“The pandemic exposes human nature: 10 evolutionary insights” By David M. Buss, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, David Sloan Wilson et al. [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]

“The pandemic exposes human nature: 10 evolutionary insights

Benjamin M. Seitz, Athena Aktipis, David M. Buss, Joe Alcock, Paul Bloom, Michele Gelfand, Sam Harris, Debra Lieberman, Barbara N. Horowitz, Steven Pinker, David Sloan Wilson, Martie G. Haselton

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Oct 2020

PNAS first published October 22, 2020

Edited by Michael S. Gazzaniga, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA, and approved September 16, 2020 (received for review June 9, 2020)



Humans and viruses have been coevolving for millennia. Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19) has been particularly successful in evading our evolved defenses. The outcome has been tragic—across the globe, millions have been sickened and hundreds of thousands have died. Moreover, the quarantine has radically changed the structure of our lives, with devastating social and economic consequences that are likely to unfold for years. An evolutionary perspective can help us understand the progression and consequences of the pandemic. Here, a diverse group of scientists, with expertise from evolutionary medicine to cultural evolution, provide insights about the pandemic and its aftermath. At the most granular level, we consider how viruses might affect social behavior, and how quarantine, ironically, could make us susceptible to other maladies, due to a lack of microbial exposure. At the psychological level, we describe the ways in which the pandemic can affect mating behavior, cooperation (or the lack thereof), and gender norms, and how we can use disgust to better activate native “behavioral immunity” to combat disease spread. At the cultural level, we describe shifting cultural norms and how we might harness them to better combat disease and the negative social consequences of the pandemic. These insights can be used to craft solutions to problems produced by the pandemic and to lay the groundwork for a scientific agenda to capture and understand what has become, in effect, a worldwide social experiment.


“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” (1), and nothing about the human response to COVID-19 will either.


Insight 1: The Virus Might Alter Host Sociability

There are two possibilities for how SARS-CoV-2 might be altering human behavior. First, it may be suppressing feelings of sickness during times of peak transmissibility. SARS-CoV-2 is characterized by a high rate of viral shedding, and the peak of viral shedding—and therefore transmissibility—occurs 1 d to 2 d before the onset of symptoms (5). It is possible that SARS-CoV-2 has been particularly successful because it is highly infectious before symptoms appear. Suppressing sickness-related behavior of hosts is one way that viruses can increase their fitness. Hosts that are infected but do not feel sick are more likely to go about their usual activities, which allows them to come in contact with others whom they might infect. If they do not display symptoms of infection, the human behavioral immune system fails to activate in others (see Insight 3: Activating Disgust Can Help Combat Disease Spread), silently spreading to new hosts.

The second possibility of how SARS-CoV-2 could affect host behavior is by contributing to mood disorders, such as mania, that could increase activity levels and decrease feelings of sickness, at least temporarily, during times of peak transmissibility. This could potentially lead to a “tug-of-war” over host behavior, with the virus “pulling for” greater host activity and sociability and the host fighting against this to reduce activity and instead prioritize healing. If sometimes the virus is winning and other times the host immune system is able to regain control, this could manifest as a mood disorder with periods of high activity/sociability and depression/fatigue, respectively.

Similarly, if SARS-CoV-2 is affecting host social behavior, this would also affect epidemiological models, because contact rates change over the course of disease progression (10).


Insight 2: “Generation Quarantine” May Lack Critical Microbial Exposures

The pandemic has focused the world’s attention on microbial influences on human life. Whereas the emphasis has been on the SARS-CoV-2 virus, quarantine has temporarily halted the regular exposure to novel pathogens that is characteristic of human social interaction. An evolutionary perspective reminds us we must consider the potential trade-offs of this intervention. Children and adolescents whose immune systems and brains are actively shaped by microbial exposures may be most impacted by this change.

Although reduced exposure to neuropathic viruses during quarantine may protect some, normal brain development requires adequate and diverse microbial exposure. During development, communication between the gut microbiota of a young animal and the microglial brain cells that shape networks through myelinization and selective synaptic pruning influence its future cognitive, motor, and affective characteristics (17).

But the risk-taking, neophilia, and drive to be sexual and socialize that characterize adolescence and promote dispersal are influenced by microbiota now fundamentally altered for many millions of adolescents around the world. COVID-19 has temporarily ended practice dispersals, physical peer-to-peer play, sexual activity, and other activities which would otherwise bring millions of adolescents into contact with novel microbes.


