New Paltz – A Beacon of Intellectual Freedom and of Evolutionary Studies

(this article first appeared as a letter to the editor in the New Paltz Times on 5/9/2014)

Dear Editor,

I write to give a status report on the Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) program that we’ve got at SUNY New Paltz – and to give a message of thanks to our broader community for allowing our work in the field of Evolutionary Studies to find such a supportive home in this special place.

In 2007, SUNY New Paltz started the world’s second academic program in the field of evolutionary studies – this program began with a group of faculty from such diverse areas as anthropology, biology, geology, psychology, and theatre arts. Inspired by Darwin’s vision of seeing the entirety of life connected within a single powerful and humbling perspective, EvoS New Paltz embarked on a journey to bring the ideas of evolution to students across any and all academic disciplines.

As part of this intellectual journey, we started (in Spring of 2008) the annual EvoS Seminar series (supported largely by CAS – Campus Auxiliary Services) – a speaker series featuring intellectuals who address various areas of inquiry in a way that relates to Darwin’s big idea. Since its inception, this series has included more than 50 major-league intellectuals – from various academic disciplines. These speakers have included Natalie Jermijenko (notable artist and environmentalist at NYU), David Sloan Wilson (biologist from Binghamton and originator of the EvoS idea), Robb Wolf (author of The Paleo Solution and a world-renowned voice on the topic of nutrition and exercise), Richard Wrangham (anthropologist at Harvard – and one of the most famous living primatologists), and Marlene Zuk (biologist at the University of Minnesota and one of the world’s most significant living biologists) – and many more.

I want you to know that nearly all of these talks have been videotaped and are now live-streaming (for free) thanks to the outstanding work of New Paltz’s office of Instructional Media Services (with special thanks to Keron Lewis). These talks are regularly taped via Mediasite software – and in 2011, we won an award for our Global Outreach from their parent company, Sonic Foundry.

The award we won from Sonic Foundry is significant in many ways – and it owes largely to the work of a major National Science Foundation grant that we were awarded (along with Binghamton – with essential roles played by New Paltz biology professor Jennifer Waldo and New Paltz psychology professor Rosemarie Sokol-Chang – and David Sloan Wilson, Director of EvoS at Binghamton). Working together, we worked to cultivate our speaker series – and to create a website for the EvoS Consortium – (currently managed by New Paltz psychology graduate student, Briana Tauber), has received well over 100,000 page views since its inception – and it includes the world’s largest database of free-and-streaming videos related to the topic of evolution. Yes, the world’s largest.

Given how intellectually rich our community is, New Paltz is, not surprisingly, at the forefront of evolution education – and, importantly, is at the VERY forefront when it comes to evolution education outreach. The support of the university – and of the broader community that we call home – has been absolutely foundational in allowing this to be the case. And in case you didn’t realize how central our little town is in shaping the nature of evolutionary studies in the field of education on a global scale, I just wanted you to know.

Thanks a ton to the broader community for your support and for allowing EvoS New Paltz to grow as it has.


Glenn Geher, Director of EvoS – State University of New York at New Paltz

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Gettin’ Down & Dirty with Dr. Dana: Xiphactinus, Enchodus, & Other Cretaceous Chalk Critters

Harrell Station Paleontology Field Site

Harrell Station Paleontology Field Site

I’ve been wanting to go fossil-hunting since arriving in Alabama, as I keep hearing about the wonderful locations down here, & finally got to experience this particular cheap thrill thru evolution. Our friend & Alabama Museum of Natural History Paleontology Curator Dana Ehret was kind enough to take me & my family down to Harrell Station to sift thru the chalk during our spring break.

Hunting fossils with (clockwise from left) Dana Ehret, my son Jagger, me, & my son Lux. My son Bailey & wife Loretta are not pictured. (Photo by Loretta Lynn)

Hunting fossils with (clockwise from left) Dana Ehret, my son Jagger, me, & my son Lux. My son Bailey & wife Loretta are not pictured.

Various parts of Alabama have been oceanfront property at various points in prehistory. Tuscaloosa, in west central Alabama, where we live, was oceanfront during the Cretaceous, so much of the area south of us is rife with deposition fossils. Harrell Station is an old railway station with 166 acres nearby owned by the ALMNH as a Paleontology Site. It is old eroded farmland where the topsoil has washed away & exposed the underlying geological formation called the Selma Chalk. This deposition was formed when the area was a relatively shallow & calm sea. According to an article about the site published just after it was purchased by the Board of Regents thru a fundraising effort, a series of papers published from 1948 thru the 1970s were based on fossils collected in just one month. Major dinosaur, mosasaur, & other fossils have come out of the site over the years. Though much of the bigger finds on the surface are likely gone, there are thousands & thousands of other small fossils surfacing regularly.

Bailey digging.

Bailey digging.

Dana has only been on staff a few years &, as one of the few with access to the site, has the luxury of this site as his playground practically any time he wants. In fact, the EvoS Club may be organizing a fossil-hunting camping trip there right now. But let’s do it before it heats up around here.

We managed to get out of the house around 10:30 (we’re not early risers, especially on spring break) & got to the site around 11:30. We parked the van in an adjacent cow pasture & went ahead & ate lunch. There is a gully exposure just a few feet from where we parked, but Dana wanted to take us to a site in the back because he takes most kid groups to the closer exposure so they won’t have to walk far. That means the back site is less picked over. Still, it was probably less than a half mile walk to the back exposure.

