Tag Archives: evolutionary psychology

We are MacApes, O’Monkeys, and Ben-Reptiles


A couple years back, Jonathan Marx and Jerry Coyne had an online spat on the question “Are humans apes?” (Marx says noCoyne says yes; see also John Hawks, who says no.) I offer my own solution below, after talking about Linnaeus (1707-1778) and biological categorization.

There’s a branch of cultural anthropology that studies “folk biology,” also known as “ethnobiology,” which is (among other things) about how different groups classify living things. Folk biological categories don’t vary randomly across cultures; there are some general principles at work. A quick summary: the basic level of categorization is roughly the genus. American folk genera include oakcrow, and fox (although a lot of Americans today are really bad at folk biology, maybe using that part of the brain for Pokemon.) Many peoples, and most hunter-gatherers, only take categorization down to the genus level. Others (especially horticulturalists) take it down to the species level, often with two part names (red oak, silver fox). Going toward more inclusive groups, genera are lumped together in larger, intermediate-sized, non-overlapping categories (palmhawk), which belong in turn to the more inclusive level of “life forms”: (bird, snake, fish, tree, grass/herb).

From an anthropological perspective, Linnaeus’s famous scheme of classification is an elaboration of these universal principles, with more species and more taxonomic levels (the famous Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species).

A version of Linnaeus’s scheme served evolutionary biologist well for centuries. But starting in the later twentieth century, many biologists turned to another approach that was claimed to be a better fit for evolutionary principles: According to cladists, the classification of living things should be based on clades: groups containing all and only the descendants of an ancestor. This requires overturning or revising many familiar categories. For example, monkeys are not a clade, since Old World monkeys are more closely related to apes (including humans) than to New World monkeys. Reptiles are not a clade, since crocodiles are more closely related to birds than to lizards and snakes. Fish are not a clade, since lungfish are more closely related to amphibians and reptiles than to most other fish.

After some bitter disputes. cladists seems to have won the battle among scientists. But cladism has made less headway among non-scientists. In Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science, Carol Yoon argues that cladistics is just too much at variance with the way the human mind understands biological categories. Most people are never going to take to cladistics any more than they’re going to take to twelve-tone music, or Loglan. So different answers to the question “Are humans apes?” reflect disagreement about how far we can or should bring folk categories in line with the austere logic of cladism. Apes, including humans, are a clade. Apes, not including humans, are not (since chimpanzees are more closely related – but not really more similar – to humans than to gorillas).

I suggest a compromise. Folk categories like ape, monkey, reptile, and fish, defined by shared ancestral traits, are useful, even if they aren’t clades, defined by shared derived traits. But the concept of a clade is also important one for biologists. So maybe when we want to talk about the clades associated with folk categories, why don’t we use a prefix – the Scottish Mac, Irish O’, or Hebrew/Arabic ben/bin. (Any of these will serve.) So human beings are not apes, monkeys, reptiles, or fish. But we are MacApes, O’Monkeys, Ben Reptiles, and/or Bin Fish.

(For other We Are posts see We Are Upside Down Bugs and We are Stardust.)


Learn This One Weird Trick … (Part One)

… that humans use, and now you can too!

There are people who think that human beings are nothing special. Sure (the argument goes) people have uniquely large brains. But all sorts of creatures have unique features. Elephants are the only animals with trunks. Tamarins and marmosets are the only primates that give birth to twins. Platypuses are the only venomous mammals. Spotted hyenas are the only mammals whose females sport pseudo-penises (through which they give birth!). And so on. If we could ask members of these species they’d claim that they’re the special ones.

