Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War

Somebody (possibly Henson himself) posted Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War over at Kuro5hin in 2006. I had no idea Kuro5hin still existed, and Henson’s paper could use some consideration of group selection, but anyway it’s a worthwhile and controversial read.

It seems to me that if Henson’s basic thesis is right, our current global political situation is not just eerily similar to that of the mid-1930s, it’s actually the same phenomenon – so we better get it under control.

nine is a secret

Ravens have the unusual distinction of having different collective nouns depending on what the group is doing. A group of ravens or rooks feeding or hunting together is an unkindness, but a group of them watching something together is a constable of ravens. If they are chatting or conferring together they are either a conspiracy or a parliament of ravens… note that any group of owls is always called a parliament, which seems odd given owls’ (somewhat undeserved) reputation for wisdom and the notable lack thereof in most parliaments.

Like magpies and crows, ravens have a traditional rhyme.

One for bad news,
Two for mirth.
Three is a wedding,
Four is a birth.
Five is for riches,
Six is a thief.
Seven, a journey,
Eight is for grief.
Nine is a secret,
Ten is for sorrow.
Eleven is for love,
Twelve, joy for tomorrow.

Common Raven, two juveniles

Corvids are believed to be the most intelligent of birds, and the raven (Corvus Corax) is the most intelligent bird that has been tested to date.

Or to put it in a more traditional way: Tha gliocas an ceann an fhitich – “There is wisdom in the head of the raven.” You can see it in the whites of their eyes.

E. O. Wilson on group selection

It’s two years old, but Smithsonian has a nice interview with E.O.Wilson in which he speaks briefly about the group selection heresy. (Out-takes from that interview here).

The way I define it, group selection operates on the fitness, or lack thereof, of the social interactions in the group. In other words, it’s not simply group versus group in that sense but what actions individuals take that affect the group. And that would of course be communication, division of labor and the ability to read others’ intentions, which leads to cooperation.

When it’s an advantage to communicate or cooperate, those genes that promote it are going to be favored in that group if the group is competing with other groups. It gives them superiority over other groups and the selection proceeds at the group level, even as it continues to proceed at the individual level.

I usually give a simplified version of group selection – “the largest group of mutual altruists always wins” – but people generally don’t understand my point. Wilson, unsurprisingly, has a cleaner explanation.

Within groups, selfish individuals win and between groups, altruistic groups beat groups of selfish individuals.

The Owl and The Pussycat

Fum (Smoke) & Gebra (Frost), the Internet’s favorite Cat and Owl, as animated .GIFs.

Black cat and barn owl playing together

Barn owl and black cat playing together

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
— Edward Lear (1812–1888)

There’s an archive of Fum and Gebra, but unfortunately Fum died of FUS last year. Gebra has a new friend, though, and a Facebook page.

Native American Chickens

No, not Dick Cheney.

The Boston Globe has some newly digitized footage of the New England Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido) taken by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation Division of Fisheries and Game in 1918.

If you want to know what the Heath Hen sounded like before it was hunted to extinction in 1932, Arkive.org has more recent footage of the Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus), which is rapidly headed for extinction itself.