Your Great x 2360 Grandpa was a Neanderthal!

Is your Dad the descendent of a Neanderthal? Visit our PLoS website to find out more. 

Recent evidence has shown that a small percentage of human DNA is Neanderthal. This Neanderthal DNA entered the human gene pool between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago.

While human DNA may contain traces of Neanderthal ancestors, mitochondrial DNA from Neanderthals has not been found in humans. Mitochondrial DNA comes uniquely from your mother. Is it plausible that male Neanderthals were able to mate with female humans, but that the reciprocal cross was unable to occur?

Analyses of the Y chromosome suggest that we share a common male ancestor 59,000 years ago. Could this male ancestor have possibly been Neanderthal?

If our common male ancestor is neanderthal, and considering that the Y chromosome is transmitted uniquely through the paternal line, could it mean that men are more closely related to Neanderthals than women? Have men and women truly come from two different species?

Visit the full post on our PLoS website for the full explanation of this intriguing hypothesis.

Carol Worthman: From Human Development to Habits of the Heart

Carol Worthman, a mentor of mine at Emory University and a real leader in doing neuroanthropological research (even if she might call it “biocultural”), has two recent articles out that I really want to highlight.

The first is The Ecology of Human Development: Evolving Models for Cultural Psychology. Here is the abstract, part of a whole special issue in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology on the work of the husband-wife team John Whiting and Beatrice Whiting:

The Whiting model aimed to provide a blueprint for psychocultural research by generating testable hypotheses about the dynamic relationships of a culture with the psychology and behavior of its members. This analysis identifies reasons why the model was so effective at generating hypotheses borne out in empirical research, including its foundational insight that integrated nature and nurture, its reconceptualization of the significance of early environments, and its attention to biopsychocultural dynamics active in those environments.

Implications and the evolution of the ecological paradigm are tracked through presentations of three current models (developmental niche, ecocultural theory, bioecocultural microniche) and discussion of their related empirical literatures. Findings from these literatures converge to demonstrate the power of a developmental, cultural, ecological framework for explaining within- and between-population variation in cultural psychology.

The figure above is from this paper, and represents Carol’s own model for understanding human development. But the real point that Carol wants to make in emphasizing these three models goes as follows:

All of these models share a concern for how the cultural ecology of affect and affect regulation drive psychobehavioral development, competence, and well-being or health. Whoever has looked has found linkages among cultural practices, stress physiology, and emotion regulation. Note that each of these models foregrounds the development of emotion and emotion regulation and de-emphasizes classic knowledge acquisition. Although there are important reasons for this emphasis (Damasio, 2005), a reconsideration of what constitutes “knowledge” and more systematic investigation of the linkages between emotion and knowledge might prove valuable (588).

The second article is Habits of the Heart: Life History and the Developmental Neuroendocrinology of Emotion. This article was part of a special issue on Advances in Evolutionary Endocrinology in the American Journal of Human Biology. Here is Carol’s abstract:

The centrality of emotion in cognition and social intelligence as well as its impact on health has intensified investigation into the causes and consequences of individual variation in emotion regulation. Central processing of experience directly informs regulation of endocrine axes, essentially forming a neuro-endocrine continuum integrating information intake, processing, and physiological and behavioral response. Two major elements of life history—resource allocation and niche partitioning—are served by linking cognitive-affective with physiologic and behavioral processes. Scarce cognitive resources (attention, memory, and time) are allocated under guidance from affective co-processing. Affective-cognitive processing, in turn, regulates physiologic activity through neuro-endocrine outflow and thereby orchestrates energetic resource allocation and trade-offs, both acutely and through time. Reciprocally, peripheral activity (e.g., immunologic, metabolic, or energetic markers) influences affective-cognitive processing.

By guiding attention, memory, and behavior, affective-cognitive processing also informs individual stances toward, patterns of activity in, and relationships with the world. As such, it mediates processes of niche partitioning that adaptively exploit social and material resources. Developmental behavioral neurobiology has identified multiple factors that influence the ontogeny of emotion regulation to form affective and behavioral styles. Evidence is reviewed documenting roles for genetic, epigenetic, and experiential factors in the development of emotion regulation, social cognition, and behavior with important implications for understanding mechanisms that underlie life history construction and the sources of differential health. Overall, this dynamic arena for research promises to link the biological bases of life history theory with the psychobehavioral phenomena that figure so centrally in quotidian experience and adaptation, particularly, for humans.

In this second article, Carol is tying her work back into evolutionary theory. If the first took up more the cultural/psychological side, then here we are grounded in the mechanisms and ideas of biological anthropology. She writes here:

Given the evidence of gene-environment interactions and developmental effects discussed above, combinations of history and circumstance will condition the phenotypes generated from the genetic structure, and thus influence the impact of that structure on corresponding experience, welfare, behavior, and the balance of selective pressures upon genetic diversity. Such gene-environment interactions and their consequences for function and welfare deserve investigation across a wide range of human cultures and conditions. Such study bears exciting possibility for unlocking dynamics among culture, social conditions, the nature and distribution of social niches, and selection pressures operating on allelic variants (779).

