Animal BehaviorAnxietyInterviewsResearch

What Animals Teach Us About the Biological Origins of Our Own Behavior

Meet Nathan H. Lents, PhD; professor of molecular biology. Currently he works at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, of the City University of New York, where he also serves as the director of the honors program and the Macaulay Honors College. Professor Lents is specialized in forensic biology and has a big interest in the biology behind behaviors. His experience and interests resulted in his book “Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals” and he was kind enough to answer some questions about the topics he focused on. So let’s learn something about the intriguing origins of (animal and human) behaviors through his findings.


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.

Sometimes, feelings of fear and happiness overlap. pixabay.com; Incygneia

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!

pixabay.com; andrewicus

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!

18 Comments

  1. This was fascinating to read! I always thought that humans were just having fun /playing because we have the safe spaces to do so. I never thought that it had acutal evolutionary benefits other than “the fun part”.
    If humans are able to contemplate everything we do, would you say that it is possible for modern humans to actively guide evolution and where it is going next?

    1. Thanks for your interest! Well yes humans already affect evolution a whole lot. Think about animals adjusting to many urbanized areas, selective breeding of plants and animals, improving resources to find a partner (internet, traveling) and improving healthcare – including the abilities of genetic engineering. Nobody knows exactly where this wil lead but at the least there are strong signs that specialized healthcare (based on your own DNA) will be a thing and maybe one day it will be possible to “improve” a humans DNA before it is born. Of course these are sensitive subjects and time will tell how society will handle these topics.

  2. Wow, this was a really interesting interview to read! You asked really good questions, in my opinion. I’d like to know a little more about anxiety being a “design flaw”. Do you think that humanity’s secondary emotions (anxiety, pride, relief, envy etc.) could all be considered “design flaws”, or unnecessary? Or, anything more than the most basic of emotions, really.

    1. Thank you! You also asked a good question. It seems that those secondary emotions somehow have their useful origins, like protecting us and/or emotionally rewarding us. But considering different mental health problems, these emotions could also certainly work against us. I should look more into this before I could give a clearer answer haha!

  3. This was a very interesting article! The questions were leading, and were relevant to the topic at hand – the article gave me a general sense of how human behaviours are controlled by genetic factors; which means that we have behaviours similar to that of animals. Very well written!

  4. I really liked how you established the interviewee’s credentials as it establishes a good solid foundation to work off from.

    In your second question I feel as if the two questions included could be split up into separate ones as they kind of verge onto different topics. One question is about how Dr. Lents used his knowledge to write his book and the other is what inspired him to write his book. In separating these two points it makes the interview flow better from a reader’s perspective and allows you to go more in depth with each point.

    I love how you brought up the subject of play in from Dr. Lents book as it is a very important tool in physical and mental development of humans. I have to ask, what made this particular topic stand out to you that you brought it up in the interview?

    One of the most interesting points that was brought up in the interview was the concept of domestication and how the domestication of animals by taming their less civilized parts could have led to the birth of human civilization because we domesticated ourselves in the same way. I have no comments other than the fact that this was probably the best part of the interview!

    This was a very solid interview, it was interesting, it stayed on point, and it related the subjected to the reader, very well done!

    1. Wauw thanks for the feedback, glad you liked it! As for why I asked about the topic of play; I thought it could be one of the relevant topics for the visitors on this website 🙂

  5. In this interview, Nathan H. Lents explains the ways in which human and animal behavior is alike in many different ways. He provides an interesting perspective on how we act the way we do and how this correlates with other animals. However, his responses are difficult to gather much information from. For instance, he states that “There is a great deal of connection between justice, even criminal justice, and animal behavior.” He doesn’t seem to evaluate much in depth by what this means. Most of his responses seem to only be touching the surface of the topic instead of providing more useful context. Nathan H. Lents also states that at the end of the interview, “Humans are animals. We are primates. We are apes. But because we also have language and complex thoughts, we can do what no animal can…” This seems to be teetering on the verge of a strong opinion rather than of a psychological view point.

    Ulltimately, while a fun read, this interview left me with more questions than answers and did not delve into the topic matter as much as I would have liked from this type of subject matter.

    Sierra

    1. I appreciate the feedback, I know what you are getting at because yes it is mostly about Dr. Lents’ point of view, using his expertise. Also remember that in this form of interview, there is limited space for huge in-depth stories!

  6. What a fantastic article.
    I found myself glued to my screen.
    I loved all the details! The background, the information on the book, the author’s website, everything.
    I learned some incredible things that I probably wouldn’t of learned any time soon, so thank you for that.
    I’m trying to search for some kind of criticism, but I can’t think of anything.
    Job well done. The best interview I’ve read so far.

  7. This article was really interesting !! I didn’t know Nathan H. Lents, but maybe I will go take a look at his book. I especially liked his definition of anxiety.
    It’s nice to read people explaining that we are animals and that it absolutely is not a downside.
    I wish you had told a bit more about the links with criminal justice !
    It would also be nice to learn precisely how the mechanisms he describes work in the brain, because he seems to know it, but it may be a bit hard for an article simply showing his book, maybe he talks about it in there !
    Anyway, it is a good article, and well written, kudos.

  8. To Begin, I would first just like to say this entire article is fantastic! From the subject matter, to its execution. Extremely fascinating subject, and the author asked really good questions. With that being said, I will begin.

    This first question immediately got my mind racing, trying to piece together a connection, based on my own personal understandings and beliefs. But once Mr. Lents (Dr. Lents?) explains his reasoning, it make so much sense!

