Posted by & filed under Cultural Variation, Genetics: The Biological Context of Development, Human Development.

Description: Think about this question: What does it mean to say that a trait or a behavioral tendency is genetic and what does it mean to say that particular trait or behavior is acquired through observation, teaching, or learning. Now with your answers to the various parts of that question in mind consider this research situation. Researchers took a bunch of mice who like almonds and taught them to fear the smell of almonds using conditioning when gave the mice electric shocks while they were able to smell almonds.  The trained (educated) mice quickly developed a fear of the smell of almonds. Now it gets odd because to everyone’s surprise, the children and grandchildren of those trained to be almond smell averse mice ALSO were fearful of the smell of almonds. What is up? Learning that is passed along genetically? Genetic evolution instantly in one generation? Telepathy in mice (nope)? Now think about this. What is culture? The different flavors we bring to the human experience based on local learning and practices, right? And THAT means that culture is uniquely human right? Well, what if it NOT? What if animal species get caught up in “fads” like a pod of killer whales all swimming around for a few weeks with a salmon sticking out of their mouths like toothpick and then stopping even when one of their pod tries to keep it going. What does this all mean? Epigenesis, the blending of genetics, cultural learning, and developmental adaptation is trending as a concept and theory and potentially putting a significant challenge before our comfort with current theories and principles of genetics and evolution. BIG revolutionary, paradigmatic, changes? Maybe yes maybe know but fascinating to consider. Dive into the linked article (with the killer whales) and see where this all may be going.

Source: Evolution Unleashed, Kevin Laland, Aeon

Date: November 3, 2019

Photo Credit: Mike Korostelev / Getty Images

Article Link:

I have to say that I am still working at getting my own head around this stuff, but several parts of the debate jump out clearly to me. First, the back seat to which Psychology has assigned culture in a theoretic vehicle driven by evolution, genetics, and sociobiology has been seriously challenged in recent years. The idea that evolutionary change is slow and cultural adaptation is local and passing and neither are linked to the other makes it harder to see individual or local development as the profoundly flexible adaptation that is can be AND that can be carried forward somehow by “culture” or by epigenesis or what? The concise discussion of Popper’s notion of falsifiability and Kuhn’s notions of paradigm shifts in light of how science “typically” proceeds is very smoothly laid out and potentially opens ground for discussions of epigenesis and adaptation to take rot and grow. Do we need a revolution in evolutionary theory? I have no idea but oh my there is lot of intriguing new views here to try and wrap one’s brain around. Stay tuned in, it is going to be an interesting ride!

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How are evolution (genetics) and culture distinct for one another (or how have been viewed as distinct until recently)?
  2. What does the existence of fads in animal groups suggest and why is that interesting?
  3. So, do we need a revolution in evolutionary theory?

References (Read Further):

Extended Evolutionary Synthesis

Rechavi, O., Minevich, G., & Hobert, O. (2011). Transgenerational inheritance of an acquired small RNA-based antiviral response in C. elegans. Cell, 147(6), 1248-1256.

Jablonka, E. (2017). The evolutionary implications of epigenetic inheritance. Interface focus, 7(5), 20160135.

Whiten, A., Ayala, F. J., Feldman, M. W., & Laland, K. N. (2017). The extension of biology through culture. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(30), 7775-7781.

Laland, K. N., Odling-Smee, J., & Myles, S. (2010). How culture shaped the human genome: bringing genetics and the human sciences together. Nature Reviews Genetics, 11(2), 137.

Laland, K. N. (2018). Darwin’s unfinished symphony: how culture made the human mind. Princeton University Press.

Badcock, P. B., Constant, A., & Ramsteade, M. J. D. (2016) Tinkering with cognitive gadgets: Cultural evolutionary psychology meets active inference.