Has a decimal point error misled millions into believing that spinach is a good source of iron?

A great cultural epidemiology story by Ole Bjørn Rekdal, "Academic urban legends,"  in  Social Studies of Science (2014, 44(4)) freely available here

popeyeAbstract: Many of the messages presented in respectable scientific publications are, in fact, based on various forms of rumors. Some of these rumors appear so frequently, and in such complex, colorful, and entertaining ways that we can think of them as academic urban legends. The explanation for this phenomenon is usually that authors have lazily, sloppily, or fraudulently employed sources, and peer reviewers and editors have not discovered these weaknesses in the manuscripts during evaluation. To illustrate this phenomenon, I draw upon a remarkable case in which a decimal point error appears to have misled millions into believing that spinach is a good nutritional source of iron. Through this example, I demonstrate how an academic urban legend can be conceived and born, and can continue to grow and reproduce within academia and beyond."

Random choice among the Kantu, swidden agriculturalists of Kalimantan

An excellent post by  at Aeon magazine entitled "How to choose? When your reasons are worse than useless, sometimes the most rational choice is a random stab in the dark," showing, among other things, how rationality and expectations of rationality can clash.

"In the 1970s, a young American anthropologist named Michael Dove set out for Indonesia, intending to solve an ethnographic mystery. Then a graduate student at Stanford, Dove had been reading about the Kantu’, a group of subsistence farmers who live in the tropical forests of Borneo. The Kantu’ practise the kind of shifting agriculture known to anthropologists as swidden farming, and to everyone else as slash-and-burn. Swidden farmers usually grow crops in nutrient-poor soil. They use fire to clear their fields, which they abandon at the end of each growing season.Like other swidden farmers, the Kantu’ would establish new farming sites ever year in which to grow rice and other crops. Unlike most other swidden farmers, the Kantu’ choose where to place these fields through a ritualised form of birdwatching. They believe that certain species of bird – the Scarlet-rumped Trogon, the Rufous Piculet, and five others – are the sons-in-law of God. The appearances of these birds guide the affairs of human beings. So, in order to select a site for cultivation, a Kantu’ farmer would walk through the forest until he spotted the right combination of omen birds. And there he would clear a field and plant his crops. Dove figured that the birds must be serving as some kind of ecological indicator...
More here

Babies' and birds' causal understanding

A very interesting comparison between crows and humans in a new (free access) paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B entitled "Of babies and birds: complex tool behaviours are not sufficient for the evolution of the ability to create a novel causal ntervention" by Alex H. Taylor, Lucy G. Cheke, Anna Waismeyer, Andrew N. Meltzoff, Rachael Miller, Alison Gopnik, Nicola S. Clayton, and Russell D. Gray.
crow

Abstract: Humans are capable of simply observing a correlation between cause and effect, and then producing a novel behavioural pattern in order to recreate the same outcome. However, it is unclear how the ability to create such causal interventions evolved. Here, we show that while 24-month-old children can produce an effective, novel action after observing a correlation, tool-making New Caledonian crows cannot. These results suggest that complex tool behaviours are not sufficient for the evolution of this ability, and that causal interventions can be cognitively and evolutionarily disassociated from other types of causal understanding.
See also a video and Ed Yong's post

Combinatorial Communication in Bacteria?

Here is a challenge to standard views about the evolution of linguistic generativity: ""Combinatorial Communication in Bacteria: Implications for the Origins of Linguistic Generativity" by Thomas C. Scott-PhillipsJames Gurney, Alasdair Ivens, Stephen P. Diggle, and Roman Popat, in PLoS One (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0095929)

AbstractCombinatorial communication, in which two signals are used together to achieve an effect that is different to the sum of the effects of the component parts, is apparently rare in nature: it is ubiquitous in human language, appears to exist in a simple form in some non-human primates, but has not been demonstrated in other species. This observed distribution has led to the pair of related suggestions, that (i) these differences in the complexity of observed communication systems reflect cognitive differences between species; and (ii) that the combinations we see in non-human primates may be evolutionary pre-cursors of human language. Here we replicate the landmark experiments on combinatorial communication in non-human primates, but in an entirely different species, unrelated to humans, and with no higher cognition: the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Using the same general methods as the primate studies, we find the same general pattern of results: the effect of the combined signal differs from the composite effect of the two individual signals. This suggests that advanced cognitive abilities and large brains do not necessarily explain why some species have combinatorial communication systems and others do not. We thus argue that it is premature to conclude that the systems observed in non-human primates are evolutionarily related to language. Our results illustrate the value of an extremely broad approach to comparative research.

