Evolution, Science and Society

2024 Speakers

February 5, 2024
Noon-1:30 p.m.
572 Bond Life Sciences Center

Daniel Kelly 
Department of Philosophy
Purdue University

Steering Moral Progress: Reasoning, Social Engineering, and Cultural Evolution

What can we do to usher in moral progress? *Rationalists* see reasoning and human activity explicitly aimed at moral progress as playing a central and perhaps indispensable role to bringing it about. *Skeptics* have doubts that reasoning and human activity aimed at moral progress have the kind of influence that rationalists tout. Such theorists defend their skepticism with a number of related arguments. Some hold that recalcitrant elements of human psychology will resist moral progress, other hold that the systems of interconnected norms and institutions have become too large and complex for us to fathom, and so it is hubristic to think we can engineer their improvement. I formulate what I take to be the strongest version of one of these arguments, which emphasizes *causal opacity*, the idea that the process of cultural evolution can generate packages of traits whose complete workings and even adaptive benefits remain opaque to their human beneficiaries. I argue that rather than supporting the skeptical position, this cultural evolutionary perspective points to a third way between those suggested by either the skeptics or the rationalists. I end with a brief sketch of the program suggested by this third way, highlighting that it recasts the role of reason and reasoners as students and steerers of the process of culture evolution and the myriad mechanisms of change, but also implies that we should bring no small amount of epistemic humility to the task of trying to understand and guide moral progress.

March 4, 2024
Noon-1:30 p.m.
Bond Life Sciences Center 572

Jon Marks 
Department of Anthropology
University of North Carolina at Charlotte

My Very Last Race Talk

Race is the idea that the human species can be naturally partitioned into a fairly small number of fairly discrete and fairly homogeneous groups. First, I will discuss the various realities that have been attributed to race over the last century, culminating in the modern ontology of race as a cultural category with some biological correlates – and not vice-versa, as scholars had imagined for two centuries following Linnaeus. And speaking of Linnaeus, my second point will be historical, and will show how Linnaeus transformed an 18[^th]-century artistic allegory into the scientific fact of race. And finally, I will discuss the metaphor of the tree, and why its use to describe the human species led us to bark up the wrong one for over a century. 


April 29, 2024
Noon-1:30 p.m.
212 Middlebush Hall

Joan Silk 
School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Institute of Human Origins
Arizona State University

New Perspectives on Male Parenting in Primates: Insights from Baboons

In primates and other mammals, male care for infants and juveniles is usually restricted to species that form enduring pair bonds or breed cooperatively. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that there are alternate paths to the evolution of male care in nonhuman primate species. Natural selection has favored the evolution of some forms of male care in a number of taxa that live in social groups with polygynous and polygynandrous mating systems. In some baboon species, males compete over access to sexually receptive females and there is substantial skew in male reproductive success. But males also form close ties to the mothers of their offspring. Several lines of evidence suggest that these relationships are a form of male parental care and that males make strategic tradeoffs between mating effort and parenting effort. In this talk, I will discuss these data and their implications for understanding the evolution of male reproductive tactics in our own species.


2023 Speakers

December 4, 2023

Casey Holliday
Pathology and Anatomical Sciences
University of Missouri

Great Transformations in Reptile Craniofacial Evolution

What makes a crocodilian? What makes a bird? These lineages of animals and others underwent major changes in the shapes and functions of their heads during their hundreds of millions of years of evolution. However, piecing these stories together can be challenging since we only have few snapshots of life on Earth via the fossil record. Today we’ll discuss how we use imaging, anatomy and biomechanics to understand patterns of craniofacial evolution in flat-headed crocodilians, how birds evolved flexible heads from stiff-skulled dinosaurs, and how mammals today still have vestiges of their ‘primitive reptilian’ anatomy in their ears due to gradual changes in jaw and ear anatomy. Altogether, integrated, evolutionary biomechanical studies can reveal patterns and processes of vertebrate evolution over large expanses of time.


November 13, 2023

Tom Dickins
Department of Psychology
Middlesex University London

The Extent of the Modern Synthesis in Evolutionary Biology

Over the last two decades several scholars have made calls to extend the Modern Synthesis in evolutionary biology. In doing this they have characterized a form of Standard Evolutionary Theory (SET) derived from key sources including Mayr and Provine. A core claim is that SET has no role for developmental processes in evolution. In part this is seen as a deliberate move during the formation of SET, but it is also attributed to a model of causation that is seen as inadequate. In this talk I will question both criticisms. Central to my argument will be the claim that those seeking extension and those who are not, are operating under different task demands, and this brings with it different modelling practices. I will refer to recent work on the nature of scientific understanding, which relies on a much more pragmatic and pluralist view of science. Pluralism does not commit us to a full-throated relativism, and I hope to make clear real errors in this debate. One key error is the idea that the Modern Synthesis is a standard theory. Most historians of science, and many evolutionary biologists, see it simply as an extended period of rapid theoretical development with much in contention. None the less, that historical period established a style of theorizing, and it is perhaps this that advocates of extension are opposed to.



October 16, 2023

André Ariew
Department of Philosophy
University of Missouri

Why is the theory of natural selection so hard to understand?

In 1959, at a symposium celebrating the 100th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species, the geneticist and Nobel Laureate H.J. Muller presented a lecture with the provocative title, “One Hundred Years Without Darwin are Enough”. In it he bemoaned the lack of understanding, even among contemporary Darwinians, about the theory of natural selection. Fifty years later, the biologist and theoretician Francisco Ayala, writes an essay entitled “One hundred fifty years without Darwin are enough!” The addition of the exclamation point expresses his frustration. Why does natural selection continue to be badly misunderstood? I propose two related answers, one is historical, the other conceptual. The historical answer is that too many associate natural selection with Darwin’s theory. That causes confusion. There are significant differences between Darwin’s theory and the versions biologists employ today. One of the major differences informs the conceptual confusion over the theory of evolutionary theory: the modern theory invokes (to a much greater degree than Darwin’s did) “variational” thinking. Variational thinking is difficult to understand without adopting mathematical and statistical models.


