The Emerging Science of Culture Lecture Series 2010/11

September 13th, 2010

Robert Boyd

UCLA
“How Culture Transformed Human Evolution.”

Humans are a paradoxical species. On the one hand we are exceptionally good at adapting. Humans occupy a wider ecological and geographic range than any other species using a much greater range of subsistence strategies and social organizations. On the other hand, much of our behavior seems frankly maladaptive. For example, humans engage in cooperation in large groups of unrelated individuals. In this talk I will try to persuade you that both our exceptional adaptability and our propensity for folly stem from the fact that humans, unlike any other animal, acquire important components of their behavior by observing the behavior of others. This ability allows us to rapidly evolve superb culturally transmitted adaptations to local conditions, but it also necessarily leads to the cultural evolution of maladaptive behavior.

October 18th, 2010

Shaun Nichols

University of Arizona
“The State of Nature and the Epidemiology of Norms.”

Why do we think we have a moral obligation to keep our promises? A number of philosophers (e.g., Hobbes and Hume) have defended a view of the natural history of promising norms according to which our norms of promising developed because it was rational to have such norms, given the conditions under which the norms developed. According to this natural history, promising norms have a rational basis, and as a result, this history also serves as a defense of the moral authority of these norms. The model of human psychology that is invoked in these accounts is broadly a rational choice theory – the norms of promising emerged through a process of rationally directed self-interest. In this talk, I will promote an epidemiological approach to the natural history of promising that draws more liberally on distinctive features of human psychology. By attending to some of the details of child development, we get a significantly different picture of how norms of promising might have developed. And this new picture of the genesis of promising norms provides a different basis for thinking that the norms carry moral authority.

November 8th, 2010

Bob Bettinger

UC Davis
“Alternative Evolutionary Trajectories Among the Holocene Hunter-Gatherers of Western North America.”

There is good reason to question the received textbook wisdom that hunter-gatherer evolution is mainly neutral drift around local techno-environmental adaptive peaks a small minority of which admit selective ratcheting through the initial stages of essentially the same sequence of increasingly complex and hierarchical sociopolitical formations that unfolds in the presence of agriculture. Ethnographic western North America provides some evidence for this (e.g., Northwest Coast) but less than for an alternative sequence in which adaptive intensification, as measured by, say, population density, is inversely related to sociopolitical complexity (e.g., Northern California). This is likely the result of social fissioning permitted by such technological advancements as the bow and arrow, and consequent developments that, in keeping with motivation crowding theory, preserved order and promoted subsistence intensification in the presence of anarchy.

December 6th, 2010

Nathan Nunn

Harvard
“The Importance of Culture and History for Understanding Economic Behavior.”

The presentation provides an overview of recent empirical studies in economics that seek to better understand the historical origins of current cultural differences across societies. These studies have employed a range of empirical techniques in an attempt to identify specific causal mechanisms and channels. For example, recent evidence has been found that current differences in trust across the globe can be partly accounted for by historic weather variability, which affected the need for mutual cooperation to insure against adverse weather shocks. Within Africa, evidence shows that current differences in intra- and inter-personal trust can be explained by the severity of the slave trade among individuals’ ancestors over 100 years earlier. Beyond trust, studies have also examined the historic origins of a range of other cultural characteristics, including religious beliefs, proclivities towards honor-related violence, views about the natural role of women in society, view about cooperation, and generalized morality. This new literature in economics has put forth persuasive evidence that cultural transmission may be an important factor liking the past to the present.

January 17th, 2011

Joan Chiao

Northwestern
“Cultural neuroscience: Bridging Cultural and Biological Sciences.”

The study of culture and biology has long stood stratified within the social and natural sciences, a gap that physicist C.P. Snow (1959) famously called “the two cultures.” To examine the bidirectional influence of culture and genes on brain and behavior, cultural neuroscience is an emerging, interdisciplinary science examining how cultural values, practices, and beliefs shape brain function and how the human brain gives rise to cultural capacities and their transmission across micro- and macro-timescales. In this talk, Chiao will present the aims and methods of cultural neuroscience, highlight recent empirical findings in the field, and discuss the potential implications of this field for bridging the social and natural sciences. She will also discuss its broad relation to public policy (e.g., interethnic ideology, environmental policy, philanthropy) and population health concerns.

February 7th, 2011

Joe Henrich, Steve Heine and Ara Norenzayan

UBC
“The Weirdest People in the World.”

Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers—often implicitly—assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified? Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species—frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior—hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re-organize the behavioral sciences to best tackle these challenges.

February 28th, 2011 3:00 p.m. Suedfeld Lounge, Kenny Building

Peter Turchin

University of Connecticut
“Evolution of Social Complexity: A Multilevel Selection Approach.”

How did human ultrasociality – extensive cooperation among large numbers of unrelated individuals – evolve? What are the social forces that hold together complex societies encompassing hundreds of millions of people? Multilevel selection is a powerful theoretical framework for addressing these questions. I use this framework to investigate a major transition in human social evolution, from small-scale egalitarian groups to large-scale hierarchical societies such as states and empires. A key mathematical result in multilevel selection, the Price equation, specifies the conditions concerning the structure of cultural variation and selective pressures that promote evolution of larger-scale societies. Specifically, large states should arise in regions where culturally very different people are in contact, and where interpolity competition – warfare – is particularly intense. I explore the implications of this theoretical result with a spatially explicit agent-based model and test model predictions with historical data.

March 14th, 2011

Kevin Laland

St. Andrews
“Animal Social Learning and the Evolution of Culture.”

Both demographically and ecologically, humans are a remarkably successful species. This success is generally attributed to our capacity for culture. But how did our species’ extraordinary cultural capabilities evolve from its roots in animal social learning and tradition? In this seminar I will provide a provisional answer. After characterizing contemporary research into animal social learning, I will focus in on a case study of stickleback learning that illustrates the strategic nature of animal copying. I will go on to describe the findings of an international competition (the ‘social learning strategies tournament’) that I organized to investigate the best way to learn. I will suggest that the tournament sheds light on why copying is widespread in nature, and why humans happen to be so good at it. Finally, I will end by describing some other theoretical and experimental projects suggesting feedback mechanisms that may have been instrumental to the evolution of culture.

April 11th, 2011

Jeff Galef

McMasters
“Social Influences on Food Choices and Mate Preferences in Animals.”

I will use work on social influences on the food choices of Norway rats as a model system in which to discuss: (1) ways in which the traditions of animals and humans are both similar to and different from one another, and (2) the implications of such differences and similarities for the use of animal models to analyze both the evolutionary origins of human culture and its contemporary functions.

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