ALLELE: Alabama Lectures on Life’s Evolution

At the University of Alabama, we just wrapped up our 2011-12 evolution lecture series, so, with that sense of completion, I wanted to share some highlights of why it is so worthwhile to host and attend such events.

We started off the series with evolutionary psychologist Brad Sagarin from Northern Illinois University. Dr. Sagarin’s was a rescheduled lecture from the previous year.  He had the unfortunate luck to be scheduled to speak on April 28, which had the rare distinction of being the day after a 1000-year tornado ripped thru our state & literally cut our town in half (meaning, a straight uninterrupted path diagonally from the SW corner thru to the NE corner, razing literally everything in between & sadly killing a whole bunch of good folks).  Not that it’s really relevant to this synopsis, but the anniversary of that event is coming up, so it’s sort of on our minds around here again.  Our communications infrastructure was severely hampered for a few days, so he flew in not knowing what to do.  I thought the tornado hit the airport so was surprised to hear that he’d made it that far, but the airport was fine, so there he was, waiting to come talk to us about sex differences in jealousy.  Anyway, he graciously rescheduled for the first lecture of the following season, which reviewed studies in evo psy on sexual interest on a college campus (please share the source of this with me if you know it), which turned out to be a good opener for the human sexuality course I teach in the spring. In the experiment, apparently, when male & female college students are propositioned by the opposite sex, there is of course a high rate of “no” from one sex. And not just “no,” but an emphatic & often angry “no.” Guess which sex? Right. From the other sex, of course, the answer is often of the affirmative variety. But what was most interesting is that when the answer from that variety (er, guys) is “no,” it’s often an apologetic one. As in, “I’m sorry, but I have a girlfriend/wife/have class right now (but maybe later?).” So girls have no problem telling horn-dog guys to piss off when randomly propositioned by strangers on campus; guys are sorry if they’re not willing to bed a total nutter they’ve never met down in the grass to do it right there.   Basically.  Good stuff. But even better was when Dr. Sagarin visited my research group the next day to chat with my students about another project he’s got underway. Apparently–& gawd I wish I’d written the details down at the time so I’d get this right–he’s doing an ethological study of an S&M community that includes taking saliva samples before & after the events to measure the influence of domination versus submission on cortisol profiles. So.friggin’.cool!

The next lecture was by evolutionary biologist Paul Ewald from the University of Louisville.  Given the amount of breath I spend talking about evolutionary medicine, I should have already been familiar with Dr. Ewald’s work, but shamefully I wasn’t.  What I liked in particular about his talk was that, unlike several previous lectures, which have been basic talks to a lay audience, Dr. Ewald presented a synthesis of data that was new to many of us involved in hosting the series.  The downside of that, of course, is that perhaps it shot over the heads of some of the undergrads we oblige to attend.  The most fascinating thing about Dr. Ewald’s talk was the pattern he has found with regard to certain cancers & infectious disease, in particular infections like mononucleosis & herpes.  His hypothesis that certain sexual behaviors may be associated with higher risk for these diseases & the corresponding cancers was a bit finger-waggingly toward the students, which I think alarmed them a bit.  However, I sat there thinking about the implications for the recent pattern found by Fincher & Thornhill with regard to positive associations between global distributions of infectious disease biodiversity & cultural diversity (e.g., the association between “assortative sociality,” religious diversity, & pathogenic biodiversity).  Would we see lower rates of kissing among cultures where infectious disease rates are higher?  I had been reading William Crocker’s monograph on the Canela of Amazonia in preparation for assigning it & recalled that, though they engage in a lot of what we would consider promiscuous sexual behavior, there was mention of their aversion to kissing.  Worth following up on…

In January, we had the pleasure of a double-header.  By screening filmmaker & health educator Greta Schiller’s No Dinosaurs in Heaven, we were also able to get a visit & lecture by National Center for Science Education executive director Eugenie  Scott.  I had hoped to spend some time chatting Genie up on the drive from the airport, as I had volunteered to pick her up, but her flights got interminably screwed up (I believe she was stranded in Houston for 24 hours, forced to sleep in a chair for her trouble).  However, since Spring semester speakers are integrated into our “Evolution for Everyone” course, which is the intro course to our interdisciplinary EvoS minor, I got the chance to talk informally with Dr. Scott with my students, have lunch & dinner with her & Greta, drive them around town (in my car with a split tire I realized later–they politely but probably nervously never mentioned the continual bumping), & host a second talk by Dr. Scott for the Anthropology Department.  I later regreted not sharing her with another department, since it was like preaching to the choir in our department, but I had a greedy moment (or a few).

Eugenie Scott is trained as a biological anthropologist after all, but what made it greedy is that we got the very next speaker for an Anthropology Department talk too, or so I thought.  Dr. Brian Fagan, professor emeritus from UC-Santa Barbara, writes popular books on archaeology (& has published around 50 at last count!).  As it turned out, he didn’t plan on giving a 2nd department talk, but I invited so many people to sit in on the “Evolution for Everyone” class that it turned out that way.  What was ironic is that Dr. Fagan has written books on, among other things, Cro-Magnons & the Ice Ages & is currently focused on the role of water in human cultural change but did not consider himself to have enough expertise on evolution to speak to it directly.  However, from my perspective, the Malthusian problems he discussed with regard to the world’s current water situation are spot-on Darwinian in scope.  Nevertheless, what blew my mind the most was a reading of his from his edited volume on the Ice Age that I assigned students to read.  It lays out the mechanics for how the Neolithic Revolution would have taken root, which I’d never encountered before.  Apparently, during the Ice Age, cereals & nut trees tended to only thrive at water’s edge because it was too cold at higher altitudes.  However, the water was so sandy that they didn’t thrive down there.  With the warming of the climate at the end of the Ice Age, they could then grow at nower warmer higher altitudes where the clay soils were more fertile.  This led them to thrive & be more abundant & for humans to make extensive use of them, perhaps becoming relatively sedentary foragers, as we generally characterize NW coast Native Americans.  However, when the climate began changing again, becoming drier & reducing available water, people panicked as these crops began disappearing.  So they may have transplanted these staples of their diets & moved them closer to the remaining water sources & even figured out how to manually get water to these plants to ensure they maximized their water & food resources.  This is an ingenious ‘just so’ story with regard to how domestication might have been motivated by climate change.