Insight 3: Activating Disgust Can Help Combat Disease Spread

Disgust is a physical and social protective system that is a product of, and sheds light on, our evolutionary past. Disgust protects across three domains, all of which relate to pathogen exposure (25, 26). First, disgust is part of our food psychology and motivates avoidance of foods harboring, for instance, signs of toxins and microorganisms. Second, disgust is part of our sexual psychology and motivates avoidance of sexual partners (e.g., family members) judged to potentially risk the immunocompetence and, hence, health and viability of offspring. Last, and most pertinent, disgust is part of our physical contact psychology and motivates avoidance of individuals displaying signs of infection, surfaces revealing microbial infestation, and the skin, mouth, anus, and bodily fluids of unknown others. Together, consumption, coitus, and contact are all behaviors regulated by disgust and—because of the link to disease—all associated with one or more historical foodborne, sexually transmitted, or contact-facilitated pandemics.

Disgust might therefore be important, although sometimes less potent than other emotions, such as empathy, to persuade people to distance.


Insight 4: The Mating Landscape Is Changing, and There Will Be Economic Consequences from a Decrease in Birth Rates

Differential reproduction is the key to change over time. Humans have an evolved menu of mating strategies as products of successful reproduction, including long-term pair bonds, short-term casual sex, and everything in between (29). The COVID-19 pandemic is influencing these mating strategies and will have a profound impact on the global mating and economic landscape.

Short-term mating is the most obvious strategy to be affected. Novel sex partners are potential virus vectors, rendering the costs of casual sex steeper. In-person sex is being replaced, perhaps temporarily, with online versions—sexting, video cams, and virtual sex.

An evolutionary perspective predicts that those who pursue a fast life history strategy—marked by short-term mating pursuit, frequent partner switching, deceptive mating tactics, and steep future discounting (30)—are most likely to risk in-person sex during the pandemic and become potential superspreaders.

Touch and scent are central to mating compatibility (31), but distance deprives individuals of this vital information. Mating at a distance exacerbates the tendency of people to interpolate positive values for qualities for which they lack reliable information, such as honesty, emotional stability, and sexual history. This overidealization creates unrealistic expectations that risk being shattered when an eventual meeting takes place in real life.

An evolutionary perspective predicts that women will be reluctant to commit to men lacking financial stability, given the priority they place on this quality in long-term mating (32). It also predicts that men, in turn, will postpone marriage until they feel they have adequate resources to attract women of adequate or commensurate mate value (33). As marriage rates plummet and people postpone reproduction, at least for a period of time (34), some nations already on the cusp of population replacement level will fall dangerously below it as people opt to avoid bringing a baby into a virus-plagued world. Birth-rate drops, in turn, have cascading consequences for economic outcomes—job opportunities, the ability of countries to provide safety nets to an aging demographic, and a global economic contraction.


Insight 5: Gender Norms Are Backsliding, and Gender Inequality Is Increasing

With schools shut down, families have unanticipated needs for childcare. Who is picking up this slack? In April of 2020, women lost more jobs than men, in part because more women than men are employed in hospitality and service industries that lost customers. However, at that same time, women more than men felt more pressured to quit their jobs in order to manage added household responsibilities of childcare and education, and worried more that declines in their productivity during the pandemic would negatively impact their careers (35). Before the pandemic, women already felt more stressed than men by competing family and job roles (36). With children at home, that stress seems to lead women to become homemakers and makeshift teachers.

The default explanation in social science is to blame outdated gender stereotypes and lack of empowerment for women (39). However, women’s and men’s evolved preferences play an important role. One of the insights from evolutionary approaches to understanding sex differences is that women are far more limited in the number of offspring they can produce in their lifetimes than are men (40), and women, like females across primate species, have evolved to contribute a higher level of obligatory investment in each offspring through pregnancy and lactation (41). Therefore, throughout evolutionary history, a woman’s reproductive fitness hinged on the success of each individual offspring to a greater extent than a man’s. As a result (or in concert), women evolved stronger motivations to attend to the details of childcare and may feel pressured to accept more childcare and homemaking responsibility when others, such as teachers and childcare workers—or extended kin, who might otherwise help out—cannot.

For instance, in cities and nations with greater economic inequality, women self-sexualize more in social media posts (45). For men, economic inequality at both the cross-cultural level and neighborhood level is associated with increased rates of male-on-male homicide, which seems to be driven by men’s concerns with social status rather than a purely instrumental need to survive (46).


Insight 6: An Increase in Empathy and Compassion Is Not Guaranteed

There is anecdotal evidence that, in previous crises, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and terrorist attacks, the common reaction—contrary to popular belief—is not a descent into savagery. Rather, in cases such as Hurricane Katrina and the London Blitz, there is an outpouring of solidarity and mutual aid (48). Barriers of class and race are temporarily suspended, and the benefit of the collective becomes priority (49).

This is all consistent with a Rousseauian perspective: Human nature is fundamentally kind, and, stripped of the constraints of civilization, we are more equal, more generous, and mentally healthier. But there are also reasons to favor a less rosy view. Research on the behavioral immune system suggests that disease threat makes people intolerant and punitive toward outgroups (54). Nations with a history of high levels of infectious disease have lower rates of extraversion (55), and experimentally inducing disease threat spurs social withdrawal (56).

