Evolutionary Studies

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

Binghamton University in New York State has an integrated studies program called Evolutionary Studies.

This website enables virtually anyone to begin learning about evolution and its wide-ranging implications. For BU students, we offer introductory undergraduate and graduate courses, a menu of more advanced courses, research opportunities, and a seminar series that brings distinguished speakers to campus at approximately bi-weekly intervals. Full participation in EvoS results in a certificate in evolutionary studies, which can be earned in parallel with any major without an undue additional course load. For BU faculty, we offer opportunities in interdisciplinary research collaborations, especially in our new capacity as an Institute for Advanced Studies.

Off-campus visitors to this website can find a number of resources for learning about evolution from a distance, including a basic tutorial, links to other evolution websites, an archive of EvoS seminars, and more. A distance-learning version of the popular introductory course “Evolution for Everyone” is currently being developed.

It springs from a concept called Evolution for Everyone.

“Evolution for Everyone” is also the title of a popular course that serves as the introduction to an evolutionary studies program called EvoS (http://bingweb.binghamton.edu/~evos/).

“The course teaches the basic principles of evolution and how they can be used to study the length and breadth of creation—including our own species,” says David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist who initiated and directs EvoS. “The program enables all students on campus to develop their evolutionary interests throughout their college career.” An article by Wilson describing the course and program will be published later this year in the open access journal “Public Library of Science (PLoS) Biology” (http://www.plos.org)/.

EvoS is popular among faculty, too. Starting with core faculty in the biology, anthropology, and psychology departments, the program now includes over 50 faculty participants from virtually all departments, including the humanities.

Wilson’s research exemplifies the same multi-disciplinary approach. He studies humans along with other species and holds a joint appointment in the Biology and Anthropology Departments. His recent book, “Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, And The Nature of Society” (University of Chicago Press 2002) attempts to bridge the ultimate gap between evolutionary theory and religion. “Darwin’s Cathedral” placed Wilson at the center of the modern movement to understand the relationship between science, religion, and spirituality in a positive sense. “Unlike the futile controversy over creationism and intelligent design, my dialogue with religious believers and scholars is cordial and productive,” Wilson reports.

“Evolution education will remain ineffective until the implications of the theory are examined along with its factual content,” Wilson continues. “When evolution is presented as unthreatening, explanatory, and useful, it can be easily grasped and appreciated by most people in the space of a single semester, regardless of their religious or political beliefs, science background, or prior knowledge of evolution.”

In addition to courses, EvoS includes a campus-wide seminar series that illustrates how many subjects are being approached from an evolutionary perspective. During the spring 2005 semester alone, distinguished scientists and scholars from other institutions spoke on topics as diverse as individual differences in taste perception, vocal mimicry in wild parrots, the cultural evolution of agriculture, agent-based computer simulation models of evolution, the psychological dynamics of happiness, ecosystem genetics, moral emotions and concepts, the evolutionary ecology of Lyme disease, and how literature can be approached from an evolutionary perspective.

One of the early students in the program, Matt Gervais, won an Undergraduate Research Award (2004) for his investigation of the evolutionary purpose of laughter. His term paper was developed into a scientific article and published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Gervais received an Undergraduate Research Award last fall to study the evolution and causes of laughter by synthesizing existing theories and research from across several disciplines. His work continues as an independent study with evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson.

“I think this is proof on a national level of the unique and tremendous work that Professor David Wilson and Binghamton University are doing with the Evolutionary Studies program,” said Gervais, adding that Binghamton is a “special place” for studying evolutionary approaches to human behavior.

Matt Gervais

Matt Gervais

With his paper, Matt Gervais won a Fuller Award in 2006 (PDF).

Matthew Gervais was awarded the 2006 Fuller Award for excellence in Psychobiology research.

This annual award is presented to a graduating senior in Psychobiology who has excelled in neuroscience. Matthew was nominated by Dr. David Sloan Wilson with a letter of support from Dr. Anne Clark. As a sophomore Matt received the prestigious Barry M Goldwater scholarship. As a junior Matt published a manuscript in the in the Quarterly Review of Biology entitled “ The Evolution and functions of laughter and humor: A synthetic approach.” (Link below) In addition to doing research at Binghamton, Matt spent the summer of his junior year doing research with Dr. Frans DeWaal at Emory University. Matt will be attending graduate school at UCLA this Fall.

