Originally posted by Aim64C
People have come to place faith and belief in various scientific theories. An example I run across is the theory that certain mental/emotional
concepts can be genetically encoded, such as fears. When asked about how the image of dragons could span cultures that have never had any contact
with each other, a few renowned scientists have given the explanation that it's a genetically encoded fear - a medley of snakes, large cats, and
birds. Which, as a theory, is perfectly fine. However, why is it accepted? It's not because science supports it. I've never seen any research
that suggests fears can be inherited through genetics (much less fears that can generate mental images). Though the above explanation is commonly
assumed to be "scientific" because it disregards the "superstitious," even though the Scientific process has yet to validate the hypothesis as
OK, I think you are correct that we wouldn't have a genetically determined fear of say a snake. However, do you not think some could have a
genetically determined tendency to find long wriggling things disgusting and scary? To find the movement and shape attention grabbing and
I'll try a rather related example which I know of. Lets say that we think rabbits have an innate fear of foxes in some way. The alternative would be
that this fear is learned, a sort of social learning or perhaps learning from personal experience.
How could we test this?
One way would be to raise a group of rabbits out of their natural environment. In such an environment the rabbits do not experience foxes and other
predators. Thus no social learning or learning by personal experience can really take place. They don't have the experiences to build on. IF we think
that there is some innate biological mechanism that induces fear/threat responses in rabbits from predator stimuli, then these responses will still be
We can't just throw them into an environment with a fox, as they will likely show neophobia anyway and a resultant FFFF response. So how to test?
I get such a group of rabbits and provide them a choice paradigm. We can test emotional responses by their approach and withdrawing responses to
stimuli. So we provide a choice between bowls of their normal food. One bowl has the odour of fox crap, one has the odour of sheep crap.
Remember these rabbits have never been exposed to sheep or foxes, both are new stimuli, so they are equally neophobic. Their behaviour will suggest
some form of innate preference, as no stimulus-response learning was possible.
What d'ya think was found?
Well, they preferred the sheep bowl. I can't find this particular study (it is out there somewhere), but such odour studies have been performed in
numerous species, from mice and rats to monkeys. It appears that the response is actually to a component of anal gland excretions in many predators.
Similar studies also show stress and fear responses to such stimuli.
Therefore, it's not the sight of a predator itself in this case (although the visual stimuli would be easily learned by odour association), not even
the poop as a whole. But one chemical component of predator odour that appears to be especially sensitive and threat-inducing to these animals.
A related study
Obviously, we think this is innate in some way, indeed exposure to these novel odours induces neurochemical responses in areas of the brain associated
with reward and punishment/emotion. But what about emotions in humans?
Here, one line of work is relates genetics and neuroimaging, and is suggesting that people who possess certain genetic profiles (particularly related
to serotonin transmitters, as this is fairly well tested) show differential brain activity to emotional stimuli, and also different tendencies to
Genetics and Emotion
More Hariri genetics studies
So back to the snakes and spiders thing. Why wouldn't we have an innate tendency to associate slithering long things and creeping things with threat
and fear? It would be an adaptive behaviour, no?
That's not to say we do, of course. Pretty hard to test properly, ethics would not really allow it. But it is fairly certain that genetics does
underpin a predisposition for emotional responses and psychopathology, and that it can also lead to a tendency to associate certain stimuli with fear
at an innate level - very likely for odours in many species.
But it's still a nature-nurture issue, and learning/experience/environment will be just as relevant to behaviour.
[edit on 7-7-2008 by melatonin]