Thursday, October 7th 2010

Around the web: the dark side of behavioral biology

The “Around the Web” series highlights informative websites, and also targeted blog posts and news articles, relevant to the courses I teach. This semester I teach Anth 143: Biology of Human Behavior, an introductory-level course that covers the basics of evolution, behavioral biology, and the interaction of biology and culture. My hope is that these posts are useful not only for my current students, but other people hoping to gain background or insight into these topics.

ResearchBlogging.orgThis week I covered infanticide and sexual coercion, and showed Steven Pinker’s TED talk on the history of human violence as a provocative way to help us think about violence, culture and variation. Because this is a 100-level course, I make more of a point to demonstrate themes or introduce ideas, rather than provide a ton of content that they can look up on their own. But that always means that a lot of interesting stuff ends up omitted from my lectures. I didn’t talk about step-parenting, though I hope to touch on it in a later lecture. I only touched on the Thornhill and Thornhill rape-as-adaptation material (though they did need to watch and be quizzed on a mini-lecture I prepared on it before coming to class).

That said, Tuesday was one of my favorite classes so far, because students really seemed to come prepared to talk, and think, and listen… and remember, this is a class of 700 where, if the iClicker results are an indication, 550 show up regularly. Rather than give them much new content from what they’d already heard in the mini-lecture online, I had them unpack and analyze what they had learned. I was really impressed with their sophistication, and their confidence in questioning some of the basic assumptions of the material.

So bravo to you, Anth 143, for your brave thinking, your willingness to contribute, and your intelligence!

The dark side of behavioral biology

We do nasty stuff to each other. We fight, cheat, lie, threaten, beat up, maim, kill, rape. We raid, colonize, war, oppress. It’s not pretty. Are these essential parts of human nature? Are they challenges we must overcome to be moral? Are they dictated to us by culture?

Of course, you all know by now that most of our behavior is a hot mess of genes times environment interactions. And that many behavioral biologists think that it is problematic to assert that “psychological adaptation underlies all behavior,” as do Thornhill and Thornhill (1992). Adaptation does not necessarily explain ALL behavior, though it helps with a lot. And yet I was very impressed with the parallels some students made in class this week between some elements of the risk factors associated with infanticide in humans and non-human primates.

Here are a few links regarding evolutionary psychology, a field that, to my mind, embodies this notion of psychological adaptations for all behavior, and universals in human behavior that seem divorced from context. First is a jpg of a game for EvoPsych Bingo, second a smart post from Boing Boing on what is wrong with evolutionary psychology. You are welcome to ponder the issue yourself, and you are certainly not required to agree with my criticisms.

Next, an interesting article in Scientific American by John Horgan on problems with seeing our ancestry as fundamentally violent: Quitting the hominid fight club.

For those of you not in my class, check out the readings I had this week: Carl Zimmer’s amazing and probably now classic piece First, Kill the Babies chronicling Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s work on infanticide, and then this biography of Hrdy by Claudia Glenn Dowling that offers even more insight into her work.

Other random but useful tidbits

These aren’t really related to this week’s topic, and instead are just links I want to share.

If you ask for it, then I have to let you have it. A slideshow/poetry reading on the meaning of teaching. I wish every student would watch it. via Greg Laden’s Blog

A few cool posts that came out AFTER our week on mating and marriage: Sex, Evolution and the Case of the Missing Polygamists by Eric Michael Johnson, and Choosing Mates: Do we really want who we say we want? over at the Lay Scientist.

Advice from graduate students to college students — you know, the people that you interact with the most, do most of the hidden labor like grade your papers, and probably know you best.

And finally, my favoritest article this week, a speech entitled What are you going to do with that? over at the Chronicle for Higher Education. Please read it, read the whole thing, then bookmark it, then spend some time figuring out what excites you about life and how you will avoid becoming a boring forty year old (if you’re over forty, how you’ll avoid becoming a boring whatever-age-you’ll-be-in-five-years).


Thornhill, R, & Thornhill, NW (1992). The evolutionary psychology of men’s coercive sexuality Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 15, 363-421

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