Two new books on animal behavior

September 4, 2011 • 4:08 am

Today’s new New York Times has two book  reviews of note.  The first book was written by one of our own readers, Marlene Zuk, a professor at the University of California at Riverside.  Marlene comments here on issues of animal behavior, and her new book, Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love and Language From the Insect World, is reviewed favorably by science writer Elizabeth Royte:

In “Sex on Six Legs,” the biologist Marlene Zuk argues that insects — because they are both unlike us and, in surprising ways, like us — provide excellent fodder for studying the relative value of inheritance versus environment, the evolution of personality, the definition of language and the downside of growing bigger brains. . . .

. . . Over nine consistently delightful chapters, Zuk pulls focus between the intriguing daily habits of ants, bees, grasshoppers, cockroaches and crickets (to name just a few of her subjects) and the broader questions that drive evolutionary biology and ecology. Why did evolution take different paths to get to similar places (parental care, for example)? What maintains diversity, if natural selection rewards only the most successful strategies and behavior? If insects with poppy-seed-size brains can learn and remember, make and communicate group decisions and understand when it’s a good idea to kill their embryonic offspring (and perhaps eat them), you’ve got to ask: What’s our own coconut-size brain

Good for Marlene! Maybe we’ll have her over here some day to answer insect queries.

The second book, Willpower: Discovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, doesn’t fare quite so well, but the review is generally positive, and worth reading because it’s written by our atheist confrère Steve Pinker, who always lards his writings with wit and things au courant:

Readers of “Willpower” are treated to triumphs of self-control, like the singer Amanda Palmer (in her first career as a living statue) and the endurance artist David Blaine, along with crash scenes like Oprah Winfrey’s yo-yoing weight and Eliot Spitzer’s hotel-room entertainment. The disasters reveal a limitation of the muscle metaphor: certain evolutionarily prepared drives seem to withstand even the most bulked-up powers of will. The authors note that people with the highest levels of self-control are only slightly better than average at controlling their weight, and they describe disturbing experiments that confirm the old saying “When the penis stands up, the brains get buried” (it sounds better in Yiddish). [JAC: Can any Yiddish speaker provide the original?]

The authors appeal to evolutionary biology to explain these anomalies, and elsewhere bring up ideas from neuroscience and economics. But the visits are perfunctory, and the authors offer no systematic account of the trade-offs the brain must make among goals that differ in their likelihood of success, their time horizons and their evolutionary impact. The old joke about the man in front of a firing squad who refuses the customary last cigarette because he’s trying to quit reminds us that deferring a reward does not always make sense, and economists and evolutionists have developed theories that predict the optimal delay of gratification in a given environment. Also unexplored is a fascinating literature in neuroscience on the role of the prefrontal cortex in inhibiting impulses. In general, the authors tilt their presentation toward human interest rather than science, apart from Baumeister’s own studies.

Nor do Baumeister and Tierney worry enough that their theory, without some precision about the relevant time spans, can be stretched to explain anything: when people resist one temptation but not another, it’s because their egos have been fatigued by exercise; when they resist temptations across the board, it’s because their egos has been strengthened by exercise.

Nonetheless, “Willpower” is an immensely rewarding book, filled with ingenious research, wise advice and insightful reflections on the human condition. And now that I’ve finished this review, I can turn my e-mail back on, spend no more than 30 minutes replying and go out to enjoy this late summer day.

So that’s why he hasn’t answered my email . . .

10 thoughts on “Two new books on animal behavior

  1. From the review, shades of earlier discussions here:

    “Baumeister and Tierney aren’t endorsing a return to a preachy puritanism in which people are enjoined to resist temptation by sheer force of will and condemned as morally irresolute when they fail. The “will” in willpower is not some mysterious “free will,” a ghost in the machine that can do as it pleases, but a part of the machine itself. Willpower consists of circuitry in the brain that runs on glucose, has a limited capacity and operates by rules that scientists can reverse-engineer — and, crucially, that can find work-arounds for its own shortcomings.”

    Nice! Re workarounds for machines like us: willpower, or more broadly impulse control, is also a matter of learning effective behavioral repertoires so that even when you’re low on glucose you have habit going for you, a well-practiced response that controls your behavior in the face of temptation. Even hunger can become a cue to *delay* eating, because if you’re on a diet being hungry can be construed as a sign of success: that you’re on the right side of the caloric transaction.

    The really big picture (I wonder if Baumeister and Tierney go there) is that seeing that you couldn’t have done otherwise in actual situations (no contra-causal free will) prompts you to look closely at the causes of your behavior. This gives you more knowledge and thus potentially more control and self-control in future situations,

    1. >> The really big picture (I wonder if Baumeister and Tierney go there) is that seeing that you couldn’t have done otherwise in actual situations (no contra-causal free will) prompts you to look closely at the causes of your behavior. << (my emphasis)

      That's not what Baumeister and colleagues have found in lab studies. For example:

      Is there any research to back up your (italicized) claim?

  2. > …the old saying “When the penis stands up, the brains get buried”
    > (it sounds better in Yiddish).

    Here’s another version of the Yiddish saying, in slightly
    different dialects:

    Ven der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd.
    Az der putz shteyt, leygt der seichel in drerd.

    “Leygt in drerd” literally means “lies in the earth” (Pinker
    says “buried”), but it’s also idiomatic for “goes to hell”.

  3. Since in America the penis doesn’t stand up, the translation should be “when the cock gets hard, the brain turns to dust.” Or mush. IMnsHO.

  4. I’d think that Vice-Admiral James Stockdale and other prisoners of war would have (had) some worthwhile thoughts on willpower and delayed gratification. Oprah and other celebrities and politicians sure have it rough.

  5. The putz proverb was famously cited in “Portnoy’s complaint” (Philip Roth 1969). Here is it in Hebrew letters:
    ווען דער פוץ שטייט, ליגט דער שכל אינדערערד.

  6. I wouldn’t give any money/time to John Tierney even if Pinker gave the book 5 stars. He’s a global warming denialist that seems to have entirely too much editorial control over NYTimes science page.

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