Squirrels as Models for Human Behavior? Indeed!

A delightful article on squirrel behavior, biology, and sociality today highlights just how great a model squirrels can be for some true comparative research. Here’s another species with phenomenal elasticity, good learning and sociality, and even specialized brain and body parts!

Behind the squirrel’s success lies a phenomenal elasticity of body, brain and behavior. Squirrels can leap a span 10 times the length of their body, roughly double what the best human long jumper can manage. They can rotate their ankles 180 degrees, and so keep a grip while climbing no matter which way they’re facing. Squirrels can learn by watching others — cross-phyletically, if need be.

In the acuity of their visual system, the sensitivity and deftness with which they can manipulate objects, their sociability, chattiness and willingness to deceive, squirrels turn out to be surprisingly similar to primates. They nest communally as multigenerational, matrilineal clans, and at the end of a hard day’s forage, they greet each other with a mutual nuzzling of cheek and lip glands that looks decidedly like a kiss.

The gray squirrel is diurnal and has the keen eyesight to match. “Its primary visual cortex is huge,” said Jon H. Kaas, a comparative neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University, A squirrel’s peripheral vision is as sharp as its focal eyesight, which means it can see what’s above and beside it without moving its head.

“We’ve seen seeds that were recached as many as five times,” said Dr. Steele. The squirrels recache to deter theft, lest another squirrel spied the burial the first X times. Reporting in the journal Animal Behaviour, the Steele team showed that when squirrels are certain that they are being watched, they will actively seek to deceive the would-be thieves. They’ll dig a hole, pretend to push an acorn in, and then cover it over, all the while keeping the prized seed hidden in their mouth. “Deceptive caching involves some pretty serious decision making,” Dr. Steele said. “It meets the criteria of tactical deception, which previously was thought to only occur in primates.”

Link to Natalie Angier’s Nut? What Nut? The Squirrel Outwits to Survive article

Richard Dawkins on ‘Elders’

I haven’t been blogging for a while because I’ve just finished organizing the national meeting of the Australian Anthropological Society and my wife, Tonia, got kicked by our (soon-to-be-former-) stallion. But I had to put down some thoughts having watched a lengthy interview with Richard Dawkins, recently retired Oxford professor, the other night. Andrew Denton, one of the more skillful interviewers on Australia’s ABC, tried to get Prof. Dawkins to talk about a range of issues, personal insights, and life lessons as part of ‘Elders’, a series of interviews with older individuals who might theoretically offer some sort of insight from their longer and accomplished lives.

You can watch the video in three parts on YouTube, starting with this segment:

Dawkins discussed, among other subjects, his childhood in Africa, Wikipedia, the influence of his parents on his scientific worldview, his sense of wonder in the face of evolution and the natural world, as well as his feeling that the belief in a divine creator actually belittles our sense of the universe. Dawkins expressed again his views on human problems with perceiving beyond a humanist scale, a topic he had done at greater length in his talk on the ‘queer’ universe at TEDs. You can also watch the ‘Elders’ video and video extras on the ABC website, or read the transcript.

The interview was painful toward the end, I found (I’m not alone — see the discussion on Reddit). Dawkins is brittle and prickly at his best, and when he doesn’t like the way things are going, he can be positively obtuse and testy. Denton, in contrast, can be gentle and funny when someone is working with him, but he doesn’t hold up well, it seems, with such a challenging subject. There were moments when it felt like a soft-focus celebrity interview of a high-functioning but affectively flat android (note: to all the Dawkins fans, this is a metaphor, I don’t actually think Dawkins was grown in a vat of nutrient fluid). In other words, I’m not sure this was a shining moment for either of them, although it definitely starts out better than it ends.

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Sympathy for Creationists

Jesus! vs Darwin!

Jesus! vs Darwin!

Creationists suffer the kind of derision from the scientific community usually reserved for flat earth proponents, faith healers and those who do not appreciate Star Trek. Well, that’s not entirely true; detractors of Star Trek are probably more deeply reviled.

In the spirit of stirring the pot though, I recently gave a presentation ‘Sympathy for Creationists, and Other Thoughts from a Sceptical Anthropologist,’ and thought that I might do an online version. I want to suggest that many ‘believers’ in evolutionary theory share some of the intellectual errors evidenced by Creationists. You know the general principle: try to irritate everyone in your audience so that you at least know they have a pulse.

Many thanks to the Macquarie University Sceptics’ Society for their kind invitation. The Sceptics were a great audience, and I only regret that there was no way to audiotape the lecture — well, actually, I’m probably not half as funny as I like to remember myself being, so maybe it’s a good thing. In addition, I can’t post all the slides because they are, as usual in my lectures, filled with the flotsam and jetsam of the Interwebs, including unlicensed cartoons, pilfered photographs, swiped graphics and other materials. Although it’s one thing to use these sorts of images in a non-commercial presentation, I don’t feel comfortable pinning them up on Neuroanthropology.net.

