Confrontational scavenging as a possible source for language and cooperation

New language/cooperation paper by Bickerton and Szathmáry today. What a dream team. The best news is that it’s open access. WOO! GO OPEN ACCESS!

Here’s the abstract:

The emergence of language and the high degree of cooperation found among humans seems to require more than a straightforward enhancement of primate traits. Some triggering episode unique to human ancestors was likely necessary. Here it is argued that confrontational scavenging was such an episode. Arguments for and against an established confrontational scavenging niche are discussed, as well as the probable effects of such a niche on language and co-operation. Finally, several possible directions for future research are suggested.

Here’s a link:

Cooperation and Conflict Colloqium papers

Papers from the “In the Light of Evolution V:  Cooperation and Conflict” edition of the Sackler Colloquium are now available in the early edition of PNAS:

Some papers such as “The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation”, “Genomic imprinting and the evolutionary psychology of human kinship” and “Evolutionary foundations of human prosocial sentiments” may be of interest to the reader of the blog.


You can read the earlier “In the light of Evolution” collections here:

In the Light of Evolution IV: The Human Condition:

In the Light of Evolution III: Two Centuries of Darwin:

In the Light of Evolution II: Biodiversity and Extinction:

In the Light of Evolution I: Adaptation and Complex Design:

The adaptive value of age, co-operation (and secret signals)

More elephant based news!

A new study from the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, published today, has found that elephants pay attention to the oldest female elephant in their group when a predator is approaching.

The research, carried out in Kenya, used recordings of roars from both male and female lions and monitored the reactions of groups of African Elephants. It has been known for a long time that elephants social groups are formed around a matriarchy. The experiment found that groups of elephants with matriarchs quickly organised themselves into defensive bunch formations after appearing to stop and pay attention to their female leader. These groups were also much more likely to approach the loud speaker producing the roar in an aggressive manner.

Male lions present a greater threat to groups of elephants as they are much more likely to attack elephants when alone and are usually much more successful than females who will only attack when part of a group. The elephants showed an ability to differentiate between male and female lions. The study also showed that matriarchs who were much older were much more likely to react in the appropriate way to roars made by male lions which is thought to be the result of experience.

The signals which allow the Matriarch to elicit this co-ordination among her group are still largely unknown due to the lack of loud vocalisations and Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon, who lead the initial study, are now looking into finding quieter, less obvious vocalisations and posture cues.

The study provides the first empirical evidence that within a social group, individuals may gain benefits from paying attention to an older leader because of their abilities in making decisions when under threat. This generates insights into selection for longevity in cognitively advanced social mammals.

Elephants give each other a helping trunk

A study published on yesterday has shown that elephants might have shared goals which gives them the ability to co-operate.

An experiment was done using the classical 1930s cooperation paradigm used to test the co-operative abilities of monkeys and apes. This paradigm is used to explore the cognition underlying coordination toward a shared goal. This explores what animals know or learn about the benefits of cooperation and also tests their ability to comprehend a partner’s role in cooperation.

The experiment comprises of 2 animals who need to work together to pull 2 ends of the same rope in order to pull a platform towards them which holds a reward such as food.

Experiments such as this have never been done on animals apart from primates before. Plotnik et al. (2011) subjected this experimental paradigm to elephants and have shown that elephants can learn to coordinate with a partner. The elephants also delayed pulling he rope for up to 45 seconds if the arrival of their partner was delayed which showed that they comprehended that there was no point to pulling on the rope if their partner lacked access to the rope. The elephants learnt that this was the case much more quickly than has been shown in Chimpanzees in other studies.

Observations from the wild suggest that in nonhuman primates these co-operative abilities exist but experimental results have been mixed. Plotnik et al. (2011) claim that convergent evolution may have lead elephants to have reached a level of cooperative skill equal to that of chimpanzees.

You can see a video of the elephants doing the experiment here:


Plotnik, J. M., R. Lair, w. Suphachoksahakun & F. B. M. de Waal (2011)
Elephants know when they need a helping trunk in a cooperative task. PNAS 2011 : 1101765108v1-201101765.

Intelligence: Darwin vs. Wallace

It’s Charles Darwin’s birthday today! He’s 202. So in celebration I’ve written a post on the still ongoing controversy which the theory of evolution by natural selection caused and is causing, specifically with regards to the emergence of human intelligence.

Alfred Russel Wallace is widely seen as the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection. While Darwin had been formulating his theory from as early as the late 1830s, he kept quite about it for more than twenty years while he amassed evidence to support it. In 1858 Alfred Russell Wallace, a naturalist of the same time, sent Darwin a letter outlining for him a theory of evolution which very closely mirrored Darwin’s own. The pair co-presented their theory to the Linnaean Society in 1858 but due to Darwin’s long time amassing evidence and refining his ideas, it was his book, On The Origin of Species, which was published in 1859 and set Darwin’s name firmly in the history books as the discoverer of natural selection.

While Wallace’s part in the discovery of natural selection is far from undocumented or unknown, it is largely for presenting ‘the same ideas’ as Darwin for which he is known and what is rarely discussed in the differences in their ideas. In this post I will briefly discuss a new(ish) paper by Steven Pinker on the evolution of human intelligence and some the differences between the thinking of Darwin and Wallace on the subject.

