Filoha Birds

Some years ago, I learned that one of the keys to happiness is birding. I was serving as a lecturer on a tour of parks and game reserves of southern Tanzania. We went to some amazing places — but the people devoted to spotting mammals were often unhappy. The woman who desperately wanted to see a leopard was deeply disappointed, as we didn’t see one. I told her I had spent years doing fieldwork in Africa but had only seen a leopard once; this provided little consolation for her. She had paid lots of money for this trip, and she wanted to see a leopard. At Mahale, the tour split into two groups, one of which had luck finding chimpanzees, while the other group didn’t. The people who didn’t see chimpanzees were bitterly disappointed and spent the rest of the trip drinking deeper into the supply of white wine. At Selous, a vast and magnificent game reserve, people complained, “We didn’t see anything today! Just zebras and giraffes. Oh, and hippos and elephants.” For the people focused on seeing mammals, seeing herds of amazing megafauna quickly became routine, shadowed by their unsatisfied desire to see something even more charismatic.

The birders, however, were happy everywhere we went. Even at the end of the trip, at the Dar-es-Salaam airport, one cheerful white-haired birder was delighted to see house sparrows, which boosted his total count of bird species seen on this trip to over 100.

As the Buddha said:

If you desire those desires that will be satisfied, you will be satisfied; if you desire those desires which will be frustrated, you will be frustrated.

Surprisingly, few people seem to be aware of birds. People don’t look up. While walking across the Washington Avenue Bridge between the West and East Bank campuses of the University of Minnesota, I have often seen a bald eagle soaring overhead – and crowds of people walking underneath the eagle, oblivious to it. The key to happiness is right there, and yet people ignore it.

Birds are more diverse than mammals, in terms of number of species: perhaps 10,000 birds, compared to about 5,000 mammals. Birds are mostly active during the day, when they are easy to see, whereas most mammals are active by night. Nearly 60% of all mammal species are either rodents (~2000 species) or bats (~925 species), which are mostly nocturnal. In a city like Minneapolis, most of the resident mammals are either nocturnal or crepuscular. In my urban neighborhood near the Mississippi River, we have many mammals: bats, shrews, mice, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits,  woodchucks, skunks, raccoons, opossums, and even foxes, coyotes, beavers and deer. Despite this diversity, most of these mammals stay hidden  during the day. Birds, in contrast, are more conspicuous: often brightly colored and active during daylight hours.

Why do birds rule the day, while mammals rule the night? Because birds are dinosaurs. During the Mesozoic, when dinosaurs ruled the world, mammals were tiny things, cowering in the trees or squirreled away in their burrows, daring to come out only at night.

Our perception of dinosaurs is distorted because only the flying dinosaurs survived the Chicxulub meteor impact in the Yucatán 66 million years ago. It’s like if we lived in an alternate universe where the only mammals that survived on earth were bats. (New Zealand was like this before human settlers arrived; it was a land dominated by giant flightless birds, with no land mammals except for bats.) Then if we found fossils of elephants and hippos we would be amazed at these giant creatures of the past and find it hard to believe they were at all related to the little flitting bats.

After the Chicxulub impact ruined the world for flightless dinosaurs , some mammals gradually evolved daytime habits. But most mammals remain creatures of the night and twilight. Nocturnal habits mark mammals as a group. Ancestral mammals lost the full color vision of their fishy ancestors. Most fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds have four types of color receptor (cone cells) in their retinas, whereas most mammals have only one or two kinds of cone cell. With the value of vision reduced by darkness, mammals rely more on scent and touch, their faces marked by moist noises, large nasal passages, and sensory hairs. In contrast, birds, like their dinosaur ancestors, continue to rule the day.

Primates are among the few mammalian groups that are mainly active by day. Some primates, such as bushbabies and many lemurs, retain the primitive mammalian traits: moist noses, 2-cone color vision, and nocturnal habits. But other major primate groups have evolved dry noses (part of a reduced reliance on smell), 3-cone color vision, and daytime habits. They can afford to do this because, like tree squirrels, they rely on the safety of trees to protect them from predators. (Even in trees, though, primates still have to worry about predatory dinosaurs. Crowned hawk eagles in Africa kill monkeys as large as adult red colobus monkeys. The Taung child, the first fossil hominin discovered in Africa, was killed and eaten by an eagle.)

One of the great pleasures of visiting Filoha was the abundance of birds.

The mammal fauna of Awash National Park has been severely depleted by hunting and by competition with pastoralists. There are no more elephants or rhinoceroses. Larger antelope are scarce or shy, though I glimpsed a lesser kudu bounding across the road, and from time to time saw a dik-dik scampering through the brush off to the side of the road: beautiful tiny little fairy antelope. Because so many cattle, sheep, goats and camels graze in the park, food is scarce for other herbivores. And because of the people herding the livestock, most larger mammals stay hidden during the day. But the birds are there.

Because the trees are small and sparse, the birds are easy to see. I saw Hoopoes several times, though never when I had my camera handy. These are lovely brown birds with elegant crests. White-headed Buffalo Weavers emerged frequently from the acacia trees.

White Headed Buffalo Weaver
White Headed Buffalo Weaver
White Headed Buffalo Weaver in Flight
White Headed Buffalo Weaver in Flight

Weavers as a group are fascinating birds. Living up to their name, they build tightly woven nests in trees, with a characteristic nest shape for each species. The nests commonly have a snail-like shape to deter predators: an opening at the bottom, leading around a corner to a nest cavity. (Though even these clever nests are not perfect protection from predators: I have seen redtailed monkeys and harrier hawks reach into these nests and pluck out baby birds.)

Weaver bird nest
Weaver bird nest
2015-08-11 Redbilled Hornbill
Redbilled Hornbill
2015-08-11 Malachite kingfishers A
Malachite Kingfishers







We saw Hornbills frequently, and caught one good glimpse of a pair of brilliantly colored little Malachite Kingfishers.








Lilac Breasted Rollers — which have almost more colors than really seems fair for any single bird— and irridescent Longtailed Starlings hung out close to camp. In America, starlings are kind of boring blackish birds, noisy and superabundant invasive birds from Europe, but in Africa, starlings are gorgeous and glossy.

Longtailed Starling and Lilac Breasted Roller
Longtailed Starling and Lilac Breasted Roller






The most spectacular place for birds, though, was in the wetland near Filoha camp.

Gray Heron, African Spoonbill and Warthogs
Gray Heron, African Spoonbill and Warthogs





The research camp is located at the foot of a cliff, which is the edge of a lava flow from several hundred years ago. Awash is located in the Rift Valley, where East Africa is slowly separating from the rest of Africa. Eventually, East Africa will become one or more large islands off the coast of Africa, like Madagascar is today. The Rift Valley is a place where crust is oozing up from below, filling in the gap between the separating plates. Along the entire length of the rift, earthquakes are common; some of the buildings at Filoha have cracked and crumbled cement foundations from a recent tremor. Awash is dominated by a great volcano, Mount Fentale. And much of the park is covered with lava flows of varying ages.

Fentale Mountain
Fentale Mountain







Filoha means hot spring, and the hot springs are the main attraction that brings tourists and local people to this part of the park. Local people believe the hot springs have magical powers which promote healing. Given that the average temperature in the park is already suffocatingly hot, it seems a bit excessive to add hot springs. One source stated the temperature of the springs as 43.5 ºC. Given that air temperatures can rise over 45ºC, at such times the hot springs must seem refreshingly cool.

The researchers bathe in the hot springs, using a little waterfall at the edge of the cliff. They can only do this on days that they get back from the field early enough, though; after dusk the danger from lions and hyenas grows too great. The same waterfall provides the major source of drinking water. The hot springs empty out onto a green expanse of mudflats, streams and wetlands. Padding along the mudflats and wading in the pools are Sacred Ibises, Hadaba Ibises, Spurwing Plovers, African Spoonbills, Grey Herons, Egrets and others.

Spurwinged Plover
Spurwinged Plover









Crocodiles lurk in the shallow pools, hunting fish. So nice to see these ancient cousins of birds – fellow Archosaurs – just meters away (but at a seemingly safe remove).

African Spoonbill with crocodile lurking in background.
African Spoonbill with crocodile lurking in background.





The path to the hot spring pool leads across an expanse of mudflats with real quicksand. The quicksand looks like a patch of bare earth, but if you hit it with a stick it quivers like Jello. Vehicles occasionally get stuck in the quicksand, as do people. But the wetland birds, with their long dinosaur toes and light bodies, seem to be safe.

2015-08-15 Egret flying white






It was deeply satisfying to be among animals that figure so prominently in the art of ancient Egypt: Sacred Ibises, crocodiles, and (coming up in the next post!) Hamadryas baboons.

2015-08 Sacred Ibis
Sacred Ibis









Works Cited

Further Dialogues of the Buddha, Vol. II, p. 237. Quoted in Philosophy of the Buddha by Archie J. Bahm (1958). Harper & Brothers.

Amy Kass

In the Odyssey, the goddess Athena appears to young Telemachos in the form of an old man, Mentor. In this guise, Athena tells Telemachus what he needs to do.

At the University of Chicago, Amy Kass appeared to many of us as a Mentor. But she didn’t tell us what to do. She didn’t give us the answers. Instead, she asked us questions:

“Who is someone you think of as an example of human excellence?”

“Is it better to be a virtuoso, or virtuous?”

“What will be the most important decision that you make in your life?”

She didn’t dispense a particular body of knowledge to students: chemistry, physics, classics, literature, or philosophy. Instead, she served as a guide, helping students learn to read great books, and to think seriously about big questions in their lives.

I first met Amy Kass  the summer after my junior year in high school, when I spent six weeks at the University of Chicago for a Telluride Association Summer Program. Amy and another great teacher, her husband Leon, led the seminar, Science and Society: Knowledge Morals and Power. Eager for more classes like this, I returned to Chicago for college, where I took Human and Being and Citizen with Mrs. Kass. We read Homer (the Iliad), Genesis, Aristotle (The Nicomachean Ethics), Shakespeare (King Lear), Rousseau (Discourse on the Origin of Inequality), Kant (Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals), Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment), Luke. We read about examples of human beings: Abraham, Achilleus, the Great Souled Man, Lear, Savage Man, Rational Man, Raskolnikov, Jesus. We talked about what, if anything, was excellent about these men (and looking back, yes, in that class, the exemplary human beings were all men).

Class took place in seminars: twenty or so students gathered around a set of tables arranged in a square. We read and we talked. Mrs. Kass asked questions. She was slender and small, with bright eyes and silvering hair. She leaned forward when she spoke, gesturing with her hand, looking intently at each student. We called each other by last names and titles: Mr., Miss, or Mrs. Everyone had a place at the table, and the value of your ideas didn’t depend on your title or rank. Everyone was treated as an adult, and with respect. She encouraged us to speak our minds, and to disagree with her and one another, but to do so through discussions (“What is right?”), not arguments (“Who is right?”).