May 1, 2023

Daniel Nettle
Ecole Normal Supérieure-PSI
Newcastle University

The Biological vs. Social Divide in Anthropology: Why we should give it up, and why it’s the hardest thing to do.

Anthropology, along with other human sciences, often finds itself polarized between approaches that are primarily ‘social’ or ‘cultural’, and those that are primarily ‘biological’ or ‘evolutionary’. These approaches, in careless talk and in practice, are seen as mutually incompatible and opposed. I will argue that the distinction should be given up: all social approaches are also biological, and biological approaches can also be social. There are not, in effect, two kinds of explanation for human life, but one kind with diverse details according to the case under consideration. Many people have made this point, going back many decades, but somehow it never quite gets a purchase. I will therefore spend the bulk of my lecture talking about why some kind of distinction between ‘biological’ and ‘social’ explanations manages to persist despite such good arguments for abandoning it. I will argue that the distinction is intuitive, based on patterns in human psychology, and therefore becomes an attractor. I will spend some time discussing what we might do to help ourselves give it up.


April 13, 2023

Davis Pizarro
Department of Psychology
Cornell University

Tamler Sommers
Department of Philosophy
University of Houston

Podcasting and Pizza with the hosts of Very Bad Wizards

The hosts of Very Bad Wizards, David and Tamler, discussed their podcast, science communication and much more.


March 13, 2023

Andreas Wilke
Department of Psychology
Clarkson University

The Adaptivity of Human Search

Humans and other organisms must search effectively for the resources they need, whether these are physical (e.g., food or shelter) or informational (e.g., patterns in the world, or concepts stored in memory). Most human search studies have focused on brief (static) laboratory tasks, but being effective in realistic search settings requires adapting to changing environments over both short and long terms, and to changing individual abilities developmentally. In this talk, I will report on an ongoing project that investigates how children grow to understand searchable patterns as clusters and sequences.

A tendency to perceive illusory streaks or clumps in random sequences of data—the hot hand phenomenon—has been identified as a human universal tied to our evolutionary history of foraging for clumpy resources. We investigate how this misperception of randomness and ecologically relevant statistical thinking develops ontogenetically. Based on our work with adults, we developed three iPad-based decision-making tasks to assess how 3- to 10-year-old children decide that sequential events will continue in a streak or not, their understanding of randomness, and their ability to reason in spatially dependent terms. Our NSF funded project is collecting data at research sites in the United States (currently n=160) and in Germany (currently n=188). Our analyses suggest that children, indeed, hold strong expectations of clumpy resources when they search through and reason with various statistical distributions.


February 27, 2023

Karthik Panchanathan
Department of Anthropology
University of Missouri

Shifting the Level of Selection in Science

Criteria for recognizing and rewarding scientists typically focus on individual contributions. This creates a conflict between what is best for scientists’ careers and what is best for science. In this paper, we show how principles from the theory of multilevel selection provide a toolkit for modifying incentives to better align individual and collective interests. A core principle is the need to shift the level at which selection operates, from individuals to the groups in which individuals are embedded. This principle is used in several fields to improve collective outcomes, including animal husbandry, professional sports, and professional organizations. Shifting the level of selection has the potential to ameliorate several problems in contemporary science, including accounting for scientists’ indirect contributions, reducing individual-level competition, and promoting specialization. We discuss the difficulties associated with changing the level of selection and outline directions for future development in this domain.


2022 Speakers

December 5, 2022

Sarah Bush and Johannes Schul 
Biological Sciences
University of Missouri

Teaching evolution: addressing common misconceptions

In this presentation, we will discuss some common misconceptions regarding 1) evolutionary processes and 2) interpretation of phylogenetic trees, based on both the science education literature and our own experiences. We will share strategies we have adopted for teaching this content in our undergraduate classes. It is our hope that other participants will contribute to the conversation with examples of their own approaches to teaching evolution.

November 7, 2022

Kevin Flaherty
Pathology and Anatomical Sciences
University of Missouri

The Evolution of the Human Brain in Regions, Cells, and Genes

Many of the earliest and most persistent questions in biological anthropology regard the evolutionary mechanisms responsible for the massive size increase of the human brain. Humans have the largest brain relative to body size of any vertebrate. The most pronounced changes to the human brain occurred in the cerebral cortex, which accounts for the majority of the volume of our brains. Regional size comparisons of the cerebral cortex between humans and extant primates reveal an interesting story about how our brains have changed. Cortical regions that process basic sensory and motor information from the thalamus (e.g. primary visual cortex and primary motor cortex) are often smaller than expected in humans based on our total brain size. However, regions of our brains that participate in human-specific behaviors such as language and complex social interactions are significantly expanded relative to other primates. These regions, collectively known as association cortex, integrate information from multiple brain regions and are crucial in generating the massive degree of behavioral diversity present across the human world. Recent advances in the fields of genetics and developmental biology provide a window into the biological mechanisms responsible for producing these changes to the human brain. In some cases, we have been able to link specific genetic changes to alterations in the developmental processes in the generation of the human brain. These processes account for anatomical changes that vary in scale from the overall size of the brain, to the connections between cortical regions, and even to the structure of individual neurons.

October 10, 2022

Thom Scott-Phillips 
Central European University

On the diversity of human expression

Humans inform others in a wide variety of ways, from ordinary language use to painting, from exaggerated displays of affection to micro-movements that aid coordination. I shall present and defend the claim that this diversity is united by an interrelated suite of cognitive capacities, the evolved functions of which are the expression and recognition of intentions. In particular, I shall suggest that people exploit audience dispositions in an efficient way, not only in language use and other canonical cases of expression and communication, but also in cases that, while informative, might not be communicative in a strict sense. I shall discuss in particular the cases of teaching and art.