Selfie of me & Luxie showing off our tools & treasures.

Me & Luxie showing off our tools & treasures.

As Dana explained, the tendency is for people to run to the furthest areas, expecting them to have been less picked over, to make the more glorious finds. In doing so, everyone tends to run past the fossils in the front. People also tend to enjoy the mounds sticking up, but it is the lower flats where everything has washed down that most things settle.

So, I went straight to the back to seek my glory, missing thousands of fossils underfoot no doubt as I went. My kids jumped from mound to mound pretending they were on the moon & digging with trowels & a pick-hammer along the way. For my trouble, I found two decent shark teeth.

Jagger was smart enough to follow around the expert & learn how to do it right.

Jagger was smart enough to follow around the expert & learn how to do it right.

Actually, my son Jagger was smart enough to tag along behind Dana. As a result, he made the find of the day, a full vertebrae from a Xiphactinus audax, a species of 15-20 feet long predatory fish of the late Cretaceous. Either because he was just totally into the whole adventure or because he made the coolest find, Jagger loved fossil hunting, which is awesome, as I hope to have at least one little buddy to drag back out with me next time we get a chance. I was a proud dad the next day too to see that he’d made the Fossil Friday find:

Jagger found this vertebrae from a Xiphactinus audax, a 15-20 feet long predatory fish from the lower Cretaceous just sitting on top of the chalk in a gully.

Jagger found this vertebrae from a Xiphactinus audax, a 15-20 feet long predatory fish from the lower Cretaceous just sitting on top of the chalk in a gully.

When the Lynns pooped out from sun exposure (the sun reflecting back up off the chalk can be killer) & were reclining in the shade admiring my two teeth, Dana kneeled down in the nearby flat he’d indicated originally & found half a dozen shark teeth, Enchodus teeth, & fish vertebrae in 5 minutes. Now that we were all tired from running all over the moon, we had the patience to follow his advice, hunker down in one place, & started to find several more small pieces. I found a number of Enchodus teeth as well, & Dana found a piece of Mosasaur he gave me for my collection to show students.

Like any hands-on activity, what had formerly been rather difficult to remember & keep in context is now very clear to me because I can see it around us. On the way back, Dana pointed out the pines that love the chalky soil & indicate where Cretaceous depositions lie. Given that the beachfront gradually moved south over the eons, I wondered aloud if there are any Eocene, Miocene, or Oligocene depositions exposed where we might find primates.

Loretta with the 60-75 million year old Goblin shark teeth I found in her mouth.

Loretta with the 60-75 million year old Goblin shark teeth I found in her mouth.

Down near the first Alabama state capitol, St. Stephens, there are Eocene & Miocene depositions, he says, though he doesn’t know of any primates or protoprimates findings there. However, there is a site near Meridian, Mississippi, which is just about an hour southeast of Tuscaloosa, called the Red Hot Truck Stop Locality that has elicited omomyid teeth. Omomyids are crown primates, meaning they are among the very first families of animals in the fossil record that can be identified as primate ancestors. Dana has not been to the Red Hot Truck Stop (which seems weird, as Dana, like us, is definitely a lowbrow haute couture kind of person), but Chris Beard (he of Eosimias fame–OK, famous in fossil primate circles, but I’ve taught his book & discuss Eosimias every year as a possible base ancestor) has published on the findings.

My booty for the day. Damn, no primates during the Cretaceous? And what did I collect more of than anything else? Fossilized worm burrows that looked like turds turned to pyrite. And I picked up a real turd too. It was desiccated but still...definitely.not.a.fossil.

My booty for the day. More of than anything else, I collected fossilized worm burrows that looked like turds turned to pyrite. And I picked up a real turd too. It was desiccated but still…definitely.not.a.fossil. (Photo by Chris Lynn)

When I got home, I pulled up a recent article in which Beard describes the numerous species found at the site. First, the Red Hot Truck Stop Locality was literally a well-known truck stop, & there is at least one website lamenting its passing. Behind the building that, I believe, still stands & now houses another business, is the exposure to which some have access.

A whole host of fossils have been described from the Red Hot site (just Google Red Hot Truck Stop & look at it all!), but I had no idea that, according to Beard (2008) the most basal species of omomyids (Teilhardina magnoliana), who flourished after the Paleocene-Eocene boundary, had been found near here. Omomyids & the other Paleocene-Eocene crown primates the adapids are always a bit difficult to teach, as they don’t grab most students the way the fossil hominids do (well, some of the students), but I am excited to be able to now connect one of them to the local landscape & a site (the truck stop restaurant, that is) that the local kids may actually know firsthand!

Driving thru cotton fields on our way home, we stopped to take a picture in front of what looks to be a share cropper's cabin. (Photo by Chris Lynn)

Finally, driving thru cotton fields on our way home, we stopped to take a picture in front of what looks to be a share cropper’s cabin. A reminder of where we are. (Photo by Chris Lynn)

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EvoS Will Lead to (Good) Transformative, Lifelong Experiences

Maybe that’s a stretch, but I don’t think so. I just had to share this tweet the president of the UA EvoS Club sent out last week during the Sarah Tishkoff lecture. She just turned 21 last week, so maybe she was a  bit tipsy, or maybe my promises of synergy & glory are coming to fruition.

