A World Famous African-American Scientist Puts the Presidential Election in Perspective: “I Am Not Surprised At All”

On Wednesday, the day after our 2017 presidential election, I dreaded having to put on my host face to go out to dinner with Dr. Joseph Graves, our ALLELE speaker for Thursday. I couldn’t really stand the thought of talking to anyone. His talk on “Biological determinism in the age of genomics” was supposed to have been anti-climactic after Hillary’s easy sweep. We see how well that went.

Joseph Graves is the first African-American to ever earn a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology and go on to become an evolutionary biologist. Before he came here this week though, I remember wondering if, in the age of Obama, it is important to have any one scientist speak about the race concept over another scientist simply because the one speaking is black (i.e., Jim Bindon, a white male anthropologist who has spent over 30 years teaching about the fallacy of the race concept, does a great job explaining it to me, another white guy; and I, in turn, am therefore fairly at explaining it to other middle class, privileged white people).

But then Tuesday the election happened, and on Wednesday, I picked up Joe Graves for dinner, and he told me how much of a battle his whole career has been merely because he is African-American. He said that, until grad school, he thought his middle name was “Nigger” because he was addressed as such so much. And he said that the results of the presidential election actually didn’t surprise him at all because he sees every day how much 8 years of Obama has made racist America angry.

This left me stupefied. I literally could not talk about any of this at dinner. Instead, I did my best to keep up by talking about the genetics of longevity and senescence and how one goes about studying these using bacteria and nanoparticles. In essence, the daily lived experience of Joe as an African-American scientist was too painful for me because it is now directly affecting me (though that is why I had invited him), so I stuck to talking to him about sports, music, and the minutiae of his day job.

But I was the host for this ALLELE lecture, which meant that I would be introducing Joe to an audience of 200-500 people. It would be a disservice to everyone if I just phoned this one in with my usual blah blah evolutionary studies, blah blah blah thanks to your generous donations, blah blah blah follow us on Twitter. So I wrote the following intro, which I have modified for this blog, because I hope it had more resonance, was worth saying to our audience, and thus is also worth sharing here.

2016-2017 ALLELE series

FIG 1. Alabama Lectures on Life’s Evolution series schedule at the University of Alabama.

“The ALLELE series is in it 11th year. The goal of the ALLELE series is to promote evolution research, education, and outreach in our community.

evolution education fund

FIG. 2. To donate or get involved, please contact Kathy Yarbrough, me, or follow us via our website, Facebook page, or Twitter.

“On the one hand, I’m heartened that our mission is supported by an ever growing community, including several new sponsors that I’ve bolded in red in FIG. 2. But I’m going to save a little time that I’ll spend in another way—instead of telling you all about us, I’m directing you to our website, Facebook page, and Twitter account to learn more.

“On the other hand, we are not a political organization and I don’t purposely talk about politics. I am especially loathe to do so at the moment, but evolution is controversial. And in Alabama, evolution is associated with the “liberal agenda,” making it a political hot potato.


FIG. 3. The Crimson Tide elephant rolls over our rivals. What will the other elephant in the room do to us?

“So, instead of that usual introduction, I want to start by addressing the elephant in the room (FIG. 3). No, not the Crimson elephant that will roll over Mississippi State this weekend (Roll Tide?) but the one that permeates my consciousness today and likely many of yours.

onion headline

FIG. 4. From The Onion, November 9, 2016 (Vol. 52, Issue 44).

“This is me today (FIG. 4). This week, I find myself historically wrong for the first time in my life. I am devastated by our presidential election. At the cost of sounding melodramatic, it’s pretty close to the feeling that someone close to me who I didn’t expect to lose just died. And I had that experience a few years ago, so I know my reaction hasn’t been quite that extreme, but I think you get my meaning.

“This sense of devastation may surprise those who know me as the child of lower-middle class white liberals from rural Indiana. I grew up accustomed to being on the losing side through many presidential elections and keeping my mouth shut about things like the blatant racism of my classmates and neighbors. But then I fled to liberal New York, where I lived for nearly 20 years before moving to Alabama. But I moved to Alabama to take a decidedly upper-middle class job as a tenure-track professor and start, of all things, an evolutionary studies program.

starting an evos program

FIG. 5. My first blog post for the EvoS Consortium was about the non-event of starting an EvoS program in a conservative start that was obviously not threatened whatsoever.

“People back in New York and Indiana were shocked and awed at the audacity that I would start an evolution program in the Deep South. But, frankly, we encountered almost no impediments. The only rancor to starting our program came from within. There was some political resistance from the natural sciences that a social science department, Anthropology, would house the EvoS program. The only other flare-up worth note, incidentally, was over the topic of tonight’s lecture.


FIG. 6. Jerry Coyne and Jonathan Marks gave back to back ALLELE lectures my first semester at UA.

“My first semester here, we hosted back-to-back lectures by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and evolutionary anthropologist Jonathan Marks. I liked the Coyne lecture. It was full of information and relatively uncontroversial for those of us who have drunk deeply of the evolution Kool-Aid.


FIG. 7. Jerry Coyne is essentially a eugenicist, though a revised version.

“But in his blog (FIG. 7), Coyne comes across very differently. Coyne, Rissler, and others support a revised eugenics model which holds the biology of race as comparable to a subspecies.


FIG. 8. Marks gets the genetics right, but he is equally aggressive in his tactics.

“Marks, on the other hand, I sadly missed because of a funeral. However, he got into an argument with the previous EVOWOG chair over eugenics. Marks decidedly does not support that there is any genetic basis to the race concept (FIG. 8) and—paraphrasing—said he would put his foot up the ass of anyone who does.

state science standards

FIG. 10. In 2009, Mead and Mates published a study that scored Alabama as the worst state in the nation at teaching K-12 evolution.

“Outside of this kerfuffle, no one seemed to blink an eye that the flagship state research institution in the state with the anti-evolution disclaimer on texts and the worst K-12 record in the nation for teaching evolution had started a minor in evolutionary studies. This worried me and suggested that we are essentially a non-threat. The results of Tuesday’s presidential election support that, as do Dr. Graves’ comments to me last night at dinner that he is in the minority of people who are not at all surprised by the election results.

rissler paper

FIG. 11. Former EVOWOG chair Leslie Rissler and students surveyed 2999 UA undergrads and found that most had made up their minds about evolution by the time they got here.

“A few years ago, Rissler and colleagues conducted a study here at UA among a sample of nearly 3000 undergrads and found that attitudes about science and evolution are largely set by the time students arrive as freshmen. As you can imagine, this is pretty disconcerting. Two of my goals as an anthropology and an evolution professor are (1), as Jello Biafra so prosaically articulated, to “blow minds for a living” (FIG. 12) and (2) to blow the race concept out of the water. However, the students who enroll in the majority of my courses have largely already decided what they believe and can choose many of their courses accordingly, including whether to take even a single course in anthropology or evolutionary studies.

