Darwin, US Children, and Morals

The United States recently ranked 20th out of 21 rich countries in a UNICEF study of child well-being. The effects of childhood can last a life-time. Darcia Narvaez, writing with Jaak Panksepp and Allan Schore, argue in their post The Decline of Children and the Moral Sense:

American culture may be deviating increasingly from traditional social practices that emerged in our ancestral “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” (EEA). Empathy, the backbone of compassionate moral behavior, is decreasing…

In fact, the way we raise our children it seems that the USA is increasingly depriving them of the practices that lead to well being and a moral sense.

Together Narvaez and Panksepp are organizing a conference on Human Nature and Early Experience: Addressing the “Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness”, where Schore will be one of the featured speakers.

Charles Darwin had high hopes for humanity. He pointed to the unique way that human evolution was driven in part by a “moral sense.” Its key evolutionary features are the social instincts, taking pleasure in the company of others, and feeling sympathy for fellow humans. It was promoted by intellectual abilities, such as memory for the past and the ability to contrast one’s desires with the intentions of others, leading to conscience development, and, after language acquisition, concern for the opinion of others and the community at large…

What Darwin considered the moral-engine of positive human thriving may be under threat. Ill-advised practices and beliefs have become normalized without much fanfare, such as the common use of infant formula, the isolation of infants in their own rooms, the belief that responding too quickly to a fussing baby is spoiling it, the placing of infants in impersonal daycare, and so on. We recommend that scientists and citizens step back from and reexamine these common culturally accepted practices and pay attention to potential life-time effects on people. It is an ethical issue.

Link to The Decline of Children and the Moral Sense

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.

Continue reading “Richard Dawkins on ‘Elders’”

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.

Continue reading “Sympathy for Creationists”

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.

Continue reading “Nature/Nurture: Slash To The Rescue”