(...I should be more specific concerning the title--a bird that's flying really high. haha)
So, recently I've been working at a local science center in Tallahassee, FL helping teach a summer camp on wild animals. During the week it's been fun to ask the kids what their favorite animal is. My reply to that question? Humans. Humans, hands down, are the most interesting creature in [known] existence. And I think we don't think like that enough (as evidenced by kids objections to my answering that way--"Nuh-uh! Humans aren't animals!!!"). If we can only step back every once and a while and be in awe at how far humans have come from our past we may not get so bogged down in how much further we could improve cognitively and morally. So, anyway, hear this blog with that in mind--we are the coolest animal with the most complex, cooperative, creative, generous, altruistic, intelligent, selfless, deep, moving, powerful, transcendent behavior, relationships, society and thought processes.
What is evolutionary psychology? It's a way of explaining how we got the brain that we have--why we think and act the way that we do. There are two big categories when thinking about this that are highly intangled--survival and reproduction.
How did our brain help us survive?
- Practical stuff like finding food, killing it, defending yourself from predators and assault.
- Sharing/Reciprocal Altruism
- Animal example to elucidate our similar past: Vampire bats can only survive something like 1-3 days without a high quality meal. They have a problem, though. On average an individual bat will only come a cross a good meal every 7 days. So, what do they do? They share and they keep tabs on who owes them, who they owe, who is good about repaying and who is good about forgiving debts. Sounds a lot like us, yes? It is! Just in the same way that bats will shun those that don't share (according to observations/experiments) so humans make coalitions of trust and reciprocity. I've heard numbers estimating that something like a third of all ancient human births didn't survive unto adulthood. So, small nutritional differences over time between humans that are good at reciprocal altruism can make a huge difference over deep time. This slight behavioral/cognitive differences eventually got us to the fair centric species that we are today. Think of the last fight/argument that you had. Was it not about fairness? I would imagine so. We care very much about fairness and selective pressure is why.
- Kin Selection
- Looked at from the perspective of the gene, a gene doesn't just care about being passed on through one individual, but also getting the same copies of that gene being passed on through relatives. Consider some of the strange things nature brings forth--bees that sting themselves to death (since their stinger detaches and pulls out their intestines at the same time) and communal animals, like ground squirrels, offer warning calls that endanger themselves (by making their position known and therefore more likely to be eaten) but save their relatives. Darwin knew the strangeness of this perceived selflessness when he said, "Such simple instincts as bees making a beehive could be sufficient to overthrow my whole theory." We can see this in ourselves when we consider our preferences for family. Would you rather save one family member or 100 strangers on the other side of the Earth? 1000? 10,000? 100,000? 1 billion? Why is being adopted and genetic relation often such a big deal to kids? Why is blood thicker than water? Because our ancestors that gave preference to their relatives were more likely to survive and reproduce!
- This selective pressure can explain much of the selflessness, generosity and good will that humans exhibit--our genes think it will help our relatives survive (even if we're not really related to those we're helping. In the past our tribes were such that everyone we'd help we were most likely related to in some way).
- It's also related to the strongly in-group/out-group mentality that humans have--trust and take care of your relatives, distrust and exploit outsiders. This is readily evident in the labeling that people use for others in an us/them paradigm--spicks, crauts, towel heads, niggers, japs, chinks, etc. They're labeling others as something sub-human so that mistreating them isn't objectionable. The below is a fascinating clip showing just how trusting humans can be of their in-group. Also see here.
- For the math of kin selection see Hamilton's Rule.
How has our brain helped us to reproduce?
- By Being a Peacock's Tail
- Something like half of our genome encodes for the brain. So, if you have a good brain that usually says that section of your genome is pretty good and if that section is pretty good then there is a good chance that the rest of it is pretty good. Put simply: if you're smart then you have good genes and are worthy of reproducing with.
- Also, our brain is physiologically costly. Something like a quarter of our resting metabolism goes straight to feeding our three pound lump of electrical fat between our ears. So, if you can feed a brain then you must be pretty healthy. This is just like the peacock's tail--if you can make a big, pretty tail and deal with the attention it draws from predators then you must be pretty well off.
- By Gaining Status
- How do you explain the risky, thrill seeking, death whishes that some people have? How do you explain the ridiculous amount of money, time and talent that people pore into their appearances, hobbies and acquired skills? We're communal animals that needed to stick together to survive. To stick together everyone needed a place--a rung on the social latter. These 'places' got other things stick to them--higher status people got more of the share of food and more mates. The lower status people put up with it because they either couldn't change the situation or it would be more costly to fight it and risk being ostracized than ousting the higher status individuals. Once that system is put in place it can create an incredibly interesting rat race of trying to gain status to gain resources/mates (and specialization to compete in different categories, or nervousness to motivate avoiding confrontation/ostracization, low self-esteem/confidence, depression and all sorts of other interesting things to keep people in their place to maintain social cohesion).
- “We’ll do anything for respect, including not act like animals.” --Robert Wright
- Sexy Son hypothesis
- We not only care about our own genes being passed on and our relatives, but we care about our kids passing on our genes. This is where things get a little out of hand. Take for example the peacock's tail we've already discussed. A female might not want a male with a big pretty tail because she's concerned with having healthy kids. She might do it just because her sons will have big, pretty tails and are therefore more likely to reproduce. Let that go lose on a population over deep time and some weird things can result. Take a human example--Stockholm syndrome, or the love of a psychotic kidnapper. Why would a woman fall in love with her kidnapper, rapist or ass hole boy friend? Maybe, evolutionarily, her sons if they also turn out to be rapists, kidnappers, and ass holes are more likely themselves to reproduce. More here.
- A category that is both applicable to survival (like reciprocal altruism) and reproduction (kin selection) is how much investment to make in a relationship. Toadfish are a good example. There are 'good' toadfish dads that make dig a hole in the mud to make a crater nest perfect for protecting eggs from predators and current. There are also 'bad' toadfish dads that look like females and sneak into the nests of 'good' toadfish dads while they are externally fertilizing a female's eggs and inseminate them with their own sperm. One dad invests very little and actually exploits others for his own gain and the other invests heavily in his offspring. There's also the classic prisoner's dilemma example. It's essentially a thought experiment that shows that working together is beneficial in the long term, but not always in the short term.
This will only be funny after you understand and/or read the wiki linked above:
There's way more, but hopefully that'll wet your appetite!