Book Review: "I, Mammal" by Loretta Graziano Breuning

"We mammals are curiously preoccupied with social hierarchy. You may say you don’t care about status, but if you filled a room with people who said that, they’d soon form a hierarchy based on how anti-status each person claims to be." ~ Loretta Breuning            Despite the protestations of those who like to think human beings are not part of the animal kingdom (What are we then, plants?), we have a lot in common with our fellow furry critters. Our brains have been shaped by thousands of generations of the evolution of both genes and culture. In this fascinating book, the author focuses on something that we inherited very strongly from our biological past: our tendency to form hierarchical societies based on status. The group, and therefore our genes, survives attacks by predators and shortages of food by allowing the strongest among us to remain strong. Weaker members of the group survive by forming alliances with, and by deferring to, the strongest members of the heard.  In human beings, because of cultural experiences and the fact that our cortexes can anticipate future consequences more so than any other mammal, status in a particular subculture may not be defined by brute strength against predators, but by a wide variety of status markers - musical talent, scientific discoveries, or even, as illustrated by the quote at the beginning of the post, by who in a group is the least outwardly concerned with what the majority of the herd thinks of status markers.Hierarchy challenges among primates are relatively rare since the risks are often too high. However, as the so called alphas or dominant herd members - often defined by different parameters in males and females or in different primate species - show signs of weakness, such challenges become more common. Younger members of the group may begin to assert their own dominance through oppositionalism.The animals that are close to the top of the hierarchy but not at the top - let's call them the betas - often extensively cater to the alphas and cling to their alliance with the alphas tenaciously, often at the cost of being under great stress. They tend to be the most status conscious individuals in the group, because they have the most to lose. As the author wryly observes, they're number two, so they try harder.The author makes the case that we concern ourselves with status in response to what she calls the "happy" brain chemicals - dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins - which are released in very short spurts under certain environmental conditions, and induce us to do more of whatever activities seemed to promote them in the past. Our impulses to do so are not based on conscious thoughts but are automatic reactions to the activities of the more primitive part of the brain, the limbic system. While the thinking part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, can over-ride these tendencies, doing so feels extremely unpleasant is therefore most difficult.The author admits that she is oversimplifying the roles of the "happy chemicals," and indeed is doing so drastically. These chemicals not only work together as she points out, but are involved in many different brain and bodily functions besides those to which she attributes to them. Additionally, they regulate one another in highly complicated feedback loops with input from many other chemicals such as GABA, cortisol and glutamate.However, the simplified view is still helpful because it does provide us with an amazingly plausible understanding some of the behavior of mammals, including ourselves, that otherwise may seem inexplicable. The author talks about how oxytocin rewards animals for sticking with the herd. Serotonin prods us to take a certain degree of risk in going out and getting our survival needs like food satisfied. Dopamine rewards us when we anticipate getting our needs met. Interestingly, it does not reward us after the needs have already been met, which might explain why initially thrilling experiences can suddenly "get old." Endorphins block pain, but only in situations such as when we need all of our strength to flee in order to survive.The author emphasizes over and over again that she is describing what is happening normally within mammals, and that status behavior is often not based on conscious deliberation. The author is in favor of our endorsing our needs for status as well as being proud rather than overly humble about our accomplishments as a way of avoiding chronic dissatisfaction - which is often then blamed on members of our own status heirarchy who are higher in it than we are. However, she points out that tendency to strive for status is not right or wrong, it just is, and she is definitely not saying that it is what always should be. I understand why she feels the need to repeat this, as members of the habitually-offended community will miss the point the first twenty times it is made. Hower, it does make parts of the book repetitive and monotonous. But that is a minor quibble.I learned some very interesting things from this book that I never knew. Did you know, for example, that there are 10 times more neurons connecting the brain to the eyes than the other way around? Our brain literally tells our eyes what to look for as well as what to look at among the myriad of things surrounding us in our environment.Did you know that Gorilla fathers in the wild often search for a good family to give their daughters to - just like the people in many cultures who arrange marriages for their offspring?The author does not discuss "schema" formation per se, but does talk about how past experiences become the dominant mode of responding automatically and without thought to the social environment between the ages of 2 and 3 - during and after the period during which the child is most dependent for survival on getting the attention of the primary caretakers. Nerve tracts formed by observing the behaviors of the parents become stronger and also develop thicker sheathes of a coating made of a substance called myelin, which greatly increases the speed of nerve conduction. After they are formed, these tracks then begin to function as if the individual were on autopilot. We only notice our behavior when it no longer seems to "work" on those around us. This is partly why parental behavior is so powerful in triggering our automatic repetitive behavioral responses.Another aspect of our powerful urges to create status hierarchies is basic to the formation of neurotic (confused, conflicted, and amibivalent) behavior. This is easiest to see in dogs, but I believe it applies to kids as well. It was discussed extensively by Cesar Millan, TV's "dog whisperer."Dogs will presume that they are the alpha animal in a household  - unless the owner acts like he or she is the alpha, and acts that way consistently. To create a neurotic dog, treat them as if they are the pack leader by catering to them, but then punish them when they act out the normal response to being a pack leader: aggression. Then follow the punishment with lots and lots of affection, which again causes the dog to feel like the alpha. Repeat over and over. The dog becomes neurotic "because it can't make sense of the social reward system" (p. 91). Readers of this blog may recognize a similar pattern that I describe when I write about problematic parenting styles.In general, the ideas in the book apply somewhat more to automatic behaviors within a group than they do to automatic behavior between groups. As evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson points out, "Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. All else is commentary." Evolution has also been shaped by kin groups and ethnic groups as well as by the evolution of human culture, in which the balance between collectivism and individualism has gradually evolved to favor the latter more than in past generations, as first described by Erich Fromm. These often competing forces comprise the evolutionary theory of  so-called multilevel selection.Once again, however, oversimplifying reality can nonetheless help us understand important ideas that might otherwise be too murky.

 
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