FIG. 12. I saw Jello Biafra speak at Indiana University when I was a college freshman, and he quite literally blew my mind.

FIG. 12. I saw Jello Biafra speak at Indiana University when I was a college freshman, and he quite literally blew my mind.

“How do we “fix” a system from on high if the slim majority in the influential states (i.e., the big electoral college states) don’t believe it’s broken or don’t believe it’s broken in the same way?


FIG. 13. Physicist Lawrence Krauss talking to my “Evolution for Everyone” students about how social problems resolve themselves when previous generations die off.

“A few years ago, physicist Lawrence Krauss sat in my class talking to students and answered this same question about fixing society and changing the world. He said, you teach young people and wait for them to grow up, vote, and change the world through a demographic shift (actually, he said, you wait for the previous generation to die).

“I thought that was happening. I still think it’s happening, though I am a privileged white liberal male with a myopic, rose-tinted view of the world. That is clear. But it’s still the only direction I can think of to move in.

family & field

FIG. 14. We are studying the structure of our own discipline and—surprise surprise—we are an economically privileged lot.

“My colleague Michaela Howells and I have been studying our own discipline of anthropology and the dynamics of having a family or not while trying to be or to become a field anthropologist. Our preliminary assessment is that, if you’re born upper-middle class, regardless of race, you are more likely to be successful in your goal of going into anthropology and either postponing having kids or being able to find the resources to get them care while you work. Poor people simply have much less hope or opportunity to go to college, to get an advanced degree, and have a thriving family life.

“So how do we change that?

evo in al

FIG. 15. Our book targets K-16 educators and students with cultural backstory, the demystification of rhetoric, and resources that can be used in the classroom.

“We change that for one by starting at the bottom and educating all kids to be more aware of the possibilities in life and consider their importance. We provide more resources for teachers to teach science correctly and without the inherent anti-scientific bias of disclaimer stickers. FIG. 15 is the table of contents to a book coming out next year based initially on this series that targets K-16 teachers and students. Authors in bold are those who have spoken at UA or are our students or faculty.

race in frats

FIG. 16. Over the past few years, our students have made the national news 2-3 times for the racism of our sorority system. Our fraternity system is no better and is a hot mess of rape culture. And both were implicated in voter fraud that disenfranchised multiple respected school board members in favor of white males whose sole objective is to preserve the status quo.

“As happy and pleased with myself as I am to have invited Dr. Graves here to speak to you tonight, I think whatever we can do to support our K-12 teachers and kids are the most important things we can be doing to improve our world.

“Because this. What does it say to our kids here in Tuscaloosa that we make national news for our racist sorority system or the rape culture of our fraternity system, then go back to business as usual? How do these events seem to make so little impact?

“To improve our culture and our community, we need to start in elementary schools by creating role models and showing kids actual paths they can take to better lives.

graves flyer

FIG. 18. Flyer for Graves’ talk.

“Dr. Graves is the kind of role model we need a lot more of. He is Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Biological Sciences at the Joint School of Nanosciences and Nanoengineering of North Carolina A&T State University and UNC Greensboro. To cherry pick liberally from his NIH biosketch, Dr. Graves is a pioneering African-American evolutionary biologist with over 25 years mentoring underrepresented minority students in biomedical related research at majority and minority-serving institutions.

“His research involves three areas: (1) the genetics/genomics of adaptation, especially with regard to aging in metazoans and anti-microbial resistance to metals in bacteria, (2) the biological impact of engineered nanomaterials in bacteria, and (3) evolutionary medicine, especially as relevant to health disparities and biological conceptions of race in humans. He has published over 80 papers and book chapters and appeared in seven documentary films and numerous television programs on these topics.


FIG. 19. Joseph Graves has written two books and numerous articles on the race concept.

“His books on the biology of race are entitled The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium and The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America, both of which are on sale here tonight. A summary of Dr. Grave’s research career can be found on Wikipedia, and he is also featured in the ABC-CLIO volume on Outstanding African-American scientists. And the list very much goes on.

sin article

FIG. 20. Published in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (Vol. 661, No. 1).

“As I’m sure you’ve gathered, the title of tonight’s talk is “Great is Their Sin: Biological Determinism in the Age of Genomics,” which is based on this paper (FIG. 20) he published last year in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

“And so, without any further ado, I present to you, Dr. Joseph L. Graves, Jr.”

Posted in Anthropology, Biological Anthropology, Education, Evolution and Biology, Evolution in Higher Education, Evolutionary Medicine, Genetics, Joseph Graves | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on A World Famous African-American Scientist Puts the Presidential Election in Perspective: “I Am Not Surprised At All”

Evolution Education in the American South

Due out soon in ebook & March 2017 in hardback: "Evolution Education in the American South," edited by Christopher Lynn, Amanda Glaze, Bill Evans, & Laura Reed

Due out soon in ebook & March 2017 in hardback: “Evolution Education in the American South,” edited by Christopher Lynn, Amanda Glaze, Bill Evans, & Laura Reed

Coming soon, I will be proud of the publication of a volume called Evolution Education in the American South: Politics, Culture, and Resources in and around Alabama that I edited with Amanda Glaze, Bill Evans, & Laura Reed. The book is devoted to, well, promoting evolution education in & around Alabama. Our goal was to use the ALLELE series, Evolution Working Group, & other lectures in & around the University of Alabama as a point of departure for providing a resource on evolution education for teachers & undergrads. The ebook is due out shortly with a hardback scheduled for March 8, 2017 from Palgrave-Macmillan. Following is a table of contents with chapter abstracts:

CHAPTER 1: “Darwinism in the American South” by Ronald L. Numbers & Lester Stevens

The conventional view of the South as the strongest bastion of opposition to Darwinism in America has been reinforced by historians focusing on the dismissal of the prominent southern professors James Woodrow and Alexander Winchell for their acceptance of the theory of evolution, highlighting the Scopes trial of 1925, and dismissing the South as intellectually stagnant. A closer look reveals, however, that, while several writers in the South expressed great antipathy to evolution, Darwinism not only enjoyed support among a considerable number of southern intellectuals but also encountered less opposition than historians have recognized. This account provides a more complete picture than is customary of responses to Darwinism in the American South.

