The Evolution of Behavioral Ontogeny

Advanced Seminar

August 13–17, 1995

The fact that behavioral development is influenced by evolution has long been recognized, but it is less widely understood that the relationship is reciprocal—that development influences evolution. In recent years the growth of powerful interdisciplinary evolutionary models have combined with the proliferation of human and nonhuman behavioral development studies to create a critical mass of concepts and data that need to be integrated into anthropological thought. An advanced seminar held at the School in August 1995 addressed this need and stimulated a new approach to the evolution of behavioral ontogeny.

A diverse group of participants, ranging from biological anthropologists and evolutionary biologists to psycholinguists, cognitive neuroscientists, and comparative and developmental psychologists, gathered for a week of discussion on the evolution of human cognitive development. Co-chaired by Jonas Langer, University of California, Berkeley, Michael McKinney, University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and Sue Taylor Parker of Sonoma State University, the seminar addressed questions such as: Is human behavior the product of neoteny (the retention of juvenile characteristics) or of “terminal extension” of development? What can we learn from comparative studies of the behavioral development of nonhuman primates and other species? And what models are useful for comparative studies of behavioral evolution?

The group examined these complex questions from cross-cultural and cross-species perspectives, looking at comparative cognitive development in apes and humans, the geological record, anatomy, child development, the evolution of the capacity for culture, and the relationship of language to intelligence. They concluded that although heterochrony (evolution through developmental timing) occurs at many levels—molecular, organismic, cultural—its specific manifestations differ depending on the nature of the developmental constraints operating at each level.

The seminar’s multidisciplinary approach paved the way for a revolutionary reinterpretation of the process of brain development, but the varied backgrounds of the participants raised additional challenges. How well would they be able to communicate across disciplinary lines? How receptive would they be to the presuppositions of other disciplines? What new understandings could they achieve?

“The seminar was remarkably successful,” said co-chair Sue Parker. “Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of the gathering was the rapt attention participants accorded to each other’s ideas. Somehow we each had gained sufficient knowledge of the basic concepts of the other disciplines to communicate across academic boundaries.” 

Jonas Langer, Chair Department of Psychology, University of California at Berkeley The Heterochronic Evolution of Primate Cognitive Development
Michael L. McKinney, Chair Department of Geology, University of Tennessee at Knoxville Evolution of Ontogeny: 'Recapitulation' and the Human Neoteny Myth
Sue Taylor Parker, Chair Department of Anthropology, Sonoma State University Homo Erectus Infancy and Childhood: The Turning Point in the Evolution of Hominid Behavioral Ontogeny
Elizabeth Bates Department of Cognitive Sciences, University of California at San Diego Brain Development
Terrence Deacon Boston University How Flexible Is the Neurodevelopmental Clock?
Borje Ekstig Department of Teacher Training, Uppsala University Selection for Condensation: An Extended View of Natural Selection with Applications to Behavioral Development
Lynn Fairbanks Department of Psychiatry/Bio-Behavioral Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles Behavioral Development of Nonhuman Primates and the Evolution of Human Behavioral Ontogeny
John Gittleman Department of Zoology, University of Tennessee at Knoxville Heterochrony, Life Histories and Brain Size: Connections Via a Multivariate Method
Patricia Marks Greenfield Department of Psychology, University of California at Los Angeles Cultural Evolution and the Evolution of Culture
Brian Shea Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, Northwestern University Neoteny and Heterochrony in the Evolution of Humans

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