What can behavioral biology tell us about learning? Are there hard-wired learning behaviors in animals and humans? What is the scope of learning in the natural world? This biological context reveals an interesting and possibly unfamilar perspective on human behavior and learning. It will also give us a chance to discuss the wonderful world of animal behavior and learning.
This discussion is based on two lectures from Robert Sapolsky's free on-line course "Human Behavioral Biology". Both videos are long (roughly an hour and a half each). Both are exquisite, fairly introductory, yet richly detailed and complex (like their subject). The two videos stand fairly well on their own, but they do assume some background from previous videos in the course.
• Recognizing Relatives. We will focus on the last 50 minutes of this video (the first 30 minutes is a review of the first 7 lectures in the course and is excellent, but slightly out of scope for this discussion). The technical word "spandrel" (meaning traits that have evolved as the incidental byproduct of adaptive traits) is the only technical word that you might not know. The video does assume some familiarity with evolution by natural selection and the "lock and key model" for protein function. Here are two summaries of the lecture: My notes on Sapolsky's lecture on Recognizing Relatives and A Sapolsky fan's notes on Recognizing Relatives.
Questions that we might discuss from this video:
How does the major histocompatibility complex affect innate understanding of self, other, and relative in organisms and humans? How can pheromones affect human (and animal behavior)? How can social anosmias (inability to smell) affect humans? How do humans, baboons, and other animals recognize their relatives (so that evolutionary theories about kin selection and cooperation can apply to the world of real organisms)? How is human mating affected by living with someone during their youth? What is pseudo-kinship? What is pseudospeciation? How does this context provide important background for understanding learning?
• Ethology. This lecture introduces ethology (the study of animal behavior) framed by the field of psychology (with a particular emphasis on behaviorism which was founded by John B. Watson and led by B. F. Skinner). It provides deep insights into the unique approach of ethology to the study of behavior including human behavior. It is also a fascinating introduction to the subfields of neuroethology and cognitive ethology. Although we will focus on learning, we will discuss some of the broader issues the video raises about ethology and behavioral psychology. Here are two summaries of this lecture: My notes on Sapolsky's lecture on ethology and A Sapolsky fan's notes on ethology.
Questions that we might discuss from this video:
Can all behaviors be learned or are some of them innate? Do humans have innate behaviors? How are humans influenced by olfactory (relating to the sense of smell) cues? What signals do human males respond to subliminally? How do ethologists determine the releasing stimulus (the cause) that leads to a fixed action pattern (a behavior)? How can ethologists determine the innate releasing mechanisms (the biological processes that control behavior including neurology, the study of brains and the nervous system, and endocrinology, the study of hormones)?
Is maternal competence a learned behavior or innate? What animal behaviors did Sapolsky describe that surprised you? Can some animals learn with just one attempt? Are some animals (and humans!) innately prepared for certain types of learning? What is "theory of mind"? Do some animals have theory of mind? Can animals distinguish intentional from accidental behavior? Can ethology determine if animals have awareness? Do some animals have numerosity (a sense of number) and sophisticated logic skills? What take home message can we draw about the nature of the tools of ethology for revealing the breadth and depth of animal behavior especially with respect to the role of learning in animals and humans.
What major advance did behavioral psychology contribute to our understanding of human and animal behavior? What problems does Sapolsky find with behaviorism and its flagship reinforcement learning as it was influentially pushed by B. F. Skinner and others? Since Sapolsky didn't highlight many benefits of behaviorism, should we infer that it is now disreputable? Can behaviorism make a comeback? How ought we value the contributions of both ethology and behavioral psychology as approaches to understanding human behavior? Is thinking about subdisciplines in this way distorting? How ought we view the various paradigm changes that run through sciences like biology?
This topic is a repeat from the one on Sun 10 Nov.
I have led three prior discussions on Robert Sapolsky whose notes and references you might enjoy: The Uniqueness and Evolution of Humans (15 Apr 2012), The Evolutionary and Genetic Bases of Human Behavior (14 Jul 2013), and The Evolutionary and Genetic Bases of Human Behavior (27 Jul 2013). The latter two discussions covered videos 2-7 of Sapolsky's course BIO 250, HUMBIO 160: Human Behavioral Biology.