Der Graue und die Küste - Paul Klee, 1938 Der Graue und die Küste - Paul Klee, 1938 DR. PAUL J. WATSON
Evolutionary Behavioral Ecology

Evolutionary Psychology
Department of Biology, Castetter Hall, Room 110

University of New Mexico
MSC03-2020, Biology
1 University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM 87131 USA

Tel. (505) 277-3505 (o)

(505) 681-3391 (c)



Fall Semester 2014

The Evolution of Religiosity

and Human Coalitional Psychology

Offered for Three Credits  to Students in

Biology (419/519), Religious Studies (447), or Peace Studies (340).

I plan to offer this course again in the Fall 2015 semester.

Click for more information.



I am also looking forward to approval to teach a Freshman Learning Community course on Animal Behavior in the Fall of 2015. I hope to team teach this course with a professor of English; writing assignments would entail student reflections on topics discussed in class about the evolution and ecology of diverse behaviors of animals and humans.


Current Position & Education

Major Interests


Post-doctoral Experience

Graduate Highlights


Graduate Students


Ongoing Projects

Feeling Lucky ??

Workshop Announcement

"Compassionate Relating"

Evolutionary biologist and experienced Zen practitioner, Dr. William LaRue, carefully and critically synthesizes perspectives from evolutionary psychology and neuroscience with traditional insights concerning human cognitive design and contemplative methods, especially those of Soto Zen, to help individuals at all life stages build their capacities for more vivacious, fulfilling and joyful relationships, with themselves and others, which are more fully reflective of our full human potential.

See: for more on upcoming Santa Fe, and Taos workshops beginning in January 2015.

Building deep relationship skills is a life long quintessentially human project. In the journey toward deeper relationships, we face many difficulties, often very cryptic, rooted in both naturally selected human genetics and cultural conditioning. Few things lead to more suffering for ourselves and our social partners than our weaknesses in compassionate relating. Whether we know it or not, and in spite of our best conscious intentions, we work on our relationships under the heavy influence of evolved tendencies toward pursuing self-interest or, to be more exact, the maximization of lifetime inclusive fitness. Hence, we unknowingly build mental models of others, and of ourselves, designed to manage relationships to serve surprisingly narrow fitness-enhancing goals that do not match our best conscious intentions.

Even amongst friends and family, natural selection has programmed our development to lead to habitual use of contingent, situational caricatures of self versus other to manage our relationships, largely unconsciously. Our intentional "self," to the extent we can say one even exists, is tragically passive in all of this. Under the cryptic influence of our instinctual relationship modeling systems, we become locked into cheap, albeit "effective and efficient" (i.e., merely biologically adaptive) forms of extreme intersubjectivity with virtually everyone. We easily can come to accept this "board game" as all we reasonably can hope for in our relationships. Humans are in a unique position, however, to experience dissatisfaction with this state of affairs. Moreover, as humans, we are privileged to be in a position, with help and practice, to do something about it, that is, to build mutually reinforcing intellectual and emotional skills that, at least occasionally, allow us to escape the instinctual and habitual prisons that so limit the quality of our relations.


Paul J. WatsonCurrent Positions
Research Assistant Professor, February 1991 - present, Department of Biology, University of New Mexico .
Faculty Adjunct, October 1995 - present,
University of Montana Biological Station.

Self-employed, privately and publicly funded research biologist, 1981 - present.

Ph.D., Biology, 1988.
Cornell University, Section of Neurobiology and Behavior, Ithaca, NY.
Major: Behavioral Biology, S.T. Emlen and P.W. Sherman.
Minor 1: Ecological Genetics, T. Eisner.
Minor 2: Bioorganic Chemistry, J. Meinwald.
Minor 3: Neurobiology, R. Harris-Warrick.

Doctoral Thesis: The Adaptive Functions of Sequential Polyandry in the

Spider Linyphia litigiosa (Linyphiidae). (Linyphia litigiosa = Neriene litigiosa).

B.A. Zoology & B.A. Botany / High Honors, 1981. University of Montana,
Missoula , MT.
's Thesis: Freezing Low Temperature Tolerance in the Cactus

Opuntia fragilis (Cactaceae).

