Musical Mystery

Singer Tom Jones, famous recipient of ladies’ panties

There are three categories of supersars who seem to attract excessive female interest. The first is actors, who of course are selected for being abnormally attractive and put into romantic and exciting narratives that our brains subconsciously interpret as real. The second are sports stars and other athletes, whose ritualized combat and displays of strength obviously indicate their genetic “fitness” for siring and providing for children.

The third and strangest category is professional musicians, especially rock stars.

I understand why people want to pass athletic abilities on to their children, but what is the evolutionary importance of musical talent? Does music tap into some deep, fundamental instinct like a bird’s attraction to the courtship song of its mate? And if so, why?

There’s no denying the importance of music to American courtship rituals–not only do people visit bars, clubs, and concerts where music is being played in order to meet potential partners, but they also display musical tastes on dating profiles in order to meet musically-like-minded people.

Of all the traits to look for in a mate, why rate musical taste so highly? And why do some people describe their taste as, “Anything but rap,” or “Anything but country”?

Mick Jagger and Chuck Berry

At least when I was a teen, musical taste was an important part of one’s “identity.” There were goths and punks, indie scene kids and the aforementioned rap and country fans.

Is there actually any correlation between musical taste and personality? Do people who like slow jazz get along with other slow jazz fans better than fans of classical Indian? Or is this all compounded by different ethnic groups identifying with specific musical styles?

Obviously country correlates with Amerikaner ancestry; rap with African American. I’m not sure what ancestry is biggest fans of Die Antwoord. Heavy Metal is popular in Finno-Scandia. Rock ‘n Roll got its start in the African American community as “Race Music” and became popular with white audiences after Elvis Presley took up the guitar.

While Europe has a long and lovely musical heritage, it’s indisputable that African Americans have contributed tremendously to American musical innovation.

Here are two excerpts on the subject of music and dance in African societies:

source: A Voyage to Senegal: The Isle of Goreé, and the River Gambia by  Michel Adanson, Correspondent of the Royal Academy of Sciences

and:

source: Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience Aardvark-Catholic. Vol. 1
Elvis’s pelvis, considered too sexy for TV

Both of these h/t HBD Chick and my apologies in advance if I got the sources reversed.

One of the major HBD theories holds that the three races vary–on average–in the distribution of certain traits, such as age of first tooth eruption or intensity of an infant’s response to a tissue placed over its face. Sub-Saharan Africans and Asians are considered two extremes in this distribution, with whites somewhere in between.

If traditional African dancing involves more variety in rhythmic expression than traditional European, does traditional Asian dance involve less? I really know very little about traditional Asian music or dance of any kind, but I would not be surprised to see some kind of continuum affected by whether a society traditionally practiced arranged marriages. Where people chose their own mates, it seems like they display a preference for athletic or musically talented mates (“sexy” mates;) when parents chose mates, they seem to prefer hard-working, devout, “good providers.”

Natasha Rostova and Andrei Bolkonsky, from War and Peace by Tolstoy

Even in traditional European and American society, where parents played more of a role in courtship than they do today, music still played a major part. Young women, if their families could afford it, learned to play the piano or other instruments in order to be “accomplished” and thus more attractive to higher-status men; young men and women often met and courted at musical events or dances organized by the adults.

It is undoubtedly true that music stirs the soul and speaks to the heart, but why?

 

Why is our Society so Obsessed with Salads?

It’s been a rough day. So I’m going to complain about something totally mundane: salads.

I was recently privy to a conversation between two older women on why it is so hard to stay thin in the South: lack of good salads. Apparently when you go to a southern restaurant, they serve a big piece of meat (often deep-fried steak) a lump of mashed potatoes and gravy, and a finger-bowl with 5 pieces of iceberg lettuce, an orange tomato, and a slathering of dressing.

Sounds good to me.

Now, if you like salads, that’s fine. You’re still welcome here. Personally, I just don’t see the point. The darn things don’t have any calories!

From an evolutionary perspective, obviously food provides two things: calories and nutrients. There may be some foods that are mostly calorie but little nutrient (eg, honey) and some foods that are nutrient but no calorie (salt isn’t exactly a food, but it otherwise fits the bill.)

Food doesn’t seem like it should be that complicated–surely we’ve evolved to eat effectively by now. So any difficulties we have (besides just getting the food) are likely us over-thinking the matter. There’s no problem getting people to eat high-calorie foods, because they taste good. It’s also not hard to get people to eat salt–it also tastes good.

But people seem to have this ambivalent relationship with salads. What’s so important about eating a bunch of leaves with no calories and a vaguely unpleasant flavor? Can’t a just eat a nice potato? Or some corn? Or asparagus?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate vegetables. Just everything that goes in a salad. Heck, I’ll even eat most salad fixins if they’re cooked. I won’t turn down fried green tomatoes, you know.

