The evolution of cooperation in The Odyssey, possible adaptive functions of depressive symptoms, and long-term mate preferences of the Shuar people of Ecuador were among the topics covered during the 18th Annual Conference of the Human Behavior & Evolution Society, held at Penn June 7-11.

The international conference drew about 500 scholars from disciplines including psychology, anthropology, biology, medicine, economics, literature, law, and philosophy to explore the application of the evolutionary paradigm to human behavior. In dozens of precisely-timed
presentations, speakers discussed the social function of religion, cooperation and trust, mate choice, aggression and crime, kinship, law, literary narrative, and other subjects that spanned the sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

“It’s not just mating anymore,” said Robert Kurzban, assistant professor of psychology at Penn [see main story] and the conference’s lead organizer, referring to the discipline’s best known field of research. “Now look at the agenda: We go all the way from evolutionary approaches to psychopathology [to] warfare, medicine, cooperation.”

Kurzban said he believed the conference was the largest ever held by HBES, and a sign of the growing influence of evolutionary psychology. “There’s lots of indications that the discipline is on the rise,” he said. “The number of graduate students here is really a good example of that – over 50 percent of our registrants. It’s a youthful group.”

The conference included six plenary sessions highlighting the field’s interdisciplinary nature, as well as a keynote address by Daniel C. Dennett, Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University and the author, most recently, of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

Among the plenary speakers were James Sidanius, professor of psychology and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, who argued that racism is a qualitatively different phenomenon than sexism, and Michael Gurven, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who used evidence from fieldwork with the Tsimane people of Bolivia to discuss the costs and benefits associated with the average human lifespan.

Appearing on a panel on “Teaching Science in the 21st Century” was U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones 3d, whose recent ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District invalidated the forced teaching of intelligent design in the district on constitutional grounds [“Intelligent Demise,” Mar/Apr; “Letters,” May/June and this issue]. Jones, a Republican who said ID advocates never came close to convincing him that their approach was scientific, was greeted with an enthusiastic standing ovation by the evolution-minded audience.

David M. Buss, president of HBES and professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, attracted a standing-room-only crowd to a presentation on “Why Women Want Sex: The Functions of Sexual Motivation,” a preliminary report on a major study.

In an interview, Buss said that the growing influence of evolutionary psychology was evident from the increasing space it was being allotted in introductory psychology textbooks. Trends in the field, he said, include an emphasis on both genetic variability and individual differences in mate choice, cooperation, and other behavior. “With sex differences, we have very powerful theories,” he said, “and with individual differences we don’t have comparably powerful theories.”

Geoffrey Miller, assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico and author of The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (2000), said he was “happy to see an increased focus on research in creativity.”

He noted that scholars were starting to integrate research from other branches of psychology—including intelligence and personality tests—into their work. Another thriving subfield, he said, involves women’s ovulatory cycle “and how women’s whole approach not just to men, but also other women and towards themselves changes across the cycle.”

Martie G. Haselton, associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, presented research showing that women tend to pay more attention to their dress as they approach the fertile part of their menstrual cycle. Haselton said the research, which involved judges comparing pictures of women taken at different times during their cycle, supplied evidence that ovulation in women is not completely concealed.

Talks on the applications of evolutionary psychology to clinical psychology stressed that symptoms often considered dysfunctional—from the risk-taking behaviors involved in psychopathy to the pain of depression—needed to be understood as potentially adaptive. In two studies, Matthew C. Keller, a post-doctoral fellow at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, said he found distinct constellations of symptoms associated with bereavement and personal failure, suggesting that the symptoms might have evolved to meet different challenges.

Two symposia featured the latest work in literary Darwinism, a relatively new field that uses evolutionary insights to assess the nature and function of literature, as well as to analyze specific works. Discussing The Odyssey, Brian Boyd, Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, related the Greek concept of hospitality and the forms it takes in Homer’s epic to evolutionary research on human cooperation.

Interesting evidence about the cultural variability of mate choice emerged from a presentation by Elizabeth G. Pillsworth, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles. She reported that among the Shuar, a subsistence society in Ecuador, men express far less interest in physical attractiveness than the Western norm, and more desire for women who will help them acquire resources. The research suggests that in societies of “constrained choice,” she said, “sex differences are strongly diluted.”—J.M.K.

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 06/28/06

back to feature (The Reverse Engineer, By Julia M. Klein)