Polymath in Residence at Brooklyn College

Jan. 26, 2011

Forget the which-came-first puzzle — the chicken or the egg. A more interesting question is: Do chickens prefer attractive people? The answer is yes, according to Stefano Ghirlanda, the new Carol L. Zicklin Chair in the Honors Academy at Brooklyn College.

A researcher on the psychology faculty of the University of Bologna, Italy, Ghirlanda joined the college community in September, and this spring is the host of a guest lecture series, the Cultural Evolution Seminar, at the Honors Academy. Best known, perhaps, for the book Neural Networks and Animal Behavior (Princeton University Press, 2005) he coauthored with Magnus Enquist, Ghirlanda has also won the 2003 Ig® Nobel Prize, "for achievements that first make people LAUGH, then make them THINK," by demonstrating that chickens have a preference for attractive people.

A physicist turned ethologist, with a command of statistics and mathematical modeling, Ghirlanda and his work are not easily categorized. He specializes in different but interconnected subjects: human behavior and culture, evolutionary biology and animal behavior, communication, learning and memory as well as neural networks. He has investigated topics ranging from human zealotry to mate selection to aesthetics. Recently he has focused on studying what determines the openness of a culture to new information and how cultural beliefs affect demographic growth.

A member of the Stockholm University Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution, Ghirlanda has made a habit of working with scholars across the spectrum of disciplines. He is convinced that an interdisciplinary approach to research is best, and that an interdisciplinary education is essential for students in today's increasingly interconnected and complex world.

That philosophy will be reflected through the Cultural Evolution series, where researchers in the fields of history, literature, economics, mathematics, environmental science, anthropology, biology and psychology will speak on topics ranging from models of cultural diffusion — the transmission of ideas and practices from one ethnic or social group to another — to possible explanations of the evolution of language.

Ghirlanda says that the series will demonstrate how a combination of approaches enriches research. He would like to foster "cultural studies that integrate methods from natural sciences with the humanities" to the benefit of both.

"There is a lot of knowledge of human affairs in the humanities, and the humanities would have more funding if they used the quantitative methods of natural sciences," he says. Indeed, this cross-pollination is already producing fruit — the digital humanities, a trend called the "New Enlightenment" in a series of New York Times articles that address data-driven humanities research.

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