randombio.com | science commentary
Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Why are there still hippies?

Risk-taking behavior violates the principles of Darwinian selection. So why haven't hippies all died out?

L ots of people have a rather negative opinion about hippies. We associate them with antinomianism—the idea that moral principles are relative—and the abandonment of the values of hard work, self-discipline, and bathing that made America great. Their ideas turned into New Age pseudo-spiritualist drivel, and the drug culture they created cost thousands of lives.

During a recent discussion with a co-worker speculating about hippie-type phenomena, it occurred to me that the character traits that determine hippieification didn't just pop out of nowhere. At the risk of sounding like a genetic determinist, it seems to me that they are the direct result of some unrecognized programming in our DNA.

Hippies actually perform a valuable social function: they introduce new food and drug items into the mainstream diet and voluntarily test their safety and efficacy. Psychologists call this “novelty-seeking behavior” and there's some evidence that it may be related to our genes, specifically to a mutation in our D4 dopamine receptor.

Seeking novelty has obvious risks for the individual, but strong survival value for the group. Ingesting new plants to find out whether they're poisonous opens you up to novel sensations like vomiting your guts out, having your brain turned to mush, and becoming dead. Yet the behaviors persist, seemingly defying the principle of Darwinian evolution.

These traits are the same ones that induced our ancestors to try eating wheat plants and cows. It would never have occurred to me, for instance, to squeeze white liquid out of the back part of a cow, let it sit around for a few months until it turns yellow and solidifies, and then eat it to see what happens. But someone did, bequeathing to humanity the glory of the bacon cheeseburger.

So in a way we have hippies to thank for that great TV commercial that depicts blondes in bikinis biting bacon. (They do indeed seem to be enjoying the taste; I think there is some product being advertised there as well, but its name escapes me at the moment.)

The point is that even though risk-taking carries with it, by definition, certain risks that reduce their individual fitness, there's a strong survival value for a species to produce a certain number of them anyway. Likewise it would be advantageous to produce occasional Einsteins or great leaders. These traits might not necessarily improve individual survival, but a species that produces them would have a clear advantage over one that does not. But how would that work?

Many biologists would say that random genetic variation is a sufficient explanation. Edward O. Wilson and Charles Lumsden once published computer simulations in Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process showing that, contrary to what one might think, rare mutations never completely die out. But I suspect that for a trait as useful as risk-taking, nature would have devised a way of preserving certain mutations to make sure.

Some of this programming is in our minds, but some is also coded in our very cells. Cells have multiple copies of some genes, each with slightly different characteristics. The cell turns them on or off throughout our lifetime, depending on signals received from the environment and from other cells. Maybe when a society begins to stagnate culturally, it sends a signal to our cells that produces a boost in risk-taking behavior in a small percentage of individuals. It would be a powerful way of protecting us against extinction.

Since we are programmed to be social animals, our genes could even influence our politics. It's possible that whenever a society reaches a certain state, some primordial bit of programming gets activated that induces a certain percentage of people to rebel against oppression. Or to pick up the red flag of communism and start herding their neighbors and co-workers into gulags.

If this seems strange, consider that many other species engage in pre-programmed behavior that kills off high percentages of their own kind. Lemmings migrate randomly when their population density becomes too high, sometimes sending entire populations off a cliff. Locusts eat their entire food supply. Chimpanzees kill and eat their own babies, and kill competitors and babies created by competitors.

It also happens to laboratory animals. If different litters of mice are accidentally mixed, they will bite each other until the cage contains nothing but dead animals—causing small-scale extinction—even though they have ample food, toys, space, and a stimulating environment.

If, as Sigmund Freud said, nothing we do as individuals happens by accident, how much more true must that be for groups of millions of individuals? Human behavior is far more complex and purposeful than commonly recognized. This programming is in there, and we need to know about it, what triggers it, what its purpose might be, and how to adapt to it without compromising our survivability.

Last updated Aug 19 2016, 5:56 am

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