September 12, 2022

David Puts 
Department of Anthropology
Penn State

Endocrine organization of sex differences in psychology and behavior: New evidence from a rare source

How does selection produce different phenotypes in males and females when the sexes are nearly genetically identical? Across species, this problem is solved primarily by developmental patterns that are sex hormone dependent. In laboratory animals, sex differences in hormone levels lead to differences in gene expression in the developing brain. However, the types of experiments conducted in laboratory animals would be unethical in humans, so researchers must use other sources of information. The most powerful approach currently available is to examine behaviors in individuals who were naturally exposed to early sex hormone levels that are unusually high or low compared to most people with the same gender of rearing. I will present new evidence from a highly promising endocrine condition, idiopathic hypogonadotropic hypogonadism, to explore how sex hormones influence the development of the human brain and behavior.

May 2, 2022

Carol Ward 
Pathology and Anatomical Sciences
University of Missouri

Reimagining Hominin Origins

Hominin origins was borne at least in part from climate change, with a global climate that was cooling and drying, leading to shrinking forests and expanding open lands in eastern Africa. We have long imagined our ancestors emerging from the forests, standing up from all fours, and striding out into the open in search of a new diversity of food sources and lifeways. Our understanding of exactly how this shaped hominin biology and evolution is changing thanks to the steady recovery of more fossil evidence that has been underway over the past several decades. I will review some of the insights inspired by these new fossils that suggest we need to rethink the origin and early evolution of the hominin lineage.

April 11, 2022

Denis Walsh 
Department of Philosophy
University of Toronto

Neo-Aristotelian human nature

Recent work in naturalised metaethics has sought to ground an account of human goodness in a conception of human flourishing borrowed from Aristotle. Human flourishing, on this view, consists in the successful pursuit of those faculties and activities that constitute our human nature. For its part, this conception of ‘human nature’ , it is claimed, is wholly natural, contiguous with the more general concept of an organismal nature. Unfortunately, most evolutionary biologists and philosophers of biology contend that this concept of an organismal nature has been thoroughly discredited. It is an atavistic throwback to a pre-evolutionary biology and has rightly been expunged from biology since the inception of the Modern Synthesis theory of evolution. Consequently, we cannot look to contemporary biology to naturalise neo-Aristotelian metaethics. I argue that the consensus view on human/organismal nature is mistaken. Contemporary evolutionary biology actually needs a concept of organismal nature, quite like Aristotle’s, if it is to explain the adaptive fit of organisms to their conditions of existence. Human nature is a specific instance of a generalised Aristotelian organismal nature. It isn’t so much that we need a Neo-Aristotelian concept of human nature; rather we need a Neo-Aristotelian evolutionary biology. With it, we get a naturalised concept of human nature for free.

April 4, 2022

Simon Lohse
Philosophy and Science Studies
Radboud University

Pluralism and epistemic goals: why the social sciences will (probably) not be synthesized by evolutionary theory

In this talk, I will discuss Mesoudi et al.’s suggestion to synthesise the social sciences based on a theory of cultural evolution. In view of their proposal, I shall discuss two key questions. (I) Is a theory of cultural evolution a promising candidate to synthesise the social sciences? (II) What is the added value of evolutionary approaches for the social sciences? My aim is to highlight some hitherto underestimated challenges for transformative evolutionary approaches to the social sciences that come into view when one looks at these questions against the backdrop of actual scientific practice in the social sciences.

March 21, 2022

Roger Cook
German and Film Studies
University of Missouri

What is Special about Language?: A Coevoluionary Perspective

Language is generally considered the faculty that more than any other sets the human off from all other species, including from other primates, with whom we share many cognitive and social traits. To account for this uniquely human capacity, some (most notably Noam Chomsky) posit a specialized biological system that enables humans to acquire and process language in a generative fashion. My analysis adds to the growing chorus of scholars who reject this idea of an inherited biological system dedicated to language or an innate ability such as a “language instinct.”

In this talk I pursue two lines of inquiry. First, I analyze how language fits into to the uniquely human pattern of producing technology that alters the environment we inhabit and coevolves with us as our culture advances. In this section, I consider the role language played in the coevolutionary process involving enhanced speech and auditory organs, the expansion and neural reorganization of the brain, and the development of representational thinking. The second section posits a deep-seated, isomorphic relation between the organizing principle at work in living organisms and the one that informs the continuing evolution of language. I will argue that the medium of language is a prosthetic extension (in the sense proposed by Marshall McLuhan) of the organizing life force into the external world of culture. As such, it is the is the quintessential technological innovation that has propelled human evolution.

March 10, 2022

Hannah Rubin
Department of Philosophy
University of Notre Dame

Promoting Diverse Collaborations

Philosophers of science and social scientists have argued that diverse perspectives, methods, and background assumptions are critical to the progress of science. One way to achieve such diversity is to ensure that a scientific community is made up of individuals from diverse personal backgrounds. In many scientific disciplines, though, minority groups are underrepresented. In some cases minority members further segregate into sub-fields, thus decreasing the effective diversity of research collabora- tions. In this paper, we employ agent-based, game theoretic models to investigate various types of initiatives aimed at improving the diversity of collaborative groups. This formal framework provides a platform to discuss the potential efficacy of these various proposals. As we point out, though, such proposals may have unintended negative consequences.

2021 Speakers

December 6, 2021

Heidi Colleran 
BirthRites Max Planck Research Group
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig

There's no such thing as 'Natural fertility'

The idea of a naturalized state of human reproduction (‘natural fertility’) permeates evolutionary anthropology and demography, and is foundational for most population modelling. In this talk I’ll provide an overview and a critique of this approach. I’ll argue that natural fertility creates unnecessary ethical, theoretical and conceptual problems for evolutionary researchers. Putting pressure on this core assumption opens up new areas of research and builds collaborative links to socio-cultural anthropology. Drawing on a range of anthropological examples, I will argue that if we are to take cultural evolution seriously, there can be no such thing as natural fertility.

