From Birdsong to Far-Right Extremism, Mason Youngblood Traces How Individual Behavior Shifts Culture

August 19, 2020

Ph.D. candidate Mason Youngblood talks to The Graduate Center about his research on cultural evolution and how it has led to papers published on seemingly disparate topics.

Ph.D. candidate Mason Youngblood (Credit: Emily Cote)
Ph.D. candidate Mason Youngblood (Credit: Emily Cote)

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

What do birdfeeders, far-right extremist violence, and music sampling have in common? They’re all topics that Ph.D. candidate Mason Youngblood (Psychology) has published research papers on in the past two years. He’s also been quoted in The New York Times for an article about birdsong and published a data analysis of how much money cities spend on police. But with such varied research, what is his field, exactly, and how do these topics connect? Youngblood answered these questions and more in an interview with The Graduate Center. 

The Graduate Center: Your research is so wide-ranging. What is your field exactly? 

Youngblood: I broadly consider myself a behavioral scientist but my focus is definitely on cultural evolution, or how socially learned traits (e.g., behaviors, ideas, norms) change over time. This emerging field is extremely interdisciplinary, drawing from evolutionary biology, anthropology, archaeology, and sociology, and includes research on both humans and non-human animals like songbirds, primates, and whales.

GC: What is your Ph.D. research on and how far along are you in your studies? 

Youngblood: My dissertation is focused on bridging pattern and process in cultural evolution. This means figuring out how cognitive processes and biases within individuals, such as conformity, drive cultural evolution at the population level. The core project of my dissertation is on the cultural evolution of house finch song, but there is also human work as well. I’m currently a Ph.D. candidate, and hoping to defend and graduate this spring (2021).

GC: What was your path to CUNY? 

Youngblood: I’m originally from South Carolina, where I majored in biology (with minors in anthropology and neuroscience) at the University of South Carolina Honors College. In my senior year I knew that I was interested in graduate school, but I really wanted to experience something different from the genetics and neuroscience research that I did in college. I decided to apply for the Animal Behavior and Comparative Psychology Ph.D. program at the GC when I found the work of David Lahti and Ofer Tchernichovski, both of whom study the cultural evolution of birdsong. After digging deeper into CUNY’s interdisciplinary and creative research culture, it felt like the perfect fit for me. And if I’m completely honest, having access to the incredible experimental electronic music scene in New York City was a major draw as well.

GC: You’ve recently had three studies published in academic journals, one on music sampling, one on house finches, and one on far-right extremism, and a data analysis on a mainstream site about how much cities spend on police. Those are such disparate topics. Please explain the common thread here and how your published work and your studies relate to your field. Are you the Nate Silver of data visualization and data modeling? (Silver being a statistician who analyzes everything from baseball to elections...)

Youngblood: Although the topics I study appear to be disparate, they’re all attempts to understand how behavior at the level of individuals results in larger cultural change. As I’ve done more human work, and as the political situation in the U.S. has become more unstable, I’ve also become interested in applying statistical methods in areas where they can hopefully inform policy, such as police budgeting. Ultimately, though, I want my main focus to be on cultural evolution in both humans and non-human animals.

GC: How do you get your ideas? 

Youngblood: Many of my research ideas come from conversations with colleagues at conferences and in the Lahti lab at Queens College. The Lahti lab is uniquely interdisciplinary, with people studying everything from urban ecology and species introduction to ethnobotany and moral taboos, and has a culture of open debate and discussion that is really conducive to creative research ideas. I also try to read books and listen to podcasts on topics related to human and non-human animal behavior that are out of my comfort zone, which is how I became interested in the cultural dynamics of far-right extremism in the U.S. 

GC: You recently were quoted in The New York Times on a story about birdsong and bird migration. Is ornithology also in your wheelhouse? Tell us more about that! 

Youngblood: Actually the core of my dissertation is birdsong research and I definitely identify as an ornithologist (among other things) — most of that work just hasn’t been published yet. The study that was covered in The New York Times is about a new song variant in white-throated sparrows that spread across North America over two decades. In my own work I study cultural changes in house finch song over similar time periods, so I probably seemed like a natural choice to speak on that article. I imagine they found me through my recent “takeover“ of the Animal Behavior Society Twitter, where I was tweeting about my work on the cultural evolution of house finch song (which will be published in 2021). It was extremely exciting to appear in The New York Times! I hope that my own research will be covered there one day.

House Finches Mason Youngblood news photo

House finches. (Photo credit: Mason Youngblood)

GC: Where do you see yourself going in terms of a career with such varied interests but highly marketable skills in terms of data analysis? Any advice to others about using wide-ranging interests as fodder for a technical degree?

Youngblood: I’m currently planning on doing at least one postdoc to continue developing methods for studying cultural transmission in both humans and animals, and to ultimately pursue a tenure-track position at a major research institution. My major advice to new graduate students is to get really comfortable with R and other coding languages, because it really liberates your own research by allowing you to independently pursue whatever questions you want and makes it much easier to collaborate with other researchers.

GC: Tell us about your music.

Youngblood: I've been releasing and performing electronic music as Callosum since 2013, first in South Carolina and then in Brooklyn after I started graduate school. The experimental electronic and club music scene has been an integral part of my life here, and is how I've met most of my friends. Seeing the community and diversity of sounds change over time has directly inspired my research on the cultural evolution of music. Unfortunately, artists and venues in NYC are really struggling right now because of the pandemic. If you want to support them, I recommend buying music directly from bandcamp and donating to local venues if you can.

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.