Posted by: Adam Kay | October 30, 2011

A blog for the UST Biology Department

(Note: I wrote the essay below for a popular science blog. It didn’t get published, but I can publish it here and I hope it’ll get the ball rolling with this blog)

Why I like Biology

I like biology because it has helped me understand who I am and how I fit into the world around me. As an undergraduate student, I struggled to understand why conflict and suffering seemed to be an inevitable aspect of the human experience. I searched for answers as a religious studies major at the University of North Carolina, but I never found anything deeply satisfying until I stumbled across E.O. Wilson’s “Sociobiology”, a wonderful book that describes social behavior from microbes to mammals. By the time I finished the famous final chapter, “Man: From sociobiology to sociology”, I was convinced that evolutionary biology had enormous potential to help explain human nature. Over time, I found that core evolutionary theory about social interactions – kin selection, parent-offspring conflict theory, sexual selection – provided explanations for my motivations that were far more satisfying than anything else I had been exposed to. Now, as a researcher and professor studying behavior, I have learned that ideas about the evolutionary underpinnings of human behavior are novel, interesting, and often challenging to students trying to figure out meaning and purpose in their world. Studies from the natural world describing complex behavior help students feel more connected to nature. One of my favorites is a study by Jeffrey Hoover and Scott Robinson that describes how cowbirds, which lay eggs in the nests of songbirds, use mafia-like behavior to ensure that the parasitized songbirds rear rather than destroy the cowbird eggs (Hoover and Robinson 2007). At the same time, studies of the adaptive significance of modern human behavior, for example the studies by Randy Thornhill, Steven Gangestad and others showing how odor attractiveness is sub-consciously associated with body symmetry (e.g., Thornhill and Gangestad 1999), or the study by Melissa Bateson and colleagues showing how the presence of a photograph of human eyes increases contributions to an honesty box (Bateson et al. 2006) often give students new insight into the motives underlying their social interactions. Given the complexities of modern life and the incredible challenges facing the global population, I hope that self-awareness gained through biology will help us understand causes and find remedies for our social ills.

Bateson M, Nettle D, Roberts G (2006) Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world setting. Biology Letters, 2, 412–414.

Hoover JP, Robinson SK (2007) Retaliatory mafia behavior by a parasitic cowbird favors host acceptance of parasitic eggs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104, 4479-4483.

Thornhill, R., & Gangestad, S. W. (1999). The scent of symmetry: A human pheromone that signals fitness? Evolution and Human Behavior, 20, 175-201.

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