Supernormal Stimuli - ‘How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose.’ - DeirdreBarrett

Supernormal StimuliThe cuckoo succeeds by exploiting the natural inclination that bigger is better. The female cuckoo sneaks into the nest of another species when the parent bird is away and displaces an egg with one of its own. The egg resembles those of the host but is usually a little larger and brighter. The nest owner consequently sits on the cuckoo’s egg in preference even to its own. The young cuckoo’s beak is a little wider and redder than any other that survive and its preferential treatment continues.

This phenomenon was given the name Supernormal Stimuli by Nobel Prize Winner Nico Tinbergen, who discovered examples throughout nature. Geese would attempt to sit on volleyballs in preference to their eggs and Sticklebacks would attempt to mate with brightly painted sticks in preference to less brightly coloured females.

These might sound like the rather sad behaviour of ‘simple’ creatures, but the book’s subtitle hints at how the same behaviours can be found in ourselves.

Following a chapter that explores Nico Tinbergen’s life there are six chapters that each explores an aspect of the effects of supernormal stimuli in human affairs.

Sex for Dummies
Whilst we may mock the Stickleback, this chapter explores how we’ve developed entire industries dedicated to the reshaping of the human form for sexual stimulation.

Too Cute
Discover the power of cuteness and how our behaviours to other people and animals are triggered and conditioned by a simple set of criteria.

Foraging in Food Courts
Explores how our basic instincts developed for life on the Savannah have been exploited to create the obesity epidemic and the reasons for our inability to respond effectively.

Defending Home, Hearth and Hedge Fund
3000 people died in 9/11 and in 2001 41,370 Americans died in road traffic accidents. Discover why we react so differently to these two tragedies and what makes us ready to fight.

Vicarious Social Settings from Shakespeare to Survivor
Explores the impact of television and other media encourage us to live our lives vicariously through the lives of others and the impact this has in creating sedentary lifestyles.

Intellectual Pursuits as Supernormal Stimuli
Helps illuminate the interest we find in games and puzzles and how our career choices are influenced. It includes some salutary pointers to the future where for example the pursuit of what is interesting in the field of human cloning will override controls on its prevention.

It seems to me that an inability to be content in having enough is at the heart of conflict between groups and unhappiness in individuals. Much of our Western way of living is built upon cultivating this sense of discontent. We must always be striving for something out of reach.

This book helps explain how our basic instinct can be subverted, but also offers us help. Unlike the stickleback, we are able to stand back and observe and should we choose, to make changes. The final chapter ‘Get Off the Plaster Egg’, implores us to do so.

Steve Unwin January 2013.