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Cultural Evolution

Stefano Ghirlanda is Professor of Anthropology, Biology, and Psychology at Brooklyn College, CUNY, and a Fellow at the Center for the Study of Cultural Evolution at Stockholm University. He is a behavioral theorist, focusing especially on cultural evolution. Stefano has been collaborating with our lab since 2010, beginning with our NSF-funded project to develop a coalescent theory of cultural evolution and connect this with empirical systems such as house finch song. This work has figured prominently in the dissertation research of Elliot and Chenghui. Stefano's and our labs have plans for further integrative studies of cultural evolution.
Kilian Garvey, at the University of Louisiana (Monroe), conducts research at the interface of evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuropsychology, and philosophy. Our lab has recently begun a collaboration with Kilian that builds upon his longstanding interest in the Trolley Problem as a morality metric. Our project investigates how individuals' moral positions integrate into the rest of their worldviews and outlook, and how they vary across cultures.


African Weaverbirds and Brood Parasitism

Bob & Laura Payne
Robert B. Payne is one of the most respected evolutionary biologists focusing on birds, and is the world's foremost expert on cuckoos, indigo buntings, and African finches. He was my doctoral supervisor. Our discussions about brood parasitism led to my early work on the evolution of host defenses in the village weaverbird Ploceus cucullatus. We have also collaborated on a few other projects, such as the systematic placement of the enigmatic African cuckoo-finch Anomalospiza imberbis. To the left, Bob is pictured with his wife Laura, with whom he has collaborated for decades and explored the birds and natural places of the world.
My wife April Lahti has worked with me on all of the African field work, and helped me quantify the worldwide variation in the eggs of the village weaverbird. We are now embarking on the next phase of this research, which involves the comparative study of breeding adaptations in other weaver species. As a nature photographer she is also collaborating with me on the production of a guide to Ethiopian flora and fauna.


Bird Song

Paul C. Mundinger was a kind person, an enthusiastic behavioral biologist, and a valued colleague of mine at Queens College until his death from cancer in 2011. Paul performed important research on the song of house finches between the 1960s and 1980s, after which he switched to the canary as a model organism for genetic influences on song learning. As soon as I arrived at QC I proposed to him that we revive his house finch research program, because his extensive recordings from decades ago would facilitate a longitudinal study of cultural evolution. Our lab is continuing this collaboration with gusto, and Paul's ideas and recordings will be valuable to us for many years to come. We have also welcomed the offer of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to digitize all of Paul's recordings of wild birds, which date from 1960 onwards. Finally, Paul's unparalleled breeding experiments with canaries establish interesting inherited features underlying song learning. I am currently preparing the last of these results for publication. To the right, Paul is pictured with his wife Mary, Emeritus Dean of Nursing at Columbia University.
Jeff Podos, who performed pioneering research on swamp sparrow vocal performance, was my postdoctoral advisor at the University of Massachusetts. We have been collaborating on the swamp sparrow song learning project since 2003. Our experiments are able to address the developmental and evolutionary questions they do because of a method of digital manipulation of bird songs that Jeff developed and refined during the 1990s. With help from Dana (below) and a team of assistants, we hand-reared and trained dozens of birds in the lab between 2005 and 2008. Jeff and Dana continued this project with another crop of birds raised in 2009.
Dana Moseley is a postdoctoral researcher in the Podos lab. We have been collaborating on the swamp sparrow project, both the laboratory-based song learning and the field-based functional studies, since 2005. With help from friends and field assistants, we maintained a banded population of swamp sparrows from 2005-2009, discovered their territories and mates, took DNA and color and size measurements, recorded their songs, tracked their movements and nests, conducted playbacks on males, and brought nestlings into the laboratory for learning experiments.
Here I am with a bunch of UMass ornithocentric grad students circa 2007, taking a trip to a maple syrup joint in the beautiful Berkshires. From left to right, Dave Hof, Dana Moseley, Ben Taft, Kara Belinsky, Ana Gabela, myself, and Elijah Goodwin.
Steve Johnson received his Ph.D. at UMass for his work decoding and analyzing sequences of robin song, for which he amassed a pile of recordings and analyses that reached a height that has since become legendary. He helped me establish the Quabbin Reservoir banded population of swamp sparrows in spring 2005, and has helped with the banding and recording in the years since then. Steve and his wife Lori are now ecological consultants with New England Environmental, Inc., studying and monitoring rare and invasive species in the Northeast.


The Evolution of the Human Mind and Behavior

Richard D. Alexander
Richard D. Alexander was my evolution mentor during graduate school, and it was around his lab table that I (like many others) developed many of the ideas that have grown into my current research program. Whether we agree or disagree, interactions with Dick have always been extremely valuable and have fostered my intellectual development. In particular, I have learned more about how to think about human evolution from Dick than from any other source. For this reason I have developed and manage a website devoted to his life and work, RichardDAlexander.com. Andy Richards and I are currently writing a book on Dick's thought and work.

Bret Weinstein and I were RDA lab buddies for several years. In 2005 we proposed the theories of stability-dependent cooperation and group stability insurance to explain the function of certain widespread features of morality.