While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a bowl of lettuce if that’s your think, I think our society has gone down a fundamentally wrong collective path when it comes to nutrition wisdom. The idea here is that your hunger drive is this insatiable beast that will force you to consume as much food as possible, making you overweight and giving you a heart attack, and so the only way to save yourself is to trick the beast by filling your stomach with fluffy, zero-calorie plants until there isn’t anymore room.

This seems to me like the direct opposite of what you should be doing. See, I assume your body isn’t an idiot, and can figure out whether you’ve just eaten something full of calories, and so should go sleep for a bit, or if you just ate some leaves and should keep looking for food.

I recently tried increasing the amount of butter I eat each day, and the result was I felt extremely full an didn’t want to eat dinner. Butter is a great way to almost arbitrarily increase the amount of calories per volume of food.

If you’re wondering about my weight, well, let’s just say that despite the butter, never going on a diet, and abhorring salads, I’m still not overweight–but this is largely genetic. (I should note though that I don’t eat many sweets at all.)

Obviously I am not a nutritionist, a dietician, nor a doctor. I’m not a good source for health advice. But it seems to me that increasing or decreasing the number of sweats you eat per day probably has a bigger impact on your overall weight than adding or subtracting a salad.

But maybe I’m missing something.

On Socialization

As a parent, I spend much of my day attempting to “socialize” my kids–“Don’t hit your brother! Stop jumping on the couch! For the umpteenth time, ‘yeah, right!’ is sarcasm.”

There are a lot of things that don’t come naturally to little kids. Many of them struggle to understand that these wiggly lines on paper can turn into words or that tiny, invisible things on their hands can make them sick.

“Yes, you have to brush your teeth and go to bed, no, I’m not explaining why again.”

And they definitely don’t understand why I won’t let them have ice cream for dinner.

“Don’t ride your bike down the hill and into the street like that! You could get hit by a car and DIE!”

Despite all of the effort I have devoted to transforming this wiggly bunch of feral children into respectable adults (someday, I hope,) I have never found myself concerned with the task of teaching them about gender. As a practical matter, whether the children behave like “girls” or “boys” makes little difference to the running of the household, because we have both–by contrast, whether the children put their dishes away after meals and do their homework without me having to threaten or cajole them makes a big difference.

Honestly, I can’t convince them not to pick their noses in public or that broccoli is tasty, but I’m supposed to somehow subtly convince them that they’ve got to play Minecraft because they’re boys (even while explicitly saying, “Hey, you’ve been playing that for two hours, go ride your bike,” or that they’re supposed to be walking doormats because they’re girls (even while saying, “Next time he pushes you, push him back!”)

And yet the boys still act like boys, the girls like girls–statistically speaking.

“Ah,” I hear some of you saying, “But you are just one parent! How do you know there aren’t legions of other parents who are out there doing everything they can to ensure that their sons succeed and daughters fail in life?”

This is, if you will excuse me, a very strange objection. What parent desires failure from their children?

The Language Instinct

People have long wondered if language is an instinct. If you raised a child without speaking to it, would it begin spontaneously speaking? I hear some folks tried this experience on an orphanage, wondering if the babies would start spontaneously speaking German or French or whatever, and all of the babies died due to neglect.

Of course they wouldn’t have started speaking even if they’d survived. We have no “speak French” instinct, but we do have an instinct to imitate the funny sounds other people make and possibly to “babble”–even deaf babies will “babble” in sign language.

Oh, I found the experiment (I think.) Looks like its a lot older than I thought. According to Wikipedia:

An experiment allegedly carried out by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century saw young infants raised without human interaction in an attempt to determine if there was a natural language that they might demonstrate once their voices matured. It is claimed he was seeking to discover what language would have been imparted unto Adam and Eve by God.

The experiments were recorded by the monk Salimbene di Adam in his Chronicles, who wrote that Frederick encouraged “foster-mothers and nurses to suckle and bathe and wash the children, but in no ways to prattle or speak with them; for he would have learnt whether they would speak the Hebrew language (which he took to have been the first), or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perchance the tongue of their parents of whom they had been born. But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments.”[5]

That said, we likely do have some instincts related to language acquisition.

Is Racism an Instinct?

Everyone is a little bit racist–Hillary Clinton

If everyone in the world exhibits a particular behavior, chances are it’s innate. But I have been informed–by Harvard-educated people, no less–that humans do not have instincts. We are so smart, you see, that we don’t need instincts anymore.

This is nonsense, of course.

One amusing and well-documented human instinct is the nesting instinct, experienced by pregnant women shortly before going into labor. (As my father put it, “When shes starts rearranging the furniture, get the ready to head to the hospital.”) Having personally experienced this sudden, overwhelming urge to CLEAN ALL THE THINGS multiple times, I can testify that it is a real phenomenon.