Negatively-Biased Credulity and the Cultural Evolution of Beliefs

A new article by Dan Fessler, Anne Pisor,& David Navarrete, highly relevant to cultural epidemiology in PLoS ONE 9(4): e95167. doi:10.1371

Abstract: The functions of cultural beliefs are often opaque to those who hold them. Accordingly, to benefit from cultural evolution’s ability to solve complex adaptive problems, learners must be credulous. However, credulity entails costs, including susceptibility to exploitation, and effort wasted due to false beliefs. One determinant of the optimal level of credulity is the ratio between the costs of two types of errors: erroneous incredulity (failing to believe information that is true) and erroneous credulity (believing information that is false). This ratio can be expected to be asymmetric when information concerns hazards, as the costs of erroneous incredulity will, on average, exceed the costs of erroneous credulity; no equivalent asymmetry characterizes information concerning benefits. Natural selection can therefore be expected to have crafted learners’ minds so as to be more credulous toward information concerning hazards. This negatively-biased credulity extends general negativity bias, the adaptive tendency for negative events to be more salient than positive events. Together, these biases constitute attractors that should shape cultural evolution via the aggregated effects of learners’ differential retention and transmission of information. In two studies in the U.S., we demonstrate the existence of negatively-biased credulity, and show that it is most pronounced in those who believe the world to be dangerous, individuals who may constitute important nodes in cultural transmission networks. We then document the predicted imbalance in cultural content using a sample of urban legends collected from the Internet and a sample of supernatural beliefs obtained from ethnographies of a representative collection of the world’s cultures, showing that beliefs about hazards predominate in both.

The Content of Our Cooperation, Not the Color of Our Skin

A new, important article by David Pietraszewski, Leda Cosmides, and John ToobyThe Content of Our Cooperation, Not the Color of Our Skin: An Alliance Detection System Regulates Categorization by Coalition and Race, but Not Sex. (PLoS ONE, 2012, 9(2): e88534. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088534)

AbstractHumans in all societies form and participate in cooperative alliances. To successfully navigate an alliance-laced world, the human mind needs to detect new coalitions and alliances as they emerge, and predict which of many potential alliance categories are currently organizing an interaction. We propose that evolution has equipped the mind with cognitive machinery that is specialized for performing these functions: an alliance detection system. In this view, racial categories do not exist because skin color is perceptually salient; they are constructed and regulated by the alliance system in environments where race predicts social alliances and divisions. Early tests using adversarial alliances showed that the mind spontaneously detects which individuals are cooperating against a common enemy, implicitly assigning people to rival alliance categories based on patterns of cooperation and competition. But is social antagonism necessary to trigger the categorization of people by alliance—that is, do we cognitively link A and B into an alliance category only because they are jointly in conflict with C and D? We report new studies demonstrating that peaceful cooperation can trigger the detection of new coalitional alliances and make race fade in relevance. Alliances did not need to be marked by team colors or other perceptually salient cues. When race did not predict the ongoing alliance structure, behavioral cues about cooperative activities up-regulated categorization by coalition and down-regulated categorization by race, sometimes eliminating it. Alliance cues that sensitively regulated categorization by coalition and race had no effect on categorization by sex, eliminating many alternative explanations for the results. The results support the hypothesis that categorizing people by their race is a reversible product of a cognitive system specialized for detecting alliance categories and regulating their use. Common enemies are not necessary to erase important social boundaries; peaceful cooperation can have the same effect.


A Cultural Epidemiology of Monsters?

A new book by the archeologist David WengrowThe Origins of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Princeton U.P.)origin of monsters

The blurb
: It has often been claimed that "monsters"--supernatural creatures with bodies composed from multiple species--play a significant part in the thought and imagery of all people from all times.The Origins of Monsters advances an alternative view. Composite figurations are intriguingly rare and isolated in the art of the prehistoric era. Instead it was with the rise of cities, elites, and cosmopolitan trade networks that "monsters" became widespread features of visual production in the ancient world. Showing how these fantastic images originated and how they were transmitted, David Wengrow identifies patterns in the records of human image-making and embarks on a search for connections between mind and culture.

Wengrow asks: Can cognitive science explain the potency of such images? Does evolutionary psychology hold a key to understanding the transmission of symbols? How is our making and perception of images influenced by institutions and technologies? Wengrow considers the work of art in the first age of mechanical reproduction, which he locates in the Middle East, where urban life began. Comparing the development and spread of fantastic imagery across a range of prehistoric and ancient societies, including Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and China, he explores how the visual imagination has been shaped by a complex mixture of historical and universal factors. Examining the reasons behind the dissemination of monstrous imagery in ancient states and empires,The Origins of Monsters sheds light on the relationship between culture and cognition.

Read more: A Cultural Epidemiology of Monsters?

The Phylogeny of ATU 333 (a.k.a. Little Red Riding Hood)

An interesting, methodologically innovative paper by Jamie Terhani in PLoS One on the phylogeny of "Little Red Riding Hood."
RedRidingHoodAbstract: Researchers have long been fascinated by the strong continuities evident in the oral traditions associated with different cultures. According to the ‘historic-geographic’ school, it is possible to classify similar tales into “international types” and trace them back to their original archetypes. However, critics argue that folktale traditions are fundamentally fluid, and that most international types are artificial constructs. Here, these issues are addressed using phylogenetic methods that were originally developed to reconstruct evolutionary relationships among biological species, and which have been recently applied to a range of cultural phenomena. The study focuses on one of the most debated international types in the literature: ATU 333, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. A number of variants of ATU 333 have been recorded in European oral traditions, and it has been suggested that the group may include tales from other regions, including Africa and East Asia. However, in many of these cases, it is difficult to differentiate ATU 333 from another widespread international folktale, ATU 123, ‘The Wolf and the Kids’. To shed more light on these relationships, data on 58 folktales were analysed using cladistic, Bayesian and phylogenetic network-based methods. The results demonstrate that, contrary to the claims made by critics of the historic-geographic approach, it is possible to identify ATU 333 and ATU 123 as distinct international types. They further suggest that most of the African tales can be classified as variants of ATU 123, while the East Asian tales probably evolved by blending together elements of both ATU 333 and ATU 123. These findings demonstrate that phylogenetic methods provide a powerful set of tools for testing hypotheses about cross-cultural relationships among folktales, and point towards exciting new directions for research into the transmission and evolution of oral narratives.

Does "science" make you moral?

Whatever one thinks of priming studies, it is nice to have, after many studies where priming religion reinforces moral attitudes (for instance Shariff & Norenzayan 2007), an article in PLOS One, "Does “Science” Make You Moral? The Effects of Priming Science on Moral Judgments and Behavior" by Christine Ma-Kellams and Jim Blascovich, where where priming science has a comparable effect.

From the Abstract: Previous work has noted that science stands as an ideological force insofar as the answers it offers to a variety of fundamental questions and concerns; as such, those who pursue scientific inquiry have been shown to be concerned with the moral and social ramifications of their scientific endeavors. No studies to date have directly investigated the links between exposure to science and moral or prosocial behaviors. Across four studies, both naturalistic measures of science exposure and experimental primes of science led to increased adherence to moral norms and more morally normative behaviors across domains....These studies demonstrated the morally normative effects of lay notions of science. Thinking about science leads individuals to endorse more stringent moral norms and exhibit more morally normative behavior. These studies are the first of their kind to systematically and empirically test the relationship between science and morality. The present findings speak to this question and elucidate the value-laden outcomes of the notion of science.

The findings are summarized in a Scientific American presentation: "Just Thinking about Science Triggers Moral Behavior: Just Thinking about Science Triggers Moral Behavior: Psychologists find deep connection between scientific method and morality" by Piercarlo Valdesolo.

Did the Neandertals speak?

In an open access article, "On the antiquity of language: the reinterpretation of Neandertal linguistic capacities and its consequences" published in Frontiers in Language Sciences, that challenges received views on the evolution of language and its time depth, Dan Dediu and Stephen Levinson, both from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen argue that the Neandertals had linguistics capacities similar to those of modern humans.
The abstract: "It is usually assumed that modern language is a recent phenomenon, coinciding with the emergence of modern humans themselves. Many assume as well that this is the result of a single, sudden mutation giving rise to the full “modern package.” However, we argue here that recognizably modern language is likely an ancient feature of our genus pre-dating at least the common ancestor of modern humans and Neandertals about half a million years ago. To this end, we adduce a broad range of evidence from linguistics, genetics, paleontology, and archaeology clearly suggesting that Neandertals shared with us something like modern speech and language. This reassessment of the antiquity of modern language, from the usually quoted 50,000–100,000 years to half a million years, has profound consequences for our understanding of our own evolution in general and especially for the sciences of speech and language. As such, it argues against a saltationist scenario for the evolution of language, and toward a gradual process of culture-gene co-evolution extending to the present day. Another consequence is that the present-day linguistic diversity might better reflect the properties of the design space for language and not just the vagaries of history, and could also contain traces of the languages spoken by other human forms such as the Neandertals." (see also the press release at the MPI)

Special issue of Mind and Society on “Cultural and Cognitive Dimensions of Innovation"

MSIn the Volume 12, Issue 1, June 2013 of Mind and Society: Special issue on “Cultural and Cognitive Dimensions of Innovation" edited and introduced by Petra Ahrweiler and Riccardo Viale. From the introduction:

“…The best historical example of the two stages of the identification of the problem/opportunity and the generation of a solution is that of Joseph Biro, the inventor of the ballpoint pen. As a journalist, he considered the fountain pens of the early twentieth century inadequate for his work. As he watched some children in Buenos Aires playing with marbles on the wet tarmac, he noticed that these left a trail on the ground as they rolled. Reasoning by analogy, he had the idea of a sphere that could guide the ink inside a pen. He patented the idea, which was developed and led to the creation of the ballpoint pen. Individual and social cognitive psychology is able to study the various stages of an innovative process. Creativity and problem solving are not the only possible subjects of cognitive analysis, so is the more socio-economic dimension, like the reasons that make a new product an innovation, because they manage to satisfy latent needs; the cognitive mechanisms of comprehension, acceptance and choice of a new product; the propensity to innovate, seen in the light of the representation of the risk and the decision-making activity of the innovating agent, etc.”

Read more: Special issue of Mind and Society on “Cultural and Cognitive Dimensions of Innovation"

Did human language first emerge as songs?

A thought-provoking new paper on the evolutionary emergence of language by Shigeru Miyagawa, Robert C. Berwick, and Kazuo Okanoya: "The emergence of hierarchical structure in human language." Freely available in Frontiers in Language Sciences 20 Feb 2013.
Abstract: We propose a novel account for the emergence of human language syntax. Like many evolutionary innovations, language arose from the adventitious combination of two pre-existing, simpler systems that had been evolved for other functional tasks. The first system, Type E(xpression), is found in birdsong, where the same song marks territory, mating availability, and similar “expressive” functions. The second system, Type L(exical), has been suggestively found in non-human primate calls and in honeybee waggle dances, where it demarcates predicates with one or more “arguments,” such as combinations of calls in monkeys or compass headings set to sun position in honeybees. We show that human language syntax is composed of two layers that parallel these two independently evolved systems: an “E” layer resembling the Type E system of birdsong and an “L” layer providing words. The existence of the “E” and “L” layers can be confirmed using standard linguistic methodology. Each layer, E and L, when considered separately, is characterizable as a finite state system, as observed in several non-human species. When the two systems are put together they interact, yielding the unbounded, non-finite state, hierarchical structure that serves as the hallmark of full-fledged human language syntax. In this way, we account for the appearance of a novel function, language, within a conventional Darwinian framework, along with its apparently unique emergence in a single species.

Two articles on human evolution

Two interesting articles in the December 2012 issue of Current Antrhopology :
- Michael Tomasello, Alicia P. Melis, Claudio Tennie, Emily Wyman, and Esther Herrmann: “Two Key Steps in the Evolution of Human Cooperation: The Interdependence Hypothesis.
- John Gowlett, Clive Gamble, and Robin Dunbar: “Human Evolution and the Archaeology of the Social Brain.”
For the abstracts,

Read more: Two articles on human evolution

New issue of Mind & Society

A new issue, of Mind & Society (Volume 11, Issue 2, December 2012). For the ToC,

Read more: New issue of Mind & Society

Journal of Cognition and Culture: New issue

Volume 12, (3-4) of the Journal of Cogition and Culture is out. TheTable of Content:

