Mateusz Kostecki - On plasticity and canalization of behaviour - the parallel theory of behavioural evolution

20/05/2022, 2:00 pm (GMT+1, Warsaw) - please note that we’re starting earlier than usual!
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Our guest will be Mateusz Kostecki, PhD student at Knapska Lab, Nencki Institute, Warsaw. He works on the influence of social information on the stability of spatial representations in the CA1 region of the hippocampus. He is interested in the evolution of behaviour, social behaviours, robotics, and undervalued British female writers of the second half of the XX century.

Title: On plasticity and canalization of behaviour - the parallel theory of behavioural evolution


The idea of dividing behaviours in two categories - instinctive and learned - was criticized multiple times. Despite that, it is still widely used in behavioural neuroscience, with a recent appearance in the field of artificial intelligence. Critics of this dualism point out that such division is impossible to draw in practice, and that the development of behaviour is a dynamical process in which an organism and its components engage in a multitude of interactions with its environment that shape the behavioural outcome. This criticism, though, did not lead to the change in the way the behaviour is conceptualized.

In my opinion, it results from the fact that the idea of instinctive/innate behaviors is based on an intuitive - even if also often refuted - hierarchical view of evolution, in which the evolution is a gradual increase of complexity. This idea poses a hierarchy of behaviours, reflected in the architecture of the brain: behaviours necessary for survival (mating, foraging) are governed by evolutionary ancient, deep brain regions, and more sophisticated ones are controlled by higher, more complex structures that evolved more recently (e.g. cerebral cortex); learned behaviours are also perceived as more costly and less efficient that hardwired ones. This view aligns well with the scala naturae vision of nature, which offers a simple and intuitive set of metaphors that are hard to change. I propose that the critique of nature-nurture dualism require the development of a new view of the evolution of behaviour, that will explain recent discoveries in the field of behavioural development and systems neuroscience and will provide alternative ways of thinking about the stable and plastic aspects of behaviour.

In my talk, I would like to propose a non-hierarchical theory of behavioral evolution. At its core lies the assumption that plasticity is an intrinsic property of the nervous system, and behaviours of all animals have thus plastic components. In this view, some behaviours ("instincts") become canalized during evolution, the extent of their canalization being dependent on given adaptive pressures. Canalization can be achieved not only by changing neural architecture but by changing morphological traits, habit preferences, and social behaviors of the animal, and canalized behaviours very often are - at least to some extent - still dependend on learning and other forms of plasticity. I will argue that learning and plastic behaviours are not more costly than canalized ones and that they may provide benefits even in stable environments.

This theory explains well experimental findings - the fact that homologous behaviours can be "instinctive" or learned in closely-related species, and that behaviours crucial for survival (mating or foraging) are surprisingly plastic and require learning to develop. I will present experimental predictions of this theory and its implications, not only for our understanding of behaviour, but for brain-inspired AI and robotics.