But of course we can’t ask them, and in any case, this isn’t a very convincing argument. Human beings have an absolutely outsize impact on the Earth, and the advent of human beings looks like one of the major evolutionary transitions, comparable in importance to the origin of the eukaryotic cell or multicellular life. But even if we buy this, it still leaves open the question of whether there’s a key adaptation – a One Weird Trick – that accounts for the exceptional course of human evolution. Here are some candidates that being are being batted around these days:

1) The cognitive niche. The basic idea is at least as old as Aristotle, that human brings are defined by their capacity for Reason. A modern version of this is advocated by evolutionary psychologist John Tooby and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. Pinker in particular has elaborated the argument that humans are uniquely adapted to acquire and share knowledge, by virtue of a suite of cognitive, social, and linguistic adaptations. We’ve already touched on several aspects of this: Human beings seem to have taken the capacity for thinking about physical space and retooled it for thinking about the abstract cognitive space of possession – a social relationship. (Other abstract cognitive spaces include kinship, time, and change-of-state.) And humans seem to harness the machinery for processing the sounds of interacting solid objects in creating major categories of phonemes. For a more complete exposition, here’s an academic article by Pinker, and a talk on youtube.

2) Culture. Rob Boyd and Pete Richerson, who’ve done a lot of mathematical modeling of cultural evolution, are skeptical about the “cognitive niche” argument. Too much culture, they argue, is things that have been learned by trial-and-error, and are passed on from one generation to the next without people understanding why they work. Boyd and Richerson appeal, as anthropologists have for generations, to the importance of culture. We mentioned earlier their argument that the frequency of climate change in the Ice Age was nicely calibrated to favor social learning rather than individual learning or instinct. Joseph Henrich provides a recent defense of the importance of culture. Contra Pinker, he thinks humans often don’t have a good cause-and-effect understanding of the things they do, but depend heavily on imitation and the accumulated wisdom of the elders.

Coming up: Part Two. Recursion and Shared Intentionality

Hits, slides, and rings

Part of the challenge of language is coming up with some way to distinguish thousands or tens of thousands of words from one another. It would be hard to come up with that many unique sounds. What human languages do instead is to come up with phonemes and rules for stringing phonemes together into syllables, and then create words by arbitrarily pairing up one syllable, or a few, with a meaning. Phonemes are the individual sounds of a language, roughly comparable to individual letters. There are about forty phonemes in most dialects of English. (English spelling does a pretty sloppy job of matching up phonemes and letters. Finnish comes close to one phoneme per letter.)

Often in evolution organisms don’t solve new problems from scratch, but instead harness preexisting adaptations. I argued earlier that the abstract “space” of possession (“The Crampden estate went to Reginald.”) may have developed by harnessing preexisting concepts of physical space. And our abilities to recognize speech sounds may harness our preexisting capacities for recognizing the sounds of solid objects interacting. At least that’s the argument of a recent book by Mark Changizi, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man.

Changizi notes that even though we’re mostly not aware of it, we’re very good at using our hearing to keep track of what’s going on in our physical surroundings. For example, people easily recognize the difference between someone going upstairs and someone going downstairs, and we’re pretty good at recognizing individuals by their treads. The sounds that solid objects make can be broadly categorized as hits, slides, and rings. Hits: one object collides with another and sends out a sharp burst of sound. Slides: an object scrapes against another and sends out a more extended sound. Rings: an object reverberates after a collision. Changizi argues that these correspond to the major categories of phonemes.

  • Hits = plosives, like p b t g k
  • Slides = fricatives, like s sh th f v z
  • Rings = sonorants, including sonorant consonants, like l r y w m n, and vowels

These are not the only sounds we can make with our mouths. We can do barks and pops and farts and so on. But our auditory systems are especially cued into solid object physics, so when we try to come up with easy-to-distinguish phonemes, that’s what we focus on. And a lot of rules about how phonemes hook up also follow from this principle – for example hits followed by rings are more common than the reverse.

There’s surely more going on with speech sounds than Changizi allows for. But if imitating nature is not the whole story of phonemes, it may at least be where they got started.

Later on when we talk about writing systems, we’ll see there’s a similar argument about how these are tuned to tickle our primate visual systems.

It’s a small world after all!