So although this post will not follow my lecture point-for-point, nor will it have the excellent questions that the audience presented (which my failing memory is already turning into my ‘own’ thoughts in an act of cerebral self-aggrandizement), this should be fun, and it will allow me to link to evolution-related stuff all over the place.

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Sex on the brain & neuroanthropology on sex

brainonsexI promised my Human Evolution students that I would compile a sort of ‘collected works’ posting on our discussions of sex and evolution here at Neuroanthropology.net. I’m a bit frightened to see just how much we talk about it, but here goes anyway…

Over our time at Neuroanthropology.net, there have been a few of posts on abuses of ‘evolutionary psychology’ in its popular incarnations. I suspect that these would be among the most relevant for my students in ‘Human evolution and diversity': Chicks dig jerks?: Evolutionary psych on sex #1, Girls gone guilty: Evolutionary psych on sex #2, along with Bad brain science: Boobs caused subprime crisis.

Lecture yesterday and tutorial today covered quite a bit about sexual dimorphism and, at the same time, the homologies between men and women. For one take on this, and on how culture can affect the physiological development of gender traits, check our Throwing like a girl(’s brain).

A while ago, probably under the influence of last year’s lecture, I also posted a sprawling piece Neurosexism, size dimorphism and not-so-’hard-wiring’.

If you still haven’t had enough about sex, check out Daniel’s compilation of all sorts of links: The Sex Round Up.

Paul Mason provides a discussion of the Sex and Gender distinction along with a whole series of relevant online resources.

And our most recent discussion of a most egregious attempt to do research on slash fan fiction, alleging that these works exposed the ‘evolutionary roots’ of sexuality. The series has run onto three posts so far: Sex, Lies and IRB Tape: Netporn to SurveyFail, SurveyFail redax: Downey adds to Lende, and Nature/Nurture: Slash To The Rescue.

Nature/Nurture: Slash To The Rescue

Slash is cool – creative writing, community, and alternative imaginations all wrapped in one. Like I said at the end of my post Sex, Lies and IRB Tape: Netporn to SurveyFail, if I want to understand slash, I’d read some.

And so I have, exploring recommend pieces over at Whispered Words. Cassandra Claire’s The Very Secret Diaries on the Lord of the Rings made me laugh and laugh. Greyworlf’s Kirk/Spock And In the Darkness Bind You was erotic, intense, and well-written, a classic of slash according to Whispered Words.

But today I want to expand on what I thought was a throw-away line in that post, and connect it to some of what Greg wrote about in his post on ethnography, hard-wired assumptions, and sexuality in SurveyFail Redax. (For more on SurveyFail, see Rough Theory; you can also follow the controversy in more detail through the links rounded up at Anti-Oppression Linkspam Community.)

The throw-away line was this: “But nature/nurture is dead (except perhaps in slash?).”

Today I am making it the punchline. Slash can save the day for nature/nurture.

Nature versus nurture refers to the debate of genes versus environment, human nature versus culture, of our animal side versus our civilized side, and so forth. As Greg said, it’s a very old theme in Western thought. In SurveyFail, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam operated from a restricted and dichotomized view of nature versus nurture, where nature, dictated by evolution and primitive brain circuits, dictate sex differences and sexual interests. Here’s how Greg put it:

In their responses to some of their critics, Gaddam offers the blanket explanation that, ‘When we talk about the ‘oldest parts of the brain’ [the subcortical regions], it is in the context of the tectonic tussle between these and the prefrontal cortices that give rise to the peaks of our culture and the terrain of our behavior.’ Daniel points out that Gaddam describes an opposition in the brain between the ‘oldest’ pre-cultural, primitive elements and these newer cortices that produce culture; nature v. culture played out in brain layers.

Slash can change that. Not by having nature and nurture meet in a bar (though if someone knows some slash on that, by all means leave a comment!), but in how slash works as an imaginative process.

Quite simply, nature vs. nurture is an oppressive division. Slash reworks the relationship between nature/nurture in ways that help us in our thinking and that are closer to the actual reality of how nature/nurture works.

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SurveyFail redax: Downey adds to Lende

Daniel did a posting earlier today on Sex, Lies and IRB Tape: Netporn to SurveyFail that explores a research project that self-immolated through bad design, horrible conflict management, and a number of other character flaws. I’m really glad Daniel did this because he’s the more tech-savvy half of this duo. I just saw this yesterday and started to read up on the commentary but quickly realized that I was over my head, having pretty much exhausted my ability to navigate communication technology and resulting subcultural movements with a Twitter-related post a while back.

But I did want to add a couple of points because I’m particularly interested in research design and ethics and because I like kicking researchers when they’re down. No, no, just kidding — because I find the focus of ‘evolutionary’ theorists on the supposed ‘hard wiring’ of sexuality to be one of the more irritating and, well, hard-wired theoretical assumptions, even in the face of OVERWHELMING evidence to the malleability of human sexuality.