Humans have other instincts–babies will not only pick up and try to eat pretty much anything they run across, to every parent’s consternation, but they will also crawl right up to puddles and attempt to drink out of them.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves: What, exactly, is an instinct? According to Wikipedia:

Instinct or innate behavior is the inherent inclination of a living organism towards a particular complex behavior. The simplest example of an instinctive behavior is a fixed action pattern (FAP), in which a very short to medium length sequence of actions, without variation, are carried out in response to a clearly defined stimulus.

Any behavior is instinctive if it is performed without being based upon prior experience (that is, in the absence of learning), and is therefore an expression of innate biological factors. …

Instincts are inborn complex patterns of behavior that exist in most members of the species, and should be distinguished from reflexes, which are simple responses of an organism to a specific stimulus, such as the contraction of the pupil in response to bright light or the spasmodic movement of the lower leg when the knee is tapped.

The go-to example of an instinct is the gosling’s imprinting instinct. Typically, goslings imprint on their mothers, but a baby gosling doesn’t actually know what its mother is supposed to look like, and can accidentally imprint on other random objects, provided they are moving slowly around the nest around the time the gosling hatches.

Stray dog nursing kittens
Stray dog nursing kittens

Here we come to something I think may be useful for distinguishing an instinct from other behaviors: an instinct, once triggered, tends to keep going even if it has been accidentally or incorrectly triggered. Goslings look like they have an instinct to follow their mothers, but they actually have an instinct to imprint on the first large, slowly moving object near their nest when they hatch.

So if you find people strangely compelled to do something that makes no sense but which everyone else seems to think makes perfect sense, you may be dealing with an instinct. For example, women enjoy celebrity gossip because humans have an instinct to keep track of social ranks and dynamics within their own tribe; men enjoy watching other men play sports because it conveys the vicarious feeling of defeating a neighboring tribe at war.

So what about racism? Is it an instinct?

Strictly speaking–and I know I have to define racism, just a moment–I don’t see how we could have evolved such an instinct. Races exist because major human groups were geographically separated for thousands of years–prior to 1492, the average person never even met a person of another race in their entire life. So how could we evolve an instinct in response to something our ancestors never encountered?

Unfortunately, “racism” is a chimera, always changing whenever we attempt to pin it down, but the Urban Dictionary gives a reasonable definition:

An irrational bias towards members of a racial background. The bias can be positive (e.g. one race can prefer the company of its own race or even another) or it can be negative (e.g. one race can hate another). To qualify as racism, the bias must be irrational. That is, it cannot have a factual basis for preference.

Of course, instincts exist because they ensured our ancestors’ survival, so if racism is an instinct, it can’t exactly be “irrational.” We might call a gosling who follows a scientist instead of its mother “irrational,” but this is a misunderstanding of the gosling’s motivation. Since “racist” is a term of moral judgment, people are prone to defending their actions/beliefs towards others on the grounds that it can’t possibly be immoral to believe something that is actually true.

The claim that people are “racist” against members of other races implies, in converse, that they exhibit no similar behaviors toward members of their own race. But even the most perfunctory overview of history reveals people acting in extremely “racist” ways toward members of their own race. During the Anglo-Boer wars, the English committed genocide against the Dutch South Africans (Afrikaners.) During WWII, Germans allied with the the Japanese and slaughtered their neighbors, Poles and Jews. (Ashkenazim are genetically Caucasian and half Italian.) If Hitler were really racist, he’d have teamed up with Stalin and Einstein–his fellow whites–and dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima. (And for their part, the Japanese would have allied with the Chinese against the Germans.)

picture-2Some quotes from the NewScientist article:

The murder victim, a West African chimpanzee called Foudouko, had been beaten with rocks and sticks, stomped on and then cannibalised by his own community. …

“When you reverse that and have almost two males per every female — that really intensifies the competition for reproduction. That seems to be a key factor here,” says Wilson.

Jill Pruetz at Iowa State University, who has been studying this group of chimpanzees in south-eastern Senegal since 2001, agrees. She suggests that human influence may have caused this skewed gender ratio that is likely to have been behind this attack. In Senegal, female chimpanzees are poached to provide infants for the pet trade. …

Early one morning, Pruetz and her team heard loud screams and hoots from the chimps’ nearby sleep nest. At dawn, they found Foudouko dead, bleeding profusely from a bite to his right foot. He also had a large gash in his back and a ripped anus. Later he was found to have cracked ribs. Pruetz says Foudouko probably died of internal injuries or bled out from his foot wound.

Foudouko also had wounds on his fingers. These were likely to have been caused by chimps clamping them in their teeth to stretch his arms out and hold him down during the attack, says Pruetz.

After his death, the gang continued to abuse Foudouko’s body, throwing rocks and poking it with sticks, breaking its limbs, biting it and eventually eating some of the flesh.