Darwin, unsurprisingly, asserted that the abstract nature of human intelligence can be fully explained by natural selection. In opposition to this Wallace claimed that it was of no use to ancestral humans and therefore could only be explained by intelligent design:

“Natural selection could only have endowed savage man with a brain a few degrees superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one very little inferior to that of a philosopher.”(Wallace, 1870:343)

Unsurprisingly most scientists these days do not agree with Wallace on either the point that the human brain could not be the result of natural selection or that as a result of this problem it must have been a product of design by a higher being. It would be both dismissive and dull to leave the discussion at that however, which is where Pinker comes in. Despite Wallace’s argument probably coming to the wrong conclusion he does bring up some very interesting questions which need answering, namely that of; “why do humans have the ability to pursue abstract intellectual feats such as science, mathematics, philosophy, and law, given that opportunities to exercise these talents did not exist in the foraging lifestyle in which humans evolved and would not have parlayed themselves into advantages in survival and reproduction even if they did?” (Pinker, 2010:8993)

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Michael Tomasello – Why We Cooperate

cross-posted at Shared Symbolic Storage

In this post I will offer a short overview of some aspects of Michael

Tomasello’s latest book „Why We Cooperate,” which is based on his 2008 Tanner Lectures on Human Values.

Tomasello deals with the question how cooperative behaviour and its socio-cognitive foundations arise both in development and during the evolution of the human species. His short text is accompanied by four short commentaries by leading scholars who contributed in important ways to the theory of the evolution and ontogenetic development Tomasello espouses here. These are: psychologist Carol S. Dweck, anthropologist Joan B. Silk, philosopher Brian Skyrms and developmental psychologist Elizabeth Spelke.

In this post I only want to briefly summarize some of the key tenets of Tomasello’s book to offer an introduction to his work on cooperation, whose main impetus it is to have a closer look at the relatively simple and primal cooperative and interactive social behaviour that builds the foundation of human culture.

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What Makes Humans Unique ?(IV): Shared Intentionality – The Foundation of Human Uniqueness?

What Makes Humans Unique (IV): Shared Intentionality – The Foundation of Human Uniqueness?

Shared or collective intentionality is the ability and motivation to engage with others in collaborative, co-operative activities with joint goals and intentions. (Tomasello et al. 2005). The term also implies that the collaborators’ psychological processes are jointly directed at something and take place within a joint attentional frame (Hurford 2007: 320, Tomasello et al. 2005).

Michael Tomasello and his colleagues at the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany have proposed that shared intentionality and the cognitive infrastructure supporting it may be the crucial feature that makes humans unique.

(You can hear Michael Tomasello talk about shared intentionality in his brief 2009 acceptance speech for the prestigeous “Hegel-Price” here. Transcript here)

Continue reading “What Makes Humans Unique ?(IV): Shared Intentionality – The Foundation of Human Uniqueness?”

Some Links #4

Back to the future on syntax and Broca’s area. Talking Brains provide a concise and humorous post about why Broca’s area is not the seat of syntax, be it domain-specific or domain-general. I tend to think that areas important for syntactic processing are probably distributed throughout the left perisylvian region. Hence why Broca’s aphasiacs are quite capable of making grammatical judgements. Then again, another reason why damage to Broca’s area doesn’t, to quote Hickok, “obliterate the ability to make such judgements”, is because the processing shifts to another region (sort of an ancillary system). This is very possible in the advent of neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is a dirty word. Having mentioned neuroplasticity, I now feel obligated to mention this brilliant post over at Mind Hacks. It provides a sort of 101 approach to neuroplasticity, which, after all, simply means something in the brain has changed. Still, as one poster from pointed out: “However, at its most abstract, the concept of neuroplasticity is often arrayed against that other commonplace abstract notion, that the brain is genetically ‘hard-wired’ in some way”.

Dialect Geography and Social Networks. Mark Lieberman over at Language Log discusses geographical patterns of linguistic variation and recent analyses of facebook networks in the US. Put succinctly: they don’t line up very well. He also asks some interesting questions about the role facebook might play as a proxy for communication patterns.

How best to learn R. R is an invaluable statistical package. If, like me, you find yourself being dropped in at the deep end, then things can seem slightly confusing in an environment that is far less user friendly than, say, SPSS. All the important stuff is in the comments section of the post, but you should take some time out to have a general poke around Statistical Modelling, Causal Inference and Social Science.

Are Scottish People Living Dangerously? The short answer: Yes. Barking Up The Wrong Tree links to a study claiming that “Almost the entire adult population of Scotland (97.5%) are likely to be either cigarette smokers, heavy drinkers, physically inactive, overweight or have a poor diet.”

The Sun Gone Crazy? Apparently, for the past two years there’s been a prolonged absence in sunspots. But as Adam Frank mentions, “The magnetic activity of stars like sun, which is the root cause of the sunspot cycle, is still poorly understood even after decades of intense study.  It’s more than an academic concern”.

Three Questions for Michael Tomasello. A cool little interview with the chimpanzee, linguistic and cooperation guru, Michael Tomasello, over at cognition and culture.

Some Links #2

This week we all get to learn a new word, the potential origins of the written word and killing at a distance. Enjoy!

Cultaptation Conference

Earlier this year I went along to the Cultaptation Conference at St Andrews. Despite being a fascinating event, there appears to nothing on the blogsphere pertaining to the speakers and their talks. In fact, this generally holds true for cultural evolution: there are no dedicated blogs reporting what is undoubtedly a serious scientific endeavour. As a remedy I’m going to dedicate several future blog posts to the conference. Until then, here are the talk abstracts for some of my personal highlights:

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