November 1, 2021

Hanna Kokko 
University of Zurich

Good reasons to live shorter lives

Lifespans vary to an astonishing degree. I will outline some theoretical as well as empirically oriented work in my lab: how lifespan might covary with plasticity and/or sociality, and also examine how unique phenological problems – such as that of Clunio marinus: how to time adult emergence with lowest low tides, using moon phases as a cue – will give rise to intriguing problems of coexistence between different timing morphs.

October 4, 2021

Jessica Riskin 
Department of History
Stanford University

Lamarck’s Giraffe, A Political History

This lecture addresses the political history of evolutionary theory, focusing upon the naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) and his science from his day through the 20th century. Such a history can revise established views not only of the development of evolutionary theory, and conceptions of living organisms, but also of science, what it is and isn’t, how it came to be this way, and how it might otherwise be. Lamarck’s ideas were foundational to modern biology. He coined the term “biology” in 1802, defining the science of life as a discrete field, and proposed the first theory of species-change, or what we now call evolution. Yet Lamarck’s theory languished in exile for over a century, between roughly the 1880’s and the 1990’s, when the Lamarckian possibility that organisms might transform themselves heritably began re-entering mainstream biology in areas such as epigenetics. The emblem of Lamarckism became the giraffe who, in stretching to reach high branches, lengthened its neck and forelegs by tiny yet heritable amounts; these incremental changes, Lamarck proposed, added together over many generations, produced the giraffe’s distinctive form. Lamarck’s giraffe embodied a mode of science featuring causal complexity, a diversity of agencies, and the interpretive nature of knowledge. Banishing the giraffe was crucial to establishing certain assumptions about living beings, evolution, biology, and the nature and authority of science that have persisted to the present.

September 13, 2021

Martin Daly 
Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behavior
McMaster University

What explains the immense variability in homicide rates across time and space?

Homicide rates vary by orders of magnitude. Why? One thing we know is that income inequality is the best available predictor of the variability at various spatial scales. Arguably, that’s because economic inequality is a major component and determinant of the intensity of competition among men, and most homicidal violence reflects male-male competition. When outcomes are equitable, there’s little to fight over, but when payoff variance is high, the appeal of escalated competitive tactics, including potentially dangerous tactics, rises.

Of course, other factors account for some of the variability, too, including the availability of dispassionate third-party justice, impunity (the likelihood that crimes will go unpunished), inequality between visible subgroups over and above that among individuals, an insecure future, and the perceived legitimacy of the governments that identify and punish crimes. These predictors of homicide are all related, more or less directly, to injustice and grievance, the relevance of which is underlined by the fact that many - perhaps most - killers see themselves as moral agents engaged in rectifying wrongs.

Criminologists have hitherto focused on trying to assess each predictor’s impact when the others are “controlled”, but further progress will require more complex models that incorporate time lags, feedback loops, mediating variables, and perhaps most importantly, a more serious effort to incorporate an understanding of human psychology than sociologists have yet been willing to countenance.

May 3, 2021

Gretchen Perry 
University of Canterbury

Why is nana a big deal? Evolutionary theory meets practice

Some researchers have described human beings as cooperative breeders, with non-parental caregivers playing important roles in child survival and wellbeing. One of the most important categories of non-parental caregivers is grandmothers. In this talk, I will explore theoretical reasons why grandmothers, particularly maternal grandmothers, may have evolved to become especially important alloparents. I will also consider the domains in which they seem to excel, and how we might use this information in practical ways when working with families. This has implications for people working with vulnerable families and children, including those in child protection, fosterage and adoption.

April 12, 2021

Willem E. Frankenhuis 
Department of Psychology
Utrecth University

Hidden talents in harsh conditions

It is well established that people living in adverse conditions tend to score lower on tests of social and cognitive functioning. However, recent studies show that people may also develop ‘hidden talents’, mental abilities that are enhanced through adversity. Our research sets out to document these abilities, their development, and their manifestations in different contexts. This talk presents a series of studies of ‘hidden talents’ conducted with socioeconomically diverse samples in the Netherlands and the United States.

March 8, 2021

Jim Sidanius
Department of Psychology
Harvard University

Social Dominance Theory and the Dynamics of Gendered Prejudice

Using Social Dominance and evolutionary theory as theoretical frameworks, we argue for a model entitled the Theory of Gendered Prejudice (TGP), which in broad terms, suggests that arbitrary-set discrimination must be understood as an inherently gendered phenomenon. Employing multiple methodologies, I argue that: 1) In general, males will display higher levels of xenophobia, discrimination, social predation, and social dominance orientation than will females, everything else being equal. 2) Males will tend to be both the primary perpetrators, and the primary victims of arbitrary-set discrimination. 3) The motives for outgroup discrimination are somewhat different for males and females.

February 1, 2021

Daniel Nettle 
Newcastle University

Seeing people in poverty as adaptive actors

We often see the decisions made by people living in poverty as problems to be fixed, or mistakes to be corrected. An alternative is to take seriously the idea that people in poverty are smart, adaptive individuals doing the best they can under the circumstances. This shifts the question from ‘what is wrong with them?’ to ‘what must be true about the circumstances that they are facing such that this ends up being their best strategy’? This change in perspective causes us to focus more on changing people’s circumstances – a collective and political endeavour – and less on changing or criticising their behaviour or mindset as individuals. I will review examples of this perspective from my own work on early childbearing, health behaviour and obesity. The work lies at the intersection of behavioural ecology and public health, and possibly brings out the jingle and jangle as the assumptions and goals of those different fields collide.

2020 Speaker

February 10, 2020

Pete Richerson
Department of Environmental Science and Policy
University of California, Davis

Why Humans Evolve in the Pleistocene and Our Complex Economies in the Holocene?

