Friday, August 27, 2010

Genes and culture in animals

Recent UM Ph.D. Kevin Langergraber and others (including UM primatologist John Mitani; 2010) recently reported on a high correlation between genetic relatedness and 'cultural' behavioral repertoire in wild chimpanzees.

Chimpanzees, and other animals, have been observed to display behaviors that appear 'cultural,' since the behaviors are variously a) learned from other individuals, b) specific to certain chimp populations, and/or c) not recognizably adaptive. Such behavioral variants include, for example, how hands are clasped during grooming (photo from Whiten, 2005), or whether/how insects are acquired.

Researchers have debated whether these behavioral variants actually represent culture, in the sense that humans have culture. This itself is tough because anthropologists have had a helluva time defining what 'culture' is simply for humans, let alone animals. I'm a bit anthropocentric myself, and I'm wont to view culture as something uniquely human, the adaptation (or set of adaptations) that has essentially shaped our evolution for over a million (2 million?) years.

Anyway, back to Pan, Langergraber and colleagues set out to test whether genetic variation may help explain some of the behavioral variation between different chimp populations. Lo and behold! there was a significant correlation between groups' genetic dissimilarity and behavioral dissimilarity. This isn't at all to say the authors have found the genetic basis for cultural behaviors, but rather that some genetic variation may underlie some behavioral variation we see in chimpanzees. Indeed, the authors note that the mtDNA used in the study doesn't 'code for' any of the putatively cultural behaviors; it's a proxy for genetic relatedness. However, there was no clear pattern of which types of behaviors (e.g. grooming- vs. feeding-related) correlate with genetic relatedness.

The results are a bit tough to interpret. The authors state that the finding of a correlation does not mean that many chimp behaviors analyzed are not cultural. But it doesn't necessarily mean that the behaviors are cultural, either. This gets really tricky for a number of reasons.

First, identifying "the" or "a" genetic basis for phenotypes is difficult, and it's especially difficult for complex phenotypes like behaviors (in general, if you ever hear about a "gene for" some behavior, immediately disbelieve it). The analysis uses an allegedly neutral DNA marker, that admittedly does not 'code for' any of the behaviors in question. All the DNA can do here is attempt to indicate relatedness among groups. To say that "genetic differences cannot be excluded as playing a major role" in patterning behavioral variation (p. 7), basically means that some unexamined genetic region may be patterned among populations the same way as the mtDNA marker, and might be responsible for specific, fine-tuned, non-adaptive aspects of their behavior. The authors discount the possibility of the link being due to kin teaching behaviors to kin, but I would suppose a higher resolution (like looking at relatedness and behavior between individuals rather than groups) would put that matter to rest.

Next, how much of a correlation is biologically (and here culturally?) meaningful? In various permutations of their analysis, the correlations between the behavioral and genetic dissimilarity matrices ranged from r = 0.37 - 0.52, most of which were significant. "Significant" here means that the correlation coefficients, r, are different enough from zero - there isn't no relationship between the variables (I mean to say the double negative). Put another way, we can square the r coefficients to get the 'amount of variance explained': 13.7 - 27.0% of the behavioral dissimilarity can be 'explained' by genetic dissimilarity. What if the correlation coefficients had been higher - would this be better evidence for some genetic basis for chimp behavioral variants? I love correlation as much as the next guy, but aside from significance level, variation in linearity is not always completely understandable.

So, regardless of the results of the analysis, do apes (or other non-human animals) have culture? An interesting conundrum is that when people describe the subtle variants of behavior as cultural, they're assuming the variation itself is non-adaptive, while the grand behavior itself purportedly is. Can things that are readily adaptive (ecological explanation) not also be cultural? Moreover, how widespread in a population must a behavioral variant be to be cultural? How many variants on a theme are permissible within a population? Questions like these are why I tend to shy away from the topic of culture, in humans and animals.

Langergraber K, Boesch C, Inoue E, Inoue-Murayama M, Mitani JC, Nishida T, et al. Genetic and 'cultural' similarity in wild chimpanzees. Proc R Soc B in press. Proc. R. Soc. B doi:10.1098/rspb.2010.1112 (2010)

Whiten A. 2005. The second inheritance system of chimpanzees and humans. Nature 437: 52-55.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dmanisi Field School: Success

I just got back to the States from the Republic of Georgia two nights ago; I'd thought I wasn't really feeling the effects of the 8-hour time difference, but here I am at 6:00 a.m. feeling as fresh and sprightly as an antelope. Well, almost as much as an antelope. I didn't have the chance to update the blog while I was in Georgia, so I'll jot down some thoughts about my experience overall.

I had the good fortune to be able to assist a colleague in executing the first (annual) Dmanisi Paleoanthropology Field School. We had a brief field season (1 month) excavating the site of Dmanisi where the skulls and partial skeletons of several Homo erectus individuals have been found. In my previous post, I'd mentioned the site dated to around 1.77 million years ago. After being well-educated on the geology of the site by Reid Ferring, I can now say that the hominids are found between two basalts (lava flows) dating to 1.85 and 1.76 million years ago. Within these two basalt layers are A and B ashfall sediments. The A sediments are older, of normal magnetic polarity, indicating an age of 1.85-1.78 million years ago. The B sediments are reverse polarity, and were deposited between 1.78 - 1.76 million years ago. Stone tools are found through out the sequence, though Homo erectus is only known from B sediments. Enough about the geology.

Georgia itself is an amazing country. I really only spent time in the capital city of Tbilisi and the small town of Dmanisi [namely Patara ("little") Dmanisi], and I'm sure that if I had the opportunity to see more I'd think the place is even more amazing. There is a very rich and ancient cultural heritage, and the country seems to be doing well for itself since the collapse of the Soviet Union. There's an enduring Soviet influence, which for a simpleton like me means that there are amazing statues sprinkled about the place. Here's a picture of the giant statue of Kartlis Deda ("Mother Georgia"), which overlooks the center of downtown Tbilisi. For a 20-meter tall woman, she was fairly difficult for me to find. Women...

The people I met and got to work with were great. The Georgians were super friendly and awesome. Here's a picture of a lot of them (and me!) during the Paleolithic Games. This year it was only one game, using an atl-atl to hurl a spear at various targets. The top 3 winners were all named Giorgi; I only scored 2 points. Better luck next year. Anyway, I really like my newfound Georgian friends. In addition, I'm really glad to have met the other researchers and field school students. Everyone was super friendly and helpful and knowledgeable, and I think David Lordkipanidze, now head of the Georgian National Museums, has done a great job of integrating local Georgian and international researchers in the Dmanisi excavations. All in all, we really had a great crew.

It was a fossiliferous year, as it has been in the past, and will probably be in the future. Though we excavated for only a month, we uncovered a number of great fossils, including a complete hominid humerus that made the news (if I can find a non-facebook link again I'll post the news coverage). Here's a picture of the press interviewing Abesolam Vekua (left) and David Lordkipanidze at the site the last day I was there. Right where they are standing is where a number of hominid remains have come from. The humerus is from right behind where Vekua stands. He's facing squares where we spent lots of time excavating, and that yielded some pretty interesting stuff; note the jumble of fossils to his left. I don't know what I am and ain't allowed to say, but suffice it to say that a number of cool things came out, many of which I'm sure you'll be hearing about in the near future.

All in all, it was a great way to end this summer. I hope I have the opportunity to go back!