Michael Anthony Woodley of Menie, Yr. (Younger), is a British ecologist and evolutionary psychologist, whose research on secular trends in different aspects of human intelligence has earned him considerable notability.
Woodley of Menie received his Bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in 2007 and received his Ph.D. from Royal Holloway, University of London in 2011, where he researched the molecular genetic and community ecology of Arabidopsis thaliana, a model organism used in plant science. Since then, the focus of his research has shifted to the evolution of human intelligence and personality, and the relation of these phenomena to life history strategy.
Woodley of Menie holds a lifetime fellowship with the Center Leo Apostel for Interdisciplinary Studies at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, and sits on the editorial board of the journal Intelligence. He has authored over 100 papers covering a very wide range of subjects, including human intelligence and life history strategy (especially their genetic and evolutionary bases), personality psychology, comparative phylogenetic methods and primatology, cognitive epidemiology, secular trend analysis, macroeconomics, microbiology, plant science, theoretical ecology, and even cryptozoology.
He has published four books, most recently a popular science work (co-authored with Dr. Edward Dutton) on secular trends in intelligence and their macro-social effects (At Our Wits End: Why We’re Becoming Less Intelligent and What it Means for the Future, Imprint Academic, Exeter, UK). In 2015, the Association for Psychological Science awarded Woodley of Menie the Rising Star designation for his work on secular trends in intelligence. Part of this body of research inspired the coining of the term “Woodley effect,” which refers to any trend indicating a population-level decline in general cognitive ability. His work has been covered in diverse media, including the BBC, The Telegraph, The Times, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and RAI (Italian television).
Grégoire Canlorbe: You have been involved in elaborating a “biological meta-theory” for the social sciences—from the perspective of “life history evolution.” Could you start by telling us more about it?
Michael A. Woodley of Menie: First I should explain life history theory. This is a very powerful model in evolutionary ecology for explaining the covariance of anatomical, physiological, and behavioral traits within and across species. Its core idea is that environments pose particular sets of fitness challenges to organisms, which favor the evolution of coordinated suites of adaptations; these coherent adaptive packages can be understood as strategies through which organisms overcome obstacles to fitness (i.e. reproductive success). Species that tend towards very high rates of reproduction (i.e. high yields of offspring) typically have short life expectancies and their offspring tend to be precocial—meaning that they take relatively little time to mature into their adult forms. Their behaviors are also adapted to environments with generally high and unpredictable levels of extrinsic morbidity and mortality—sources of morbidity and mortality are “extrinsic” if adaptive features of organisms have little influence on them, and they are “unpredictable” if they exhibit high spatial and temporal variability that organisms cannot anticipate. The package of adaptations—behavioral, reproductive, and so on—that typically emerges in these environmental circumstances is usually called “r strategy” (where r denotes a species’ reproductive potential). Rabbits exemplify this ecological strategy—they are ready to reproduce within six weeks after birth, and the mother spends only a few minutes per day with her offspring investing resources in their growth. Rabbits also have relatively short lifespans, and in the wild have very high odds of succumbing to predation. The opposite strategy is usually called “K strategy” (where K denotes the carrying capacity of an environment). When a species is optimized for existence at the carrying capacity of its environment, its members exhibit high longevity, prolonged gestation, and extended postnatal development. The high-density populations in which K strategists live experience relatively little, or at least predictable, extrinsic morbidity and mortality. K strategists are typically long lived, in part because they invest heavily in somatic development and maintenance. With respect to behavior, K strategists are usually highly pro-social, investing in the fitness of their genetic kin via communitarian effort. Elephants exemplify this strategy, since they have relatively low rates of fertility, but invest substantially in their (small numbers of) offspring via extended gestation and multiple years of postnatal parental investment. Moreover, they are markedly herd oriented, with individual elephants exhibiting highly protective behaviors toward their entire herd when threatened by predators.