Pieter van den Berg

Pieter van den Berg

I'm a Dutch evolutionary biologist interested in human behaviour - particularly in cooperation and the spread of culture through social learning. I both do experiments and build theoretical models.

Location Groningen, the Netherlands

Activity

  • Hi Anna,

    Natural selection favors genes if those genes are associated with a higher reproductive success than on average in the population (this is a slight shortcut, but good enough for now). In the majority of cases, this means that natural selection will preserve new mutations that can be seen as an 'improvement' compared to the old situation. However,...

  • I agree that the term 'bias' can be a bit misleading. Cognitive biases are called biases because they constitute a consistent deviation from rational decision making. I fully agree that it does not necessarily make sense to take rational decision making as the main reference point when studying human behaviour.

  • There is a big difference between looking for an evolutionary explation why a phenomenon such as suicide exists, and the question how we should deal with this problem in our society. A suicide is always a tragic event, and a scientific interest in the phenomenon does not take anything away from that.

    I agree with Julie that humans are complex animals that...

  • In a later lecture in this part, we focus on the evolution of collective decision making through group selection.

    Regarding emotions, they are part of the decision making process. Some have argued that emotions are some kind of mental shortcuts that allow animals to make decisions without expending a lot of time or energy assessing the entire situation....

  • It is true that the element of randomness in every specific run affects the outcomes. You would have to do a large number of simulations to be able to say with statistical confidence with strategy is better. Instead of simulating, you can also determine mathematically which strategy is better. In doing this, you calculate the ´expected payoffs´ that the...

  • 'Information' here refers to the actual decision of the other player. We assume that in all cases, the payoff structure is clear to all players, so both players know what the best decision of the other player is. Therefore, in the first case, although the male does not know what the female has actually done, he knows it is in her best interest to care, so she...

  • You are right, the question mark in the transcription should not be there. Your reading of the sentence is correct.

  • This is a good point - there is a whole literature on 'cultural evolution' that explores how (human) culture changes, depending on the way people copy their behaviours, opinions and cultural practices from others.

  • No, that should not be the conclusion. The fact that it is possible for evolution to lead to the 'suicide' of species does mean that species can not go extinct because of external factors. In fact, in cases where many different species go extinct at the same time, I would say that this is more likely because of an external event than by a coincidence in the...

  • So are you undermining the group interest by taking this course?

  • Interesting perspective!

  • Very good question - how do we define an individual? In fact, there is controversy around this question. For example, some regard social insect colonies as 'superorganisms' that can essentially be regarded as individuals, but others disagree. What do you think should define it?

  • How others would respond to such an individual is a difficult question. If you assume others would shun them because this person makes them feel bad, that implies that there is already an underlying moral in that group that one should act prosocially (a feeling of guilt is a feeling of not having complied with a norm). So in that case, you could say...

  • It all depends on the definition of the term 'parasite' of course! But for me, a parasite is an individual that somehow profits from the efforts of others without providing anything valuable in to those others themselves. I suppose that is not entirely in line with the original meaning to the ancient Greeks!

  • The 'bias blind spot' a really good one that I think many of us suffer from!

  • I agree with Michel on this: biases can not be completely avoided, but by learning about them, and by practicing consciousness about them as well as using specific techniques to counterbalance them, they can be reduced.

  • Another thing: biases operate subconsciously - if you would be aware of your bias, you'd do something about it. So even if you don't perceive yourself as biased when reading about biases, it is possible that your behaviour actually is biased when confronted with one of the situations described. I recommend Kahneman's nook 'Thinking, fast and slow'. In the...

  • It is of course possible that you are not biased in this way. Cognitive biases affect different people in different ways. But is has been shown that the decoy-effect on average affects people that are presented with such choices.

  • I am not familiar with this idea, but I would say this argument only applies if the other person is indeed chained to you (affected by your risk-taking behaviour). In our example, this is not the case, so there are quite different assumptions made. So at first sight, I would argue that the two are not at odds.

  • I have read and often cite Gigenrenzers work (the book 'Simple heuristics that make us smart') and I am certainly influenced by his ideas when I think about human behaviour. He shows that heuristics often perform better than more elaborate techniques, and I think that this is one reason why we should expect to see heuristics as the outcome of evolution. A...

  • The domain of 'free will' and 'consciousness' is extremely interesting - and extremely difficult. But I think that most people would argue that a lion or cheetah is not conscious of her decisions, but responds to more basic instincts. I wouldn't use the word 'foresight' for the behaviour of such animals, but of course it depends on what you mean by the term. I...

  • There have indeed been efforts to model cultural change with evolutionary modeling methods. However, this is not always appropriate - it really depends on the specific question you're after. But in general, modeling can be a powerful tool to sharpen your intuition about how changes (such as changes in the political landscape) may occur.