CHAPTER 2: “Race and Evolution in Antebellum Alabama: The Polygenist Prehistory We’d Rather Ignore” by Erik L. Peterson

The name of Alabama physician Josiah Clark Nott (1804–1873) adorns a building on the campus of the University of Alabama perhaps in part because he made it possible for scientists to speak of the origins of humanity and an antiquated Earth without first nodding to Genesis. Nott popularized a fully secular science that investigated the development of humanity two decades before Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871). But Nott also provided solid scientific support for some of the most repugnant racial theories of the Victorian era. Using previously unexplored archival resources, this essay attempts to clear up the mythology surrounding Nott, the history of evolutionary theory, and the role of American science during the foundation of anthropology.

CHAPTER 3: “’The Cadillac of Disclaimers’: Twenty Years of Official Antievolutionism in Alabama” by Glenn Branch

For the last twenty years, biology textbooks in the state of Alabama have featured a disclaimer about evolution, owing to a series of decisions on the part of the Alabama state board of education. Clearly motivated by antievolution sentiment and aimed at reinforcing doubt and denial about evolution on the part of students in the state’s public schools, the disclaimer was so prominent as to have been described as “the Cadillac of disclaimers.” Because of its longevity as well as its influence, it deserves—and repays—detailed attention as a manifestation of antievolutionism.

CHAPTER 4: “Deconstructing the Alabama Disclaimer with Students: A Powerful Lesson in Evolution, Politics, and Persuasion” by Patricia H. Hawley & Rachael K. Phillips

The present chapter deconstructs the disclaimers—warning the reader about evolution – pasted into the front covers of science textbooks in Alabama. By now, one might think, disclaimer rhetoric should fall on deaf ears. However, such depictions have worked their way into the national psyche and that the misconceptions contained within them are commonly held by university biology majors. We deconstruct the rhetoric in such a way that presents the exercise as a useful pedagogical tool for changing attitudes, knowledge about the nature of science, and understanding of the anti-evolutionist movements. We close by summarizing the present state of affairs in Alabama regarding disclaimers, topped with a call to action.

CHAPTER 5: “Bridging the Gaps: Evolution and Pre-Service Science Teachers” by Amanda L. Glaze

Traditionally, university instruction is based upon the assumption that students come to higher education prepared with fundamental knowledge and understandings of content, especially those, like evolution, that are unifying theories within and across fields. However, we are finding more and more that students in postsecondary education face many of the same struggles with understanding and acceptance of evolution as found in the general public. This suggests that students entering colleges and universities may not have the level of preparation in these, and other, controversial topics. In order to understand the teaching and learning of evolution at the primary and secondary levels, we must also understand how those who teach at those levels are prepared to do so and how their own misconceptions, understandings, and world views impact their teaching. Pre-service teachers occupy a transitional position between that the role of a student and that of teacher, lending a unique viewpoint for investigating the teaching and learning of evolution in tandem.

CHAPTER 6: “Evolution Acceptance among Undergraduates in the South” by Caitlin Schrein

Over the last two decades, studies and opinion polls have sought to quantify and qualify acceptance of the facts and theory of evolution by Americans in the public and at schools and universities. These studies and polls typically examine associations between evolution acceptance and factors such as age, religiosity, or education experience. Often, goals include identifying reasons students, teachers, or the public do or do not accept evolution. Fewer studies have considered how evolution acceptance is associated with  types of variables such as personal interests, behaviors, and decision-making. In other words, researchers don’t always consider whether acceptance is the most desired outcome of exposure to evolution education.

This chapter reviews research on populations of undergraduates attending large public universities in the southeastern and southwestern United States. I consider how exposure to the theory and facts of evolution during K-12 and undergraduate schooling is associated with undergraduate student interests, behaviors, and decision-making about social issues that have a scientific basis.

CHAPTER 7: “Using Nature of Science to Mitigate Tension in Teaching Evolution” Ian Binns and Mark Bloom

The theory of evolution is a central component of biology. Yet, a 2014 Gallup survey revealed that 42% of Americans reject evolution entirely and, instead, believe that humans were created in their present form approximately 10,000 years ago. While there are many reasons that people reject the theory of evolution, we argue that a misunderstanding of nature of science (NOS) and science in general play a big part. In this chapter, two science educators present their experiences with evolution in the South. The first section, written by Ian Binns, focuses on how the controversy over evolution education in the South informed how he teaches his science methods courses. The second part, written by Mark Bloom, describes how he incorporates NOS into his teaching when addressing evolution in conservative classrooms in the South to successfully mitigate the tension that many students experience.

CHAPTER 8: “Sharing News and Views about Evolution in Social Media” by William Evans

We have harnessed social media to meet our evolved needs to communicate, learn, and form and maintain social connections. For many of us, especially those of us who reside in the American South, beliefs about evolution are constitutive of self-identity and community affiliation. As such, these beliefs are resistant to change. These beliefs may be challenged by educators, scientists, and journalists. But we tend to interpret these challenges as threats, and we tend to employ social media to reinforce our solidarity with like-minded others. It can prove difficult to teach evolution or cover it objectively as a journalist, since the topic so readily triggers emotions that discourage or even short-circuit analytical thought. Journalists may be tempted to pander to emotions, to create stories about evolution that provoke and alarm viewers. This chapter positions social media in its evolutionary context; considers the distinctive aspects of social media users in the South; and reviews trends in religious affiliation that portend continued resistance to human evolution in the South even as acceptance grows elsewhere.

CHAPTER 9: “Resources for Teaching Biological Evolution in the Deep South” by Laura K. Reed

Teaching about biological evolution at all levels brings challenges not experienced in other fields of science, especially in the American south.  Having experience teaching evolution at the college level and also doing science outreach work in public schools in Alabama has given me some insights on how to tackle the challenges of the topic.  Here I describe a number of strategies and resources that can be used to improve and enrich education in evolutionary biology at all levels.

CHAPTER 10: “Teaching Louisiana Students About Evolution by Comparing the Anatomy of Fishes and Humans” by Prosanta Chakrabarty

Students in my Ichthyology class sometimes complain I talk about evolution too much: but my Evolution class never complains that I’m talking about fishes too much. I think in the latter case I make an argument about evolution that they normally don’t hear: The human body sucks – and because most of our body parts originated in an aquatic environment, these parts suit fishes much better. For students that have the preconceived notion that humans are at the top of some imaginary evolutionary ladder, the fact that their professor is arguing that fishes might be better than humans -in anything- is perplexing. But this little seed of disbelief starts them on the path to understanding that evolution results in a Tree of Life where humans are just a single tiny and young branch, and not a “Ladder of Life” with humans sitting firmly on top far removed from the rest of the animals.

