Daniel Nettle

Daniel Nettle, Professor of Behavioural Science at Newcastle University, will deliver a plenary lecture, and will be introduced by Willem Frankenhuis, Professor of Developmental Psychology at Radboud University Nijmegen. Talk title and abstract below.

The consequences of early-life adversity: Comparative evidence from humans and birds

In humans, adversity experienced in childhood is associated with poorer adult health and survival, and also with altered behavioural strategies such as accelerated reproduction. We can hypothesize that the altered behavioural strategies represent adaptive responses to finding oneself with poor prospects as a result of a poor start in life. Although this hypothesis appears plausible, the human data are inevitably correlational. It is thus very hard to establish that the role of early adversity is causal in the way the adaptive hypothesis requires. We have developed the European starling as an model for studying the effects of early-life adversity experimentally. We use cross-fostering to manipulate the nestling period so that siblings experience different levels of early competition. I will present data showing that even a brief period of subtle early adversity has lasting consequences, in particular by causing accelerated shortening of telomeres, the DNA caps on chromosomes. I will also show that birds exposed to early adversity, or with greater developmental telomere attrition, show a suite of behavioural changes, including increased impulsivity and altered food-intake regulation, that can be interpreted as facultative adaptive responses. More generally, I will advocate the advantages and opportunities of using comparative evidence, and evidence from long-lived birds in particular, in evolutionary research on development.