Evolutionary Bridges

Sam McDougle joins us from re:COGNITION at The Beautiful Brain. Sam splits this time between behavioral neuroscience research at the University of Pennsylvania, playing fiddle in an Appalachian string-band, and drumming in an indie rock trio.

In my recent career as an undergraduate, I noticed a curious phenomenon–around my junior year, dorm rooms across the campus were suddenly spending Friday nights captivated by the wonders of the natural world, led along by David Attenborough’s poised intonations. BBC’s Planet Earth box set would soon be as ubiquitous in 18-24 year olds’ DVD collections as The Matrix, Dazed and Confused, and any Wes Anderson venture. As a science student, I was intrigued to see my art-historian/Russian-lit-critic/sociologist friends totally captivated by marine insects and the hunting strategies of wild dogs.

What made the popularity of that ambitious documentary exciting to me was the show’s attention to ecological relevance. Instead of just presenting cool adaptations or interesting animal behaviors for the “whoa” factor, the series often addressed “why” questions – eccentric behaviors and colorful feathers may be weird, but they afford the animal an important evolutionary advantage in its niche (fortunately the writers were cautious about presenting theories as theories and not truths). Sometimes, when I would watch the show with my peers, they would ask me, the “science-y one,” questions like, “Why does only one male elephant seal get to mate with the all the females? How did that evolve?” This would be the only time in my life at college that I could launch into a rant about evolutionary theory and my friends would actually be interested (I really was the only science major in my circle).

Bridges were being built.

My favorite aspect of the natural sciences, from astrophysics to evolutionary theory, is what I call the “humbling effect.” Whether it’s the breathtaking (even asphyxiating) size of the universe, or the profound expertise of our animal cousins, human’s are silly to consider themselves the inheritors of the earth, let alone the universe. Fascinating theories that seek to naturalize human behavior and culture rightly follow. Without venturing into dangerous reductionist theories of human behavior, young fields like evolutionary psychology and neuroeconomics are starting to shed light on topics that were once confined to philosophy lectures and sociology classrooms. Humans are, after all, equally awe-inspiring products of evolution as naked mole rats, though in obviously different ways.

Several incredible events in this year’s World Science Festival will prove interesting to those interested in studying human affairs through a naturalistic lens, and will aid in the continuing construction of bridges between the social and natural sciences.

The “Brutality and the Brain” program on June 3rd will be a stimulating look at the evolution of violence, and features one my favorite neuroscientists, Anotonio Damasio, the brilliant primatologist-turned-moral-philosophoer Marc Hauser, and more.

The “All Creatures Great and Smart” program should offer an interesting perspective on the underestimated similarities between humans and their animal relatives. Sounds humbling

The “Our Genome, Ourselves” event, featuring Frances Collins, the leader of the monumental Human Genome Project, is a must-see for any evolutionist.


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Great post, Sam. The childish delusion that humans are the crowns of creation, exempt from the laws of nature, is the root cause of our current dire predicament.

An awareness that humans are netted together with the rest of the living world is arguably the greatest benefit of a broad education in the natural sciences. Imagine how different things would be if it were included along with the 3 Rs in the public schools 8^(!

By Mal Adapted (not verified) on 29 May 2010 #permalink