Human evolution presents two major macro-evolutionary puzzles. The first is why our basic adaptation evolved in the Pleistocene (2.6 million years ago until 10,700 years ago). The human big brain-culture-technology-large societies adaptive complex turned out to be a stunning success by the end of the Pleistocene. Other major adaptive breakthroughs like camera style eyes, internal skeletons, terrestrial locomotion, powered flight, and many others, evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. Why haven’t human like adaptations been common for a long time? The second is why the evolution of immense societies resting on sophisticated economies with intricate divisions of labor and extensive trade arose only in the last 10.7 millennia (the Holocene). Macro-evolutionary explanations come in two flavors, ones that appeal to processes internal to the evolutionary process and ones that appeal to exogenous environmental forces. In the case of human evolution, the main internal factor seems to be that we inherited largish brains, manipulative hands, and a high degree of sociality from our ape ancestors. At any rate, unlike many other major adaptations, no other lineage has (yet) converged on our adaptation. On the other hand, many other lineages have evolved somewhat larger brains in during the Pleistocene, indicating a common external factor. The climate of the Pleistocene was cold, dry, and highly variable. Some high-resolution core data suggest that variation on the scale of centuries and millennia increased in intensity as the Pleistocene unfolded. Theoretical models suggest that it is variation on this time scale that can support a costly capacity for culture (social learning) sufficiently sophisticated to lead to complex tools and complex, cooperative, social systems. Human brain size and cultural sophistication seem to have tracked the increasing millennial and submillennial scale variation, though data from more and longer high resolution paleoclimate and paleoecology data will test this conjecture more rigorously. Holocene climates have been comparatively low in millennial and sub-millennial scale variation as well as being warmer and wetter than glacial ones. This led to the evolution of a myriad locally specialized subsistence systems, a great many of which are based on plant and animal domesticates. Agriculture’s increase in production per unit land area led to higher population densities, which in turn favored a finer division of labor, larger scale trade, and more political complexity. Humans by now have come to be a major biogeochemical force on the global ecosystem, leading to an uncertain future despite our current spectacular success.

2019 Speakers

December 2, 2019

Ted Koditschek
Department of History
University of Missouri

The Coevolution of Nineteenth Century Evolutionary Theory and Racial Management Doctrines in the Nineteenth Century British Empire
This paper will consider the ways in which scientific theories of evolution in the nineteenth century were influenced by problems of racial management in the nineteenth century British Empire. Conversely, it will examine the ways in which new understandings about race and racial hierarchies during this period depended on the development of the evolutionary theories endorsed by science. In particular, I will argue that the peculiar mix of Darwinian and Lamarckian concepts of evolutionary development that prevailed in scientific circles during the period before Weismann were substantially underwritten by the need to justify imperial racial hierarchies. At the same time, these hierarchies (and the policies needed to sustain them) were legitimized by evolutionary theories that endorsed liberal notions of civilizational progress but (in the case of subordinated races) insisted on the necessity of postponing this liberalism, by projecting the prospect of racial equality onto a distant future time.


November 4, 2019

Greg Bryant
Department of Communication
University of California, Los Angeles

The Evolution of Human Laughter

Laughter is a ubiquitous nonverbal affective vocal signal that manifests itself universally across cultures. Human laughter is homologous with play vocalizations across mammalian species, and likely retains this conserved play function. But laughter in humans has unique features as well, suggesting a suite of species-specific communicative functions assimilated with language use and sophisticated social cognition. In this talk I will describe several lines of research from my lab over the last decade exploring the psychoacoustics of laughter, cross-cultural universals and variations in laughter perception, and the role of laughter in everyday conversation. Laughter provides a unique window into human vocal signaling and cooperative behavior, as well as an example of how ancestral communicative behaviors become integrated with later evolving systems.


October 14, 2019

Daniel Hruschka
School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Arizona State University

What does it mean to replicate studies in a cultural species?

Replicating a study among our fellow humans requires a researcher to interact with study participants according to protocols that are comparable with previous studies. However, thanks to humanity’s rich capacity for cultural learning, it can be challenging to identify what counts as a “comparable protocol” across different human groups. Specifically, diverse culturally learned capacities, motivations, symbolic connections, and expectations for appropriate social interactions can make some protocols impossible to implement directly across cultures while rendering the results of other “workable” protocols nearly impossible to interpret. I used examples from our work studying the social determinants of giving to illustrate: (1) the extent of this problem, and (2) how overcoming such challenges can tell us about our tacit models of how humans should think and behave. In this way, such efforts at translation are not just a methodological exercise, but can also inform our models of human psychological and behavioral diversity.


April 15, 2019

Kevin Zollmann
Department of Philosophy
Carnegie Mellon University

Signals without Teleology

"Signals" are a conceptual apparatus in many scientific disciplines. Biologists inquire about the evolution of signals, economists talk about the signaling function of purchases and prices, and philosophers discuss the conditions under which signals acquire meaning. However, little attention has been paid to what is a signal. This paper is an attempt to fill this gap with a definition of signal that avoids reference to form or purpose. Along the way we introduce novel notions of "information revealing" and "information concealing" moves in games. This distinction sheds new light on signaling, especially in biology. In the end, our account offers an alternative to teleological accounts of communication.


April 1, 2019

Carsten Strathausen
Department of English
University of Missouri

Sociobiology—The Future of the Humanities?

This talk traces the history of sociobiology from its beginnings in 1975 to its present state in emerging fields like Literary Darwinism and Cognitive Cultural Studies. Apart from a comprehensive critique of the promise and perils of sociobiology, I want to focus in particular on the methodological and conceptual changes necessary if sociobiology is to have a future in art, aesthetics, and the humanities overall.


March 18, 2019

Clark Barrett
Department of Anthropology
University of California, Los Angeles

What’s universal about human morality?

