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Archive for August 23rd, 2010

The dog-human connection in evolution

Posted by gregdowney on August 23, 2010

ResearchBlogging.orgEvolutionary theorists have long recognized that the domestication of animals represented a major change in human life, providing not just a close-at-hand food source, but also non-human muscle power and a host of other advantages. Penn State anthropologist Prof. Pat Shipman argues that animal domestication is one manifestation of a larger distinctive trait of our species, the ‘animal connection,’ which unites and underwrites a number of the most important evolutionary advances of our hominin ancestors.


Shipman’s proposal is discussed in a recent forum paper in Current Anthropology and is the subject of her forthcoming book, The Animal Connection. The paper is interesting to us here at because Shipman indirectly poses fascinating questions about the evolutionary significance of human-animal relationships, including the cognitive abilities of both and how they interact.

As Shipman puts it in the Penn State press release about the research, if we only think about what domesticated animals do for us as a species, we miss the truly curious thing about our relationship to them:

No other mammal routinely adopts other species in the wild — no gazelles take in baby cheetahs, no mountain lions raise baby deer…. Every mouthful you feed to another species is one that your own children do not eat. On the face of it, caring for another species is maladaptive, so why do we humans do this?

Although researchers working on symbiotic inter-species relationships might highlight that the support of other species hardly requires adopting their young and feeding them canned kitten food (a critique Travis Pickering levels in his comments), Shipman’s statement highlights nicely that human-animal inter-species relationships seem to extend beyond merely treating them as tameable prey or means to a human end. But then again, this super-instrumentality could be ascribed to a large number of human traits.

The domestication of animals wasn’t merely about capturing a buffet-on-the-hoof, from Shipman’s perspective, but the continuation of a long-term evolutionary project by our species to study animals, first when we were prey for them, and later as predators ourselves.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Animals, Evolution | Tagged: , , , , , | 18 Comments »

Fostering Fat

Posted by dlende on August 23, 2010

The NY Times has an article, Fixing a World That Fosters Fat:

WHY are Americans getting fatter and fatter? The simple explanation is that we eat too much junk food and spend too much time in front of screens — be they television, phone or computer — to burn off all those empty calories.

One handy prescription for healthier lives is behavior modification. If people only ate more fresh produce. (Thank you, Michael Pollan.) If only children exercised more. (Ditto, Michelle Obama.)

Unfortunately, behavior changes won’t work on their own without seismic societal shifts, health experts say, because eating too much and exercising too little are merely symptoms of a much larger malady. The real problem is a landscape littered with inexpensive fast-food meals; saturation advertising for fatty, sugary products; inner cities that lack supermarkets; and unhealthy, high-stress workplaces.

In other words: it’s the environment, stupid.

The main idea, as stated by Dr. Dee Edington, “If you change the culture and the environment first, then you can go back into a healthy environment and, when you get change, it sticks.”

A little anthropology would be nice here, along with the economic prescriptions such as food pricing, advertising and availability. Inequality makes fast food, which is cheap, quite appealing to people without a lot of cash. Rich people also have dedicated spaces for exercise and the like, since our environment does little to make us move. Food also means something – simply declaring it “unhealthy” and labeling the number of calories are appeals directed at an audience assumed to be rational: cost/benefit analysis should win out, right?

For those who want a little anthropology, you can go to the Food, Obesity and Eating page, which rounded up a lot of the writing I did on this early on. For some relevant pieces, go directly to:

Culture and Inequality in the Obesity Debate

Successful Weight Loss

Calories, Not Diets

Comfort Food and Social Stress

Posted in Food & Eating | 1 Comment »

People, Not Memes, Are the Medium!

Posted by dlende on August 23, 2010

And that’s the message!

Susan Blackmore is up to her usual shenanigans, promoting memes like the red in her hair, following fashion when it’s just not good science.

She has an essay over at the New York Times, The Third Replicator, and will also be engaged in debate with other folks at On the Human, the online project of the National Humanities Center. The entire essay and further discussion are available there at Temes: An Emerging Third Replicator.