    I am a firm believer that we as…a species, our society and cultures, have turned our backs to nature and our natural proclivities, in order to maintain a delicate balance of ethical and moral imperatives. In doing so, over generations, we have created systems that are downright paranatural and we seem to forget that, these systems, being man-made, must be seen not as monolithic laws of nature, but as a Human Effort, as flawed as its creators. I truly feel we need to get back to a more natural order of things. To study how our Animal brethren manage and mitigate conflict and subsequently dole out punishment to the individuals who do not conform, is one of those, major LIGHT BULB moments! Of course! It’s been right there in front of my face the whole time and I just never made the connection. It seems like the most obvious path toward a more homeostatic, and balanced existence.

    I absolutely agree with the sentiment that Play and Playfulness is key to a positive life experience. It literally keeps us young! And if we all felt a little younger, a little more rested and excited by the implied adventure of life, maybe we would find it easier to treat our fellow man like our brothers and sisters, and less like adversaries.

    Competition is important, I cannot deny that. It is ingrained in us, and many other species. But a healthy sense of Playfulness could ease tensions between our subjective, and objective experiences. Which I feel would make it much more difficult to lock someone away for life, or in solitary confinement. (going back to the Criminal Justice angle). I am focused on this aspect because, it seems to be, one of the few allowable instances to treat another human being more like an object…If you commit a crime, if it’s bad enough, society revokes your humanity, and replaces it with razor blades. You can never be trusted again, you are beyond repair. And society is simply better off without you, without really trying to address the root cause, or discover a path to healing and forgiveness. If there was ever an aspect of life in which man treated other man like ‘Animals’ it is within the CJ System. However, we are discovering more and more, that we potentially degrade and admonish our brothers and sisters far worse than actual Animals do! We consider ourselves Masters, but we have much to learn.

    ‘So crucify the Ego, before it’s far too late.
    Leave behind this place, so negative and blind and cynical’
    [Ten points if you can name this tune! :0)]

    “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.”

    This response is right on! I could not agree more with his explanation and presumptions. It’s so nice to have these thoughts parsed and laid out in such an approachable manner. This kind of information makes my brain happy!

    The question of Domestication is such a good question! I never would have thought to include this aspect of animal behavior, as I tend to focus on Animals in the wild, but the Author has insight that I may only ever dream about! On top of a great question, the answer is equally exciting and very well thought out. I really can’t say enough good things about this particular question. I could read a book entirely on the Psychological behavior of Domesticated animals, and how it may shed light on some of our own behaviors! Very cool!

    “Civilization may have been a gradual process of us domesticating ourselves!”

    Mind. Blown. Brilliant!!

    “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.”

    I feel this sums things up perfectly. It is a strong statement, that cuts right to the heart of the matter. Again, I agree 100%.

    “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.”

    And we end on, again, a very powerful statement. Facts. And yes, this SHOULD be required coursework for aspiring Psychologists! Hell, medicine in general. Along with the Criminal Justice System, and other socially driven programs. We need to reconnect with the natural order of things, I feel, if we are ever to move forward on our evolutionary path. To deny our humanity, is to stay static in the river of time, to deny our very real natural ties is to row back against the current.

    -Josh

  9. This was an astonishing article to read! I truly very enjoyed reading this as I feel that sometimes we forget how alike humans are to the other animals on this planet. It amazes me to think about how the human mind has become compared to other spices. The fact that we can understand our behavior and think more in depth is incredible to me.
    Mentioning domestication was a great input for it shows how we have evolved to treat other animals. It has also made me think more into how humans treat other humans as well. Yes, we have become very civilized as beings, but I’ve contemplated on how our natural animalistic instincts affect us still today.
    The part mentioning anxiety was also very attention grabbing to me. I had never thought about the feelings of anxiety that way; as something that may have become throughout our own evolution. However it would also make sense to me now from reading this article, due to humans having the ability of introspection. It has made me wonder if other animals have any form of internal locus of control to them as well.
    Playfulness’s beneficial abilities gave me great reflection on how we behave as humans today. Devoting most to all of our time to working can be very stressful and even harmful to one’s health; especially for those who struggle financially. I feel making more time for enjoyment and play could be very positive for one’s well being.
    As a whole, this article was very worth the read and I would hope to see more articles like this going more in depth on this topic.

  10. I really like that this article took a scientific approach without being full of jargon. However, I think there are some aspects of parallels between human and animal behavior which are neglected in this article. For example, there are so many studies currently being conducted involving studying the neuronal basis for addiction so that it may be easier studied in humans. The fear and anxiety studies with animals are typically covered in entry level psychology courses, but as addiction continues to rise, we need to learn more about these connections in order to better understand the signs and outcomes associated with addiction. I’m sure as a biologist, Dr. Lents has studied this, and I would have like to learned more about it from his perspective! Otherwise, this is a wonderfully written article that covers very interesting topics while making it available to other people outside of the psychology field.

  11. In the article, under the question related to anxiety and fear, the interviewee stated that, “Evolution probably produced anxiety by accident. It’s a design flaw…” Based of this information, in your opinion or perspective, if anxiety was produced on accident, why hasn’t it extinct? On the contrary, anxiety disorders are the most diagnosed among individuals, are the benefits that unclear or is evolution leading us to self-destruct?

    1. Good question, my answer might sound to easy or dull; but the phenomenon could simply mean anxiety does not affect reproduction! I wouldn’t know any more benefits of anxiety than it being a warning sign for pain/failure/etc, but it seems it can get out of hand in unnecessary situations.

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