CHAPTER 11: “Teaching Evolution using Live Animals and Inquiry-Based, Self-Guided Kits” by Dale Broder and Emily A. Kane

The authors describe their experiences with evolution and science education and how this led to their interest in inquiry-based teaching. Inquiry-based evolution education programs should be effective but are relatively uncommon, likely because of the resources and expertise required to create them. University/K-12 collaborations may be a solution, but tend to be limited in their reach. Kit-based teaching allows inquiry-based evolution programs to be more broadly disseminated. Kits may also improve engagement and science self-efficacy since students take ownership of their learning and independently master science tasks. We describe an inquiry-based kit that we developed in collaboration with local teachers and an Education and Outreach Center at Colorado State University. We used three populations of locally adapted fish, Trinidadian guppies, to illustrate important concepts in evolution. Students work through the self-guided kit and booklet to complete inquiry and authentic science experiments and observations. These activities allow them to discover each concept, and finally the definition of evolution at the end of the program. We describe the kit in detail and reflect on the challenges and successes associated with its creation and implementation.

CHAPTER 12: “Trace Fossils of Alabama: Life in the Coal Age” by Ronald J. Buta

Fossils are the naturally-preserved remains of an animal that once lived and died. Body fossils of ancient animals, especially vertebrates, are considered extremely important for what they can tell us about anatomical structure. Trace fossils, on the other hand, are the preserved traces of animals that were engaged in a daily activity, such as walking, swimming, jumping, burrowing, or resting. Trace fossils were originally impressed in wet mud or sand and then preserved in solid rock. Coal mining or construction can sometimes expose the preserved traces. Trace fossils are important for what they can tell us about how ancient animals behaved.

Walker County is a remarkable source of trace fossils in Alabama. This article describes what trace fossils are, how they form, how they are exposed, and the types of traces found in Alabama coal mines.

CHAPTER 13: “What can the Alabama Mississippians Teach us about Human Evolution and Behavior?” by Paul M. Bingham, Joanne Souza, and John H. Blitz

It is an exciting time in the scientific study of humans and our evolution. The archaeology of Alabama provides particularly powerful insights and empirical evidence adding much to this study. The “new human sciences” are maturing at an ever-accelerating rate from a series of relatively isolated disciplines (including psychology, biology, paleontology, archeology, anthropology, economics, and history) into a single powerfully insightful “human” science. Moreover, this growing clarity and confidence, in turn, allows us to choose specific opportunities for fruitful study—and Alabama offers an especially elegant case.

Over the course of the Scientific Revolution of the last 400 years, we have had many occasions to watch individual sciences mature. They pass through a predictable series of steps or stages. A new science begins with what is sometimes called “natural history,” the careful description of the phenomena to be described. The growth into a mature science follows.  This is when coherent theory, unifying the entire field of study, is developed. We have also learned that this transition from natural history to maturing science always involves unification with other sciences whose insights provide indispensable explanatory components to the emerging newer science.

CHAPTER 14: “Tattooing Commitment, Quality, and Football in Southeastern North America” by Christopher D. Lynn and Cassandra A. Medeiros

Tattooing appears to be a cultural and psychological pattern of behavior rooted in Darwinian processes. It is the result of an evolved tendency to manipulate human bodies in meaningful ways with distinctive benefits. Tattooing can signal group affiliation or commitment through using the body as a human canvas. Tattooing also provides cues about biological quality because it is an injury to the body, and the healing process on the surface of the skin is visible to everyone and impossible to fake. These factors make tattoos costly honest signals, consistent with evolutionary models in multiple species, including humans. In this chapter, we review the functions of tattooing from an evolutionary perspective, outline historic and prehistoric evidence from the North American Southeast, analyze biological implications, and discuss contemporary functions of tattooing among college football fans as a signal of commitment and quality.

Posted in Activities, Education, Evolution in Higher Education, Evolution in Media, Evolution in the Classroom | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evolution Education in the American South

Southeastern Evolutionary Perspectives

Tyler Rhodes has an amazing evolution workshop that we hope to reprise in a longer version at SEEPS 2017. Learn more about his work here: https://evolutionanimation.wordpress.com/

Tyler Rhodes has an amazing evolution workshop that we hope to reprise in a longer version at SEEPS 2017. Learn more about his work here: https://evolutionanimation.wordpress.com/

As I’ve written several times in the past (here, for example), the Southeastern U.S. has a spotty record at best at teaching evolution at the K-12 level. There are many many wonderful teachers in the Southeast, but there is also cultural resistance. My friend & colleague Amanda Glaze, now blogging for EvoS, has worked with these teachers for years. Over the past few years, we’ve begun collaborating on a number of projects that I’ll write more about in the future but that I have neglected for so long here that my brain is backlogged with the many things I want to write about (& lord knows, no one wants to read a blog post that’s longer than an ethnographic journal article—& I write them, so—oy—I am not slagging ethnographers but speaking from experience).

Here we are doing awesome fun things at Ruth Schowalter & Tony Martin's workshop because we are all awesome & fun!

Here we are doing awesome fun things at Ruth Schowalter & Tony Martin’s workshop because we are all awesome & fun!

First, this past Darwin Day cum Valentine’s Day, Amanda & I were among those on the program committee (also Michaela Howells, Steve Platek, Kilian Garvey, & David Kopaska-Merkel) for the first annual Southeastern Evolutionary Perspective Society conference. This new professional organization is dedicated to cross-disciplinary evolutionary research, education, & outreach & based in the Southeast. Like NEEPS, the Northeastern Evolutionary Psychology Society, we’re based in the region but not exclusive to it. We welcome folks from anywhere, but, as the Human Behavior & Evolution Society & Society for the Study of Evolution & other such organizations have grown immense, we wanted something we could offer for students to attend & present research at where they wouldn’t get lost, where we could meet everyone attending, & where we could talk about teaching & outreach in our local community by talking WITH our local communities. We hope SEEPS will grow, so maybe down the road, we’ll have size problems too. But in the meantime, we wanted to replicate the intimate experiences we’ve had at smaller conferences.

SEEPS 2016 & 2017 site host (& author of this blog) calling down the next contestant...& looking like a doofus with a GoPro...

SEEPS 2016 & 2017 site host (& author of this blog) calling down the next contestant…& looking like a doofus with a GoPro…

The first meeting was held over Darwin Day weekend at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. It grew out of UA’s EvoS-hosted Darwin Day event. Hosting it on Darwin’s birthday seemed a perfect date & great way to capitalize on a time of year not already saturated with conferences. Furthermore, several NEEPS friends came down from Michigan & New York, where it’s cold that time of year. Alabama may be many things to many people, but cold in February it is not. Yay Alabama winter!

The first conference was also supported by the UA College of Arts & Sciences & a grant from HBES. The conference began with a half day on Friday, followed by a banquet with a keynote by Dean Falk & an hilarious game of PowerPoint roulette (Come to SEEPS 2017 to experience it yourself!). Saturday featured more talks, our first business meeting, a poster session, more & more talks, then a mixer at Druid City Brewing (thanks to those guys for being the official SEEPS 2016 watering hole). Sunday was another half day, beginning with an experiential workshop & followed a few more hours of talks.

