I recently watch this lecture by Prof. Richard Sapolsky of Stanford. Although it's really worth watching, I'll summarize as follows: Even certain deleterious genes may be advantageous when not fully expressed. While full expression of these genes may be traumatically debilitating to a small percentage of the population there are often many family members that benefit from having these genes without them being fully expressed.
He goes on to say that family members of people suffering from schizophrenia can exhibit schizotypal personality - a propensity for 'magical thinking'. He ties this in with shamanism throughout human development. Furthermore, he suggest that a genetic basis for OCD may actually be advantageous when not fully expressed, giving people a propensity for compulsive behavior during times of anxiety. He suggests that an example of such expression might be an overwhelming need to ritualize the process of submitting an application (perfectly organized desk, labeled envelope, checking the mail box 3 times) when results are crucial.
Now I've been considering Sapolsky's argument for an evolutionary advantage of ritualistic tendencies in light of Dr. Andy Thompson's theories on the evolutionary origins of religious thought. I think there is a HUGE discussion to be had on the lectures given by these two men.
In particular, I have a pet theory about compulsive/ritualized behavior. The well developed human capacity for deduction may have been advantageous enough to sacrifice some neurological capacity otherwise devoted to memory. Coupled with ritualized behavior (I always leave my keys on the refrigerator), the trade off of recall skill for extra deductive skills might be better offset.
I'm wondering if anyone else has some other ideas as to how a propensity for ritualistic behaviors might be advantageous. In both OCD and religion we often see a focus on cleansing, food preparation/consumption, and entering/exiting places of importance. What do you think?
I'm actually quite glad that we, and not only humans, have this ritualistic tendency; as long as it doen't become compulsive obsessive, it definitely is a plus for the human race; not only are we ritualistic about eating or sleeping ) a must to stay alive and healthy, and there is a myriad of other things that we don't think about but actually do to keep our life running smoothly and also to allow us to engage in other activities (thinking, reading, learning and developing a critical mind (though, I'm not sure I've reached that state yet...!).
Do you think any other creature has 'ritualistic' behavior? I mean there is a big difference between hardwired instinctual behavior and learned ritualistic behavior, so I'm not sure animal behavior can actually be categorized as 'ritualistic'.
In his NatGeo film Killer Stress Sapolsky shows how his oldest baboon troupe literally changed their culture, from ritualistic alpha aggressiveness to a collaborative hierarchy. Young teens from other normal troupes, when joining, took six months to acclimatize to the new social order but all the new males did integrate the new rules harmoniously.
Seems to point toward cultural behavior in baboons.
I saw this film and actually watched Sapolsky give this lecture at Rockefeller University a few years ago. His baboon research is totally fascinating.
I'm a big fan of Sapolsky and I think it is no accident that he comes from an Orthodox Jewish family. Orthodox Jews have built an entire culture on borderline OCD behaviors with respect to food and cleansing. The idea must have occurred to him during a Sabbath dinner :-)
I think his hypothesis definitively has merit. Certainly many of these behaviors make sense as evolutionary adaptations, like cleanliness, being carefully of what one eats, being somewhat organized in where we normally keep our important stuff ("here comes the mammoth! oh crap, where did I leave my damn spear?").
It occurred to me on the bus today (where I do a lot of deep thinking) that ritualistic behavior might have come about to replace 'instinctual' behavior. Where certain hardwired instincts tell many other animals what to do for mating rituals, migration, etc - people aren't so specifically hardwired for these things. Maybe a ritualistic behavior adaptation helped better define groups (in and out) and replaced instinctual mating behaviors (as well as others).
Furthermore, he suggest that a genetic basis for OCD may actually be advantageous when not fully expressed, giving people a propensity for compulsive behavior during times of anxiety.
@ Heather - This made me think of my 'habit' of compulsively writing hard to spell words over and over on a piece of paper in times of high stress or anxiety, or if I was in a position where I could not do that, I would run the spelling of the words through my mind. It gave me a lot of relief for many years. I did not really enjoy doing it, it felt more like a need to do it in order to function. It was as if I did not do that, I would go insane. It was just something I had to do.
I was told by a mental health professional it was not OCD and it was a healthy behavior if it enabled me to get through the day or stressful situations. She compared it to how sometimes Catholic people will finger their prayer beads and say prayers for each bead (or something like that) in times of stress to make them feel better. This counselor was a theist btw and so was I, at the time.
Looking back (I stopped that behavior five years ago when I became an atheist), it seems to me, my behavior was merely a way of blocking my constant barrage of doubtful thoughts I was having, about God being real or not.
It was vital to me that God was real and going to help me get through troubles. So it was like the habit of spelling and the soothing effect about the rhythm of spelling the words out on paper or in my brain kind of replaced anxious thoughts.
Anyway, I am glad I don't have to do that anymore.
Interesting. I can see how ritual can offer a valuable distraction when you've got things to worry about. Perhaps early humans developed rituals as a means of dealing with the anxiety that came along with their increased cognitive skills.