You can read Matt’s paper here (PDF). “The Evolution and functions of laughter and humor: A synthetic approach,” Abstract:

Q Rev Biol. 2005 Dec ;80 (4):395-430 16519138 (P,S,G,E,B)
Program of Psychobiology, Binghamton University, Binghamton, New York 13902, USA. MGERVAI1@BINGHAMTON.EDU
A number of recent hypotheses have attempted to explain the ultimate evolutionary origins of laughter and humor. However most of these have lacked breadth in their evolutionary frameworks while neglecting the empirical existence of two distinct types of laughter— Duchenne and non-Duchenne– and the implications of this distinction for the evolution of laughter as a signal. Most of these hypotheses have also been proposed in relative isolation of each other and remain disjointed from the relevant empirical literature. Here we attempt to remedy these shortcomings through a synthesis of previous laughter and humor research followed by (i) a reevaluation of this research in light of theory and data from several relevant disciplines, and (ii) the proposal of a synthetic evolutionary framework that takes into account phylogeny and history as well as proximate mechanisms and adaptive significance. We consider laughter to have been a preadaptation that was gradually elaborated and co-opted through both biological and cultural evolution.

We hypothesize that Duchenne laughter became fully ritualized in early hominids between 4 and 2 mya as a medium for playful emotional contagion. This mechanism would have coupled the emotions of small hominid groups and promoted resource-building social play during the fleeting periods of safety and satiation that characterized early bipedal life. We further postulate that a generalized class of nonserious social incongruity would have been a reliable indicator of such safe times and thereby came to be a potent distal elicitor of laughter and playful emotion. This class of stimuli had its origins in primate social play and was the foundation for formal human humor. Within this framework, Duchenne laughter and protohumor were well established in the hominid biobehavioral repertoire when more cognitively sophisticated traits evolved in the hominid line between 2 mya and the present.

The prior existence of laughter and humor allowed them to be co-opted for numerous novel functions, and it is from this process that non-Duchenne laughter and the “dark side” of laughter emerged. This perspective organizes the diversified forms and functions that characterize laughter and humor today and clarifies when and how laughter and humor evolved during the course of human evolution.
Matt Gervais and David Sloan Wilson

Matt Gervais and David Sloan Wilson

There’s an article about Matt’s research in the Binghamton University News & Events.

Gervais, 22, a senior pursuing a psychobiology/philosophy double major with a minor in anthropology, became interested in laughter while searching for a term paper topic for David Sloan Wilson’s Evolution and Human Behavior class. What started on a whim has evolved into a 2½-year scholarly study, recently published in the Quarterly Review of Biology, a peer-reviewed journal based at the University of Chicago.

Wilson, who initiated and directs the Evolutionary Studies Program, played an advisory role during Gervais’ research. “Laughter seems like a superficial subject but Matt’s synthesis shows that it played a fundamental role in early human evolution and was probably required for our reliance upon culturally transmitted information, eventually in the form of language,” Wilson said.

The significance of the article is indicated by the reviewers’ comments, one of whom states that it will be “highly influential in the years to come.” The research also earned Gervais the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater scholarship award.

Gervais’ study suggests that “laughter, play and positive emotion should facilitate learning, cooperation, creativity, peace of mind – all things for which society at large strives.” The study lends credence to the old saying that laughter is the best medicine, and it provides an evolutionary explanation for why this is so.

–Ryan Yarosh

The University web site also has guidelines for educators who want to start an evolutionary studies program at their schools.

Just as evolution is famously described as a tinkerer, building new structures out of old parts, EvoS was initially built out of parts that already existed at Binghamton University. Glenn Geher and his colleagues built the second EvoS program from existing parts at SUNY New Paltz, a four year liberal arts college (http://www.newpaltz.edu/evos/startown.html). We think that most institutions of higher education, from major research universities to community colleges, have the available parts to build versions of EvoS—and we are eager to work toward the goal of an international consortium.

The most important initial condition is a group of faculty across a variety of departments who are already teaching and/or conducting research from an evolutionary perspective. A very modest investment on the part of the Administration can be sufficient to create a program that facilitates their interactions and makes their courses available to students from other departments. Most administrators already value integration and are eager to reward this kind of initiative. Students who have been turned on to evolution by a single course or their own reading are eager to join a multi-course program. Additional faculty who are curious and open-minded about evolution, but have not yet acted upon their interest, are eager to become involved. In this fashion, the modest initial investment results in a positive feedback process. More and more students and faculty become involved, utilizing whatever intramural and extramural resources are at hand.

