Biology and Behavior: How to Predict What We'll Do - Elizabeth

Do we have any control over our actions? Have we fallen in love because of a personal connection with another individual or because their pheromones indicate a differing immune system that would produce strong children? Are our choices our own or are they predetermined by our genetics? Encapsulated in the longstanding debate of “nature versus nurture,” these questions have long perplexed the scientific community. Behavior specifically, one of the main focuses of biologists, is something that many a scientist has attempted to predict with varying levels of success.

Animal behavior is largely driven by natural selection. Belding’s ground squirrels have developed a form of predator warning. Series of whistles and trills elicit specific physiological responses that cause the squirrels to act in different ways for different predators. If a predator is seen on land, the squirrel that spots it will first get to safety and then call what is known as a trill. In response to a trill, nearby Belding’s ground squirrels will stand up on their hind legs and attempt to locate the predator to determine the level of danger. However, if a predator is seen in the sky, a Belding’s ground squirrel will immediately issue what is known as a whistle. This whistle draws attention to the squirrel that issues it, but succeeds in warning the community about a much greater danger. In response to a whistle, the nearby squirrels will drop everything they are doing and bolt for the nearest cover (Sherman). This pattern of behavior developed via natural selection, and, by running experiments, biologists can establish patterns of behavior for animals such as the Belding’s ground squirrel and use those patterns to predict future action.

Behavior in humans is much harder to predict. The ultimate mode used to determine behavior, according to some biologists, is genetics. The strands of nucleic acids made up from the basic elements of life instruct both the creation of our body and the subsequent maintenance. Since there’s a handy guidebook for how to build a body, one would assume that that body’s subsequent actions could be predicted. In many cases this is true. Children with learning disorders were once believed to be slow and lazy, but research has revealed anomalies in their genetic code that impedes brain function. Similarly, hypoglycemia induced by lack of carbohydrates can decrease a person’s ability to empathize, as seen in a study of Israeli judges that determined that the biggest indicator of how harsh a sentencing would be was how recently the judge had eaten lunch. More generally it has been observed that, when making judgments, the emotional centers of our brain kick on first, causing our decisions to be the product of predetermined emotion rather than logic or reasoning (Raz). However, this theory isn’t perfect. If our actions are so predictable (and usually centered around self preservation), how do you explain people who put themselves in harm’s way for someone they barely know or even those who give a compliment to strangers on the street? Obviously, looking at the genetic makeup of an individual can give you clues about their behavior, but there remains an unquantifiable aspect of humanity that cannot be encapsulated by adenine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine.


Works Cited

Raz, Guy. “Hardwired.” TED Radio Hour. NPR, 25 Aug. 2017. Web. Accessed 18 Sept. 2017.

Sherman, Paul W. “Alarm calls of Belding’s ground squirrels to aerial predators: nepotism or self-preservation?” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 17.4 (1985): 313-323. Springer. Web. Accessed 18 Sept. 2017.