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We Need Neandertals or Some as Yet Unknown But Genetically Similar Population Within the Last 100 ky in Our Story

A couple years ago when I first started blogging here, my friend John Edvalson asked me right out of the gate my opinion on the Neandertal-sapiens interbreeding controversy. I think I skirted an answer because, though as a biological anthropologists I thought I should probably have one, I was behind the curve & didn’t feel informed enough to say anything.

Things haven’t really changed, but I’ve always been uncomfortable with this whole interbreeding-with-Neandertals scenario. It makes for good play in the media, but it feels too tidy for me. Real human stories are just never that tidy. Take for instance, as geneticist Sarah Tishkoff just pointed out in her talk with my class & her ALLELE lecture yesterday, the plethora of new Homo species we keep finding–Denisovans, floresiensis, erectus gets demoted as regional variation of ergaster. A messy playing field. Given the ring speciation we see among other genuses in relatively small areas, that just makes more sense to me & that even most people with access to planes, trains, & automobiles still don’t really travel that far from home when they grow up & marry, it seems odd that Homo sapiens got their hands on the ring of power 200 kya & just came out of Africa kicking ass & taking names away.

But I don’t see many people posing the counter-argument lately, since the Neandertal & human genomes have been published. I keep wondering, why is 2% of Neandertal DNA evidence of interbreeding? Why isn’t it just evidence of shared ancestry? In fact, I’m pretty sure I pressed John Hawks on this when he was here a few years ago, but I forgot his answer. The continued barrage of news media & even scientific party-line towing about interbreeding had pushed it from my mind. So when Jim Bindon sent this blog post around, I thought–aha! here’s someone bold enough to articulate my confusion. So I dutifully posted it on my Facebook wall, got a bevy of my biologist friends scoffing at our ignorance (but still not explaining this to me in terms I could understand), & got John to rearticulate his position, but in writing this time!

All of us have shared ancestry with Neandertals. Some have more than others. Indicates ancestry from a population more like Neandertals than any living people are. Who was that population? One possibility is Neandertals. Another is one or more ancient non-Neandertal populations that were genetically more like Neandertals than anyone living now. Length of chromosome blocks that are similar to Neandertals suggest that this similarity comes from a population that existed within last 100,000 years. So we need Neandertals, or an as-yet-unknown population that was genetically similar to them within the timeframe that Neandertals existed, and lived somewhere that sub-Saharan Africans could have mostly avoided them.

THIS makes sense to me, given the evidence. Maybe it’s just because he’s an anthropologist & knows how to speak my language. I know John is a big Neandertal supporter, & I get why (besides the fact that he’s a paleoanthropologist & geneticist who actually knows the data from the inside to a degree most of us will never have access to). H. neandertalensis has been knocked around for too long–why COULDN’T they have interbred w/ other Homo? Clearly, they were not dumb, as pop culture tended to depict them. I’m with him on that.

John impressed me during his talk at Bama with many things I hadn’t known about them, such as that our knowledge of them from European samples is probably from a later backwater of their own population, which may have been centered more in Asia, where they were probably also much more genetically diverse. But bonobos & chimps are genetically MORE similar & haven’t interbred for, what, 3 million years?

Shedding more light on this, as many of you know, are two new papers out last month in Science & Nature. One of the key points is that this 2% of shared DNA is in non-African populations.  The sticking point is that, while this is compelling, we have only sampled a small proportion of the African genetic diversity yet, which constitutes 2/3 of the genetic diversity worldwide, & most of those samples come from Yoruban populations, who are connected to the Bantu expansion. This point was made clear in a great talk this past Thursday at Bama by geneticist Sarah Tishkoff.

Tishkoff’s story is great. I was going to write up a separate blog post about it, but I’ll detail a bit here. Why don’t we know more about African genetic diversity, many people ask her? She explains this by showing slides of her fieldwork. First, let me say that she has truly impressive credentials. She was trained as an undergraduate in Allan Wilson’s lab at UC Berkeley & worked with the very first PCR machine. She did her graduate work with Kenneth Kidd at Yale & did a postdoc at Penn State. Despite starting in Anthropology, it wasn’t until her postdoc that she got to experience her dream of doing fieldwork. She was lured to study the genetic diversity of African hunter-gatherers because it’s so understudied. Even at that point, because of political issues, it took her 6 years to get the permits & funding to begin the data collection. Then she had to set up a lab in the bushes, literally. Working in field settings with no electricity, they use truck batteries to power centrifuges.

Anyway, Tishkoff’s work indicates that we can see selection in the genome, & we can see admixture in the genome as a result of migration (together with linguistic, phenotypic, & archaeological data). For instance, she has found evidence of lactase persistence genes that mutated in E. Africa & are distinct for mutations associated with lactase persistence among Europeans. Those mutations show up in S. Africa but at a much lower rate, indicating migration by some E. Africans to S. Africa & some admixture (in press, J Hum Gen).

So, IMO, the jury is still out on who bred with who, but the genetics, like the fossil record can get us there. Until we collect more data, however, all the current theorizing is essentially speculation, &, I fear, the sexiest interpretation will continue to hold the spotlight until the evidence catches up. And what is sexier than actual sex?