592-560 thousand years ago

The story of human origins is partly a story of Big Things like the Taming of Fire and the Dawn of Speech. But it’s also the story of some odd byways and quiddities. A nice introduction to some of these is Chip Walter’s book Thumbs, Toes, and Tears: And Other Traits That Make Us Human. (His more recent Last Ape Standing is good too.) Walters considers funny bits of anatomy like our unique big toes and thumbs, and funny bits of behavior like our habits of laughing, weeping, and kissing. Toes and thumbs fossilize, but behaviors can be hard to date, evolutionarily. Presumably these behaviors appeared sometime before modern humans evolved and spread, so let’s pick today’s date. It’s also hard to figure out the exact evolutionary rationale for some of these behaviors. Humor, for example, is not a simple phenomenon: intellectually appreciating a joke, actually finding it funny and enjoying it, and finally laughing, each involve separate areas of the brain.

Laughter, specifically, is a minor human oddity that sheds an interesting light on some big events in human evolution. Robert Provine, a leading laughter researcher, spells out the argument in “Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccuping, and Beyond.” Chimpanzees have a kind of laugh, a modified vocalized panting synchronized with inhalation and exhalation. Presumably laughter first resulted when panting-during-play evolved into a play signal. But the short bursts of human laughter go further, having freed themselves from synchrony with the inhalation/exhalation cycle. Laughter, in other words, is just one instance of the more general phenomenon of humans having separate controls for vocalization and for respiration. Interestingly, the most prominent examples of complex vocalization – songbirds and some other birds, whales, bats, and humans – are all found in non-quadrupeds. In quadrupeds, breathing is tightly coupled with locomotion: lungs need to be full to stiffen the thorax when the forelimbs hit the ground. Giving up quadrupedalism seems to have allowed for an “adaptive release” in the evolution of vocal abilities in a number of unrelated lineages. So the study of laughter (and other vocalizations) suggests that two key human adaptations – bipedalism and spoken language – are more closely linked than one might have expected.

Another and overlapping set of human particularities involves facial expressions of the emotions. Darwin got a whole book out of this. He concluded (admittedly based on somewhat anecdotal methods) that different emotional expressions are largely innate. It’s an interesting illustration of his ability to reason from small facts to large conclusions that he also drew a big conclusion about human evolution from this. In Darwin’s day, there were scientists who believed that different human races had evolved from very different prehuman progenitors: one prehuman species giving rise to Europeans, another to Africans, and so on. But Darwin reasoned that the very close similarity in facial expressions (and he had traveled a lot, and witnessed a lot of expressions in a lot of places) and the very similar emotional makeup of humans around the world was evidence that human populations shared a fairly recent common ancestry. Here as in several other cases, a mixture of close reasoning and sheer luck led Darwin to the correct conclusion about evolution long before there was much solid evidence.

Darwin’s work on emotions was neglected for most of the twentieth century by anthropologists favoring a blank slate view of human behavior, but was eventually largely vindicated by a number of researchers, notably Paul Ekman. There is now good evidence for six basic facially expressed emotions: Fear, Disgust, Joy, Anger, Sadness, and Surprise.

If you’re a movie watcher, this list may seem familiar. These emotions (all except for Surprise) are all depicted as little homunculi living inside the head of an 11 year old girl in the animated feature “Inside Out.” (The movie gets a strong thumbs up from Logarithmic History). Somebody at Pixar Studios knows their Ekman.


So the sappy song is right: There is just one moon and one golden sun, and a smile means friendship to everyone.

Your Cuisinart, a prehistory

A famous movie cut, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, transitions from a bone club, hurled aloft by an australopithecine 2.5 million years ago, to a spacecraft in the year 2001.


Arthur Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, coming up with the plot for the movie/book, were influenced by the popular author Robert Ardrey. In his book African Genesis, Ardrey casts human evolution as a version of the story of Cain and Abel, except in his version the peaceful vegetarians (robust australopithecines) get clobbered by the club-wielding meat-eaters (gracile australopithecines).

We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments?

Ardrey, along with Konrad Lorenz and Desmond Morris, was much in vogue in the 1960s: Sam Peckinpah was another movie director influenced by him. Unfortunately his speculations on evolution and human behavior are probably not of enduring value: he had the misfortune to take up the topic too early to take on board the sociobiological revolution pioneered by William Hamilton, Robert Trivers, and George Williams, and popularized by E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins.

Ardrey may not have been off-base in thinking that weaponry and warfare have been an important motive force in human biological and social evolution. But where early stone tools are concerned, a different segue, from Oldowan chopper to Cuisnart may be more appropriate.


