EvoS Seminar Series

EvoS Seminar Series

Important information regarding 2021 Seminars: Due to restrictions on in-person instruction to limit the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, our speakers will be joining us at our regularly scheduled seminar time (5:15 pm) for a recurring Zoom presentation by the speaker of the week!

For community guests, contact Barry Brenton (bbrenton@binghamton.edu) for a link to the seminar.

  • Spring 2021 Schedule

    *Schedule (subject to change) 

    MARCH 1 - (5:15 - 6:15 pm)

    Abstract: Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are a globally distributed baleen whale species well known for their diverse acoustic behavior. Breeding age male whales produce ‘song’, a highly complex acoustic display associated with reproduction, while whales of all age and sex class produce ‘calls’ throughout their migratory range. Despite decades of research into the field of humpback whale acoustics, investigation into the role of calls in the ecology of humpback whales is relatively new. In this presentation, I will discuss research focused on calling behavior of humpback whales on Southeast Alaskan foraging grounds. I will address drivers of humpback whale call use (innate vs. learned calls), call function, and shifts in the acoustic habitats of Alaskan whales associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.

    Speaker Bio: Dr. Michelle Fournet is a postdoctoral researcher with the Cornell Center for Conservation Bioacoustics and the Director of the Sound Science Research Collective. As an acoustic ecologist, Dr. Fournet uses sound to investigate how manmade perturbations, including anthropogenic noise and climate change, alter ocean soundscapes in critical marine mammal habitats. She received her MS and PhD from Oregon State University where she was a SeaGrant Fellow and National Park Scholar. Dr. Fournet has studied humpback whales for over 10 years and is a globally recognized expert in humpback whale social communication. Her research portfolio is complimented by a commitment to science education and public engagement –  highlighted by an extensive list of presentation awards, general audience articles, and public lectures. Her current research focuses on ice seals, bowhead whales, and humpback whales in Arctic and sub-Arctic ecosystems.

    MARCH 8 - (5:15 - 6:15 pm)

    Abstract: In our current global food system there is a conundrum about the origins and continuity of a very narrow range of seed plants and other leguminous plants that underlie human diets at a time when the disruptive effects of climate change are facilitating an even greater dependence on a plant-based food system.  Right now, about half of all the calories that over 7.8 billion humans now consume are from three monocot grass seeds, and a combination of a total of 17 plants provides well over 90% of our total diets.  Although domestication processes have resulted in plants whose natural defenses are slowly lowered by human selection over time, the plants we still consume retain many naturally evolved defenses in the form of chemicals that make it nearly biologically impossible for predators (us) to consume and digest them raw without serious adverse short and long-term health consequences. These plant defenses consist of various toxic and/or anti-nutrient compounds that prevent and otherwise thwart digestive and metabolic processes. While the vast majority of plant predators have evolved the "genetic capacity" to consume the plants, humans have primarily evolved various "cultural/behavioral capacities" through their recipes and cuisines that are shared from one generation to the next to adapt to the plant defenses. The cause and effect relationship between the evolved traditional "knowledge" concerning plant defense and the human response is critical to understanding the evolutionary dynamics of the Biocultural Evolution of Cuisine. Dr. Katz’s presentation will illustrate these dynamics with work he began 50 years ago.  He is currently investigating and addressing these evolutionary problems through the “World Recipes Project”

    Speaker Bio: Professor Solomon H. Katz is Professor Emeritus (Orthodontics) at the University of Pennsylvania, and Director, Krogman Center for Research in Child Growth and Development.  Trained as a biological anthropologist he has written, presented and organized symposia resulting in over 200 major scientific papers, chapters, and books in a wide range of topics including molecular biology and genetics, cybernetics, nutrition and biocultural evolution. He has conducted extensive field studies on neuroendocrinology, diet, physical and mental health in children and adults; and on the biocultural evolution of cuisine and nutrition in many regions of the world. Dr. Katz also served to redefine the biological concept of race and chaired the task force for the American Association of Physical Anthropologists that informed the UNESCO statement on race. Dr. Katz has been elected fellow, officer, and president of many professional organizations and the recipient of many awards and grants (e.g., NIH, NSF, MacArthur Foundation, Wenner-Gren Foundation, Smithsonian Institution, Kellogg Foundation, and the John Templeton Foundation). His most recent project is the World Recipes Project, seeking to leverage what we know about the evolutionary significance of human diets in ways that are sensitive to and respectful of the needs of indigenous peoples around the globe. 

    MARCH 15 - (5:15 -6:15 pm)

    Abstract: Cancer began at the dawn of multicellular life. It arises from cheating in the cellular cooperation that usually defines multicellularity: division of labor, restrictions of cellular proliferation and resources use, controls on cell death and more. Because cancer arises from a breakdown of multicellular cooperation, this means that humans are not alone in their struggle with cancer; cancer affects all multicellular life forms from humans to elephants and from coral to cacti. Multicellular life has evolved to keep cancer under control, through mechanisms like the gene TP53, which detects cellular cheating and responds by halting the cell cycle or initiating apoptosis to protect the organism. Treating cancer effectively also requires an understanding of the evolutionary processes among cells within the body. Cancer cells evolve to overproliferate and overconsume resources inside the body. They also evolve resistance when cancer is treated aggressively. By using an evolutionarily informed approach to treatment we can transform cancer from being a disease that threatens our lives to one we can live with, as our multicellular ancestors have for millions of years.

    Speaker Bio: Athena Aktipis (http://www.athenaaktipis.org/) is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University and co-director of the Human Generosity Project, the first large-scale transdisciplinary project to investigate the interrelationship between biological and cultural influences on human generosity. Professor Aktipis also works on cooperation and conflict in biological systems including cancer evolution and the human microbiome. She is a cooperation theorist, social psychologist, theoretical evolutionary biologist, and cancer biologist who now works at the intersection of these fields. Dr. Aktipis is also the co-founder and director of Human and Social Evolution at the Center for Evolution and Cancer at the University of California, San Francisco.

    MARCH 22 - (5:15 - 6:15 pm)

    Abstract: If a modern human met a Neandertal back in the Pleistocene, could they understand one another? This question, and the evolution of language more broadly, is one of the oldest topics in human evolutionary studies. Many attempts have been made to infer when language first appeared during the course of our evolution. In particular, anthropologists have tried to identify skeletal indicators of language ability or the presence of symbolic representations in the archaeological record. This has led to a split in present thinking with one side seeing language abilities emerging long ago and evolving gradually over time and the other side seeing language as a relatively recent phenomenon and exclusive to Homo sapiens. The present lecture will discuss the findings (or lack thereof) from several of these approaches and outline when language may have first emerged. In particular, the findings of a recent study examining the hearing abilities in Neandertals, and their implications for language evolution, will be discussed.

    Speaker Bio: Rolf Quam is associate professor of anthropology at Binghamton University. He is a paleoanthropologist who specializes in the evolution of the Neandertals. One of his main research lines also examines the evolution of hearing and its relationship to language emergence. For the past 25 years, he has participated in the field excavations at the Pleistocene locality of Atapuerca, leading to the discovery of thousands of fossils of our human ancestors. These sites contain some of the richest human fossil bearing deposits in the world and represent the earliest evidence for incipient mortuary practices in the fossil record. During the course of his research, Quam has personally studied a wide diversity of original human fossils from Europe, the Middle East and Africa spanning the last 3 million years of human evolution.

    MARCH 29 - (5:15 - 6:15 pm)

    • Seminar Title: Ecological Adaptation and the Origin and Maintenance of Biodiversity
    • Speaker: Thomas Powell, Binghamton University, Biology/EvoS
    • Zoom Link: https://binghamton.zoom.us/j/96085934899

    Abstract: Understanding how new species arise and how biodiversity persists in the face of a changing world are central questions in evolutionary biology. Ecological adaptation to either novel niches or shifting environments is constrained by the same factors, and the plausibility of rapid adaptation in either scenario likely depends complex interactions among specific ecological parameters, trait covariance, standing genetic variation, and genome structure. Here, I will discuss insights from a model system for rapid evolution and speciation-in-action, Rhagoletis pomonella, the apple maggot fly. These flies are best known as a textbook case of sympatric speciation, after a population of these flies shifted form infesting a native host plant to one introduced to North America during recent historical times. Divergent adaptation to this new host has led to the rapid evolution of reproductive isolation between the two populations. In this seminar, I will discuss some of the fundamental open questions about ecological speciation and describe recent work in R. pomonella aimed at addressing some of these questions. I will focus on one of the key traits involved in this system, seasonal timing, from two perspectives: the evolutionary genomics of divergent adaptation in seasonal timing and using this system and an experimental model for adaptation to climate change. 

    Speaker Bio: Tom Powell is an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. He came to Binghamton University in 2016 after postdoctoral research positions at the University of Florida and the University of Toronto, and he completed his PhD at the University of Notre Dame, under the direction of Jeff Feder. While an undergrad at Shepherd University, he started his research career as a technician in a conservation genetics lab at the USGS Leetown Science Center.  His research program at BU is broadly focused on understanding the origin and maintenance of biodiversity. He is interested in the role of ecological adaptation in the formation of new species and the role of on-going evolutionary processes in the response of ecological communities to global change. His lab takes an integrative approach to investigating how ecological processes, biogeography, physiological systems, genetic variation, and genomic architecture interact during the origin of species and adaptation to novel niches and changing environments. The majority of his lab’s work is focused on the most diverse groups of animals on Earth: plant- feeding insects and their parasitoids. The Powell lab is particularly interested in understanding insect life history adaptation and its role in both speciation and rapid adaptation to climate change. 

    APRIL 12 - (5:15 - 6:15 pm)

    Abstract: In this talk I will discuss the first chapter of what will be a book on self-governance. The goal of the chapter is to argue against the default assumption that social actors are unitary: that they have a single self-interest and lack internal heterogeneities and conflicts of interest. This assumption is commonplace in our informal discourses, and has been applied to states, markets, firms, communities, households, and individuals. I discuss these examples in turn, arguing that we need to view each as a collective actor. The recognition of the collective nature of the self then motivates an exploration of the dynamics of self-governance. Time allowing, I will also discuss the In Common Podcast project, which I co-founded and co-host (incommonpodcast.org).

    Speaker Bio: I am currently an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College. I am also the co-chair of Dartmouth’s Ecology, Evolution, Ecosystems and Society (EEES) graduate program. My research and teaching are rooted in the concepts of the commons, collective action and community resource management. I have conducted fieldwork focused on community-based natural resource management in New Mexico, Colorado, Peru, Kenya, South Africa, and most recently in the Dominican Republic. I am currently a consultant for a USAID-funded project on fisheries governance in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. In 2019 Stefan Partelow and I co-founded what is now known as the In Common Podcast, which is formally affiliated with the International Association for the Study of the Commons as well as the International Journal of the Commons. We conduct long-form interviews with scholars and practitioners about their work on commons governance and related topics.

    APRIL 19 - (5:15 - 6:15 pm)

    • Seminar Title: The Evolution of Belief: Meaning-making, belief, and world shaping as core processes in the human niche 
    • Speaker: Agustin Fuentes, Princeton, Anthropology
    • Zoom Link: https://binghamton.zoom.us/j/96085934899

    Abstract: Humans are not unique in the world. But we are quite idiosyncratic. Across the Pleistocene the genus Homo developed a distinctive suite of cognitive, behavioral, ecological, and technological processes and patterns; in short, a human niche. This niche eventually included a core role for meaning making, augmenting the capacity to engage with more than the “here and now” to develop novel ideas and concepts, share them, and convert them in material reality. Today humans represent an infinitesimally small percentage of all the life on this planet, yet despite being such a tiny part of the great diversity of living things, humans are among the most significant forces affecting ecosystems and all other life on this planet. Why and how this came to be are two of the most pressing questions one can ask about what it means to be human. I suggest that extensive and distinctive capacities for meaning-making, belief and world shaping (or better put, niche construction) are at the heart of the answers to these queries. 

    Speaker Bio: Agustín Fuentes, trained in Zoology and Anthropology, is a Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University. His current explorations include the roles of creativity and belief in human evolution, multispecies anthropology, evolutionary theory, and the structures of race and racism. Fuentes’ books include “Race, Monogamy, and other lies they told you: busting myths about human nature” (U of California), “Conversations on Human Nature(s)” (Routledge), “The Creative Spark: how imagination made humans exceptional" (Dutton), and “Why We Believe: evolution and the human way of being” (Yale).

    APRIL 26 - (5:15 - 6:15 pm)

    Title: Schooling and the cultural foundations of cognition: Variable formal education exposure in two natural experiments.

    Abstract: A growing body of evidence from neuroscience, psychology, and economics suggests that human minds adapt themselves ontogenetically to the culturally-constructed and institutionally-incentivized environments that people encounter while growing up. Drawing on this broad constellation of findings, we examine a suite of hypotheses regarding specific aspects of cognition related to one particular Western institution, which has spread across the globe, particularly during the 20th century—formal schooling. Using data from two natural experiments—along the Namibian-Angolan border and within lowland Bolivia—we focus on understanding how relatively small “dosages” of formal schooling influence fundamental aspects of cognition, including fluid intelligence, executive function, analytic thinking, and spatial abilities. Prior efforts in testing and establishing these causal connections are often hampered by an extreme reliance on Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic (WEIRD) populations, where schooling has been mandatory and nearly universal for generations. In such ontogenetically novel environments, the impact of schooling on cognition can easily be confused with species-wide maturational processes.

    Speaker Bio: Helen Davis is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University where she codirects the Culture, Cognition, and Structured Schooling (CCLASS) research project. Davis’s work uses theoretical perspectives of behavioral ecology and cultural evolution to better understand cognitive development and cognitive decline in humans. Davis has conducted her work among transitioning populations in the Bolivian Amazon and in the Kunene region of northern Namibia and southern Angola since 2008 and 2016, respectively. She is also the co-founder and CEO of One Pencil Project, a 501(c)(3) non-profit focused on long term funding for school construction and school supplies in both regions.

    MAY 3 - (5:15 - 6:15 pm)

    Abstract: There has been much debate over whether humans, and especially Americans, are "naturally" monogamous or polygamous. Recent research has clarified the issues involved and may suggest an answer to this question. This presentation will begin with a brief review of the various types of mating systems observed among vertebrates, especially mammals. We will then look more closely at the evolution of sexuality in humans, concentrating on the evolutionary dynamics of monogamy and polygamy. Data on the observed patterns of mating and reproductive success of 20th century Americans indicates that a significant fraction are polygamous according to the standard definitions used in evolutionary biology. The implications of these findings for 21st century American society will complete the presentation.

    Speaker Bio:  Allen MacNeill taught introductory biology, comparative physiology, cell and developmental biology, and evolutionary biology at Cornell for 40 years, retiring in 2016. More recently he has taught human physiology at SUNY Cortland and evolutionary psychology at Ithaca College. His research interests have included the evolutionary dynamics of human mating systems, the evolution of the capacity for religious experience, the evolution of purpose (teleology), and the metaphysical foundations of the biological sciences. He has published numerous articles on evolutionary biology, both in print and online, and is the author of three best-selling audiobooks (at Amazon.com) on evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology. He is currently scheduled to teach Evolution for Everyone and the Evolution of Human Behavior (Evolutionary Psychology) at Binghamton University during the 2021-22 academic year. His online blog, The Evolution List (http://evolutionlist.blogspot.com/), is among the top 100 science blogs at Blogspot.com. He is currently working on several books, including a semi-autobiographical novel, a textbook on evolutionary biology for John Wiley and Sons, and is seeking a publisher for a textbook on evolutionary psychology. He is also an actor, a long-time member of the Ithaca Ballet, and a cadré for the Eastern Farm Workers Association in Syracuse. He lives in Ithaca with his best friend, Reeda Toppin, PhD, and their two cats, Hamlet and Ophelia.