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Modeling Recent Human Genetic Adaptation

Geneticist Dr. Sarah Tishkoff from the University of Pennsylvania is speaking as part of UA’s ALLELE series today, & EvoS students are reading a recently review she co-authored for Nature with Laura Scheinfeldt for the occasion. The piece, “Recent human adaptation: Genomic approaches, interpretation and insights,” is excellent in general in conveying the complexity of study recent human evolution. In particular, I like the figure they include to depict ways recent genetic change can be modeled.

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Let the dead bury the dead?

Many years ago, I was watching one treacly movie or another about a grieving widow. It wasn’t good, but it was embarrassingly effective. I was moved. As I am wont to do, I quickly dissipated my sadness by contemplating a (superficially simple) question: Why do we, as humans, grieve at all. I had, at this point, thoroughly imbibed the evolutionary psychology literature and I approached human behavior from a relentlessly Darwinian perspective. Grieving, I thought, is costly and it is not so obvious what return a griever could expect from his or her anguish. Putting the question this way may seem unduly callous and excessively analytical. Grief is a powerful human experience. Why kill it so we can perform an autopsy on the lifeless cadaver? Putting aside a suite of powerful rationalizations, I will simply confess that the subject piqued my curiosity. I wanted to understand why we might possess a capacity to grieve.

Many years later, my colleagues (Tania Reynolds, Roy Baumeister, Ben Winegard, and Jon Maner) and I believe we may have discovered one possible solution to the puzzle of grief.

We begin by noting that grief is indeed puzzling:

 “A bereaved wife every weekend walks one mile to place flowers on her deceased husband’s cemetery stone. Neither rain nor snow prevents her from making this trip, one she has been making for 2 years. However poignant the scene, and however high our temptation to exclude it from the cold logic of scientific scrutiny, it presents researchers with a perplexing puzzle that demands reflection. The deceased husband, despite all of his widow’s solicitude, cannot return to repay his wife’s devotion. Why waste time, energy, effort, resources—why, in other words, grieve for a social bond that can no longer compensate such dedication?”

 Although this is a poignant tableau, the real costs of grief might be much more severe:

“It may require significant interruption of a person’s ability to perform daily tasks, to participate in social activities, and to seek out romantic partners (Archer, 1999; Averill, 1968; Schwab, 1992). Grief also increases mortality rate, susceptibility to illness, visits to physicians or other health professionals, suicidal ideation, and possibly even suicide (Fredrick, 1971; Hart, Hole, Lawlor, Smith, & Lever, 2007; Maddison & Viola, 1968; Parkes, 1964; Parkes & Brown, 1972; Phillips et al., 2006; see also Hendrickson, 2009 for a cautious review of the literature on parental grief and health).”

From an evolutionary perspective, these costs are puzzling because they would appear to reduce one’s inclusive fitness–especially because the ostensible target of the displays, namely the deceased, cannot possible recompense the mourner’s dedication (the sadness, longing, et cetera).

But what if the real target of the displays is someone else? Perhaps, that is, grief is a signal that is directed not at the dead, but at the living. Grief, then, might be a signal of (1) one’s underlying propensity to form strong, stable social bonds and/or (2) one’s current level of commitment to a group/tribe. We believe this is one possible reason for the existence of humans’ prolonged grief response. Our scenario for the evolution of grief is as follows:

  1. The original grief response was a byproduct of the attachment system. At first, the grief response was probably relatively muted compared to today’s average grief response.
  2. Observers began to note (not consciously) a correlation between a person’s grief response and his or her general propensity to form strong social bonds (or between the grief response and the person’s commitment to a group.)
  3. Observers began to make social decisions based on the grief response
  4. The grief response was shaped and elaborated by those decisions just as trees and flowers were shaped and elaborated by the preferences of pollinators.


Grief, then, separates/d the social wheat from the social chaff. Of course, this is a speculative reconstruction of grief, and it is not without problems. Robert Kurzban wrote an excellent blog (see bottom for link) in which he forwarded two basic objections to this proposition. The first objection was that there doesn’t seem to be an asymmetry in costs between a prosocial griever and a more exploitative non-griever. The second was that our proposal relies upon signaling “types,” or relatively stable personality characteristics that persist across domains (e.g. a general “prosocial” personality). These criticisms are insightful and important, and I am thankful that he raised them. Although I concede that they might be entirely correct, I would like to forward a few possible answers. Let me tackle them in order.

We argued that grief is a costly signal that has different costs for a loyal person who has a propensity for forming strong social bonds than for a relatively disloyal person who does not. That is, we argued that a person who forms strong commitments faces relatively fewer costs for grieving than does a person who is unlikely to form strong commitments. Kurzban argues that this is implausible:

“It seems clear that the woman in question has more than just the two options of either grieving on the one hand or exploiting others on the other. People have many things they might be doing at any given moment besides those two activities. In short, it seems from the opening vignette that the authors not only concede but require that it be true that grieving carries very big opportunity costs, even if one is a prosocial sort of person. Yet their argument also requires that the opportunity costs of grieving people to be small, at least relative to non-grieving people.”

This is an excellent point. The argument is that the grief signal must be costly because otherwise dissemblers would deceive others by displaying it. Upon the other hand, there must be a differential cost between those who grieve intensively and those who do not because no one would grieve if it didn’t benefit him or her in Darwinian terms (i.e., inclusive fitness). So what gives?