Link to citation/abstract for Carol Worthman’s The Ecology of Human Development: Evolving Models for Cultural Psychology.

Link to citation/abstract for Carol Worthman’s Habits of the heart: Life history and the developmental neuroendocrinology of emotion.

Update: You can see Carol lecture on Habits of the heart: Life history and the developmental neuroendocrinology of emotion regulation here.

Death Becomes Us

In Do the Right Thing, Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, highlights new research that “our decisions kill us.” He draws on the work of Ralph Keeney, whose paper (pdf) Personal Decisions Are the Leading Cause of Death, uses US data to show that “44.5 per cent of all premature deaths in the US result from personal decisions — choices such as smoking, not exercising, criminality, drug and alcohol use and unsafe sexual behaviour.”

This phenomenon is not limited to developed/industrial countries. Nicholas Kristof writes:

If the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.

And it’s not just premature deaths and worse education, these types of behaviors cost a lot. Just take the May headline, Governments’ Drug-Abuse Costs Hit $468 Billion, Study Says. Most of those costs were in health or law enforcement, with just 2 percent spent on prevention, treatment, and research.

This is where we need really innovative approaches to understanding consumption, human decision making, and how we regulate our behavior. Behavioral economics is not all that; we do WEIRD research, instead of MYOPICS studies; we say poverty poisons the brain, but forget about just how poverty comes to be; we blame bad behavior on bad hormones, rather than doing more substantive work to understand people’s behavior.

Neuroanthropology can offer novel approaches, from understanding the development of addiction in four steps to better grasping the integrated dimensions of post-traumatic stress disorder to examining different components of food, obesity and eating and understanding the complexities of video games and other modern obsessions.

These problems are not all caused by biological mechanisms or social construction, they are not all rooted in human psychology or deviations from rationality. They are human phenomena, requiring that we integrate ideas across multiple domains. To do that, anthropology needs psychology and neuroscience, just as they need anthropology. The impact of what we DO is enormous. And I’m betting that understanding what we do better will help us become more human – to find ways to deal with our own decisions and flaws, not just through technical fixes or imposed solutions, but also through finding ways to better promote our potential.

We agree it’s WEIRD, but is it WEIRD enough?

The most recent edition of Behavioral and Brain Sciences carries a remarkable review article by Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan, ‘The weirdest people in the world?’ The article outlines two central propositions; first, that most behavioural science theory is built upon research that examines intensely a narrow sample of human variation (disproportionately US university undergraduates who are, as the authors write, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, or ‘WEIRD’).

More controversially, the authors go on to argue that, where there is robust cross-cultural research, WEIRD subjects tend to be outliers on a range of measurable traits that do vary, including visual perception, sense of fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, and a host of other basic psychological traits. They don’t ignore universals – discussing them in several places – but they do highlight human variation and its implications for psychological theory.

As is the custom at BBS, the target article is accompanied by a large number of responses from scholars around the world, and then a synthetic reflection from the original target article authors to the many responses (in this case, 28). The total of the discussion weighs in at a hefty 75 pages, so it will take most readers (like me) a couple of days to digest the whole thing.

It’s my second time encountering the article as I read a pre-print version and contemplated proposing a response, but, sadly, there was just too much I wanted to say, and not enough time in the calendar (conference organizing and the like dominating my life) for me to be able to pull it together. I regret not writing a rejoinder, but I can do so here with no limit on my space and the added advantage of seeing how other scholars responded to the article.

My one word review of the collection of target article and responses: AMEN!

Or maybe that should be, AAAAAAAMEEEEEN! {Sung by angelic voices.}

There’s a short version of the argument in Nature as well, but the longer version is well worth the read.

Of course, I have tons of quibbles with wording or sub-arguments, ways of making points, choices of emblematic cases and the like in the longer BBS article (and I’ll get to a couple of those below the ‘fold’), but I don’t want to lose my over-arching sense that there is so much right in this piece. So before I get into the discussion, I just want to thank all of the authors, not just Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan, but also the authors of the responses, who pulled it together when I didn’t try. The collection is a really remarkable discussion, one that I find gratifying in such a prominent place, and I do hope that the target article has a significant impact on the behavioural sciences.

If you have one blockhead colleague who simply does not get that surveying his or her students in ‘Introduction to Psychology’ fails to provide instant access to ‘human nature,’ this is the article to pass along. If that colleague still doesn’t get it, please stop talking to them. Really. You. Are. Wasting. Your. Breath. If Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan don’t shake their confidence, I’m not sure what can.

The weirdest people in the world?

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Proceedings from ASCS 09 Conference online

The Proceedings of the 9th Conference of the Australasian Society for Cognitive Science, held in Sydney last year, are now online for anyone to access. Thanks to the editors, Wayne Christensen, Elizabeth Schier, and John Sutton, for pulling the whole collection together!

