I’ve been quiet lately because I had to write my thesis then defend it. Now I’m being quiet because I’ve gone to bimble around Hanoi for a while in an attempt to decompress from PhD life.

We’re trying to publish some of my chapters so the actual thesis itself is embargoed at the moment (one chapter was published last year). But in case you are interested, here’s a summary written using only the ten hundred most common English words:

We think we know what people are like from how they act in rooms where brain-people in white jackets make them do things. But I want to check how people act in real life. I looked at how people work together in two places – one where they keep animals in the cold land at the top of the world and another place where they grow food around a body of water in a big big land. The people helped their friends, family and other close people. They liked good people and didn’t help bad people.

And here’s the official summary:

Humans live in cooperative groups of varying scales and composition, from families to nations and international communities. Segregating into groups can provide benefits by alleviating individual costs. However, individuals also face a dilemma between following their own interests and those of the group, which can lead to a breakdown in cooperation. The evolutionary benefits and costs of cooperation are well-understood theoretically, but the real-world dynamics of cooperative behaviour remain unclear. This thesis investigates cooperation in two populations, employing field experiments and social network methods grounded in a human behavioural ecology framework. Part I centres on Saami reindeer pastoralists, an indigenous minority who live and work in cooperative herding groups around northern Norway. I collected survey and experimental data, using gift games to test whether herders acted cooperatively towards genetic relatives or to their herding group, or both. I also played public goods games to understand how herders respond to and solve social dilemmas. Cooperative behaviours were biased towards the herding group, although kinship also had a positive effect on gift-giving. Smaller groups were more cooperative, although this pattern was not driven by relatedness. Part II analyses demographic and experimental data collected by others from a population of Mosuo farmers living in rural southwest China. The Mosuo are a minority whose social system traditionally revolved around matrilineal households but which is changing in response to increased tourism. The results show how affinal relationships encourage a real-word measure of cooperation: labouring on farms. Some Mosuo people were considered witches. I test whether witchcraft accusations act as a form of costless punishment, allowing people to withhold help from witches. Witches were somewhat isolated within their villages but clustered together and did not suffer significantly lowered reproductive success. These results underline the importance of studying cooperation in real-world groups in addition to laboratories.

New research paper about Saami reindeer herders and gift-giving

I’m enormously pleased to say that I have a new bit of research published. The paper is about gift-giving in a group of reindeer herders living in Norway. It’s the culmination of nearly two and a half years’ worth of work – from our initial planning, though some months of hanging out in the (surprisingly warm) arctic, to endless rounds of statistics and writing and revising and statistics and *facepalming* and statistics and *headdesking* and statistics and revising.

The paper itself is published in a journal called Behavioral Ecology but because of funding constraints we weren’t able to make it open access – to my great chagrin (but you can download a PDF for free here or read it online here, or feel free to email me if you want a copy).
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The evolution of cooperation isn’t so puzzling

There’s a bit of a vibe in evolutionary anthropology/biology/theory that the evolution of cooperation is puzzling. A recent book — The Moral Brain — says “cooperation between unrelated individuals poses a puzzle from both the perspective of natural selection and that of rational self-interest”. Still there are loads (and I mean *loads*) of theoretical models showing a variety of ways for cooperation to evolve. In a moment of heightened procrastination, I decided to delve into the literature and find out just how puzzling scientists find cooperation (warning: this is not even remotely a scholarly piece of work).
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A tool to visualise the scientific literature

I spent an enjoyable couple of days last week in the beautiful Wellcome Trust taking part in a data/text mining workshop run by The Content Mine.

The idea behind their project is to develop tools that help scientists and other interested sorts pull data from published articles, potentially on a large scale. If you want to learn more, all their presentations are online, as are the materials from the Wellcome workshop.

The second day was a hackday. For this, my team wanted to build on the ContentMine tools to create something that helps you explore the scientific literature and find connections between papers you might not otherwise have found. We thought it would work something like this:
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New paper about how sibling competition and mortality risks affect birth intervals

My very first contribution to the collected sum of human knowledge has just been published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology. The paper is called: “A Dynamic Framework for the Study of Optimal Birth Intervals Reveals the Importance of Sibling Competition and Mortality Risks” and you can read it online or download a PDF. I’ll talk about the main results in this post.

paper header 2
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My review of the Crick Lecture 2014 – ‘Genetic control and the mammalian radiation’

I reviewed last November’s Crick Lecture at the Royal Society on behalf of BioNews. Dr Duncan Odom spoke about mammals, genes, a branch of biology called ‘comparative functional genomics’ and how we all owe everything to tiny shrews. I also took the opportunity to have a moan about simplistic sloganeering and the rights of marginalised forest-dwelling people. Have a read.

A Photograph

Under the sudden weight his neck cracked a little like the shutter-release button.
Not the weight of stories or self-aggrandised memory or shit like this:
the straight-down weight of a 1971 Russian-made SLR
(no matter he thought it was the same age as his father).
She focussed slowly then became a blur, a sunset on a plain.

For the occasion he wore his best 58-mil lens: factory-standard,
actually, but there’s no need for her to know. He held it to her.
The smell of the ageing leather case threw her to a world of a father,
breath of American lager, cigars, a green recliner and a fire.
She tossed it back, tossed off her pants, let her arch punctuate a question mark.

By chance the bottom of the case still held his father’s ‘Property Of’ label,
in gold, in larger font, above his, punctuated by a full stop.
The weight on the wrist at this angle hurt. He aimed again, her sunset fell
behind the night curtain shutter only to rise one hundred and twenty five
milliseconds later. He thumbed the winder, finding nothing to spool,

no film for the sprockets to chew, and his eyes – wide, stark – shuttered on bulb
for an unfocussed time, gulping images onto the reel of his
mind: thoughts of all those times lost, all those eternities dismissed
with each flick of that switch; not even memories now: events, without
a chance to become fading antiques coated in their tears, dust and grease.

He opened his eyes. She’s still naked, still there, more an imperative now
than an indirect, seductive question.
The mirror behind her
and the mirror behind him juggled the couple for an era
he just couldn’t muster and, wishing for film, he pressed on the plunger:
an inrush of light puffed off the back of the camera. Nothing was preserved.

(Published in issue three of Haque magazine.)