I think one possibility, one that is addressed in the article, is that the rewards for grieving are larger for a person who is prone to forming strong commitments than for a person who is not. And this is an important part of the of the cost/benefit analysis of signaling. A relatively commitment-free person, a person who cultivates a number of superficial associations, is simply not rewarded as much as a person who forms intense commitments by the addition of strong social bond. If this seems a bit muddy, consider an analogy. Researchers have proposed that men engage in different mating strategies. For simplicity, we can dichotomize these: short term and long term. Now, let us consider a short-term man (Steve) and a long-term man (Bill). Suppose that Steve and Bill both zero in on an attractive woman. They would both like to sleep with her. However, let us suppose that she is particularly fastidious and requires significant investment before sleeping with a man. Both men could, of course, attempt to woo her with expensive dinners, elegant poems, and exquisite displays of investment. But the cost/benefit structure of such displays is different for the two men.

Steve desires a few sexual encounters, not a long-term relationship; Bill desires a long-term relationship. Therefore, if Steve accomplishes his goal, he will obtain access to a few sexual episodes. This is certainly a positive evolutionary outcome, but it is not so important to Steve as is a long-term relationship to Bill. Presumably, Steve could procure sexual access somewhere else and without extreme costs. This means that, ceteris paribus, Bill is more likely to emit displays of investment. And this is, in fact, why women use such a vetting system: it deters those who do not actually intend on forming a stable pair bond.

It seems plausible that grief could operate in a similar manner. So, take two men: John and Dilbert. Now suppose that John is a social butterfly who flits from person to person and group to group, making the most of a high volume of low commitment friendships and group bonds. Dilbert, upon the other hand, practices a high commitment social strategy. Once he bonds with a group, he remains loyal until the bitter end. Same with individuals. John would probably avoid groups that require large initial investments or costs because his strategy is best advanced by seeking low cost social opportunities, whereas Dilbert might be attracted to them. Grief might function as a costly initiation practice, deterring people like John from extracting the benefits of a close-knit, highly committed group.

In fact, this can be quantified, and the math shows that it could work. Please excuse the ridiculously crude nature of this equation. The basic point is simply that the math works. So, suppose that grief costs 1 unit of inclusive fitness (RS). And suppose that the rewards for grief are different for a person with a propensity for forming strong social bonds (Dilbert) than for a person who lacks such a propensity (John) such that the reward to Dilbert = 1.1 RS and the reward for John = .7. Both receive rewards for their displays, but the rewards are differentially rewarding. In this (very simple, crude model), Dilbert achieves a .1 RS gain for the signal and John loses .3 RS for the signal.

Of course, as I said, this is remarkably crude; the real world is much more complicated. The costs/benefits would most likely be distributed across a continuum (i.e., from low grief to high grief, low benefit to high benefit). This also doesn’t consider the signaling component from a group perspective. Nevertheless, the important point is that the math could work. This, of course, doesn’t mean that it does. That is an empirical question, and I am hopeful that future research is conducted that either refutes or supports the theory.

Kurzban’s second objection is that the theory relies on signaling a “type.” That is, according to the theory, a griever is signaling that he or she is prosocial. Kurzban points out, quite correctly, that underlying propensities for prosociality do not necessarily cross relationship domains. In other words, a person might be a very cooperative and committed husband, but an irascible and uncooperative friend. Although I think the general point is correct, I do not believe that it is fatal to the signaling theory. It is a fair assumption that people who commit and cooperate with one person are more likely to commit and cooperate with another person. I suspect that this is relatively domain general, although there are some egregious counter examples (e.g., Bonnie and Clyde—although, contrary to popular understanding, Bonnie and Clyde weren’t loners, and they may have been quite loyal to their fellow gang members). We do, for example, use small snippets of behaviors to predict future behaviors, and we do so because such small snippets are, at the very least, somewhat informative. Likewise, we use a person’s behavior in one relationship as a gauge of his or her behavior in another relationship.

Again, though, this is an empirical question. And it does raise intriguing questions. For example, would women be more affected by a husband’s grief for a deceased wife than men? Would men be more affected by a man’s grief for a fallen group member than women? Who would respond more to grief displays about children, brothers, sisters, or other kin? At any rate, the problems forwarded by Kurzban are important and thought provoking—and I appreciate the discussion.

Last, before concluding, I want to note that there are several reasonable proposals about the evolutionary function of grief. I suspect that the human grief response was shaped by multiple selective forces, so there isn’t any one single function of grief. Too often, we as evolutionary thinkers attempt to ascertain the reason or the function for a particular trait as if reality were a multiple-choice test with only one correct answer. Randolph Nesse, Tooby and Cosmides, John Archer, and others have forwarded compelling theories about the function (s) of grief. The signaling theory of grief does not argue that any of these theories are entirely incorrect. It is rather unlikely that we will discover the special selective force that led to our species’ incredible intelligence because there isn’t one; similarly, it is unlikely that we will discover the single selective force that shaped the human grief response because it doesn’t exist. Instead of searching for some absolute answer, some absolute perspective on such puzzles, we should look through multiple windows. Initially, this might make our view more fragmented, but ultimately it will lead to a more comprehensive understanding.

If the signaling theory is part of the story about grief, a griever’s laments may not be ineffectual communications to the dead; instead, they may be powerful signals to the living.



Kurzban, R. (2014). Good Grief.