Amy Kass at the 1986 Telluride Association Summer Program in Chicago.
Amy Kass at the 1986 Telluride Association Summer Program in Chicago.

Mrs. Kass didn’t lecture. She didn’t tell us her views on things, at least not directly. She asked questions and listened to our answers. She knew our names, she knew who we were, and despite her years of teaching these books to students, she seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say about them. How often does a class of first year college students say something really new or surprising about Homer or Shakespeare? But she never seemed jaded or condescending towards her students. She wasn’t interested in whether we could say something clever or novel; she was interested in our development as readers and thinkers.

She led us through the readings slowly. She asked a student to read a passage, then we discussed what it meant. We might spend an entire class period discussing a few such passages.

Mrs. Kass helped teach us to read.

I didn’t know how to read when I started college. Even by the time I finished college I’m not so sure if I could read; these lessons have taken time to really sink in. Oh, I read lots of books, but I skimmed along the surface, and often didn’t even understand the surface. Too often, reading was something I did at the end of a long day of lectures, labs and problem sets, slouching in a big chair in a bay window of the Regenstein Library, underlining and querying a few puzzling sentences before dozing off.

But in class, we read aloud, we read slowly, and we read for understanding.

Mrs. Kass began a discussion of Book IV of The Iliad by asking, “If I asked you who you were, what would you tell me?”

“I’m a 20th Century American.”

“And how does Homer introduce these men? Who is, say, Echepelos?”

“He’s… um….” searching the page for the name, “Thalysias’s son.”

“And Elephenor?”

Okay, there’s his name a few lines down. “Chalkodon’s son.”

In the world of The Iliad, you weren’t an isolated human being, or an undifferentiated member of a particular society in a particular time. You were someone’s son or daughter.

Then we moved on to the next page, where Antiphos, a son of Priam, killed Leukos, “a brave companion of Odysseus,” as Leukos was dragging off a corpse. Odysseus, “stirred to terrible anger,” struck down Demokoön, a son of Priam.1986-07 Eileen Helen Amy Mike Kim Tricia

Mrs. Kass asked, “Why did Odysseys kill Demokoön, and not Antiphos?”

I hadn’t even thought to wonder about this; my eyes had glazed over in the series of seemingly random, bloody killings on the battlefield.

Mrs. Kass persisted. “Who is Demokoön?”

“He’s Priam’s son. Oh. Odysseus killed his brother.”

Instead of seeking revenge by killing the killer, Odysseus inflicted a more painful, longer lasting wound, by killing the killer’s brother. And so a seemingly unimportant detail was revealed as an illustration of the cruel wisdom of Odysseus.

With Mrs. Kass, we read old books. The most recently written thing we read was Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel; not one of her favorites, and one that must have been chosen by others on the course committee, judging by a comment she made after a class spent discussing this book: “This is my punishment; what was my crime?”

One thing we learn from the standard university curriculum is how wrong people were in the past. Aristotle appears in science textbooks mainly as someone who got things wrong: that a heavier object falls faster than a lighter object; that there are four basic elements; that the sex of human babies is determined by temperature. We learn about Descartes’ error (mind-body dualism) rather than anything he got right. The basic lesson of the textbooks is: people in the past were ignorant. They didn’t know germ theory, or atomic theory, or evolution.

And it’s not just in the remote past that people were ignorant. By the time I reached college, scientific views of the solar system, of dinosaurs, and so many other things had changed dramatically from what I remembered learning as a child. Every year, we know so much more than we did before.

It’s easy – and self-gratifying – to be smug about how smart we are today. We know so much more. We are right about so many things.

Mrs. Kass helped us see that despite how much we know now, we still had much to learn from close reading of Homer, Aristotle and Shakespeare, even if they are Dead White Males, even if they lived before the discovery of quantum physics and the genetic code, even if their views on politics and religion might sometimes seem old fashioned (though perhaps not always so old fashioned as one might expect). She helped us understand the difference between knowledge and wisdom.

Despite all the changes over centuries and millennia, much about the human condition remains the same. We are born, we grow up, we search for a path to follow. We seek love and friendship. We may marry, we may have children. If we live long enough, we grow old. Whether we live long enough or not, we die. Even people admired for excellence have their quirks, weaknesses, and sometimes terrible, fatal flaws.

Universities have plenty of classes that provide answers. But few classes ask questions. And hardly any classes ask questions that are really the most important ones for young people trying to find their way in life.

When Mrs. Kass asked her class, “What is the most important decision you will have to make,” most students answered something to do with their careers. One young man responded: “Who will be the mother of my children?”

The answer sounded old fashioned, and embarrassingly serious. But really, what could be more important?

I wanted answers. I wanted to know. While we were reading Kant, I asked Mrs. Kass what was her foundation for morality. She threw up her hands and laughed. “Standing on one leg?” she asked.

If it were that easy – if you could give an answer to this question, standing on one leg like a circus performer – then we wouldn’t need to spend hours reading, thinking, and discussing these questions. A short lecture on moral foundations would do.

We read about many different kinds of human excellence, but none of these literary examples struck me as vividly as the example of Mrs. Kass herself: intensely smart but never merely clever or showy; respectful, but not afraid to question or disagree; inclusive; courageous; serious yet also wry, funny and good humored; challenging us all to be better.

The last time I saw Mrs. Kass, she was discussing with a young person an assignment for a class on Shakespeare, taught by someone else. The student had developed a particular view of how to interpret a passage, but was worried that her teacher would disagree with this interpretation. Mrs. Kass asked her, “Do you want a good grade? Or do you want to be right?”

Amy Kass died Wednesday, 19 August 2015, less than a month before what would have been her 75th birthday.

I have not known a better teacher.

Turing’s Cathedral

On the plane to Ethiopia, and while sweating in my tent at night from the relentless heat at Filoha, I read Turing’s Cathedral, a book my Dad told me I should read. He was right, it’s well worth reading. It’s also timely, as my wife had us watch the movie Deus_ex_Machina for a recent family movie night.

In Deus_ex_Machina, a lone genius constructs an artificial intelligence (AI), which he then subjects to a Turing test to see if she can pass as a conscious being. The movie is thought provoking and disturbing. You can have a brief conversation with the AI, who is named Ava, here. She can even draw a picture of you.

The book Turing’s Cathedral describes the building of one of the first artificial intelligences: the MANIAC computer at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the 1940s and 50s. The building of the MANIAC was an intensely collaborative team project. While Hollywood loves isolated mad scientists working in remote lairs, nowadays real scientific advances are usually the result of team effort. No one person can have enough expertise to do everything that needs to be done. AIs that can pass the Turing test will be the result of teamwork on a massive scale.

The book is titled Turing’s Cathedral, but the main character is not Alan Turing (who provided the theoretical foundations for computers), but Johnny von Neumann, who among other things, invented game theory and cellular automata, and played key roles in developing the first atomic weapons and digital computers. Von Neumann was an intensely social genius who built and led the team of people who made the MANIAC, and who traveled extensively, providing intellectual connectivity between Princeton, Los Alamos, Cambridge and other key hives of activity.

The author of Turing’s Cathedral is George Dyson, who grew up at the Institute for Advanced Studies, where his father Freeman Dyson was a fellow. Dyson shows how the development of computers and atomic weapons were intimately linked, and also connected to evolution and genetics. MANIAC’s first job was to run simulations of thermonuclear explosions. Soon after, Nils Aall Barricelli programmed MANIAC to run simulations of evolution.

Evolution, it turns out, is key to thinking about logic, mathematics, and the stuff of thought. One of the central puzzles of mathematics in the early 20th Century was whether all true mathematical statements could be derived from a simple set of axioms. Mathematician David Hilbert argued that “from a strictly limited set of axioms, all mathematical truths could be reached by a sequence of well-defined logical steps.” (Dyson 2012: 49) Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead tried to do this in Principia Mathematica, which despite covering nearly 2,000 pages “still left fundamental questions unresolved” (Dyson 2012: 49). Von Neumann took on the challenge in 1925 in a paper, “An axiomatization of set theory,” which provided a more concise and more nearly complete answer to the problem. But in 1936, Kurt Gödel published a paper that argued that the project could never be completed, because mathematics was fundamentally incomplete: “within any formal system sufficiently powerful to include ordinary arithmetic, there will always be undecidable statements that cannot be proved true, yet cannot be proved false” (Dyson 2012:50).

This incompleteness of mathematics, and logical systems generally, relates to insight and intuition. Systematic and logical thinking alone can only get you so far. Insights involve leaps, making unexpected connections. Insight is evolutionarily equivalent to mutation: random changes that sometimes result in improvements.

When Turing worked on the Manchester Mark I computer in 1949, he made sure to install a random number generator. This enabled the computer to take advantage of mutations, or “guesses,” and learn from its mistakes.

Intellectual thought, and biological evolution, both depend on two key things: accumulated change, and mutation. Accumulated change ensures that past advances are preserved. Mutation provides the material for new solutions to problems. Most mutations don’t work, but some do. Adding the good mutations to the accumulated wisdom of previous generations permits advances to be made much more rapidly than if everything had to be attempted at once.

During World War II, Turing developed a machine to break the code used in German war communications. The code was too complicated to be solved all at once. But by using a mutating, evolving process, Turing managed to evolve solutions to the problems.

Computers evolve, and DNA is a computer. When Dad told me I needed to read Turing’s Cathedral, he told me, “DNA is a Turing machine!” And he’s right. Dyson doesn’t really develop this point, but he hints at it.

A Turing machine is a universal computer. When Turing proposed the machine in 1936, many people believed that thought was somehow distinct from machines: thoughts are the work of souls, which machines can never have. But Turing proposed that a machine could produce all computable statements. Turing described the machine as having a tape fed into it. The machine can read symbols on the tape, write symbols on the tape, and move the tape left or right. The machine is mindless, but it produces intelligent behavior. Our world today is densely populated with Turing machines running on our computers, phones, and the cloud.

DNA is essentially the tape in a cellular Turing machine. It stores digital information to run the programs that the cell carries out. The cellular mechanisms read the DNA tape, copying portions of it into RNA, which may either be translated into proteins, or used to regulate particular portions of the DNA, or other cellular processes. DNA is mindless, but it acts intelligently. DNA encodes complicated subroutines that involve numerous genes that regulate the production of proteins. But because DNA is digital and universal, in principle it could be used to store any kind of information. Perhaps someday artificial computers will use DNA memories.

For the first few hundred pages, I thought that Turing’s cathedral was the MANIAC computer. But no, as it turns out, the cathedral is Google: that vast conglomeration of Turing machines that knows so much about everyone who has ever searched the Internet. Ava, the AI in Deus_ex_Machina, is created by a man who runs a company, Blue Book, that is a thinly veiled version of Google. Though Ava is created by a lone genius, she learns to understand humans by being granted access to Blue Book searches and cell phone conversations. In this way the AI is created by all of us. And Dyson argues that Google and other online giants, such as Facebook and Amazon, are evolving towards artificial intelligence as they learn from us.

