Continuity or Discontinuity: are our minds purely shaped by natural selection?

ResearchBlogging.orgThe debate concerning the origin of our minds stems back to the diverging opinions of Darwin (1871) and Wallace (1870). When Charles Darwin first discussed the evolution of our seemingly unique cognitive faculties, he proposed that there is “no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.” (Darwin, 1871, pg. 66). Conversely, Wallace was suspicious of whether natural selection alone could have shaped the human mind, writing:  “[…] that the same law which appears to have sufficed for the development of animals, has been alone the cause of man’s superior mental nature, […] will, I have no doubt, be overruled and explained away. But I venture to think they will nevertheless maintain their ground, and that they can only be met by the discovery of new facts or new laws, of a nature very different from any yet known to us.” In the intervening years, the debate surrounding the degree of continuity between animal and human minds still rages on in contemporary discussions (Bolhuis & Wynne, 2009; Penn, Holyoak & Povinelli, 2009).

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How do biology and culture interact?

In the year of Darwin, I’m not too surprised at the number of articles being published on the interactions between cultural change and biological evolution — this synthesis, if achieved, will certainly be a crucial step in explaining how humans evolved. Still, it’s unlikely we’re going to see the Darwin of culture in 2009, given we’re still disputing some of the fundamentals surrounding these two modes of evolution. One of these key arguments is whether or not culture inhibits biological evolution. That we’re seeing accelerated changes in the human genome seems to suggest (for some) that culture is one of these evolutionary selection pressures, as John Hawks explains:
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Titanoboa… OMG!

If you think this snake is big…

… Then quickly get acquainted with the new (or old?) champ, Titanoboa:

The fossilised vertebra of titanoboa. WTF!
Left: A model vertebra of an extant anaconda, arguably the largest snake in the world. Right: The fossilised vertebra of Titanoboa. WTF!

Dramatic name. Dramatic find. Let’s just put it this way: this snake would eat the motherf**king plane. See Ed Young’s or PZ Myers’ accounts for more information.

Current Issues in Language Evolution

As part of my assessment this term I’m to write four mock peer-reviewed items for a module called Current Issues in Language Evolution. It’s a great module run by Simon Kirby, examining some of the best food for thought in the field. Alone this is an interesting endeavour, after all we’re right in the middle of a language evolution renaissance, however, even cooler are the lectures, where students get to do their own presentations on a particular paper. I already did my presentation at the start of this term, on Dediu and Ladd’s paper, which went rather well, even if one of my slip ups did not go unnoticed (hint: always label the graphs). So, over the next few weeks, in amongst additional posts covering some of the presentations in class, I’ll hopefully be writing articles on these four five papers:

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ASPM, Microcephalin and Tone

ResearchBlogging.orgDisclaimer: I know this post is on a paper released over a year ago; however, I’m still going to write about it for three reasons: 1) I did a presentation about it earlier this week (20/01/08); 2) I think it relates to a recent buzz around gene-culture co-evolution; and, 3) It’s a bloody awesome paper.

So, what is the paper called? Okay, once you read this title, do not yawn, go to another website or… Linguistic tone is related to the population frequency of the adaptive haplogroups of the two brain size genes, ASPM and Mircocephalin. See, now we’ve got the hard part out of the way, I can begin to discuss exactly what the authors, Dan Dediu and Robert ‘Bob’ Ladd, found and why it’s important to our understanding of linguistics, genetics and evolution. It’s really interesting, honestly.
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Orangutans – probably more interesting than you

ResearchBlogging.orgIn the past few years there has been a recent spate of articles concerning orangutan intelligence. So, as I’m fairly bored, and in need of a break from university work, I’ve decided to write a bit of an essay on some of these finds.

Orangutans… They’re orange, right?

Correct; but Pongo pygmaeus abelii are so much more than just some arboreal orange ape that eats a lot of fruit. In fact, these great apes, the last surviving members of the genus Pongo, are highly resourceful and intelligent creatures, as evident in their ability to make and use tools, perform calculated reciprocity and even whistle a tune.

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Schizophrenia and brain evolution (plus bold adjectives)

ResearchBlogging.org When exploring the etiology of schizophrenia, a feat that has mostly eluded understanding for over 100 years, a common denominator emerges in that associated deficiencies are rooted in cognitively demanding tasks. One suggestion is that, where schizophrenic individuals are involved, disorganised thoughts, abnormal speech, auditory hallucinations and paranoid delusions are symptomatic consequences of our haphazardly evolved brains. It might not seem revelatory, nor is it a particularly new thought on the matter, yet this disorder clearly has ties with human-specific, recently evolved behaviours, such as language and social relationships. And it is here in which our problem emerges: we don’t even know how language or social relationships evolved. In fact, the evolution of the human brain is still very much an enigma, despite the whole host of literature having you believe otherwise. As Darwin put it: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge[…]”.

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