Jason Collins on Teaching Evolution in Economics: A warning from Trivers

Yesterday, Jason Collins, in his excellent blog Evolving Economics, posted the following comment under the title “Teaching Evolution in Economics

At the start of the concluding chapter in Gad Saad’s The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption (review coming soon), Saad quotes Kenrick and Simpson as follows:

Nisbett introduced the series [on evolution and social cognition at the University of Michigan] by saying that he once thought every psychology department would need to hire an evolutionary psychologist, but he had changed his mind. Instead, Nisbett predicted that evolutionary theory will come to play the same role in psychology as it currently assumes in biology: “Not every psychologist will be an evolutionary psychologist, but every psychologist will be aware of the perspective and will have to address its explanations and constraints in his or her own work” (Nisbett, 1995, personal communication).

I have similar thoughts about biology in economics. If, in 20 years time, there is a small but active research field at the intersection of economics and evolutionary biology, I will be disappointed. Rather, all economists should have the tools to assess whether evolutionary biology is relevant to their work. A unit or two in biology and evolutionary theory should form the basis of early economics education. Only then will economists have the required tools at their disposal.

I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment of Jason’s comment or the Nisbett quote*. But they do bring to mind a comment I read many years ago in Bob Trivers‘ commentary on his Trivers-Willard Effect paper, in his wonderful “Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers“:

In 1970 I was fond of saying, “Twenty years from now you will not be able to walk down the hall of any social science department without hearing people say. ‘I wonder why natural selection favours that’. It is now thirty years later (42 as of this posting) and you can walk down the halls of most social science departments without fear you will ever hear the words ‘natural selection’.”

To be fair to both psychology and economics, Trivers than goes on to explain how biology and other fields (like psychology and economics) are unified disciplines able to respond to new data and altered empirical and theoretic perspectives. But the long time it has taken for evolution to take effect in other areas of social science such as sociology and social anthropology, and to some extent psychology, should act as a warning.




*A quote which is, here, presented fourth-hand (This column(Jason Collins(Gad Saad(Kenrick & Simpson(Nisbett)))))

Is rock ‘n’ roll dead?

Here is my first-ever column for The Conversation – published 27 March 2012. As part of a column I have decided to call “Natural History of the Present” – it will be ideas and news about research that illustrates the relevance of evolution and ecology in understanding modern life and society.

Once the 'Stones made rock 'n' roll. Now they re-enact it.

In a century chock-full of cultural innovation, from communism to televangelism and from Rubik’s cube to airline travel, few 20th Century peacetime developments influenced the world as profoundly as rock music. That’s because, as I have argued before, “Nothing short of the opium of the masses, religion, which shares with rock so many ritual similarities, even approaches rock music for cultural expression of raw human biology”.

I’ve written before about the biology of what makes rock so compelling, but today I want to throw out some wild assertions as a half-baked attempt to answer the persistent and probably unanswerable question:

Is rock dead?

For me, the most compelling evidence in favour of the affirmative is a decade-oldvideo of a leather-clad Britney Spears dry-humping a motorcycle to a mechanically sanitized version of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”. It’s the antithesis of the Arrows’ 1975 original or über-rocker Joan Jett’s 1981 version. The one my friends and I played on the bus home from school until our cassette batteries ran flat.

I’ll show some vulnerability here and say I’ve plenty of sympathy for Ms Spears. But if she loves Rock ‘n’ Roll as much as the lyrics profess, she’s got a necrophilic irony in how she shows it.

Britney wasn’t the first pop royal to don rock affectations, only to find herself bereft of any real garments. Michael Jackson made an entire career of exactly that; a backbeat rhythm here, an Eddie van Halen solo there, and everywhere a messy pastiche of drivel that would make any postmodernist proud.

But as the psychiatrist Robert Jesse Stoller famously said, “Kitsch is the corpse that’s left after art has lost its anger”. Rock may exude a certain joi de vivre, but for me its defining emotion is the compulsion to rage against the machine. And Britney and Michael Jackson never showed that particular anger in their music.

For some time I’ve been forming the opinion that rappers have become the true guardians of rock’s anger. The story of 50 Cent , the poor orphan who detoured through juvenile correction and a very-nearly fatal shooting on his way to megastardom, sums up the ethos that rap has wrested from rock. His first album title, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, says it all.

Two weeks ago I was reminded by a most unlikely act that rappers have inherited the anger that once belonged to rock. Cape Town’s greatest cultural export, Die Antwoord, brought their unique brand of Zef rap-rave to Sydney’s Enmore theatre. And Dr Michael Kasumovic dragged me there to behold it.

If you haven’t yet experienced Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er rapping to DJ Hi-Tek’s ‘next level’ beats, then you certainly haven’t experienced anything like it. Consider them a translation of US ‘Gangsta’ rap personas into existing Afrikaans idiom and you’d still be less than halfway there. Continue reading Is rock ‘n’ roll dead?

