Seminar 4 2011 Question Page

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The Evolving Brain: social interaction and complexity - Questions Page

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Social group size

Kerikeri High School            Livechat June 2, 2011

What do you think the impacts of social media (facebook twitter) and the proliferation of information will have in terms of evolutionary pressure to Human development?



Palmerston North Girls' High School Student-SP 1st June, 10.04 pm 

I was just wondering if you also believe that humans evolved morality? Also if so, how would you explain altruistic behaviour if it doesn't benefit the species as a whole and the capacity that humans have to be both altruistic and at times selfish, and in this way not necessarily benefitting either them personally or our species as a whole? Just wondering, thank you.


Sir Peter Gluckman, live response 2 June 2011

Morality is in a sense about establishing a set of rules within your group that defines what acceptable behaviour for that group is. Most human groups have evolved to have some sense of belief systems. Belief systems are layered onto and combined with these morality needs to define a group and that is probably how religion emerged.
I don’t see morality as anything beyond fundamentally being about higher levels of what is fair in a group. I want to have a relationship with other members of my group where there is no tension and I will receive the same rewards from other members of the group if I am prepared to contribute. Whether that is physical or emotional, that is effectively how if see morality.
Altruistic behaviour is essential to live in a social group of the nature that humans have evolved with. You will be expelled from the group if you do not exhibit altruistic behaviour therefore it can be explained in one of three ways: kin selection (except not everyone in a group is related to each other); reciprocal altruism (an expectation that kindness will be returned by the recipient to the giver); or indirect altruism – I do something for you, you do something for someone else etc , so ultimately because I live in the same group, if I need help, the favour will come back to me - so the whole thing is a zero sum game. We then have to have rules for what happens when you are not acting altruistically – you are thrown out of the group.
There is the issue of social selection. Individual characteristics of living within a group may make you a favourable mate and therefore humans evolved with sexual selection. There is the possibility (remote in my mind) but there are evolutionary biologists that think that group selection can occur. Group selection is not about what is beneficial to the group - an individual does nothing for the species as a whole. Group selection is about ‘this group behaves in a certain way and therefore that group is more likely to survive than another group’. Therefore groups that behave altruistically may have been more likely to survive as opposed to groups that had no internal cohesion and therefore the characteristics of that may have evolved both culturally and biologically although I suspect it would be more likely to be in a cultural sense than a biological sense.
So if you think it through and use evolutionary theory carefully you can see how what is about individual fitness, that is surviving to allow your offspring to reproduce, which is all about individual fitness, can depend for humans on living successfully in a group. That means that you have to be selected to have the behaviours that ultimately determine the success of that group, without this being group selection. This is still individual selection, natural selection and sexual selection.

The amygdala and social interaction

Andrew M Sacred Heart College               Livechat June 2, 2011

Is the number of friends dependant on the amygdala or the other way round?
If social interactions (friends) depend on the amygdale capability, does that mean that some people are pre-disposed to being isolated / outcasts from a group?

Fardowsa    Masssey High School               Livechat June 2, 2011

Do humans have bigger amygdala’s than other animals then (relating this to group size) ?

The relationship between cultural evolution and biological evolution

Newlands College | Sacred Heart College | Tauranga Girls College | Massey High School | Kerikeri High school

Livechat June 2, 2011

A discussion emerged in the chat about the long term impact of social and technological development on human evolution (over a period of tens – hundreds of thousands of years). Some of the key points discussed included:

  • The effect of human dependence on technology with respect to survival capability in different environments – and therefore the ability to pass on genes.
  • The effect of complex technologies and social interactions on the development of intelligence – what effect has this had on the ability to survive to pass on genes
  • The concept that survival to reproduction is now more commonly achievable
  • The use of technological interventions to support reproductive success – e.g. the increasing use of reproductive technologies in developed countries
  • The impact of science on the potential for an individual to survive to pass on genes to the next generation
  • The effect of organised social systems on survival through to reproductive success – health / social welfare etc

Can the term natural selection continue to be used with respect of human populations in developed countries where there is extensive technological intervention affecting survival within a particular environment?

If evolutionary success is measured by the ability of an individual to successfully reproduce and pass genes on to the next generation, what impact is technology currently having on the evolutionary success of an individual?

What is your opinion on the potential long term (i.e. 10,000’s of years) effect of the increasing use of technology on biological evolution?

Has increased complexity of social organisation got the potential to impact on biological evolution over a long period of time?