The Primate Diaries

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Notes on science, politics, and history from a primate in the human zoo.

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  • June 11, 2009
  • 04:05 AM

Treading Carefully: From Rape to Courtship in Male Water Striders

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

Image: Battle of the Sexes / Ben Clifford

In most species the arms race between the sexes has resulted in variations on a consistent theme: the “ardent” male vs. the “coy” female. Males, who often bear little responsibility for investing time or resources in their offspring, seek to mate with as many females as conditions allow. In contrast, females are generally much more selective about whom they choose to share their genes with in the next generation. This usual (........ Read more »

  • May 21, 2009
  • 10:21 PM

Breaking the Chain

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

Darwinius masillae and the fallacy of a “missing link”

Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Man, demonstrated in lucid prose the social significance that the great chain of being, or scala naturae (“ladder of nature”) had for centuries of philosophers and naturalists. Now, the analysis of a Middle Eocene primate dubbed Darwinius masillae, published in PLoS ONE by Jens Franzen and colleagues, has elicited a firestorm of media commentary as journalists scramble over one another in their rush........ Read more »

  • May 11, 2009
  • 02:22 PM

Helpful Cichlids in the Gladiator's Show

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

Image: The Daffodil Cichlid of Lake Tanganyika / Koen Eeckhoudt

In 1888 “Darwin’s Bulldog”, Thomas Henry Huxley, declared that nature was little more than a “gladiator’s show” whereby only “the strongest, the swiftest, and the cunningest live to fight another day.” Brutal competition was the only important factor in the natural world, in which a “Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence.” As such, we shouldn’t expect cooperation in nature beca........ Read more »

  • May 4, 2009
  • 07:14 PM

A New Genetic Map of Human Origins

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

In Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel he states that, “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.” This view revolutionized the understanding of human variation in terms of politics, culture and the subjugation of some groups by others. However, it is the biological variation in human populations that can now help re........ Read more »

Tishkoff, S., Reed, F., Friedlaender, F., Ehret, C., Ranciaro, A., Froment, A., Hirbo, J., Awomoyi, A., Bodo, J., Doumbo, O.... (2009) The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African Americans. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.1172257  

  • April 14, 2009
  • 03:52 AM

Male Chauvinist Chimps or the Meat Market of Public Opinion?

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

A new study in the journal PLoS One, by Cristina Gomes and Christophe Boesch of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, finally answered a question that has intrigued primatologists for nearly two decades. Do female chimpanzees preferentially mate with males who share their hunting gains with them? This hypothesis was first suggested in 1994 by Craig Stanford and Jane Goodall when they found that the best predictor for whether males would engage in a hunt or not was the presence ........ Read more »

  • April 3, 2009
  • 06:00 PM

Superorganisms and Group Selection

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

It has been a mainstay of evolutionary theory since the 1970s. Natural selection acts purely on the level of the individual and any cooperation observed between organisms merely hides a selfish genetic motive. There have been two pioneering theories to explain cooperation in the natural world given this framework: the first was William Hamilton's (1964) theory of kin selection and the second was Robert Trivers' (1971) theory of reciprocal altruism.

However, both of these scenarios b........ Read more »

Helantera, H., Strassman, J.E., Carrillo, J., Queller, D.C. (2009) Unicolonial ants: where do they come from, what are they and where are they going? . Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

  • March 2, 2009
  • 01:00 AM

The Bad Taste of Moral Turpitude

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

The physical expression of distaste for immoral behavior is commonplace in our language. A used car salesman’s offer seems “fishy” or the crimes of a corporate banker are condemned as “wretched” behavior. Even the word "turpitude" is based on the latin root turpis for something foul. But why would something as abstract as morality be associated with these physical expressions of digust?

Now, a study by psychologist Hanah Chapman and colleagues in the latest edition of the journal Sc........ Read more »

H. A. Chapman, D. A. Kim, J. M. Susskind, & A. K. Anderson. (2009) In Bad Taste: Evidence for the Oral Origins of Moral Disgust. Science, 323(5918), 1222-1226. DOI: 10.1126/science.1165565  

  • January 1, 2009
  • 02:42 PM

The Sacrifice of Admetus

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

How the evolution of altruism reveals our noblest qualities. The researchers set up identical conditions by which their Pan and Homo subjects observed an unfamiliar person stretching to reach an object just beyond their grasp. In multiple individual trials the researchers recorded the frequency at which each group of 36 subjects would offer their assistance by retrieving the desired object and handing it to the stranger. Contradicting previous studies of chimpanzee altruism, the researchers f........ Read more »

Felix Warneken, Brian Hare, Alicia P. Melis, Daniel Hanus, & Michael Tomasello. (2007) Spontaneous Altruism by Chimpanzees and Young Children. PLoS Biology, 5(7). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0050184  

Claudia Rutte, & Michael Taborsky. (2007) Generalized Reciprocity in Rats. PLoS Biology, 5(7). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0050196  

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