Random Thoughts

Origins of Behavior

The neocortex is responsible for us humans being sentient and capable of reflection on one's actions. Lions are unable to figure out that the reflection they see in a mirror is their own. Chimpanzees on the other hand figure it out in a short time. One of the tests used is to stick something on the forehead of an animal or child and time the interval before they unstick it from their own forehead after looking into a mirror. The reflection I mentioned earlier is not that in a mirror, but the ability to contemplate, analyze and judge one's own actions.

Evolutionary success is measured by survival and proliferation of one's genes via offspring. The social insects like bees and ants are examples of total monopoly of reproduction by a single female queen with willing co-operation by other female workers without use of physical coercion. The Queen occupies the bottleneck by pheromonal control of workers who mostly raise sterile sisters from their mother's eggs by not feeding them royal jelly. The queen also emits chemicals that keep the workers suppressed from rebellion. The workers go along because they share three-quarters of their genes in most cases with their sisters. They would share only half with their daughters if they could reproduce. They share only a quarter of their genes with their haploid brothers. Male bees have a single set of chromosomes which they get only from their mother as the male eggs are unfertilized. Female bees get one set from the mother and one from the father as the fertilized eggs alone become females.

The proclivity to monopolize reproduction is seen in African wild dogs and hyenas. The dominant female in both cases does not tolerate breeding by submissive females to a significant extent. Male gorillas have harems that they guard viciously. A more extreme example are male elephant seals where 5% or less of the males in a group monopolize all females dooming the remaining 95% to genetic extinction. A pride of lions consists of one or two male brothers and a larger number of lionesses. On occasion the dominant males are dethroned by another pair of lions. The victors promptly kill all cubs in the pride to bring the lionesses to estrus by ceased lactation by cub death. The lionesses overlook the murders of their offspring and happily mate with the victors without remorse, regret or revenge. 

Amongst birds the raising of chicks is a costly time consuming process requiring large investment from both parents. A bird with the well deserved name booby lays two eggs in a clutch. Its nest is on the ground and the parents mark it with their droppings. The earlier hatching chick pushes the unhatched egg outside the marked circle. The returning parents ignore the egg outside the Laxmanrekha and remain oblivious to it as it perishes without hatching. Eagles often lay two eggs sequentially and not simultaneously. The earlier hatching chick routinely pecks the smaller and younger chick to death without parental interference. The second egg or chick was a mere insurance precaution for eagle parents.

The above behaviors seem callous and the lack of consideration for brothers, sisters or children is explained on the basis of an absent neocortex. Our nearest relatives, the chimpanzee females mate with many males and in the Bonobo species, mating is the preferred pastime. This leaves any aggressive males uncertain of the fatherhood of offspring. The males are nice to any female they mated with and her offspring. It is this trait that we have inherited from our forebears but is fast disappearing in countries amongst males due to culture and from females emancipated by oral contraceptives. We have also inherited the penchant for dominance but the neocortex has tempered this with sympathy for the underdog and a desire for justice. It has also spawned the beliefs in god and afterlife as a judge and his final court. The uncertainty of fatherhood is the basis of Jewishness being defined solely by the religion of the mother. The desire for dominance is exploited by corporate advertisers by using celebrities to endorse their products with near certainty of enough insecure fools falling for the trick. Even serious criminal convictions do not seem to hamper the marketability of deranged celebrities in India and America. Socially unacceptable behavior can be forced by lack of policing and basic facilities. This is why in India people brazenly drive their scooters on the wrong side of the road and the poor unabashedly perform their ablutions undeterred or oblivious of public gaze.


More by :  Gaurang Bhatt, MD

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