    MAY 10 - (5:15 - 6:15 pm)

    • Seminar Title: The evolutionary ecology of monument construction: a Rapa Nui (Easter Island) case study
    • Speaker: Robert “Beau” DiNapoli, Binghamton University, Anthropology
    • Zoom Link: https://binghamton.zoom.us/j/96085934899

    Abstract: Monumental architecture, such as pyramids, temples, mounds, and statues, was an important and widespread component in the emergence and dynamics of past human societies. Despite the ubiquity of monuments in the archaeological record and their importance in dialogues about the evolution of social complexity, there have been only limited attempts to build evolutionary hypotheses for why these behaviors were so common among human communities. Here, I discuss an evolutionary ecology model called costly signaling theory (CST) as one potential explanation, which proposes that monument construction served as an honest signal of community collective action and competitive ability. I evaluate expectations of this CST model with a series of spatial and chronological analyses of the archaeological record of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), a location with an impressive record of monumental religious architecture.

    Speaker Bio: I am a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Harpur College at Binghamton University. My research focuses on using archaeology, evolutionary ecology, and quantitative modeling to address questions related to past human-environment interactions, particularly issues of mobility, settlement patterns, and large-scale cooperation and competition. My work explores these topics in island societies in the Pacific and Caribbean islands, and all my published work can be freely accessed here: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Robert-Dinapoli-2

About the seminar series

EvoS Seminars are held on Mondays from 5:15 pm - 7:15 pm throughout the semester when classes are in session. The seminars are open to the campus and local community.

The EvoS seminar series brings distinguished speakers and alumni to campus each semester to share their work on all aspects of humanity and the natural world from an evolutionary perspective.

While visiting campus, the speakers meet with faculty and researchers to share ideas and explore opportunities for collaboration. In many respects, the seminar series is the hub of EvoS, both as an educational program and a pathway for interdisciplinary research.

Every semester, a 2-credit course titled "Current Topics in Evolutionary Studies" (EVOS451/ANTH 481/BIOL451/580S) is based on the seminar series. Every week, students read scholarly articles and write a commentary to prepare for the seminar and discussion. This course is frequently rated among the students' best intellectual experiences at Binghamton.

  • Archived Seminar Series (by semester)

    Spring 2020 Seminar Series


    • January 27: Introductory lecture by David Sloan Wilson, Binghamton University
      Tinbergen's four questions and others


    • February 3: Introductory lecture by Barrett Brenton, Binghamton University
      Biocultural Evolution of Cuisine
    • February 10: Darwin Day Panel discussion with Binghamton faculty
    • February 17: Noreen von Cramon-Taubadel, University of Buffalo:
      Modern human cranial variation: An evolutionary morphology approach


    • March 2: Daniel T. O’Brien, Northeastern University
      The Urban Commons: How Data, Technology, and Behavioral Science Can Help Us Rebuild Our Cities
    • March 9: Glenn Branch, National Center for Science Education (NCSE)
      Twists and Turns in Teaching Evolution over the Years  
    • March 16: Rolf Quam, EvoS Director, SUNY Binghamton
      The Evolution of Language: Part 1 
    • March 23: Rolf Quam
      The Evolution of Language: Part 2 
    • March 30: David Sloan Wilson
      Nothing about the Coronavirus Pandemic Makes Sense Except In the Light of Evolution


    • April 6: Spring break - No Classes
    • April 13: Adam van Arsdale, Wellesley College
      Race, Ancestry, and Populations in the Pleistocene and the Present
    • April 20: Robert Pennock, Michigan State University
      An Instinct for Truth: Curiosity and the Moral Character of Science
    • April 27: Mark Urban, University of Connecticut
      Eco-evolution in communities