I was introduced to the wondrous explanatory power of evolutionary theory as an undergraduate and knew then that I would want to dedicate my career to studying the processes of evolution. A lifelong interest in the behaviour of animals in their natural world drew me to this work. A background in experimental design and exposure to world-class researchers gave me the training to study social evolution in groups as they live and breed in large complex environments.
Social creatures require skills for maintaining the balance between cooperation and conflict with group-mates, navigating dominance hierarchies, and reading and responding appropriately to others’ intentions, yet many facets of the development and function of these skills have gone unstudied.
My students and I have been working to build a new model of social development and social evolution; focusing on how the social environment can organize and control cognition, learning, and reproductive output. We have taken an ecological approach, integrating across levels of analysis to examine how groups affect individuals and in turn how individuals influence groups.
I took a leap of faith many years ago: I guessed that it would be possible to engage in the experimental study of groups of animals in natural environments instead of rigidly controlling their environment and experiences. There were heretical thoughts for a psychologist. The most surprising moment of the project I am working on is that this really works.
This work started many years ago, using the outdoor aviary facilities at Indiana University and working in collaboration with Meredith West and Andrew King. To test the influence of cowbirds' social ecology on development, we housed cowbirds in large social groups and we used naturally occurring variation in social experience (the age class of individuals) to manipulate the social composition of these groups. The work has led to remarkable discoveries – ones that could have never been seen in the lab because so much of the behaviour of individuals is organized by their social world.
There is dramatic flexibility in characteristics that were never before considered to be influenced by social learning – aggression, mate choice and birdsong. Young males with no access to adult males fail to develop normal behaviour. This approach challenges many long-held beliefs in both biology and psychology about how learning evolves.
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