“It was striking. The female that cannibalised the body the most, she’s the mother of the top two high-ranking males. Her sons were the only ones that really didn’t attack the body aggressively,” Pruetz says …

Historically, the vast majority of wars and genocides were waged by one group of people against their neighbors–people they were likely to be closely related to in the grand scheme of things–not against distant peoples they’d never met. If you’re a chimp, the chimp most likely to steal your banana is the one standing right in front of you, not some strange chimp you’ve never met before who lives in another forest.

Indeed, in Jane Goodall’s account of the Gombe Chimpanzee War, the combatants were not members of two unrelated communities that had recently encountered each other, but members of a single community that had split in two. Chimps who had formerly lived peacefully together, groomed each other, shared bananas, etc., now bashed each other’s brains out and cannibalized their young. Poor Jane was traumatized.

I think there is an instinct to form in-groups and out-groups. People often have multiple defined in-groups (“I am a progressive, a Christian, a baker, and a Swede,”) but one of these identities generally trumps the others in importance. Ethnicity and gender are major groups most people seem to have, but I don’t see a lot of evidence suggesting that the grouping of “race” is uniquely special, globally, in people’s ideas of in- and out-.

For example, as I am writing today, people are concerned that Donald Trump is enacting racist policies toward Muslims, even though “Muslim” is not a race and most of the countries targeted by Trump’s travel/immigration ban are filled with fellow Caucasians, not Sub-Saharan Africans or Asians.

Race is a largely American obsession, because our nation (like the other North and South American nations,) has always had whites, blacks, and Asians (Native Americans). But many countries don’t have this arrangement. Certainly Ireland didn’t have an historical black community, nor Japan a white one. Irish identity was formed in contrast to English identity; Japanese in contrast to Chinese and Korean.

Only in the context where different races live in close proximity to each other does it seem that people develop strong racial identities; otherwise people don’t think much about race.

Napoleon Chagnon, a white man, has spent years living among the Yanomamo, one of the world’s most murderous tribes, folks who go and slaughter their neighbors and neighbors’ children all the time, and they still haven’t murdered him.

Why do people insist on claiming that Trump’s “Muslim ban” is racist when Muslims aren’t a race? Because Islam is an identity group that appears to function similarly to race, even though Muslims come in white, black, and Asian.

If you’ve read any of the comments on my old post about Turkic DNA, Turkey: Not very Turkic, you’ll have noted that Turks are quite passionate about their Turkic identity, even though “Turkic” clearly doesn’t correspond to any particular ethnic groups. (It’s even more mixed up than Jewish, and that’s a pretty mixed up one after thousands of years of inter-breeding with non-Jews.)

Group identities are fluid. When threatened, groups merged. When resources are abundant and times are good, groups split.

What about evidence that infants identify–stare longer at–faces of people of different races than their parents? This may be true, but all it really tells us is that babies are attuned to novelty. It certainly doesn’t tell us that babies are racist just because they find people interesting who look different from the people they’re used to.

What happens when people encounter others of a different race for the first time?

We have many accounts of “first contacts” between different races during the Age of Exploration. For example, when escaped English convict William Buckley wandered into an uncontacted Aborigine tribe, they assumed he was a ghost, adopted him, taught him to survive, and protected him for 30 years. By contrast, the last guy who landed on North Sentinel Island and tried to chat with the natives there got a spear to the chest and a shallow grave for his efforts. (But I am not certain the North Sentinelese haven’t encountered outsiders at some point.)

But what about the lunchroom seating habits of the wild American teenager?

If people have an instinct to form in-groups and out-groups, then races (or religions?) may represent the furthest bounds of this, at least until we encounter aliens. All else held equal, perhaps we are most inclined to like the people most like ourselves, and least inclined to like the people least like ourselves–racism would thus be the strongest manifestation of this broader instinct. But what about people who have a great dislike for one race, but seem just fine with another, eg, a white person who likes Asians but not blacks, or a black who like Asians but not whites? And can we say–per our definition above–that these preferences are irrational, or are they born of some lived experience of positive or negative interactions?

Again, we are only likely to have strong opinions about members of other races if we are in direct conflict or competition with them. Most of the time, people are in competition with their neighbors, not people on the other side of the world. I certainly don’t sit here thinking negative thoughts about Pygmies or Aborigines, even though we are very genetically distant from each other, and I doubt they spend their free time thinking negatively about me.

Just because flamingos prefer to flock with other flamingos doesn’t mean they dislike horses; for the most part, I think people are largely indifferent to folks outside their own lives.

Autism

Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton

The autist’s greatest strength–and weakness–is his deficiency in the neural mechanisms of mimicry. Without the necessary feedback loops, he fails to subconsciously adopt of his peers’ words, actions, and beliefs, leaving him is free to develop his own–caring little about how strange they seem to everyone else.

