Tag Archives: evolution

Beavers and Behaviours

It’s easy to look at the behaviour of creatures and feel that this is how the world is – that they are in a fixed state, not a process. It’s easy to think the same things about ourselves. Once upon a time, beavers were mammals who got their sustenance from trees, and that was it. They gnawed on trees to eat them. At some point that changed.

I like to imagine a grumpy beaver waking up in the morning, looking at the leftovers from yesterday’s tree, having a moment and chucking it in a stream, and it all going from there. Behaviours evolve. Somehow beavers went from eating trees to building with trees, to blocking the flow of water to make ponds and building themselves homes. It was a process, full of beaver ingenuity, beavers learning from other beavers, and no doubt some percentage of happy accident.

Humans are similar. At some point in our history we had ideas about tool use. We started making shelters. We have changed in so many ways over time. It may be tempting to look at ourselves and imagine we are now the best that people could be. Of course we aren’t. It’s easy to mistake change for progress – and it isn’t necessarily so. Circumstances change, and behaviours have to adapt in line with those changes. One state of being is not necessarily intrinsically better than another, just better for the circumstances. The ‘survival of the fittest’ notion is one people often misunderstand because it’s not about being the ultimate best, it’s about being well adapted for the current situation. Highly adapted specialists can be exceedingly vulnerable if their circumstances change.

As individuals, we have the scope to change our behaviour all the time. We can innovate. We can be the beaver who wakes up one morning and thinks, hang on a minute, why don’t I chuck this log in this stream?

What the body knows

We’re encouraged to think of body ailments as symptoms to be managed, and as a nuisance to fend off. We have a vast array of pain killers, stimulants and tranquilisers available to make our bodies behave in prescribed ways. What we’re not encouraged to do is to assume that if something is awry with our bodies, there may be a perfectly good reason for this. We are not encouraged to seek those reasons out, much less tackle them.

Sleep deprivation is widespread, with many people not getting the 8 hours minimum our bodies need each night. Many of us have stressful, sedentary jobs but don’t have the energy to release that in physical activity. Stress gnaws away at us, creating anxiety symptoms that crop up randomly, to be drugged into submission, or ignored. Exhaustions breeds depression symptoms as our bodies try to reduce energy output. Missed meals, poor diets, lack of food education and the greater availability of poor quality food, all contributes to reducing health.

Then there are the issues of what the body knows. We take in a vast amount of sensory information all the time. We filter out most of it because it is more than we can consciously handle. Sometimes less conscious bits of our brain are still chewing on that input, and eventually respond to it. Our bodies learn to throw up if we eat something we’re allergic to. Sometimes they also learn to throw up in response to people who are emotionally toxic as well.

There are patterns of behaviour that cause me bodily panic. At first I felt uncomfortable about this. It was socially awkward. What panics me is people whose words and actions manifestly don’t fit together. Historically, this has been a danger sign for me. Having taken the time to pin down why I panic, I realise that serious emotional dishonesty is not something to take lightly. People who make grandiose statements they do not mean are not emotionally safe for me to be around. I will be forever mislead, always having to second guess, never able to trust and that’s no kind of relationship. I eventually concluded that my body is right, and where I get those reactions in future, I will quietly step away.

Some of it is less rational. The sound of footsteps on the stair in the flat makes me edgy. Rather than ignoring this, I worked out it stems from a time when the sound of footsteps on the stair really was a thing to be edgy about. A warning of impending unsafety. These days it isn’t, so when I feel that fear I remind myself that things have changed, and my body calms. It is becoming less of an issue. Sometimes we hang onto triggers long after they are relevant, but its only by taking them seriously that we can find out what they mean and then gently unpick them.

If we do not take ourselves, and our bodies seriously, we are easily manipulated. If we are not allowed to trust gut reactions, or to draw breath and figure out why we are uncomfortable, if we have to keep calm and carry on, we are vulnerable to mistreatment. Our bodies know things. Millions of years of evolution have shaped our fight and fight responses to help us stay alive. Those tap into office politics as readily as they do to possible tiger attacks. There is wisdom in our bodies, but only if we take it seriously, and listen to it.

Can I have your attention?

For a while, attention deficit disorder, sometimes also called ADD or ADHD has been a fashionable sort of diagnosis, with ever more drugs for unruly children. This worries me, along with quite a lot of other things. I’m sure some of it is driven by a pharmaceutical industry that wants to sell cures. I also think we have a culture more than keen to pathologize difference. Those of us, adult and child, who do not fit neatly into someone’s boxes (whose boxes are they, I’d love to know…) will get labels. Now, where labelling leads to useful support – like giving dyslexic kids more time in exams – fair enough, but I am wary of putting anyone on long term drugs for any reason. I’m wary of labels that seem to be more about marginalising difference than helping people. We might pause here and think about the kinds of labels folks currently identified as having ‘learning difficulties’ have been given through history.

