Skene Lab

J.H. Pate Skene, PhD, PI

Associate Professor
Department of Neurobiology

427F Bryan Research Building
Box 3209, DUMC

Phone: 919-681-6346

We study the evolution of cognitive traits underlying cooperation and punishment in human societies. Our methods include DNA sequencing, neural recording, functional brain imaging, and behavioral analysis. The studies involve humans engaged in legal decisions or cooperative games and non-human primates in free-living social groups.


Humans have a remarkable ability to form large, complex societies. The stability and success of those societies depend on long-term cooperation among individuals with different skills, propensities, and societal roles. Research in this lab is trying to understand the evolution of brain mechanisms that make possible this degree of social cooperation, including the development of legal systems as a means of enforcing social norms and resolving conflicts. This research encompasses two broad themes:

  • Genetics of normal variation in cognitive traits related to stable cooperation: We are interested in evolutionary selection for or against individual variation in social traits, such as social integration, empathy, altruism, and third-party punishment; economic preferences, such as risk tolerance and loss aversion; and behavioral characteristics like chronotype (peak alert time in the day/night cycle), for which individual variation may enhance group success. Using both human studies and non-human primate models, our research explores the heritability of these traits and different explanations for that heritability, including additive and non-additive effects of common gene variants, mutation-selection balance, rare gene variants, and the interactions of genes, developmental experience, and social/cultural environment.
  • Neural mechanisms involved in legal decision-making: We are investigating neural circuits and genetic pathways that mediate decisions regarding enforcement of social rules or norms, compensation or punishment for wrongdoing, and conflict resolution in the context of a formal legal system. A particular focus is on understanding how social values like fairness, moral reprehensibility, retribution, empathy, and community safety are represented in the brain, and how this valuation interacts with conscious reasoning and analysis of evidence in legal decisions. Examples include decisions by prosecutors and jurors at different stages of a criminal investigation and trial; decisions about liability and appropriate compensation in civil litigation; and the role of retribution in resolving conflicts between individuals or groups.

Social network analysis of grooming interactions shows that the presence of minor alleles for common variants in two serotonergic genes (red) is correlated with decreased social integration in a free-living social group of rhesus macaques. From Brent et al., in press.