And as computers become more like us, we are increasingly becoming like computers. Reasonably well off people in rich countries have all become cyborgs, and this trend is expanding worldwide. I started becoming a cyborg when Dad gave me an IBM clone computer. This was not my first computer, but it was the first one with a floppy drive (instead of a cassette tape) and enough memory to store what I wrote: papers for classes, college application essays, stories, notes for science fiction worlds, and other personal writings. Soon a substantial portion of what I think of as me was stored on this machine. It didn’t have as much memory as my brain, but it remembered more accurately.

My current laptop retains most of these old memories (though some have been lost through decay, copying errors, failures to store things properly, and loss of compatibility between old files and new programs). But my cyborg existence doesn’t depend on a single machine anymore. Instead it is smeared out across the Cloud: Gmail, Facebook, Dropbox, Snapfish, Google’s memory of my search history, Amazon’s memory of my purchases. The Web may know more about me than I do. With every bit we post, with every search we enter, with every product we buy, we feeding the Web information about human behavior and preferences. We are all building the next AI. And as the Web (or Google or whatever) evolves awareness – well, I hope it is benign.

Works cited:

Dyson, G. (2012). Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, Pantheon.

Down in the Valley

On my last trip to Ethiopia, I visited Guassa, at the top of the Great Rift Valley escarpment. In early August I traveled to Filoha, down towards the bottom of the Great Rift Valley, to visit my graduate student Kristy, who spent the summer working as a volunteer for Larissa Swedell’s hamadryas baboon project.

On the flight from Minnesota to Toronto I sat next to a woman in a black burqa that covered everything but her eyes, hands and feet. Dark henna designs decorated her hands. She spoke in surprisingly Minnesotan English. The number of people who both looked and sounded different from stereotypical Minnesotans increased as I approached the boarding gate for the connecting flight to Toronto. Connecting passengers had to stand in line to get stickers on our boarding passes to board the flight to Addis Ababa (which they spelled differently in Canada: Addis Abeba, and the announcer pronounced differently: “Ad-dees” instead of “Add-iss”). Most of the people in line were Ethiopians, and seemed a generally prosperous group: well fed, many of them tall and confident-looking, with fancy clothes, hair and jewelry. The line was chaotic, long, slow and crowded and midway through I gave up on it and tried to board. No luck; without the sticker I was sent back. So I was one of the last people to board the plane, and had to put my carry-on bag several rows ahead of my seat.

Ethiopia looks, smells, and sounds so different from other places I’ve worked in Africa. The people are diverse, with something like 80 different languages spoken in the country. But in general they look intermediate between sub-Saharan Africans and people of the Middle East. Which makes sense, because Ethiopia is right in between Africa and the Middle East. The national language, Amharic, is closely related to Arabic and Hebrew. Other common languages, like Oromo, are closer to Somali.

On the flight I worked my way through a bit of the Amharic phrasebook I got for my last visit to Ethiopia. The Amharic language uses a writing system that descends from an ancestor of Phoenician, the first alphabet and ancestor of Hebrew, Arabic, Etruscan, Greek and Roman alphabets. It is a syllabary, with 33 sets of symbols, each of which has 7 versions for the vowels eu (pronounced like in French, neuf), u, i, a, eə, and o. This means there are 231 symbols to memorize. Fortunately the symbols in a set change in a sort of regular way depending on which vowel they represent.

Some Amharic letters (from
Some Amharic letters (from

The series for m starts of looking like a pair of spectacles, for meu. For mu, there is a handle on the right side. For mi, there is a long handle on the right side, with a rightward line at the base of the handle, like an old fashioned pair of handheld spectacles. For ma, the rightward line disappears and you just get spectacles with a simple handle. For me, a little circle gets added to the handle. For , the handle shifts over to the left side and gets bent. For mo the handle stays on the left side but straightens up.

Coca-Cola in Amharic
Coca-Cola in Amharic

The Amharic script is beautiful, and having it on everything from road signs to Coke bottles imparts a distinctive feel to the country. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

The distinctiveness of the script stands as a reminder for how rapidly cultural evolution occurs. In general, the symbols look nothing like their distant cousins in other living alphabets. (There are some superficial similarities with the Georgian alphabet, from another remote mountain kingdom, but these are the result of accidental convergence, rather than cultural transmission.) The series for t does look rather like a Roman t, and the series for s looks like a Hebrew sh, but I don’t know if these are shared ancestral features or later convergences.

The variety of Afro-Asiatic languages spoken in Ethiopia suggests that this is an ancient center of diversification for this language family. Given the striking differences in appearance between speakers of Amharic and the peoples across the Red Sea in Arabia, this makes me wonder how much of the phenotypic difference in peoples has evolved in parallel with the language differences. As the proto-Afro-Asiatic people spread from their ancestral homeland, whether this was in Africa or Asia, surely they intermarried with local people along the way, so there would be gene flow as well as within-lineage change in phenotype.

There is a similar variety of appearance in speakers of Indo-European languages, from the pale blondes of Sweden to the brown-skinned, black-haired speakers of various languages of India. We tend to think of cultural evolution as being rapid and biological evolution as slow. But subtle changes, such as pigmentation of hair and skin, can happen fast enough that people who speak languages that are clearly part of the same linguistic family may have evolved look rather different.

People used to assume that language transmission was commonly horizontal, and that people speaking related languages aren’t necessarily genetic relatives. And it is true that anyone can learn any language, and imperial and commercial languages commonly spread across widely divergent social groups. But as Cavalli-Sforza and colleagues have shown, there is often striking convergence between the languages people speak and their genetic similarity. Particularly before the advent of modern transportation and mass migrations, people tended to stay close to home, marry people from nearby and within their own language group. As a result, speakers of related languages are commonly genetically related as well (at least for languages with a long local history, as opposed to recently adopted commercial or imperial languages).

Amharic has a whole set of glottalic consonants, produced with glottal stops (like the “t” sound in “butter” with a Cockney accent). This, combined with a vocabulary that is mostly unrelated to European languages or Swahili, gives it an extremely foreign sound to me. But there are some similarities. Swahili has lots of loan words from Arabic, and many of these words are also similar in Amharic, such as words for higher numbers (thirty, forty, and fifty are thelathini, arobaini, and hamsini in Swahili, and seulassa, arba, and hamsa in Amharic). Because of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia (193x-194x), there are also lots of Italian loan words: bravo, ciao, and machina (car).

Ethiopia smells different in part because of the distinctive spices in the food, especially berbere. On the long flight from Toronto to Addis Ababa, the cabin air smelled strongly of berbere. I had my hopes up for excellent meals of Ethiopian style food. Instead we got rubbery pasta and limp vegetables. The scent of berbere must have emerged just from the clothes and pores of so many spice eaters on the plane.

Historically, Ethiopia was a high mountain kingdom surrounded by deserts. This helped it maintain its independence and distinctiveness from surrounding countries and would-be invaders. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has endured for some 1,500 years or more when most of the surrounding peoples converted to Islam. The distinctive round Ethiopian churches help make this country seem so different from, say, Tanzania, where both Islam and Christianity are more recent arrivals. (The coast of Tanzania has long been Islamic but its history in the interior is more recent.)

Addis Ababa International Airport





Stepping off the plane in Ethiopia from the humid warmth of Minnesota was a shock. Addis is high in the mountains and cool. I felt rather cold in my sandals and short sleeves.

The whole arrivals and customs area has been renovated since my visit three years ago, thanks to Chinese money for an entire airport renovation. Immigration was slow and chaotic, but generally hassle-free. People standing at the entrance area checked passports for visas and sent you to the line if you needed to get a visa. The visa line required several steps: first you get the visa, which they fill out by hand in Amharic, then you stand in another line to pay for the visa ($50 now, up from $20 three years ago), and then you stand in another line where they check that you have the visa and paid for it. I found myself standing in line next to the woman in the black burqa who had been on the flight from Minneapolis. She seemed just as confused by everything as I was.

I got $100 worth of Ethiopian birr from an ATM in the baggage claim area. The machine spit out a brick of crisp new bills, more than 2100 birr in 100s, 50s, 10s, 5s and 1s. I couldn’t fold my wallet with all those birr so put them in my travel pouch.

Outside the baggage claim stood a crowd of people welcoming the new arrivals, including family, friends, and hotel and tourist staff. Someone asked me if I was from Egypt. Ethiopia is one of the few places where I’ve mistaken for a Middle Easterner. Later someone asked if I was from Saudi Arabia.

Outside in the parking area I soon found my driver. He introduced himself as Ermias, “which is Jeremiah in the Bible in our language.” I recognized the car as the same one I took to Guassa three years ago. Only then did I remember that this car had broken down for about an hour on the road to Guassa. When I got into the car and rolled down the window, the round, spinning end of the handle came off in my hand.

We drove down the broken, potholed streets of Addis to the house of the tour operator, so I could pay for the trip to Filoha. Outside the gates, sheep foraged in the grass.

Sheep grazing in Addis Ababa
Sheep grazing in Addis Ababa







It was Sunday morning, many people were in church and few cars were on the street. The rough streets ensured that the going was slow even without much traffic. But there were signs of new construction everywhere. Many new buildings enclosed in flimsy looking wooden scaffolding.

New construction in Addis
New construction in Addis









When Ermias stopped to change money, I bought a liter of cold water to drink along the way. We stopped for gas at what seemed to be a BP station (green signs, but in Amharic letters). The station was off to the side of the road and downhill a bit, with loose gravel and dirt covering the connection to the road. It seemed as if someone had dropped the gas station here by accident. Huge trucks competed for space in the queue with tiny cars. Payment seemed entirely cash and directly to the attendant at each pump.

Last time we drove up, up, up to Guassa, up to the crest of the rift escarpment. This time we drove down, down, down to Filoha, down towards the bottom of the rift. According to my GPS, one gas station in Addis Ababa is at 2,219 m (7,323 feet), Darjeeling Cliff at Guassa is 3,383 m (11,164 feet), and Filoha is 728 m (2,402 feet) above sea level. Filoha is thus similar in elevation to Gombe, which my GPS says is 774 m (2,554 feet) at the mouth of Rutanga Stream. The rift valley goes lower, eventually dropping well below sea level in the Danakil Depression, where the Awash River flows into a dry dusty pan and disappears.

We took the new expressway (built by the Chinese), which ran parallel to the new railroad (also Chinese built), which both link Addis to Djibouti, the closest seaport (now that Eritrea has become independent, depriving Ethiopia of a direct connection to the coast). The expressway is a dual carriageway toll road with six lanes of traffic, which contributed to the feeling of not being in Africa at all.

Close to Addis the countryside is well watered with expansive fields of green. Further down into the rift we saw more signs of geological activity: vast fields of black lava rock interspersed with green grass and isolated trees. The further down we went the more marabou storks and vultures appeared by the side of the road.

I tried to stay awake to enjoy the whole ride but was too sleep deprived and drifted in and out of consciousness. We left the freeway to a join a road that was narrow but still freshly paved and smooth. More Chinese roadwork, I’m sure.