Post-Doctoral Experience

  • NATO-NSF Fellow, 1989-1991. Sexual selection and disease in the spider Linyphia litigiosa. Sexual selection and disease research; environmental microbiological training. (16 months). University of Oxford, UK. Department of Zoology, William D. Hamilton principal sponsor; NERC Institute of Virology and Environmental Microbiology, D.H.L. Bishop and P. Nuttall co-sponsors.
  • NSF Postdoctoral Research Associate, 1988-1989. Research on same topic as NATO fellowship. Funds provided as supplement to research grant of R. Thornhill and D. Ligon based on independent proposal by Watson (12 months). University of New Mexico, Biology Department, R. Thornhill and O. Baca advisors.

My research focuses on the evolution of social and sexual behavior in taxa ranging from arthropods to humans. My interests center on the evolutionary adaptiveness of contingent responses of animal and human minds to challenges associated with sexual reproduction and social living. My nearly continuous studies of the sexual selection system of the sierra dome spider, Neriene (= Linyphia) litigiosa (Linyphiidae), are now in their 34th year.
I involve graduate and advanced undergraduate students in all my research. I also spend a good deal of time advising students on their own projects.

NOTICE: I am looking for a student or postdoctoral "heir" to the sierra dome spider system. It deserves continued scientific attention, far more than I can supply. I'll meet you in the field, teach you what I know, and show you how its done. You'll hit the ground running! I'll meet you in the field at Flathead Lake Biological Station. I'll help you write a grant proposal. Contact me if interested.Freshly molted sierra dome female (left) entering mating posture with color-marked male.

I thank the late Dr. Allen Stokes for getting me started on my decades of sierra dome spider research. I took his 8-week field course in animal behavior at Flathead Lake Biological Station in the summer of 1980. Dr. Stokes' intelligence, indefatigable curiosity, love of observation, and unwavering encouragement got me started on a project that continues to profoundly influence my personal and professional life.

The complex life of this creature, and the Darwinian algorithms natural selection has programmed into its nervous system to deal with so many challenges to its survival and reproduction, has given me a fantastic window, wide open, straight into the heart of nature. Throw open that window for yourself. Get to know the evolutionary behavioral ecology of some wild observable creature, deeply, in nature, and let the purifying breeze that flows through your mind gradually clarify your view of what it means to be a product of natural selection. Get sober. I you dare.

There are so many other extraordinary individuals to thank for enabling me to become a naturalist and a Darwinian, but my doctoral and postdoctoral mentors (see above) are the most important. Teachers I encountered in the Gurdjieff Work also have been vital to my development. Without these people, I cannot even imagine what my my inner and outer life would consist of - probably little. Special thanks also to J.A. Baker, for his amazing book, "The Peregrine," and Shunryu Suzuki, for "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind," which were especially important in irreveribly activating my thirst, early in life, for views from the real world.

The over arching interest in my animal research is intersexual conflict, and understanding the complimentary behavioral, morphological, and physiological products of antagonistic intersexual arms races over control of the opposite sex as a reproductive resource. I perform interdisciplinary studies of invertebrates designed to reveal the information content of sexual signals, and thus the adaptive significance of decision rules based on these sexual signals (1) in choosing mates and, (2) as a separate issue specific to female choice of sires, in determining which mates actually fertilize eggs, and so contribute genetically to offspring. Another major research focus is the adaptive significance of multi-male mating by females. A third emphasis has been to study the rules and information processing that informs decisions by males concerning how hard to fight over access to specific females. Methodologically, my research is rooted deeply in observation and experimentation in nature. However, it also includes laboratory components involving carbon dioxide and oxygen respirometry to measure individual variation in metabolic capacities and rates of aging, as well as morphometric analysis to quantify variation in developmental competence via measures of fluctuating asymmetry. These aspects of my research help me to understand how sexual signals convey information about fundamental aspects of individual viability that, genetically and epigenetically, impact the reproductive success of offspring.

Associative penultimate female (left) guarded by a marked male (see Watson 1990); photo by Paul J. Watson

More specifically, my ongoing sierra dome spider studies seek to elucidate: (1) the information content of male and female courtship signals and cues, (2) the conditionality of choice mechanisms and sexual preferences, (3) trade-offs amongst sexual preferences, (4) the importance of antagonistic coevolution with diseases in its effect on the evolutionary dynamics of mate choice, (5) the use of polyandry as a tactic to mitigate problems of intersexual competition, harassment, and mate selection, and (6) the multivariate decision rules males use to modulate their fighting behavior and intersexual courtship intensity. I continue this work primarily at the University of Montana's Flathead Lake Biological Station.