UA EvoS Club: These amazing people really made SEEPS 2016 possible.

UA EvoS Club: These amazing people really made SEEPS 2016 possible.

SEEPS 2016 was such a resounding success & Tuscaloosa such a good location for it, that we decided to host it again for 2017. We do plan to shift it around, but we want to fix a few mistakes first. Changes in the coming year will include adding a Kids Evolutionary Perspectives Society (KEPS) pre-conference on Thursday, February 9 that will be all workshops targeting K-12 students, educators, & families. That will be hosted at the Alabama Natural History Museum & free to attend. SEEPS will be held over two full days on Friday & Saturday, February 10-11, with actual Darwin Day as a day of rest (like God, we all like a day to rest & just hang out with our fellow SEEPsters, or, as the case may be, drive or fly home).

We are accepting KEPS workshop & SEEPS presentation proposals through the end of this month. Follow this link for more info: http://seepsociety.weebly.com/. Contact me if you have any questions or want to get involved!

Pat Hawley (& the rest of us) are very excited to see you at SEEPS next year!

Pat Hawley (& the rest of us) are very excited to see you at SEEPS next year!

But, we warn you, there may be more of me running around doing strange things. Hosting...

But, we warn you, there may be more of me running around doing strange things. Hosting…


Photos by Kilian Garvey & author.

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Game of Thrones and How the Lion Cuckolded the Stag

GoTIf you are one of the many fans addicted to the TV phenomenon that is Game of Thrones, chances are you are counting the hours to tonight’s season finale, especially after the most recent episode, Battle of the Bastards. However, before the episode airs, I’d like to go all the way back to season one and revisit some of the events that led to the war in Westeros, all from an evolutionary perspective of course. You do not need to be a Game of Thrones connoisseur to understand this post, so even if you are not into the show, I promise you will still read a few interesting things in this blog entry, and if you are a fan, do not worry for there are no spoilers, although I do give a crash explanation and recap of season one.

As many may know, Game of Thrones is set in the fictitious medieval land of Westeros, and like many medieval worlds, it is composed of different houses, all under the rule of one king. When the show begins, Westeros is ruled by king Robert Baratheon (his house sigil a stag) who overthrew the previous king with the help of several houses. House Stark lent its forces mostly because Lord Eddard (Ned) Stark was a close friend of Robert, and because he wanted revenge for the death of his father and brother at the hands of the previous king. House Lannister (house sigil a lion) joined Robert’s army when Lord Tywin Lannister made a deal by which his men would aid Robert so long as he married Tywin’s daughter, Cersei.

Robert Baratheon was an awful king, but I will not go into details regarding his reign. Suffice is to say that despite his ruling abilities, he won the throne by right of conquest. Years later, Cersei Lannister gave him three children, and for a time the land of Westeros was at peace. Additionally, because Robert had no interest in ruling, he left most of the job to his advisor or Hand of the King, Jon Arryn. It is during these years that the show begins, shortly after Jon Arryn dies and Robert decides to appoint a new Hand, this time his beloved friend Ned Stark.

Fast forward a few episodes and we learn that Jon Arryn died because of poison, which led Ned to believe Jon knew something of uttermost importance. Eventually Ned finds out that Queen Cersei was having an incestuous relationship with her brother Jamie, and that, perhaps more importantly, all three of her children were Jamie’s and not Robert’s. He confronts Cersei, but coincidentally Robert has a hunting accident and dies shortly, never knowing that his children were actually not his. To ensure that no one would pose a threat to her children, Cersei plots to have Ned accused of treason. Eventually Ned is beheaded and the war begins, and although there are many other motives for the war, the whole series is set in motion by the Lannister’s incest and the fact that the royal children are not the king’s.

In evolutionary terms, poor Robert was cuckolded. Cuckoldry occurs when a man invests resources on offspring that are not genetically his. From an evolutionary perspective, the end goal is not merely to survive, but to be able to reproduce and pass our genes into future generations. Additionally, humans tend to invest a lot of time and resources into making sure offspring reach reproductive age. There are also gender differences with regards to parental investment. According to Trivers (1972) women and men pay different costs when it comes to the effort spent reproducing. For women, having one child requires at least the 9 months of gestation, time during which she cannot have other offspring regardless of how many men she copulates with, not to mention the chances of dying at childbirth, which were significantly greater during our ancestral past. Meanwhile, the cost for men is smaller because the minimum effort required to produce one heir is merely the time required to impregnate the female. A single man could benefit from impregnating as many females as possible because this increases the likelihood that at least some of them will become pregnant with his children. The downside to this strategy is that the time the man spends impregnating females is time that could be spent ensuring any children of his survive. As a result, many men prefer to forego extra mating opportunities and spend more time investing in a few offspring. Think of it as a quantity versus quality deal. The point is that because men invest time and resources into their offspring, paternal certainty is essential. If a man is raising a child that is not genetically his, then his efforts are benefitting a rival’s genes, and he is losing the evolution game. A woman does not have this problem because, thanks to internal fertilization, she can be entirely sure that whatever children she has are hers.

To be fair, Robert went for both reproductive strategies. In fact, he was known for sleeping around with anyone but his wife, and even fathered 20 illegitimate children, yet the offspring who benefited from his investment (at least when it comes to resources since he was never much of a caregiver) were not his! These children were to inherit the crown and all the prerogatives that come with it, whereas Robert’s bastards, who did carry his genes albeit not his name lived in the Westerosi slums, likely to die any given day if not for the secret aid Jon Arryn provided once he discovered them, which brings us to another lesson in paternity: how Jon and Ned discovered the truth about the royal children. Both Hands had their eureka moment when they finally realized that all of the king’s bastards had inherited his dark, black hair, while the princes and princess had the golden locks typical of the Lannister house. Actually, when Ned met one of the bastards, he only had to look closely at the boy to realize he was one of Robert’s sons because the kid greatly resembled his father. It was paternal resemblance, or lack of it, that ultimately led to the truth.

Paternity resemblance is a major paternal assurance tactic, and it happens even without the male consciously analyzing whether a child looks like him. Platek, Burch, Panyavin, Wasserman & Gallup (2002) morphed participants’ faces with a variety of children’s faces and asked them to make hypothetical investment decisions such as which child was most attractive, which child they would be most likely to adopt, which child they would like to spend the most time with, and so on. They found neither males nor females were particularly good at picking out which child face was morphed with theirs, yet when asked which children they would invest in, males constantly chose the face that had the highest resemblance. This finding did not hold true for females, who instead tried to spread out their investment as much as possible.

