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November 2nd, 2009 - An Evolution of Thought

Lying in bed this morning I was thinking of some video footage I saw last Friday night. It was my 'last' night of work at the nature center (I'm currently a seasonal naturalist) and we had nature videos playing on the big flatscreen all night.
I was going about my naturely business, cleaning out the Cecropia moth exhibit and doing animal care, etc. all the while watching the "Be The Creature" series from National Geographic with one eye as I moved about the exhibit room. The two brothers were following a pack of wild dogs in Africa, and it was really interesting.
The images still stuck in my head were of course of the mother regurgitating up her food for the pups to dine upon. They were more than happy to see her coming and pounced upon the bloody scraps of whatever the lion had just killed about as fast or faster than she could get it out of her mouth.
This had me thinking about what the wolfologist was saying when our group visited the International Wolf Center up in Ely, Minnesota. He said that when your dog comes to greet you and wants to lick your face, it all comes back to that regurgitation imprint and that what your dog would really like is for you to barf up something nice and tasty for him. That this is some left over imprinted knowledge that has been passed down through the generations, evolved if you will, or at least was carried through the genes and not connected to actions from a previous experience during the life of the animal.
I have also witnessed this with snakes. We were all crowding around the snake eggs in the incubator at the moment of the cutting of the leathery egg shell with snake's the egg tooth is just beginning, all keyed up and wondrous, ready to snap our photos as soon as we see the expression on the baby snakes' face as they experience our world for the first time. The snake cuts it's shell, and pokes it's head out, along with an amalgamation of gelatinous goo.

Ne're but a few minutes after the snake completely emerges from it's egg, and this is a CORN SNAKE mind you, it begins to shake it's tail in it's best imitation of a rattler to 'scare' us off and let us know it means business! Corn snakes don't have rattles. How did it know that we should be intimidated by a snake that rattles...?  It seems this behavior came from some place other than the snake's life experience to that point, as it really had none.
This got me thinking about humans. Why is it that we humans always think we are beyond animal behavior? The world was disgusted when Darwin blew us away with this radical theory that we evolved from monkeys, or lizards, or even worse, snails! This is a preposterous insult! Much of the world is still disgusted by it and can't accept that we could be animals.
So when I go to my psychologist to find the root of my anxiety and she asks me, "What's the earliest disturbing thought you can remember...?"
We find that thought, we talk about my childhood issues, and she bases her whole treatment and philosophy of my problem on something that happened in my childhood... because with humans it couldn't possibly come from anything except what I have experienced during my lifetime... right...?
Aren't we jumping the gun a bit? Why can't we humans have thoughts, fears and mannerisms imprinted from our close and distant relatives, whoever and whatever they were, just like all other animals?
How do we know that my mother-in-law's fear of putting her face into deep water isn't because her relatives grew up on a barren sand plane and now she lives on an island in the pacific?
I described this scenario to my wife Sharon, and she pointed out, "It's Nature versus Nurture."
Wow. She's right, it is. That classic argument as to whether we are influenced by our environment or our genes.
Do our thoughts evolve? Are we really in control of ourselves? Am I shaking a tail I no longer have...?
Time to let the dog take me for a walk.


buthidae said...

How do you know rattlesnakes are not just trying to mimic corn snakes?

dignature said...

Hmmm. Well, conventional logic would point us into thinking that the snake that was born with the rattle attached to it would actually use it before the snake never having a rattle, but I like your 'assume nothing', out-of-the-box style of thinking, and thank you for that perspective.

buthidae said...

Conventional logic? Dogs shake their tales. But since they are warm and fuzzy, we call that kind of shaking "wagging"

buthidae said...

(egads. I do know the difference between tails and tales. Why is that typing for the interwebs always produces the worst possible result?)

Colleen A. Falconer, Certified Professional Dog Trainer said...

Tim, my friend, you need to RUN, don't walk, to your nearest bookstore or library to obtain Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature," which calmly, thoughtfully and directly debunks the argument that 'humans pop out of the womb void of pre-determined psychological, emotional and social parameters/traits'.

