Thursday, August 9, 2007

Smart is the new Sexy! (The evolution of behavior and the brain)

Blatant benevolence and conspicuous consumption

From The Economist

Hat tip: 3 Quarks Daily

GEOFFREY MILLER is a man with a theory that, if true, will change the way people think about themselves. His idea is that the human brain is the anthropoid equivalent of the peacock's tail. In other words, it is an organ designed to attract the opposite sex. Of course, brains have many other functions, and the human brain shares those with the brains of other animals. But Dr Miller, who works at the University of New Mexico, thinks that mental processes which are uniquely human, such as language and the ability to make complicated artefacts, evolved originally for sexual display.

Geeks everywhere will be vindicated. Smart is the new sexy...or the old sexy, I guess you would have to say. You can read the complete article in The Economist. Miller and his collaborator, Vladas Griskevicius recent published their theory in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and the article is careful to point out (thank you for responsible science reporting) that testing it will take all long time. They have begun by examining two traits - conspicuous consumption and altruism toward strangers. The second, the article claims, has "no obvious payoff" for humans.

I find the construction of hypotheses about human behavior fascinating. The best inquiry, I have been taught by one of my teachers, looks at a problem on multiple levels. For example, if you are examining a question about cognition - say, problem solving - your idea should have support on the anatomical level (one level lower, if you will) and should be applicable to how we take tests (one level higher). Cognitive neuroscience is by its nature multi-disciplinary. Questions about language and behavior often have one foot in evolution in that inquiring minds want to know what every 4-year-old scientist asks multiple times a day - "Why!" I have read more than once recently that altruism toward strangers has no payoff, and I'm confused by it. Given the fact that we have evolved as social creatures, wouldn't acts for the good of society be valuable to the preservation of the species - or does our own personal strand of DNA always take precedence? I guess I should really take a course in evolution and genetics and find out. I enjoy hypotheses about behavior because this question of 'why' necessarily combines imagination with science.

Leewenhoek grinding a lens that provided powerful enough magnification to see microbes changed what we knew about the world concretely. The existence of microbes is confirmable. But what motivated the evolution of our brain - can we ever comfortably conclude that - yes indeed, our brain DID evolve for the purpose of wooing our mates. What a relief to know! In a discussion involving natural selection, were talking about understanding which characteristics were advantageous to survival given the environment millions of years ago. This inquiry must necessarily combine some parts imagination with some parts science. Good research does involve imagination, I believe, and its product is useful to us in how we understand ourselves if it can produce a compelling narrative.

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