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Steve Nowicki

Professor of Biology
Duke University

Developmental Stress, Cognition, and the Problem of Honest Signaling

Monday, April 19, 2010
Science I 149, 5:00 PM

Abstract

The evolution of reliable, or “honest,” animal signaling presents an evolutionary paradox.  Signalers are under selective pressure to bluff or otherwise exaggerate their signals in a way that maximizes their own benefit at the cost of the signal receiver.  If signals are not reliable, however, selection should act on receivers to ignore those signals, and if receivers ignore signals we expect the signaling system to disappear. Bird song and its use in the dual contexts of mate attraction and male-male aggression provides a model system for the experimental analysis of signal structure, function, and evolution.  In particular, the effects of developmental stress on brain development and cognitive function provides a mechanism that can account for the evolutionary stability of reliable signaling.

Biography

Steve Nowicki is Bass Fellow and Professor in the Departments of Biology and Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke, and in the Department of Neurobiology in the Duke School of Medicine.  Nowicki holds B.S. and M.S. degrees from Tufts University and a Ph.D. from Cornell University. Nowicki joined the Duke faculty in 1989.  He was appointed Dean and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Duke in 2007.

Nowicki is the author of numerous articles on neuroethology and behavior, co-author of The Evolution of Animal Communication (2005, Princeton University Press), and author of The Science of Life, a video lecture series (2004, The Teaching Company).  He also is the author of Biology, a high-school textbook (2008, Holt-McDougal).  Nowicki’s work has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Whitehall Foundation, among others.  He was named a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow in 1999. Nowicki won Duke’s Robert B. Cox Distinguished Teaching Award in 1992 and was awarded the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professorship in 1999 in recognition of his distinction in both teaching and research.  Nowicki also serves as a member of the Duke University Pep Band, balancing his professional time between research, teaching, administration, and basketball games.

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