The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Live Blog of CFI Chicago’s “Dangerous Nonsense” Entry 5

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 24, 2010

First off, let me apologize in advance, because I’ll likely have to cut out before the end of this particular lecture.  That said…

Speaker #4: Dr. Dario Maestripieri, professor of evolutionary biology, on “What Primatology and Evolutionary Psychology Tell Us About the Evolution of Human Behavior”.  Some evolutionary biologists consider the study of behavior to be outside the realm of their field – this is because behavior is notoriously difficult to quantify and measure.  Another reason is that many think that behavior is an effect of environment and culture.  Then there is the dreaded “free will” problem, and some people are uncomfortable with the idea of their behavior being the product of some kind of deterministic evolutionary process.

The Lieberman Experiments: people were wired up to electrodes and asked questions, and the result was that the electrodes read that their brains had actually made decisions before they had consciously decided on the answer.  The point is that it seems that we have the illusion of control and that we make decisions even before we are aware of them!

Most evolutionary biologists study fruit flies, but Dr. Maestripieri studies monkeys and other primates, in order to study and make conclusions about human behavior.

Dr. Maestripieri also does research on humans in order to analyze the evolutionary processes which influence human behavior.  This sort of work is very controversial because of a variety of reasons, so not many evolutionary biologists do this kind of research.

In fact, some evolutionary biologists think that the field of evolutionary psychology is non-scientific.

Basic Outline:

*brief history of primatology

*some basic concepts

*primatologists, evolutionary psychologists, human behavioral ecologists, and their critics

*evolutionary psychology: science or bunk?

In 1872, Charles Darwin wrote “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” where he focused on the behavior & emotions of animals and how that reflects the psychology of man.  He felt that these behaviors in animals (primates) formed a continuum with human behavior.  In the process, like in his earlier research, he gathered evidence from around the world and attempted to formulate a theory of human behavior via evolution.

From 1900-1940, there were many experimental studies of primate cognition (by Kohler and Yerkes).  Also, in these years there were systematic observations of primate behavior in the field, and there were attempts make to teach human language to chimpanzees.

After World War II, three fields of study started to get more attention from academia: psychology; anthropology; and ethology, ecology & evolutionary biology.  By the 1960s and 70s primatology is well represented in all branches of scientific psychology, due to the cognitive revolution which overcame behaviorism.  Eventually, the research even got to the point of asking questions of whether or not apes had minds or if they even had a sense of self.

Early attempts to teach apes human language was partly an effort to “learn the secrets of nature” from them or to train them as soldiers/pilots.  NASA was also interested in potentially sending them out into space.

Since the 1970s, there have been a series of longitudinal studies on various primate populations.

Up until the 1960s, evolution had really only been used in population genetics and understanding speciation.  Then scientists began to think that evolution could be used to understand behavior.  How adaptive is behavior?  If behavior is the result of natural selection, then we should be able to measure behavior in relation to environmental factors, etc.

These were the “golden days” of primatology.  Then things changed…

In the 1980s and on into the 1990s, there came to be some overlap between primatology and psychology only in communication and cognition research.  Little or no presence of primate research in developmental, social, clinical, and biological psychology.  Rise of biological anthropology as the main discipline supporting primate behavior research in the U.S.  Some research at this time began to look into primate “theories of mind” – that is, are primates aware of the minds of others?

So, to this day, primatology is mostly supported by anthropology as opposed to biology or psychology.

In the last decade (2000-2010), biological anthropology (more biological and less anthropological) continues to be the main discipline supporting research on primate behavior and ecology in the U.S.  Primatology strengthens its connections with 2 branches of psychology: cognitive neuroscience/neuroeconomics are modern examples.

Basic Concepts:

1. Behavioral Adaptation: behavioral trait that evolved in the past by natural selection because it enhanced the survival & reproductive success of the individuals.  The implication is that people are behaviorally adapted to their current environment.

Example: when you’re hungry, you try to eat.  The advantage of eating is very clear – you don’t die so you can reproduce.  You can look at the behavior among different individuals or you can manipulate the behavior.

2. Historical definition of BA: a trait that evolved in the past by natural selection because it enhanced the survival/reproductive success.  Natural selection is not currently on the trait, so it is no longer adaptiive or functional.  Implications are that people are not behaviorally adapated to their current environment.

Example: Suppose I show you a watch, and you’ve never seen one before.  You start to formulate a hypothesis about what is the purpose of the watch, and you start to look for certain features and make predictions about the structure.  Then you open up the watch to see if you’re right.  This process is called the “argument from design”.

3. Exaptation: trait that evolved in the past by natural selection, and this trait is currently under selective pressure, but for a diifferent function than in the past.  A by-product here is that the trait hasn’t been under direct selective pressure for some time.

Unfortunately, at this point I have to leave the conference.  I hope that you found this record useful! :)

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3 Responses to “Live Blog of CFI Chicago’s “Dangerous Nonsense” Entry 5”

  1. Thanks for the updates. I will try to make next year’s event. TAM and some old bills put a damper on attending this year.

  2. ayala leyser said

    Good digest for the portion you attended, Matt…A Panel discussion followed with ample input from the very engaged audience. An animated discourse among speakers evolved around the value of debating Creationists on Intelligent Design vs. Evolution as a valid explanation.
    Ron Pine pointed out that such presentation may convey the impression of Scientific equivalence hence credit I.D as a “theory”…

    • mattusmaximus said

      Wow, sounds good. I wish I could have stayed for the entire thing! Thanks for all your work in putting it together :)

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