The HBES 2013 Experience

HBESThe HBES conference is now over. It was a great experience for me; It was my first international conference presentation (more on that in a later post), I learned a lot about evolutionary topics that were new to me, and I met a lot of great people. Presented topics represented a wide variety of fields such as psychology, anthropology, biology, economics, and even criminology.

The Conference:
The conference itself lasted for 4 days, which included several plenary speakers and a wide range of presentations and posters. It also included several coffee breaks so presumably we all became caffeine junkies by the end of it.

One of the conference rooms at HBESThe location for the conference was in sunny South Beach, Miami, and the hotel was fantastic as a venue. It was, however, a fairly expensive location, and so some of the experienced attendees told me it was “The most sober HBES yet!” as $13 per drink isn’t very encouraging. It was also incredibly hot outside the hotel, but surprisingly cold inside. We were also supposedly in the middle of the hurricane season, and so some days had extreme rain and wind.

With regards to the weather I had one very unfortunate situation during breakfast. I went to a cafe and after just a few minutes it suddenly started raining incredibly! This lasted for a good 30 minutes before it subsided, making me late for a presentation I wanted to see. The rain continued on and off throughout the conference, eventually leading to an indoor BBQ on friday 19th.

Hurricane rain out of nowhere. You'd literally soak in seconds, so running for 10 minutes back to the hotel was not a great option.

Hurricane rain out of nowhere. You’d literally soak in seconds, so running back to the hotel was not an attractive option.

Sunny Miami. Still hot, though. Leif Kennair said he only saw the sun once during his stay.

Sunny Miami. Still hot, though. Leif Kennair said he only saw the sun once during his stay.

Plenary Presentations:
There were a variety of interesting talks and plenaries (main speakers). I learned a lot about a range of different topics, some of which were new to me. Napoleon “Nap” Chagnon gave an interesting plenary about his life work on the Yanomamö tribe in Venezuela/Brazil and how grandparents have an effect on the tribes. Brad Duchaine gave a nicely summarised presentation about face processing, though I already knew a lot about this topic after studying under Rick Hanley at Uni. Essex.

Napoleon Chagnon

Napoleon Chagnon

As I’m very interested in animal behaviour, my favorite plenary talk was undoubtedly by Redouan Bshary, who talked about his work on cleaner fish. Specifically, he talked about how cleaner fish operate when they clean parasites from other fish, and why they are not eaten by predators. While this was mostly an animal behaviour lecture, with some human applications, it was nonetheless the most interesting plenary to me personally.

Talks and Presentations:
The individual presentations lasted 20 minutes, including questions – which some skipped to have a longer presentation. There were usually five presentations going on at the same time in different conference rooms, compiled into sessions of 1-2 hours, then coffee, and then more presentations.

There were several really interesting talks, but I will only mention some of them. One symposium on “Misconceptions about human social evolution” with authors such as Krasnow, Cosmides, Tooby, and others, was very interesting. I particularly enjoyed the “Black Box” take on public goods games presented by Max Burton-Chellew, who I had the pleasure of speaking to later in the conference.

The Black Box approach to public goods games.

The Black Box approach to public goods games.

An interesting but somewhat controversial presentation was given by Stuart Townsend, where he investigated sexual relationships in terms of fraternities and sororities on his campus. While his observations were interesting, some were suspicious, such as his claim that black athletes were the only high-status males to engage in interracial sex, attracting “dozens or even hundreds” of White women to have sex with. Presumably this was taken out of context and the actual paper would clarify some of his claims.

Two presentations were in the unfortunate situation to contradict each other. Mons Bendixen presented a sexual misperception replication study based on a Norwegian sample that support the hypothesis on sexual misperception among men, but the presentation by Robert Kurzban immediately afterwards made the opposite claim.

One very popular symposium consisting of talks by David Buss, Steven Pinker, Martin Daly, Vibeke Ottesen, and J Andy Thompson on the evolution of crime drew a lot of attention. For me this was unfortunate as their talks were at the same time as my own presentation, and thus the vast majority of people went to their talks. Nevertheless, their presentations on crime and homicide and how evolutionary psychology will hopefully have an impact on the legal system was very interesting.

Me presenting at HBES. Hope to upload video later.

Me presenting at HBES. Hope to upload video later.

One particularly entertaining presentation was by Geoffrey Miller who proposed that the female orgasm is a kind of selection tool for females to evaluate males and choose the best partner, and this was related to female prefence for above-average penis sizes. I found it particularly funny when different monkey penises were compared to the penis of actor Jon Hamm. His proposed experiments were also highly unusual: he had a craftsman create 50 wooden penises in a variety of lengths and sizes to assess female preference and experience. However, I believe that the female orgasm acting as a mate selection mechanism must almost certainly be secondary to other mechanisms as it does not come into play until copulation takes place, at which point there is a risk of conception and potentially unsuitable males become fathers.

In addition to the talks there were several interesting posters presented as well, though many of them coincided with their respective presentations. What is great about posters, though, is the opportunity to stand and talk with the researcher and discuss the study in greater detail.

I will only mention a few of the 160 or so posters. First, there was an interesting poster by Laura Cowan and Linda Rubin that addressed the issue of feminism and evolutionary psychology: some feminists see evolutionary psychology as an obstacle against equality. I understand the principle of the argument, namely that much of evolutionary psychology is about sex differences and how men and women have evolved differently, something which could potentially have an impact on social equality. The main counter-argument was of course that if we elected to not pursue research on gender differences for political reasons then this would be pure ignorance. The extremist example would be research on pregnancy, which would be sexist towards males who cannot be pregnant. I was unaware of this problem between evolutionary psychology and feminism, though I immediately understood it and was glad to hear that there was a feminist evolutionary psychology society which promoted cooperation between the two groups (which the presenter believed could easily work together).

One interesting poster by Melanie MacEacheron looked at factors that influenced female surname change – that is, women taking the name of the husband in marriage. It proposed that this was a tactic to recruit investment from the parents of the husband (the in-laws). In many cases a partner will not get along with the in-law parents, and so taking the name of their partner is a sign of respect, which would make in-laws commit more to their grandchildren.

One final mention goes to Victoria Klimaj, Frank McAndrew and colleagues, who did research on kissing, where participants (who did not know each other) were blindfolded and told to kiss as if on a first date. The women then rated how attractive they thought the man was based on the kiss. Following the kissing phase, women were given photos of men and asked to rate their attractiveness, and included among the photos were the men they kissed as well as other men. Interestingly, women who were not on birth control had a moderate correlation (r = .40) between kissing attractiveness and facial attractiveness. It was hypothesised that the hormonal effects of birth control interfered with a woman’s ability to assess a man’s quality through kissing.

Keynote: John Tooby and Leda Cosmides:
The final talk of the conference was by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, names I have recognised ever since I first started reading about evolutionary psychology. Their work and the work of their labs have had a profound impact on evolution research, and so they were honored as keynote speakers, introduced by Steven Pinker. I had the pleasure of meeting Leda Cosmides, who decided to attend my own presentation (rather than David Buss’ next-door), which I took as a huge compliment.

John and Leda as keynote speakers

John and Leda as keynote speakers

Meeting people:
Another great thing about a conference like this was the opportunity to meet people in a growing field which I consider myself part of. There were also multiple researchers that I had conversed with online but never met in person, and HBES was the perfect opportunity.

I met Leda Cosmides, David Bjorklund, and Max Krasnow, all of which were researchers I highly respect but had never met (and I also did not know what they looked like). I also thoroughly enjoyed speaking in great length with Rick O’Gorman from my own University, Alexander Pashos from Berlin, and also Leif Kennair and Mons Bendixen from NTNU. The banquet, BBQ, and lunch was an especially great way of meeting people, and in addition to the above-mentioned people I also had great chats with Nicholas Grebe, Wallisen “Wal” Hattori, Max Burton-Chellew, Thomas Alley, Peter Gray, Donald Overton, Tatsuya Kameda, and many others.

Final remarks:
Aside from a very disappointing visit to the Miami Seaquarium, I had a great time in Miami. Sure there were some storms, but I was mostly inside attending the conference anyway. I would most certainly attend again.

Thank you HBES and Miami for a great, fun, and educational time.


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