What Caused the Darwin Boom?

Question: Why has evolutionary psychology exploded in popularity?

Robert Wright: Well, I think it’s not surprising that evolutionary psychology should be occupying center stage given the fact that the human mind was created by evolution. So, in a way you can ask, why did it take so long? And I think the answer there is two-fold. First of all, there were some genuine kind of refinements, or extensions of the theory of natural selection in the 1960s, early ‘70s, that allowed us to make sense of the not obviously animal parts of human behavior and emotion. Things like altruism, love, the conscience, empathy. So there’s that. And separately, there had been some political resistance to the idea of using Darwin to think of human psychology. And that dates back to political things that have happened in the first half of the 20th century. So, at the same time that there was genuine progress in the field, there was a kind of slow kind of dissipation of the long-standing political resistance. But it wasn’t – it didn’t happen overnight. I mean, when I wrote The Moral Animal in 1994, there was plenty of resistance.

Question: What are the major unanswered questions in evolutionary psychology?

Robert Wright: I think, I really think that the big questions are kind of taken care of in evolutionary psychology. If you look at the landscape of human thought and feeling, the main contours are broadly speaking explained and it’s a question of working out the details. Now, there are little kind of riddles. I mean, there’s no consensus on the origin of, like laughter. And the answer there is, there’s probably no single answer. It’s kind of a lot of little thing converged, or laughter is something that in rudimentary form emerged for one purpose and was adapted for various other purposes. But I would say, in terms of the basic emotions that the govern our everyday lives, you know, ranging from fear to envy to joy and including these things like altruism and empathy, broadly speaking we now know why they’re here. And they seem to comply in their dynamics with what the theory would predict.

I mean, there is separately from that, the question of consciousness, but that’s a metaphysical conundrum that is not, per se, answered by evolutionary psychology, but the more I say about that the less sense I will seem to make. So, I’ll stop there.

Question: Is there a class of human behaviors that evolutionary psychology can’t illuminate?

Robert Wright: Religion is not an adaptation. That is to say, it’s not here because it was conducive to the replication of the genes underlying it. I mean, I think there are genes underlying religion in the sense that all the kinds of basic emotions that are part of religious experience, things like “awe” for example, and various kinds of superstitious intuitions and some of the various things that might make up religion do themselves have a basis in the genes. It’s just that those genes weren’t preserved by natural selection because they gave rise to what we now call religious behavior. So, I think religion as we think of it is largely a product of cultural evolution. It took shape in essence, you might say, after natural selection did its work.

Recorded on February 12, 2010

Interviewed by Austin Allen

 

Why is evolutionary psychology so popular, and what questions has it not yet answered?

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Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
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In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

Videos
  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.