Neuroscience, evolution, and culture

Tag Archives: cultural evolution

New paper: Dog movie stars and dog breed popularity

Our latest paper on the cultural evolution of preferences for dog breeds came out yesterday in PLOS ONE. The message is simple: dog breeds that are featured in successful movies (Lassie come home, 101 Dalmatians, and many others) tend to increase in popularity, sometimes for many years after movie release. This influence was quite strong until, approximately, the 1970s, but has declined since—probably because cinema no longer dominates the media as it used to. You find a nice writeup with more details on co-authors Hal Herzog’s Psychology Today column and Alberto Acerbi’s blog. Some press coverage is here:

What makes a dog breed popular?

Some time ago I wrote about fashions in dog breeds, pointing out the wild fluctuations in popularity in many breeds. Why do these occur? Owning a dog is a serious commitment in terms of time and money, and it would seem natural to try to acquire a dog that is healthy and with a good temperament. I set to find out whether this is actually the case with my colleagues Alberto Acerbi, Hal Herzog, and James Serpell.

In our new paper Fashion vs. Function in Cultural Evolution: The Case of Dog Breed Popularity, we show that, surprisingly, people do not prefer breeds that are better behaved or healthier. On the contrary, the most popular breeds are the most unhealthy, with a host of genetic defects that are at least partly related to intense selection to adhere to quirky breed standards, and possibly with more behavioral problems such as fear of other dogs, aggressiveness, or separation anxiety. We obtained these results crossing data from the C-BARQ database of dog behavior created by James (the actual data used in our analysis are here), data about dog registrations provided by the American Kennel Club to Hal Herzog (available here), and previously published health data (references 14-17 in the paper).

Thus many people (at least those interested in breed dogs) prefer to acquire a dog that is socially recognized to meet a certain “standard” than a healthy and well behaved dog. If you are unfamiliar with breed standards, I can tell you that they are quite exacting, and to many may appear just pointless. Here is, for example, what the nose of a bulldog is supposed to look like:

The nose should be large, broad and black, its tip set back deeply between the eyes. The distance from bottom of stop, between the eyes, to the tip of nose should be as short as possible and not exceed the length from the tip of nose to the edge of underlip. The nostrils should be wide, large and black, with a well-defined line between them. Any nose other than black is objectionable and a brown or liver-colored nose shall disqualify.

(From the AKC web site)

Note: “disqualify” means that the dog should not be considered a “true bulldog.”

The age of human cultural capacity

Venus of SchelklingenWhen did humans evolve, to its full extent, the capacity to create complex culture? We consider this question in a paper appearing in the May 7th issue of Scientific ReportsHere is a quick summary.

Human cultural capacity has been traditionally dated to about 30-40 thousands of years ago, based on an impressive cultural explosion in Europe around that time, leaving us such evidence as sophisticated stone tools and plenty of “art” (objects without any clear practical use), like the figurine depicted to the right, the lion man, and striking cave paintings.

There is a problem, though. If cultural capacity evolved in Europe 30-40 thousand years ago, how did all the human groups that where living outside Europe get it? We have no evidence of genetic flow from Europe to the rest of the world, through which the genes responsible for cultural capacity could have spread. It appears that humans must have had the capacity to create complex culture before they fragmented geographically over a large area. This conclusion, however, appears equally problematic because the first split between human populations is currently dated at about 170,000 years ago. Thus humans would have had the capacity for complex culture for more than 100,000 years before complex culture actually appeared. Although this appears unreasonable, we argue that things actually went this way.

First, we note that archaeologists have unearthed stone tools of complexity comparable to that of the European cultural explosion, but much older (more than 200,000 years old). We also note that other indicators of behavioral modernity appeared earlier than 170,000 years ago, such as genes believed to be important for language and the morphology of the speech apparatus.

Second, we summarize recent work in cultural evolutionary theory showing that cultural evolution is, in its initial stages, exceedingly slow. The reason is essentially that culture is a cumulative process: Complex culture can be created only by building on already existing culture. Thus in the initial stages of cultural evolution there was not enough raw material to be elaborated upon, and the creation of culture was slow. Additionally, human groups were at this time small and scattered over a large area, hence it is likely that cultural elements have been invented many times but disappeared (we make a couple of examples in the paper).

The bottom line is that there is no evidence inconsistent with an early origin of cultural capacity, and current understanding of cultural evolution shows that a long gap between the genetic evolution of the capacity and the actual invention is, in fact, quite expected.

And, we suggest in the paper, Neanderthals may have had the same cultural capacity as ourselves.

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!