Monday, April 5, 2010

Humans: More than just social apes?

Homo sapiens, like all other modern species, make up a branch of the evolutionary tree that can goes back to the first living organism to exist. However, humans stand apart from all other species; human intelligence allows for social achievements. This is a major argument of the intelligent design proponents. Propose some ideas on how human social behavior is selectively adaptive. On page 225, Coyne points out that we are simply "evolved mammals, (therefore) there will be nothing to prevent us from acting like beasts". He goes on to relate this to the incident at Columbine. Explain some modern human behavior and current theories on where the behavior comes from such as "The Selfish Gene" and "The Cooperative Gene" (226). In which ways can modern human behavior be traced back to the basic behaviors we discussed in Chapter 51 of Campbell? And are these behaviors even genetically based adaptations or something else that have arisen in recent history?


  1. It is possible that the cooperative social behaviors we see among humans today once originally did arise out of adaptation to the environment.
    Perhaps the easiest way to reconstruct what might have caused the rise of such behavior is by analyzing the divergence of a very similar organism to our species: the bonobo.

    The bonobo diverged from the common chimp very recently, yet have a radically different social structure not disimilar to our own.
    The common chimp's social structure is largely individualistic, with each individual organism fending for itself.
    The social structure of bonobos, however, is based on cooperation between all the individuals of a population to gain food and on a series of conflict-resolution methods.
    These came as a result of their environments; the group that was to become the common chimp faced many natural predators and competitors in their environment for food, while the group that was to become the bonobo faced far fewer threats to their survival while at the same time having a rich supply of easily accesible food. Thus, the only real threats to each individuals survival would be conflict with another individual, leading to conflict resolution tactics like recreational sex. These behaviors, grouped with natural selection for group food gathering (which likely was far more efficient than gathering food on one's own) culminate in a cooperative structure perhaps also somewhat based on kin selection as well.
    In the early years of man's ancestors, it is likely that natural selection similarly called for group actions in activities like hunting or defense against predators. Once again, with such a small population kin selection might have played a role in the development of this social structure.

    Now however, with 6.8 billion humans in the world, this likely does not play a factor. In developing society, however, we have crafted a series of social rules to similarly bind us to other individuals so that we may advance our species as a whole perhaps. Thus, these behaviors may not be genetically based any longer but simply the product of the social construct that humanity has built. In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" as the social equivilent of the gene, a cultural unit of 'evolution'.

    An important thing to recognize when analyzing the basis of human behaviors is, as Coyne notes on page 231, "Evolution tells us where we came from, not where we can go".


  2. Despite many peoples wishes for the human species to be "special" the fact is, many human behaviors are just slightly more sophisticated than those that "beasts" exhibit. Primitive examples of elephant, dolphin, and even wolves demonstrate that each can display remorse for the dead, stay in groups that communicate for survival, as well as hunting in a pack for maximum efficiency. In a recent study done on elephants, it was shown that they show strange curiosity about the bones of dead elephants, showing much more attention to that than most other animals (chimpanzees for example no longer care about decomposed versions of their species). (biology letters) When Coyne stated that there were "nothing to prevent us from acting like beasts", he didn't mean we didn't have moral choices, he meant that we were simply "beasts" ourselves. Looking at many of our behaviors such as marriage (reproduction), religion (coping with death), and "The Selfish Gene" (genes are uncaring, emotionless material things, with survival as the only goal--edging out unadaptive or unhelpful traits.) Creationists often mention their trump card here, no other creatures besides humans have the ability to communicate their emotions and thoughts through art and music. Even today, how music and art influence our thinking is not clear. However, what is clear is that it is a vital form a communication, something that many other animals display, whether in the majestic feathers of a peacock, the way bees can build a complicated hive, or the way that elephants mourn for their dead ones, it is a way to communicate: for sex, for survival, or for pain.

    Biology Book