The Chinese are playing a role in Ethiopia – and much of the rest of Africa – similar to what the British played throughout much of the world in the 19th Century, and the Americans in the 20th Century. I suppose the British nowadays are too busy with finance, and the Americans are too busy developing new apps for the iPhone, to bother with such concrete things as roads, buildings and railways in Africa.

We passed a truckload of camels, packed together sitting down with their necks upright. Ermias said they were going to Saudi Arabia.

Metahora Church stack of tyresWe stopped for lunch at Metehara, the last major town before Filoha. We parked in front of a small restaurant. On a raised area at the front of the restaurant, a woman knelt before a set of coffee cups, preparing coffee in the bunna ceremony. A charcoal burner held three sticks of burning incense. Ermias explained that they only had fasting food, meaning vegetarian items, because of the religious holiday.

“Which holiday is it?”

“Something from the Bible.”

Goat and tricycle car in Metehara
Goat and tricycle car in Metehara







Ermias ordered something for me that turned out to be a huge round platter with a huge round flat piece of spongy enjera bread with little piles of tasty vegetarian delights. After lunch Ermias changed the flat rear tire of his car. His skin glistened with sweat after just a few minutes work. It was getting hot down here.

We soon reached the park gate of Amhara National Park. This is the major national park in southern Ethiopia. We drove off the paved road to the little building by the simple gate, where a sign explained the rules and fees.

Awash National Park gate
Awash National Park gate

Most of the tourist facilities are to the south, along the Awash River, but we would be going to the very northern end of the park, 32 km away. I paid my park entrance fee, plus an additional 150 birr ($7) for an armed guard to accompany us to Filoha. The risk of banditry makes armed guards a necessary requirement for travelers in the park.

We drove back across the paved highway onto the gravel road leading north. The gravel road suddenly jogged sharply to the right, to make its way around the new Chinese-built railroad that cut directly across the park. This must be a huge barrier to wildlife in the park now, as the tracks travel between deep drainage ditches dug on either side.

We drove slowly down the hot, dusty, winding gravel and dirt road. A low thicket of Acacia trees extended in all directions from either side of the road, with some distant hills and mountains visible. From time to time, birds flew out in brilliant flashes of color. These were birds familiar to me from when I habituated baboons in Kenya, and from visits to other dry parts of East Africa: White Headed Buffalo Weavers, Bee Eaters, Malachite Kingfishers, Lilac Breasted Rollers, glossy Longtailed Starlings. In America, Starlings are kind of dull, mottled brownish black nuisance birds. In Africa, Starlings are glorious birds with iridescent plumage and brilliant colors. I felt an intense sense of homecoming seeing the familiar birds and trees of the Acacia woodland. From time to time a dik-dik, a tiny little fairy of an antelope, bounded away in the bushes. A lesser kudu crossed the road, a beautiful striped antelope with long spiral horns.

On the highway, the wind roaring past the open windows kept us cool. On the slow gravel road, the sun baked the slow moving car, and the air provided no relief. I kept thinking that we were pretty remote now, we were about to get to camp, but then we would keep driving for ages more. A set of rounded white structures showed in the distance, looking like a set of tents. That must be camp! But as we got closer, it became clear that these were simple huts of sticks covered in tattered white sheeting.

“An Afar camp,” Ermias explained. “Pastoralist people.”

Soon after we passed a group of Afar herders on the road: people with very dark skin, wearing bright white cloths draped over the shoulder and wrapped around the waist. The Afar people are the namesakes of the taxonomic name of Lucy, the famous fossil found not too far from here: Australopithecus afarensis. They herd cattle, goats and camels. They speak a Cushitic language related to Somali. Technically they are not supposed to be in the National Park but thousands of them live in Awash and keep their herds here.

The road went on and on and on. The heat grew increasingly oven-like. The landscape grew monotonous and in my sleep-deprived state I faded in and out of awareness. The water in my bottle became as hot as tea.

We passed through blasted landscapes of lava rock, down steep gullies, and passed mysterious peaked mounds of rock (built by Italians during the war, and said to cover bombs). Then, after an hour or more of Acacia scrub, stands of Doum palms appeared along the side of the road, at the edges of wetlands that flooded the road itself. We drove through water and mud. A craggy wall of lava appeared to the left. To the right, the peaked roofs of huts appeared.

He parked the car by one of the huts in what appeared to be an empty, quiet camp.

“They know you are coming?” Eremias asked.

“Yes, they know I am coming.”

Soon two women appeared, smiling and walking down the hill towards us from another pair of huts: Alex, who is doing her dissertation research here, and Kristy, looking red from the sun and very much at home in Filoha.

I asked Ermias to take a picture of us.

“Okay, now we have evidence of my visit.”

“Right, so now you can leave?” joked Ermias.

Alex, Kristy and Mike at the Filoha camp.
Alex, Kristy and Mike at the Filoha camp.

Kyoto Mountaineering Club

In July, I attended the 30th Annual Meeting of the Japan Primate Society, and the meetings of the Primate and Wildlife Society. This year is the 50th anniversary of research at Mahale Mountains, the 55th anniversary of research at Gombe.

Japanese primatology started in 1948, with a trip by Kinji Imanishi to Koshima Island, where he intended to study feral horses but ended up studying Japanese monkeys instead.

Starting in the 1950s, Japanese primatologists embarked on expeditions into remote areas of Africa to study gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos. They founded long-term research sites and documented the behavior and ecology of African apes.

Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa talked about his years in the Mountaineering Club at Kyoto University. He used the club as a way to recruit potential field workers: people who liked being outdoors, who weren’t afraid of physical challenges, people with a pioneering spirit.

Matsuzawa and other speakers showed slides of the early days of Japanese primatology in Africa: teams of tough, wiry-looking men ready to endure hardship for the sake of knowledge. Matsuzawa noted that in the Primate and Wildlife Sciences program, of the 21 students, the majority of the students were female, and most students were from countries other than Japan. The “foreign ladies” are willing to undergo the risks and hardships of fieldwork, whereas so few Japanese men are willing to do this that he called them a “critically endangered species.”

Why are so few Japanese men interested in doing primate fieldwork? I suspect that in this respect, Japanese men are the vanguard of a more general problem, not limited to men, or to any particular country. It is my impression that as life has become more comfortable, and communications technology has improved, it has become more difficult for young people to undertake long stretches of time in remote areas with limited electricity, email and Internet access.

This question brought to mind one possible solution to the Fermi Paradox.

Enrico Fermi, a physicist and one of the key scientists on the Manhattan Project, raised this question: given that intelligent life evolved at least once (here on Earth), intelligent life should have evolved on other planets in other star systems as well. And yet we don’t see any evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. As far as we know, we haven’t been visited by space aliens.

(Though in response to Fermi’s question, Leo Szilard answered “They are among us,” – he said, – “but they call themselves Hungarians.” John von Neumann and several other key scientists working on the Manhattan Project were Hungarian immigrants, and were of such exceptional intelligence that they were jokingly suspected of being extraterrestrials.)

If intelligent life can evolve at least once (as we know it has on Earth), then intelligent life should be able to evolve multiple times. In a galaxy with hundreds of millions of stars, even extremely rare events should occur repeatedly, provided they are possible. And we know that intelligent life forms can do things that make their presence known across interstellar space; we have done this by broadcasting television and radio signals. So if intelligent life has evolved somewhere in our not too distant neighborhood, we should see some evidence of it. And yet we don’t see any such evidence.

When Fermi first proposed his paradox, astronomers had no evidence of planets orbiting other stars. We didn’t know whether planets were rare or common, and whether planets like ours (small and rocky rather than big and gassy, not too close to the sun and not too far from it) were common or rare. Now, thanks to the Kepler planetary search program, astronomers have located thousands of planets around other stars. It looks like nearly every star has at least one planet, and many stars have multiple planets.

Carl Sagan worried that one explanation for the Fermi paradox was that advanced civilizations regularly self-destruct. They learn how to unleash nuclear energy, for example, and destroy their civilizations in nuclear war.

As a college student reading William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels in the 1980s, I wondered whether the explanation might not be nuclear war, but virtual reality. Any sufficiently advanced civilization should develop the tools to simulate reality (as our own society seemed on the verge of doing). Perhaps once virtual realities get good enough, they become so fascinating and absorbing that no one bothers with physical realities any more. Maybe the space aliens aren’t visiting other worlds because they have completely disappeared into their own virtual worlds and simply aren’t interested in anything outside of that?

Virtual reality came into being faster than I imagined it would. It turns out you don’t need high-resolution video plugged into your optic nerves to achieve a sufficiently distracting simulation of reality. Social media, Wi-Fi and smart phones have enabled us to create virtual worlds that become completely absorbing, even though they are mainly text and still images.

Field primatology is much less demanding than interstellar travel. But it requires a pioneering spirit, a willingness to go far from the herd, leave the hive mind, and endure physical challenges: hunger, thirst, sun, rain, insect bites, long days of hiking, and no cell phone connectivity.

Life in rich places like Japan, the US and Europe makes us increasingly ill-adapted for fieldwork. We expect three full meals per day, with frequent snacking opportunities. We expect clean toilets and hot showers. We expect air temperature to be kept within a narrow window: not too hot, not too cold. We expect comfort, personal space and privacy. We expect a life of leisure, depending on machines for much of our transportation.

Giving up these comforts to do fieldwork is challenging. But psychologically, leaving the hive mind may be even more difficult for people who have grown up connected.

When I first went to Kenya to study baboons in 1992, there was no Internet, no email, no cell phones, no faxes. The only way to communicate with folks back home was by mail, which was slow, or by telephone, which was expensive and rarely possible (the nearest pay phone was 40 km from my field site). My little sister tells me that during a long gap between letters from me, my family watched a nature documentary about African wildlife. When a baboon on the show yawned, showing off its long canine teeth, Mom started crying. She had all sorts of worries for me in Africa, but hadn’t thought to worry about baboons until she saw their teeth.

It was hard to be so far away from everyone back home, with so little communication. But for people who grew up plugged in, the prospect of being away from Facebook, Twitter, email and all the rest for months at a time may simply be too horrifying to contemplate.

Whether we have enough people to keep field primatology going is, in the grand scheme of things, a small problem. But it relates to a more general problem: decreasing interest in spending any time outside, away from the comforts of home. When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time vegetating in front of the TV, or reading books in my room. But I also spent a lot of time outside: climbing trees, playing with friends, riding my bike further and further from home, exploring our little town and its parks and the surrounding countryside. Kids these days don’t seem to do quite as much of that. The Internet and social media are so absorbing that there hardly seems any need to go outside.

In many ways, Japan feels like the future. Not a dystopic Bladerunner, cyberpunk or Hunger Games future, and not quite utopia either, but a future imagined by someone with an eye on current trends and a generally optimistic disposition. It is crowded, yet clean and orderly. People live long lives and have few children, resulting in an aging and shrinking population. And perhaps as a result, society overall is a bit less dynamic, a bit more conservative, a bit less risk-tolerant.