At his most unfortunate, the infant autist lacks even the instincts necessary to imitate the mouth-shapes and mouth-sounds of his parents, leaving him unable to develop speech. Some of these autists understand speech perfectly well, but simply cannot produce it.

At his most fortunate, the autist, immune to other people’s preconceived notions, revolutionizes some field of science or math–or both:

Here is buried Isaac Newton, Knight, who by a strength of mind almost divine, and mathematical principles peculiarly his own, explored the course and figures of the planets, the paths of comets, the tides of the sea, the dissimilarities in rays of light, and, what no other scholar has previously imagined, the properties of the colours thus produced. Diligent, sagacious and faithful, in his expositions of nature, antiquity and the holy Scriptures, he vindicated by his philosophy the majesty of God mighty and good, and expressed the simplicity of the Gospel in his manners. Mortals rejoice that there has existed such and so great an ornament of the human race! He was born on 25 December 1642, and died on 20 March 1726/7.—Translation from G.L. Smyth, The Monuments and Genii of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and of Westminster Abbey (1826), ii, 703–4.[115]

Antagonistic Selection and Invading Armies

We don't naturally look like this
We don’t naturally look like this

Evolution is a fabulous principle, but it can only do so much. It has yet to give us titanium bones or x-ray vision, nor has it solved the problem of death. It even gives us creatures like praying mantises, who eat their mates.

Genetically speaking, men and women are actually quite similar, at least compared to, say, trees. There’s a great deal of overlap between male and female instincts–we both get hungry, we both fall in love, we both think the Ghostbusters remake was an abomination.

While evolution would like* to code for perfect men and perfect women, since we are the same species and ever male has a mom and every female has a dad, genetics ultimately can’t code for perfect men and perfect women. *yes I am anthropomorphizing

Remember, there are only two chromosomes which code for sexual development, the so called XX (female) and XY (male). Both men and women have at least one X, but no women have a Y.

It doesn’t work out that men are, like, expressing half female genes and half male genes, since the Y chromosome blocks the expression of some of the female genes. However, men still have those genes.

Sexual antagonism or “sexual conflict” occurs when a genetic trait that makes one sex better at reproducing makes the opposite sex worse at reproducing:

Interlocus sexual conflict is the interaction of a set of antagonistic alleles at one or more loci in males and females.[6] An example is conflict over mating rates. Males frequently have a higher optimal mating rate than females because in most animal species, they invest fewer resources in offspring than their female counterparts. Therefore, males have numerous adaptations to induce females to mate with them. Another well-documented example of inter-locus sexual conflict is the seminal fluid of Drosophila melanogaster, which up-regulates females’ egg-laying rate and reduces her desire to re-mate with another male (serving the male’s interests), but also shortens the female’s lifespan reducing her fitness.

From, A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture
From: A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture

In humans, for example, women benefit from being thin and short, while men benefit from being tall and bulky. But a short, thin woman is more likely to have a short, thin, son, which is not beneficial, and a tall, bulky man is likely to have a tall, bulky daughter–also not beneficial.

Whatever instincts we see in one gender, we likely see–in some form–in at least some members of the opposite gender. So If there is–as some folks around these parts allege–an instinct which makes women submissive to invading armies, then it likely affects some men, too.

For the few men who do survive an invasion, not protesting as your wife is gang raped might keep you alive to later reproduce, too

Hence the recent rise of cuckoldry fetishes.

Why are Mammals Brown? (pt. 2)

Rainbow leaf beetle
Rainbow leaf beetle

As I was saying in part 1, compared to colorful fish, lizards, birds, and even ladybugs, we mammals are downright drab. Blue and purple fur are non-existent because these colors are difficult to produce as pigments, and so most animals with these colors produce them structurally rather than chemically, but hair is not a good medium for structural color. We are limited to pigments.

But this only explains blue and purple. Why are there so few mammals with bright red, pink, orange, or green fur? Wouldn’t green offer convenient camouflage for tree-dwelling sloths or lemurs? So on to the second reason we’re drab:

mantis_shrimp_12. Compared to other animals, mammals have bad color perception.

For example, according to the guy who writes The Oatmeal, which is totally a reputable scientific source, dogs can only see two colors, blue and green. Humans can see three colors–green, blue, and red–which we combine to make the rest of the colors we see. Butterflies, non-mammals, can perceive 5 colors–we have no idea what that actually means, since we can’t even imagine the colors they see. And the mantis shrimp perceives an incredible 16 different colors.

The majority of mammals run closer to dogs than humans in color-perception.

But this only inspires a new question: why do we have bad eyesight?

The original mammals were small, shrew-like creatures that tried to avoid being eaten by dinosaurs back in the Triassic, about 200 million years ago.

Read the full comic over at The Oatmeal
Read the full comic over at The Oatmeal

Lizards, being mostly cold-blooded, are forced to be active primarily during the day, when it’s warm. Our warm-blooded ancestors therefore probably found it easy to avoid reptilian predators by doing their hunting and foraging at night.

