The thing that stuck out was that self-control is simply a product of absolute brain size. It had more to do with your feeding ecology: How complex was your diet? How many things do you rely on to survive? That was a big surprise, because the idea that diet is shaping cognition has faded in many circles as the leading hypothesis for thinking about how psychology evolves. So, how do we move forward on testing ideas about the evolution of psychology? ... It's interesting to think about how this all came about. It all started in a bar.
BRIAN HARE is an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University in North Carolina and founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center. He is the co-author (with Vanessa Woods) of The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think. Brian Hare's Edge Bio Page
ABSOLUTE BRAIN SIZE MATTERS
The questions that I’m thinking about involve how humans are different from other animals. I’m also interested in how that happened, how we became so different in terms of our psychology. The area in psychology that is fertile for a lot of growth is thinking about how our psychology evolved. How did we go from having psychology more like other apes to being like we are now, and what was the process by which that happened? How did either natural selection or random forces of evolution produce what we are today? That’s a hard problem that I'm excited to think about.
What are we doing to try to look at that? Well, we compare different animals. Historically, we’ve been lucky if we could do a comparison of two animals. Say I compare dogs and wolves to each other and try to understand how they’re different from one another, if I can understand how they’re different, then maybe I can make some guesses about how those differences evolved.
My hope for the future is that comparative psychology can move past just comparing pairs of species and look at lots of different species, using the tree of life to make predictions and test ideas about how psychology might evolve in different species so that we can come up with ideas about how our own species may have happened. The idea that we have culture, that we have language, that we can think about the thoughts of others, that we have the ability to deceive or care about others and have empathy—one of the big hypotheses for how humans ended up with these unusual abilities is that evolution favored more complex social skills.
To test that, though, you have to look at lots of different species, and you have to have data on how those different species solve social problems to be able to trace how those social skills may have evolved. That’s been difficult, but it's also exciting to think about how to get around that problem. One of the things we’ve tried to do is pioneer these large-scale collaborations, like the genomicists have done. We published a paper two or three years ago that involved fifty-six co-authors. We got people from all over the world to contribute data on a variety of primate species, and even non-primates, like birds and elephants. We had almost forty species. Everybody had done some cognitive tests with their species they had available to them and, remarkably, it was the first time that people who study animal psychology had ever worked together in this way. We led the charge to do that because we know that if we want to understand the evolution of human social psychology, if we want to test why we are the way we are and the hypotheses that we think are necessary to make us human, we’re going to have to look at a large range of species and understand how they have been shaped by evolution.
We measured inhibitory control, which is basically your ability to not do something that might be counterproductive. We had two measures of this on these forty species. We thought that by testing the big hypothesis—that there’s been selection on social psychology in animals—we might be able to learn about the human case. When we looked at these forty species, that’s not what we saw. We thought it would be that animals with more complex social systems need the ability to control their behavior to not do something that might be counterproductive. You can imagine that if you’re competing with one another, you don’t want to get in a fight with the wrong guy, right? Self-control would seem to be incredibly important in social endeavors. That’s not the pattern we saw when we did the measurements....MUCH MORE