Japan is a densely populated country. On the train from Tokyo to Kyoto, the urban sprawl seems nearly continuous, with only scattered rice fields and green, forested mountains rising above the densely packed houses, shopping centers and factories. It seems as if every flat bit of land is settled. Even the forested mountains are, to a large extent, a human modified landscape, being covered mainly by plantations of cedar and other trees, rather than natural forests.

Perhaps as Japan’s population declines, nature will reclaim some land now covered in towns, cities and farms. Forest cover is increasing in North America and Europe, and species like wolves are returning to parts of their former range, like France. Nature has taken back parts of declining cities like Detroit.

The planet needs wild places. If large animals like elephants, lions, wolves and chimpanzees are going to survive, they need open space and natural areas. But if people don’t go outside, and don’t go exploring into natural areas, hunting and fishing and hiking and camping, then who will care if those natural areas are converted to other uses: cleared of timber, planted in crops, dug out for mines, covered in strip malls and parking lots?

Despite such worries, though, I’ve met many young people eager to do fieldwork and embrace the challenges of life away from comforts and the hive mind. And perhaps as the world becomes more wired, connectivity will no longer be an issue, even at the remotest sites. (I’m posting this from Gombe, where the research offices have WiFi.) But it seems wise to ensure the continuation of groups like the Kyoto Mountaineering Club, to encourage people with a pioneering spirit.

Words and Genes

This weekend,  people in the United States set off numerous explosive devices to celebrate 239 years of independence from the United Kingdom. Since this separation, the versions of English spoken in the US and the UK have diverged considerably, but still remain (mostly) intelligible. In contrast, North and South Korea, which have only been separated for 70 years, have been more strictly isolated from one another, and as a result the versions of Korean spoken in the two countries have diverged dramatically:

differences [of mutual unintelligibility] now extend to one third of the words spoken on the streets of Seoul and Pyongyang, and up to two thirds in business and official settings.

A friend of mine who is an actual linguist drew my attention to an app that designed to translate between North and South Korean— an acute problem from people who have defected from North to South.

As Darwin and many others have noted, and as I’ve written about here, such language change bears many striking similarities with biological evolution. These similarities are interesting in their own right, and may be helpful for thinking about the long-running debate in evolutionary biology about whether natural selection acts mainly on genes, individuals, or groups.

A language, like English, or German, or French, is like a biological species. Both languages and species are made up of populations of individuals. Languages and species both have boundaries. In biology, the boundary is sex: a species is defined as a population of individuals that naturally mate and produce fertile offspring with one another. This concept is a pretty good rule of thumb, but turns out to be violated frequently in nature. Oak trees are notoriously promiscuous with oak trees from other species. Of course they mate simply by wafting their sperm into the air (tucked inside pollen grains) so they aren’t the choosiest of breeders. But even among mammals, hybrids frequently occur in nature.

In languages, the boundary is not sex but mutual intelligibility. French is considered a different language from English because, as Steve Martin says, “those French have a different word for everything!” But just as with the biological species concept, this is a useful rule of thumb, rather than an absolute rule. Speakers of closely related languages, like Danish and Swedish, can learn to understand one another with some ease.

Species have subspecies, and languages have dialects. Both are closely related to geography and geographic isolation. Languages like English and Chinese contain “dialects” that may be as mutually unintelligible as pairs of “proper” languages. Because the distinction between a language and a dialect is to some extent political, a common saying among linguists is “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

Similarly, the distinction between species and subspecies in biology is somewhat arbitrary. Baboons, for example, are a widespread group of monkeys, occurring through most of Africa, with one species (Hamadryas baboons) extending their range across the Red Sea into Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Even though baboons are among the most intensively studied nonhuman primates, no one seems to about how many different baboon species there are, and what they should be called. Some people consider all baboons to be subspecies of Papio hamadryas. Other people distinguish ten or more species: Guinea baboon, Hamadryas baboon, Hauglin’s baboon, Anubis baboon, “typical” yellow baboons, Ibean yellow baboon, Kinda baboon, grey-footed baboon, Transvaal chacma baboon, and Cape & desert chacma baboon.

Jolly, C. J. (2001). A proper study for mankind: Analogies from the papionin monkeys and their implications for human evolution. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, Vol 44. C. Ruff. New York, Wiley-Liss, Inc. 44: 177-204.
Jolly, C. J. (2001). A proper study for mankind: Analogies from the papionin monkeys and their implications for human evolution. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, Vol 44. C. Ruff. New York, Wiley-Liss, Inc. 44: 177-204.

Interbreeding occurs among all these different kinds of baboons where their ranges overlap, so from the point of view of the traditional biological species concept, they are different species. But calling them all subspecies of Papio hamadryas seems odd because Hamadryas baboons are the most distinctive baboons of all: the males have showy capes and tufted tails, and their societies have an unusual multi-level structure quite different from the usual troops of “savanna baboons.” Moreover, as more studies are conducted of other baboons, it has become clear that each of these species (or subspecies) differs from others. For example, Guinea baboons turn out to have a social system quite similar to that of Hamadryas baboons.

So languages are similar to species, and dialects are similar to subspecies. These categories refer to populations. Within populations, individuals vary greatly, both in their language use and in their genes.

Each individual speaker of a language has her own set of words and rules: an idiolect. My idiolect may be very similar to yours, or quite different, depending on our shared vocabulary, which may include technical terms specific to our work, and idiosyncratic speech habits (which my wife complains I have in abundance).

An idiolect is similar to an individual’s genome. Each individual is unique, but at the same time, each individual speaker of a language shares a broad set of words and rules with other speakers of that language (otherwise they wouldn’t be able to communicate – and wouldn’t be considered speakers of the same language).

Continuing the analogy down to the next level, words are similar to genes. Words and genes are both combinatorial, in that they consist of sequences of smaller units combined to make larger units: syllables and letters in words, codons and nucleotides in genes.

Words are made up of syllables. Some words are made of single syllabus, such as “dog,” “cat,” and “fish.” Longer words can be made by combining syllables: “dogfish,” “catfish.”

Similarly, genes are made up of a series of codons. Unlike syllables, which can be spelled with anywhere from one to six or more letters (“a,” “-ed”, “-ing”, “ouch,” “queue,” “smooch,”), codons are always spelled with three letters.

Spelling is easier in genetics than in linguistics, because while languages may use dozens of letters (e.g., 26 in English), all genes are spelled with only 4 letters: G, A, T, and C. These letters stand for the nucleotides Guanine, Adenine, Thymine, and Cytosine.

Words are generally much shorter than genes, however, Words usually have only a few syllables, whereas genes can contain hundreds or thousands of codons.

Each 3-letter codon is translated into an amino acid; these amino acids are in turn connected up together like cars in a train to make proteins. The whole business of making proteins is very complicated, and is perhaps roughly analogous with the translation of mental representations of words into physical phenomena, such as sounds produced by the vocal tract, or signs made with the hands in sign language, or words written on a page or typed on a screen.

Linguistics Genetics
Combinatorial level Example Example Combinatorial level
Letter A, B, C, D, E, F, G… A, C, G, T Nucleotide
Syllable Dog, cat, in-, un-,-ness CAT, TAG, DAT, DCG Codon
Word Dog, cat, catness, undoglike hemoglobin, melanin, lactase, amylase Gene
Idiolect My particular speech My particular genes Genome
Dialect Upper Midwest American English Homo sapiens sapiens Subspecies
Language English Homo sapiens Species
Family Germanic, Indo-european Hominins, Primates Clade

In addition to being combinatorial, words and genes resemble one another in that they are both products of descent with modification. This is the phrase that Darwin preferred to “evolution,” and is really more precise about what happens in evolution. The descent part means that words and genes both have histories and family trees. The modification part means that both words and genes gradually change over time, across generations.

Both words and genes can undergo small changes, “mutations,” in how they are spelled. Genes can change by as little as one nucleotide. Many such mutations are “silent,” that is, they don’t affect the amino acid sequence made by the gene, because the genetic code is redundant: there are only 20 amino acids, but 64 possible codons. So some amino acids can be spelled several different ways. The amino acid serine, for example, can be spelled TCA, TCC, TCG, or TCT.

Mutations can have a wide range of effects, from not changing gene function at all, to wrecking the gene entirely. Some mutations result in slight improvements.

Words also undergo mutations. Talking about mutations in words is a little tricky in that the letters we use to spell them have an imprecise relationship to the way they are actually pronounced. In linguistics, the actual speech sounds that make up words are called phones.

Thus, “water” is spelled the same way in Dutch and English, but is pronounced slightly differently. Even within English, “water” is pronounced differently by different speakers and dialects. In the American Midwest, “water” is pronounced something like “wah-dur,” whereas in some dialects in England it is pronounced more like “wah-tuh.”

But both words and genes are robust to these small changes. They still work when altered just a little bit – which allows them to evolve.

Words and genes both accumulate small changes over time. These changes tend to cluster geographically. People who live near one another for many generations tend to speak the same language and dialect, and also tend to have more similar genes than people who live further away.

So what does all this have to do with the argument in biology about levels of selection?

In 1976, Richard Dawkins drew attention to the gene’s eye view of biology with his book, The Selfish Gene. Prior to this book, a widespread view in biology was that genes are something organisms use to accomplish certain goals. The heart pumps blood, the kidneys filter blood, and the genes store information and transmit it to the next generation. Dawkins, popularizing work by G. C. Williams and W. D. Hamilton and others, turned this view on its head: organisms are “survival machines” that genes use to make more copies of themselves. Dawkins argued that genes are ruthlessly selfish, because only those genes that succeed in getting copied are transmitted to the next generation.

Many people have objected to this view of evolution. Stephen Jay Gould, for example, argued that natural selection acts on individuals, rather than genes. Biologists including Edward. O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson have argued that selection acts on multiple levels: genes, individuals, groups, perhaps even species. The debate continues with passionate advocates on each side.

In some ways, I think the debate is entirely sterile. Many people on both sides of the debate seem willing to agree that group selection is mathematically equivalent to kin selection. What really seems to feed the passion in this debate is the connotations that people have towards the idea of genes as “selfish” entities. Many people seem to have the impression that group selection is somehow kinder, gentler, and politically more left-leaning than gene-level selection. This view puzzles me, since plausible mechanisms of group selection are often quite nasty, such as intergroup hostility and warfare.

Genes are exotic entities, only recently discovered, and not fully understood even by professional biologists. Words, however, are familiar things that we all use all the time. So linguistic evolution might be easier to grasp for many of us than genetic evolution.

From a Darwinian perspective, a word is selfish in exactly the same way that a gene is. In both cases, versions that succeed in making more copies of themselves are the ones that persist over time.

Genes get themselves copied through reproduction. In species with sexual reproduction, they depend on their host finding a mate and (if there is any parental care) successfully rearing the resulting offspring.