Recent research argues that early hominins could have dramatically increased available food energy by pounding vegetables and chopping up meat into more digestible pieces. Tool use may have been an early step in our ancestors’ move to high energy diets. Meat-eating began to be important in human evolution around 2.6 million years ago. Somewhat later we see evidence that some hominins have lighter jaws and aren’t chewing as much. So to celebrate this early dietary revolution, here’s a recipe:

Steak Tartare

Place in a food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade:

1 ½ pounds lean beef (tenderloin, top round, or sirloin) cut into ½ inch cubes

Pulse until meat is coarsely ground, 7-10 seconds. Do not over-process. Remove meat to a chilled platter or individual plates and gently form into 6 individual mounds.

[Optional: Make a spoon shaped indentation on top of each mound and crack into each

1 egg yolk.]

Divide and arrange in small piles around each serving:

½ cup minced onions
½ cup minced shallots
½ cup minced fresh parsley
¼ cup minced drained capers
8-12 anchovies (optional)

Serve immediately and pass separately:

Fresh lemon juice
Worcestershire sauce
Dijon mustard
Hot pepper sauce
Freshly ground black pepper

From The Joy of Cooking 1997

Dead baby monkeys

There’s a dark side to being a primate. Last year a review article summarized data on rates of lethal aggression in non-human animals. The figure below shows some of the results. Several clusters of especially violent species stand out in the figure, including primates.

dead monkeys

Much of the lethal aggression in primates involves infanticide. Sarah Hrdy demonstrated back in the 1970s that infanticide occurs regularly in Hanuman langurs, monkeys in India. A male who takes over a group of females will systematically kill offspring sired by the previous male. If you think evolution is about the survival of the species, this is hard to explain. But it makes sense given the logic of the selfish gene. Females who lose an infant return more quickly to breeding again, and the father of the next infant is likely to be the killer of the previous one.

Primates may be particularly vulnerable to this grim logic, because they spend a long time as infants. Commonly L/G>1, that is to say, the time, L, a female spends lactating for an infant (during which she is unlikely to conceive), is usually greater than the time, G, she spends gestating an infant. This puts particular pressure on males to hurry things along by eliminating nursing infants fathered by other males.

As a result, infanticide is relatively common among primates, and females under particularly strong pressure to find ways to avoid it. Hanuman langurs live in one-male units, where a female has little choice about who she mates with. In other species, by contrast (most baboons, chimpanzees), multiple males reside with multiple females. In these species females are often sexually promiscuous, sometimes actively soliciting multiple males for sex. This is probably mostly a matter of confusing paternity sufficiently to suppress the threat of infanticide. There’s a general lesson here: female promiscuity generally has different evolutionary roots than male promiscuity.

Leaves of grass

Not as dramatic as the evolution of Triceratops, Tarchea giganta, or T. rex, but of more lasting consequence, is the evolution of grasses (Poaceae). We know from coprolites – fossil feces — that grass was around by the Late Cretaceous, so the coevolution of grass and grazers had already begun with dinosaurs. These early grasses were not widespread. It would take climate shifts and more evolution (toward using carbon dioxide more efficiently) to create the sort of grasslands we are familiar with.

Grasses have played a central role in human evolution and human history. Human beings evolved in tropical grasslands, and some evolutionary psychologists think we still have an instinctive affinity for this environment. The domestication of grasses (wheat, barley, oats, millet, rice, corn) was one of the great revolutions in human prehistory, and grasses provided most of the calories people ate for most of recorded history. Contact along the frontier between grasslands supporting pastoralists and grain growing lands supporting peasants is one of the great engines of historical dynamics.

Grasses grow from the base of the leaf, not the tip of the stem, which is what allows them to recover from being grazed. This makes them a recurring symbol both of the transitoriness of life (“All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is like the flower of the field,” Isaiah 40:6) and its resilience.

The most famous poem about grass, by Walt Whitman, perhaps strikes the right elegiac note for the dinosaurs, who meet their doom tomorrow:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me
with full hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and