Read more: Journal of Cognition and Culture: New issue

The spread of "Correlation does not imply causation"

Daniel Engber's short article at Slate on the success of the misleading formula "correlation does not imply causation" is doubly relevant here: as an example of the epidemiology of a scientific idea, and as a corrective to a cliché all too common in the social sciences:

"So how did a stats-class admonition become so misused and so widespread? What made this simple caveat—a warning not to fall too hard for correlation coefficients—into a coup de grace for second-rate debates? A survey shows the slogan to be a computer-age phenomenon, one that spread through print culture starting in the 1960s and then redoubled its frequency with the advent of the Internet."

Continue reading

Paul Harris on How Children Learn from Others

HarrisBookA new book of obvious cognition-and-culture relevance by Paul Harris: Trusting What You’re Told: How Children Learn from Others (Harvard UP, 2012). The blurb:
"If children were little scientists who learn best through firsthand observations and mini-experiments, as conventional wisdom holds, how would a child discover that the earth is round—never mind conceive of heaven as a place someone might go after death? Overturning both cognitive and commonplace theories about how children learn,Trusting What You’re Told begins by reminding us of a basic truth: Most of what we know we learned from others.
Children recognize early on that other people are an excellent source of information. And so they ask questions. But youngsters are also remarkably discriminating as they weigh the responses they elicit. And how much they trust what they are told has a lot to do with their assessment of its source. Trusting What You’re Told opens a window into the moral reasoning of elementary school vegetarians, the preschooler’s ability to distinguish historical narrative from fiction, and the six-year-old’s nuanced stance toward magic: skeptical, while still open to miracles.Paul Harris shares striking cross-cultural findings, too, such as that children in religious communities in rural Central America resemble Bostonian children in being more confident about the existence of germs and oxygen than they are about souls and God.
We are biologically designed to learn from one another, Harris demonstrates, and this greediness for explanation marks a key difference between human beings and our primate cousins. Even Kanzi, a genius among bonobos, never uses his keyboard to ask for information: he only asks for treats."

'New [and polemical] thinking' on the evolution of human cognition

A Theme Issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B on 'New thinking: the evolution of human cognition' compiled and edited by Cecilia Heyes and Uta Frith, with contributions from, among others, Robin I. M. Dunbar,  Chris D. Frith, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Alison Gopnik, Eva Jablonka, Kevin N. Laland, Nicholas Shea, Kim Sterelny, and Andrew Whiten. Some of it is polemical against evolutionary psychology.

Here is the abstract of Cecilia Heyes’ Introduction to the issue: "Humans are animals that specialize in thinking and knowing, and our extraordinary cognitive abilities have transformed every aspect of our lives. In contrast to our chimpanzee cousins and Stone Age ancestors, we are complex political, economic, scientific and artistic creatures, living in a vast range of habitats, many of which are our own creation. Research on the evolution of human cognition asks what types of thinking make us such peculiar animals, and how they have been generated by evolutionary processes. New research in this field looks deeper into the evolutionary history of human cognition, and adopts a more multi-disciplinary approach than earlier ‘Evolutionary Psychology’. It is informed by comparisons between humans and a range of primate and non-primate species, and integrates findings from anthropology, archaeology, economics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, philosophy and psychology. Using these methods, recent research reveals profound commonalities, as well striking differences, between human and non-human minds, and suggests that the evolution of human cognition has been much more gradual and incremental than previously assumed. It accords crucial roles to cultural evolution, techno-social co-evolution and gene–culture co-evolution. These have produced domain-general developmental processes with extraordinary power—power that makes human cognition, and human lives, unique."


For the abstracts of the other articles,

Read more: 'New [and polemical] thinking' on the evolution of human cognition

Maurice Boch on the Cognitive Challenge to Anthropology

A new book (Cambridge UP 2012) of obvious cognition-and-culture relevance by Maurice Bloch. The blurb:
Maurice book
"In this provocative new study one of the world's most distinguished anthropologists proposes that an understanding of cognitive science enriches, rather than threatens, the work of social scientists. Maurice Bloch argues for a naturalist approach to social and cultural anthropology, introducing developments in cognitive sciences such as psychology and neurology and exploring the relevance of these developments for central anthropological concerns: the person or the self, cosmology, kinship, memory and globalisation. Opening with an exploration of the history of anthropology, Bloch shows why and how naturalist approaches were abandoned and argues that these once valid reasons are no longer relevant. Bloch then shows how such subjects as the self, memory and the conceptualisation of time benefit from being simultaneously approached with the tools of social and cognitive science. Anthropology and the Cognitive Challenge will stimulate fresh debate among scholars and students across a wide range of disciplines."