I do not understand why people are so vehemently opposed to the idea that humans are animals that are a part of the natural world. I guess accepting that premise means admitting that we are one very large notch down from our "special" status, and humans certainly like to believe they're somehow special and different. It also forces people to step outside of the comfortable confines of their easily digestible religious stories, forcing them to be more critical of them - people can get terribly defensive about their belief systems when other alternatives are offered, even if those ideas are soundly backed up with scads of evidence. At this stage in American culture and society, this issue has little to do with logic and reason, and much more to do with emotional investment. Richard Dawkins considers this a "meme" - a catchy idea that just seems right and therefore doesn't even have to be critically examined but rather is automatically accepted to be true. We like to swallow things like that whole, and spend little time worrying about nutritional value or long-term health effects. *Gulp!*

Colleen A. Falconer, Certified Professional Dog Trainer said...

This issue is something that drives me batty on at least a weekly basis, as so much of what I do as a dog trainer involves translating dog behavior into something even vaguely understandable for dog owners. Dog and human behavior has significant overlap, but in some significant ways we diverge widely, and humans have a terrible time accepting this, much less recognizing it on their own. One example is petting and hugging. Humans are primates, and we can hardly stop ourselves from touching and embracing dogs, regardless of the fact that dogs rarely want to be touched in the ways we like touching them. Here's a little homework exercise for you. Go somewhere where there's a dog and just observe what happens. Within seconds, a human with friendly intent will approach and sticking a hand out. Note: dogs don't ever do this to other dogs - you don't see a "paw offer" between unfamiliar dogs upon approach. Dogs sniff, approach in an arc, and sniff rears and faces. This "hand out" behavior is amply observed among primates though! Unless the dog gives an overt signal of avoidance, the person will then pet the dog on the head although most dogs do not actively invite petting - most dogs either stand there and "take it", or duck their heads to avoid the oncoming hand - a signal humans do not usually see nor heed. After a few head strokes, if the dog stays nearby, the person will absentmindedly touch the dog on it's back, or simply continue the blasted head-petting routine; most dogs will move out of the way so the head is not so easily available, offering a different body part. If it's a big dog, we thump/slap the dog's ribcage area with gusto, for some reason (similar to how men in our culture slap each others' backs). We like eye contact, so we will sometimes take a dog's head in each hand and talk to it at about a foot or two of distance from our faces, although direct, sustained eye contact is a threat among dogs. Upon departure, if the dog is familiar, the person may even kiss or hug the dog, though dogs do not grab and "kiss" the way humans kiss, and hugging among dogs is a mounting, threat, or stress-related behavior.

We know not what we do, nor what other non-humans do. What's even more infuriating is that we impose our own (human primate) intentions on other animals. Few animal systems are as hierarchical and rank-oriented as humans are, but if you watch any pop nature shows with regularity, one of the topics that is talked about most is dominance. WE are the dominance-seeking ones most of the time, and we assume that this is at the heart of other animals' social systems, because we don't know how to view interactions in other ways.

Anonymous said...

In above picture, though he may have wanted me to barf for him, I didn't.

Anonymous said...

I remember one time when I was a kid and my aunt was looking over my science book. This was probably 4th grade. She saw something in the book that said humans are animals and started having a conniption about how that's not true and it upsets her to see that we are reading such rubbish. I didn't argue with her, but I remember thinking that I liked the idea that I was an animal just like my beloved dog Muffin. I thought that was nice that we could be animals together, and I didn't want to not be an animal.

Colleen, about the wild dogs and barfing, when you made that comment awhile ago about the National Geo dog training jerk-off who likes to dominate dogs, I did some web-surfing about the guy and found some interesting info about how a lot of dog researchers don't believe that domestic dogs share very many behaviors with wolves. They think there is enough difference between the species that you can't say just because wolves dominate eachother that domestic dogs do too. But then I read some stuff by wolf researchers where they are even questioning the dominance thing in wolf packs. Anyhow, so do you think there is much of a connection between domestic dog behavior and wild dogs/wolves? Did Happy really want me to barf for him, or does he like to lick us just because he's learned that we like it? It's all very interesting to me.