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.


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.

Open Thread: Scotus

(Who’s a good shark?)

I don’t really do domestic politics, but what do you guys think of Trump’s SCOTUS pick?

c3h0xgsuoaanakvI’ve been working on some material about instincts and thought this was an interesting graph, relevant to my theory that pregnancy/childbirth have a physical (chemical/hormonal) effect on women, causing their mothering instincts to kick in (mothering isn’t nearly as useful before you have kids as after,) which in turn causes a change in attitudes toward abortion.

Obviously the graph proves little, because people who don’t approve of abortion are predisposed to have more children than people who do. What I really want is a time-based graph, measuring attitudes before and after pregnancy. But I’m having trouble finding that.

Pension obligations are doomed
Pension obligations (CA specific?)

And here’s a graph of pension obligations. Pensions: they’ve got serious issues.

On to comments of the week. First I’m reposting Unknown128′s question because I can’t answer it, but maybe one of you folks can:

I wanted to ask what the German Nazis view on IQ and IQ testing was. From what I know they didnt realy percieve intelligence as a very valuable trait in the first place, prefering physical strenght, endurance and “nordic racial traits”. They bred warriors not thinkers. Also one does hear that they banned IQ testing or at least strongly disliked it.

Do you know anything specific?

This has been a relatively low comment week, but awards go to Leonard:

Antifa is American as apple pie. The use of violence to achieve political objectives is nothing new to communists, and America is a communist country. The original communist country. Don’t forget the civil war. Antifa is just updated antisla.

The reason why you’re seeing more antifa stuff now is that the communists have lost control of the Potemkin government. It’s not that they didn’t exist; it’s that rioting did not serve much political purpose. Pressuring Obama from the left was easy enough without violence. So using violence was fairly senseless.

and With the thoughts you’d be thinkin:

My understanding is Antifas evolved or are a subset of anarchist and socialist groups mainly focussed on combating fringe nationalist parties like the National Front (UK) or the Front National (FRA), whatever their equivalents were in other Western Europe countries etc, in the 70s-90s. Honestly they’re just black bloc dickheads who want to pretend they’re fighting Hitler.

The general dressing in black and breaking stuff style of leftwing activisim is known as black blocs. Basically just dress up in black cover your face and break things. I think it was popularised as a tactic originally against groups like the IMF and WTO, in the US at least it was probably due to “The battle for Seattle”, that was opposition to the WTO. You get routine riots and mischief by groups who perform the same behaviour for various left wing causes all around the world. I think Oakland has a lot of those guys behaving like dicks semi-consistently. …

That’s all for now. What are you thinking about?

Is Disgust Real? (Part 2 of a series)

(See also: Part 1, Yes, Women Think Male Sexuality is Disgusting; Part 3, Disney Explains Disgust; and Part 4, Disgust vs. Aggression vs. Fertility.)

One of the theories that undergirds a large subset of my thoughts on how brains work is the idea that Disgust is a Real Thing.

I don’t just mean a mild aversion to things that smell bad, like overturned port-a-potties or that fuzzy thing you found growing in the back of the fridge that might have been lasagna, once upon a time. Even I have such aversions.

I mean reactions like screaming and looking like you are about to vomit upon finding a chicken heart in your soup; gagging at the sight of trans people or female body hair; writhing and waving your hands while removing a slug from your porch; or the claim that talking about rats at the dinner table puts you off your meal. Or more generally, people claiming, “That’s disgusting!” or “What a creep!” about things or people that obviously aren’t even stinky.

There is a parable about a deaf person watching people dance to music he can’t hear and assuming that the people have all gone mad.

For most of my life, I assumed these reactions were just some sort of complicated schtick people put on, for totally obtuse reasons. It was only about a year ago that I realized, in a flash of insight, that this disgust is a real thing that people actually feel.

I recently expressed this idea to a friend, and they stared at me in shock. (That, or they were joking.) We both agreed that chicken hearts are a perfectly normal thing to put in soup, so at least I’m not the only one confused by this.

This breakthrough happened as a result of reading a slew of neuro-political articles that I can’t find now, and it looks like the site itself might be gone, which makes me really sad. I’ve linked to at least one of them before, which means that now my old links are dead, too. Damn. Luckily, it looks like Wired has an article covering the same or similar research: Primal Propensity for Disgust Shapes Political Positions.

