Seminars on Science
Lauren McCall

Zohar Ris
Lauren McCall. ©AMNH

Lauren McCall is an evolutionary anthropologist at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center at Duke University. Lauren graduated with a Bachelor of Arts with High Honors from Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. She majored in Philosophy under the supervision of Daniel Dennett, author of "Darwin's Dangerous Idea." Lauren wrote her undergraduate senior honors thesis on the evolution of language, a subject notoriously banned from the Societe de Linguistique de Paris in 1866 due to the voluminous publication of speculations on the subject. She was left with a distinct impression that while language is at the center of human cognition, the study of language and cognition could not be done without an understanding of human development and evolution. So she decided to switch paths, taking graduate classes in primatology and human evolution at George Washington University under the tutelage of Bernard Wood, who has made substantial contributions to hominid paleobiology ever since joining Richard Leakey's initial expeditions in Kenya.

Lauren went on to pursue Master's and Doctorate degree training at the Leverhulme Center for Human Evolutionary Studies at the University of Cambridge, UK, which she completed in 2005. While there, she made use of the comparative method for her Master's dissertation to reveal correlations between brain size and divergence from quadrupedalism among the vertebrates. She found that hominin encephalization (brain size increase) may not just be the result of a hominin-specific increase in the calories gotten from meat-eating, because it is part of a larger scale trend of vertebrates from dinosaurs and birds to bats and dolphins, diverging from quadrupedalism and exploring new adaptive zones. After finding further inspiration from a visiting scholarship at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, she switched paths again for her doctoral research. This time she applied the quantitative and comparative methods she learned in researching brain evolution to the subject of "cultural evolution." Her dissertation, "Cultural evolution as ecological inheritance: Cultural histories and diversity from the biological perspective" took a variety of biological approaches to human culture, from comparing data on indigenous counting systems around the world, to explaining patterns within the history of Western music as successive events of ecological colonization.

Her first post-doctoral fellowship, before coming to NESCent, was at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research outside of Vienna, Austria, rounding out 6 years away from the United States. She is very happy to be back home now! She currently collaborates with members of Dan McShea's lab at Duke University. Her interests are cultural group selection and other examples of multilevel dynamics in nature, the evolution and development of the brain and developmental plasticity, and strategies for scientific training and biology education in the behavioral sciences and humanities.

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