in algorithms as they created software for machine learning. What all of these approaches shared in common was an emphasis on distinct conceptual structures that can be discerned and analyzed for their inherent logic, roles and relationships, and heuristic uses by people as they navigated the complexities of real-world social environments. They led to the development of research methodologies that are now routinely used to study political discourse, conduct ethnographic research, engage in branding and marketing exercises, and more. An example of a “recurring thought structure” in politics is the concept of tax relief—which uses the metaphor that a tax is a burden to introduce an inferential logic about fairness, suffering, and relief. This concept is used over and over again in politics. It has been translated into slogans, political speeches, editorial commentaries, and dinner table debates more times than can be counted. Applied to meme theory, this body of tools and techniques demonstrates that researchers across many fields have found value in the perspective that culture can be studied as information patterns that arise in a variety of social settings routinely and with modular elements that are readily discernible in each new instance. The claim that information patterns do not replicate is contradicted by the evidence for image-schematic structures (like the metaphor for taxes above with its distinctive inferential logic and recognizable use cases). Explosion of Digital Media Add to these developments the explosion of digital media since the advent of personal computers in the 1980’s and ascension of the Internet for public use in the 90’s up to the present. There are now so many technological tools for digital reproduction of content (where replication is done with such high fidelity that it cannot be questioned) that the theory of memes is vindicated on technical grounds alone. Consider the digital storage of 1’s and 0’s to generate an image for our profile picture on Facebook (which is created in an identical manner for each user who views it). Or the spread of “internet memes” where distinct lineages of descent-with-modification have been studied for the spreading patterns of ideas as they hybridize, mutate, and quite literally evolve leaving a data trail that can be analyzed with unprecedented methodological rigor. An example is this study of information diffusion on Facebook. Digital media represents a phase transition in cultural research—sometimes called the Big Data Explosion or the “dataclysm” by social scientists who analyze patterns in the massive datasets now used to study emotional sentiments on Twitter, track themes with keyword searches of text on Lexus-Nexus, or deconstruct narrative tropes in the media. The theory of memes is highly valued by researchers who take an epidemiological approach to the spread of information. Some ideas are more “contagious” than others for psychological reasons that are becoming known with greater clarity and insight with each passing year. For example, this study looking at campaign donations as a kind of social contagion. Network scientists are mapping out the spread of ideas and behaviors in real time with tracking algorithms that monitor the World Wide Web. Discourse analysts are characterizing the composition of themes and frame semantic structures that shape how various publics think and feel about important topics. Weaving It All Together Combine these three major domains of progress—complexity science enters the scene, human conceptualization is now studied with great rigor, and so much of human culture has gone digital—and it is clear that meme theory has been highly generative and productive in the study of human culture. It is time to update our debates about cultural transmission to include developments like these. The old debates that reduce all of biological evolution to genes have fallen into disuse. We can now do the same for their analogues in the study of culture.  I am not suggesting that memes are THE way to make sense of social learning and cultural evolution (as there are other very important frameworks like gene-culture coevolution and dual-inheritance theory that provide additional bridges between culture and biology). But we can now recover the baby from the thrown-out bathwater and see how a dynamic systems point-of-view melded with advances in other social sciences is highly productive and generative for shaping the research practices of the future. Looking at meme theory forty years later, we can see that much more is now known and there are things we collectively have figured out how to do that would seem like magic to the 1976 mind of a social scientist. I hope this article stimulates a healthy dialogue and debate so we can move toward the goal of consilience across fields and get away from the narrowing binaries of “true/false” and “right/wrong” in future conversations. It is not that meme theory is right or wrong, but rather that it has been (and will continue to be) highly valuable for cultural research across the social and biological sciences. [post_title] => A Forty Year Update on Meme Theory [post_excerpt] => When Richard Dawkins introduced the concept of memes in 1976 there were few who thought in terms of emergent complexity. Much has changed in the intervening years. 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