Blackmore’s basic argument is that information is multiplying, and the resulting evolutionary process – due to variation, inheritance, and internet success – is best understood through the concepts of “memes” and “temes”:

All around us information seems to be multiplying at an ever increasing pace. New books are published, new designs for toasters and i-gadgets appear, new music is composed or synthesized and, perhaps above all, new content is uploaded into cyberspace…

It is perhaps rather obvious to attribute this to the evolutionary algorithm or Darwinian process, as I will do, but I wish to emphasize one part of this process — copying. The reason information can increase like this is that, if the necessary raw materials are available, copying creates more information. Of course it is not new information, but if the copies vary (which they will if only by virtue of copying errors), and if not all variants survive to be copied again (which is inevitable given limited resources), then we have the complete three-step process of natural selection (Dennett, 1995). From here novel designs and truly new information emerge…

When our ancestors began to imitate they let loose a new evolutionary process based not on genes but on a second replicator, memes. Genes and memes then coevolved, transforming us into better and better meme machines…

[I]n the early 21st century, we are seeing the emergence of a third replicator. I call these temes (short for technological memes, though I have considered other names). They are digital information stored, copied, varied and selected by machines. We humans like to think we are the designers, creators and controllers of this newly emerging world but really we are stepping stones from one replicator to the next.

The basic analysis is two-step: (a) like so many spectacular failures before, slot humans into a reductive evolutionary analysis – eugenics, selfish-gene sociobiology, and now the memes/temes team (and damn, it makes me mad because this really hampers people’s understanding of how to do good evolutionary analysis!); (b) come up with a categorical concept and apply it everywhere – the replicator (genes, memes, and temes) – even after the complexities of actual genetic “copying” reveal a dynamic and incomplete process, not a prime mover and essentialist causal force (and damn, it makes me mad because this really hampers people’s understanding of how to do neural/anthropolological analysis!).

The great advantage of this is that most people can follow a two-step analysis, a one-two punch, a back-and-forth dance move. It’s easy, often appealing, and doesn’t require a lot of practice or skill to ape.

Let me go back to my initial play on words, off McLuhan’s “the medium is the message.” Here’s a part of the Wikipedia entry on just that phrase which reveals the immediate downfall to Blackmore:

McLuhan describes the “content” of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. This means that people tend to focus on the obvious, which is the content, to provide us valuable information, but in the process, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time. As the society’s values, norms and ways of doing things change because of the technology, it is then we realize the social implications of the medium. These range from cultural or religious issues and historical precedents, through interplay with existing conditions, to the secondary or tertiary effects in a cascade of interactions that we are not aware of.

The content of “memes” or “temes,” the simplistic juicy idea, really distracts us from two messages: what the social implications of Ms. Blackmore’s ideas are (and she sure has plenty to say there, and does so often), and how technology actually drives wholesale transformations in ways that makes the the concept of “temes” seem so inadequate, so antiquated. Why are a search engine, a social connector, and a video uploader the three top sites in the world? It’s not because of temes – it’s because people use them.

I could go on and on, but there’s not much point. I’ll let Greg speak for me in his post, We Hate Memes, Pass It On:

So, why do I hate the concept of ‘ideas replicating from brain to brain.’ After all, I work on physical education and imitative learning; shouldn’t I be happy that memetic theory places such a premium on imitative learning? What is my problem!? Ah, let me count the problems… I’ll just give you 10 Problems with Memetics to keep it manageable.

Greg starts with (1) Reifying the activity of brains, (2) Attributing personality to the reification of ideas, (3) Doesn’t ‘self-replicating’ mean replicating by one’s self?, (4) The term ‘meme’ applied to divergent phenomena, and another six gems for you.

In the meantime, here is someone who actually does work on YouTube and other Internet phenomena, anthropologist Michael Wesch.

Posted in Cultural theory, Evolution | 8 Comments »


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