Winegard, B. M., Reynolds, T., Baumesiter, R. F., Winegard, B., & Maner, J. K. (in press). Grief Functions as an Honest Indicator of CommitmentPersonality and Social Psychology Review.




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10 Human Universals that Should be Fully Embraced (… or Appreciating the Flip Side of Diversity)

Diversity in all its incarnations is awesome and beautiful. It’s the spice of life. And in modern times, educational institutions have become enlightened regarding the importance of embracing, understanding, respecting, and appreciating diversity. And this trend in modern education – and in our broader set of societal institutions – is really a great thing about living now.

We learn to appreciate diversity in so many human domains – and this is an important element of tolerance and respectful living. We are educated in the nature of diversity in cultural phenomena, such as language, religion, and music. And we are educated in the nature of diversity in contexts that extend beyond our own species, learning to appreciate the diversity in such phenomena as dog breeds (think Great Dane versus Miniature Daschund), ecosystems (think high desert versus equatorial tropics), food (think cheeseburger versus sushi), and more. Darwin’s (1859) exposition of natural selection, in fact, presents diversity as a core element of the basic processes that underlie evolution.

This said, the evolutionary approach to human behavior (i.e., evolutionary psychology; see Geher, 2014) has shed important light on the nature of human universals. Human universals are, essentially, qualities that, due to our shared evolutionary history, characterize humans across the globe. As renowned applied psychologist Kalman Glantz (2012) pointed out in a memorable presentation at a conference of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society (NEEPS) in Plymouth, NH, human beings would be wise to embrace the many basic qualities that we all share in common just as much as we embrace the facets of diversity which highlight our differences.

Maybe educational institutions can develop programs that help students of all ages understand and appreciate the nature of human universals. Maybe curricula from pre-K to the PhD level can help people build tolerance of others by underscoring what we all have in common as a function of our shared evolutionary history.

In this spirit, to put a face to this idea of embracing human universals, here’s a list of 10 qualities of humans that characterize our kind – from Argentina and Alabama to Zimbabwe and Zurich.

10. Across human populations, infants cry to communicate basic needs.

9. The emotional expressions that signal happiness, joy, surprise, and anger, are recognizable and constant in all human populations.

8. Humans form groups based on qualities that cut across kinship lines, such as shared religion, political affiliation, tribe, or favorite sports team.

7. While the details vary from group to group, human groups have specific traditions regarding such events as marriage, the birth of a child, or the death of a loved one.

6. Music truly is a human universal.

5. People dislike, and are often afraid of, stimuli that would have threatened the safety of our ancestors, such as parasitic insects and venomous snakes.

4. Kinship matters – and affects social organization in all human groups that have ever been studied.

3. Humans everywhere have the capacity to learn language.

2. Humans across the globe demonstrate a strong need for connections with other humans.

1. People everywhere have the capacity for laughter and joy.

This list is, of course, remarkably incomplete – but I hope it’s a good start in helping people appreciate the importance of human universals – qualities that characterize people everywhere – near and far.


Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1st ed.). London: John Murray.

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Glantz, K. (2012). Presentation at the 6th annual meeting of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society (NEEPS). Plymouth, NH.

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Menstrual Huts Signal Paternal Certainty

An article from 2012 by Beverly Strassmann & colleagues is the first piece I think I’ve read that connects religious signaling to actual reproductive fitness, instead of merely group commitment (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  They analyzed genetic data from 1,706 father-son pairs from 10 Dogon villages in West Africa with 29 overlapping patrilineages & found a significantly lower rate of cuckoldry among those practicing the indigenous Dogon religion than among those practicing Catholicism.  There was no significant difference between the indigenous religion & Muslims or between Catholics & Muslims (& there were too few Protestants to sample–they should come to Alabama).

The significance of all this is in what is essentially the practice of patrilineage mating guarding via menstrual huts institutionalized in the traditional religion.  Women are exiled to a hut near their husband’s family for 5 days during their menstruation & coerced to stay there via threat of supernatural punishment.  Hormonal data indicate women internalize this fear (no details on this, but it points to a 1992 Strassmann paper) & thus to willingly to the huts, sending an honest signal of fertility & fidelity.  The Dogon do not practice contraception, & women rarely menstruate because pregnancy quickly follows the periods of lactational amenorrhea.  But when she goes to the menstrual hut, the husband’s family is informed of her “cuckoldry risk” & precautions against it “include postmenstrual copulation initiated by the husband and enhanced vigilance by his family.”PNAS-2012-Strassmann-1110442109_Page_03

The authors suggest that Islam does not jeopardize paternal certainty because it has adapted other measures to replace the menstrual hut, which, because transition to Christianity is more recent, have not yet taken place among those converts.  Additionally, though not statistically predicative of paternal certainty, Christians tend to be poorer Dogon, who may choose it less for the sexual freedom it affords women so much as the affordable alternative to the indigenous practices, because its ritual costs are far less (the Dogon religion is unpopular for a variety of reasons among the urbanites & those who migrate to the cities).

