A few years ago when living in Florida, I kept a journal about wildlife observations, which included no small amount of speculation on what I was seeing. It’s interesting to look back through it and see how certain things solidified as I found our more information or made subsequent observations, and I’ll probably feature some parts of it in posts later on.
On occasion, this blog will reflect it too, like the sudden dawning I had yesterday on a post from a few days back. At the end of that post, I surmised that the value that we place on tradition was so powerful, it seemed almost like an evolutionary trait. The dawning came when I realized that it was, and we’re already well aware of how it works. Kindly note that I have confirmed none of this, and will gladly (well, maybe not gladly, but willingly) retract it if someone comes along and tells me how I’m talking bollocks.
Understanding human behavior sometimes comes when you break it down into core actions, rather than the assigned properties with which we view such behavior from minds that enjoy dealing in abstract concepts – in other words, if you think of us as mere animals (which we are.) “Tradition” then becomes an instinct to follow past examples, or to reduce that even further, to copy our parents. That this is an evolved trait seems abundantly obvious – it’s how we learn to talk, and to parse the nuances and rules of language. It’s how we know what to eat. If we didn’t have this drive, we’d take forever to develop, or really, may not develop very well at all. Independence doesn’t work that well when you’re not very functional for the first stages of your life.
We can see this in other species, and this is the part that made it click in my head. Back in Florida, there were muscovy ducks that lived in the pond at the apartment complex, and I watched them raise a few broods there. Everyone knows the folklore about ducklings and the first thing that they see upon hatching, and following around some other animal they think is “mom,” but the reality is, birds do imprint on behavior too easily, a trait that wildlife rehabilitators have to be aware of lest they raise a bird that does not know it’s a bird, and cannot cope on its own in the wild. Ducklings, like many other species, know instinctively to take their cue from momma, and will copy her behavior automatically. When she preens, they preen, all together.
It’s remarkable to observe, because the ducklings don’t appear to be watching their mother at all, and the sudden onset of preening seems almost simultaneous, but momma always starts first. And no, the two in the back aren’t lacking this behavior, but if you watch birds preen, they do brief sessions and pause, taking a moment to ensure that predators haven’t started closing in while their attention is elsewhere, another instinctual mechanism. I just happened to catch them during this pause.
Considered from this angle, it’s easy to see why “tradition” even became a concept in the first place – it puts a name to the instinct to follow behavior and learn from others. It’s another example of the interesting organs that our brains really are. We have automatic functions, like breathing and pain response, and we have subconscious, instinctual functions, like being aware of danger and seeking mates, and then we have the deliberate functions like cognitive thought. But the cognition part relies on the other two, and we have a hard time distinguishing deliberate (“rational”) thought from the instincts that we have. In fact, we’re very often in denial of the parts played, since we tend to feel that only “animals” (meaning everything but us) rely on instincts, but we vaunted humans do everything deliberately – the whole “free will” concept. It’s total vanity, of course, as only brief reflection will demonstrate, but it’s an insidious belief.
It gets worse. When we fail to recognize that subconscious, inherited behavior plays a large part in our thinking processes, we fall into a trap of believing that everything we do is part of a rational process – we intended to do it, and will even make up excuses as to why we engage in such instinctual behavior: “rationalizing.” The ugly catch becomes that we purposefully avoid engaging the truly rational part of our brains to overcome instinctual behavior that may not apply to a particular situation, simply because we deny that we have such instincts. The failure to recognize it can lead to remaining a pawn of it.
Much of what we have built our culture around is extensions of such instinctual traits, the attempts to take vague urges and feelings and embellish them into important social structures. Tradition is of course one example, and much earlier I pointed out that space exploration might even be another. Facebook actually takes advantage of our desire to build a community of “friends” without any of the effort involved in actually maintaining what we once considered a friendship – it’s prompted by the very name used, “friend,” rather than, “someone I once knew, or maybe someone who knows someone I knew, that clicked on a link in hopes of reciprocation” (SIOKOMSWKSIKTCOALIHOR for short.) We have such a strong desire for social reciprocation and cooperation that we actually get frustrated when life isn’t fair, and think that if bad things happen to us, there must be a reason. Even the trait of curiosity, of determining how things work (which I’m engaging in right now, and hopefully you are too) leads us to believe, all too often, that the entire universe has a reason, when we don’t even have a reason for fire ants (rotten little bastards.) When we think that something has to be the case, perhaps we need to stop and think about whether there’s a distinct rationale behind such a standpoint, or if we favor it because, at some point in time, it helped us survive to think that way.
And now, I ask a sneaky little question: how many people stopped to read this post because of the picture of cute little ducklings? What might you suppose was at work in that case?
[I readily admit that this was not planned, and the duckling behavior memory really did lead me down this road, but I realized how it might work while writing the paragraph above.]