Furthermore, at least in the United States—although less so in countries such as Canada—this pandemic is not bringing people together; rather, responses reflect the partisan divide that so characterizes recent times, with conservatives and liberals having different views about wearing masks, the wisdom of a continuing lockdown, and much else.


Insight 7: We Have Not Evolved to Seek the Truth

Humans evolved in small groups under threat of starvation, predation, and exploitation by outsiders—and generally lived brief lives, favoring short-term strategies for consuming resources that could support successful reproduction (59). We have not evolved to think clearly about long-term threats like pandemics—which are statistically abstract and global. And yet, for at least a century, we’ve understood that the threat of a deadly pandemic is real and ever present (60). How should we have responded to this knowledge?

Unfortunately, most of us are terrible at weighing risks presented as abstract probabilities (61). We also heavily discount the well-being of our future selves (62), along with that of distant strangers (63) and future generations (64), and in ways that are both psychologically strange and, in a modern environment, ethically indefensible. We’re highly susceptible to conspiracy thinking (65), and display an impressive capacity to deceive ourselves, before doing the hard work of deceiving others (66). These predispositions likely endowed our ancestors with advantages (67, 68), but they also suggest that our species is not wired for seeking a precise understanding of the world as it actually is.

When we encounter friends or family in thrall to some fresh piece of misinformation, we often lack the courage to correct them. Meanwhile, behind a screen of anonymity, we eagerly confront the views of complete strangers online. Paradoxically, the former circumstance presents an opportunity to actually change opinion, while the latter is more likely to further entrench people in their misinformed views (70).


Insight 8: Combating the Pandemic Requires Its Own Evolutionary Process

Some of the insights above point to flaws in our human nature that contributed to the pandemic and may make navigating it more difficult. But humans are paradoxical creatures. On one hand, we are products of genetic evolution in ancestral environments that bear little resemblance to modern environments. These “evolutionary mismatches” are likely responsible for our frequent lack of alarm in response to the pandemic. On the other hand, we constructed those modern environments, so our capacity for rapid cultural evolution—via behaviors, values, and technologies—must be acknowledged along with our genetic human natures.

This duality is captured by the label dual inheritance theory, which posits both a genetic stream and a cultural stream of inheritance that have been coevolving with each other for as long as we have been a species (71). The slower process of genetic evolution often follows where the faster process of cultural evolution leads, as we know from classic examples such as lactose tolerance in adults (a genetic adaptation) in cultures that keep livestock (a cultural adaptation) (72).


Insight 9: Cultural Evolutionary Forces Impact COVID-19 Severity

Evolutionary principles can be applied to understand cultural adaptations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Human groups under collective threat experience evolutionary pressures to tighten social norms and punish people who deviate from norms. Accordingly, we can predict that societies worldwide will tighten in response to the pandemic. From an evolutionary perspective, strict norms and punishments that deter free riders are essential to helping groups coordinate their social action to survive, and thus would be adaptive in times of threat. Consistent with this reasoning, nations with histories of ecological and human-made threats (e.g., natural disasters, disease prevalence, resource scarcity, and invasions) tend to be tight (i.e., have stricter norms and little tolerance for deviance), whereas groups with less threat tend to be loose (i.e., have weaker norms and more permissiveness) (76). Variation in tightness in nonindustrial societies is also related to collective threats such as pathogen prevalence, population pressure, scarcity, and warfare (77).

Accordingly, groups require stronger norms and punishment of deviance to survive under high threat (78). Indeed, experimentally priming humans with collective threat leads to an increase in desired tightness—either from God or government (79, 80).

The varying reactions of nations around the world to early stages of the pandemic reveal potential evolutionary mismatches, wherein some loose societies have had a delayed and often conflicted reaction to tightening norms. Countries that are tight (e.g., South Korea, Japan, China) have been highly effective at limiting COVID-19 cases and deaths (81). By contrast, loose cultures (e.g., Spain, Brazil, and the United States) have had an explosion of cases and deaths in early stages. EGT models also illustrate that loose cultures take far longer to cooperate when under threat than tight cultures (82). Because people in loose cultures have generally experienced fewer ecological threats, they may be more likely to underestimate the risk of COVID-19 than those in tight cultures.


Insight 10: Human Progress Continues

Evolutionary reasoning makes several predictions about the future humans will face in the wake of the pandemic––from shifts away from economic independence for women to birth rates dipping below thresholds needed to maintain some human populations. These are some depressing possibilities that invite a conclusion that humanity is spiraling downward to a new low point. Those who deny the possibility of social progress might feel vindicated by the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, because it shows that life has gotten worse rather than better. But has it?