Anthropology and psychology have existed for well over a century, and philosophy much longer still. Sadly, however, these communities seem nowhere close to converging on any kind of agreement about the nature of “human nature,” or even if such a thing exists. Nowhere is this more true than in the domain of morality, which some feel is central to our humanness. Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in the empirical study of human morality, which has begun to show--yet again-- substantial cross-cultural diversity in moral judgments. Still, it seems unlikely that humans could be both the “moral animal” and also completely blank-slate with respect to that morality. Here I consider universality and variation in one particular aspect of human moral judgment: the importance of an actor’s mental states, such as her intentions and motivations, for the moral assessment of her actions. Recent work has shown that mental states are important for moral judgment across human societies, but not always to the same degree and in the same ways. Interestingly, this variation does not appear to depend on peoples’ ability to make mental state judgments, which is relatively well-developed in most human adults. Instead, it seems to have to do with norms or principles of how these enter into moral evaluation, which vary across cultures and contexts. I will summarize recent cross-cultural work in this domain and consider its implications for the search for universals of human moral psychology.


March 11, 2019

Erik Peterson
Department of History
The University of Alabama

Darwin, Wallace, and racist birth of anthropology

The origins and development of human race preoccupied Charles Darwin. His insistence that all human groups shared a relatively recent common ancestor put him out of step with many of his scientific peers. Soon after the publication of Origin of Species, Darwin found himself involved in a controversy regarding the relative value of different human racial groups. Darwin’s side, the “Ethnologicals,” argued that variation was subordinate to the deep similarities between races. A younger, more outspoken group of “Anthropologicals” dismissed the Ethnologicals as too conservative. They argued that each human group had an independent origin and that Europeans were the most advanced race. Alfred Russel Wallace attempted to heal the rift between these two sides, but his resolution bothered Darwin. Darwin’s frustration over the birth of anthropology led in part to Darwin’s Descent of Man.


March 4, 2019

Charles Roseman
School of Integrative Biology
University of Illinois

The Morphology of Mind: Reconciling Evolutionary Psychology and Evolutionary Genetics
Evolutionary psychology, evolutionary developmental biology, and evolutionary genetics use an overlapping set of concepts to explain the origins and diversification of different aspects of organisms. The notion that constellations of traits can be quasi-independent, or modular, is fundamental to all these ways of understanding the living world. Using examples drawn from the study of morphology and animal behavior, I evaluate evolutionary psychological claims about the number of modules that make up our cognitive faculties and the mode and tempo of their evolution. While many of its assumptions are untenable, evolutionary psychology is correct in that some degree of modularity is required for the evolution of complex features such as cognition. I then sketch an outline of another approach to understanding the special case of human evolution that rescues a version of the modularity concept and includes evolutionary processes beyond natural selection.


February 25, 2019

Robbie Burger
Biology & Evolutionary Anthropology
Duke University

The allometry of brain size, pace-of-life, and the rise of hyper-dense cities

Metabolic scaling provides a quantitative framework to link theory and data in order to understand the general constraints on life. These general ‘laws’ in mammals provide a useful benchmark to understand and compare human uniqueness. First, I will present new research towards a metabolic theory of life history and its implications for understanding tradeoffs in brain size and pace-of-life across the diversity of mammals. Second, I will show recent research extending metabolic scaling theory to understand modern human energetics, cultural evolution, and ecological predicament.


February 4, 2019

Simine Vazire
Department of Psychology
University of California, Davis

The Credibility Revolution in Psychology

A fundamental part of the scientific enterprise is for each field to engage in critical self-examination to detect errors in our theories and methods and improve them. In this talk, I discuss how well psychology, as a science, has been living up to this ideal, and what principles should guide our efforts to improve our science.

2018 Speakers

December 3, 2018

Michael Roberts
Biological Sciences
University of Missouri

The evolution of the human placenta: not quite up there with the sheep or the horse

A still apt definition of a placenta is that it is an organ resulting from the apposition or fusion of the fetal membranes to the uterine mucosa, thereby allowing viviparity and exchange of solutes, gases and other molecules, e.g. hormones, between the maternal system and the developing offspring. By this definition, placentas have evolved within every vertebrate class other than birds. They have also emerged on multiple occasions, often within quite narrow taxonomic groups and over short periods of evolutionary time. As the placenta and the maternal system have evolved to associate more intimately, as in mammals, such that the conceptus comes to rely extensively on maternal support, the relationship leads to increased genetic conflict that drives adaptive changes on both sides. The story of vertebrate placentation, therefore, is one of convergent evolution at both the macro- and molecular levels. In this talk, I shall first describe the emergence of placental-like structures in nonmammalian vertebrates. I shall then attempt to explain the diversification of placentation encountered in mammals where, among extant species, a bewildering range of structures is encountered. I’ll emphasize the success of non-invasive placental types as encountered in horses, pigs, and domestic ruminant species in providing young born in a relatively mature and independent state. I close the review by discussing mechanisms that might have favored diversity and hence evolution of the morphology and physiology of the placentas of eutherian mammals.


November 5, 2018

Johannes Schul
Biological Sciences
University of Missouri

Insect Acoustic Communication as model for trait evolution in rapidly changing environments


October 15, 2018

Virpi Lummaa
Department of Biology
University of Turku

Why and how we grow old: cooperation and conflict in human families

With mid-life menopause, women show a radical de-coupling of senescence in reproductive and somatic systems, leading to up to half of total lifespan spent post-reproductive. By contrast, men maintain reproductive ability until much later ages. Although men thus sire offspring at older ages than women, in nearly all contemporary human populations women outlive men by on average of five years. While proximate causes for such fertility and lifespan differences between the sexes are well-known, our understanding of the underlying evolutionary forces for why and how we grow old is much more limited. My research focuses on ageing, lifespan and natural selection in contemporary human societies, using historical church records in an innovative way to look at evolutionary, ecological and demographic factors influencing birth and death rates in both men and women during the past 300 years. In this talk I address different evolutionary hypothesis for the benefits of menopause and postreproductive longevity in women; assess whether selection on overall lifespan differs between the sexes; and reveal both cooperation and conflict between family members over the lifecourse of individuals. Understanding sex differences in rates of senescence in reproduction and survival, both key life-history traits, provides insights into how differing selection pressures can mould rates of senescence and ultimate longevity in our species. I hope to illustrate that although evolutionary studies on contemporary human populations suffer from many limitations, some of the data available on humans offer interesting research opportunities also for evolutionary biologists with potential implications for studies on demography, public health or anthropology.


