John Keats, an English Romantic poet, suffered terrible heartache when he learned that Isaac Newton explained the physics behind the formation of rainbows. The beauty and mystique of rainbows was forever gone!
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made… (Lamia.1820)
Indeed, philosophy does it every time — clips an Angel’s wings…
“Even today, most people resist having their emotions explained because they believe that explaining them will destroy their inherent wonder. Such defiance is so pervasive that Richard Dawkins wrote Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder (its title taken from the line in Keats’s poem), which addressed this false perception,” says Gordon H. Orians, a professor emeritus of biology at the University of Washington in Seattle.
He explores how evolution has shaped our emotional responses to the environment and each other in his book Snakes, Sunrises, and Shakespeare.
Well, who would blame him for a title like this? I suppose, popular science books must have enticing titles to “jump of off the shelves”.
Generally, many people dislike the idea of explaining our emotions in terms other than those of philosophy, art, or common sense. Gordon H. Orians does precisely that — explains emotions through an Evolutionary Lens. While paying little attention to the social emotions—love, guilt, shame, embarrassment, pride, envy, and jealousy, he addresses the so-called basic emotions—pleasure, anger, fear, pain, surprise, and disgust.
In my usual manner, I spiced up the text with the images of my own choosing, to illustrate some of the Orians’ points.
Ghosts of the African Savanna
Most savanna primates sleep in trees; so did our ancestors. Females were more likely to sleep in trees than males—they were lighter and more agile than the males, but also smaller and more vulnerable to savanna predators. As such, females should be particularly alert to attacks by predators from below. Males, on the other hand, sleeping on the ground, should be more attentive to side attacks.
Three-to-four-year-old boys and girls are equally fearful at night, but boys are more afraid of danger to one side—the monster in the closet—while girls are more fearful of something dangerous below—the monster under the bed.
Charles Darwin first proposed that vocal communication in general, and music in particular, had developed as a result of sexual selection. Darwin appears to have been right! Females of some species of birds are more strongly attracted to males with larger song repertoires. Song elaboration in humpback whales is probably also favored by sexual selection.
Why should females pay attention? Learning and producing songs requires a specialized neural system that develops when the individual is growing rapidly and many other physiological and anatomical systems are competing for a limited energy supply. Therefore, a male bird that sings vigorously and well is advertising his health and fitness.
Our ancestors would have benefited from an ability to detect hidden, stationary predators from glimpses of only small parts of them. Tessellated patterns are rare in nature but common among snakes. Yet cells of the mammalian visual system are highly stimulated by such patterns. The system readily detects scale patterns in peripheral vision, where we are most likely to spot a snake.
The neural system responds selectively to angles and edges, features that enhance our ability to detect snakes against a background during daylight. Our neural fear module increases our ability to detect motionless snakes, even when we are unaware that we have seen them.
Goes Down Smooth
Every human society has discovered the medicinal and psychological benefits of alcohol. Other animals are attracted to alcohol, too. Vertebrates inevitably ingest alcohol when they eat ripe and rotting fruit. Orangutans and elephants travel for miles to find fermented fruits.
The “drunken monkey” hypothesis of Robert Dudley proposes that a strong attraction to the smell and taste of alcohol helps animals find ripe fruit. Overripe fruit on the ground may have ethanol concentrations as high as four percent. However, when given a choice in the lab, animals typically prefer fruits with less ethanol. Getting drunk in a world full of predators is not a good idea.
Adapted from Snakes, Sunrises, and Shakespeare by Gordon H. Orians, University of Chicago Press, 2014