Many people have trouble reconciling the demonstrable fact of human progress—that, over time, we have become healthier, better fed, richer, safer, and better educated—with the constraints of human biology. Some fear that, if the mind has evolved as a complex structure, then progress would be impossible, because “you can’t change human nature.” Therefore, either there cannot be such a thing as progress or there cannot be such a thing as human nature.



COVID-19 has brought radical change, through deaths, stress of extended quarantine, confusion that slowed adequate responding, social unrest at a massive scale, and a long and uncertain social and economic aftermath. This radical change is global—no human, anywhere, is unaffected by COVID-19.

To understand the virus and our response to it, we need to understand how viruses and humans evolve. We know that there is a long history of the coevolution of viruses and humans. Viruses evolve to exploit their hosts to encourage their own replication, but they also depend on hosts to survive. Humans can tolerate some manipulation by viruses, but we have also evolved to combat them. This delicate coevolutionary dance is why we often seem to be running as fast as we can, just to stay in the same place (90).

However, humans also possess the tool of scientific insight that gives us a broader view than what the virus can see. Perhaps this can help us stay one step ahead. By understanding the nature of viral strategies, we can better anticipate the spread of COVID-19 and try to block it. Likewise, by understanding human nature, we can try to activate evolved motivational systems that will help fight the virus, such as providing cues that trigger our behavioral immune system. Understanding human nature will also enhance our ability to address the aftermath of COVID-19, as it has disrupted so many of our fundamental human activities, such as mating, parenting, and simply maintaining social contact.

Herein, we have described 10 insights offered by a broad range of evolutionary thinkers, with expertise ranging from evolutionary medicine to broadscale cultural evolution. These insights offer possibilities for guiding science to address the spread of COVID-19 and its inevitable aftermath. However, these insights represent only a limited snapshot of this historic moment, and a selection of topics, although important, that an evolutionary perspective on the pandemic can provide.

The objective in providing these insights is to help make sense of the vast confusion that mars this pandemic and to illuminate paths for research. In addition to insights that can produce immediate action, the pandemic has provided us with unique opportunities to witness human nature as it unfolds, from changes in patterns of reproduction, shifting social norms, and curiosities of cognition that can warp our recognition of threat. This paper is a call to action in science—both in the application of existing knowledge about viral and human nature and also as an opportunity to make discoveries that would not be possible except when a global social experiment is underway.”

“Biology’s next great horizon is to understand cells, tissues and organisms as agents with agendas” By Michael Levin & Daniel Dennett [Aeon]

“Cognition all the way down

Biology’s next great horizon is to understand cells, tissues and organisms as agents with agendas (even if unthinking ones)

Michael Levin

is the Vannevar Bush chair and Distinguished Professor of biology at Tufts University in Massachusetts, where he directs the Allen Discovery Center and the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology.

Daniel C Dennett

is the Austin B Fletcher professor of philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He is the author of more than a dozen books, the latest of which is From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2017). He lives in Massachusetts.



We think that this commendable scientific caution has gone too far, putting biologists into a straitjacket that prevents them from exploring the most promising hypotheses, just as behaviourism prevented psychologists from seeing how their subjects’ measurable behaviour could be interpreted as effects of hopes, beliefs, plans, fears, intentions, distractions and so forth. The witty philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser once asked B F Skinner: ‘You think we shouldn’t anthropomorphise people?’– and we’re saying that biologists should chill out and see the virtues of anthropomorphising all sorts of living things. After all, isn’t biology really a kind of reverse engineering of all the parts and processes of living things? Ever since the cybernetics advances of the 1940s and ’50s, engineers have had a robust, practical science of mechanisms with purpose and goal-directedness – without mysticism. We suggest that biologists catch up.


Recent advances in basal cognition and related sciences are showing us how to move past this kind of all-or-nothing thinking about the human animal – naturalising human capacities and swapping a naive binary distinction for a continuum of how much agency any system has.


 Treating cells like dumb bricks to be micromanaged is playing the game with our hands tied behind our backs and will lead to a ‘genomics winter’ if we stay exclusively at this molecular level. The lack of progress in rational morphogenetic control shows us this.


It has become standard practice to describe such phenomena with the help of anthropomorphic, intentional idioms: when we click the mouse, we tell the cursor to grab the thing on the screen, and as we move the mouse we move the thing on the screen until we signal to the cursor to drop the thing by clicking the mouse again. This talk of signalling and information-processing is now clearly demystified thanks to computers – no mysterious psychic powers here! – and this has been correctly seen to license use of such information talk everywhere in biology. Detectors and signals and feedback loops and decision-making processes are uncontroversial physical building blocks in biology today, just as they are in computers. But there is a difference that needs to be appreciated, since failure to recognise it is blocking the imagination of theorists. In a phrase that will need careful unpacking, individual cells are not just building blocks, like the basic parts of a ratchet or pump; they have extra competences that turn them into (unthinking) agents that, thanks to information they have on board, can assist in their own assembly into larger structures, and in other large-scale projects that they needn’t understand.