Johannesburg readers: Special Launch Event on Wednesday 23 May at Wits University

Johannesburg-based folks who are interested in science, evolution, sex, music, diet, family life or popular culture (and who isn’t) might wish to attend this event to celebrate the launch of the South African edition of Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll: How Evolution has Shaped the Modern World published in South Arica by UCT Press.

The event is hosted by my good friend Professor Graham Alexander, the Wits University School of Animal, Plant and Environment Sciences and Wits Alumni. It is wonderful to be returning to my alma mater to give what I hope will be an interesting and enjoyable public lecture. The event is open to the public, and I guarantee that the talk will be aimed at entertaining the general non-fiction reader (rather than being an academic seminar). Look at the RSVP details on the invitation below.


Invitation to the Johannesburg Launch of Sex, Genes & Rock 'n' Roll

‘Men react more aggressively to stress’ … sure, but you’re missing the point.

First published in The Conversation on 16 March 2012.

Reading oversimplified science stories is stressful business. Michael Clesle

There’s this gene that about half of all people carry. It’s a pretty nasty gene – it massively increases the risk of the carrier being a murderer or a murder victim, going to jail or dying in an accident. And a new paper in Bioessays – by Prince Henry’s Institute researchers Joohyung Lee and Vincent R. Harley – suggests this gene might be responsible for an aggressive response to sudden stresses.

That could explain the bit about murder, accidents and jail.

Despite all the bad press this gene gets, it isn’t all bad. Carriers have the same number of children as non-carriers. And the biggest winners in our evolutionary history – the people who have left the most descendants – have all been carriers.

The gene is called SRY – short for “sex-determining region on the Y chromosome”. It’s the crucial genetic instruction that triggers an embryo to develop into a male. Without SRY, the embryo becomes a girl.

New findings about the way SRY works might explain the differences in how men and women respond to stress. These findings might also explain why men are more susceptible than women to Parkinson’s Disease, schizophrenia and autism.

Running on adrenaline

The hormone epinephrine achieved fame and brand-name recognition as adrenaline. Everyone from weekend warriors to elite BASE jumpers (is there any other kind?) professes its near-magical capacity to elicit superhuman feats of strength and speed. When the chips are down and the boys need to give 110%, that old adrenaline rush kicks in.

Not only does that adrenaline rush cause many of us to speak in seamless cliché, it prepares us to fight or to flee from whatever threatens us. And that rush actually comes by way not only of adrenaline, but two other hormones in the catecholamine group: norepinephrine and dopamine.

For some decades, the catecholamine-mediated fight-or-flight response was considered the dominant human response to stress. But most detailed studies were done on men. As psychologist Shelley E. Taylor and colleagues from the University of California (Los Angeles) first proposed in a 2000 study, women’s fight-or-flight response isn’t nearly as strong. Continue reading ‘Men react more aggressively to stress’ … sure, but you’re missing the point.

Synopsis of Sex, Genes & Rock in Huffington Post

As part of the launch of the US & Canada version of Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll: How Evolution has Shaped the Modern World, Huffington Post have published a slide show of some highlights from the book.

If you are in North American and want to have a copy delivered to you by launch day (13 March), then can I suggest Amazon.com who seem to have a very good price at the moment.

Nothing says "Everlasting Love" more than a globally televised Kardashian wedding. Check out Slide 6.

Introduction (From the Huffington Post piece)

Evolution by natural selection is a deeply fascinating subject. According to the philosopher Daniel Dennett, it is also ‘the most important idea anybody ever had.’

This very simple process fashioned almost every aspect of the living world; from human consciousness to the mould that grows on your bread.

Yet few adults, and fewer politicians, recognize how important evolution is. The number of wonderful books on evolution at your local bookstore may be growing, but it is easily outstripped by dubious or even harmful self-help manuals, dating advice, astrology, diet books and management babble.

Throughout the history of medicine, most progress came from improved understanding of how we get infections, diseases and other mental and physical afflictions. But medicine can become even better when we understand why we get sick, and why our bodies, including our minds, respond to infections and stress in the ways that they do. The new field of Darwinian Medicine illuminates the origins of diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease and the causes of obesity, depression and schizophrenia.

Important evolutionary insights go well beyond medicine. Evolution is useful anywhere living organisms are involved, such as agriculture, fisheries, biotechnology, conservation, and carbon accounting. Most of all, evolution can teach us much about what it means to be alive, and why people do what they do. Another new field, evolutionary psychology, could be the most important development in understanding human behavior since Herr Professor Freud cracked open his note book and asked for the first time ‘So, tell me about your childhood.’

In my new book Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll: How Evolution has Shaped the Modern World (University of New Hampshire Press), I aim to provide an entertaining glimpse of the world through the eyes of an evolutionary biologist. I research animal and human evolution in order to understand both human history and the lives people lead today.

The following slides provide a few highlights from the book, tidbits showing how an evolutionary perspective can give useful and interesting insights into familiar issues and problems.

Read more at Huffington Post