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Warren Holmes

EHAP Support Fund

In the early 1970s, social scientists began applying new conceptual advances in evolutionary theory to analyze human behavior through an explicitly Darwinian framework. The field grew rapidly, and by the time Dr. Warren Holmes joined the Department of Psychology in 1979, he was delighted by the number of U-M faculty from various departments who framed their research in evolutionary terms. However, researchers in the field were scattered across an array of disciplines (e.g. anthropology, biology, and psychology), which sometimes made collaborating a challenge, especially for graduate students who were often encouraged to be “loyal” to their home department. To facilitate discussion and collaborative research, Holmes and an interdisciplinary group of faculty and graduate students began meeting informally to discuss newly-published research and how best to leverage evolutionary theory to better understand human behavior. 

Throughout the early 1980s, interest in analyzing human behavior in an evolutionary framework continued to grow, including in many disciplines that had not previously considered the relevance of Darwinian theory to their research agendas (e.g., economics, political science, and psychiatry). By the mid-1980s, investigators across a multitude of disciplines were relying on functional questions and adaptive explanations to ground their research and interpret their results. 

At U-M, Holmes and the other researchers who had been meeting informally decided the time was ripe to seek funding from the university to establish a more official program. “We decided it would be worth putting together a proposal,” Holmes recalls. “Receiving funding from the university and creating an official program would bring a kind of legitimacy and acknowledgement to the gatherings. Such a program seemed especially important to graduate students with interests in the evolutionary basis of human behavior, who at that time may have been the only members of their respective departments with explicit interests in evolutionary analyses. Then-provost Billy Frye was responsive to a request for modest financial support, and the Evolution and Human Behavior Program was formed, which is now known as the Evolution and Human Adaptation Program (EHAP).”

As the field continued to expand and become even more interdisciplinary, Holmes and the other EHAP members noticed that the same old challenges with communication and collaboration continued to hamper researchers at many universities. By contrast, EHAP members at Michigan felt—and continue to feel—very fortunate to be part of a university-supported program providing clear, established channels for collaboration and funding. Since then, EHAP has supported U-M researchers in various ways, including organizing seminars and providing advice, mentoring, and financial support for graduate students.

Today, EHAP is probably best known for its eponymous Speaker Series, which brings together speakers from around the world to present groundbreaking and influential research relevant to the field. In addition to the first-rate talks, the series provides graduate students with opportunities to meet individually or in small groups with invited speakers to discuss the students’ own research agendas. 

Holmes left U-M for the west coast and the University of Oregon in 2002 and retired in 2010, but he has kept up with EHAP developments from afar. In late 2021, he donated $5,000 to establish the EHAP Support Fund. Holmes made almost no stipulations about how EHAP should use the money, but he is excited about supporting the continued EHAP Speaker Series and about providing financial support for graduate student research. 

After discussions with current EHAP leadership, he is also especially enthusiastic about potential plans to develop a new gateway course that would lay out Darwin’s theories of natural and sexual selection and recent extensions of evolutionary theory. Of the new course, he says, “One of the issues that was true for me back then—and one that is apparently still true—is that students come in from various disciplines and do not always come in with strong backgrounds in evolutionary theory. As a result, the first few weeks of several classes that EHAP faculty teach end up being a kind of ‘Darwin 101.’ Having a gateway course that many students take would be a great step forward in teaching that material more efficiently.”

Dr. Jacinta Beehner, who currently heads the EHAP Faculty Steering Committee, is also enthusiastic about the new course. “With the new evolution and behavior gateway course, undergraduates unlock a suite of subsequent evolutionary courses that now can dig deep on evolutionary theory, animal behavior, and human behavior,” she says. “Michigan may now be one of the best places to study evolution and behavior in the world.”

Looking back on his career, Holmes reflects about just how important EHAP was and continues to be for facilitating a better understanding of human evolution and behavior. He believes that the fundamental question of the field— “What problem related to survival and reproduction was any given behavior designed to solve?”—is among the most powerful and enlightening that can be posed about our own behavior.

“Over the past 30 or so years,” he says, “evolutionary theory has come to many disciplines in dribs and drabs. That has had enormous benefit, but I think there could be even more benefit with more dribs and more drabs. A program like EHAP is the perfect one to bring units and people together. Early on, EHAP was an extremely exciting program for me both professionally and personally, and supporting it remains important for me now because I understand that there are still many faculty and students at Michigan who could benefit from a program like EHAP. “ 

If you would like to contribute to the EHAP Support Fund, please visit the giving page for the fund here (link).