We members of Homo sapiens tend to take the gifts of engineering for granted. For thousands of years, our ancestors prospected for physical regularities that they could exploit by designing structures that could perform specific functions reliably. What makes a good rope, good glue, a good fire-igniter? The humble nut-and-bolt fastener is an elegantly designed exploitation of leverage, flexibility, tensile strength and friction, evolving over 2,000 years, and significantly refined in the past two centuries. Evolution by natural selection has been engaged in the same prospecting at the molecular level for billions of years, and among its discoveries are thousands of molecular tools for cells to use for specific jobs. Among those tools are antennas or hooks with which to exploit the laws of physics and computation.


Notice how ‘you’ can be a single cell or a multicellular organism – or an organ or tissue in a multicellular organism – and still be gifted with informational competences composed out of the basic ‘nuts and bolts’ of information-processing structures. Agents, in this carefully limited perspective, need not be conscious, need not understand, need not have minds, but they do need to be structured to exploit physical regularities that enable them to use information (following the laws of computation) to perform tasks, beginning with the fundamental task of self-preservation, which involves not just providing themselves with the energy needed to wield their tools, but the ability to adjust to their local environments in ways that advance their prospects.


The cooperation problem and the problem of the origin of unified minds embodied in a swarm (of cells, of ants, etc) are highly related. The key dynamic that evolution discovered is a special kind of communication allowing privileged access of agents to the same information pool, which in turn made it possible to scale selves. This kickstarted the continuum of increasing agency. This even has medical implications: preventing this physiological communication within the body – by shutting down gap junctions or simply inserting pieces of plastic between tissues – initiates cancer, a localised reversion to an ancient, unicellular state in which the boundary of the self is just the surface of a single cell and the rest of the body is just ‘environment’ from its perspective, to be exploited selfishly. And we now know that artificially forcing cells back into bioelectrical connection with their neighbours can normalise such cancer cells, pushing them back into the collective goal of tissue upkeep and maintenance.


This is a reasonable mechanistic story, but then isn’t all the talk of memory, decision-making, preferences and goal-driven behaviour just anthropomorphism? Many will want to maintain that real cognition is what brains do, and what happens in biochemistry only seems like it’s doing similar things. We propose an inversion of this familiar idea; the point is not to anthropomorphise morphogenesis – the point is to naturalise cognition. There is nothing magic that humans (or other smart animals) do that doesn’t have a phylogenetic history. Taking evolution seriously means asking what cognition looked like all the way back. Modern data in the field of basal cognition makes it impossible to maintain an artificial dichotomy of ‘real’ and ‘as-if’ cognition. There is one continuum along which all living systems (and many nonliving ones) can be placed, with respect to how much thinking they can do.

You have to remember that, while the most popular stories about how cells cooperate toward huge goals are about neural cells, there is little fundamental difference between neurons and other cell types. It is now known that synaptic proteins, ion channels and gap junctions, for instance, were already present in our unicellular ancestors, and were being used by electrically active cells to coordinate actions in anatomical morphospace (remodelling and development) long before they were co-opted to manage faster activity in 3D space. If you agree that there is some mechanism by which electrically active cells can represent past memories, future counterfactuals and large-scale goals, there is no reason why non-neural electric networks wouldn’t be doing a simplified version of the same thing to accomplish anatomical homeostasis. Phylogenetics has made it very clear that neurons evolved from far simpler cell types, and that some of the brain’s speed-optimised tricks were discovered around the time of bacterial biofilms (the biggest trick being scaling up into networks that can represent progressively bigger goal states and coordinating the Test-Operate-Test-Exit loop across tissues). Cognition has been a slow climb, not a magical leap, along this path.


From this perspective, we can visualise the tiny cognitive contribution of a single cell to the cognitive projects and talents of a lone human scout exploring new territory, but also to the scout’s tribe, which provided much education and support, thanks to language, and eventually to a team of scientists and other thinkers who pool their knowhow to explore, thanks to new tools, the whole cosmos and even the abstract spaces of mathematics, poetry and music. Instead of treating human ‘genius’ as a sort of black box made of magical smartstuff, we can reinterpret it as an explosive expansion of the bag of mechanical-but-cognitive tricks discovered by natural selection over billions of years. By distributing the intelligence over time – aeons of evolution, and years of learning and development, and milliseconds of computation – and space – not just smart brains and smart neurons but smart tissues and cells and proofreading enzymes and ribosomes – the mysteries of life can be unified in a single breathtaking vision.”

“Mad behaviour: the psychologist Joseph Henrich on what makes us weird” By Sophie McBain [New Statesman]

“Mad behaviour: the psychologist Joseph Henrich on what makes us weird

The Harvard professor on how most claims about human nature are based on people from “Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies”.