In March we were visited by paleontologist Ryosuke Motani from UC Davis.  I had less interaction with Dr. Motani than with the others (this hosting stuff is glamorous & all, but it does get a bit tiring, what with the publish or perish thing always breathing down our throats & that other teaching thing & me always overfilling my plate anyway).  Dr. Motani did give two talks while he was here & visited my class.  Since I have students attend as many lectures as possible & bribe them to do so by offering extra credit for write-ups of the event, I actually have a report from a student, Malia Bunt, who happens to currently be our go-to EvoS student.  She conveys the impact of Dr. Motani’s Geology Department seminar talk (which came before his ALLELE talk) far better than could I:  “Firstly, I would like to say that Motani has excellent speaking abilities. His ideas were clearly and consistently put forward. The lecture encouraged me to enroll in a statistics class at some point before graduation because I had trouble accepting his conclusions as I did not understand his results. Motani discussed the activity patterns of mesozoic creatures (nocturnal, diurnal, or cathemeral). He determined this by eliminating phylogenetic biases–which is basically like saying since this guy is related to this guy, he must be nocturnal too–to get at the actual truth. I found his methods interesting, as in another class we just finished an extensive discussion of accuracy, validity, precision, and reliability. It was refreshing to see these concepts put forth. Motani’s conclusions were that form-function assumptions are subject to phylogenetic noise and that activity patterns were subject to ecology. He found that large or medium dinosaurs were cathermal because they need more time to eat as they consume more energy. He also found that small carnivores were nocturnal which in reminiscient for me of small prosimians and their large eyes. It was interesting to hear that Archaeopteryx was most likely diurnal. We discussed Archaeopteryx and its role as a possible transitional fossil in another class earlier this semester, so it was neat to actually see something I recognized. I wish that I understood more about statistics because I feel it would have helped me understand Montani’s lecture even more, but he was such as great speaker that he helped fill in most of the blanks. Also, I learned about dinosaur mummies which are officially my new obsession. SO COOL!”

Finally, with no disrespect intended to any other speaker, my favorite of all was the very last, Dr. Frans de Waal.  Although he is a biologist working in a psychology department, Dr. de Waal is, in my opinion, among the foremost authorities in the world on chimpanzee & bonobo behavior & cognition.  I was fortunate to be turned on to his work in grad school by another researcher I place on a pedestal, Dr. Helen Fisher, & was practically giddy to meet him.  Consequently, I made a bit of an ass out of myself by promptly telling him about our proposed study of bonobo cunnilingus & asking him if he’d observed any.  Even though he’s technically “the bonobo sex guy,” I think he thought me a bit weird.  BUT, what was so cool is that, again, he pulled a spare lecture out of his pocket for my students & reviewed much of the literature–much of it generated by him & his students–on the evidence for culture in non-human primates.  And he has so much previously unreleased video & photographic footage for use in his talks.  That was such a treat.  Perhaps the most memorable clip of all time, which he narrated, was one of a female bonobo with her infant on her back & an adolescent male.  I am paraphrasing Dr. de Waal, but it essentially went, “The female is going to masturbate the male.  He is a young male, like a teenager.  Here she is masturbating him.  It is very quick, these things are always very quick, & the males rarely ejaculate.  Of course they ejaculate sometimes or there’d be no bonobos, but in these social encounters they rarely ejaculate.  Then the female mounts the male, but she mounts him like a female as you see, rubbing back & forth.  Females do this to each other, which we call ‘g-g rubbing’ or genital genital rubbing.  Then there is some penetration, but it quick again, you see.  Then they are done.  Then the male makes sure to maturbate the infant, you see.  Everyone gets some sex.”  His talk that night had great attendance & was a total package.  Really.  Check out his current TedTalk for a taste, as it is a condensed version of the one hour-version we enjoyed.  He presents fresh data, has a central theme, is funny, & his monkeys & apes are funny & charismatic (the capuchin experiment about “fairness” [the “Occupy Wall Street” experiment] by Bronson brought the house down!).  And the data from Joshua Plotkin’s studies of cooperation & mirror self-recognition in elephants is thoroughly convincing.  I was a disbeliever in anything but chimps, bonobos, & orangs passing & didn’t find the Bronx Zoo experiments convincing, but the new video footage from the experiments in Thailand made an elephant self-recognition (& maybe self-awareness) believer out of me.  And we had several boxes of Dr. de Waal’s books available for on-site sales & signing & they almost all sold out.  Whew!  He looked good, we looked good, all good!

So, though I am looking forward to catching my breath, I am also looking forward to next year.  We have biological anthropologist John Hawks from the University of Wisconsin (check out his great blog here) confirmed & evolutionary biologist from UC-Riverside Marlene Zuk almost confirmed.  We also have maybes from, among others, vertebrate paleontologist Bruce MacFadden from the University of Florida.  It looks to be another great season of great talks & my babbling hero-worship!

Update (12/28/12):  The Marlene Zuk talk has had to be rescheduled.  However, we have talks scheduled by Rick Myer, Paul Bingham & Joanne Souza, & Joseph Carroll, in addition to Bruce MacFadden & those we’ve already hosted by E.O. Wilson & John Hawks.

Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he founded the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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