Dual process theories of language and thinking

A special Issue of Mind and Society (vol 11 (1) June 2012) on “Dual process theories of language and thinking”

"There has been increasing interest in recent years in dual process theories of human thought. This special issue of Mind and Society reflects this interest, some criticisms of these theories, and the major topics that have been discussed and debated as a result. There is the basic topic of how the postulated dual processes should be defined in the first place. Do these processes have essential defining features that can be distinguished from less central correlates?... There are questions about how these dual processes work and interact. What do dual process theories tell us about different modes of thought and insight in problem solving? One topic that could throw light on these questions is creative thinking.... There is the much studied but unsettled question of the relation between dual processes and human rationality, whether epistemic or practical... And how do the two processes interact with feelings and emotions? There are also questions about how dual process theories are related to the new probabilistic paradigm in the psychology of reasoning. ... These are some of the important questions addressed in this special issue by leading researchers on human thought."

Here is the table of contents:

Read more: Dual process theories of language and thinking

Social learning in humans and nonhuman animals

An interesting issue of the Journal of Comparative Psychology (2012, Volume 126, Issue 2) on social learning in humans and nonhuman animals. From the intro: "The past decade has seen a resurgent, concerted interest in social learning research comparing human and nonhuman animals. In this special issue, we present a synthesis of work that consolidates what is currently known and provides a platform for future research. … We include both new empirical studies and novel theoretical proposals describing work with both human children and adults and a range of nonhuman animals." For the ToC,

Read more: Social learning in humans and nonhuman animals

The Smartphone Psychology Manifesto

 In Perspectives on Psychological Science (May 2012 vol. 7), Geoffrey Miller publishes a "Smartphone Psychology Manifesto" (available here) with methodological suggestions for the use of smartphones in psychological research that could indeed have a huge impact on the study of cognition and culture.

Abstract: "By 2025, when most of today’s psychology undergraduates will be in their mid-30s, more than 5 billion people on our planet will be using ultra-broadband, sensor-rich smartphones far beyond the abilities of today’s iPhones, Androids, and Blackberries. Although smartphones were not designed for psychological research, they can collect vast amounts of ecologically valid data, easily and quickly, from large global samples. If participants download the right “psych apps,” smartphones can record where they are, what they are doing, and what they can see and hear and can run interactive surveys, tests, and experiments through touch screens and wireless connections to nearby screens, headsets, biosensors, and other peripherals. This article reviews previous behavioral research using mobile electronic devices, outlines what smartphones can do now and will be able to do in the near future, explains how a smartphone study could work practically given current technology (e.g., in studying ovulatory cycle effects on women’s sexuality [suggestions of possible cognition-and-culture topics welcome - ICCI]), discusses some limitations and challenges of smartphone research, and compares smartphones to other research methods. Smartphone research will require new skills in app development and data analysis and will raise tough new ethical issues, but smartphones could transform psychology even more profoundly than PCs and brain imaging did."

Science Magazine's special issue on Human Conflict

ScienceMagThis May 18, Science has a special issue on human conflict, of evolutionary, cognitive and cultural relevance, with contributions from Scott Atran, Christopher Boehm, Samuel Bowles, Frans de Waal, and many others. From the introduction:

“In this special issue on human conflict, we consider the deep evolutionary roots of violent confrontation. We trace the trajectory of violence and war throughout history, exploring racism, ethnic conflicts, the rise of terrorism, and the possible future of armed conflicts. We also consider our innate capacity to mediate conflict and our ability to achieve—and live in—peace.
Competition and conflict both among and within species, for food or a place to live or a mate, are implicit in the process of evolution and thus intrinsic to our biology. But like many other animals, we are also social beings, and, like them, we have evolved behaviors to avoid the detrimental effects of excessive intraspecies violence. These include ritual singing or fighting displays, acts of submission or conciliation, and simple spatial avoidance seen in diverse species as birds, ants, and our primate relatives.