Sophie McBain

New Statesman



In 2010 Henrich co-authored a landmark paper titled, “The weirdest people in the world?” It observed that almost every claim made about human psychology or behaviour is based on studying people who are “Weird”; that is, from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies. These people are also weird – statistical outliers.  

Henrich’s research suggests our cultural environment, the norms and institutions we inherit, alters our psychology – and even our biology – in profound ways. Take learning to read. Becoming literate thickens your corpus callosum, which connects the brain’s right and left hemispheres and alters the parts of the brain responsible for processing speech and thinking about other minds. Literate people tend to be worse than others at recognising faces and are more likely to think analytically – breaking problems or scenes into component parts – rather than holistically.

Henrich contends that, compared with much of the world’s populations, “Weird” people are more individualistic and self-obsessed, and more likely to defer gratification, to stick to impartial rules and to trust strangers. They are less likely to extend special favours to friends or family. They’re more likely to feel guilt (a sense of having failed to meet one’s own self-imposed standards) than shame (a sense of having let down one’s community).


Henrich’s book poses a challenge to psychology, a field grappling with the so-called “replication crisis” – the realisation that when psychologists repeat an experiment, they often get different results. Henrich believes the discipline suffers from a “theoretical crisis”. “There’s no overarching theory that tells you what kind of effects you should expect. And that causes psychologists to try a bunch of stuff, which breeds a lot of false positives.”

The Weirdest People in the World is a provocative book. Human rights activists, for example, might bristle at its suggestion that in certain countries, individual rights aren’t a good psychological “fit”. But Henrich wants to avoid normative conclusions. “Like any science, [the book] can be useful to achieve your goals, but people might have different goals. I can see it being used by people who want to figure out how to spread human rights. I could see it being used by those who don’t.”

“In “Livewired,” neuroscientist David Eagleman shows how the brain shapes itself by interacting with the outside world” By Elizabeth Svoboda [Undark]

Book Review: The Remarkable Adaptability of the Human Brain

In “Livewired,” neuroscientist David Eagleman shows how the brain shapes itself by interacting with the outside world




Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman is obsessed with probing the outer limits of this kind of neural transformation — and harnessing it to useful ends. We’ve all heard that our brains are more plastic than we think, that they can adapt ingeniously to changed conditions, but in “Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain,” Eagleman tackles this topic with fresh élan and rigor. He shows not just how we can direct our own neural remodeling on a cellular level, but how such remodeling — a process he calls “livewiring” — alters the core of who we are.


In a refreshing counterpoint to the biology-is-destiny drumbeat, Eagleman embarks on a lively tour of how we can transform our brains by exercising our own agency. The neurons we exercise thrive and make new connections, he says, while the unused ones wither away. It’s essentially Darwin’s survival of the fittest playing out inside the human skull. “Just like neighboring nations, neurons stake out their territories and chronically defend them,” Eagleman writes. “Each neuron and each connection between neurons fights for resources.”


Importantly, Eagleman also addresses the limits of neural remodeling — a discussion that lends surprising insight into our polarized political landscape. We experience a pronounced drop in brain plasticity as we age, which is one reason some older people seem mired in world views that may not align with today’s global realities. “Through years of border disputes, neural maps become increasingly solidified,” Eagleman writes, later adding, “Someday, your brain will be that time-ossified snapshot that frustrates the next generation.”

“The Science of America’s Dueling Political Narratives” By Laura Akers [Scientific American]

“The Science of America’s Dueling Political Narratives

Elections aren’t won on the basis of policies; they’re won on the basis of the stories each side tells about itself and its values

By Laura Akers
Laura Akers, Ph.D. is a research psychologist at the Oregon Research Institute. Follow her work at http://meta-narrator.com or on Twitter @meta_narrator.



The science of metanarratives and how we respond to them is still in its infancy. Our research team, headed by psychologist Gerard Saucier, has uncovered the metanarratives typical of terrorists and genocidal leaders worldwide. More broadly, my own work seeks to understand how the structure and features of metanarratives can elicit emotional responses, and how social factors influence public reactions.

Emotions arise when we make comparisons relevant to our own needs and desires. We contrast our present circumstances with the future, the past and alternative versions of today. Improvements make us happy and inspire us; losses sadden or frustrate us. If we can blame someone else for our loss, we may become angry with them. And if we’re faced with threats, our fear can motivate action. As with fiction, we can categorize metanarratives by their emotional “genres,” such as progress (pride, optimism) or looming catastrophe (fear).


As cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Drew Westen remind us, it’s emotion that wins elections.


The public doesn’t accept every metanarrative it’s offered. We tend to be loyal to the cultural beliefs favored by our social circles and encouraged by our leaders. Even then, some voters stay open to alternatives, if there’s enough dissonance between the party line and their own experiences.”