Another study (Burch & Gallup, 2000) found that the higher the perceived resemblance between a man and his child, the fewer mate guarding tactics the male used on his partner; the less physical violence the male perpetrated, and the lower the frequency of the couple’s arguments regarding commitment and communication. Additionally, new mothers and relatives are more likely to report alleged paternal resemblance of newborns than maternal resemblance, suggesting that allegations of resemblance are responses to the problem of paternal uncertainty (Daly & Wilson, 1982).

Perhaps one of the reasons Robert was such a neglecting father was because he, without any conscious awareness like the men in the Platek et al (2002) study, did not perceive any resemblance with his children. Then of course, his neglect may have also been due to the fact he never cared for anything else but drinking and sleeping around. One thing is certain, though, Cersei did an incredible job at keeping him in the dark with regards to her children, and like any mother, she went to great extremes to ensure her babies, the carriers of her genes, got to sit on the throne. Whether they will remain on it is a very different matter altogether, but only time will tell.


Burch, R. L., & Gallup, G. G. (2000). Perceptions of paternal resemblance predict family          violence. Evolution and Human Behavior21(6), 429-435.

Daly, M., & Wilson, M. I. (1982). Whom are newborn babies said to resemble?. Ethology          and Sociobiology3(2), 69-78.

Platek, S. M., Burch, R. L., Panyavin, I. S., Wasserman, B. H., & Gallup, G. G. (2002).                Reactions to children’s faces: Resemblance affects males more than                                          females. Evolution and Human Behavior23(3), 159-166.

Trivers, R. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. Sexual Selection & the                     Descent of Man, Aldine de Gruyter, New York, 136-179.

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NEEPS X: On Cooperation and Interdisciplinarity

Some of the original NEEPSters during the latest conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia

Some of the original NEEPSters during the latest conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia

Between June 2nd and June 5th, the St. Mary’s University campus in Halifax, Nova Scotia saw one of its conference rooms invaded by a group of evolutionary theory fanatics. As the tenth conference of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society took place, old friendships were revisited and new friendships were made. Referred to as “the best little evolutionary society in the world” by former president Daniel Kruger, NEEPS began as a regional sister organization of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES). Started by my mentor Glenn Geher, NEEPS grew past its intended geographic boundaries and now includes scholars from all across the country (such as Georgia and Michigan) and even the world, with this year’s meeting consisting of visitors flying all the way from England, Chile, Brazil, Russia, Japan and South Africa.

But how did a little regional conference become the phenomenon it is today? Well, it wasn’t done by one person alone. The reason as to why NEEPS has grown so much is the same as to why our species has gone from foraging the African savannahs to sending men into space: cooperation that transcends kin. Humans are, after all, social animals, and as such we have mechanisms to choose social partners that will allow us to reap future benefits from cooperation. Furthermore, research suggests that cooperation is not limited to blood relatives (Trivers, 1971). Because we are born into a particular kin group with its own preexisting alliances and political structures, our personal history greatly constrains our choices for social interactions, but because social life, particularly in today’s technological world, is complex, opportunities arise for us to restructure any affiliations and thus choose our own social partners (Kurzban & Neuberg, 2005). More importantly, our decisions to do so are not random but are rather contingent on the likelihood that the individuals selected can provide benefits such as skills, access to resources, and social networks.

Because we tend to form groups with distantly related others, we should have evolved psychological mechanisms that allow us to carefully select members that possess traits that make them good partners. By asking students to contemplate different groups (e.g. basketball teams, fraternities, work project teams, etc.) and asking them to rate the importance of members of the group possessing certain traits, Cottrell, Neuberg, and Li (2005) found that trustworthiness and cooperativeness were rated as highly important, regardless of the nature of the group. Additionally, research has shown that the probability of future interactions increases the success of reciprocal strategies and the chances of ongoing cooperation (Axelrod, 1984).

So how does all this map into NEEPS? Well, for starters, as mentioned earlier, NEEPS was not built overnight by a single person. Glenn joined forces with trustworthy and cooperative individuals such as Maryanne Fisher, Daniel Kruger, T. Joel Wade, Killian Garvey, Daniel Glass, and many more (the list is endless). Assembling a conference is no easy task, and as part of the program committee, I can say first hand that simply creating the program required great amounts of coordination. Had Glenn not found individuals willing to cooperate, founding NEEPS would have probably been a lot harder. Additionally, NEEPS board members have constant interactions throughout the year, and thus this increases cooperation. Even non board members meet at least once a year during the conference. These meetings provide great benefits; a friend of mine discussed factor analysis techniques with another member who knew more on the topic (the benefit acquired being skill) and I was able to discuss my thesis and discuss possible collaborations with other members (the benefit being increased social networks). Such collaboration is essential in academia, and everyone can benefit from exchanging knowledge.

A second factor that makes NEEPS a success is its broad interdisciplinarity. Evolutionary psychology borrows knowledge from more areas than traditional psychology. In fact, a study analyzing 1000 journal articles across ten leading peer-reviewed psychology journals found that journals that were more evolutionary-based had more first-authors from disciplines outside of psychology (Garcia, Geher, Crosier, Saad, Gambacorta, Johnsen & Pranckitas, 2011). For instance, Evolution and Behavior contained first-authors whose disciplines included medicine, anthropology, economics, epidemiology, public policy, biology, sociology, musicology, and law. Such interdisciplinarity was observed at NEEPS, with talks and posters addressing female roles in romantic novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Sex in the City, consumer seating preference at restaurants, use of 311 systems to maintain the urban commons, predispositions to form non-arbitrary associations between heard sounds and visual input, and more. These four examples alone have great implications in areas such as literature, business, urban planning and psycholinguistics. Such is the power of the interdisciplinarity of evolutionary studies that it can unify different disciplines under its wings.

Overall, NEEPS is and will continue being a success due to the collaboration between members, who after ten years even refer to NEEPS as a small family and rightly so given the friendliness all members provide, and its ability to include disciplines that go beyond the scope of traditional psychology.


Axelrod, R. (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. New York, Basic Books.

Cottrell, C. A., Neuberg, S. L., & Li, N. (2005). What do people want in a group member? A      sociofunctional analysis of valued and devalued characteristics. Journal of Personality        and Social Psychology.

Garcia, J. R., Geher, G., Crosier, B., Saad, G., Gambacorta, D., Johnsen, L., & Pranckitas,          E. (2011). The interdisciplinarity of evolutionary approaches to human behavior: a key        to survival in the ivory archipelago. Futures, 43(8), 749-761.

Kurzban, R., Neuberg, S. (2005). Managing Ingroup and Outgroup Relationships. In D. M.      Buss (Ed.), The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (653-675). Hoboken, NJ: John        Wiley and Sons.

