The 24th Annual Meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society – Some ReflectionsPublished 19 June, 2012
The 24th Annual Meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES) took place last week in Albuquerque, New Mexico on the campus of the University of New Mexico. This meeting brings together evolutionary psychologists and scholars in related disciplines to present their latest research, exchange ideas, and fight over the six or seven taxi cabs that seem to be serving the entire city of Albuquerque.
This year’s HBES meeting was a first in that it was scheduled to be adjacent to the annual meeting of the Animal Behavior Society (ABS), and included one joint day of sessions and talks. I was unable to attend any of ABS except for that joint day, but overall the joint meeting seemed by and large to be a success, with at least some cross-talk among people from both groups. Bill Rice’s talk on the morning of the joint day (“A new form of intragenomic conflict between sex chromosomes”) was, to me, a particular high point of the conference.
The skeleton of HBES is a series of Plenary Addresses, one-hour sessions during which no other events are scheduled so that everyone can attend. The joint day featured a talk by Mary Jane West-Eberhart in addition to the one by Bill Rice. The other plenary speakers were Brian Hare, Laura Glylnn, Karen Kramer, Clark Barrett, and Karen Wynn. Paul Bloom delivered the keynote address on Saturday night, drawing from his recent book, How Pleasure Works, which was very well received, in large part due to Bloom’s entertaining style and the very interesting material, and in some small part due to the fact that the keynote address was preceded by three hours of open bar. Be on the lookout for Bloom’s next book, Just Babies, coming soon to a book store near you. A bonus highlight was that Rapper Baba Brinkman, who recorded “The Rap Guide to Evolution,” gave two performances, which were basically awesome.
I have attended every HBES conference since the 6th one, held at the University of Michigan in 1994 with the exception of the conference in Kyoto, Japan, which I had to miss, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect a little bit on how, to me, the conference has changed over the years.
The most striking change to me is that the conference felt to me to move a little bit more in the direction of “normal science” in something like the Kuhnian sense. I say this with considerable ambivalence. In Michigan in 1994, and the conferences that followed it, there was substantial tension in the air, and not only because the conference coincided with the now famous low speed OJ Simpson car chase. (I think the bar we were in was one of the only places in the country where practically no one seemed to care about what was happening, so transfixed were we by one another’s company.) Michigan HBES had, if I dare say it, something of a revolutionary feel to it. It was ten years after the famous Macintosh ad, and my impression is that many attendees felt that they were running around the scientific landscape with sledge hammers just looking for a screen with big brother to smash.
If memory serves, many presentations, in a word, sucked. Depending on how exactly one dates the field, it was still young, which I suppose some will take to be a good reason and others will see as a flimsy excuse. Sociobiology had come out in 1975, of course, but Homicide had come out only six years previously, Buss’ BBS paper on sex differences came out a year after that, and The Adapted Mind was a tender two years old. I myself had only a year of graduate school under my belt at that point, but even so, I recall having the sense that there were a lot of rookie mistakes being made, and the ratio of data to theory was a bit lower than my personal taste. Still, it was an exciting time, and if some talks weren’t great, others were nothing short of inspiring. Also, in the conferences in the 90’s there were pickup ultimate frisbee games between the last talks of the afternoon and dinner, which I really enjoyed, and I miss a great deal. Not that you can play ultimate frisbee in the June Albuquerque sun, but the schedule has become too packed for such indulgences, I think.
I didn’t attend all the talks at HBES this year – indeed, the parallel session structure makes this impossible – but my sense was that there were few if any genuinely poor presentations. The lower bound was substantially higher, and very few talks were data-free and, I have to say, I was responsible for one of these theory only presentations, so mea culpa. At the same time, again with a couple of exceptions, my feeling was that the work was of high quality, but of high quality in a more normal-sciency sort of way. Presentations were solid, but felt more incremental than they had in the past, with a sense of taking the next step on the path instead of blazing an entire new direction. Having said that, my sense was also that the work was considerably more methodologically sound and statistically sophisticated. Overall, my sense is that there was mastery of the basic conceptual and methodological tools, which of course is to be applauded. And, of course, this is what one expects as a field matures, according to some philosophers of science.
Don’t get me wrong: there was still considerable excitement, and it was refreshing seeing such a consistent stream of high quality work. Further, there were still traces of the heady times of prior conferences, a fact, I think, helped along by the continued hysterical critiques of the field by Various People, which continue to give rise to a certain sense that we are still under siege, which in turn seems to build our groupishness in sensations of common cause. (I harbor this worry that if our critics ever tire of haranguing us by hanging silly views on us, the community will lose some of its bonhomie. But, shmeh, there seems to be little reason for worry on that score, as illustrated by my prior post…)
A few other differences caught my attention. For instance, it seems to me that, as one might expect, the field has moved in emphasis. There were still several sessions on mating, but this area has gone way beyond cross-cultural sex differences into more complex and subtle effects, such as systematic variation in preferences depending on hormonal changes associated with the ovulatory cycle. There was only a sort of residual interest in logical reasoning and the Wason Selection Task, but a much greater emphasis on questions with an economic flavor using public goods games and trust games. Aesthetics seemed to have moved from waist-to-hip ratios to facial ratios. Life history theory and questions surrounding development and various sorts of learning mechanisms seemed to occupy a more prominent position. More people seemed interested in hormones and low level perception. And so on.
Not everything was different, of course. At one point, sitting across from two of my closest friends and colleagues that I met at that conference at Michigan, it occurred to me that neither had lost a jot of their 20-year-younger wit nor gained an ounce of weight, which I found simultaneously comforting and vaguely irritating.
In closing, my remarks above might seem somewhat negative. I want to emphasize that the changes I’ve seen over time at HBES are, really, a Good Thing. The quality of the work is now very solid. The mean is considerably higher than it used to be, and the variance is lower. Most of the work is really good. If my sense of the research presented at HBES today is different from my feelings a score of years ago, perhaps that says less about the work than about me. Further, as usual, and encouragingly, some of the very best work was that of young scholars in the field. I don’t like to indulge in shout outs because they might make others feel bad, but I thought that Annie Wertz’s presentation (“Social learning of plant edibility in 6- and 18-month-old infants”) was nothing short of superlative, a view apparently shared by the committee that awarded the postdoctoral prize. I’ll try to post about a few other presentations that caught my attention over the next few weeks.
Speaking of which, a couple of housecleaning items. First, to those of you who took the time at the conference to tell me that you enjoy these posts, thanks. I appreciate it. Second, my posting rate has slowed a bit. I moved in early June – only a half a mile, true – but, still, that process wound up eating up a lot of time. Related, several people at HBES asked me about the University of Alaska affiliation on my slides. I was deeply honored to be named the Rasmuson Chair of Economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage. I will head out to Anchorage this week, and I’ll be out there for much of the summer, continuing to work on my own projects – and finding time to post blog entries, of course – and developing projects with people in Alaska. My move out there might also slow me down a bit, and my post rate will go down further if I get eaten by a bear or trampled by a moose, so, you know, check back often to make sure I’m still alive.