Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Copycatting is universal

You know that TV thing, maybe a Nova, where they showed some chimps and some human kids how to manipulate a box in a complicated manner to get a grape or an M&M? And then they took the covers off the sides of the box, so it was obvious that the complications were unnecessary; you could just do one thing, and the grape rolled out. Chimps then went straight for the food in the simplest way, but the human kids kept doing it the complicated way they had been shown how.

The knock on that has been that the studies involved middle-class kids in western culture. This study compared Australian kids with Kalahari Bushmen kids and got the same result.

I think we see a theory of the origin of ritual here. We keep doing things the same way we saw someone do them, even though it should be obvious that our particular process is irrelevant to the outcome. After all, what the kids were doing worked. They got the candy. Why fix it if it's not broken?

And since oral transmission is imperfect, you can see how religious rituals might evolve, or mutate, into elaborate procedures to call on god, though it should be perfectly obvious that prayer doesn't work. A high proportion of people a tornado kills in any trailer park in Mississippi had prayed to god that very day, and the prayer ritual didn't help them a bit. Maybe they got the ritual wrong that day.

Makes you wonder how much of our adult lives is taken up by performing rituals that have nothing to do with the outcomes we're trying to influence. I heard a story not long ago on NPR about a woman who prepared a roast for cooking by cutting off the tip. It turned out her mother had done so because her roasting pan was too short for the size roast she cooked. Maybe our lives consist of cutting off the tip of the roast or manipulating the box. My, what an unpleasant thought this early in the morning. I think I'll go to my happy place.

UPDATE: It was my partner, not NPR, and it was a ham, not a roast, and the oven was too small, not the roasting pan. So much for my memory.

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