Friday, December 22, 2006

Given the choice, I'd vote for a sea lion

For a long time, I wanted to be a behavioural ecologist when I grew up. I had come to biology via watching birds and David Attenborough programmes, read The Selfish Gene (which is bascially a very good book about behavioural ecology) at an impressionable age, and in the early 90s it seemed like a really vibrant and exciting area.

But now it seems to have been a victim of that success — almost (to exaggerate) a completed science. We have a set of ideas that have been very successful at explaining animal behaviour in evolutionary terms — kin selection, optimal foraging, various models of sexual selection, and a few others. Most aspects of animal behaviour seem explicable in terms of one or other, and nothing seems to need a big new idea to explain it. I'd be interested to hear anyone else's thoughts on this (particularly if you disagree).

Anyway, this is really just a preamble before I mention some recent behaviour papers that caught my eye. Behavioural ecology might not be white hot, but it still delivers high on the fancy-that factor.

For example, did you know that sea lions are masters of self control? If you offer them a pile of five fish or a lone fish, and then give them the one they don't choose, they quickly learn to choose the smaller reward — more quickly, in fact than primates, who keep lunging helplessly for the bigger pile (I don't think they offered the primates fish. Probably bananas, or something.).

Not only that, diving seals can hold off digesting their dinner until they surface, to reduce the amount of oxygen they use up underwater.

One area of behavioural research that's still kicking up dust is, of course, evolutionary psychology. Here, for example is a worrying paper from Evolution and Human Behaviour looking at the influence of face shape on voting decision:

We show that differences in facial shape alone between candidates can predict who wins or loses in an election.

Anthony Little and his colleagues took the faces of recent election opponents — Kerry/Bush, Blair/Howard, and several others from around the world. They recreated the differences between the two candidates' faces on neutral models, so that subjects wouldn't recognize them, and then tweaked them to exaggerate the difference (not sure why they did this — it seems to undermine the study's claims to reflect reality). Then they showed the faces to people, and asked who they would rather vote for, without any other information.

The percentage preferences for the simulated faces predicted fairly well the destination of votes cast in actual elections.

The Sunday Times reported on this at the weekend.

Little speculates that voters chose Blair because his skin looked healthier than Major and his face, with a strong jaw and thinner lips, looked more masculine than Hague. “Firm jaws and heavy brows denote masculinity,” he said.

Perhaps more reassuringly, they found that "there may be no general characteristics of faces that can win votes". People asked to choose a peace- or wartime leader, for example, prefer different sorts of faces — wartime voters prefer a more dominant, masculine face, apparently. Sigh. I imagine doctors of spin are already out with the callipers and booking their men and women in for plastic surgery.

1 comment:

jbruno said...

Good stuff, John. I was shown here from Evolgen.

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