Gordon Orians’ Snakes, Sunrises, and Shakespeare is a delightful primer on how our deep evolutionary past still shapes our modern tastes, desires, and aversions. When reading Orians’ plain language, one can imagine being on a pleasant walk through the woods or an art museum as the ornithologist/naturalist/author breezily weaves together seemingly disparate topics: our species’ unique fondness for spices, our musical tastes, and the design of our gardens and parks, to name a few – woven with the threads of human evolutionary biology. Orians tells these tales essentially as a string of ghost stories – the specters of the sometimes horrifying, sometimes delightful, and always very real experiences of our distant past vividly returned to haunt the halls of our modern cranial castles.
Many of the examples are immediately plausible – they make intuitive sense, and then they are further backed up by comparative observational and controlled psychological experiments. This is especially true in Orians’ chapter about food preferences and aversions. For instance, Orians argues that our affinity for adding spices to our foods emerged from a need to protect foods – particularly meats – from pathogens. These observations are paired with a clever review of several thousand recipes from a global array of cookbooks, which revealed that vegetable recipes universally contain far fewer spices than meat recipes.
Likewise, Orians argues that morning sickness in pregnant women is an evolutionarily derived response to the danger of exposing a first trimester fetus to food-borne pathogens. This plausible explanation is ably backed with an observation that miscarriage rates are lower in women who experience first trimester morning sickness, as well as a comparative study of pregnancy-related morning sickness in women from 27 modern hunter-gatherer societies. Of this group, only women from the 7 societies that do not eat meat had no history of morning sickness. While attention to the evolutionary roots of illness is quite brief in this book, interested readers will find abundant support for this theory in Randolph Nesse and George William’s primer on evolutionary medicine, Why We Get Sick (Nesse and Williams 1994).
What I like best about this book are the quick hits on many very important and deep issues that pop out by surprise amidst the breezy story telling. For example, Orians proposes a surprisingly simple root explanation for the well known “negativity bias,” in which we go to greater lengths to avoid loss than to secure gains. He argues that this bias emerges from the asymmetrically high costs false negatives (failing to respond to a truly dangerous situation) relative to false positives (assuming danger when no risk is actually present) for our ancestral selves. This bias has continual implications in our modern world. For example, it can explain the recent finding (which surprised classical economists) that young people have been signing up for Obamacare in much greater numbers than expected despite the fact that the cost of buying a health plan is greater than the penalty they would have to pay for not buying a plan. It seems that negativity bias prevails: These people simply did not want to pay a fee (lose money) to get nothing, even if that meant paying more to get something of an actual value that was likely to be quite low to a healthy young person.
There’s also a satisfyingly recurring theme about how our evolutionarily derived responses to various stimuli get expressed through a balance of conscious and subconscious reactions. This dual reaction frames how our ancestral selves likely engaged with new environments through an initial subconscious encounter phase and then later through a more deliberate and conscious explore phase. The encounter and explore model then seems to reemerge in our modern responses to many of the phenomena discussed in the book. For example, we have a number of subconscious responses to new or unfamiliar foods, including a strong and universally expressed sense of disgust for certain foods (that not coincidentally are those with a high likelihood of containing pathogens), but once foods make it through that first level screening, we treat them as more conscious explorations – deliberately adding spices to certain foods or altering them through cooking.
Although I do enjoy an evolutionarily infused yarn as much as the next This View of Life editor, I did feel my skeptical voice agitating my brain protectively in a few sections. The chapter on gardens and parks as modern manifestations of our ancestors’ ideal savannah-based habitats was somewhat unconvincing. I could not figure out why western, middle-eastern, and far-eastern gardens, which are about as far apart aesthetically as gardens can be, could all be incarnations of our deep seeded desires for safe and productive landscapes. If all of these forms – manicured and hedged cloisters of the English garden, the verdant and luxuriant pleasure gardens of the near East, and the meditative simplicity of a Japanese tea garden – manage to reflect an evolutionary ideal, my question is, “What type of garden doesn’t reflect this ideal?”
Moreover, in all of these cases, don’t more proximal explanations suffice to explain both the existence of and the components contained within these diverse garden forms? It would seem that regional weather patterns and ecology, trade history, and the dictates of regional societal and religious norms are adequate enough to explain the linearity of a European garden and the tranquil serenity of a Japanese rock garden. There is very little discussion throughout the book on the key question of proximal vs. ultimate explanation and why, and when, one type should trump another.
Late in the book, Orians claims that gardens that don’t fit the savannah-based ideal are indeed also reflections of our evolutionary past – in these cases mediated through sexual selection – because our alteration of these kinds of gardens demonstrates our “power, wealth, and status.” But this caveat unearths a deeper level of questioning about evolutionary psychology. Specifically, if the ghosts of our evolutionary past can explain such a broad swathe of our modern experience – if, in essence, evolution explains everything – it may be impossible to even devise alternative hypotheses in some cases.
This is not a fatal flaw. Scientists are increasingly unshackling themselves from the Popperian notion that only falsifiable claims are scientific. Our modern capabilities to synthesize large data bases across widely disparate information sources allows us to more robustly use induction and pattern finding to derive scientific inference – a point that drives my book with Aníbal Pauchard, Observation and Ecology (Sagarin and Pauchard 2012).
Nonetheless, if evolutionary psychology must necessarily tread this road to inference, there will need to be much more data. Almost all the stories Orians relates in the book are backed by research, but usually less than a handful of studies. Despite huge gains by the likes of John Tooby and Leda Cosmeides and their students and colleagues, the field is still in its infancy, and this makes a simple primer like Orians’ Snakes, Sunrises, and Shakespeare a timely resource for a field that will increasingly draw both casual observers and dedicated researchers.
Nesse, R. & Williams, G. (1994). Why we get sick: The new science of Darwinian medicine.
New York: Random House.
Sagarin, R. & Pauchard, A. (2012). Observation and ecology: Broadening the scope of science to
understand a complex world. Washington, DC: Island Press
From the book’s website:
We fear snakes because of the danger of venom or constriction, and we welcome the assurances of the sunrise as the predatory dangers of the dark night disappear. Many of our aesthetic preferences—from the kinds of gardens we build to the foods we enjoy and the entertainment we seek—are the lingering result of natural selection.
In this ambitious and unusual work, evolutionary biologist Gordon H. Orians explores the role of evolution in human responses to the environment, beginning with why we have emotions and ending with evolutionary approaches to aesthetics. Orians reveals how our emotional lives today are shaped by decisions our ancestors made centuries ago on African savannas as they selected places to live, sought food and safety, and socialized in small hunter-gatherer groups. During this time our likes and dislikes became wired in our brains, as the appropriate responses to the environment meant the difference between survival or death. His rich analysis explains why we mimic the tropical savannas of our ancestors in our parks and gardens, why we are simultaneously attracted to danger and approach it cautiously, and how paying close attention to nature’s sounds has resulted in us being an unusually musical species. We also learn why we have developed discriminating palates for wine, why we have strong reactions to some odors, and why we enjoy classifying almost everything.
By applying biological perspectives ranging from Darwin to current neuroscience to analyses of our aesthetic preferences for landscapes, sounds, smells, plants, and animals, Snakes, Sunrises, and Shakespeare transforms how we view our experience of the natural world and how we relate to each other.
Video of Gordon Orian discussing his book’s inspiration and ideas.