Evolution of altruism: kin selection or affect hunger?

bridgecoverWalter Goldschmidt, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology from the University of California Los Angeles got in touch with us here at Neuroanthropology.net to give us a bit of a (friendly) hard time about unfortunate neologisms (touché) and to ask if we were familiar with his work. With my repeated posts on evolutionary psychology, he thought it might be of interest, especially his discussion of affect hunger.

What Prof. Goldschmidt did not realize is that I have an autographed copy of his book, Bridge to Humanity: How Affect Hunger Trumps the Selfish Gene (Oxford U Press listing, Amazon), and I’ve long thought it was both an excellent counter-argument to the ‘selfish gene’ hypothesis as well as a much more persuasive account of the possible evolutionary origins of altruism than the typical explanation: kin selection.

So, as a bit of a ‘thank you’ to Prof. Goldschmidt for providing such a compelling work, I’m going to post a bit of a book discussion here, focusing especially on Prof. Goldschmidt’s account of ‘affect hunger,’ which I find a much more neuroanthropologically plausible account of altruism than the usual account provided by evolutionary psychology discussions of ‘kin selection.’
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Blatant plug: new book, Brain Rules, by John Medina

book_dvd.jpgThe publisher of John Medina’s new book, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, sent me an email saying that the book might be appropriate for Neuroanthropology. Normally, I wouldn’t plug something I haven’t yet read (and you can be confident that the publisher didn’t bribe me with a review copy, as I don’t have a copy… yet…), but I thought that the website in support of the book itself was worth a look.

The website contains a wealth of Flash-based audio-visual elements from the book, bibliography, graphics, and a host of other resources. I’m struck by several things about it; first, Medina is very savvy — he’s pitched this book brilliantly for a general audience. I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment; in fact, it’s something that I aspire to in my own writing, and it’s educational to see such a good practitioner. Second, he’s done a great job of distilling some complicated ideas into bullet-point amenable, succinct statements. This sort of nested complexity (because there is more when one scratches the surface) is going to be a hallmark of neuroanthropological work, as we’re going to have to be able to write on several levels at once if we’re to persuade both specialists in the areas we’re writing about and other, non-specialists. For example, if I’m going to discuss brain modularity and it’s relationship to cultural theory, I’m going to have to be able to come up with compelling glosses for very complex research (to appeal to those more interested in cultural theory than modularity, but also vice versa), and deeper explanation so that I don’t get off-sides with the specialists.

Finally, I’m just amazed at the media support for the book — it’s excellent. As a former design ‘consultant,’ I just dig deeply the richness of the website and accompanying material. For example, there’s clever little bits of Medina giving audio versions of some of the book’s main points, but they’re much slicker and better produced than the usual head-on or 45-degree-to-the-side, video-camera-on-tripod, wide-angle-to-catch-powerpoints-and-speaker footage. He comes across as profoundly and engaging and funny. Frankly, he’s providing a really accessible counter-point to some of the simplistic ‘public intellectual’ versions of the brain sciences that we rail against frequently. For those of you with better access to well-stocked bookstores, you might want to check it out.

Mice brains on stress

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchIn February 2006, a research team at University of Texas and Tufts University published a piece in Science on how experience could modify the structures in the brain that affect the production of dopamine through brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) (abstract here). The research team used ‘social defeat’ to explore ‘the neurobiological mechanisms through which psychosocial experience alters the activity of the mesolimbic dopamine pathway’; in other words, the malleable system that can induce structural changes in the brains of mice in response to persistent patterns of social interaction.The abstract, while a little thick, suggests all sorts of intriguing possibilities:

Mice experiencing repeated aggression develop a long-lasting aversion to social contact, which can be normalized by chronic, but not acute, administration of antidepressant. Using viral-mediated, mesolimbic dopamine pathway–specific knockdown of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), we showed that BDNF is required for the development of this experience-dependent social aversion. Gene profiling in the nucleus accumbens indicates that local knockdown of BDNF obliterates most of the effects of repeated aggression on gene expression within this circuit, with similar effects being produced by chronic treatment with antidepressant. These results establish an essential role for BDNF in mediating long-term neural and behavioral plasticity in response to aversive social experiences.  

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New features on Neuroanthropology

Just a quick note because I still have relatives staying with me (so I can’t get to a more serious post on Bruce Wexler’s book, Brain and Culture, to the collective memory conference I attended, or to the piece I’m working on about the equilibrium system and diverse physical training regimens). They go home tomorrow, so I should be able to present something substantive in the near future.

The first announcement is that we’ve added a Bibliography page that will try to keep a running list of the academic resources referenced in the postings.  Although I’m likely to fall behind from time to time up-dating it, my goal is to create a kind of ‘annotated bibliography’ with links back to postings or notes that discuss the readings.