My soap box for today is about attention though. I’ve never been tested for ADD, but this may have a lot to do with my knack for self preservation around the issue. I can’t tune stuff out. Noise, movement, information – it all comes in. I choose my environments carefully, and as the issue seems to have got more pronounced over time, I’ve learned to stay out of spaces that mess with my head. More than a couple of days in a big city makes me feel like my head is going to explode. This is a spectrum ailment, and I’m functional enough to have sneaked beneath officialdom’s radar. Being a quiet sort of girl and not prone to acting out at school, no one would have considered me a candidate for an issue generally associated with disruptive behaviour.

But is there anything actually wrong with me? I think not. Millions of years of evolution designed us to survive in a reality where a rustle could be all the warning you get of a predator. Being alert to the environment used to be a survival skill. We used also to live in much smaller groupings, with far less stimulating surroundings. What we’ve manufactured, especially in our cities is an overcrowded, noise laden, information dense space that our millions of years of evolution have very precisely equipped us not to be able to handle.

The only way to survive is to turn off as much of your awareness as possible. You have to squash the inner mammal that sniffs at new smells and tilts its ears towards sounds. You have to tune out the human self that can handle about 150 people and cannot cope with thousands. To survive in the environments we have created, you have to be not animal, not human, not present or feeling too much or caring too much.

Therefore your normal, functional, twenty first century, western, urban human must cultivate apathy and obliviousness as primary survival skills. You learn not to look, and not to hear, an all the while the adverts get louder, brighter, bigger to draw you back in. It’s a psychotic arms race that we cannot win because we are doing it to ourselves.

In woodland or in fields I don’t experience overload. I don’t feel shocked and jarred by noise and excessive input because there isn’t any. I am increasingly convinced that the ADD folk are probably more like historical humans in their humanity than those who are willingly entering zombie states in order to survive. Most of us are somewhere in between. I can’t help but feel it’s the environments that need to change, not the people.

The Truth about Ducklings

I’ve always enjoyed seeing ducklings in the spring, cute fuzzy balls of new life to be cooed over. Until this year, I never really thought about them. But, living on a boat, I’ve become a lot more conscious of waterbirds, not as an occasional sight, but as individual characters and neighbours. With today’s blog, I simply want to share what I’ve seen and how that’s making me think.

When the ducklings are newly hatched, they are tiny, and there’s frequently more than ten in the clutch. They keep close together, under mother duck’s watchful eye. Of course with that many, some can get lost. Large fish will eat ducklings. Seagulls and other birds will take them. I watched a herring gull take a young coot, snatching it up, carrying it off and then tearing it apart to eat. Nature is not kind to cute fluffy things who do not yet know how to protect themselves.

By the time ducklings stop looking fuzzy and have the first hint of adult plumage, they are about half the size of an adult bird. And there are unlikely to be more than three surviving from the original clutch. Sometimes the whole lot are wiped out, and the ducks simply start over. Yesterday I watched the coot family nest building as they try again to raise young. I watched the parent coot after the baby was taken, looking for the missing chick, checking everywhere, and eventually giving up and going back to feeding.

It takes human mothers a good deal longer to get over the loss of young. But we don’t bear thirteen children at a go with the awareness that we could lose them all. I have no idea what it feels like, being a duck, having that many young lives to guard and watching them be taken, one by one. I can guess at how that would feel for a human. The waterbirds seem, from where I’m watching, to be very pragmatic. Life goes on, they keep trying. New eggs are laid.

Of course, go back a few generations and most women could expect to lose at least one child either during pregnancy or in the first few years of that child’s life. Even now, one in four pregnancies leads to miscarriage.

Watching the duck families makes me wonder about the evolution of human emotion. It’s an expensive thing to have developed. It slows us down at just the points where evolution might demand we start running again. We would not respond to the death of a child by immediately trying for another one. Love and the pain of loss create a very special kind of weakness and vulnerability in us. Perhaps that encourages us to cling more tightly to the children we have, and perhaps that’s why we evolved it, but it makes me wonder. That emotional attachment isn’t restricted to caring for our offspring, it extends in all kinds of directions where it’s harder to ascribe evolutionary functions.

How much are we like other creatures? How separate should we see ourselves as being? To what extent should we use human emotions as a way of understanding responses in other beings? It’s a minefield, but we don’t exist in isolation, and to know ourselves is to also know where we fit. Whatever that turns out to mean.