I apologize for not putting up some clever graphic, but I spent most of today helping friends build their mud-brick house and then went to a Showground Association meeting, where I was elected president (that’s kind of like the County Fairground in my town). My brain’s fried, but I don’t want to let this post sit for too long or it’s moment will have well and truly passed.

Research ethics

In my brief and incomplete survey of the discussions of this research, it became obvious that slash fans were particularly irritated, not just by the initial bad research design, but also by the seeming inability to apologize, learn from criticism or even simply back off on the part of the researchers.

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Public Anthropology by Biological Anthropologists

Skin A Natural History“Public anthropology” is often presented as primarily an effort of cultural anthropology. For example, the University of California Press Series in Public Anthropology focuses on ethnographies. Yet a broader public anthropology is inherent in its own description:

The California Series in Public Anthropology draws anthropologists to address major issues of our time in ways that readers beyond the discipline, find valuable. Many anthropologists write on narrow subjects in self-contained styles that only coteries of colleagues appreciate. The Series strives, instead, to analyze important public concerns in ways that help non-academic audiences to understand and address them.

Rob Borofsky echoes this broad conception when he writes, “Public anthropology seeks to address broad critical concerns in ways that others beyond the discipline are able to understand what anthropologists can offer to the re-framing and easing–if not necessarily always resolving–of present-day dilemmas.”

Biological anthropologists do public anthropology. They write for broad audiences and address social problems and public concerns. Their books move from the very body we live in to the importance of human variation, the origins of violence to assumptions about human nature and reproduction. Biological anthropologists have provided advice and information on caring for your child, looked at how our present-day environment can shape human health and behavior, and shown how to engage in primate conservation.

Here are those books, the ones that show public anthropology in action. The title links to the Amazon book listing. These books are recent, accessible, competitively priced, and compelling – all useful for increasing their public reach.

Public Anthropology Books by Biological Anthropologists

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (2000), Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species. Ballantine Books.
Hrdy “unblinkingly examines and illuminates such difficult subjects as control of reproductive rights, infanticide, ‘mother love,’ and maternal ambition with its ever-contested companions: child care and the limits of maternal responsibility.”
98% Chimp
Nina Jablonski (2008), Skin: A Natural History. University of California Press.
“This amply illustrated rhapsody to the body’s largest and most visible organ showcases skin’s versatility, importance in human biology and uniqueness… Penn State’s anthropology chair, Jablonski nimbly interprets scientific data for a lay audience, and her geeky love for her discipline is often infectious.”

Jonathan Marks (2005), What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and their Genes. University of California Press.
“So why should one venture through the 307 remaining pages of this book, if the main message is obvious from the start? I can see two good reasons. First of all, because it is fun… The second reason is that the subject of this book is extraordinarily important. Many scientists and physicians deal daily, in one way or another, with human variation and its consequences. However, only seldom do we have the time to reflect on the assumptions underlying many concepts, even apparently simple ones, in this area.”

James J. McKenna (2007), Sleeping with Your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Cosleeping. Platypus Media.
“Cosleeping is one of the most delicious experiences in parenting, and Dr. McKenna’s carefully researched and thoughtful advice separates the myths from the marvelous reality.”

Dale Peterson & Richard Wrangham (1997), Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Mariner Books.
“Contradicting the common belief that chimpanzees in the wild are gentle creatures… they suggest that chimpanzee-like violence preceded and paved the way for human warfare.”

Meredith Small (1999). Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent. Anchor.
“How we raise our children differs greatly from society to society, with many cultures responding differently to such questions as how a parent should respond to a crying child, how often a baby should be nursed, and at what age a child should learn to sleep alone… [This book] will be especially meaningful to those swept up in the wild adventure of parenting.”

E.O. Smith (2002). When Culture and Biology Collide: Why We Are Stressed, Depressed and Self-Obsessed. Rutgers University Press.
“This book will be completely accessible to laypersons, and yet equally thought provoking for scientists.”

Karen Strier (1999), Faces in the Forest: The Endangered Muriqui Monkeys of Brazil. Harvard University Press.
This book “outlines the fight against extinction of the wooly spider monkey. Muriquies remain one of the most endangered primates, but the detailed profile drawn up by the author and her fellow researchers has provided crucial information in their fight for survival. In all areas Strier has carried out impressively thorough and precise research, outlined here in a very readable form, accessible to specialist and laymen alike.”

Other Recent Popular Books by Biological Anthropologists

Why limit ourselves to just eight? After all biological anthropologists have written many popular books. Here is a wider listing, ones that might not hew to a strict definition of “major issues” and “critical concerns” that comes with public anthropology. But these are certainly books that interest a broad public.

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