2 excellent pieces on the evolutionary roots of some of the most common of human behaviors: Deceit, Murder, Sex and Shopping. For years we were lead to believe that animals didn't have the advanced consciousness that humans do. One of the most pronounced ways that animals were believed to be different was in their inability to form mental models of the external world and make predictions based on those models. Conceits (maybe most strongly harbored by men of science) about how much more sophisticated and rational humans are further differentiated us from all other forms of life.
The amount of research dismantling these beliefs, and the degree to which they do is astonishing. What may or may not be astonishing is how little they've yet to affect the day-to-day ways we think about and treat other species. More important is what we do with these learnings. Do we start to hold animal life in as high regard as we do human? Or do we get over our discomfort with the idea of killing? Maybe we pretend it doesn’t matter at all. As the second article in this post demonstrates, we aren't nearly as smart and sophisticated as we think we are.
From the NYTimes: A Highly Evolved Propensity for Deceit
"Deceitful behavior has a long and storied history in the evolution of social life, and the more sophisticated the animal, it seems, the more commonplace the con games, the more cunning their contours. In a comparative survey of primate behavior, Richard Byrne and Nadia Corp of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland found a direct relationship between sneakiness and brain size."
Some of the examples are hilarious:
"a young baboon being chased by an enraged mother intent on punishment suddenly stopped in midpursuit, stood up and began scanning the horizon intently, an act that conveniently distracted the entire baboon troop into preparing for nonexistent intruders."
"chimpanzees or orangutans in captivity sometimes tried to lure human strangers over to their enclosure by holding out a piece of straw while putting on their friendliest face... before you know it, the ape has grabbed their ankle and is closing in for the bite. It’s a very dangerous situation.”
"should a young male be courting a female and spot the alpha male nearby, the subordinate chimpanzee will instantly try to cloak his amorous intentions by dropping his hands over his erection."
Mammals do 3 things primarily: they fight, they feed and they f***. Like other mammals we spend much of our time in competition for resources, eating (our most basic survival need) and procreating to perpetuate the species. Many of our sophisticated and commonplace behaviors revolve around or have their basis in these 3 activities. (Think about how important food is to social interaction and dating in Manhattan. With out food you’d be f*****, or maybe you’d never get f*****.
From The Economist: Of music, murder and shopping
"both music and murder pertain to mating. One attracts mates. The other disposes of rivals.
Music, and also art, fashion and even literature, are reckoned by many Darwinists to be the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail; done well, they show off the genetic prowess of the creator. Similarly, the impulse for self-improvement that creates economic growth comes from the need to be more attractive to the opposite sex than your rivals. And, most profoundly, modern Darwinists reckon that a sense of justice, too, is probably an evolved phenomenon. The notion that bad individuals should not be allowed to prosper does not exist in most species, yet it has been crucial to human evolution. It permits collaboration and has thus done as much as language and culture to allow human civilisation to flourish and people to dominate the planet."