The trees are balding

In fact, many of the trees are already bald. Autumn is well advanced. Last week we celebrated Halloween, which is followed by the Christian feasts of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. These two days commemorate the church’s saints and its rank and file dead, Continue reading →

Thinking Meat is waking up

Greetings to any loyal readers who are still out there. The Thinking Meat Project is about to waken from its long hibernation.

When I started Thinking Meat in 2005, I envisioned it covering a broad range of topics, all related to what it’s like to be thinking matter (as Richard Feynman memorably put it, “Atoms with consciousness, matter with curiosity”). Continue reading →

Book review: Paleofantasy, by Marlene Zuk

Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live, by Marlene Zuk

The myth of the golden age dies hard. People who espouse a Paleo lifestyle speak in terms of evolution, but the overall framework of their beliefs strikes me as being modeled surprisingly closely on earlier stories of a golden age, a fall, and attempts to live in accordance with the rules that will return us, at least to some degree, to the golden age. Continue reading →

Age of Chauvet cave art

A couple of years ago I reviewed Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a fascinating tour of the prehistoric art in Chauvet cave in southern France. The art, which was discovered in 1994, was notable not only for its beauty and variety, but also because it was thought to be the earliest cave art found to date. The oldest paintings were estimated to be as much as 36,000 years old; this placed them in the Aurignacian culture, which produced the earliest known human art.)

However, new research has examined the paintings in the context of other early art, and the results suggest that the bulk of the paintings may be no more than around 18,000 to 26,000 years old, which would put them in more recent periods.

Regardless of the age of the paintings, they are well worth exploring, either by watching Herzog’s film or visiting the French government’s Chauvet cave web site.

Politics, personality, and hand-waving

In Washington Monthly, Chris Mooney has reviewed two new books that synthesize what we know to date about how our political outlooks are related to our personalities. The review is worth reading in its entirety, and it raises some interesting points about evolution, personality, and politics.

However, I was struck by one thing that I wanted to mention because it seems representative of a particular type of statement about evolution that really bugs me: the simplistic application of a single complex evolutionary phenomenon to some complex contemporary situation. To wit:

Again and again, when they take the widely accepted Big Five personality traits test, liberals tend to score higher on one of the five major dimensions—openness: the desire to explore, to try new things, to meet new people—and conservatives score higher on conscientiousness: the desire for order, structure, and stability. … And this finding is highly consequential, because as [both books] note, people tend to mate and have offspring with those who are similar to them on the openness measure—and therefore, with those who share their deeply rooted political outlook. It’s a process called “assortative mating,” and it will almost certainly exacerbate our current political divide.

It’s the last part of the last sentence that got to me. My gripe is essentially that assortative mating has, as far as we know, been going on for a very long time, through various kinds of political arrangements and balances of power between liberals and conservatives,1 and it’s hard to see how it could affect our current political divide except in the broadest sense that it presumably has some effect on what kind of species we are.

If it has produced a mixed bag of personality traits (not to mention physical traits) so far (as Mooney discusses later in the review), why should we believe that it’s going to somehow worsen a very recent (in evolutionary terms, not even the blink of an eye) situation that involves a very particular history and set of political institutions?

My point is not that assortative mating is unimportant to human societies, just that mate choice is complicated, and we don’t know enough right now to say anything meaningful about how it affects specific contemporary political situations (or maybe even broader questions of human nature overall). People may look for many types of similarity in a mate: other personality traits, looks, socioeconomic status, level of education, religion, and intelligence, for example. Not only that, but they may also sometimes look for dissimilarity, or things that aren’t really about similarity or difference.

People do try to educate their children according to their beliefs, but again, this has been going on forever, and the results are mixed. The apple sometimes does fall pretty far from the tree. More importantly, if this could be described as evolution at all, it’s cultural evolution, not biological evolution, and it’s got nothing to do with assortative mating.

I bring this up not just to vent, but also because this sort of oversimplification is an obstacle to fruitful discussion of how human evolution has affected human nature and the societies we create. This is a complex topic that involves aspects of our lives that we’re sensitive about; our data are limited at the moment. Still, it’s a subject of endless interest, which is all the more reason to be careful how we talk about it.

1 The liberal/conservative distinction has been used in most of the research into politics and personality that has hit the news, and it’s the focus of Mooney’s review, but it will be nice when the research has developed to the point where it can consider more sophisticated categories. It would be useful to have at least a second axis, as in the Political Compass system. Current research into personality and politics is fascinating, but it’s just beginning.

So what does make humans unique?

I went to hear Dr. Kim Hill's talk on Thursday on the origins of human uniqueness. Hill began by framing our uniqueness in terms of our energy usage and biological dominance&emdash;for example, the fact that we cycle more nitrogen than all other terrestrial lifeforms combined, and we represent 10 times more biomass than any other large species that ever lived. We also exhibit extreme social complexity and specialization; no other species has anything remotely resembling the New York Stock Exchange or the NCAA basketball tournament, for example. Moreover, even before agriculture, we had colonized every landmass, and hunter-gatherers exhibited unusually complex social behavior compared to that of other animals. However, although we exhibit non-unique traits that arose through non-unique processes, we somehow turned into this distinctive species. The question is, how?

Continue reading →