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Mapping Behavior to Environment

About 1.5 million years ago, a large group of chimps were separated by a growing Congo river. The south side of the river had more abundant food sources than the north. 

The chimps on the abundant side are known today as bonobos, and they're very mellow. The women run things. They're neighborly, sharing territory with other bonobo groups. When tensions rise, they have sex instead of fighting.

Chimps on the side with less abundance are known today as chimpanzees, and they're much more aggressive. They're very territorial, patrolling their borders in gangs, merciless in fighting, hierarchical and patriarchal.

These behavior patterns map to their environments.

In times and places of scarcity, competition is more intense. Strength and force become the rule, escalating violence.

In abundance, a flat, cooperative society works fine. 

Violence within our communities is not our default. It's turbulence that emerges when people can't meet their needs.

To maximize choice, work for community-wide abundance.

Written by Influential Prose

June 15, 2021 at 6:21 am

Posted in evolution, science, sociology

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The Roots of Social Conformity

Life on earth has spread from the same DNA base as far back as we can see, from the simple single-celled extremophiles lurking in undersea volcanic vents. There’s a lot of change from that point to us, but along the way life repeatedly encounters similar patterns and relationships. Our genes are shaped by these patterns. Predator/prey relationships, for example, are a biological universal. I’m going to argue they are a key factor in defining human temperament.

Social species that cluster in large groups gain advantages in fending off predators, especially in rough neighborhoods. Social fish species remain together in groups because survival in their neighborhood is a numbers game. The bigger the crowd, the easier it is to hide from danger. Fish that don’t get this don’t last.

Over time, this strongly tilts instinctual fish behavior towards cooperatively defensive groups. But there are also advantages in breaking from the crowd, such as locating food and mates outside the group. So what happens in a population? A distribution develops toward the optimal mix of temperaments to keep population balanced. This mix adjusts to prevailing economic conditions.

Social species need some funky renegades temperamentally capable of taking risks to find opportunities, while the core of the group remains tightly bound to tradition to protect the bulk of the population. Populations need both rigidity and flexibility. Over time, this is what temperamental variation provides.

Much human behavior is essentially monkey-see, monkey do – it’s imitative. There’s a reason for that. Think back to the school of fish; they swarm together tightly when predators lurk. Behavioral instinct; the hardwired genetic imperative says do it this way or die, no second chances.

And so it goes as social animals emerge on land. Everywhere you go, from the anthill to the elephants, there are strict local rules; don’t eat that or you die. Stay out of this area during floods. Winter comes; stock up. Whatever rules are needed to avoid becoming prey or a victim of environmental conditions fall into this category.

This creates a built-in bias toward absolutes as key to survival. It is acquired, haphazardly and not always successfully, among animals through imitation; the trait persists among humans and is most strongly expressed among conservative fundamentalists and nationalists. Notice that absolutes are usually binary – do this or die; don’t do this to live. Binary thinking is characteristic of conservatives.

In an economic contraction, conservatives gain more power. In expansions, progressives gain. In the context of the animal kingdom, this makes sense; when times are hard, security becomes a deeper concern; you’re competing with all the other life forms in the neighborhood. Aggression becomes a positive.

When times are good, we can wiggle and giggle and agree that soft-serve ice cream is simply the greatest. Abundance gives us the luxury of broader cooperation, and it’s also smart survival strategy – cooperation makes harvesting abundant resources easier and more effective.

Herds only endure when they contract and expand in tandem with available resources.

When a herd is fragmented, it exposes a larger attack surface to predators.

Which is a pretty good description of the Republican party’s mode of operation. Divide and conquer.

Written by Influential Prose

August 4, 2016 at 12:55 am

Posted in evolution, sociology

Fossil Bike Tour in Washington, DC

If you’re looking for a unique local bike tour in Washington, DC, here’s an idea.

Christopher Barr developed a terrific list of locations with accessible fossils embedded in Washington’s architecture at

So I put together this map, which presents the locations in an order that can be followed for an educational afternoon ride around downtown, together with notes on the era of the fossils and links to the web pages describing them.

You can take your bike on Metro to Columbia Heights and start out from there, then reboard after riding at Smithsonian or Capital South.

1) Sacred Heart Church, 16th St NW & Park Rd NW, Washington, DC
2) Unification Church, 16th St NW & Columbia Rd NW, Washington, DC
3) National Zoo Reptile House
4) Mitchell Park, 23rd St NW & S St NW, Washington, DC
5) Georgetown French Limestone, 33rd and M St., N.W., Washington, DC
6) International Finance Corporation, 2121 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC
7) Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St NW, Washington, DC
8) Tidal Basin, Independence Ave SW & 17th St SW, Washington, DC
9) National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC
10) Art Deco building, 1101 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC
11) Salem Limestone, 1700 14th St NW, Washington, DC
12) Labor Department Retaining Wall, 200 Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC
13) National Museum of the American Indian, 4th St & Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC
14) Rustic Salem Limestone, 601 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC
15) National Gallery of Art, 6th & Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC
16) Reflecting Pool at Capitol Building

Written by Influential Prose

April 26, 2015 at 5:55 am

Posted in biking, evolution, geology


One of the things that Bart Erhman goes into in “God’s Problem” is the business of sacrifices. We know that animal and human sacrifices have occurred throughout history and there are plenty of biblical stories that include animal sacrifices. It’s only natural to wonder how that got started.

I’ve read quite a bit about early primate behavior and there may be a connection here. Food distribution among primates is based on power. The most powerful in a group get first pick, the best selection, be it meat or fruit, and others get what’s left. So right away, the most basic need for survival is filtered through this hierarchy.

So say you’re munching along and someone more powerful than you wants your food. What to do? If you’re strong or stubborn, you fight. If you’re neither, you give it up to placate the bully. This pattern of social behavior is ancient, goes on for millions of years. Still happens among schoolchildren.

Along come protohumans who look around and see everything as alive – the wind, the rain, the sun, all these are endowed with a personality. And it’s not hard to imagine they would view a bad storm, volcano, tornado, massive forest fire or other natural disaster as an expression of anger.

So they respond to fury the way they always have – try to placate it with food. They’ll even provide it pre-cooked on a fire. Thus sacrifices.

Written by Influential Prose

September 3, 2014 at 2:17 am

Posted in behavior, evolution