“The latest such finding comes from a study of people who looked at gross images, such as a man eating earthworms. Viewers who self-identified as conservative, especially those opposing gay marriage, reacted with particularly deep disgust. … Disgust is especially interesting to researchers because it’s such a fundamental sensation, an emotional building block so primal that feelings of moral repugnance originate in neurobiological processes shared with a repugnance for rotten food.”

So when people say that some moral or political thing is, “disgusting,” I don’t think they’re being metaphorical; I think they actually, literally mean that the idea of it makes them want to vomit.

Which begs the question: Why?

Simply put, I suspect that some of us have more of our brain space devoted to processing disgust than others. I can handle lab rats–or pieces of dead lab rats–without any internal reaction, I don’t care if there are trans people in my bathroom, and I suspect my sense of smell isn’t very good. My opinions on moral issues are routed primarily through what I hope are the rational, logic-making parts of my brain.

By contrast, people with stronger disgust reactions probably have more of their brain space devoted to disgust, and so are routing more of their sensory experiences through that region, and so feel strong, physical disgust in reaction to a variety of things, like people with different cultural norms than themselves. Their moral reasoning comes from a more instinctual place.

It is tempting to claim that processing things logically is superior to routing them through the disgust regions, but sometimes things are disgusting for good, evolutionarily sound reasons. Having an instinctual aversion to rats is not such a bad thing, given that they have historically been disease vectors. Most of our instincts exist to protect and help us, after all.

(See also: Part 1, Yes, Women Think Male Sexuality is Disgusting; Part 3, Disney Explains Disgust; and Part 4, Disgust vs. Aggression vs. Fertility.)

Does childlessness drive people crazy?

From an evolutionary perspective, childlessness is as bad as death: either way, your genes die with you. (Unless you’re a bee or ant, which you’re not.) Quite obviously, you are descended from people who successfully reproduced, not from the millions of creatures throughout Earth’s history who didn’t. Adaptations that led to your ancestors reproducing got passed down to you, while adaptations that failed to make your ancestors reproduce didn’t. As a result, the vast majority of us have a rather strong inclination to do whatever it takes to reproduce.

I know this is incredibly basic stuff, but you wouldn’t believe the number of people I have encountered who swear that humans do not possess instincts related to reproduction.

Males and females have followed a different historical path toward reproduction, for both the obvious reasons (women bear the brunt of childbearing,) and some less expected ones. Like that, while about 80% of women historically reproduced, it looks like only 40% of men did.

What happens when people don’t have children? On a biological level, something needs to kick in and get them out there, where they can meet people and fuck. Or overthrow society, kill all of the other males, and then fuck. After all, the continuing existence of society means nothing when you don’t have kids.

When men have children, their testosterone drops. The more time men spend around their children, the more their testosterone drops. This is very sensible: it prevents men from murdering their children.

Since American society has, since its founding, afforded enough resources for most men to marry and have children, the normal state for American males by their thirties has been relatively low testosterone. Today, however, millions of people are choosing not to have children, do not live with their children, or are delaying childbearing for decades.

Men who do not have children/live with them do not have this drop in testosterone. They have the testosterone of evolutionary failure, of increasing aggression until, well, they reproduce or die. (Or just get old.)

If I really wanted to embarrass people, I could tell of some of the absolutely nutty things men I know have done to try to get laid. Rational thought and risk assessment go completely out the window. People act like they have gone mad.

The evolutionary pressures on women have been different, but I can’t imagine that they were non-existent. Like men, they probably find pregnancy and babies calming–meeting people requires aggressive, social behavior that (often) leads to violence, but raising babies requires being a quiet, responsible homebody. It’s probably not a coincidence that childbirth triggers, in some women, actual depression.

Women with no children seem, at least anecdotally, highly aggressive. Their willingness to overthrow society is well-known.

On the plus side, childlessness probably drives a certain amount of creativity. The childless can take more risks, and are driven to succeed. But this is not to say that high levels of aggressive hormones are, long term, great for your brain or overall health.