Tag Archives: evolutionary-psychology

The Minds of Dogs and How Pointing Evolved

Recent research suggests that domestic dogs seem capable of displaying a rudimentary “theory of mind” — a very human characteristic whereby you are able to attribute mental states to others that do not necessarily coincide with your own (in a nutshell). Stray domestic dogs, meanwhile, do not display this trait, suggesting that such mental attributes are developed through close contact with humans. That’s interesting, but not the main reason I’m sharing this information with you.

This cognitive difference between stray domestic dogs and their housebound brethren was uncovered by testing whether or not they understood the very human action of pointing (y’know, with your index finger). What struck me most in this discussion was this brief theory of how the action of pointing evolved:

Go ahead, let your wrist go limp and look at your hand from the side, or if you’re too insecure in your own sexuality, just picture Adam’s limp wrist at the moment of creation in Michelangelo’s masterpiece on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. See how even in this relaxed state the index finger is slightly extended? By contrast, when chimps do this […] their index finger falls naturally in line with their other fingers. Povinelli and Davis reason that this subtle evolutionary change in the morphology of our hands, which occurred after humans and chimpanzees last shared a common ancestor five million to seven million years ago, is at least partially responsible for the fact that human pointing with the index finger is so culturally ubiquitous today.

The argument goes something like this. When young infants begin reaching for objects just out of their range, adults are most likely to respond to those reaching attempts and to retrieve the item for the baby when the latter’s index finger is more prominently extended. That is to say, initially, the adult mistakenly reads into the child’s reaching attempt as a communicative gesture on the part of the child. Over time, this dynamic between the child and adult serves to further “pull out” the index finger because the child implicitly learns the behavioral association, so that it slowly becomes a genuine pointing gesture.

An Evolutionary Hierarchy of Needs

Parts of Abraham Maslow‘s famous 1940s hierarchy of needs are outdated and thought of as quaint by the scientific community, according to a team who have revised the hierarchy to take into consideration scientific findings from the last 60+ years.

Maslow’s pyramid is used to represent the hierarchy of basic human motivations, from basic physical needs up to self-actualisation. Now, addressing many of the criticisms of the original, the updated hierarchy of needs (which isn’t really a hierarchy at all) places evolutionary motivations toward the top:

The revamp of Maslow’s pyramid reflects new findings and theory from fields like neuroscience, developmental psychology and evolutionary psychology […]

The research team […] restructured the famous pyramid after observing how psychological processes radically change in response to evolutionarily fundamental motives, such as self-protection, mating or status concerns.

The bottom four levels of the new pyramid are highly compatible with Maslow’s, but big changes are at the top. Perhaps the most controversial modification is that self-actualization no longer appears on the pyramid at all. At the top of the new pyramid are three evolutionarily critical motives that Maslow overlooked — mate acquisition, mate retention and parenting.

The researchers state in the article that while self-actualization is interesting and important, it isn’t an evolutionarily fundamental need. Instead, many of the activities that Maslow labeled as self-actualizing (artistic creativity, for example) reflect more biologically basic drives to gain status, which in turn serves the goal of attracting mates. […]

For humans reproduction is not just about sex and producing children. It’s also about raising those children to the age at which they can reproduce as well. Consequently, parenting sits atop the revamped pyramid.

There are other distinctions as well. For Maslow, once a need was met, it disappeared as the individual moved on to the next level. In the reworked pyramid, needs overlap one another and coexist, instead of completely replacing each other. For example, certain environmental cues can make them come back. If you are walking down the street thinking about love, art or the meaning of life, you will revert quickly to the self-protection level if you see an ominous-looking gang of young men headed your way.

via @sandygautam

Evolutionary Theory of Fiction

The age of “politically charged” analyses of literature has passed and the latest phase is that of analysing fiction through the lens of evolutionary psychology, looking at how the brain processes literature.

Humans can comfortably keep track of three different mental states at a time, Ms. Zunshine said. For example, the proposition “Peter said that Paul believed that Mary liked chocolate” is not too hard to follow. Add a fourth level, though, and it’s suddenly more difficult. And experiments have shown that at the fifth level understanding drops off by 60 percent, Ms. Zunshine said. Modernist authors like Virginia Woolf are especially challenging because she asks readers to keep up with six different mental states, or what the scholars call levels of intentionality.

It’s a short article, and left me wanting more. More will no doubt come when this field matures.

via Arts and Letters Daily

Reasons for Compassion and Charity

Tackling the idea that human empathy is self-serving, Dacher Keltner, for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine, reviews a number of studies looking at why we are compassionate.

In other research by Emory University neuroscientists James Rilling and Gregory Berns, participants were given the chance to help someone else while their brain activity was recorded. Helping others triggered activity in […] portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. This is a rather remarkable finding: helping others brings the same pleasure we get from the gratification of personal desire.

The brain, then, seems wired up to respond to others’ suffering—indeed, it makes us feel good when we can alleviate that suffering. But do other parts of the body also suggest a biological basis for compassion?

That’s the biological view on compassion, but what about other views? Ryan Sager looks at altruism from an evolutionary psychology standpoint.

Studies seem to indicate that perceived altruism enhances attractiveness. [One study] for instance, finds that “cooperative behavior increases the perceived attractiveness of the cooperator.” (The same study also finds that people are more altruistic toward people who are attractive — but you probably already knew that.) Likewise, [a] paper in the British Journal of Psychology finds evidence that women have a significant preference for altruistic mates, more so than men.

via Arts and Letters Daily

What Makes Us Human: Tolerance and Cooperation

In the 1950s, Russian scientist Dmitri Belyaev ran a selective breeding project to, by artificial selection, breed (incredibly cute) domesticated silver foxes. The results of this multi-decade experiment were impressive, especially given that the foxes were selected solely for their amicability toward humans:

After only forty generations, the selected foxes began to display changes you (and Darwin, too) might think would take millions of years to evolve. As expected, they became incredibly friendly toward humans. Whenever they saw people, they barked, wagged their tails, sniffed the people, and licked their faces. But even stranger were the physical changes, which occurred at a higher frequency than in the control group. The ears of the selected foxes became floppy. Their tails turned curly. Their coats lost their camouflage and became spotty, with a star pattern appearing on the forehead. Their skulls became smaller. In short, they looked and behaved remarkably like their close relative the domestic dog.

The above quote comes from an article by Vanessa Woods and Brian Hare on Edge that looks at why our ancestors ‘came down from the trees’ and what separates us from other hominids, specifically chimpanzees (hint: it’s not the theory of mind, but tolerance and cooperation).

So what we have are chimps who cooperate but aren’t very tolerant, and bonobos who are very tolerant but don’t really cooperate in the wild. What probably happened six million years ago, when hominids split from the ancestor we share with chimpanzees and bonobos, is that we became very tolerant, and this allowed us to cooperate in entirely new ways. Without this heightened tolerance, we would not be the species we are today.