Read more: Science Magazine's special issue on Human Conflict

the Journal of Cognition and Culture: a new issue


The new issue (vol 12, 1-2) of the Journal of Cognition and Culture is out. For the table of content and abstracts:

Read more: the Journal of Cognition and Culture: a new issue

The social motivation theory of autism

Just out in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, "The social motivation theory of autism," an article (available here) by Coralie Chevallier, Gregor Kohls, Vanessa Troiani, Edward S Brodkin, and Robert T Schultz that challenges the dominant explanation of autism in terms of a Theory-of-Mind deficit. Given the role that the case of autism plays in our understanding of human sociality, this is of high cognition-and-culture relevance.

The first paragraph of the article: "Over the past three decades, a number of theories have been put forward to account for the pervasive social impairments found in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Among the various attempts, the idea of a core deficit in social cognition (theory of mind, or ToM, in particular) has become one of the most prominent accounts of ASD. Concomitantly, the impact of motivational factors on the development of social skills and social cognition has received little attention. Recently, however, social motivation has emerged as a promising research domain at the intersection of social psychology, behavioral economics, social neuroscience and evolutionary biology. In this review, we integrate these diverse strands of research and defend the idea that social motivation is a powerful force guiding human behavior and that disruption of social motivational mechanisms may constitute a primary deficit in autism. In this framework, motivational deficits are thought to have downstream effects on the development of social cognition, and deficits in social cognition are therefore construed as a consequence, rather than a cause, of disrupted social interest."

The concluding remarks: "The social world summons our attention like no other domain: social signals are prioritized by attention, interactions are intrinsically rewarding, and social maintaining permeates interpersonal behaviors. Social motivation is subserved by dedicated biological mechanisms and can be seen as an evolutionary adaptation to humans’ highly collaborative environment: by enhancing attention to social information, by rewarding social interactions, and by promoting the desire to effectively maintain social bonds, social motivation smoothes relationships, promotes coordination and ultimately fosters collaboration. In ASD, by contrast, there appears to be an overall decrease in the attentional weight assigned to social information. Diminished social orienting, social reward and social maintaining are all found in autism and can account for a range of behaviors, including cascading effects on the development of mature social cognitive skills. These deficits appear to be rooted in biological disruptions of the orbitofrontal–striatal–amygdala circuitry, as well as in dysregulation of certain neuropeptides and neurotransmitters. ASD can thus be seen as an extreme case of early-onset diminished social motivation and provides a powerful model for understanding humans’ intrinsic drive to seek acceptance and avoid rejection."

Do infants understand social dominance relations?

Forthcoming in PNAS, a groundbreaking article by Olivier Mascaro and Gergely Csibra investigating the "Representation of stable social dominance relations by human infants" (available here).

Abstract: What are the origins of humans’ capacity to represent social relations? We approached this question by studying human infants’ understanding of social dominance as a stable relation. We presented infants with interactions between animated agents in conflict situations. Studies 1 and 2 targeted expectations of stability of social dominance. They revealed that 15-mo-olds (and, to a lesser extent, 12-mo-olds) expect an asymmetric relationship between two agents to remain stable from one conflict to another. To do so, infants need to infer that one of the agents (the dominant) will consistently prevail when her goals conflict with those of the other (the subordinate). Study 3 and 4 targeted the format of infants’ representation of social dominance. In these studies, we found that 12- and 15-mo-olds did not extend their expectations of dominance to unobserved relationships, even when they could have been established by transitive inference. These results suggest that infants' expectation of stability originates from their representation of social dominance as a relationship between two agents rather than as an individual property. Infants’ demonstrated understanding of social dominance reflects the cognitive underpinning of humans’ capacity to represent social relations, which may be evolutionarily ancient, and may be shared with nonhuman species.

Tamar Gendler's online course on human nature

If you want a well taught, well produced free online course on basic classical issues in the philosophy of human nature, here is this Open Yale course by Tamar Gendler:

Tamar Gendler

The course on Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature pairs central texts from Western philosophical tradition (including works by Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Hobbes, Kant, Mill, Rawls, and Nozick) with recent findings in cognitive science and related fields. The course is structured around three intertwined sets of topics: Happiness and Flourishing; Morality and Justice; and Political Legitimacy and Social Structures.

