Michelle Scalise Sugiyama

Research Associate at the University of Oregon Institute of Cognitive and Decision Sciences


Art Behavior in Human Evolution

Humans were producing art by 40,000 years ago, and probably much earlier. This means that art behavior emerged in response to a hunting-and-gathering lifestyle. Forager life is dangerous, difficult, and rigorous: why would our ancestors have "wasted" their time and energy on what appear to be non-utilitarian objects and activities? This course explores this question by considering the challenges of forager life that art behaviors might have evolved to address. Students will become familiar with the basic tenets of evolutionary psychology, key developments in human evolution, and art prehistory. We will then proceed to recent scholarship regarding selection pressures that might have driven the development of various art behaviors, and the role that these behaviors played in ancestral human life. We will then see how these theories hold up against the realities of day-to-day hunter-gatherer existence, reconstructed through ethnographic and archaeological data.

Cognitive Foundations of Cultural Transmission

Anthropology is in large part the study of culture, but what is culture? Anthropologists often think of culture as those aspects of behavior that are learned rather than innate, but many cultural phenomena-such as language, standards of beauty, and taxonomies-do not fall neatly into either category. Moreover, learning is a mental process, and mental processes are generated by evolved cognitive structures. This is the only way to explain why other animals don't learn the things that humans do. This course replaces the nature/nurture dichotomy with an integrated model that sees culture as a product of the mind. The mind can be usefully thought of as a set of programs that evolved to solve the problems of survival and reproduction inherent to a given ecological niche: what humans do par excellence is gather, generate, and transmit information. On this view, this course examines cultural phenomena in terms of their underlying cognitive architecture-that is, in terms of information-processing programs that evolved to solve specific problems that characterized ancestral hominid life. Among other things, we will discuss mate preferences, food preferences, ethnocentrism, folk biology, intuitive physics, fear of snakes and strangers, pretending, language, storytelling, and art.

Hunters and Gatherers: The Cognitive Niche

For 99% of their existence on earth, humans have made a living as hunter-gatherers: the human mind is adapted to a foraging existence. Thus, hunter-gatherers offer a window onto the evolution of the human mind. This course examines the foraging niche in terms of the adaptive problems it posed, and the cognitive mechanisms that evolved in response to them, with special attention paid to cognitive modeling. One thing that distinguishes humans from other animals is our highly developed instrumental intelligence, which enables us to create cognitive cause-and-effect models of the world as guides for prejudging which courses of action will lead to which results. This ability enabled our ancestors to develop complex resource extraction techniques, such as locating game by tracking, capturing elusive animals through the use of snares, traps, or lures, and neutralizing plant toxins by leeching or cooking. It also enabled them to model the social environment: game drives, for example, require coordinated human action and division of labor. This course surveys forager societies from a wide range of habitats to observe how our highly developed ability to manipulate the environment interacts with variations in local constraints (e.g., topography, climate, resource distribution, population density) to produce a variety of cultural solutions to the same basic set of adaptive problems.

Literature and Cognition

The study of narrative is the study of human psychology: stories are ultimately generated by mental processes, and characters are representations of the human mind. Thus, literary interpretation consists of making psychological judgments-that is, making inferences regarding the beliefs, motives, and feelings of characters, narrators, authors, and readers. Literary theory addresses questions of motive (i.e., why people tell and listen to stories) and form (i.e., patterns of thought that inform narrative structure). It follows that the study of narrative can be greatly enriched by an understanding of how the mind works. There is a long tradition in literary study of applying psychological theory to the understanding of narrative, but mainstream literary study has not absorbed the advances that have been made in psychological science over the last forty years. The chief model used-Freudian theory--was abandoned long ago in psychological science in favor of more empirically compelling approaches to cognition. A growing group of interdisciplinary researchers is using these approaches to illuminate the connections between the design of narrative and the design of the mind that produces it. This course familiarizes students with recent developments in cognitive, developmental, and evolutionary psychology that have important implications for the study of narrative. Questions addressed include: (1) how the design of the mind shapes narrative content and structure; (2) the kinds of information that are transmitted via narrative; and (3) different ways in which humans use narrative to manipulate others.

Storytelling in Evolutionary Perspective

"We must assume that storytelling is as old as mankind, at least as old as
spoken language."
-Joyce Carol Oates

Storytelling is a uniquely human behavior, and anthropological evidence indicates that humans began telling stories tens of thousands of years ago. This means that storytelling emerged in response to the demands and constraints of hunting-and-gathering life. Thus, we can gain a better understanding of why people tell and listen to stories if we understand the environmental context in which this behavior initially developed. This course examines the ways in which our long evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers has shaped narrative content and structure. To this end, students will be acquainted with key features of the foraging niche, the basic tenets of evolutionary psychology, and the cognitive capacities involved in narrative production. This provides a backdrop against which to explore the oral traditions of foraging peoples, and to see what problems of foraging life storytelling might be used to address.