October 1, 2018

Carlos Botero
Department of Biology
Washington University in St. Louis

Ecological and evolutionary modeling shed light into the evolution and spread of human agriculture

The human species has existed for at least 100K years, mostly as a hunter-gatherer. However, around 12 KYA, a few societies in different parts of the world suddenly developed agriculture forever altering our ecology and way of life. Why did this transformative innovation originate in those specific places and around roughly the same time? How did it manage to spread so quickly throughout the world to become our predominant form of subsistence? For decades, these fundamental questions have eluded definitive answers partly because of the highly fragmentary nature of the archeological record. While careful scholarship and attention to detail have provided various plausible alternative hypotheses, quantitative analyses that investigate the relative weight of evidence supporting these ideas tend to be lacking. My talk will cover the various ways in which my collaborators and I have taken advantage of recent advances in cultural phylogenetics, computational biology, and evolution to begin filling these important gaps. Specifically, I will discuss how we (1) hind casted the population dynamics of hunter-gatherers to evaluate whether agriculture most likely originated in times of need or in times of surplus; (2) used climate niche modeling to evaluate whether the 11 to 19 areas of origin were somehow different than other places concurrently inhabited by humans; (3) investigated the ways in which switches in subsistence strategy altered the tempo and mode of evolution of the environmental tolerances of our ancestors; and (4) used machine leaning to evaluate whether the rapid spread of agriculture was most likely enabled by war, cultural diffusion (i.e., sharing), or both.


September 17, 2018

Paul Smaldino
Cognitive and Information Systems
University of California, Merced

The Natural Selection of Bad Science

Science is an enterprise that uses rationality and investigation to build increasingly accurate models of the natural world. Practitioners of science have a vast toolkit of investigatory and analytic methods at their disposal—a toolkit that changes over time. Are there discernible patterns in the adoption of methods over time? Empirical science can in many cases be thought of as a problem of signal detection for facts, in which the challenge is to accurately detect a true signal among potential noise. If scientists are incentivized only or primarily by the quest for truth, then any methodological improvement to signal strength should be adopted, provided any associated costs are manageable. Instead, scientists are often rewarded for the acquisition of tokens, such as publication count or journal impact factor. If methodological strategies that maximize token counts are misaligned with those that increase signal strength, the probability that scientific results reflect reality will fall. I will present empirical evidence and the results of formal modeling to support this conclusion and suggest that many current incentive structures in professional science organization are detrimental to the ultimate aims of scientific research. I will conclude with some thoughts on how organizations can act to improve the quality of science research.


April 16, 2018

Marcus Hamilton
Department of Anthropology
University of Missouri

The global distribution of biological and cultural diversity


April 2, 2018

Katherine Amato
Department of Anthropology
Northwestern University

Microbial pieces of a macro puzzle: Using the gut microbiome to examine questions regarding human physiology and health


March 19, 2018

Robert Richards
Department of History of Science and Philosophy
University of Chicago

Darwin's Moral Theory


March 12, 2018

Tim Waring
School of Economics
University of Maine

The Evolution of Cooperation in Food Buying Clubs


February 19, 2018

Lynn Chiu
Immuno Concept Lab
University of Bordeaux

What's in a name? Ontological and epistemic dimensions of the Holobiont


February 5, 2018

Eduoard Machery
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
University of Pittsburgh

Religion and the Scope of the Moral Domain

2017 Speakers

December 4, 2017

Elizabeth King
Biological Sciences
University of Missouri

How to get the most bang for your buck: the evolution and physiology of nutrition-dependent resource allocation strategies

The amount of resources available to organisms, whether the source is sunlight, plant matter, or prey animals, is inherently variable over the landscape and across time. This variability presents a fundamental challenge to all organisms, from the smallest microorganisms to the largest plants and animals, all of which must coordinate the acquisition of resources from the environment with allocation of those resources among the many competing functions and structures that contribute to the organisms' fitness. I will discuss how I’ve used insect model systems to better understand both what conditions select for different allocation strategies and what the underlying mechanisms of those strategies are.


November 6, 2017

Chris Stephens
Department of Philosophy
University of British Columbia

The evolution of rationality

Many philosophers have thought it obvious that reason evolved to help individuals make better inferences and draw more accurate conclusions about the world. However, humans seem in many ways quite irrational---we have trouble with logical reasoning in the Wason selection task, and are subject to all kinds of cognitive biases. Psychologists such as Gigerenzer argue that we use “fast and frugal” heuristics that are often better than more complex reasoning strategies - even when the goal is truth. Recently, the cognitive scientists Mercier and Sperber argue that the evolutionary function of reason is primarily social; rather than evolving to get at the truth, our reasoning capacities have evolved to produce reasons for justifying oneself and to produce arguments to convince others. Here I develop a framework to analyze the evolutionary aspects of their arguments.


October 16, 2017

Peter Todd
Department of Cognitive Science, Psychology, and Informatics
Indiana University

How people forage in social and cultural spaces

How do we decide when to search for something better and when to stick with what we’ve got? People and other organisms must adaptively trade off between exploring and exploiting their environment to obtain the resources they need. This applies to whatever space they are searching: whether the external spatial environment, looking for patches of food; the social environment, looking for mates or friends; or the cultural artefact environment, looking for goods or entertainment. Similar evolved underlying mechanisms may be used to address the explore/exploit tradeoff in each domain. We have been studying whether people use related heuristic strategies to decide when to keep looking and when to stay with a current resource patch in physical space (e.g., searching for fish in ponds) and in cultural space (e.g., searching for music to listen to), as predicted by optimal foraging theory. In this talk, I will describe how we are uncovering connections between spatial search and cognitive search in other spaces.


