Conference report: EHBEA in Amsterdam

Posted on April 9, 2013


The EHBEA meetings are held annually but the last one that I managed to attend was back in 2009 when the conference was held in St. Andrews. The meetings are highly multidisciplinary with a wide range of theoretical and methodological approaches to evolutionary explanations of human behaviour pursued. In terms of methodology, this year’s had a particularly large number of talks based on laboratory-based economic games as well as lot of studies that used computer modelling in an effort to understand the mechanisms of human behaviour. As for topics, there was something of a focus on the question of human cooperation – not that this is surprising since this topic is one of the basic puzzles when it comes to evolutionary explanations of human behaviour.

The meeting was opened with a plenary by Joe Henrich, who talked about the way that human cultural and genetic evolution have been closely interacting with each other. He argued that the co-evolutionary approach is necessary to understand human social cognition and human behaviour. This is a line that he has taken for a while now and that I am very much in favour of. In particular, he referred to his paper with Scott Atran on the co-evolution of religion that was published a couple of years ago in Biological Theory. As I have previously mentioned on this blog, that paper presents a line that is very much in tune with the approach on religion that I take, myself.

The plenary that was of most interest to me, however, was most probably that by Cecilia Heyes, a theoretical psychologist from Oxford. She argued against the very popular notion that humans have evolved a mentalising module. Her basic argument is that rather than being an evolved module, our capacity for mind-reading is due to a set of skills that are based upon much simpler sensory modules that, through cultural learning, are recruited to help us understand the motivations of other members of our community. In her presentation, Heyes brought together several lines of evidence that, to my mind, were very convincing. Having said that, I was favourably inclined toward her line of argument even before hearing the evidence as it seems to me that current cognitive science does not pay enough attention to development and the role of culture within it. Having had a chance to talk with her a couple of times after her presentation, I was unsurprised to find out that she had spent time working with both Don Campbell and Bill Wimsatt – two philosophical figures whose work has profoundly shaped my own approach.

Given the broad range of topics dealt with by the conference, it is perhaps unsurprising that there was only one talk that was dealing with human supernatural beliefs and the practices connected to them – a presentation on the early modern phenomenon of witch hunts. The presenter spent most of the time recapping the history, which is not contentious, and the minimum he had to say about the evolutionary explanations was somewhat confused given that he seemed to think that it is enough to give an ultimate explanation without worrying about the proximate ones. There were also a couple of posters dealing with topics somehow connected to religion. However, that is not where the utility of the meeting lies for me. Rather than hoping to see a lot of work of immediate relevance to my own research, I had come to the conference primarily hoping to see work that was interesting methodologically. In particular, work that used methodological paradigms which could be applied to try and answer some of the questions that my own theoretical work has raised. As such, I saw nothing novel that was of obvious use to me. Having said that I am far from thinking that the meeting was a waste of my time. There were several talks that used methodological paradigms with which I first became familiar at the last EHBEA meeting I attended but which extended those paradigms in interesting ways. For example, there was a talk by Masanori Takezawa which used Christine Caldwell’s work on cumulative cultural evolution and tested it against alternative group set-ups. Also, of significant interest to me were the presentations which explored a phenomenon using, on the one hand, computer modelling and, on the other, field studies – the two approaches nicely complementing each other. These papers certainly made me think about what needs to be done in order to provide solid empirical evidence for the hypotheses that interest me. Finally, I enjoyed the talk by Hannah Cornish, who uses a version of the Simon Says computer game to show the emergence of systematicity in sequences that are learned by subjects in diffusion chains. This work is relevant to my own ideas regarding causal opaqueness and uses a similar method to the one that I have been thinking about. I will need to think more about this research.

In addition to looking for methodological paradigms that could be of potential use in my own research, I also wished to simply find out what the current situation was in the whole field of evolutionary explanations of human behaviour. It is obvious that the field is building quickly on existing work with a lot of evidence for various lines of inquiry being pursued methodically by a large number of research groups around Europe. At the same time, there do not seem to have been any major theoretical break throughs made since I started to follow the work. What was apparent at the meeting was that a number of existing common theoretical assumptions are coming under critique. In particular, the view that people’s behaviour in economic games shows consistent pro-social preferences was attacked from several directions. The most prominent was probably that arising out of the work on WEIRD people done by, among others, Henrich. However, I also attended a talk in which the presenter provided evidence that the behaviour appears to be due to people not understanding those games and that they can maximise their gains by acting as free riders. The talk was to be presented by Maxwell Burton-Chellew but he was unable to attend so Claire El Mouden stepped into the breach at the last minute. Despite the criticisms levelled at this approach, one of the most valuable talks at the conference was by Simon Gachter, who showed that where cooperation exists, the costs of punishment necessary to maintain it can be minimal.

One talk that did strike me as very interesting for a different reason was presented by Kenny Smith, who talked about some computer models of language change and transmission. The results suggest that linguistic structures exhibit a pragmatic compromise between ease of learning the language and the richness of expression in the language. This research is interesting to me because of the work I have done on language with John Collier, which reaches similar pragmatic conclusions but from a very different direction. It is nice to have the empirical work to fall back upon in the future.

A number of my friends and colleagues were at the meeting, which meant that I had a chance to catch up with several people. Foremost among them was a group of computer modellers connected with Joanna Bryson, whom I had worked with several years ago at the Konrad Lorenz Institute in Vienna. They had a number of talks at the conference, with presentations by Dominic Mitchell, Daniel Taylor, Simon Powers and Joanna, herself. Gordon Ingram, who is also from Bath and whom I’d met in Brno a few months ago, was also at the meeting but did not present any work himself, although one of the talks was based on work he’d been involved in.

Finally, I should mention a talk by Dave Mallpress, who used computer modelling to provide some evidence for why it is that evolved agents would behave as described in prospect theory. This is an important step, given that original prospect theory as developed by Tversky and Kahneman was not much more than a graph that described some aspects of human behaviour without doing anything to explain it. It is also important in that it undermines what I see as the simplistic claim that human behaviour is irrational in so far as it fits with prospect theory.

All in all, while the meeting was not as eye-opening as the one in St. Andrews, this has more to do with where I am at in my own research rather than with the broad range of interesting work that was presented in Amsterdam.