Human Nature in the Lab and on the Page

Cognitive science exists in a golden era. The amount of resources pouring into research that examines human nature is unmatched by any other time in history.

We live in an era where readers of science books on the human condition expect clever psychological studies to explain every nook and cranny of our complex nature. They expect specifics, what happens in the brain when musicians improvise or when we experience a-ha moments, and they expect generalities, how friendships form or how decision-making works.    


Readers also want surprise. A good author declares how a commonly held intuition about human nature is, after all these years, untrue in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence. Gladwell did it beautifully in Blink. “We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it,” he states in the introduction. “[But] decision made very quickly can be every bit as good as decision made cautiously and deliberately.”

Or consider Jonah Lehrer in How We Decide:

Ever since the ancient Greeks, [we’ve assumed that] humans are rational…. There’s only one problem with this assumption of human rationality: it’s wrong.

Or Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated:

We still say that [people] have a gift, which is to say their greatness was given to them, for reasons no one can explain, by someone or something apart from themselves… the trouble with this explanation… is that it’s wrong.

Readers also crave drama. An effective introduction positions society as nearing a time of momentous change, in which ignoring a certain area of study will lead to irreversible errors. My favorite example of this comes from Susan Cain, who said this about introverts to a TED audience:

[Ignoring introverts is] our colleagues’ loss, and our community’s loss, and at the risk of sounding grandiose, it is the world’s loss.

When did human nature get so awe-inspiring?

Cognitive science exists in a golden era. The amount of resources pouring into research that examines human nature is unmatched by any other time in history. As a result, science writing is experiencing a golden era of its own. Scores of books with a new perspective on human nature are published every year because science writers have a lot of material to work with.

This relationship is reinforcing: thought-provoking research ends up in bestselling books putting pressure on researchers to produce rousing results of their own. Science writers, in turn, dig deeper for the latest counter-intuitive research. Wanting in on the action, young science writers and scientists are throwing themselves into the mix.

Is this a good for each industry?

A few months ago I corresponded with behavioral science professor Dave Nussbaum who teaches at the University of Chicago. He riffed on similar talking points and his response is worth reading.  

There's been a rise in research that's aimed at creating a stir, sometimes at the expense of the soundness of the research. At the same time, I think done properly, "cool" and counter-intuitive findings are very important. They not only get us to think in a different way, they also make it much easier to tell an engaging story about psychology, and I think that's an important thing to do. There's been a huge rise in the interest of the general public towards psychology, and I think that's great. Imagine, Power of Habit, and Thinking Fast and Slow are all on the bestseller list, and in the last decade the number of great psychologists… who are getting their important research out there for the public to consume is way up. There are downsides, too… but on the whole I think it's extremely positive. O

One consequence, as you rightly worry, is that it creates a bad system of incentives for researchers. It's not just the books, of course, it's also some journals that are motivated to publish eye-catching work. There are upsides to this, but the big downside is that you're publishing unreliable or incorrect findings and in a field where sometimes you don't get much replication, you're polluting our knowledge. Worse still, these studies get all the attention, while more careful but no less important research is ignored, while being more costly to run and less rewarding. Not really sure what to do with this problem other than to try to be more careful.

As a science writer I’m not sure either. Two ideas. First, psychological science is young. Counting from Wilhelm Wundt’s first experiments it’s only about 150 years old. Other cognitive sciences – neuroscience, linguistics, and modern sociology and anthropology – are even younger. I’ve interviewed several psychologists and it’s not uncommon from them to respond to questions like this: “You know, there’s no real evidence of this in the psychological literature. There are just not that many people studying that.”

Second, when it comes to writing about psychological research it’s probably best to do what a good teacher does. He won’t give you answers per se. He will suggest a style of thinking that will help you see the world more accurately. This is not to suggest that we shouldn’t expect psychological science to continue pursuing specific questions. But it is to recommend a moment of humility when it comes to understanding human nature.

Finally, Dave reminded me in an email yesterday that science is always a work in progress and that it’s much more exciting to tell a story that isn’t over. “That's what I would imagine would excite young readers,” he said. “The opportunity to be able to contribute something to the answer. There's plenty of room to give people interesting (interim) answers to good questions without pretending like the book has been written and there's nothing more to add.”

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.