Read more: Tamar Gendler's online course on human nature

Tool use, gesture and the evolution of language

A special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B entitled "From action to language: comparative perspective on primate tool use, gesture and the evolution of human language" edited by James Steele, Pier Francesco Ferrari and Leonardo Fogassi"The papers in this Special Issue examine tool use and manual gestures in primates as a window on the evolution of the human capacity for language. Neurophysiological research has supported the hypothesis of a close association between some aspects of human action organization and of language representation, in both phonology and semantics. Tool use provides an excellent experimental context to investigate analogies between action organization and linguistic syntax. Contributors report and contextualize experimental evidence from monkeys, great apes, humans and fossil hominins, and consider the nature and the extent of overlaps between the neural representations of tool use, manual gestures and linguistic processes." For the table of contents,

Read more: Tool use, gesture and the evolution of language

Nick Enfield reviews Hurford's The Origins of Grammar

HurfordIn the Times Literary Supplement, Nick Enfield reviews James R. Hurford's new book The Origins of Grammar, Oxford UP, 2011 (a sequel to The Origins of MeaningOxford UP, 2007):

"If you could travel back to a time around the dawn of humankind, and if you encountered a people there whose only form of language was a list of one-word interjections like Yuck, Wow, Oops, Hey!, No, and Huh?, would you say that these people were of a different species, not quite human? Would they be like today’s apes that simply don’t have it in them to fully acquire a modern human language? Or would they be the same as us only less well equipped for communication, like the eighteenth-century man who is every bit human but happens not to have been born in a world with telephones? If the latter were true, then language would be more technology than biology, more something we build than something that grows. It’s clear that the earliest humans did not possess language as we know it. The question is whether this was because language as we know it hadn’t yet been invented.

In James R. Hurford’s towering account of our species’ path from being once without language to now being emphatically with it, he proposes that just such a monophrase language of the Yuck/Wow variety was an important early human achievement. And, Hurford argues, while our earliest forms of language had no grammatical rules by which words were combined to form sentences, they were far from primitive call systems."

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Fluctuations in Word Use from Word Birth to Word Death

 A team of mathematicians and phycisists, Alexander M. Petersen, Joel Tenenbaum, Shlomo Havlin, and H. Eugene Stanley, studied the "Statistical Laws Governing Fluctuations in Word Use from Word Birth to Word Death" by analysing the dynamic properties of 10words recorded in English, Spanish and Hebrew over the period 1800–2008. (The paper is published by Arxiv.org.)

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We quote at length from the concluding Discussion:

"... words are competing actors in a system of finite resources. Just as business firms compete for market share, words demonstrate the same growth statistics because they are competing for the use of the writer/speaker and for the attention of the corresponding reader/listener . A prime example of fitness mediated evolutionary competition is the case of irregular and regular verb use in English. By analyzing the regularization rate of irregular verbs through the history of the English language, Lieberman et al.  show that the irregular verbs that are used more frequently are less likely to be overcome by their regular verb counterparts. Specifically, they find that the irregular verb death rate scales as the inverse square root of the word’s relative use. A study of word diffusion across IndoEuropean languages shows similar frequency-dependence of word replacement rates."

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Emotion in Eastern and Western Music

Just out in PLoSOne, an article on musical cognition entitled "Expression of Emotion in Eastern and Western Music Mirrors Vocalization" by Daniel Liu Bowling, Janani Sundararajan, Shui'er Han, Dale Purves (all from the Purves-lab at Duke).

Abstract: In Western music, the major mode is typically used to convey excited, happy, bright or martial emotions, whereas the minor mode typically conveys subdued, sad or dark emotions. Recent studies indicate that the differences between these modes parallel differences between the prosodic and spectral characteristics of voiced speech sounds uttered in corresponding emotional states. Here we ask whether tonality and emotion are similarly linked in an Eastern musical tradition. The results show that the tonal relationships used to express positive/excited and negative/subdued emotions in classical South Indian music are much the same as those used in Western music. Moreover, tonal variations in the prosody of English and Tamil speech uttered in different emotional states are parallel to the tonal trends in music. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that the association between musical tonality and emotion is based on universal vocal characteristics of different affective states.

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