October 2, 2017

Aimee Dunlap
Department of Biology
University of Missouri-St. Louis

Change and reliability in the evolution of animal information use: experiments with flies and bees

Animals must deal with uncertainty in a changing world and learning allows animals to reduce this uncertainty through acquiring information and tracking change. Though theory suggests that the adaptive function of learning and cognition is closely tied to patterns of change in the environment, empirical evidence has traditionally been lacking. By partitioning change into different components and manipulating their statistical properties, we can predict when and what kind of learning should evolve, which cues or signals animals should attend to, and when innate bias should evolve instead of learning. Both learning and innate bias should interact to influence how animals track changing environments, across evolutionary time and also within individual lifetimes. I will describe two experimental systems testing these predictions: experimental evolution using fruit flies and decision making in foraging bumble bees.


September 18, 2017

Robert Boyd
School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Arizona State University

Beyond Kith and Kin: Culture, Norms and human cooperation

Humans are a highly cooperative species. People in the simplest foraging societies depend on specialization and exchange and cooperate to produce essential public goods. There are many other highly cooperative species, but in every case cooperation in these species is based on kinship. Humans are different because we cooperate with unrelated individuals, sometimes in large groups. Many evolutionary thinkers believe that human cooperation is based on reciprocity. In this talk I will argue that reciprocity cannot explain human cooperation. Instead, human cooperation is regulated by culturally transmitted moral norms, and that rapid cultural adaptation is necessary for the evolution of such norms.


May 1, 2017

Sarah Mathew
School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Arizona State University

Conflict and Cooperation In A Pastoral Society Shows That Cultural Transmission Enabled The Evolution Of Human Prosociality

Unlike other animals, humans cooperate extensively in large groups comprised of genetically unrelated individuals. This unique form of cooperation could have evolved through cultural group selection, i.e. selection among populations having different culturally transmitted norms. I will present findings from the Turkana, a politically uncentralized population of pastoralists in Kenya which indicate that: 1) the Turkana maintain costly large-scale cooperation in warfare through peer sanctioning of free riders; 2) Turkana norms regulating punishment help solve the second-order free rider problem and promote group-beneficial punitive behavior; and 3) Turkana norms regulating helping and harming benefit the cultural group, not smaller or larger social units. The nature and scale of cooperation and conflict is consistent with selection acting on the level of cultural groups, suggesting that cultural group selection has played a key role in the evolution of human cooperation.


April 17, 2017

Siobhán Mattison
Department of Anthropology
University of New Mexico

How central are males to human family systems?

Matriliny is a rare but recurrent system of kinship organization in both human and non-human animals. Problematized in humans for the tensions it creates for men, matriliny may also provide certain benefits to men who take on relatively few household responsibilities. In this talk, I use data drawn from my studies of the Mosuo of Southwest China – the world’s only society to practice both patrilineal and matrilineal kinship as distinct modes of inheritance and descent – to muse about the possible costs and benefits of matrilineal kinship to men and women. I use evidence of daughter preference and daughter-biased investments to inform debates about social and ecological drivers of matrilineal kinship systems. Next, I introduce a new model that explores the effects of subsistence and the value of men’s labor on post-marital residence, showing that the shape of the return function affects whether men expend labor in their natal or spousal households. Finally, I extend this to develop a verbal hypothesis of female-centered kinship, which I call the “expendable male hypothesis”.


April 3, 2017

Armin Schulz
Department of Philosophy
University of Kansas

The Evolution of Economic Decision Making: Insights and Open Questions

In my research, I am interested in finding out more about (a) how and when evolutionary biological considerations can be useful for illuminating questions in other sciences (such as psychology, social science, and philosophy), and (b) how and when considerations from other sciences can be useful for illuminating questions in evolutionary biology.


March 20, 2017

Rebecca Grollemund
Department of English
University of Missouri

Migrations in Sub-Saharan Africa: A new phylogenetic classification of Niger-Congo languages

The Niger-Congo family constitutes the largest African language family in terms of geographical area (the Niger-Congo languages cover the greater part of Sub-Saharan Africa), the number of speakers (more than 300 million speakers) and the number of distinct languages (approximately 1400 languages spoken). However, no comprehensive phylogeny has yet been established for the phylum using modern phylogenetic statistical methods. The main objective of this study is to propose the first phylogenetic classification of the Niger-Congo languages but also to understand the Niger-Congo expansion: what were their migratory routes? What triggered the Niger-Congo expansion? Was the Niger-Congo expansion linked to agriculture?


March 6, 2017

William Brock
Economics Department
University of Wisconsin, Madison

Fold, Flip, and Flutter: Early Warnings of Impending Bifurcations for Dynamics in the Sciences


February 20, 2017

David Geary
Psychological Sciences
University of Missouri

Evolution of Vulnerability

A framework for the a priori prediction of sex-, age-, and trait-specific vulnerabilities is proposed. At its foundation is the efficiency of mitochondrial energy capture and control of oxidative stress and the key idea is that more complex traits are more vulnerable to stressors because they require more energy to build, maintain, and express. Traits that support competition for reproductive resources or that influence mate choices are generally more complex than other traits. They are fully developed and expressed under favorable conditions but under less favorable conditions they are more severely compromised than are other traits. The utility of the framework will be illustrated for nonhuman species and then for trait- and age-specific vulnerabilities in boys’ and girls’ physical development, and boys’ and men’s and girls’ and women’s social-cognitive and spatial abilities, as well as men’s emotional composure under stress. The approach helps to organize what is known about deficits associated with stressor exposure and provides clear implications for future research and risk assessment.


February 6, 2017

Terrance Deacon
Department of Anthropology
University of California

Berkeley Hierarchic evolutionary transitions in biology and society