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Sticker Shock in Alabama-An Op-Ed in Defense of Science Education

I wanted to share with everyone a recent op-ed letter that I submitted to local and state-wide news media in Alabama following the continued approval of anti-evolution textbook disclaimers in Alabama textbooks. This year marks a decade since the last textbook adoption year in the state of Alabama, and as teachers around the state are surveying the books they feel best fit their 21st Century students, the Alabama State Board of Education has voted to maintain their position that evolution is a dangerous subject that requires a warning that is both scientifically inaccurate and unnecessary.

Textbook evolution sticker hurts children’s understanding of science but also their faith, by Dr. Amanda Glaze, AL.com (Birmingham News/Huntsville Times/Mobile Press Register), March 31, 2016

I am Alabama proud. I was educated in Alabama and I teach science in Alabama schools. I love my home state and I am proud of many things that we are doing right in our science education, including the adoption of the new Alabama Course of Study for Science. But I am not proud of a recent decision by the state board of education. I am heartbroken.

Evolution is a fundamental and unifying principle of the life sciences. There is no controversy about evolution within the scientific community. As the National Academy of Sciences observes, “The scientific consensus around evolution is overwhelming.” Every year, thousands of publications appear in the scientific research literature that apply, refine, and extend evolution.

The new Alabama Course of Study for Science reflects the scientific consensus on evolution, describing it correctly as “substantiated with much direct and indirect evidence.” But the board recently chose to flout the consensus and the standards, instead retaining the scientifically inaccurate and pedagogically inappropriate disclaimer about evolution stuck into the state’s textbooks since 2001.

The disclaimer describes evolution by natural selection as scientifically controversial and it suggests that doubt about the importance of natural selection in evolution is scientifically justified. These are simply mistakes. Just as problematic, however, is the implicit message—that evolution is something so horrible that it is necessary to warn students about it.

As a science teacher and as a science education researcher in Alabama, I can definitely say that the disclaimer’s effect is uniformly negative. The mere presence of the disclaimer often discourages biology teachers from presenting evolution forthrightly or at all—even though, as a famous scientist once observed, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

It is Alabama’s students who are the victims here. Students who have little chance to attain a proper understanding of evolution are at risk of not attaining a basic level of scientific literacy. And because understanding evolution is practically important, in such fields as medicine, biotechnology, and agriculture, they are also at risk in their future careers.

But it’s even worse than that. Although the disclaimer is evidently intended to protect the faith of students and teachers alike, I am convinced that its effect is both negative and detrimental to both science and religion. By encouraging the idea that faith and science are at loggerheads, the disclaimer forces students to make a choice between the two. There is no need to do so.

Francis Collins, the co-leader of the Human Genome Project and the director of the National Institutes of Health, once said, “The evidence supporting the idea that all living things are descended from a common ancestor is truly overwhelming. I would not necessarily wish that to be so, as a Bible-believing Christian. But it is so. It does not serve faith well to try to deny that.”

In short, the disclaimer is a failure from the scientific point of view, a failure from the educational point of view, and—on the testimony of a distinguished biologist with a deep Christian faith—a failure from the religious point of view. And the state board of education’s decision to retain the disclaimer was a failure to serve the education of the students in Alabama’s public schools.

If we in Alabama could come together to insist that our students deserve to be taught science, including evolution, properly, as the scientific community understands it and as our state’s science standards now present it, free from censorship, ideology, and disclaimers, then it would be easier for those of us who care about science education here to say—as we would like to say—that we are as Alabama proud as ever.

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Evolution, antibiotics, and public health

There are many fears about antibiotics.  People are petrified about antibiotics being in the meats that they eat, but on the other hand, they outright demand antibiotics for a minor viral sinus infection.

First of all, I must say.  Antibiotics are good.  Overusing or improperly using antibiotics is bad.  Let me clarify a few myths.

There are expiration dates for a reason.  Some antibiotics change chemically.  Yes, people commonly think they get weaker, so when they get the sniffles, they reach for an expired antibiotic in their medicine cabinet because it, “still has a little bit.”  Wrong!  Some antibiotics change chemically and can actually harm patients if they are taken when they are too old.  Those antibiotics with a little bit left might be weak at killing the bacteria, and in comes evolution – the bacteria become resistant.

Antibiotics treat certain infections, not all of them.  Some are broad spectrum, some treat only gram positive or gram negative, some treat only specific species of bacterial infections, and none treat viral infections.  Taking amoxicillin for a simple viral sinus infection will not make you well sooner, but it will add to the weighted sum of people improperly using antibiotics – accelerating evolution along the way.

Antibiotics are good for farm animals…when they are sick with a bacterial infection!  Sure, it is probably better to eat a healthy cow than a sick cow, but are we all exiled for life for coming down with pneumonia once?  No, but regularly dumping antibiotics into feed, however, is evolutionarily dangerous.

Tuberculosis is becoming more and more resistant to the level that a vaccine is in order.  People are now dying from gonorrhea in developed countries.  Superbugs are developing in infants in India.  We need an evolutionary perspective in public health more now than ever.

None of the above should be construed as medical advice.  Rather, we should remember that evolution is incredibly important in health and sanitation.

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Never forget that we are mammals

What makes us mammals?  The fact that we are warm blooded vertebrates?  Live birth?  Fur or hair?  Well…yes, but the defining factor is mammary glands, the glands that make breast milk, which is one of the evolutionary wonders of the mammal world.

It is commonly said that breast is best, and an overwhelming body of scientific evidence confirms that breastfeeding is indeed superior to formula.  Does not breastfeeding mean that someone is a neglectful parent?  Absolutely not!  There are valid reasons for not breastfeeding.  Sometimes babies might have a vitamin deficiency that requires formula, or a mother might need to use formula in order to balance a work schedule that is beneficial to both mother and baby, which are both completely understandable reasons not to breastfeed.

There are some grey areas as well.  When the mother is ill, especially from an active infectious disease, it is usually in the best interest for the infant to have formula.  Nonetheless, even with mothers in Sub-Saharan Africa who are HIV positive, so long as their infection is adequately controlled by antiretroviral medication and that the risk of mother-to-child transmission is virtually nonexistent, breastfeeding can provide better nutrition than formula and it also reduces the risk of endemic parasites contaminating the water used to mix formula.  None of the above should be accepted as medical advice, but there are some situations where breast might not be best.

But…breast is usually best because it benefits both the mother and the baby.  Immunity to bacteria and viruses are passed from the mother to the child through breastmilk, and even some chronic diseases such as asthma and obesity have been shown to be lower in breastfed babies.  Babies who are breastfed are even argued to have higher IQs.  For the mother, pregnancy weight and uterine size are likely to return to normal faster should she breastfeed.  These are just a small list of some of the many benefits of the evolutionary method to feed infants.

