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Around the web: levels of analysis

The “Around the Web” series highlights informative websites, and also targeted blog posts and news articles, relevant to the courses I teach. This semester I teach Anth 143: Biology of Human Behavior, an introductory-level course that covers the basics of evolution, behavioral biology, and the interaction of biology and culture. My hope is that these posts are useful not only for my current students, but other people hoping to gain background or insight into these topics.

This week students learned about proximate and ultimate causation — the two overarching ethological levels of analysis (within which we also have developmental and mechanistic levels within proximate, and phylogenetic and evolutionary levels within ultimate causation). In addition to a lesson and reading on this topic (including this post by David Sloan Wilson), we applied our thinking by watching the PBS Special Ape Genius, which focuses on a comparative primatological approach to understanding human cognitive ability. If you haven’t seen the film, you really must! It is available for free, albeit in chunks, at the link above.

Today I’d like to share a few blog post links on proximate and ultimate causation, and a few on primate cognition just because they’re fun and relevant to the film. Then of course, I’ll throw in a few other random links that I think you’ll like.

Proximate and ultimate causation

Greg Laden offers a great perspective on proximate and ultimate causation as it relates to same-sex couples in the animal kingdom. It’s a nice link to our earlier work on sexuality.

Patrick Clarkin, a professor at UMass Boston, provides a nice analysis of the proximate/ultimate distinction as it applies to war.

An article in Psychology Today from this summer connects the proximate/ultimate distinction to a reconception of Maslow’s hierarchy. Should be useful for all the psych majors in the class!

Finally, an article you may not first recognize as being about the levels of analysis, but I think nicely demonstrates our need to understand proximate (mechanism) and ultimate (anticipating adaptation when thinking about the future) levels. It is also a nice demonstration of how our understanding of evolutionary theory — particularly regarding ancestry and our ability to build only on whatever raw material our ancestors give us — is important. And then of course it also discusses ape laughter. Fun! (10/18/10 ETA added forgotten link to this paragraph)

Primate cognition and behavior

You may find a few other related posts and articles on primate behavior stimulating. First, not totally related but certainly fun, Ed Yong’s post Bonobo males get sex with help from their mums documents how mothers help make introductions and even fight off competing males to help their sons maximize mating opportunities. Incidentally, Ed also just won one of the 2010 National Academies Communication Awards. This is a big deal not just for Ed, who is an exceptional writer and probably deserves one of every award we can possibly give him, but to the science blogosphere, whose legitimacy is swiftly increasing (despite the occasional curmudgeon — and besides, see a great response and a round-up of other responses here). This is a great thing for science communication and literacy.

Onward. Here is an interesting PLoS ONE article on cognitive differences in chimps and bonobos. You may recognize two author names — Brian Hare and Michael Tomasello — because they were both featured extensively in Ape Genius. Cool stuff!

Random, but really kinda related, links

First, those of you in the Chambana area — Jorge Cham of PhD Comics fame is here! Go see him speak tonight. I feel like such a fangirl.

The two other links I want to share are a bit more directly related to the course. First, Scientific American has an interesting story chronicling our lives “from womb to tomb” — it covers the field of fetal and developmental origins. As we get more into behavioral endocrinology this will come up more, but this kind of research has implications not only for behavior but for health. It’s a pretty new field and we need to tread carefully, but understanding prenatal origins of variation is a very worthy goal.

Second, I thought this post over at Gene Expression on the Human Nature Top 10 was an interesting take on “humaniqueness.” Check out both the post and the comment thread for some interesting thoughts on what constitutes both widely accepted and undervalued aspects of human nature.

That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend!


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