Selected Lectures

The Big Picture: Art Behavior and the Cognitive Niche

Prominent evolutionary theories of art behavior offer different hypotheses regarding their respective functions-for example, promoting cooperation in times of crisis, costly signaling of fitness attributes to prospective mates, adaptation building, encouraging alloparental investment in offspring, signaling coalition quality. The ethnographic record indicates that, collectively, art behaviors are used to achieve all of these ends. Thus, although each of these theories is compelling, none of them accounts for all of art's fitness-promoting applications. This suggests that researchers have been looking for design at the wrong level. The cognitive niche hypothesis provides an alternative theoretical foundation for art behavior: humans are characterized by a highly elaborated ability to make, deploy, and communicate cognitive models of their environment. Tellingly, what evolutionary art theories have in common is communication: whether directed at coalition partners, prospective mates, or clan members, art behaviors involve the generation and/or transmission of information-rich models (i.e., representations) of the physical and social environment. Thus, the study of art behavior can be grounded in an information-based conceptualization of the human ecological niche, and instances of art behavior can be parsed as behavioral manifestations of cognitive modeling.

Cognitive Archaeology: The Oral Tradition as A Record of The Past

Oral tales are sharply constrained by the limits of memory-that is, by the kinds of information the mind is designed to attend to, store, and recall. Thus, cross-cultural patterns in folklore content-i.e., universal themes--are clues to the kinds of information the mind is designed to process and, by implication, the information demands of ancestral hominid life. As such, they point to recurrent, pan-human constraints, which can be used to generate or test hypotheses regarding selection pressures and/or resultant cognitive design. On this view, the theme of cannibalism raises an unsettling question: does the prevalence of this theme across forager oral traditions indicate that cannibalism was a recurrent problem in forager life? If not, why do foragers track this information? These questions are explored in light of (1) the distribution of the cannibalism theme across foraging cultures; (2) evidence that oral story content references real-world events; (3) material evidence of cannibalism; and (4) the kinds of cannibalistic acts depicted in forager folklore.

Food for Thought: Narrative as a Conduit for Foraging Information

Successful exploitation of the foraging niche requires extensive, specialized knowledge, much of which is acquired from conspecifics. Storytelling might be one way in which humans learn: narrative enables individuals to expand certain knowledge bases (e.g., toxic plants) and/or refine certain skills (e.g., predicting human behavior) without undertaking the costs and risks of firsthand experience. Thus, storytelling might have emerged as a means of efficiently acquiring information useful to the pursuit of fitness in local habitats. If this were the case, we would expect the oral traditions of foraging peoples to be rich in fitness-enhancing information, such as subsistence information. A survey of the forager folklore record shows that it contains a wealth of information not only about animal characteristics, behavior, and habitat-information instrumental to identifying, locating, tracking, and killing local prey species-but about plant and mineral resources as well. This knowledge is transmitted using a variety of narrative devices, including mimicry, onomatopoeia, and anthropomorphism.

Humanized Topography: Storytelling as a Wayfinding Strategy

Many foraging tasks involve wayfinding, for which topographical knowledge is critical. Strikingly, hunter-gatherer folklore frequently contains stories about the origins of topographical features. The features highlighted in these stories are often explained as transformed human agents or as the handiwork of human agents, raising the question, Why encode non-social information as social information? The evolution of language created the opportunity for humans to share topographical information, yet it is unlikely that humans are designed to input this information verbally: all ambulatory animals must process spatial information, and since humans are the only animals that have evolved language, language cannot be requisite to navigation. In contrast, the mind does appear to be designed to input social information-in part-verbally. Harnessing topographical information to social information provides a means by which the former can be input, stored, and recalled verbally.

Lions and Tigers and Bears: Predators as a Folklore Universal

Storytelling may have originated as an information acquisition strategy, enabling individuals to expand certain knowledge bases (e.g., subsistence) and/or refine certain skills (e.g., social interaction) without undertaking the costs and risks of firsthand experience. On this view, cross-cultural folklore themes may be expressions of problems that recurrently beset humans throughout their evolution. Stories in the vein of "Little Red Riding Hood" are a case in point: they feature a universal theme (i.e., animal attack) which corresponds to an adaptive problem (i.e., predator avoidance). Tellingly, the oral traditions of foraging peoples-whose manner of living makes them more vulnerable to animal attack than industrialized peoples--contain information regarding the identification of harmful animals, their habitats and habits, the nature of the danger they pose, and strategies for avoiding lethal encounters with them.

The Trickster and the Free Rider Problem

Humans have evolved reasoning mechanisms that address the problem of detecting and punishing free riders; however, these mechanisms cannot anticipate particular stratagems free riders might use. Knowing different ways in which people might cheat is critical to recognizing that someone is trying to cheat, and warning potential cheaters that they will be punished is critical to discouraging them from cheating. This valuable information can be provided through cultural transmission. Storytelling is a case in point: the trickster genre presents endless variations on the theme of cheating and punishment. This genre and other patterns in world literature illuminate the functions of cultural transmission by offering evidence of the kinds of information the mind is designed to store.

Contact Info

  • mscalise@uoregon.edu

  •    Institute of Cognitive &
       Decision Sciences
       University of Oregon
       Eugene, OR 97403

       (541) 346-5142