According to Wikipedia:

The nocturnal bottleneck hypothesis is an hypothesis to explain several mammal traits. The hypothesis states that mammals were mainly or even exclusively nocturnal through most of their evolutionary story, starting with their origin 225 million years ago, and only ending with the demise of the dinosaurs 65 millions years ago. While some mammal groups have later evolved to fill diurnal niches, the 160 million years spent as nocturnal animals has left a lasting legacy on basal anatomy and physiology, and most mammals are still nocturnal.[1]

Between the nocturnal and the crepuscular, most mammals are only awake at times when color isn’t particularly relevant. Most mammals, therefore, have evolved eyes that aren’t very good at perceiving color, in order to optimize for seeing in dim light.

We have more rods, which perceive light; diurnal animals have more cones, which perceive colors.

Animals use their colors for three main purposes: to signal to each other, to hide, and to signal to predators.

Since most mammals can’t see many colors, even if they had a peacock’s spots, they couldn’t use them for mate selection. Few mammals are poisonous (if any,) so we don’t have the poison dart frog’s use for bright color. And you might want to be green to blend in with the trees during the day, but at night, trees are dark.

In short, we are optimized for the dark.

So even though we humans like being awake during the day, we’re unlikely to trade in our drab pelts for the macaw’s rainbow hues anytime soon.

 

Why are Mammals Brown? (pt. 1)

We don't naturally look like this
We don’t naturally look like this

Compared to colorful fish, lizards, birds, and even ladybugs, we mammals are downright drab. I see no particular environmental reason for this–plenty of mammals live in areas with trees or grass where green fur or spots might help them blend in, or have such striking patterns–like a zebra–that I hardly think a blue stripe would result in more lion attacks.

I think there are two main reasons mammals are mostly brown, instead of showing the vibrant colors of other species:

1. Some colors are difficult to produce.

Blue, for example. Walk into the forest or a meadow on an average day, and you’ll see a lot of green. Anything not green is likely brown. Outside a garden, there are very few naturally blue or purple plants.

This guy, however, does
This guy, however, does

It’s no coincidence that early human art uses colors that could be easily produced from the natural environment, like brown, black, (charcoal,) and yellow. By the Roman era, we could produce purple dye, but it was so hard to obtain from such rare sources (shells) that it was prohibitively expensive for mere mortals, hence why it was called “royal purple.” The European tradition of painting the Virgin Mary’s cloak blue also hails from the days when blue pigments were expensive, and thus a sign of exalted status.

A purple dye cheap enough for average people to buy and wear wasn’t invented until 1856, by William Henry Perkin.

I’m not sure exactly why blue and purple are so hard to produce, but I think it’s because light toward the violent end of the spectrum is higher energy than light toward the red end. As Bulina et al state:

Pigments in nature play important roles ranging from camouflage coloration and sunscreen to visual reception and participation in biochemical pathways. Considering the spectral diversity of pigment-based coloration in animals one can conclude that blue pigments occur relatively rare (as a rule blue coloration results from light diffraction or scattering rather than the presence of a blue pigment). At least partially this fact is explained by an inevitably more complex structure of blue pigments compared to yellow-reds. To appear blue a compound must contain an extended and usually highly polarized system of the conjugated π-electrons.

Okay… So, because blue and purple are more energetic, they require molecules that have more double bonds and are less common in nature. (Why double bonds are less common is a matter I’ll leave for a chemistry discussion.)

You’re probably used to thinking of color as an inherent property of the objects around you–that a green leaf is green, or a red bucket is red, in the same way that the leaf and bucket have a particular mass and are made of their particular atoms.

low energy to the left, high to the right
Low energy to the left, high to the right

But turn off the lights, and suddenly color goes away. (Mass doesn’t.)

The colors we see are created by light “bouncing” (really, being absorbed and then re-emitted) off objects. Within the visible spectrum, red light requires the least energy to produce (because it has the widest wavelength,) and violent takes the most energy.

But nature, being creative, has come up with alternative way to produce blues and purples that doesn’t depend on electron energy levels: structure.

Unless you are a color scientist you are probably accustomed to dealing with chemical colors. For example, if you take a handful of blue pigment powder, mix it with water, paint it onto a chair, let it dry, then scrape it off the chair, and grind it back into powder, you expect it to remain blue at all stages in the process (except if you get a bit of chair mixed in with it.)