In my research on the metabolic capacities demonstrated by male sierra dome spiders during their elaborate strenuous copulatory courtship, I have found that both metabolic efficiency (microwatts consumed per unit of courtship performance) and maximum metabolic rate (sustainable aerobic capacity) are positively selected by females. Two overt male traits independently predict fertilization success, body mass and copulatory vigor (measured as intromission rate - the number of separate genitalic connections made by the male per unit time during copulatory courtship). Metabolic efficiency is correlated with male body mass (even after compensating for the expected allometric relationship) and aerobic capacity with copulatory vigor. Interestingly, due to some fundamental physiological trade-off (maybe to do with accelerating rates of oxygen free-radicals with increasing metabolic rates) efficiency and maximum metabolic rate are negatively correlated in the general male population. By simultaneously selecting positively for both of these traits, females are effectively shopping for the least negative trade-off between these two viability-enhancing physiological traits. In other words, by cross-referencing body mass and courtship performance, females are sexually selecting for metabolic power: the maximum rate at which the male can perform useful metabolic work (as opposed, for example, to "work" wasting calories in the production of heat or unnecessary movement. Built to fight: face chelicerae and fangs of a male sierra dome spider, rear view; photo by Paul J. Watson

Built to fight: face chelicerae and fangs of a male sierra dome spider, front view; photo by Paul J. WatsonMy respirometric studies also suggest that males sierra domes that are more sexually competitive early in life, have more rapid rates of physiological senescence (as measured by their resting and active metabolic rates). Rates of aging of prospective sires may be a major issue for female sierra dome spiders. In my study population, variable proportions (up to 85 percent!) of gravid females die each year just before they are able to oviposit. They apparently succumb just a bit too early to a rickettsial disease, but their susceptibility may be related to their level of senescence. While a given female's sons can hope to reproduce early in adult life, and so not have their reproductive fitness threatened by the sexual competitiveness/senescence rate trade-off, daughters may be reproductively crippled by genes received from of a rapidly aging father because females always need to live long to have a chance to yolk up a sizeable clutch of eggs. Early reproduction is not an option for females, so they cannot easily escape the competitiveness/senescence rate trade-off. Thus, to protect their daughters, female sierra dome spiders may need to resist always mating with only the most sexually impressive males in the population, especially early in the mating season before the ravages of aging have taken their toll on the super studs of the population.


Shorter term insect studies include environmentally determined mate choice criteria and the energetics of intersexual conflict in Mormon crickets and water striders, the energetics of feeding preferences in a seed-eating bug, sensory and behavioral adaptations for facultative hematophagy in a sap-sucking plant bug, and the ecological and life history correlates of ritualized versus injurious competitive sexual displays in microlepidopteran moths.

I also have a long-standing interest in human evolutionary psychology. Here is a an excellent introduction to evolutionary psychology specifically geared to understanding the evolution of violence in humans and other animals, including especially intraspecific violence.

Humans are built to be intensely curious about the workings of the minds of others. We instinctively hunger for insights into "what makes others tick," so to say, that allow us to predict and influence (manage) the operation of the minds and hence behaviors of fellow humans. Whether the relationship is loving or ruthlessly exploitative, our biological fitness depends on turing members of our social group, as much as possible, into components of our "extended phenotype" (sensu Dawkins, revised edition, 1999). Less commonly, people also are non-superficially curious about their own minds, and the hyper-subjective self-models and world-models our minds create "for us." Behavioral ecology is essentially the analysis of animal and human mental design from the combined perspectives of ecology and evolutionary biology. The analyses conducted by evolutionarily-oriented students of behavior often include efforts to elucidate the functional design of a specific component of the subject species' mind (i.e., how it gathers and processes information relevant to a specific fitness-related opportunity or threat, and why it responds, contingentlly, with certain behavioral outputs), as well as the fitness consequences and phylogenetic history of mental design.