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Remember Spy vs. Spy?

Now there’s a sequel:

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Neanderthal skeleton reconstructed

Bones of at least fifty Neanderthal humans have been found, but never a complete skeleton. We have virtually all the parts. With left-right doubling and comparing bones from different specimens, the American Museum of Natural History assembled the first complete model of a Neanderthal skeleton a couple of years ago. It’s on display in the Hall of Man.

The model enabled them to see clearly that the Neanderthal had a flaring ribcage, broader at the bottom, and a flaring pelvis opening up more at the top. I wonder if they carried a broader belly?

Chinook Salmon population crashes in Sacramento River

Ninety thousand fish showed up last year, a meagre remnant of the population. The commercial salmon fishing season was cancelled for U.S. fisherfolk But who knows what’s going on in international waters? Trawling and other forms of deep-sea fishing have probably taken their toll. A mere 60,000 fish are expected back this year.

Thirty years ago there were several thousand salmon boats in California. More recently, as the fish became scarce, only a few hundred worked the coast. Then salmon populations crashed, and this year for the first time U.S. officials canceled all ocean salmon fishing off California and most of Oregon, and curtailed it off Washington….

The sudden decline of California’s chinooks, most of which originate in the Sacramento River, has shaken scientists as well as fishermen. Typically several hundred thousand adult fish return from the sea to the river in the fall. Last autumn, only about 90,000 made it back, and fewer than 60,000 are expected this year, which would be the lowest number on record….

The sudden decline of California’s chinooks, most of which originate in the Sacramento River, has shaken scientists as well as fishermen. Typically several hundred thousand adult fish return from the sea to the river in the fall. Last autumn, only about 90,000 made it back, and fewer than 60,000 are expected this year, which would be the lowest number on record.

State of Connecticut court allows gay marriage

By Ted Lorson

HARTFORD, Connecticut (Reuters) – Connecticut’s highest court on Friday unexpectedly struck down a ban on gay and lesbian marriage, making the New England state the third in the nation to allow full-fledged marriage for same-sex couples.

After four years of legal wrangling in the state court system, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that a ban on gay marriage constituted “cognizable harm” and infringed on a “fundamental right” of same-sex couples.

The decision, which overturns a lower court ruling, follows the legalization of gay marriage in California this year and in Massachusetts in 2003. It was hailed by gay rights advocates as a proud day after battles over the culturally divisive issue in several states.

Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell, a Republican, disagreed with the ruling but said she will uphold it.

“I continue to believe that marriage is the union of a man and a woman,” Rell said. “I do not believe their voice reflects the majority of the people of Connecticut.”

She said she was convinced that any attempt to reverse the decision, either legislatively or by amending the state Constitution, would fail.

Sarah Palin abused her power as governor

An ethics panel for the state of Alaska has decided that Sarah Palin abused her power against a state trooper.

By Caren Bohan

CHILLICOTHE, Ohio (Reuters) – An Alaska ethics inquiry found on Friday that U.S. Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin abused her power as the state’s governor, casting a cloud over John McCain’s controversial choice of running mate for the November 4 election.

At the same time, McCain shifted his strategy. After a week in which his campaign tried in vain to seize the momentum from Democrat Barack Obama with fierce personal attacks, he adopted a conciliatory tone, calling on supporters to respect the Illinois senator.

The Alaska inquiry centered on whether Palin’s dismissal of the state’s public safety commissioner, Walt Monegan, was linked to her personal feud with a state trooper who was involved in a contentious divorce with the governor’s sister.

A report prepared for the state Legislative Council said Monegan’s refusal to fire the trooper was not the sole reason he was dismissed but was likely a contributing factor. The McCain-Palin campaign had said the commissioner was fired because of poor performance.

“Governor Palin knowingly permitted a situation to continue where impermissible pressure was placed on several subordinates in order to advance a personal agenda, to wit: to get Trooper Michael Wooten fired,” the report said.

The scandal known locally as “Troopergate” gained national attention after Palin, who was little known in other states and has virtually no national or international experience, was selected to be McCain’s running mate .

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