“What is Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES) Doing About the WEIRD Problem?” By Chris von Rueden & Coren Apicella

What is HBES Doing About the WEIRD Problem?

October 3, 2020/in Newsletter

By HBES Executive Council Members, Chris von Rueden & Coren Apicella

What is HBES Doing About the WEIRD Problem?

Evolution and Human Behavior (EHB) just released its September issue, which is devoted to highlighting ongoing research in the evolutionary social sciences that expands beyond WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) populations. This special issue, titled “Beyond WEIRD, a decade later: Population diversity in the evolutionary study of human behavior,” was edited by Coren Apicella, Ara Norenzayan, and Joseph Henrich and features articles on topics including evolutionary medicine, cooperation, leadership, morality, and developmental psychology.


Now, authors who submit to the journal are required to fully describe their samples. For instance, authors are now asked to specify the geographic location from which their sample was drawn, how their data was collected (online or in-person), and any theoretically-relevant characteristics pertinent to the research study, such as religion affiliation, race/ethnicity, and gender identity (inclusive of non-binary options). And importantly, authors must also specify the source of the sample in their Abstract. Manuscripts that do not adequately describe samples will be returned to authors for revision prior to consideration.


The September EHB issue, “Beyond WEIRD, A Decade Later: Population Diversity in the Evolutionary Study of Human Behavior,” offers some criticisms, but its contributors are also optimistic about the future of evolutionary social science. We agree that the methods and theory will only get better, and that is in part because of the disciplinary diversity of our community. In particular, the dialogue between anthropologists and psychologists has been, and we hope will continue to be, an engine at the heart of the creativity and productivity of HBES.

“Neuropolítica: los secretos detrás del debate político entre Donald Trump y Joe Biden” By Andrés Fredericksen

“Neuropolítica: los secretos detrás del debate político entre Donald Trump y Joe Biden

Los candidatos utilizaron diversas estrategias para llamar la atención del espectador y votante saliendo de los esquemas y patrones de lo que el cerebro espera encontrar en un evento de estas características. Muchas de estos factores de persuasión emocional funcionan de forma inconsciente como el storytelling o el miedo.

Por: Andrés Fredericksen
Twitter: @fredericksen_a
DEA del programa de doctorado en Ciencias Políticas y Sociología por la U. Pontificia de Salamanca, España
Máster en neurociencias cognitivas aplicadas a la empresa por la U. Rey Juan Carlos de Madrid, España.


Las investigaciones en neurociencias cognitivas y su aplicación a la política, neuropolítica argumentan que la mayor parte de nuestras decisiones son más emocionales que racionales. Estos descubrimientos hacen que las estrategias comunicativas se replanteen entre los líderes políticos, ya que develan la importancia de las emociones en el proceso de toma de decisiones electorales, al tiempo de comprender que estructuras mentales y emocionales están involucradas en la persuasión para lograr el voto.

El neurocientifico Antonio Damasio argumenta que las emociones son responsables de nuestra toma de decisiones, ya que son capaces de alterar nuestro estado de atención y afectan nuestra conducta, condicionan los recuerdos y las experiencias generando una serie de influencias innatas – muchas veces inconsciente- en los individuos que afectan a la forma de expresarse y de tomar decisiones.


“Los americanos votan en relación a sus marcos mentales y que los republicanos han tenido éxito electoral ya que han enlazado su discurso al sistema de conceptos y valores de la sociedad Americana, y han logrado utilizar un lenguaje eficaz que penetre en las emociones del electorado y que se alinee a sus marcos mentales”, expresa George Lakoff profesor de ciencia cognitiva y lingüística de la Universidad de California, Berkeley, en su libro “The Political Mind”.


Joe Biden llegó a llamar al actual presidente de Estados Unidos de “payaso” para llamar la atención del espectador, al tiempo de decirle “racista”, concepto recurrente entre los detractores de Trump, especialmente después del asesinato de un hombre negro George Floyd a manos de la policía y por los ataques contra la inmigración mexicana y centroamericana para atraer votos en la frontera.

A su vez Donald Trump sacó a relucir el consumo de cocaína de del hijo de Joe Biden agudizando la tensión en el debate.


Una palabra negativa o insultante activa la amígdala, estructura del cerebro vinculada a las alertas. En el debate muchas veces predominó el caos, expresiones ofensivas y los golpes bajos, se centró en contarnos pequeñas historias, como lo haría de igual forma una serie, “culebrón” o una película.

Desde la neuropolítica se argumenta que al cerebro le gusta escuchar historias, ya que hacen emocionar, al tiempo de provocar cambios químicos en el cerebro. El storytelling es el arte de contar historias que impacten a la audiencia y al elector, se busca generar emociones que revivan momentos del pasado, ya sea propio o de una nación o pueblo, impulsando una conexión e identificación con el elector.