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Television News, Embedments, & Cognitive Evolutionary Literary Studies

Bill Evans, from his blog Media Adaptor

Bill Evans, from his blog Media Adaptor

I just met Bill Evans earlier this semester, who is a professor in the Department of Telecommunications & Film here at the University of Alabama & has had an abiding interest in evolutionary approaches to media analysis. I feel this connection is a new horizon for our EvoS program, as he is a resource for non-science students who nevertheless want to integrate an evolutionary perspective into their work. I hope he has the same sentiment & subsequent experience, as we are venturing into some joint research vis-a-vis evolution & media effects. I say this by way of introducing a piece I read by him (& that he summarized on this own blog here) that came out earlier this year in what I fear was the last issue of The Evolutionary Review, edited by EvoS Consortium & Newpaltzian friend & colleague Alice Andrews. The essay, “Television News Audiences as Tribes, Television News as Moral Alliance,” analyzes TV news as

an ingenious human innovation for surveying the emotionally salient aspects of a social environment that has become too vast to traverse and too disbanded to gossip about in person.

Following Robin Dunbar’s “social brain” model, once our alliances grow too large & hierarchical to monitor firsthand, we rely on proxy mechanisms or even stand-ins.  (This is something like Richard Alexander’s suggestion that the arts are surrogate mechanisms for scenario-building but not quite.  Rather they are probably complementary, but I am digressing & will have to work that out another time.)  What we’re monitoring is the presence of friends or foes, things to approach or withdrawal from.

And to extend this line of Bill’s thought, I wonder if city dwellers rely on TV stand-ins more than rural denizens? Ironic as it might sound from a social intelligence perspective but intuitive from an urban studies one, overpopulation breeds distrust & the retraction of social networks. You are more likely to get mugged in broad daylight in a congested population than a small one, & though it might seem like I’m talking about NYC or something, these data come from studies of Japanese macaques in zoos where they are overprovisioned.  Check out the high stress these monkeys experience in, I believe, the film “Monkey in the Mirror.”

Our friends or foes on TV are reflected in their moral stance, which we most quickly assess thru partisan political views.  Though we look to other forms of media for the same signals of commitment to our cause,

television makes available the facial and vocal behavior of people…[so] viewers have more direct access than readers to the emotional state of quoted sources.

Despite the stance of objectivity previously associated with the gathering & dissemination of news, broadcasters have realized that emotional displays are more captivating for viewers & some have dispensed with any show of objectivity on networks.  Instead, newscasters convey emotion through tone & expression, & producers “frame events as threats to viewers.”

Kelly Horwitz, Loretta Lynn, & Marvin Lucas

Kelly Horwitz, Loretta Lynn, & Marvin Lucas care about children!

Bill also turned me on to some scholars I need to read up on.  One, Jonathan Haidt, I am quite familiar with but have yet to read.  Haidt’s deconstruction of the conservatism-liberalism spectrum as comprising 5 moral intuitions–care, fairness, loyalty, authority, & purity–is really quite compelling & mindblowing.  Though conservatives & liberals often portray each other as somehow immoral & wonder at what appear to be immoral choices or judgments made by the others.  Although we know there’s more nuance underlying these choices–for we all have friends or family who are on the opposite end of the political spectrum from ourselves–we judge the morality of strangers based merely on political affiliation (when campaigning for our non-partisan school board election recently, one drunk father of a UA student interrogated my wife: “What is Kelly Horwitz? What’s she want to do?” “Well,” my wife answered, “it’s a non-partisan election.  Kelly simply wants what’s best for the children.”  “The children?! Then she’s a democrat! We don’t vote for democrats!” the man spat & threw the info card she’d given him down). For instance, a friend of mine in grad school said she & her husband found it less complicated to simply tell their daughter that George Bush (prez at the time) & Ronald McDonald are evil than to explain any of the morally, politically, economically, or nutritionally complex subtext.  I thought this was totally justified at the time, & my wife & I adopted a similar tack.  Unteaching such reactionism has been our punishment.  The point being that conservatives & liberals value the 5 moral intuitions in different concentrations, which gives them their flavors, “with liberal relying more heavily than conservatives on intuitions related to care and fairness.  Liberals rely far less heavily than conservatives on intuitions related to loyalty, authority, and purity.”

How do they feel about children?  Delicious? (Source for photo on left: Melissa Brown /

Here is a clip (left) from our local media (Melissa Brown / How do they feel about children? Delicious?

So, in a nutshell, TV news provides gossip about a whole panoply of people & issues, resplendent with facial expressions & tone heavy with implication.  We find our allies on TV news, the ones that share our moral intuitions, & value their “gossip” over that of newscasters who are not part of our “alliance.”

The other scholar Bill turned me on to but have never heard of is Lisa Zunshine (watch I’m gonna go to the office Monday & find a book of hers sitting on my shelf that I’ve never gotten to–always happens that way when I admit my lack of literacy in public).  She applies cognitive science to literary analysis &, in particular, theory of mind.  This is really astounding.  And obvious.  She gives credit to Alan Parker, who apparently has pointed out that “novel reading is mind-reading.”  I read parts of two articles of Zunshine’s available on her website (thanks for making it so easy!).

Not sure this photo is gonna win me friendship with Lisa Zunshine, but I found it online & it is awesome.  What a great photo.  And I'm being totally sincere.  If you are looking to me for moral guidance, you already know that I am not mocking her, as any glance thru the jackassery of photos of me online can attest.

Not sure this photo is gonna win me friendship with Lisa Zunshine, but I found it online & it is awesome. What a great photo. And I’m being totally sincere. If you are looking to me for moral guidance, you already know that I am not mocking her, as any glance thru the jackassery of photos of me online can attest.

