Scholar Holler: Athena Aktipis, Ph.D.

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Athena Aktipis is an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at Arizona State University, co-Director of the Human Generosity Project, and Director of Human and Social Evolution and co-founder of the Center for Evolution and Cancer at the University of California, San Francisco.  Dr. Aktipis received her BA in Psychology at Reed College,  her PhD in Psychology at University of Pennsylvania, and completed her post-doctoral work at University of Arizona (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology). She is a cooperation theorist, theoretical evolutionary biologist, and cancer biologist who now works at the intersection of these fields.  Dr. Aktipis is the author of the forthcoming book from Princeton University Press “Evolution in the flesh: Cancer and the transformation of life.”

Dr. Aktipis recently gave a talk at UC Davis entitled “Need-based transfers in cooperative Systems”.  After her talk, Ethogram editor Katrina Brock caught up with her for an interview.

The Ethogram: Let’s start by talking about your current project. Can you tell me about the overarching goals of The Human Generosity project?

Athena Aktipis: The motivation for the project was realizing that many times when individuals are cooperating or helping each other, they really aren’t doing it because they think it will give them better payoffs down the line. There’s something that really is genuinely genereous, at least in terms of the experience of it. Oftentimes giving is motivated just by someone being in need or by a feeling of emotional connection or obligation. With the The Human Generosity project, our first goal is to document this in a number of societies through fieldwork. We also wanted to look at the viability of a need based transfer strategy in evolutionary terms, so we’re doing computational modeling.  Our third goal is to see whether we can ilicit that kind of need based transfer behavior in the lab.

Of course we also want to incorporate education and translate what we’re finding into something that people can understand and connect to. We’re doing that through an exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. On the outreach side, there are applications of this work on cooperation in resource management and disaster recovery. We want to look at to what extend need based transfers are already being used. When does it work? When does it not? Are there unrealized opportunities for using need based transfers in those situations?

TE: Can you tell us a little bit about the Exploritorium exhibit?

AA: We’re working on developing it now.  The general idea is that there will probably be two people playing a game where they manage their cattle. They have some likelihood of losing their cattle, and they have to ask each other for help.

TE: When will that be on the floor?

AA: Probably in about a year.

TE: In your lecture, you talked about how the Maasai people have a special kind of social relationship called “Osotua” that involves need based transfers. Do you think that these social relationships are analogous to some relationships in western societies?

AA: There probably are some overlaps.  There’s a really interesting book written by Daniel Hruschka called Friendship: Development, Ecology, and Evolution of a Relationship. In it, he talks about how there are lots of different ways that friendship manifests across cultures. Even within the Maasai there are different kinds of friends. They have Osotua realtionships, but they also have another kind of friendship term that’s about companionship, meaning you like to hang out with this person. It’s not clear whether we also have different kinds of friendships or not. Maybe, but maybe we just think of friends as friends. You have different relationships with your friends, but it’s not clear whether they they fall into discrete classes. (For example, “These are the people who I want to spend time with.”, “These are the people who I would depend on.”)

TE: Do you think there is a lot of need based giving in western society?

AA: I think there is a huge amount of variation. One interesting example of this is food sharing. If you go out with your friends to a restaurant, you probably all pay for your own meal, but if somebody invites you over to their house for dinner, you don’t go there with some money to pay them back for the groceries they bought. Even in that very simple scenario, you have different norms. Do you just give without account keeping? There’s no market transaction immediately, but you may invite them over for dinner later. I think sometimes in society, we have to figure out what kind of situation we’re in. For example, if you go to the coffee shop together, do you just pay for both drinks or do you each pay for your own? You don’t want to offend by assuming one or the other.  I think sometimes we’re trying of figure out if we’re in an account keeping situation.

TE: Let’s switch gears and talk a little bit about your career. When did you first become interested in science?

AA: In high school, I got really interested in psychology.  I would ride my bike to the bookstore and I spent a lot of time reading about evolutionary psychology. I realized that if I wanted to understand behavior, evolution provides a nice framework that can guide hypotheses.

When I showed up at Reed College, I knew that I wanted to study evolutionary behavior. I was lucky that there was a visiting professor there, Melissa Rutherford, who came from Cosmides and Tooby’s lab at UCSB.  (They were the founders of evolutionary psychology.)  So I took an evolutionary psyschology course freshman year and started going to the Human Behavior and Evolution Society meetings and decided that this is was what I wanted to do.

TE: Were there particular questions that piqued your interested in behavior?

AA: From the beginning, I was interested in the question of cooperation and selfishness. But more generally, questions like ‘why do we even have an experience of the world?’, questions about consciousness drew me in. I thought that maybe with an evolutionary approach, we could understand why we experience things.  I don’t know if we have gotten there, but certainly in terms of social cognition and how we experience the world, there is a lot of work saying that we don’t necessarily represent the world accurately. Our conscious experience of things is shaped by what we need to be able to report to maximize our reproductive success.  There’s a practical aspect to it, but I don’t think it’s been resolved at all.

TE: What kind of advice would you have to a high school or college student who was interested in psychology or science in general?

AA: I recommend reading popular scientific literature. There’s a lot of really well written books and magazines by people who are scientists doing research but with more of an eye towards communicating to the public. For example, in psychology, there’s a magazine called Psychology Today that has material that’s really easy to understand even if you don’t already have a college degree.  That’s a good way to find out what is going on in science, and if you see something that really interests you, you can follow up by looking for more detailed information about that specific research.

TE: One last question, if you had an alternate life with an alternate career, what would it be?

AA: I did have a previous career as a dance instructor. I owned a dance studio in Philadelphia that I started while I was in graduate school.  I taught mostly salsa, but also other social dances like swing. Eventually, I sold the business to pursue my academic career. Maybe if I weren’t an academic, I would be doing that.

You can see Dr. Aktipis’ full talk here:

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