I am a member of the University of New Mexico's Human Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences faculty. Generally, I am interested in developing evolutionarily principled conceptual models of human intrapsychic organization. I am especially fascinated by the adaptive function(s) of conscious experience. I seek fuller understanding of how unconscious information processing and regulatory mechanisms dynamically and "transparently," on a moment-to-moment basis, influence the cocktail of subjective and objective content and emotional colorings of our conscious experience. As a window into the organization and regulation of subjective experience, and as a fascinating phenomenon in and of itself, the evolution of religiosity is a special interest (see the link to my current course at the top of the page).

The Evolution of Religiosity

My work with humans mostly has been on a theoretical level, although several of my doctoral students have done empirical research on Homo sapiens' evolutionary psychology. However, I am now personally engaged in human research, making a first attempt to compare the explanatory power of my adaptationist "informational boundaries hypothesis" for the evolution of religion versus the adaptationist "pathogen hypothesis" of my colleagues Drs. Randy Thornhill, Corey Fincher, and others.

The parasite hypothesis proposes that most forms of ideological, moral, and religious diversity constitute parts of our behavioral immune system, creating relational boundaries between human groups that are hard for pathogens to cross. In contrast, my informational boundaries hypothesis proposes that much religious behavior and talk is designed to modulate social-distancing amongst subgroups (e.g., clans, guilds) living within larger structured metagroups, and specifically to do this in ways that help religiously differentiated subgroups maximally protect their human capital and intellectual property, as well as other forms of private and strategic information.

The Evolution of Depression

I have an ongoing interest in the adaptive significance of various forms of psychological pain, which the unconscious mind routinely injects into our conscious life, especially unipolar depression. Drs. Edward H. Hagen, Paul W. Andrews, J. Anderson (Andy) Thomson and I have worked together to publish modern Darwinian analyses of unipolar depression. I have long been exploring implications of our theory for psychotherapeutic methodologies. I first presented an integrated "social niche change" or "social navigation" model to explain minor and major depression, as well as associated suicidality, to the Human Behavior and Evolution Society and, via an invited keynote address to the Across Species Comparisons and Psychopathology (ASCAP) group, in July 1998. I also gave a keynote address to The Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry at their regional New York City meeting on Evolutionary Theory and Psychopathology, in November 1999. A foundational paper on this adaptationist theory of depression was published with Dr. Paul W. Andrews in the Journal of Affective Disorders (October 2002; v. 72, pp. 1-14; get PDF); more recent related papers by myself and colleagues are available on my depression web site.

I often speak, formally and informally, to mental health practitioners to help them understand the so-called closely related niche change, social navigation, or bargaining theory of depression, and to advocate for the serious testing of the theory. I occasionally run interactive presentations and workshops for mental health professionals and members of the general public who seek a better understanding of evolutionary ideas concerning religiosity, psychological pain, and mental disorders. I sometimes have done so with my Gestalt Therapist colleague John D. Wymore and through the Oasis continuing education program. I also interact with practitioners of various contemplative traditions who have an interest in scientifically understanding the sources of human suffering, as well as other aspects of enriched and expanded inner experience available to humans from the intrapsychic effects of meditative introspective disciplines.

Finally, a lifelong special interest of mine concerns how insights from evolutionary psychology may tremendously illuminate the "sacred psychologies" and associated introspective methods of contemplative, self-knowledge-based traditions such as Buddhism, Sufism and Gnostic Christianity. Evolutionary psychology provides a much needed "objectifying influence" as one attempts to interpret the teachings and experiences that one encounters on such paths.

To the extent that religious and philosophical beliefs or positions rely on an (unknown?) combination of imagination and thought unchecked by evidence, they can both handicap a search for objective self-knowledge and even totally close doors to productive self-inquiry. They are likely to lead to wrong assumptions and conclusions about nature in general and, especially, about human nature. Scientists everywhere readily embrace this attitude - we commit ourselves to following verifiable evidence and evidence-based theoretical frameworks, wherever they lead. I contend that this same attitude long has been a cornerstone of genuine spiritual work - a radically and ruthlessly empirical, albeit introspective personal activity, that can compliment western science in one's pursuit of self-knowledge. For more on this, see the description of my workshops at the Esalen Institute, Big Sur, California, and my website on the Gurdjieff Work.


GRADUATE HIGHLIGHTS (man, did I have a great time being a grad student!)



ADDITIONAL PROJECTS - front and back burners

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Page last updated: 3 December 2014