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University of Oregon

Evolution and Cognition Focus Group

Come and hear:

Friday, December 9, 2011, 1:00-2:00 pm, 313 Condon Hall

Dr. Kirstin Sterner ” Uncovering developmental patterns of gene expression in the human brain”

Human postnatal brain development is characterized by significant changes to brain size, organization and metabolism. The specific genes involved in these developmental changes are only now becoming better understood. To clarify age-related patterns of gene expression in the human cerebral cortex, we used whole-genome oligonucleotide microarrays to examine gene expression in human brain tissue spanning ages from infancy to adulthood. Our sampling strategy differed from previous studies in that we measured mRNA expression derived from surgically resected tissue rather than from postmortem tissue. We employed regression techniques to identify gene transcripts that followed significant linear or curvilinear functions of age after accounting for multiple comparisons. These models identified 40 transcripts that met our criteria for significant age-related changes in expression. We also introduced an approach designed to discriminate genes with variable as opposed to uniform patterns of gene expression and found that more often greater inter-individual variance is observed among children than among adults. These results will be discussed in context of the prolonged developmental period of enhanced energy metabolism and adaptive plasticity that distinguishes humans from other primates.

Previous presentations:

Friday, November 18, 2011, 1:00-2:00PM, 313 Condon Hall.

Dr. Pranj Mehta’s talk titled ” The Biology of Bargaining: Dynamic Hormone Changes During Negotiation Predict Economic Profit”

Steroid hormones can fluctuate in social interactions, but the economic implications of these biological changes remain unclear. Here we show that acute changes in hormone concentrations associated with dominance (testosterone) and psychological stress (cortisol) interact to explain economic profit in bargaining interactions. In a face-to-face negotiation (Study 1) and a laboratory-based bargaining game (the Ultimatum Game, Study 2), testosterone rises were associated with better economic performance only if cortisol simultaneously dropped. If cortisol rose during bargaining, testosterone rises redicted poor economic performance. There is, it seems, a “bright side” and “dark side” to rising testosterone in economic social interactions that depends on activity in the neuroendocrine stress axis. Implications for the neuroscience of social decision-making are discussed.


Frances White and Klaree Boose presenting “Evolution of primate tool use and the results of a bonobo tool use experiment”.

Summary: Tool use has long been identified as an important trait in human evolution. Many primates use tools, but tool use and tool manufacture varies enormously in complexity among species and much attention has been focused on tool use in our closest relatives. Chimpanzees are prolific tool users, orangutans occasionally use tools, gorillas rarely use tool in the wild, and bonobo have often been described as not using tools. We will talk about the context of tool use in primates and present the results of a captive experiment where we gave bonobos the opportunity to make and use tools to extract food from an artificial termite mound. We will compare how bonobos performed with results from similar experiments with chimpanzees and gorillas (see the attached Lonsdorf article).

For more information contact Frances White at

Friday, November 7th, 2:30 PM in 143 Straub.
We will be discussing the evolution of extreme self sacrifice (ESS, with apologies to Maynard Smith) by considering two different models, one by Blackwell and Sugiyama and the other by Orbell and Morikawa, that have been developed to provide functional accounts for how ESS might evolve. I’m attaching copies of two papers that present these models, and I ask that you not circulate them because they are not yet complete and have not been submitted for journal review.

The purpose of our discussion will be to identify and explore some of the similarities and differences that characterize the two papers in their attempts to explain ESS (extreme self sacrifice). Here are some questions that we may want to address. (1) What is the level of selection that is assumed to be acting in the two models. (2) At the proximate level, what mental mechanism(s) are likely to mediate ESS in each of the models? (3) Do the two models pose similar and overlapping questions about the evolution of ESS or do the models actually address rather different issues concerning the evolution of ESS? (4) Is the self sacrifice that the two models attempt to explain likely to have been part of our ancestral past or is it an example of maladaptive behavior that occurs because our present-day environment is so different from the one in which our ancestors lived?

Friday, October 24th, 4 PM in 112 Lillis
Dr. Jim McKenna (Dept. of Anthropology, University of Notre Dame)
“Sleep Like a Baby: What that Really Means in Evolutionary and Cultural Perspectives”
Download the Flyer
Download the Article

Friday, October 10th, between 2:30 and 3:30 PM in 143 Straub
At our focus group meeting on October 10th, we will be discussing the presentation abstracts for the Evolutionary Perspectives on War Conference. We won’t have time to discuss each and every abstract so what I suggest is that you identify one or two of your favorites and be prepared to raise questions about them or to offer a provocative observation based on the abstracts that will foster our group’s
download conference abstracts (PDF)

Friday, May 23rd, 2008 at 2 PM
Dr. Bill Cresko (Center for Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, UO)
“The Developmental Genetic Basis of Evolution in the Wild”

Friday, November 30th, 2007 at 2 PM
Dr. Bill Harbaugh (Economics, UO)
“Neural Responses to Taxation and Voluntary Giving Reveal Motives for Charitable Donations”

We find increased neural activity in the ventral striatum and insulae when people observe money going to a charity, as well as when they get money for themselves. These responses can be used to predict who will give voluntarily, which is consistent with a “pure altruism” motive for giving that varies across people. Additionally, reward center activation is higher when money transfers are voluntary, suggesting that a “warm-glow” motive, tied to the agency effect of free choice, is also at work in charitable giving. The results have implications for the relative merits of taxation and giving as funding mechanisms for public goods.

Friday, October 19th, 2007 at 2 PM
Professor Nick Allen (University of Melbourne)
“Depression and domains of risk taking: Recent empirical evidence on the social risk hypothesis of depression”

Friday, October 5th, 2007 at 2 PM
John Orbell and Tom Morikawa (Political Science, UO)
“Self-Sacrificial ‘Heroism’: Evidence of Proximate Mechanisms from the Kamikaze Campaign,”

June 14th, 2007 at 4 PM
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama (ICDS, UO)
“Art and Human Evolution: Art Behaviors as Information Technology”

From a biological standpoint, art behavior is puzzling: it involves a large investment of time and energy yet doesn’t appear to provide any  survival or reproductive benefits. Several researchers have challenged this assumption, each advancing a different hypothesis regarding the evolved function of art behavior and the selection pressures that produced it. While each is compelling in its way, none of these hypotheses is entirely consistent with the ethnographic record, which indicates that art behavior is used in multiple fitness-enhancing ways. The common thread among these hypotheses is information transmission, which suggests an alternative source and function for art behavior. Tooby and DeVore (1987) argue that humans are characterized by a highly elaborated ability to make, deploy, and communicate cognitive models (i.e., representations) of their environment, and that “culture” is the transmission of these models between and across generations. Whether directed at prospective mates, exchange partners, allies, enemies, or kin, art behaviors involve the generation and transmission of information-rich representations of the physical, social and/or psychological environment. I therefore propose that the study of art behavior be grounded in an information-based conceptualization of the human ecological niche, and that instances of art behavior be parsed as expressions of adaptations that subserve the generation and transmission of cognitive models of the environment.