What Animals Teach Us About the Biological Origins of Our Own Behavior
Hello Nathan, to start off, can you tell us what, in your opinion, the connection is between criminal justice and animal behavior?
There is a great deal of connection between justice, even criminal justice, and animal behavior. In fact, I am working on an article right now analyzing criminal justice policy through the lens of evolutionary biology. What we find, rather convincingly, is that criminal justice policies that align well with what we know about how animals manage conflict and punishment are effective at the goal of reducing crime. Those that are incongruent with our biological instincts, as deduced through studies of animal behavior, are doomed to failure.
In addition to the previous question; how did you use your knowledge about biology while writing your book about behavior? What inspired you to write the book?
Although my laboratory studies questions in forensic biology, I am first and foremost a biologist. I view humans as the products of genetic material that has been shaped by natural forces through evolutionary time. Several years ago, I set out to find insights into how humans have come to be so different than other animals in such a short amount of time. In that search, I found that the opposite is actually the case. Human behavior is NOT so different than animal behavior. We just cloud our behaviors with language and culture and symbolic thoughts. But underlying our behaviors are the same basic drives and instincts that we share with other social animals.
In your book and blogs you talk about (among other things) playfulness and having fun. What are the benefits of this behavior?
There are dozens of benefits of play for humans and other animals. Playing is a low-risk way to develop motor skills and coordination, as well as cognitive skills and brain power. It also helps keep those same motor and cognitive skills trained and in top shape. Playing establishes trust and social bonding; it is a means to learn etiquette and behavioral codes in youngsters. It helps reduce stress and maintains cardiovascular health and develops skills such as spatial reasoning, problem solving, and critical thinking. It may also help animals and humans train their bodies and minds to perform certain tasks that are important to their survival. The list of benefits of play is quite long!
Does playfulness has different benefits during different life stages? In other words: please tell us that adults are still allowed to have fun!
Oh, definitely. Play probably has more benefits for youngsters than for adults, which is why they have an even stronger drive to play, but recreation has benefits throughout the lifespan. It helps keep motor skills in tip-top shape, it keeps the brain active and ready and stimulates creativity. It reduces stress hormones and maintains physical condition and cardiovascular health. Older people who play more, both physically and mentally, have better health outcomes and can even delay some signs of aging such as dementia. Most scientists who study play conclude that we would all be better off devoting more time to recreation.
You also discuss somewhat darker topics, for example; fear. Of course we don’t like being scared and anxious (I guess there are exceptions. Yes I’m looking at you scary movies and rollercoasters), but are these feelings doing any good?
Most definitely. At its most basic level, fear is an avoidance strategy. It helps keep an animal safe, by nudging her away from danger. The benefits of anxiety are less clear and it could be an exaggerated fear response that gets amplified by our abilities of introspection. Remember that humans are probably the only animals that can really sit around and think about things symbolically. We’re the only ones that contemplate. The emergence of these abilities may have brought about the unfortunate side effect of anxiety as we suddenly gained the ability to think about dangers that aren’t present at that moment. In a sense, anxiety is the conjuring of fear by internal stimuli – our thoughts – rather than external stimuli. Evolution probably produced anxiety by accident. It’s a design flaw, in a sense. One of many that we have.
By the way, since you mentioned scary movies and thrill-seeking, this is an important connection between fear and some kinds of play – the involvement of short-term stress hormones. These often bring about euphoric feelings that probably evolved as a way to help us function in the face of paralyzing fear. When we know that the danger isn’t real, or is minimal, we’re able to tolerate the fear in order to enjoy the afterglow of the euphoric hormones. This, in turn, might actually be good for us because bursts of short-term stress hormones may actually reduce the levels of long-term stress hormones. Various forms of play, especially physical and stressful play, are true stress-reducers. Anything that reduces levels of long-term stress hormones (such as cortisol) is good for you.
Do you have any facts and/or opinions about the way humans treat other animal species? Domestication seems like a very unique and strange thing when you think about it!
Domestication of both companion and food animals is one of the most fascinating topics in all of biology in my opinion. It is like evolution and natural selection on an accelerated scale and with specific goals in mind. Usually, evolution is slow and is not goal-oriented, so artificial selection turns all of this on its head. This has taught us that we can shape both physical and behavioral traits through selective breeding and is such a clear demonstration of the power of evolutionary forces. Many scientists believe that the key to domestication of animals is that we prevented their full maturation. The species become permanently juvenile. This prevents the emergence of some of the most aggressive and stubborn parts of their nature from taking shape. Juvenile animals are more docile, obedient, trusting, and safe (to us). Interestingly, it appears that the same process may have taken place with us! The transition from archaic Homo sapiens to modern ones certainly involved language, but it might also have involved a taming of our most anti-social instincts. We are pretty sure, for example, that androgen levels are lower in modern humans than in archaic ones. Since androgens tend to promote aggression and competition, this may help to explain our civility toward each other. Civilization may have been a gradual process of us domesticating ourselves!
Do you have some specifically useful lesson(s) you would want to share, perhaps something you learned about daily life because of researching the similarities between human and animal behavior?
For sure. My book is filled with, I believe, lessons that can be applied to our daily life. By understanding the biological basis of grief, we can help overcome our own grief and help others to do so also. By understand where sibling rivalry comes from, we can help catch it in ourselves and disarm it. By understanding the benefits of play, we can resolve to make time for it in our lives. When we see our own behaviors as springing from natural drives and instincts, we can let go of pointless guilt and shame and instead try to understand why we are moved to act in certain ways and give more healthy outlets for our emotions.
In my view, the evolution of human and animal behavior should be required coursework for any aspiring psychologist, especially for those that want to help people clinically. Human are animals. We are mammals. We are primates. We are apes. But because we also have language and complex thoughts, we can do what no animal can – understand our own behavior. This is powerful and, as I see it, the path toward living your best life.
Very fascinating right? Nathan H. Lents also maintains his own blog, as well as “The Human Evolution Blog” in collaboration with his students/colleagues. Also he contributes to Psychology Today with his “Beastly Behavior” articles. Feel free to keep yourself updated!