Words get themselves copied in various ways. Vertical transmission is like biological reproduction, in that words are passed down from parent to child. Words differ from genes in that they are also easily passed among unrelated individuals: horizontal transmission. Horizontal transmission of genes does occur, especially in bacteria, but it is less common in complex multicellular creatures like ourselves.

Words vary among speakers, just as genes vary among individuals. Common words are shared by nearly every member of a language community, but there is still variation, among regions, social groups, interest groups, and individuals.

My idiolect, like my genome, is an ephemeral collection of words and rules. It will vanish when I die (apart from whatever words I have left behind in books and such – but even those will represent only a fraction of my actual idiolect, and will show the influence of co-authors, editors and such). My genome will also vanish when I die (parts of it will live on in my children, but all mixed up with my wife’s genes).

Words, however, have longer histories – as do genes. The word I use for H2O, “water,” comes from ancient roots. We see its cousins in words such as “Wasser” in German and the more distant cousin “voda” in Russian (whence the word “vodka,” “my dear little water”), and “uisge” in Scottish Gaelic (and its distilled descendant word in English, “whiskey”).

In language evolution, selection occurs mainly at the level of words. It is individual words that accumulate changes in their sounds and meanings. Words exist in a constant competition with other words for space in each individual’s vocabulary. Words come and go, depending on fashion, technology, and random drift.

The analogy is of course far from perfect and shouldn’t be pushed too far.

In fact, some linguists don’t like this analogy at all. In a 2014 blog post, linguist Asya Pereltsvaig complains:

words are not “just like genes” in that they are easily borrowed from language to language, even across family boundaries, are subject to conscious choice, and are not subject to natural selection.

The first point is true – sort of. The sort of genetic transmission that we are most familiar with is vertical (parent to offspring) rather than horizontal (from one unrelated individual to another). However, horizontal gene transfer turns out to be more important the people used to think.

Bacteria swap genes fairly frequently, such as when they share genes for resistance to antibiotics (like Deadheads swapping tapes of old Grateful Dead shows).

And according to one recent study, some 8% of the human genome originated in retroviruses.

So actually words and genes quite similar in this respect. Most genes, and most words, come from your parents, but some genes and words come from elsewhere, sometimes even quite unrelated sources.

The other claim, that words are not “subject to natural selection,” is also debatable. Pereltsvaig focuses attention the fact that word form is arbitrary.

As was noted by the “father of modern linguistics” Ferdinand de Saussure, the association of sound and meaning of a word is largely random: the sound of house is neither more appropriate to the concept nor better for the “survival of the fittest” than maison (French), dom (Russian), bayit (Hebrew), or iglu (Inuktitut)

It is true that the particular form of a word is basically arbitrary. But it is not true that selection has nothing to do with word form. Over time, long words that are frequently used get shortened. In both French and English, the invention of two-wheeled human-powered transportation required an accompanying new word (“vélocipède,” bicycle), which was subsequently shortened in both languages (“vélo,” bike). French teenagers commonly use “gar” for boy instead of the longer “garçon.” Words that are hard for native speakers to pronounce get changed to make pronunciation easier. Words whose meanings are transparently obvious to native speakers may generally catch on better than words whose meaning is opaque. For example, the term “earworm” (to describe a catchy tune that gets stuck in your ear) has a better chance of being understood, used, and catching on among English speakers than the original German word that it is translated from, “Ohrwurm“.

Pereltsvaig also claims, “words provide no adaptive advantage to people(s) who have them.”

But I disagree with this as well. Words are crucial to survival and reproductive success in human societies. Someone unable to use words at all would have tremendous difficulty holding a job or finding a mate. Using words well is essential, not just for those who write for a living, but also for anyone who talks with other people.

In some cases, correct understanding of a word could make the difference between life and death. One time at Gombe, an American colleague of mine thought she saw a hippo swimming in Lake Tanganyika. She grew alarmed, as several people were swimming nearby. Hippos may seem harmless but they enormous, terrifying beasts with huge sharp tusks (usually hidden inside their vast mouths). Hippos are often said to kill more people in Africa each year than crocodiles. To warn the swimmers, she shouted “Kifaru! Kifaru!” The Swahili-speaking swimmers just looked at her with a puzzled expression – since kifaru means rhinoceros in Swahili, and there was no risk whatsoever that there would be a rhino in the water. It turned out there wasn’t a kiboko (hippo) either, but if there had been, this linguistic mistake could have proved deadly.

The particular words we use tell others about our social status, our level of education, our sense of humor and style, and many other aspects that directly affect our reproductive success. Blurting out the wrong set of words can cost a person dearly (see, for example, James Watson, Tim Hunt, Donald Trump).

Looking at evolution from a gene’s eye view provides insights that simply aren’t available from other perspectives. Many aspects of biology don’t make any sense at all except from a gene’s eye view. The very existence of sex, for example. If selection occurred at the level of individuals, we should see individuals mainly making exact copies of themselves (clones). This sometimes happens in plants and animals, and is the norm for bacteria, but the widespread occurrence of sexual production is very difficult to explain, unless evolution is mainly about the replication of genes.

At the same time, words and genes both exist within incredibly complex systems in which the influence of any one word or gene may not be obvious. Just as each word contributes a tiny bit to each individual’s language output, each gene contributes a bit to each individual’s biological output. The total number of words that an individual speaker knows is estimated to be around 20,000 – 35,000. Coincidentally, this happens to be quite similar to the number of protein-coding genes in the human genome (around 20,000-25,000). Thus, in most cases, any single word or gene is likely to have only a small and subtle influence on an individual’s survival and reproductive success.

Words combine in complex ways to produce phrases, sentences, and longer things like poems, songs, articles and books. Gene products interact in complicated ways to produce living bodies and regulate the expression of other genes.

Both words and genes only make sense within the context of the complex system in which they exist. The French word “entrée” means something eaten at the start of a meal in French (the “entry” into the meal). When English speakers borrowed this word, they rather confusingly used it to refer to the main course of a meal. Similarly, the “meaning” of genes depends on the context in which the genes occur. In animals with red blood cells, the genes for hemoglobin make proteins that carry oxygen. But what would happen if these genes were inserted into a bloodless organism, such as a bacterium? Probably just an accumulation of protein that has no use whatsoever for the bacterium. (This may seem like a weirdly pointless experiment, but it has actually been done to produce and and study mammoth hemoglobin).

Additionally, just because words and genes are both “selfish,” in the sense that those that are better at getting copied are the ones that become most common in a given population, does not mean that they have to promote behavior that is selfish. Animals engage in all sorts of altruistic behavior, much of which is presumably the result of genes promoting altruism – that is in fact the central topic of The Selfish Gene.

For example, individual words might be “selfish,” in the sense that words with features that promote being copied get copied more often. But the words themselves don’t necessarily promote selfish behavior. For example, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you” is a combination of words that has been extremely successful in getting itself copied. Perhaps the great majority of the hundreds of millions of people who speak English have some version of this phrase stored in their memories; and other languages transmit equivalent versions of this phrase. The phrase is good at getting copied, but it advocates cooperative behavior, rather than selfish behavior. This is precisely why the phrase has been so successful. People who make an effort to follow the idea encoded in this phrase are likely more successful at navigating the complexities of village and urban life than people who are mean-spirited and selfish. “Selfish” words, like “selfish” genes, often promote cooperative behavior.

Language evolution and biological evolution both result from the accumulation of small changes at fundamental levels: words and genes. Words are “selfish” in exactly the same way as genes. Words and genes that have attributes that increase their likelihood of being reproduced become more common in the population. But neither words nor genes have goals, or minds, or emotions, or feelings of being selfish, altruistic, or anything else. They are just bits of information that happen to exist within copying systems. And just because these bits of information can be described as selfish doesn’t mean that they invariably code for selfish behavior.


Chimpanzee Violence and the Post-War Dream

Below is the text (more or less) from the TEDxUMN talk that I gave on 03 May 2015. A video of the talk is here.

I grew up in the Cold War.

The books, movies, and music were filled with fears of the end of the world.

One of my favorite albums was Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut: A Requiem for the Post-War Dream.

The album ended with the song: Two Suns in the Sunset.

The second sun being, of course, a thermonuclear explosion.

Looks like the human race is run.

War seemed inevitable. There was no way out.

But despite all the doom and gloom, it turned out these were actually the final years of the Cold War.

In 1989, the Berlin wall fell, and in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow. (August 1991)
St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow. (August 1991)









I was lucky enough to get a glimpse behind the Iron Curtain just as it was coming down.

I had a fellowship to study in England that came with money for summer travel in Europe.

I used that money to travel to Russia, then all the way to China on the Tran-Siberian Railroad. It turns out that this was the last summer that the Soviet Union existed.

And on the other side of Iron Curtain I found that people were pretty much just like us.

Soviet soldiers near Red Square, Moscow. (August 1991)
Soviet soldiers near Red Square, Moscow. (August 1991)







Walking around Moscow near Red Square, I saw Soviet soldiers – boys, really, about my age – playing around in a children’s park, taking pictures of each other.

This was an exciting time, with the Soviet Bloc and China opening up to the outside world.

It gave me hope that maybe war was something we can overcome.

I grew up worried about war but fascinated by apes.







As a kid, I saw Dian Fossey on TV with mountain gorillas and thought to myself: that’s what I want to be when I grow up.

It’s because of war, though, that I don’t study gorillas.

The mountain gorilla study is located in Rwanda, a tiny country in the heart of Africa. After college, when I wrote to the directors of the gorilla study asking if they needed research assistants, they wrote back saying they were closing camp down because Rwanda was descending into war.

The war continued for years, killing hundreds of thousands of people.

So instead of growing up to study gorillas, I study chimpanzees.

 You can’t always get what you want.

But if you try sometimes,

You might find,

You get what you need.

And what I needed was chimpanzees.

I needed chimpanzees because they are our closest living cousins.

Human family tree







Chimps and gorillas look a lot alike: hairy, knuckle-walking apes. The the two kinds of chimpanzees — “common chimpanzees” and bonobos — are more closely related to us than they are to gorillas.

And chimpanzees share a number of unusual traits in common with people.

They make and use tools – like this one here, who is using a stick to fish termites from their nest so she can eat them:

Golden fishing for termites.
Golden fishing for termites. (Photo by Michael Wilson)







Like humans, chimpanzees work in groups to hunter other animals.

And like humans, chimpanzees defend group territories, and sometimes gang up on members of other groups, attacking and killing their enemies.

It is this warlike behavior that I set out to study, looking for clues about how the origins and evolution of warfare in our own species.

So I went to study chimpanzees in Kibale Forest in western Uganda – much safer, I figured, than studying gorillas in war-torn Rwanda.

As it happened, though, the war in Rwanda spilled over into Congo, resulting in a huge war that eventually involved nine African nations and killed millions of people.

The first Congo war.
The first Congo war.









Kibale is just 30 miles from the border with Congo. On a clear day in Kibale you can see the snowcapped Ruwenzori Mountains that form that border.

