Neuroscience, evolution, and culture

Category Archives: Science

New paper: `Aesop’s fable’ experiments demonstrate trial-and-error learning in birds, but no causal understanding

Well, it seems I have not written here since two years ago! It has been a busy and exciting period, largely occupied by a book project that is looking at cognitive differences between humans and other animals. One of the by-products of this project is the title paper, a meta-analysis effort in collaboration with Johan Lind. In this paper, we offer a critical look at recent claims that birds, and in particular corvids, can “understand” properties of the physical world such as “light objects float, heavy objects sink,” and are able to use such knowledge to solve new problems. The performance of these birds in some tasks has been compared to that of 5-7 year old children.

The best way to understand the puzzles presented to the crows is to watch this video, from Jelbert et al. (2014) :


From the video, the performance of New Caledonian crows appears impressive. The results of our meta-analysis, however, are not supportive of the original claims. In summary, it seems that crows learn the correct behavior by trial-and-error as they perform the task. In almost all tasks, the birds start choosing one of the two options at chance, and only gradually they switch to the more functional option. The video shows the final stage of learning, rather than the initial random behavior.

We also compared the crow data with data from children, and we found clear differences. While younger children do not do well on most tasks, children aged 6 and older perform much, much better than birds, despite having received much less training.

There are one or two examples of tasks in which birds do well from the very beginning, as well as some tasks in which birds do not learn at all. In our paper, we argue that both occurrences can be understood based on established knowledge of animal learning, and especially associative learning.

The full article has appeared in Animal Behaviour.



Videos and slides for Understanding Human Cognitive Uniqueness

I am starting to post videos and slides from Understanding Human Cognitive Uniqueness on the conference page. They will be uploaded as they get ready.

The videos have been recorded and edited by Malene Schjoenning.

Talking about yourself feels better if others are listening: Why?

Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell of the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at Harvard have just published a paper showing that people find it rewarding to talk about themselves, especially if others are listening (summarized here). Although, put it that way, you may or may not find the result  astonishing, it touches upon an important issue in our understanding of ourselves: the difference between proximate and ultimate causes. Konrad Lorenz explained this difference in the fewest words when he said: the ultimate cause of a car is to travel, the proximate cause is the engine. That is, the ultimate cause is the function, and the proximate is the mechanism that achieves it.

Tamir and Mitchell show that brain areas that respond to reward (food, sex, money, etc.) are also activated when answering questions about oneself, more than when answering questions about Barack Obama (chosen perhaps for his interesting opinions, perhaps because he is familiar to everyone) or about dry facts. And knowing that a friend or relative would read your answer activated the reward areas even more. This, they argue, is the proximate cause of our obsession with talking about ourselves: it activates the reward areas of our brain.

The authors have been careful in validating their results conducting not one, but four distinct experiments. I will just mention that the participants were sure to know the answer to questions about themselves, but not to the other questions. So the reward they felt could reflect the anticipation of knowing the answer rather than the self-referential aspect of the question (we know the same brain areas respond to anticipated reward). After all, we are rewarded all our lives for knowing the answer to questions. But this is not my main point.

My main point is about the ultimate reason why we feel rewarding to talk to others (especially if they listen). In genetic evolution the only ultimate cause is natural selection. Things happen because they make organisms survive and reproduce. It is not hard to imagine potential benefits of sharing your thoughts with others: exchanging knowledge, strengthening social bonds, and so on. But human behavior has another ultimate cause: cultural evolution. What drives cultural evolution is imperfectly understood, but one way to think about it is to ask what are the `magical ingredients’ that make ideas popular. One such ingredient is, rather obviously, that the idea should be able to spread. Other things being equal, ideas that spread faster, convincing person after person to adopt them, will become more popular than slow-spreading ideas. And what is the best way to spread ideas? To talk about them! If you like talking to others about your ideas, these will have a good chance of spreading, and among the ideas you spread there will be those that make you like talking to others. Simplifying a bit, if you think `talking to others is cool,’ then you will say, among other things, `talking to others is cool,’ and others may be convinced of it and start talking to others, furthering the spread of the `talking to others is cool’ idea. If this sounds like a tongue twister, it is because cultural evolution is full of self-referential loops in the dynamics of ideas (one example, and another).