I didn’t get to stay for the whole conference because I was running around doing preparation things for the Australian Anthropological Society Conference that we held in December. Nevertheless, I saw some really good papers, and some of the others are especially interesting for those of us interested in neuroanthropology. Please peruse the whole list, but for a discussion of cultural variation in cognition, of special interest might be: Nian Liu’s Tuesday, Threesday, Foursday: Chinese names for the days of the week facilitate Chinese children’s temporal reasoning, Zhengdao Ye’s Eating and drinking in Mandarin and Shanghainese: A lexical-conceptual analysis, Collaborative remembering: When can remembering with others be beneficial? by Celia B. Harris, Paul G. Keil, John Sutton and Amanda J. Barnier, and Expanding expertise: Investigating a musician’s experience of music performance by Andrew Geeves, Doris McIlwain, and John Sutton.

I also like the look of Evaluation of a model of expert decision making in air traffic control, by Stefan Lehmann and colleagues, but I haven’t had the time to really read it (and won’t get time for a few days). Ben Jeffares’ paper was excellent in presentation, but I haven’t yet checked out the written version yet: The evolution of technical competence: strategic and economic thinking.

My paper from the conference, Cultural variation in elite athletes: Does elite cognitive-perceptual skill always converge?, is available as a pdf. I have to admit, it’s a shallower paper than I usually like to present, but I had to cover a LOT of turf, and it’s primarily a proposal for a research program, reviewing the neurological and behavioural places where I expect we might find the clearest evidence of cultural difference in neural dynamics. I’ll take the liberty of reposting the abstract:

Anthropologists have not participated extensively in the cognitive science synthesis for a host of reasons, including internal conflicts in the discipline and profound reservations about the ways that cultural differences have been modeled in psychology, neuroscience, and other contributors to cognitive science. This paper proposes a skills-based model for culture that overcomes some of the problems inherent in the treatment of culture as shared information. Athletes offer excellent cases studies for how skill acquisition, like enculturation, affects the human nervous system. In addition, cultural differences in playing styles of the same sport, such as distinctive ways of playing rugby, demonstrate how varying solution strategies to similar athletic problems produce distinctive skill profiles.

I’d love to hear any responses to the piece. I don’t usually present in cognitive science, as I’m more comfortable in my home discipline of anthropology, working from a pretty solid base of anthropology into the border of brain-culture research, so I’d be interested to learn what scholars situated more confidently in cognitive science think of the piece.

Psychopathy: Is It In You?

By Kevin Brandenberg & J.P. Malette

When one considers crime and its relationship to society, psychopathic behavior remains one of the most mysterious and intriguing conditions of the human mind. Psychopathy describes individuals who, put simply, don’t have a conscience and thus commit actions, often times illegal, without any moral consideration.

Gatorade, the popular sports drink, uses its slogan “Is it in you?” to describe the competitive drive in athletes, which is presumably enhanced by drinking their product. Just like the Gatorade slogan suggests about athletes, is pyschopathy a condition simply found in some and not in others? Or are there other factors that go into this serious mental condition? This post will explore the mental condition behind psychopathic behavior, how it differs from the normal human condition, and how it relates to the treatment of crime in society.

Psychopathy: What Is It?

While not always associated with crime, psychopathic behavior often comes up as a reason for and a cause of both small and horrendous crimes. A recent review indicates psychopathy is an accurate indicator of a person’s susceptibility to criminal behavior and violence.

“Although psychopaths make up only 4% of the total population, they represent about 50% of serial rapists, as well as a significant proportion of persistent wife batterers. Overall, psychopaths are twice as likely to reoffend as other criminals, and three times as likely to commit violent acts again after being convicted.” (Copley 2008)

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Exporting American mental illness

The New York Times Magazine has a great discussion of the effects of the exportation of American ideas about mental illness, titled appropriately, The Americanization of Mental Illness by Ethan Watters, based on his forthcoming book, Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, coming out this month from Free Press. The article is quite good, offering some intriguing cases, such as the rise of virulent, American-style anorexia nervosa in Hong Kong, the effect of possession beliefs on communities’ reactions to schizophrenia, and how the narrative of mental illness as ‘brain disease’ might actually lead to great stigma as it spreads and replaces local understandings. The article is well worth a read, and I’m looking forward to the book.

graphic by Alex Trochut, NYTimes

The ethnographic record is full of conditions that didn’t make it into the most recent edition of the DSM — amok, nervios, koro, zar — you can check out Wikipedia or some other source on ‘culture bound syndromes,’ such as Introduction to Culture-Bound Syndromes in Psychiatric Times, to get a fuller discussion of some of these conditions. The Psychiatric Times piece suggests that there are at least 200 culture-bound syndromes.

One thing I really liked about the New York Times Magazine article, however (and by extension, Watters’ book, I suspect), is that the discussion of ‘culture-bound syndromes’ usually tends to treat other people’s syndromes as ‘culture-bound,’ Western psychological illnesses as not ‘culture-bound.’ Watters’ work points out that Western mental illness is both itself culture-bound and that persuading people to believe in Western-style mental illness can affect the way that psychic disorders manifest.

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