Blue Morpho butterfly
Blue Morpho butterfly

By contrast, if you scraped the scales off a blue morpho butterfly’s wings, you’d just end up with a pile of grey dust and a sad butterfly. By themselves, blue morpho scales are not “blue,” even under regular light. Rather, their scales are arranged so that light bounces between them, like light bouncing from molecule to molecule in the air. Or as Ask Nature puts it:

Many types of butterflies use light-interacting structures on their wing scales to produce color. The cuticle on the scales of these butterflies’ wings is composed of nano- and microscale, transparent, chitin-and-air layered structures. Rather than absorb and reflect certain light wavelengths as pigments and dyes do, these multi scale structures cause light that hits the surface of the wing to diffract and interfere.

The same process is at work in the peacock’s plumage and bluebird’s blue:

Male eastern bluebird
Male eastern bluebird

Soft condensed matter physics has been particularly useful in understanding the production of the amorphous nanostructures that imbue the feathers of certain bird species with intensely vibrant hues. The blue color of the male Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), for example, is produced by the selective scattering of blue light from a complex nanostructure of b-keratin channels and air pockets in the hairlike branches called feather barbs that give the quill its lift. The size of the air pockets determines the wavelengths that are selectively amplified.

When the bluebird’s feathers are developing, feather barb cells known as medullary keratinocytes expand to their boxy final shape and deposit solid keratin around the periphery of the cell—essentially turning the walled-in cells into soups of ß-keratin suspended in cytoplasm. Next, b-keratin filaments free in the cytoplasm start to bind to each other to form larger bundles. As these filaments become less water-soluble, they begin to come out of solution—a process known as phase separation—ultimately forming solid bars that surround twisted channels of cytoplasm. These nanoscale channels of keratin remain in place after the cytoplasm dries out and the cell dies, resulting in the nanostructures observed in the feathers of mature adults.

“The bluebird doesn’t lay down a squiggly architecture and then put the array of the protein molecules on top of it,” Prum explains. “It lets phase separation, the same process that would occur in oil and vinegar unmixing, create this spatial structure itself.”

The point at which the phase separation halts determines the color each feather produces.

Decades old pollia fruit retains its structural brilliance
Decades old Pollia fruit retains its structural brilliance

This kind of structural color works great if your medium is scales, feathers, carapaces, berries, or even CDs, but just doesn’t work with hair, which we mammals have. Unlike the carefully hooked together structure of a feather or the details of a butterfly’s scales, hair moves. It shakes. It would have to be essentially solid to create structural color, and it’s not.

So for the most part, bright colors like green, blue, and purple are expensive, energy-wise, to produce chemically, and mammals don’t have the option birds, fish, lizards, and insects have of producing them structurally.

To be continued…

Chimps, Dominance, and the Irony of Riots

protester beaten with hammer by Black Lives Matter protesters
Remember this guy, with his “Stop killing black people” shirt, who was beaten with a hammer by other Black Lives Matter protesters?

The anti-Trump riots/protests going on right now seem at first glance, to be highly counter-productive: most of the rioters live in highly liberal areas, so the majority of people they intimidate, assault, or rob are not Trump supporters, but actually on their own side.

Remember when a black cop shot a black criminal and blacks rioted, looting their own stores, and the criminal’s sister scolded them, telling them to “take that shit to the suburbs” because “we need our weaves!”?

Or when the citizens of Detroit rioted, burning down 2,000 buildings, thus driving out small businesses and the entire middle class base and sending the city into an economic death spiral?

Just as when watching small children run and scream on the playground, I am reminded here of Jane Goodall’s descriptions of chimpanzees, especially their dominance displays. Here is an account of one that went awry:

Just then Flint, six months older than Goblin, came bouncing up and the two children began to play, both showing their lower teeth in the chimpanzee’s playful smile. Flo was reclining nearby grooming Figan; Goblin’s mother, Melissa, was a little farther away, also grooming. It was so peaceful…. All at once a series of pant-hoots announced the arrival of more chimpanzees, and there was instant commotion in the group. Flint pulled away from the game and hurried to jump onto Flo’s back as she moved for safety halfway up a palm tree. I saw Mike with his hair on end beginning to hoot; I knew he was about to display. So did the other chimpanzees of his group–all were alert, prepared to dash out of the way or to join in the displaying. All, that is, save Goblin. He seemed totally unconcerned and, incredibly, began to totter toward Mike. Melissa, squeaking with fear, was hurrying toward her son, but she was too late. Mike began his charge, and as he passed Goblin seized him up as though he were a branch and dragged him along the ground.

picture-32Since you don’t have the benefit of having the entire book in front of you, I’ll explain what’s going on, just in case you’re confused: when two groups of chimps meet, or a male chimp enters a group of other chimps, it’s very normal for the males to engage in dominance displays (or just “display,” as Jane puts it.) These displays are aggressive and involve a lot of running around, waving and shaking branches at each other, and making noise, but don’t generally involve actual violence. By making it clear which chimp is the strongest, weaker chimps simply back down without getting into an actual fight.

