Thursday, September 6, 2007

525 Pet therapy 534 Nature vs. Nurture: Instinct vs. Learned Phobias

Message no. 525[Branch from no. 507] Posted by Thomas Culhane (1311520071) on Saturday, March 3, 2007 6:04pm Subject: Re: Pet therapy

I think the idea that animal communication and judgement is a two-way street is a very good one that bears investigation! We are often biased by our feelings of superiority so that we are blind to the magic of a true "cybernetic" system in which the observer is observed and the observed is the observer. Thanks for opening this topic up -- I am convinced that these wonderful sentient minds walking around in the skulls of our pets and in wild animals are as aware of us as we are of them, and form their own cognitive maps in ways that include judgements of us as relevant players in their environment and well being. See the book "The Question of Animal Awareness" by Griffin for more on this...

Message no. 534[Branch from no. 501] Posted by Thomas Culhane (1311520071) on Sunday, March 4, 2007 8:32am Subject: Nature vs. Nurture: Instinct vs. Learned Phobias

Yes, you are correct Patrice -- in general in psychology we privilege nurture over nature. I come from a sociobiology and behavioral ecology background however (took classes with E.O. Wilson

(-- see for a good explanation of sociobiology and its impact on philisophical and psychological thought.)

My background, thus, is the application of evolutionary theory to behavior, and as you probably know, the sociobiology discipline blurs the lines drawn by academics between "instinctive" and "learned" behaviors, preferring to see genes as creating "PREDISPOSITIONS" for certain behaviors which the environment then mediates through reinforcement or inhibition. The key assumption of sociobiology, as I understand it, is that a behavior WOULD NOT BE POSSIBLE if there were not an underlying instinctive mechanism operating to create a predisposition for that behavior. In other words, our brains are built in such a way that it is easy to learn to fear predators, but not easy to learn to fear rabbits. This is what makes the "killer rabbit" scene in the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" so funny!

As you can see from the above images, the absurdity of the notion that we should fear a rabbit seems so obvious to our brains that a whole cult has developed around this subject.

You can buy "killer rabbit" stuffed animals, tee shirts, playing cards, posters -- all because our brains just aren't built to consider the shape and form of a rabbit to be something we should learn to fear. The knights in the movie make us laugh because even though they can see the rabbit decimating their army, they can't help but laugh at the thought that they should run away from a rabbit. But if you replace the cotton tail of the rabbit with a long hairless tail, and shorten the ears just a bit, all of a sudden grown people scream and run away. Why is that?

How is it so easy to learn to fear the form of a rat, and not that of a rabbit? To tell you the truth, having kept pet rabbits and rats in my home, I was once bitten by one of my rabbits, but NEVER bitten by my rats (neither the white one, the grey one or the black one -- and if you see the movie "Willard" and "Ben" you learn that "white rats" (symbolized by the character "Socrates") are considered gentle while "black rats" (symbolized by the character "Ben") is considered evil and dangerous -- a typical Hollywood example of racism codified in symbolism! In fact, of course, there is no correlation between fur color or skin color and behavioral charateristics, and rats certainly do not pay any attention to theirs or other rats color during their upbringing or socialization).

The fact that it is easy to learn to fear rats and not rabbits is testimony to the sociobiological tenets of Biophilia and Biophobia.

Another film that exploits the irony of our inability to easily learn to fear certain shapes of organisms is the film "Galaxy Quest"

You may recall the scene where Sigourney Weaver approaches a group of what appear to be alien babies and children who suddenly turn on her and attack her. We find it chilling because it is hard for us to learn that shapes with large heads and large eyes, small noses and little limbs can be harmful. To make them appear threatening, the children had to suddenly grow enormous fangs and become grotesque.

I believe that all phobias have some association with our survival instinct, and that one of the reasons we aren't acting quickly enough about many environmental threats is that they don't come packaged in a menacing enough form -- our brains seem to be simply incapable of generating fear or alarm responses to things so new in our evolutionary history that they have not had time to get "hard wired".

Have you seen the movie "Christine" where Steven King tries to make us fear a 1950's car? One of the ways the filmmakers had to do that is to make the car resemble a very angry animal.

Of course sociobiology is a very controversial field, but it bears investigating why some images and forms are easier to learn to fear than others, and what this implies for socializing our children not to fear things in the environment that are actually necessary for our survivial (insects, worms, snakes) and to fear things that are detrimental (combustion engines, nuclear power plants, burning plastics).

I think that we may be able to demonstrate that there are very few fears that do not correspond in some way to our survival instincts, and that we need to be aware of how things in the environment really affect survival so we can cast off maladaptive prejudices and adopt new behavioral norms for a radically changed world.


No comments: