Extended phenotypes

To understand the impact of media on the family, it is important to understand the extended phenotype. Richard Dawkins has written an entire book on the subject, but a very good introduction is provided by his chapter “The Long Reach of the Gene” in the 1989 edition of his classic work on evolution and animal behavior, The Selfish Gene.

The basic idea of the extended phenotype is that, not only does evolution select for genes (rather than for individuals or other entities, which are mere “vehicles” for the propagation of genetic replicators), but that these genes often have an influence that goes beyond the individual vehicle. Most obviously, birds and insects often build nests, beavers build dams, and so on. So it’s entirely proper to treat the nests and the dams as part of the phenotype of the organism, keeping in mind that cultural transmission can play a role in determining the forms of these structures as well.

The most profound and important insights come from observing that genes can have effects on others’ bodies. Often the genes work together in a way that benefits their own copies in other bodies, as for example when baby birds gape, producing a very visible (often red) patch in their mouths, triggering a very strong urge by their parents to feed them. Sometimes, however, other genes take advantage of and parasitisize these strong altruistic relationships. Brood parasites, for example cuckoos, specialize in this lifestyle. Cuckoos lay an egg in the nest of the host family that the host usually can’t distinguish from its own. The baby cuckoo, however, can readily be distinguished visually from the actual offspring of the host, and uses a different and far more disturbing trick described by Dawkins:

Cuckoo nestlings…seem to act on their host’s nervous systems in rather the same way as an addictive drug….[just as a] man can be aroused, even to erection, by a printed photograph of a woman’s body. He is not ‘fooled’ into thinking that the pattern of printing ink is really a woman. He knows that he is only looking at ink on paper, yet his nervous system responds to it in the same kind of way that it might respond to a real woman.

Normally the host parent does not need to distinguish its offspring from others’ — the fact that the little gaping birds are in the nest usually provides sufficient certainty that the parent is caring for its own genetic offspring. Genes have programmed mammal and bird mothers (and to a lesser extent fathers, depending on the degree of monogamy) to become addicted to the babies inhabiting their own homes, and normally this serves to optimize genetic survival. The baby brood parasite is a supernormal model of that offspring. It is also in the nest, it looks even cuter (more infantile, with big eyes and big head), and for birds it has a larger and redder mouth that elicits an even stronger feeding reaction than the host’s own offspring. It grows faster and usually ends up tossing the host’s own chicks out of their nest, to their deaths.

Songs speak metaphorically of love as an “addiction” and of love as “chemistry”, but in fact there is literal reality behind such comparisons. Our brains, our minds, our spirits, and the emotions of same such as love, are chemical reactions. Addictive drugs often stimulate the pleasant emotions that naturally were only associated with love, just as the cuckoo’s gape provides a less direct supernormal stimulation of the parental feeding response. Less directly and strongly, but often more profoundly, are the effects that mass media has had on the emotions that formerly went into building healthy relationships between husband and wife and between parents and children.

We are only beginning to uncover the profound effects media has had on human family relationships. Supernormal models of the opposite sex, of children in need of care, and of many other familial communications saturate our media, diverting our attentions away from our mates and our families. Cartoon characters quite often have bigger eyes and bigger heads, forming supernormal models of infants to elicit the maximum sympathy. Supernormal models of females and the male fantasy worlds of pornography are obvious examples of media manipulation of the deep nervous system, diverting the natural and often quite strong genetically programmed influences to other ends, but supernormally alpha male heroes manipulate human mating instincts and warp the process of assortative mating (in other words, the emotional and instinctive process of determining how attractive a mate one can win) in a no less important a way than supermodels and pornography. We should also consider, as theorist James Bowery has done, the possibility that humans from certain narrow ethnic and cultural groups manipulate mass media consumers for their own genetic and cultural benefit at the expense of their viewers’. It may be no coincidence that human birthrates have plummeted since the dawn of radio, TV, and glossy magazines, and that subcultures that ban such media (such as the Hutterian Bretheren and the Amish) also have far higher birthrates than media-saturated cultures.

If you don’t mind too much being creeped out, here is a video showing an extended phenotype in action.  The gordian worms takes neural control over its host, a cricket, and causes it to drown itself, so that the worm can continue its life cycle swimming free in the water:


(h/t Bowery)

This explains the same kind of phenomenon in more detail, if you don’t mind a bit of National Geographic sensationalism:

Extended phenotypical effects, with authors manipulating an audience to serve the genetic interests of the authors at the expense of an audience, are unlikely to nearly so obvious or the sole function of a work of a book, play, film, or other work of art. They will have evolved long before the 20th century via media such as books, plays, songs, etc. and may or may not work well in modern media such as film. Several other phenomena, such as boss/alpha male dominance effects, which I hope to discuss in the future as well incidental cultural and psychological biases, commercial self-interest, and political manipulation play as large or larger a role as extended phenotype effects in media. Nevertheless, the role of extended phenotypes is crucial to understand, either to confirm or to rule out. There are many reasons to be cautious of exposing oneself and one’s family to foreign media, and extended phenotypes may well be a big one.

(This is an updated version of an article originally posted at my old blog, Family and Civilization).

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