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Peter Frost

Survival of the Nicest-smelling?

It has long been known that we vary not only in our sensitivity to different smells but also in our preferences for them—the degree to which they seem pleasant or unpleasant. This variability often contains a large genetic component (Gross-Isseroff et al., 1992; Karstensen and Tommerup, 2012; Keller et al., 2007; Keller et al., 2012; Weiss et al., 2011). In the case of one odor, a single gene explains over 96% of the variability in smell sensitivity (Jaegar et al., 2013). A twin study has similarly found two odorants to be 78% and 73% heritable (Gross-Isseroff, 1992).

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Not Everyone Does It

All humans love to kiss, so kissing must go back to early hominids and even chimps and bonobos. This is how ethologists and evolutionary psychologists think when they write about the subject. Just one thing. Even in historic times not all humans loved to kiss. Far from arising millions of years in the past, kissing seems to have arisen no earlier than 40,000 years ago, when modern humans began to enter northern Eurasia.

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Young, Male, and Single

The Babylonian Marriage Market, by Edwin Long (1829-1891). There are too many young men on the mate market, particularly in the White American community. It sucks being young, male, and single. Don’t think so? Go to the Interactive Singles Map of the United States and see how it looks for the 20 to 39 age group. Almost everywhere single men outnumber single women.

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The Hidden Past of Claude Lévi-Strauss

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss died eight years ago, leaving behind a treasure trove of correspondence and unpublished writings. We can now trace where his ideas came from and how they evolved. I admired Lévi-Strauss during my time as an anthropology student because he asked questions that Marxist anthropologists would never ask. That’s why I preferred to call myself a Marxisant, and not a full-blown Marxist. I especially admired him for addressing the issue of nature versus nurture, which had once been a leading issue in anthropology but was now studiously ignored. Only he, it seemed, could defy this omertà and …

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The Last Push-back Against Liberalism

What was fascism? The word itself is problematic. For many, especially those of a Marxist bent, it was an attempt to divert working people from the real cause of their problems. For other, it was a vehicle for anti-Semitism and conspiracy thinking in general. For others still, as George Orwell noted, it was, and still is, a crude insult: “something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class” (Orwell, 1944). How did fascists define this word? For Benito Mussolini, it was a reaction to liberalism: We are free to believe that this is the century of authority, a century tending to …

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From Slavs to Slaves

Can Europeans, and European women in particular, become objects of trade? The idea seems laughable, since the term ‘slave trade’ almost always brings Africans to mind. Yet there was a time not so long ago when Europe exported slaves on a large scale. Between 1500 and 1650, Eastern Europe exported 1.5 million slaves to North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia (Fisher, 1972; Kolodziejczyk, 2006). Western Europe exported a little over a million between 1530 and 1780 (Davis, 2004). These slaves were taken during hit-and-run raids by either Crimean Tatar horsemen or North African corsairs. A raiding party would …

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Making Europeans Kinder, Gentler

Hanged, drawn, and quartered. Although the Middle Ages were, in the imagination of our contemporaries, “the time of the gallows,” the reality was appreciably different (Carbasse, 2011, pp. 38-39) Like many well-meaning people, I once considered the death penalty a relic of a more barbaric age. Outside the old jailhouse, here in Quebec City, I can see the open space where people used to be hanged … in public. In some cases, the authorities would go one better. The body would be placed in a cage and suspended near a thoroughfare for all to see … while it decomposed. This …

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How Universal Is Empathy?

Bronislaw Malinowski with natives on the Trobriand Islands (1918 – source). Pro-social behavior seems to be a human universal, but is the same true for full empathy? What is empathy? It has at least three components: – pro-social behavior, i.e., actions of compassion to help others – cognitive empathy, i.e., capacity to understand another person’s mental state – affective or emotional empathy, i.e., capacity to respond with the appropriate emotion to another person’s mental state (Chakrabarti and Baron-Cohen, 2013)

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Origins of Northwest European Guilt Culture. Part II

Reconstructed Mesolithic roundhouse near Northumberland, Great Britain (source: Andrew Curtis) At different times and in different regions, humans have entered larger social environments that are no longer limited to close kin. Because there is less interaction with any one person and more interaction with non-kin, correct behavior can no longer be enforced by the to and fro of family relationships. A moral code develops, with rules enforced by ostracism and shaming. In Northwest Europe, the moral code is also enforced by guilt—a form of self-shaming where the wrongdoer inflicts self-punishment even when he or she is the sole witness to …

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The Origins of Northwest European Guilt Culture

Ruth Benedict first made the distinction between “shame cultures” and “guilt cultures” (source). Pervasive feelings of guilt are part of a behavioral package that enabled Northwest Europeans to adapt to complex social environments where kinship is less important and where rules of correct behavior must be obeyed with a minimum of surveillance. Is this pervasive guilt relatively recent, going back only half a millennium? Or is it much older? As societies grew larger and more complex, it became necessary to interact with people who were less closely related. This new social environment was made to work by extending to non-kin …

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A Fruitful Encounter

  Did the Christian doctrine of original sin create the guilt cultures of Northwest Europe? Or did the arrow of causality run the other way? By definition, gene-culture co-evolution is reciprocal. Genes and culture are both in the driver’s seat. This point is crucial because there is a tendency to overreact to cultural determinism and to forget that culture does matter, even to the point of influencing the makeup of our gene pool. Through culture, humans have directed their own evolution.

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Feeling the Other’s Pain

We like to think that all people feel empathy to the same degree. In reality, it varies a lot from one person to the next, like most mental traits. We are half-aware of this when we distinguish between “normal people” and “psychopaths,” the latter having an abnormally low capacity for empathy. The distinction is arbitrary, like the one between “tall” and “short.” As with stature, empathy varies continuously among the individuals of a population, with psychopaths being the ones we find beyond an arbitrary cut-off point and who probably have many other things wrong with them. By focusing on the …

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