  • I am by no means an expert, but I believe that it is generally assumed that the extinction of the dinosaurs was because of a meteorite impact (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cretaceous%E2%80%93Paleogene_extinction_event). So that is something quite different from evolutionary processes that work within a population (although of course, those would be much harder...

  • It is not entirely true that the strong always survive - as Joeri already mentioned above, different outcomes are possible in evolution (there will be more on this in this part of the course). But even if that were the case, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't help the weak. There is no moral imperative in evolutionary reasoning; it is just a statement of how...

  • Something like the evolution of organizations could be approached with evolutionary modeling. Of course, you always have to realize that your model is as strong as the assumptions you have made. The interpretation of the output of your model is therefore one of the most important steps. But in principle, market dynamics and social dynamics can (and have been)...

  • The human body has been shaped by selection to be able to maintain homeostasis under a variety of circumstances. So I think when you look at the human body, you are looking at a system that has to some extent been selected to be in equilibrium. Still, off-equilibrium behaviour occurs in the human body. For example, think about cancer, where cells start to...

  • A balancing feedback loop is a system of variables where an initial increase in one of the variables eventually leads to a decrease in that variable. So if you look at such a loop, it tends towards equilbrium. The opposite is a reinforcing loop, where an initial increase in a variable is reinforced through the system. Such a loop does not tend to equilibrium;...

  • Unfortunately, in the real world, people almost never agree about definitions of terms. Even within fields there is constant semantic confusion, let alone between different fields of research and other corners of society. A word like 'decision' is an example of a term that is being used in many different fields (biology, economics, psychology, informatics,...

  • It all depends what you mean by the word 'decision'! Terms like this are not cast in stone, and people use them in different ways. In this lecture, I mean it in the broadest sense: there is some entity that can in principle do multiple things, and processes information from the environment to determine which action to take. But it is true that others might...

  • The case you are talking about is what we call artificial selection (as opposed to natural selection) and it was actually used by Darwin in his famous book 'On the origin of species' to make his main points! In this case, humans have taken over from nature in deciding which animals reproduce and which don't. It is still selection, it is still evolution, but it...

  • By far the most biomass on earth is unicellular (eg bacteria) - organisms that are relatively primitive. It is true that more complex life forms arose relatively late, but they have by no means been the main outcome of organic evolution on our planet - on the contrary.

    The fundamental concept of evolution by natural selection does not explain the...

  • Evolution by natural selection, as introduced by Darwin, is a theoretical construct to explain the world we observe around us. It is a theory, like, for example, Einstein's relativity theory. Science is a constant interaction between theory and empiry. We construct concepts that help us make sense of the world, then look at the world again (of course,...

  • It seems we are having some semantic difficulties here about the words 'work' and 'decision'. The question 'how does it work?' is often aimed at clarifying the mechanisms underlying some pattern or process. This is a question you can definitely ask about the process of biological evolution without suggesting that it is goal-directed.

    The word 'decision'...

  • As a matter of fact, you could do this in excel - perhaps an interesting challenge.

  • Elinor Ostroms work is indeed one of my inspirations! Franjo has actually published some papers with her.

  • If you think about the Catholic church, it is clear that that is an organization with a strongly centralized power. Of course we can only speculate about how religion originally emerged in (many different) human societies, but do you think it was generally by central decree or do you think it was more of a gradual process coming forth from individual...

  • Science is both theory and empiry - I think that an evolutionary biologist can not permit him/herself to leave the theorizing to the philosophers. That said, it is difficult in lectures of less than 10 minutes to offer a broad perspective on evolutionary theory! I am afraid that I do not understand what Mike means with "a no more observable yet no less...

  • Or somebody who studies something like evolutionary biology, perhaps! I understand what you mean, and I think it could be true that a moral outrage that can exist against, for instance, artists or fundamental scientists in a society, is inspired from the assertion that those people do not contribute to the welfare of the group, while reaping the benefits of...

  • It is true that group selection theory is controversial in evolutionary biology, although it is often far from clear what the actual disagreement is about. Group selection theory has been presented in many different guises and the debate has become quite obscure - it would go too far to go into it too much for the purposes of this course. A popular...

  • Yes, indeed you could see it like that. Cancer cells have high individual reproductive success, they divide out of control. But in doing this, they harm the interest of the group they are in - especially if that group is a person that was still young enough to reproduce.

  • Just to quickly respond to the criticism on the example - it is true that this was a simplified 'cartoon' example of this model, but if you do a more sophisticated analysis (you run the simulation for many generations, and use a real random number generator to determine whether it will be a wet or a dry year instead of simply alternating them), you will see...

  • This was a cartoon example. Feel free to reproduc