Thus we may like to talk about ourselves because of the dynamics of ideas, rather than because this tendency has been built into us by genetic evolution. Can we distinguish between the two hypotheses? Not yet, I believe, and the main reason is that neither evolutionary psychology nor cultural evolutionary theory (I don’t even have a Wikipedia link for that, but you can look here) have formulated precise predictions about how and when ideas should or should not be shared. But adapting Tamir and Mitchell’s experimental setup to test such hypotheses should be easy. So come on, theoreticians, give us a hypothesis to test!

If baboons can read, can pigeons, too?

“Can pigeons read?” is the question asked at the beginning of this old video, aimed at illustrating techniques to teach animals complex discriminations by rewarding them for correct choices but not for incorrect ones.

These techniques, developed around 1930, have been used in a study teaching baboons to recognize English words from non-words. Soberly entitled “Orthographic processing in baboons,” the study has been often headlined “Baboons can read,” even by the very journal who published it. My colleague Johan Lind was delighted to hear the news: “If they can read, then I can write to them and ask about animal intelligence.” Unfortunately, the only thing the baboons would be able to tell Johan is which combinations of letters are more likely to appear in English words, which is what they learned by receiving food anytime they correctly identified four-letter sequences as an English word or a non-word.

The study actually demonstrates that you do not need to know language to tell words from non-words. All languages have a statistical signature, whereby some combinations of sounds (and, therefore, letters) are common, and others are rare. Baboons are smart enough, and see well enough, to learn this. I would not be surprised if pigeons could do it too, given that they can, for example, discriminate paintings by different artists, presumably learning something about the artists’ “visual grammar.” Pigeons can also associate different written words with different actions, as the video above shows. All this suggests that the evolutionary origin of our ability to read is even more ancient than “reading” baboons suggest, pigeons being separated from humans by some 150 million years of independent evolution. Analyzing the structure of visual stimuli is a natural task for many animals, and I do not think the key to understanding human uniqueness lies here.

Understanding Human Uniqueness Flyer

We have prepared a flyer to advertise the Conference on Human Cognitive Uniqueness that will take place at Brooklyn College on May 29-30. Feel free to use it to advertise the Conference yourself!

The Logic of Fashion Cycles

As announced a few weeks ago, our paper “The Logic of Fashion Cycles” has been published, and is freely available on the PLoS ONE website. You can find a good summary at The National Post.

New paper: The logic of fashion cycles

Plos ONE has accepted our paper “The logic of fashion cycles,” where Alberto Acerbi, Magnus Enquist and myself present a new theoretical model to understand fashion cycles (see my previous post on dog breeds). You can download a preprint, and here is the abstract:

Many cultural traits exhibit volatile dynamics, commonly dubbed fashions or fads. Here we show that realistic fashion-like dynamics emerge spontaneously if individuals can copy others’ preferences for cultural traits as well as traits themselves. We demonstrate this dynamics in simple mathematical models of the diffusion, and subsequent abandonment, of a single cultural trait which individuals may or may not prefer. We then simulate the coevolution between many cultural traits and the associated preferences, reproducing power-law frequency distributions of cultural traits (most traits are adopted by few individuals for a short time, and very few by many for a long time), as well as correlations between the rate of increase and the rate of decrease of traits (traits that increase rapidly in popularity are also abandoned quickly and vice-versa). We also establish that alternative theories, that fashions result from individuals signaling their social status, or from individuals randomly copying each other, do not satisfactorily reproduce these empirical observations.