And while the war raged in Congo, a Ugandan rebel group, the ADF, set up in those very mountains. Some of them were even rumored to be hiding in Kibale. The ADF bombed cafes and buses around Uganda, and attacked a school just 20 miles from us, burning 80 students alive.

At one point bandits attacked our village. They robbed and beat chimpanzee project field assistants, and shot and killed the brother of one of our employees.

And right around this time, one of the same field assistants who had been robbed found our chimpanzees beating on the freshly killed body of a male chimpanzee from another community.

The stranger’s body was covered in bites and other wounds, and his throat was torn out.

Why do chimpanzees do this?

Lots of other animals defend group territories, but in most species, they just chase their enemies away, rather than hunt them down and kill them. What’s going on?

Why do we kill?

One explanation for why we kill is the imbalance of power hypothesis, developed by Richard Wrangham and colleagues.

Behavioral ecologists think of aggression as the result of a cost-benefit calculation: animals use aggression as a strategy to get some benefit, when it looks like the benefit will be greater than the cost.

The benefits of aggression in chimpanzees are similar to those in other group territorial species: territory, food and mates.

But the costs of killing are low because of an unusual social structure that chimpanzees share with humans: fission fusion societies.

If we were gorillas, we would travel in a stable group all the time: a single male with his harem of females and kids.

But instead we live like chimpanzees: sometimes gathering in big groups, like we are now, and sometimes separating off into smaller groups.

For example, here are two neighboring territories: Blue and Red.







Each territory has 10 males.

There’s not much food at the moment in the Blue territory, so the Blue males are traveling in small parties, mainly ones and twos.

But there’s more food in the Red territory. They can travel in bigger parties, including this one with six males.

 These six males have safety in numbers, so they go on a border patrol.






 There they find a single blue male off by himself.






Bad luck for the blue male! The red males surround him, gang up on him, and kill him.







Now Blue only has 9 males.






With fewer males, Blue loses territory to Red. The Red males get the benefit of a larger territory with more food for themselves, their mates and their offspring.

The imbalance of power hypothesis makes some clear predictions.

For example:

Males should visit borders only when in larger groups.

Parties with more males should be more likely to approach strangers, to win fights, and to kill their enemies.

And winners should gain more territory.

I’ve spent much of the past 20 years testing these predictions.

I used playback experiments to test how males would respond to a stranger.

Donor and John setting up the playback equipment. (Photo by Becky Sun)








In each experiment, I played back a single pant-hoot call from a foreign male.

A pant-hoot sounds like this:


(And this is what a professor imitating a pant-hooting chimpanzee looks like:)

Pant-hoot demonstration.
Pant-hoot demonstration.




Hearing a single stranger calling in the distance had a big effect on the chimpanzees.

Rosa, Lope, Ipassa and Makoku looking towards an unexpected sound. (Photo by Becky Sun)








In parties with just one or two males, they looked towards the speaker, which was hidden some 300 m away. Sometimes they just stayed still, looking, but in about half the cases they slowly, cautiously walked towards the speaker.

In parties with three or more males, the response was totally different. They gave a loud “wraa!” response right after hearing the call, dropped down from their trees, and rapidly walked single file towards the speaker.

After each playback, we quickly packed up the speaker and carried it away, while one of us stayed at the speaker location to see what happened. Often that person was me.

I remember sitting there quietly in the undergrowth when suddenly I heard footsteps. I saw a line of males walking single file, their hair out, looking for someone to kill.

They glanced my way, but they weren’t interested in me. They knew who I was. They were looking for a stranger.

More recently, I’ve analyzed data from all the long-term study sites for chimpanzees.








What I’ve found is that killing is widespread, and occurs at most study sites.

In cases of intergroup killing, the attackers had an average 8:1 advantage over the defenders.

Analysis of long-term data has found that groups with more males expand their territory and obtain more food for self, mates, and offspring.

Just like chimpanzees, people are sensitive to the costs and benefits of aggression, and they prefer low cost fights: unfair fights that they are likely to win.

In human warfare, numbers matter, but even more important is weapons. Whenever people have developed a military advantage they have used it to conquer.

The Mongols, for example, swept across Eurasia with their fast horses and mounted archers.









But conquest, in humans and chimpanzees, is a zero sum game. Any benefit for my group is a loss for yours.

This is a risky game to play. About 12% of chimpanzees die from violence – that’s about out of eight.








The tables in this room seat about 8 people – so if were living in such a world, on average one person at each table would die from violence.

In human groups that live much like we did for most of our evolutionary history – as hunter gatherers and small scale tribal societies – the rate of death from violence is also about 12%.

For both chimpanzees and people, playing this zero sum game of group territorial behavior means a high risk of death by violence.

But unlike chimpanzees, people have found some ways out of the zero-sum trap and have learned to play positive-sum games.

This slide shows the risk of dying in battle from war in the 20th Century, for people worldwide:







The two big spikes are the First and Second World Wars.

What’s really striking about this graph is that there haven’t been any more really big spikes since 1945.

Nuclear weapons have raised cost of war so much that there have been no great-power wars in 70 years

People have – so far—avoided the horrible costs of direct nuclear exchange.

People are also sensitive to the benefits of peace, and these have increased over time, as the world has gotten more interconnected through trade.

The Trans-Siberian Railway is one of many links in this international trade. It connects Russia with China, and now with Europe as well.







I think back to my journey across Siberia. If I were a young male chimpanzee venturing so far from home, I would have been killed by the first group of foreign males I met.

But traveling deep into what had been enemy territory, I was never threatened. People can benefit from a stranger, if only by having someone to talk with, and share their vodka.

So what can chimpanzees tell us about war?








War is natural, but it is not inevitable.

People, like chimpanzees, are sensitive to both costs and benefits.

We can reduce war by increasing its costs, and by increasing the benefits of peace.

And what gives me hope is that the people I’ve met traveling around the world – they don’t want mutually assured destruction. They want the simple things listed in the Pink Floyd song about in the Post-war Dream:

A place to stay.

Enough to eat.

Somewhere old heroes shuffle safely down the street.

You can relax on both sides of the tracks

And maniacs don’t blow holes in bandsmen by remote control.

And everyone has recourse to the law.

And no one kills the children anymore.


All that jazz

So last week the Nielsen ratings for 2014 revealed that jazz has become the least popular major musical genre for adults, falling behind classical music. Jazz accounted for 2% of all albums sold in 2014, or about 5.2 million albums. Which is only a bit more than the 4.5 million copies of the Frozen soundtrack album sold that year.

Music evolves. Jazz has existed for just over a century, and during that time it evolved rapidly, giving birth to forms like Dixieland, big band swing, bebop, cool, bossa nova, free jazz, fusion, and acid jazz. Jazz dominated popular music for a few decades, the 1920s-1940s, but since then has lived mainly on the fringes.

If we think of genres as groups of animals, then Classical composers would be like Mesozoic dinosaurs. They were huge in their day, and we can still admire their articulated skeletons in museums or orchestra halls, but the world they ruled is gone. They were eclipsed in the 20th Century by the mammals: hot blooded popular forms like blues, jazz, country, rock, soul, and hip hop.

I have long thought of jazz as being marginal but still alive and kicking. Maybe like marsupial music. Marsupials don’t rule the world, but hey, they’ve got Australia, and they had South America pretty much to themselves for a long time, and opossums have even managed to spread into much of North America.

Has jazz become a monotreme music?
Has jazz become a monotreme music?

But now I fear that jazz has become more of a monotreme. Back in the Jurassic, egg-laying mammals were the latest thing. But now there are just two major groups of monotremes: one species of platypus and around four species of echidna, confined to Australia and New Guinea. Monotremes are amazing, and well worthy of study and conservation, but they are pretty much an evolutionary oxbow lake, far from the mainstream. For the most part most people don’t even think about them.

Whichever depressing analogy is most fitting, marsupial or monotreme, jazz is well on its way to being a museum music: curated by music departments and Jazz at Lincoln Center, subsidized by festivals where the headliners are often anyone but mainstream jazz musicians, but nearly extinct in the wild.

This makes me sad, because I love jazz, and have spent many years listening to it and trying to play it.

I remember seeing the jazz band play at Taylorville Junior High when I was still in grade school. The long row of saxophones, shiny and gold, with strange bends and twists in the horns, and the music they made — I was hooked. I started playing saxophone soon after, and have tried to make progress on that horn ever since.

In 1982, the average age of the jazz audience was 29. By 2008, the average age had increased to 46. Jazz used to be music for younger people, but now its audience is about the same age as the audience for classical music, opera and ballet. A demographic status that doesn’t bode well for the future of any of these genres.

Music is always changing. Today’s music doesn’t sound like yesterday’s music. Part of that is due to cumulative culture: today’s music builds on yesterday’s music, and is written in response to it. Music also evolves rapidly as technology for making music changes. Beethoven couldn’t write for saxophone because it hadn’t been invented yet. Gershwin, Ravel and Prokofiev did write for saxophone, but by then mainstream Classical music was already ossifying, too conservative to fully admit this new instrument into its ranks. So the saxophone found its home in popular music instead, where  it reigned supreme for a few decades, especially the 1930s and 1940s, and lingered on as a popular solo break instrument into the 1980s. But saxophones have been superseded in popular music by more recent technologies: electric guitars in the 1950s and 1960s, then synthesizers in the 1970s, and later sampling and other electronic tools.

Another reason for the high rate of evolution in music may be its role in sexual selection. Back in 1871, Darwin not only invented the term “sexual selection,” but gave music as a likely example of it in humans.

it appears probable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm. (Darwin 1871: 880)

Darwin thus argued that song in humans had much the same function as song in birds: attracting mates.

Unlike many songbirds, in humans both males and females sing and make other forms of music. Some people have argued that this is evidence against a sexually selected origin of music in humans. But song need not be produced by only one sex to be a courtship signal. In a number of bird species, both sexes sing, and duetting is important for maintaining pair bonds. See, for example, the duets of the wonderfully named happy wrens.

Nonetheless, in humans there seems to be a bias for males to be performing for female audiences. Analyzing a sample of 1,800 jazz albums, 1,500 rock albums and 3,800 classical music works, Geoffrey Miller (2000) found that

males produced about ten times as much music as females, and their musical output peaked in young adulthood, around age thirty, near the time of peak mating effort and peak mating activity. This is almost identical to the age and sex profiles discovered by Daly and Wilson (1988) for homicides, which they took as evidence for sexual selection shaping propensities for violent sexual competitiveness. (Miller 2000: 354)

The standard rock band basically looks like a lek, which Wikipedia defines as “an aggregation of males that gather to engage in competitive displays that may entice visiting females who are surveying prospective partners for copulation.”