When the males are about to display, all of the females, being smaller and weaker, grab their kids and get out of the way. Chimpanzee aggression is not normally aimed at chimpanzee children, who of course are helpless against a full-grown male. However, in this case, little Goblin didn’t realize what was going on, and Mike, in his all-consuming rage at the newcomers, didn’t realize that he had grabbed Goblin instead of a tree branch.

An then the normally fearful, cautious Melissa, frantic for her child, hurled herself at Mike. It was unprecedented behavior, and she got severely beaten up for her interference, but she did succeed in rescuing Goblin–the infant lay, pressed close to the ground and screaming, where the dominant male had dropped him. Even before Mike had ceased his attack on Melissa the old male Huxley had seized Goblin from the ground. I felt sure he too was going to display with the infant, but he remained quite still, holding the child and staring down at him almost, it seemed in bewilderment. Then as Melissa, screaming and bleeding, escaped from Mike, Huxley set the infant on the ground. As his mother hurried up to him Goblin leaped into her arms…

Normally, small infants are shown almost unlimited tolerance from all other members of the community; it almost seem as though the adult male may lose many of his social inhibitions during his charging display.”

Note that Mike is not normally aggressive toward infants–at another time, when Goblin got lost, Mike actually rescued him and stayed with him until Melissa returned for him. Chimps don’t really pair bond and so they don’t have “fathers” who care for their young the way their mothers do, devotedly, for years, but all of the males in a troop are likely to be related to the young in the troop in some manner, either as brothers or uncles or cousins or fathers, and so quite sensibly they do not generally try to kill their own relatives.

Mike’s urge to display in front of these newcomers was so strong that it completely overwhelmed his normal senses. The aggressive instinct is no mere luxury–showing that he is stronger than the other chimps is how Mike keeps his own troop safe.

picture-26There is a saying that “Democracy is war by other means.” The two sides line up, count their troops, and declares the side with more soldiers the winner.

Well, Hillary Clinton’s soldiers have refused to accept the headcount. They refuse to accept their new alpha chimp, and they are out there, rioting, protesting, displaying their strength. It doesn’t matter whether they display by grabbing a branch, an infant, or a smashed window. It doesn’t matter if they loot their own neighborhoods and light their own cars on fire. The message is still the same: We are Strong. We are violent. Don’t fuck with us.

As I noted before, when the chimps Jane was studying in the Gombe split into two groups, the chimpanzees of the Kahama region of the Gombe Stream went to war against the chimps of Kasakala in 1974:

The two [groups] had previously been a single, unified community, but by 1974 researcher Jane Goodall, who was observing the community, first noticed the chimps dividing themselves into northern and southern sub-groups.[2]

The Kahama group, in the south, consisted of six adult males (among them the chimpanzees known to Goodall as “Hugh”, “Charlie”, and “Goliath”), three adult females and their young, and an adolescent male (known as “Sniff”).[2] The larger Kasakela group, meanwhile, consisted of twelve adult females and their young, and eight adult males.[2] …

The first outbreak of violence occurred on January 7, 1974,[4] when a party of six adult Kasakela males attacked and killed “Godi”, a young Kahama male …

Over the next four years, all six of the adult male members of the Kahama were killed by the Kasakela males.[5] Of the females from Kahama, one was killed, two went missing, and three were beaten and kidnapped by the Kasakela males.[5] The Kasakela then succeeded in taking over the Kahama’s former territory.[5]

I have the luxury of reading this account after already hearing, at least vaguely, that chimps wage war on each other. To Jane–despite having observed chimpanzee belligerence for years–it came as a surprise:

The outbreak of the war came as a disturbing shock to Goodall, who had previously considered chimpanzees to be, although similar to human beings, “rather ‘nicer’” in their behavior.[7] Coupled with the observation in 1975 of cannibalistic infanticide by a high-ranking female in the community, the violence of the Gombe war first revealed to Goodall the “dark side” of chimpanzee behavior.[7] She was profoundly disturbed by this revelation; in her memoir Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe, she wrote:

“For several years I struggled to come to terms with this new knowledge. Often when I woke in the night, horrific pictures sprang unbidden to my mind—Satan [one of the apes], cupping his hand below Sniff’s chin to drink the blood that welled from a great wound on his face; old Rodolf, usually so benign, standing upright to hurl a four-pound rock at Godi’s prostrate body; Jomeo tearing a strip of skin from Dé’s thigh; Figan, charging and hitting, again and again, the stricken, quivering body of Goliath, one of his childhood heroes. [8]”

For all our talk of anti-racism, we are still just shit-flinging monkeys.

War.

It is worrying indeed that we have drifted so far apart that liberals are violently displaying against conservatives, treating them like an entirely separate tribe to be beaten, dismembered, and destroyed.

And especially foolish since conservatives have the vast majority of guns and ammunition.

For all our talk of anti-racism, we are still just shit-flinging monkeys.
For all our talk of anti-racism, we are still just shit-flinging monkeys.