Fashions in dog breeds

I have recently attended a one-day course on data visualization with Edward Tufte and I have tried to put his advice on virtual paper in this supergraphic on the popularity of dog breeds, using AKC data (courtesy of Hal Herzog). The graph shows the popularity of 100 breeds over time (most popular breeds first), indicating the maximum in popularity and other peaks (if any). I have produced this graph as an inspiration for my ongoing work on cultural dynamics (some features are idiosyncratic to the data analyses I am making). Here are a few things I see in the graph:

  • Many breeds have had a clear peak of popularity, after which their diffusion declined to low values. This applies especially, but not only, to breeds used purely as pets – such as the all-time favorite, the poodle.
  • The faster a breed rises in popularity, the faster it goes back to its pre-spike level (this is not only a visual impression, it can be put on strong statistical grounds). A similar phenomenon has been observed for first names.

What else can you see? And how to explain it? In am working, with Alberto Acerbi and Magnus Enquist on an explanation of fashion cycles based on the cultural dynamics of preferences, as foreshadowed in our previous work on how social learning influences openness to new information. The paper is now under review at Plos ONE.

Video: Pete Richerson, How Possibly Language Evolved

Part of the Cultural Evolution Seminar Series at Brooklyn College

(Download video, 620 MB)

Abstract: Human language has no close parallels in other systems of animal communication. Yet it is an important part of the cultural adaptation that serves to make humans an exceedingly successful species. Evolutionary scholars have have converged on the idea that the cultural and innate aspects of language were tightly linked in a process of gene-culture coevolution. They differ widely about the details of the process, particularly over the division of labor between genes and culture in the coevolutionary process. Why is language restricted to humans given that communication seems to be so useful? A plausible answer is that language is part of human cooperation. Why did the coevolutionary process come to rest leaving impressive cultural diversity in human languages? A plausible answer is that language diversity functions to limit communication between people who cannot freely trust one another or where even truthful communications from others would result in maladaptive behavior on the part of listeners.

Pete Richerson‘s primary research for many years has focused on the phenomena of cultural transmission of information and the evolutionary phenomena that derive from cultural transmission. He has been especially interested in the trade-offs involved in using other people as a source of information. Even if we imagine that the cultural system of humans has been adaptively optimized by natural selection, maladaptive cultural variants can still evolve. People cannot take advantage of normally adaptive rules like “imitate the successful” without incurring the risk that the appearance of success is a sham behind which lurks a culturally transmissible pathology. Prof. Richerson has investigated such processes with mathematical models, laboratory experiments, and most recently field investigations.

Video: Alex Mesoudi, The Experimental Study of Human Cultural Evolution

Part of the Cultural Evolution Seminar Series at Brooklyn College

(Download video, 580 MB)

Abstract: A growing body of theory has begun to analyse human culture – the body of beliefs, skills, knowledge, customs, attitudes and norms that is transmitted from individual to individual via social learning – as a Darwinian evolutionary process. Just as the biological evolution of species can be characterised as a Darwinian process of variation, selection and inheritance, so too culture exhibits these basic Darwinian properties. I will present the results of a series of experiments that have simulated cultural evolution in the lab using methods from social psychology. One set of studies using the “transmission chain method” have identified a bias in cultural evolution for information concerning social interactions over non-social interactions, as predicted by the “social brain” theory of human intelligence. Another set of studies have simulated the cultural evolution of prehistoric arrowhead designs, testing hypotheses that different patterns of arrowhead variation are caused by different ways in which arrowhead designs were transmitted between prehistoric hunter-gatherers.

Alex Mesoudi is Reader of Psychology at Queen Mary College, University of London. He is a psychologist who studies cultural evolution as a Darwinian evolutionary process, similar in key respects to the evolution of biological species. Culture can consequently be studied using similar methods, concepts and tools that biologists use to study biological (gene-based) evolution. My own research uses a combination of laboratory experiments and theoretical models to simulate the processes of cultural evolution, with the aim of identifying the small-scale, individual-level cultural  processes that generate the patterns and trends that are observed in human culture.