Saturday, October 11, 2014



Habits may seem like worthless attributes, but they are important in the way we function.  Sometimes they are beneficial in accomplishing routine tasks; at other times they can lead us astray at critical decision-making times.  Today, one provoked thoughts, of many aspects of their influences on us, while I was showering.

My habit upon arising soon moves into shaving, brushing my teeth, then showering.  Often, as today, I was still a little foggy from just awakening.  Reaching for the toothpaste, I reached for the tube that was nearly depleted of toothpaste.  Fortunately, I realized it was a skin ointment before I had squeezed any on to my toothbrush.  And it provoked the thoughts related to habit, creativity, evolution, and God.


I do a lot of thinking in the shower.  The tasks of showering have become a nearly mindless routine.  Other physical tasks are put aside.  Conversation, reading, eating, TV, phone are impractical while showering.  So one is left with thinking as one of the few activities conveniently accompanying showering.  Unfortunately, thinking sometimes interferes with accomplishing the shower efficiently; for this reason it can be an ecological error wasting hot water although the time may be well spent if thoughts are productive.

The delay made me even later than I had planned to be for my youngest grandchild's final soccer game of the season.  The role of habit is enshrined in the aphorism "we are creatures of habit".

In sports and many other activities, we take advantage of habits by promoting them in an activity we call "practice".  The value there is three-fold.  Practice exercises and helps develop the muscles involved in the various movements of the practice.  Practice presumably enhances the performance of the nerve and synapse pathways used in the activity.  Those activities of the pathways may be induced by a simple stimulation of one neuron rather than the multitude of ones needed to be incorporated during the laborious learning period.

Many neural pathways are a result of normal development.  One of the more simple types is the knee jerk reflex when the patellar tendon is tapped causing lower leg extension without brain involvement (just a reflex arc involving at least a sensory neuron, an association neuron in the spinal cord, and a motor neuron) producing the muscular action.


Habits can be learned.  As noted in the previous section they can be beneficial.  Natural selection can result in improvement of animal features that enhance survival and reproduction.  Some consequences of such a selective line could be increased size of the nervous system, and thus possible adaptive variety in neural pathways.  Also increased/decreased size toward optimal size can evolve.

The natural tendency to mimic is seen in other primates as well as ourselves.  It certainly had a beneficial role in survival of ancestors.  One offshoot of aping is follow-the-leader.  It enabled activities and movements to be passed on from generation to generation before written and/or spoken language were available.  Would agriculture or migratory paths of nomads have been established without this tendency?

Sometimes negative habits of this type can be result from peer-pressure, like armies so dedicated to the leadership that they easily(?) do horrible things.  Or a dislike of broccoli may be produced by an inappropriately timed grimace on a parental face.  The same phenomenon may have saved countless ancestors from ingesting poisonous foods.

Evolution via natural selection can help incorporate behavioral features that are hard-wired and/or enhanced by experience.  One well known example is the imprinting shown by geese studied by Lorenz.  The first large moving object they encountered after hatching was treated by the baby geese as mother goose.  If they saw Lorenz first, they followed him as goslings normally follow their mother.

Evolutionary steps of behavioral attributes
Behavioral attributes are probably at least as slow to evolve as are physical attributes.  One reason is that physical attributes are continuously exhibited in contrast to the occasional employment of a behavioral attribute.  I saw this with surprise when I heard a robin outside the laboratory when I was at the University of Tasmania.  I went to the door and saw an all black bird, robin sized, but without the familiar red breast of the North American robin.  Its tail flicks, hopping, and cocking its head to find a worm were identical to my experience with the robins at home.

Turdus turdus, the robin first described by Linnaeus is the one in Tasmania, was remarkably like Turdus migratoria, the North American robin.  They presumably had been separated from their common ancestor by several millions of years, yet behavioral/instinctive/learned(?) attributes were still intact.

Insects are remarkably complex in the range of behaviors exhibited by different species.  Many of their instinctive behaviors are most certainly a product of variant selection in development of the nervous system.

Some related species may keep similar reproductive behavior connected with changing pheromones as species evolve.  Some closely related moths respond to a blend of sex attractant chemical only slightly different in proportions than those of close relatives.  They may function, for example, as intermediate stages leading to completely different sex attractants in other lines of different species.

Insect behavioral changes may go hand in hand with changes leading to new species if the behavior leads them consistently to different locations or extremes of reproductive behavioral traits.  Some time physical changes lead to physical incompatibility of reproductive structures comprising the "lock and key" genitalia of female and male individuals.  Once temporal, geographic, behavioral, or physical changes produce reproductive isolation, speciation can occur.


One might think that habits were enemies of creativity.  When creativity represents change competing with the status quo our social systems tending to favor it can reduce creativity to some extent.  But developing behaviors or mental functions compatible with creative activity should benefit creativity.  These aspects may be found in some past, and probably some future, posts.


Habits have a role in our relationship with God that can be good, bad, or of little importance.  The topic deserves more extensive treatment in a later post.  It may be good to have a habit of prayer, but don't be so hide bound by it that you do not react and rescue the little child in the path of the approaching train.  Or, don't be so charitable giving away your money if your family desperately needs it for food, shelter, or clothing.

Joseph G. Engemann    October 11, 2014

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