Remember, we are mammals because of our mammary glands, and no matter how good our lab sciences may get, our evolutionary engineered breastmilk is best.

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Signaling and Coronary Candidacy

Recently, Dr. Tom Nolen of the Biology Department at SUNY New Paltz gave an EvoS seminar talk on the communication, aggression, and behavior of crickets. Whilst this talk may have little implications to human health on the surface, one recurring theme in his talk was how crickets communicate via signals, notably, honest and deceitful signals.  Something that comes to mind is how people can send “signals” regarding the mortality and morbidity of their diseases.

A discussion of the social sciences in medicine would be incomplete without including the topic of coronary candidacy.  Coronary candidacy is an example of lay epidemiology, a concept coined by Blaxter in the ’70’s and 80’s.  Lay epidemiology seeks to explain the causes of disease as the “laity” understand them as opposed to how the medical model would explain the cause of a disease.  At the heart of coronary candidacy is something called the “prevention paradox,” that is, one’s apparent ability to prevent heart disease through beliefs about what makes one a candidate for heart disease.

I am sure that you heard someone say, s/he is the “last person” they would expect to have a heart attack.  This formulation of a “candidate” for a heart attack is an example of a layperson describing “signals” or “cues” for someone who would or would not have a heart attack.  Another prevailing theme in coronary candidacy is the justification of behaviors.  For example, if someone has a family history of heart disease, but good eating habits, but does little exercise, but has good cholesterol medicine, but has moderate stress, etc., that person is evaluating their disease risk not by using a scientifically validated medical risk assessment, but rather formulating a “candidacy” for heart disease based on a cohort of lay beliefs.  The point here is that people send signals to others regarding their coronary candidacy, even if these signals are unintentional cues.

The handicap principle, although not without its problems, applies here too.  If someone were to be at high risk of a heart attack due to excessive weight, if s/he were to suddenly lose weight, s/he may send the signal that s/he is healthy, but this dishonest signal comes at an enormous cost of sudden weight loss, which is a severe trauma on the body.  It is clear that we send enormous amounts of information about our health through signals and cues, regardless of the honesty of the signal.

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Why You Should Tip Your Bartender from an Evolutionary Perspective: How Reciprocal Altruism Can Get You Tipsy.

I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” We all know this mantra.  Actually, when executed properly, it’s the most efficient way to get things done.

Let’s take a moment to think about our ancestors.  It wouldn’t make sense for someone to share all of the berries they found or the meat they hunted with someone else.  Why bother?  It’s going to help ME survive if I save it all for myself.  Right?  The problem is that evolution is not about survival – it’s about reproduction.  The name of the game is passing on your genes.  Because of the inherent nature of evolutionary processes, cooperating is actually beneficial.  Sharing my berries with my child will increase reproductive success.  My genes are passed on, and my offspring get to grow and be healthy and continue the pattern.  This is known as kin-selected altruism – helping out and cooperating with family members.  Cooperation among kin increases overall reproductive success (Hamilton, 1964).  Ants all equally benefit from a reproductive standpoint when they each work for the queen.  Humans do reproductively better when we cooperate with our kin as well.  Studies have found that we share food more with our own kin than with non-relatives (Ziker & Schnegg, 2005).  It’s probably no surprise that we tend to leave our will with a close relative compared to friends or strangers (Cartwright, 2000).  Okay, so helping out the family makes sense.  What about non-relatives?

Research has pointed out that helping out non-relatives may be selected for as well (Trivers, 1971).  Reciprocal altruism is a type of social interaction in which one individual pays some cost or sacrifice to another with the expectation (however unconscious) that the same sacrifice will be made for that individual.  Paying a cost to a non-related recipient (buying my friend a gift) may benefit me if/when that individual pays me back someday (she buys me a gift).  Scratching someone else’s back today might benefit you someday when you’ve got an itch and need to call in a favor from that same person.  But what if that person never comes back to scratch your back?  What if that person receives the benefit, but never returns the cost?  We would call this person a cheater, but let’s face it – they’re winning here.  They got their back scratched, AND they didn’t have to do anything for it!  The problem with cheaters is that ultimately, all their bridges get burned.  Think back to our ancestors – suppose one day a lion comes up Grog the Caveman’s cave, and he has a weapon to take care of the issue and save his friend, Thak.  If Thak was a cheater, you think Grog would save him?  Thak has been eating Grog’s meat, borrowing Grog’s tools, and hogging Grog’s fireplace for a long time, all without ever helping out Grog in return.  Lot of I.O.U.’s, that Thak… He does not have Grog’s back when he needs him.  Paying any cost to Thak will never benefit Grog.  It makes more sense to consider giving Thak over to the lion for dinner…

So, what’s a more modern and fast-paced example of reciprocal altruism?  Hanging out at the bar, of course!  I can’t think of a quicker way to display this in action.  Patrons do not HAVE to pay their bartender a tip.  It’s encouraged and expected, but not enforced.  Someone could order a Long Island Iced Tea, watch me make it, pay for the drink in exact change, and then walk away.  And many people often do.  Here’s the problem… After about 3 Long Islands, I no longer feel like making these for you for free…. You’re out of luck.  The nature of being a bartender, or any waitstaff, is that tips are what pay the bills.  And that’s fine, until someone cheats the system.  Let’s use Joe as an example.  Joe could be the cheater, and it would work out for him for a while.  He would get his buzz cheaper than other tipping patrons.  Ultimately, this runs out though.  After Joe has established himself at every watering hole in town as the non-tipper, no bartender is going to serve him.  On a lighter note, those who tip are likely to get unexpected benefits often.  I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that, as the bartender, I often buy a round for my regular tipping customers.  It’s nice to do.  I don’t do it in hopes that they’ll scratch my back later, but quite often this is what happens.  It ends up in a nicer tip at the end of the night.  At the very least, tipping your bartender will keep him/her happy and eager to serve you throughout the night.  Reciprocal altruism can get you tipsy.  Now, I’m not saying that the only reason people do nice things is because we’re selfishly all hoping and expecting nice things to come our way afterwards.  I’m merely pointing out how this type of altruism has been selected for through evolution.  It can be adaptive.

The bottom line here is that you should tip your bartender.  It keeps them happy, and that keeps your drink stiff.


Cartwright, J. (2000). Evolution and human behavior: Darwinian perspectives on human nature. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Hamilton, W.D. (1964). The evolution of social behavior. Journal Theoretical Biology, 7(1–16).

Trivers, R.L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46(35–57).

Ziker, J., & Schnegg, M. (2005). Food sharing at meals: kinship, reciprocity, and clustering in the Taimyr Autonomous Okrug, Northern Russia. Human Nature16(2), 178-211.

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