In his book My Appetite for Destruction, Steven Adler, the founding drummer of the rock band Guns N’ Roses, tells a story about how in high school football practice he played especially aggressively to impress a particular cheerleader on the sidelines. He goes on to say that music is much the same thing for him:

I don’t know why I’m wired this way, but there are very few things in life that really light me up. And nothing focuses me or gets me going like chasing tail. Money, fame, status, power . . . nothing comes close to the pursuit of pussy. It gives me an intensity that brings out the fiercest side of my competitive spirit.

When I was with the band I had to score the best snapper after a concert. I loved parading around backstage and at the after parties with the pick of the litter. So whether it’s trying to score by making touchdowns or playing in a band, I love the ladies. Primo poon: accept no substitutes. (Adler 2011: 13-14)

In a lek, the pressure is strong to sound new, innovative, and distinctive. And like Milton Babbitt said, “Nothing gets old faster than a new sound.” So the pressure continues to come up with new and distinctive sounds.

In contrast, the average jazz jam session is sort of an anti-lek: a group of mainly male musicians playing old style music, not for a crowd of screaming teenage girls, but for almost no audience at all.

But even if music has its evolutionary roots in courtship signals, the beauty and power of music transcend those roots. You don’t need to be courting to appreciate the intricacies of a Bach fugue or the cunning way the melody navigates the chord changes of All the Things You Are. The strange power of music — the way we perceive particular combinations of sounds as beautiful or ugly or joyous or despairing — works regardless of whether we are in a mating mood or not.

Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi argued that “people are happiest when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation.” He frequently mentions playing jazz as an example of this. And maybe this is why I keep coming back to jazz. It makes me happy.

And in some ways, this is an amazing time to be a jazz fan. YouTube has hundreds of hours of music and video. Growing up, I knew jazz mainly from what we played in jazz band and what I could hear on late night public radio, tapes from friends, and the occasional album. I had only the vaguest idea of what any of these musicians looked like. I didn’t even know Miles Davis was black until Aunt Lynn gave me an album (Workin’ & Steamin’) with his picture on it. Now anyone with an interest and an internet connection can watch videos of jazz greats playing. There are websites offering detailed advice about how to play jazz. And I’ve been meeting younger players who really know their stuff.  So maybe there is hope this particular branch of music will stay alive, growing and evolving, even if the mainstream has long since moved on.

Adler, S. (2011). My Appetite for Destruction: Sex & Drugs & Guns N’ Roses. New York, HarperCollins Publishers.

Darwin, C. (1871). The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. New York, The Modern Library.

Miller, G. (2000). Evolution of human music through sexual selection. The Origins of Music. N. L. Wallin, B. Merker and S. Brown, MIT Press: 329-360.

Evolution and Warfare Workshop at NIMBioS

I’m very excited to announce that NIMBIoS, the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, will be hosting a workshop, “Evolutionary approaches to the understanding of decentralized warfare,” September 16-18, 2015, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

I am organizing this workshop along with Luke Glowacki (Harvard University), Anna Simons (Naval Postgraduate School) and Sergey Gavrilets (University of Tennessee).

Objectives: Warfare is a widespread and arguably universal practice of human societies. While war’s origins continue to be debated, warfare has occurred in most historically documented societies, from hunter-gatherers to nation-states. Its prehistoric traces can be found in fortifications, weapons, mass graves, and skeletal trauma. Given that it is a major source of mortality, warfare has potentially acted as a powerful source of selection for both biological and cultural evolution. In a reprise of the past – and in contrast to force-on-force, hierarchically organized wars among great powers – conflict today takes a number of decentralized forms, from urban gang fights to livestock raids, and from clan warfare to leaderless resistance and terrorism. Suggestive parallels exist between current patterns of warfare and those that typified subsistence-level societies. Consequently, examining psychological mechanisms that evolved under ancestral warfare conditions may shed important light on what motivates individuals during modern decentralized wars and why people resort to violence in intergroup conflicts. Given the availability of data from contemporary societies and the great damage caused by violent conflict, advancing our understanding of such conflict is both tractable and important. In this workshop, we will begin working toward an integrated approach to the study of warfare under decentralized or only loosely controlled conditions, combining empirical data, evolutionary theory, and mathematical models. We envision developing working hypotheses to answer several key questions about between-group conflict in general, and the nature of ‘decentralized warfare’ in particular. These hypotheses will be informed by evolutionary theory using data from diverse conflict settings. Our hypotheses will be articulated in a framework amenable to formal modeling that will point the way toward a multi-level predictive understanding of warfare.

Descriptive flyer (PDF)

Application deadline: May 17, 2015. To apply CLICK HERE.
Participation in the workshop is by application only. Individuals with a strong interest in the topic are encouraged to apply, and successful applicants will be notified within two weeks of the application deadline. If needed, financial support for travel, meals, and lodging is available for workshop attendees.



So I got a call the other day to talk to a TV reporter about kissing. Valentine’s Day was coming up, and since it was also Darwin’s Birthday, it seemed fitting to talk about the evolution of this rather odd behavior. Moreover, even though my research focuses more on fighting and war than love and kisses, spending the last year living in France had me thinking about cultural variation in kissing.

People kiss a lot in France. Friends kiss each other when saying hello and when saying goodbye. Boys kiss girls, girls kiss girls, and boys kiss boys.  All this intimacy can make a shy person raised in the Upper Midwest feel quite awkward. And it presents all sorts of challenges. How well do you need to know someone before you kiss them? Do you actually touch the lips to the cheek, or just brush cheeks and kiss the air in their general direction? (Turns out its the latter.)

Though all this kissing might suggest an easy intimacy, in other ways the French are even more reserved than Americans. As French language and lifestyle expert Géraldine Lepère says, “Do not try to hug a French person. They will freeze.”

Adding to the challenge is that the number of kisses expected varies from region to region across France. In our area, Languedoc-Roussillon, three kisses were the norm.  But in other parts of France, the norm involves anywhere from one to five kisses. Greeting friends from those other regions was always a challenge. How many times do we kiss?

Geography of French kissing.
Geography of French kissing.









Thinking about all this cultural variation in greeting kisses made me wonder about the romantic kiss. Is it a human universal, or does romantic kissing show the sort of cultural variability that we see in greeting kisses? And what about kissing in our primate cousins?

Chimpanzees don’t have romantic kisses. But then they don’t really have romance. Mating is a quick business that last seven seconds or so, and the typical mating posture doesn’t bring the lips into close proximity. Females often scream and dart away after than mating rather than staying close to kiss and cuddle (though sometimes males do a bit of grooming of their partner in the afterglow).

Chimpanzees do kiss in other contexts, though, such as greeting and reassurance. Once at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago I saw two female chimpanzees engaged in a leisurely lip kiss that lasted at least ten minutes. But I don’t recall seeing anything like that in the wild.

Bonobos are reported to kiss more often, and to use their tongues when kissing. Frans de Waal writes, “French-kissing’ is totally absent in the chimpanzee, which engages in rather platonic kisses. This explains why a new zookeeper familiar with chimpanzees once accepted a kiss from a male bonobo. Was he taken aback when he suddenly felt the ape’s tongue in his mouth!” (de Waal, 1998: p. 103)

Unlike chimpanzees, bonobos frequently mate face to face, which would make romantic kissing more feasible. So perhaps romantic kissing in humans has something to do with our more bonobo-like mating postures.

In The Naked Ape, Desmond Morris suggested that kissing came from sharing food between mother and offspring. This is a classic example of ethological thinking, in which some puzzling, apparently useless behavior is interpreted as a ritualized version of an older, clearly functional behavior. But I’ve never liked this explanation. Partly I suppose because it’s a bit gross. But also, this isn’t something I’ve seen either people or other primates doing. I have seen human mothers pre-chew food for their children, but they transfer the food with their fingers, not their lips. And apart from Junior High stories about kissing couples sharing their chewing gum, food sharing doesn’t seem to play much role in romantic kissing in humans.

More recently, Evolutionary Psychologists have interpreted romantic kissing as a key component of mate selection in humans. By tasting a potential mate’s lips and saliva, kissers may be able to gain useful information about their health and perhaps even genetic quality and compatibility before taking any chances on actually combining their genetic material. One survey study of American college students found that women, more so than men, are reluctant to have sex with someone they haven’t kissed, and more likely to choose not to have sex with someone if they prove to be a bad kisser (Hughes et al., 2007). This makes sense given the sex differences in parental investment that are typical of mammals. Since women rather than men carry any resulting babies inside their bodies for months and then nurse them once they are born, women have a greater evolutionary interest in making sure they they screen potential mates for genetic quality.

Hughes et al. (2007) thus suggest that kissing is an evolved strategy, and argue that romantic kissing occurs in “over 90 percent of human cultures.” Kissing seems kind of a risky way to assess someone’s health, though. After all, if they turn out to be harboring some nasty infection, sharing their saliva is maybe not the best idea. Why not just a quick sniff of their breath instead?

Moreover, thinking about all the cultural variation in kissing in other contexts made me wonder whether romantic kissing was really so invariable.

Darwin, as usual, is way ahead of us here. In his 1872 book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, he wrote that kissing was unknown in many non-European cultures:

We Europeans are so accustomed to kissing as a mark of affection, that it might be thought to be innate in mankind; but this is not the case. Steele was mistaken when he said “Nature was its author, and it began with the first courtship.” Jemmy Button, the Fuegian, told me that this practice was unknown in his land. It is equally unknown with the New Zealanders, Tahitians, Papuans, Australians, Somals of Africa, and the Esquimaux.

Darwin’s observation that romantic kissing is not a human universal is supported by a study that will be published in American Anthropologist later this year (Jankowiak et al., in press). This study examined 88 different cultures from the Human Relations Area Files, and also consulted with people working in various non-Western societies. They found that not only was romantic kissing not a human universal, it was only found in 40% of the cultures they examined. Strikingly, they found that romantic kissing was entirely absent in hunter-gatherers, the people whose societies are widely thought to most closely resemble the conditions in which our species has lived for most of our evolutionary history.

This finding seems to me an excellent example of the importance of good old fashioned Anthropology, in which the goal is to find document and explain human variation across the planet. If our picture of human behavior is based only on the behavior of our most convenient study subjects (e.g., American college students), we will come up with a badly distorted picture of our species.

In cultures with romantic kissing, pressing the lips clearly plays a big role in mate choice.  And the evolutionary logic for women being a bit more interested in the quality of kisses than men seems sound. But because kissing occurs only in a minority of human cultures, sex differences in preference for kissing must result from some more general mechanisms, rather than having evolved as part of a specific mental module for smooching.

Works cited:

Darwin, C. (1872). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London, Murray.

Hughes, S. M., M. A. Harrison and G. G. Gallup (2007). “Sex differences in romantic kissing among college students: An evolutionary perspective.” Evolutionary Psychology 5(3): 612-631.

Jankowiak, W. R., S. L. Volsche and J. R. Garcia (in press). “Is the Romantic/Sexual Kiss a Near Human Universal?” American Anthropologist.

Morris, D. (1967). The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal .Jonathan Cape.

de Waal, F. B. M. (1998). Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, University of California Press.

thoughts on primates, people, and evolution