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Sunday, January 09, 2005

The Usual Suspects

In the movie ‘Casablanca’, Humphrey Bogart has just shot an evil Nazi. The Captain of the Gendarmes rushes up, and seeing Bogie with smoking gun in hand, exclaims to his arriving compatriots: “Someone’s been shot! Round up the usual suspects!”

For uncritical slouches like the general public, and intellectual slouches in particular like your typical psychologist, it’s easy to solve a behavioral enigma by ignoring the smoking gun, and going straight to the usual suspects. In modern times, quite often the usual subjects are cavemen. Cavemen are of course long gone, yet live conveniently through the behavioral characteristics they pass onto us through their genes. But just like leaving DNA behind in a strand of hair can convict you of a crime, we can convict our ancestors of influencing our behavior through leaving their DNA behind as an inheritance. This makes for great armchair theorizing, and stupid articles that find their way into mainstream journals and magazines. In an article in the latest issue of Time magazine, the caveman suspect rises again to be the main culprit behind, ta dum, sports frenzy. The article quotes a clueless social psychologist who became perplexed with the fact that people get all revved up to watch and celebrate baseball and football games. Naturally, this inexplicable behavior had to with ancient tribal rites held long ago that bonded ancient people together, and presumably increased their collective fittedness, which they proceeded to genetically hand down to you, me, and every other Boston Red Sox fan.

Cave Man Frenzy Posted by Hello

Naturally, people like to play games, and when the stakes are high, so is their interest. And of course, in games there are winners and losers. But do we need cavemen to figure out the resulting equation leading to sports excitement? Indeed, a better culprit is all those cave monkeys and cave shrews that preceded our ancestors in that great chain of evolutionary being. Playing, competing, looking out for and enjoying the positive uncertainties of life represent foraging or seeking responses that preceded cavemen by millions of years. We know them now as games, but because we have a lot of grey matter to virtualize the implications of our wins and losses, there is no need to carry off our winnings like a squirrel carries off nuts for the winter when we can just imagine it. Best of all, the smoking gun is literally in our heads, the neural circuitry that makes playing, well, fun. You see, the brain was the smoking gun all along, and right before you. Sherlock Holmes would have known this, and even I gather Inspector Clouseau, and all without having to trot out the usual suspects.

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