The first is a draft of a piece in progress for Interdisciplinary Literary Studies called “‘Theory of Mind’ as a Pedagogical Tool.”  She says something I consider important & mention in a blog post I wrote up but am afraid to publish lest some journal editor refuses to consider a future version for peer review some day (just getting it out there that I thought of this, even though I can’t prove it–no doubt I read it somewhere else & forgot & think I thought of it myself anyway, so whatever):

…Our daily mind-reading is largely unselfconscious and mostly wrong.  We don’t go around consciously articulating to ourselves our intuitions about other people’s mental states and we don’t really know what people are thinking—which doesn’t prevent us, however, from acting on our unarticulated, wrong, or only approximately correct intuitions.

I didn’t say the following though, but have only thought about it in inchoate, inarticulate ways for years, searching in my mind to explain why the arts seems intuitively important from an evolutionary perspective:

Fiction plays and experiments with the fact that we can’t stop reading minds and that we don’t read minds correctly.  Both writing and reading fiction (as well as making and watching movies and plays) are thus profoundly social endeavors because they build on the same imperfect adaptations for attributing mental states that underlie our daily social interactions.

Furthermore, fiction embeds mental states within mental states within mental states.  In a piece she wrote called “Style Brings in Mental States,” she points out that style itself can imply embedments that the reader intuits or projects, even when the rhetoric does not.  For instance, she contrasts two pieces, written purposefully to be free of mental states.  I’ll present them in the opposite order she did.  The second reads

I drove the motorcycle half-way across the country, alone.  I saw 21 states, 6 sunrises and 6 sunsets, while quietly sitting on a seat that measures no more than fourteen inches across.  The seat is a magic carpet that whizzes through space at 80 miles per hour, supported by two wheels and an aluminum frame.  i was connect to America through that seat, and those little foot pegs that jut out from the lower part of the bike.  Motorcycling is high-speed meditation.

I’m not sure how the author thought that the metaphors of the magic carpet or being connected to America weren’t conveying mental states, but the whole piece, stitched together that way, conveys a whole theme that Zunshine outlines but which I can summarizes as exemplifying the Robert Pirsig’s narrator in Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I read that book over 25 years ago & still have a strong sense of the narrator’s mental state (wrong or not).

The piece, supposedly sans mental state insinuations, reads

I went grocery shopping two days ago.  In the produce section, I got tomatoes, avocadoes, spinach, cilantro, green onion, and cauliflower. I also got fruit: apples, strawberries, grapes, and a watermelon. In the dairy section, I got milk, eggs, cheese, and yogurt. In the meat section, I got flounder and ground beef. I also bought olive oil, vinegar, dry beans, canned sardines, and paper towels.

By itself, this piece reads like it’s out of a children’s “how-to-read” book or an ESL workbook.  Paraphrasing fiction & getting rid of mental states renders a fictional work purely factual, like Cliff Notes or something, which purposefully “downgrade the level of sociocognitive complexity…”

If we imagined the latter passage as part of a larger text, however, Zunshine points out,

Its very inanity would be perceived as stylized and thus working toward particular narrative ends. We will be talking, for example, about the speaker’s “flattening of affect” and wondering what caused this particular mental state in that character. In other words, what passes for the absence of mental states in the context of one genre (or, by extension, historical period) may acquire sociocognitive complexity when read within the context of a different genre (or a different historical period).

Finally, & what appeals to me as a diversity-loving anthropologist (& should appeal to any Darwinist, since variation is the necessary prerequisite for natural selection), is Zunshine’s summary.

What this all adds up to is that making strong “universal” claims about theory of mind and fiction hardly “flattens out variation”–instead, it forcefully focuses our attention on particularities of individual writing style and the context in which the text is read.

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Biological Psychiatry and Evolution

After a length absence due to my acceptance into Suffolk University’s clinical Ph.D. program, I intend to delve back into this blog again!

A brief entry today; I was referred to this passage from a paper by Douglas A. Kramer (2005), which I will quote at length.

Bowlby (1988) lamented the “physiological psychiatrists who have improperly kidnapped the label biological psychiatry.” Various other names for this more comprehensive biological psychiatry have been proposed, e.g., ethological psychiatry (McGuire and Fairbanks, 1977), developmental psychiatry (Bowlby, 1988), and Darwinian psychiatry (McGuire and Troisi, 1998), but none have attracted broad interest among psychiatrists. “Ethological psychiatry” does have the advantage of being the most inclusive (Kramer and McKinney, 1979), does account for the four general categories (control, development, function, and evolution) of understanding behavior biologically as described by Tinbergen (1951), and is the biological science identified by Bowlby (1969) as the scientific basis for a comprehensive biological psychiatry. However, it suffers from its origins as a science based on observing animals in their natural environment, i.e., in the field rather than the laboratory. I anticipate that the term biological psychiatry will come to designate the comprehensive biological psychiatry that Bowlby and Rutter pioneered and that the organizing principle will be developmental psychobiology. (p. 26)

When you think of “biological psychiatry,” “biological psychology,” or “biological” anything, for that matter, do you only think of physiology? I certainly often do, despite the fact that I believe that evolution is the cornerstone of biology. The term certainly has been hijacked, in my opinion, although most likely without malice.


Kramer, D. A. (2005). Commentary: Gene-environment interplay in the context of genetics, epigenetics, and gene expression. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry44(1), 19-27.


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