In addition, Daniel Lende has generously put together a page of ‘web resources’ with links to things like news in the neurosciences and tutorials on brain architecture and function.  Especially for those of us in anthropology who are trying to better engage with the brain sciences, I think it will be an invaluable resource.

Finally, I’ve decided that we’re going to start using the icon from bpr3.org for blogs about peer-reviewed research.  You’ll see a small icon along articles that really discuss peer-reviewed research (rather than some of the ones we do about news or academic conferences or the like).  I’ll be happy to take care of providing the code, which I’ll just insert in appropriate posts.  It’s one more way that we can signal to our readers the nature of what we’re doing, and to let people in other fields know how research is being received and discussed among anthropologists.

Sorry I’m making you wait on other posts, but I promise more soon.

Paul Mason on Neuroanthropology defined

Our colleague, Paul Mason, sent the following post in from fieldwork in Indonesia. He apologized to me for it being ‘rough,’ and I still have to get a bibliography off him for it, but I thought it was well worth posting, especially because it does a great job of highlighting a whole host of intellectual precursors for what we’d like to do. Paul worked in the brain sciences, including in brain imaging, before we lured him over to anthropology, so he’s especially well positioned to help us carve out this new space. I think he brings a whole host of elements to the table that someone like me, trained in cultural anthropology primarily, can’t help but find fascinating and informative. So here’s his original text, with his apologies that it is ‘rough’ (we all know what it’s like to try to write from the field).

The brain is the organ of society and the biological vector of culture (Mason 2006). Neuroanthropology, a field of enquiry at the intersection of science and culture, is “The study of the cultural basis of mind and the biological basis of cultures” (Mason, 2005). Oliver Sacks is perhaps the most famous neuroanthropologist bringing fame to the field through his work on the ‘Neuroanthropology of Tourette’s Syndrome’ for which he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1989. The first proponent of the merging of neuroscience and anthropology was Ten Houten (1976) who defined the field as “the investigation of the cultural determinants of the ways in which our brains are developed historically and put to use” (p. 506). The research field was later defined by Laughlin, McManus and d’Aquili (1979) as, “The study of the relationship between the brain and sociocultural behaviour.” Neuroscientist, Jean-Pierre Changeux, has also advocated the unification of neuroscience and anthropology in his book, L’homme Neuronal (1983). The merging of neuroscience and anthropology is not altogether new. Paul Broca, a neurologist, famous for the discovery of Broca’s area of speech production in the brain, was also an anthropologist (Monod-Broca 2005). According to Couser (2001) neuroanthropology aims to study both how culture shapes neurological processes and how neurological substrates may produce distinctive cultural behaviours.

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Two chapters in new Harris volume on Knowledge

harrisways.jpgI just received a copy of a book edited by Mark Harris of the University of St. Andrews, Ways of Knowing: New Approaches in the Anthropology of Experience and Learning. If you’re interested, it’s being published by Berghahn (Berghahn Amazon). Harris does great fieldwork in the Amazon and theoretical work on skill acquisition, religion, history, and knowledge. He put together a conference in January, 2005, that included a great line-up of scholars who provided chapters in the volume. There’s many of the anthropologists that I’ve certainly drawn on in my own work and thinking: Tim Ingold, Michael Herzfeld, Cristina Grasseni, Dominic Boyer, Otávio Velho, Paul Stoller, and a number of others. The whole volume is worth checking out, and I’m loathe to single out any particular chapters, but two specifically discuss relationships between the anthropology of knowledge and research in the neurosciences (the subject of this blog).

The chapters by Trevor Marchand (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) and me (Greg) specifically deal with neuroanthropological concerns. As Harris describes in his introduction:

…biological processes also mediate experience. What place should they have? Recently, a number of influential anthropologists who have written on knowledge have shown that an outdated theory of cognition lies implicit in many anthropological texts which see the brain as a computer running programmes and processing information (Sperber 1985; Bloch 1998; Toren 1999; Whitehouse 1999; Ingold 2000). This view of the brain is indefensible since it implies a series of assumptions about biology and culture, the individual and society, sensation and perception, which are not always consistent with each other or supported by analyses from beyond anthropology. (Harris 2007:2)

Later in the introduction, Harris gives Marchand and me credit for attempting ‘a response to the challenge work like [Maurice] Bloch’s presents’ (ibid.:14): that is, to offer anthropological accounts of knowledge that deal responsibly with biological and psychological dimensions of knowing. Whether or not readers think we are successful, both Marchand and I do try to incorporate new research in the brain sciences into anthropologically and ethnographically informed accounts of knowledge practices. For Marchand, the discovery of mirror neurons and dynamic syntax models provide a foundation to better understand how masons working on temples in Mali communicate as the coordinate their efforts. I can’t do it justice, so I’ll just have to hope that Dr. Marchand provides us with a richer discussion at some point; in the meantime, check out, ‘Crafting Knowledge: The Role of “Parsing and Production” in the Communication of Skill-Based Knowledge among Masons.’

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