Fondazione Prada presenta “Human Brains”

“Fondazione Prada presenta “Human Brains”


Fondazione Prada ha intrapreso dal 2018 un percorso multidisciplinare di approfondimento e studio di tematiche scientifiche. Da queste riflessioni nasce “Human Brains”, un programma di mostre, convegni, incontri pubblici e attività editoriali previsto tra novembre 2020 e novembre 2022. Il progetto è il risultato di una complessa ricerca sviluppata in collaborazione con un comitato scientifico, presieduto da Giancarlo Comi e costituito da ricercatori, medici, psicologi, linguisti, filosofi, divulgatori e curatori come Jubin Abutalebi, Massimo Cacciari, Alessandro Del Maschio, Viviana Kasam, Udo Kittelmann, Andrea Moro e Daniela Perani.


Human Brains



The first two discussions will see neuroscientist Mavi Sanchez-Vives and neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux, moderated by neurologist Giancarlo Comi, and neurobiologist Eve Marder with neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, moderated by neurologist and neuroscientist Daniela Perani. They will explore the biological fundaments of conscience, from the neurofunctional mechanisms to neurochemical and molecular basis, and they will carry on in-depth analysis of connectivity as a cerebral substrate of conscience state and the revolutionary techniques that allow investigating the brain in vivo.

Two discussions between neurolinguist Andrea Moro and cognitive psychologist Stanislas Dehaene will be moderated by cognitive neurologist Jubin Abutalebi, while the anthropologist Ian Tattersall and neuroscientist Idan Segev will be moderated by neuroscientist Katrin Amunts. They will examine the concept of consciousness in relation to anthropology, the key role of language and its connection to the emotional and affective sphere to then reflect on the future evolution of research and on the attempts to create thinking machines.

Psychiatrist and neuroscientist Giulio Tonoli and philosopher Michele Di Francesco will hold the final discussion, moderated by scientific journalist Vivian Kasam; it will be a crucial moment to confront different perspectives and approaches to the complex question of conscience. Moreover, Giancarlo Comi and Massimo Cacciari will reflect on the contributions of all the previous discussions.”

“You’re most likely WEIRD … and don’t even know it” By Douglas Todd

“You’re most likely WEIRD … and don’t even know it

Opinion: WEIRD is a high-impact acronym invented by psychology professors at UBC, referring to people who are ‘Western,’ ‘Educated,’ ‘Industrialized,’ ‘Rich’ and ‘Democratic’

Douglas Todd



Everybody talks about diversity now. But when these profs examined contemporary social-science research they uncovered a huge blind spot to cultural differences, which has led to misleading conclusions about human psychology and, for that matter, human nature.

The colleagues published a ground-breaking paper in 2010 that showed more than 96 per cent of experiments in social psychology were based on subjects who are WEIRD. Compared to the vast majority of people on the planet, WEIRD people tend to be highly individualistic, control-oriented, nonconformist, analytical and trusting of strangers.

We are not the global norm. As Henrich says, “Textbooks that purport to be about ‘Psychology’ or “Social Psychology’ need to be retitled something like ‘The Cultural Psychology of Late 20th-Century Americans.’ ”


Henrich explains all this and much more in his new magnum opus, titled The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. Despite its 680 pages, it’s quite readable.

Henrich’s book takes the UBC crew’s understanding of WEIRD traits to new levels of significance. Gleaning from history, philosophy, religion and anthropology it attempts to explain why there are differences between cultures, including why some are more prosperous. It’s reminiscent of the trans-disciplinary project Jared Diamond took on with Guns, Germs and Steel, which maintained geography shaped Eurasian power.


“WEIRD people are bad friends,” Henrich writes in one catchy subtitle.

WEIRD people aren’t really willing to lie for a friend, he explains. In a cross-cultural experiment in disparate nations, participants were asked to imagine what they would do if they were a passenger in a car with a close friend who, while driving above the speed limit, hit a pedestrian.

More than 90 per cent of people in WEIRD countries such as Canada, Switzerland the U.S. would not testify their friend was driving slower than he was. “By contrast, in Nepal, Venezuela, and South Korea most people said they’d willingly lie under oath to help a close friend.” Communal bonds matter more in places that are not WEIRD.


While clearly disposed to “celebrate diversity” he avoids the cliché that, because of our common humanity, “deep down everyone’s the same.” It’s only true to a small extent: If we’re cut with a sharp object, for instance, we all bleed.

But because of our collective histories and cultures humans can actually turn out starkly different. So much so that Henrich makes it clear that ethnic and religious conventions can rewire the structure of our brains, even our genes.

It’s a real-world position: Humans become the peculiar and often amazingly different people they are due to myriad unrecognized cultural forces.”