An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of January 24, 2010
Issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort adjoining Chichén Itzá Ruin in
YUCATÁN, MÉXICO

RITUALIZATION

Ever since watching the Great-tailed Grackles sky-pointing I've been thinking about similar behaviors in humans. There's plenty on the Web tracing aspects of human behavior back to their origins. If you Google the keywords "human behavior ritualization" you'll find enough to occupy you for a long time.

According to one university's webpage, Ritualization is:

"... the evolutionary process whereby a signal behavior is established or improved in such a way that it becomes a more effective or efficient means of communication."

A signal behavior is just behavior that sends a signal -- conveys information. When male grackles sky-point, they're sending signals to other males to stay away. When birds do such a thing we say that they're displaying but when humans do it we use different terms. Still, humans display just like other animals, and the displays are rooted in evolutionary history.

Some of our displays are "autonomic," such as when we blush from embarrassment, gasp upon being surprised, or cry from unhappiness.

Other forms of ritualized signaling require some thinking to bring about. For example, when preserved corpses of people who died in prehistoric times are found in peat bogs, frozen in the Alps, etc., their skin is often found to be tattooed. In primitive societies, tattoos were and are efficient means of sending messages about one's social affiliations and status. Tattoos must have been so important to our evolving ancestors that the urge to be tattooed has been inherited by people today. As more and more people have the liberty to "do their own thing," we see more tattoos. It's the same with body piercing.

High heels on women exaggerate hip movement, signaling ample hips, which enable women to deliver babies with fewer complications. I won't even mention theories I've read about the origin of wearing lipstick. Macho-type men with their strutting and penchant for big cars and rough talk also manifest ritualization signal behaviors.

Sky-pointing is part of what makes a grackle a grackle and really we wouldn't want grackles to stop sky- pointing, even though to our eyes they look pretty silly doing so. But, what if whenever any grackle raised his head to sky-point, someone shot the grackle's head off? Then grackles would be advised to stop sky-pointing.

What if it were realized that most human behaviors with roots in ritualization -- behaviors based on genetic predispositions for "being stylish," for glorifying group identity (elitism, racism, patriotism), for striving for more wealth and status than is needed -- were in the long term lethal, because their practice brought about the environmental effects we see manifested today?

Would we humans be any less human if we consciously abandoned our self-destructive ritualization-based behaviors?

It depends on how we define humanity. If humans are merely what our genes make us, then we'd be less human when we frustrate the dictates of our genes.

However, if we insert a spiritual element into the definition of what a human is -- if we recognize and take advantage of the Sixth Miracle of Nature, which enables us to behave in ways not dictated by our genes -- then it would be "human" to discipline ourselves enough to save Life on Earth. Facebook Icon.