Science Proves Keen Interest in Animals “Vestigial”

Well, not really.

But a conclusion to that effect was drawn from research published recently in the (online) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

From the story by Jeanna Bryner of

The research…reveals that humans today are hard-wired to pay attention to other people and animals much more so than non-living things, even if inanimate objects are the primary hazards for modern, urbanized folks.

‘We’re assuming that natural selection takes a long time to build anything
anew and that’s why this is left over from our past,’ said study team member Leda Cosmides, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).

Immersed in a rich, biotic environment, it would have been imperative for our ancestors to monitor both humans and non-human animals. Predators and prey took many different forms—lions, tigers and bears—and they changed often, so constant eyeballing was critical.

While the environment has changed since then, with high-rises emerging where forests once took root and pampered pets taking the place of stalking beasts, our instinct-driven attention has not followed suit.

‘Having this pop-out attentional bias for animals is sort of a vestigial behavior,’ said study team member Joshua New of Yale University’s Perception and Cognition Lab.

New’s conclusion is based on the measured speed and accuracy with with test subjects correctly identified changes to projected scenes of animate and inanimate objects: Subjects tested better at identifying changes when people and animals were present.

This study should surprise no one, not even “modern, urbanized people” in more danger from large cars than from large animals.

Certainly everyone in advertising knows that people stare at other people and at animals. How many commercials can you recall that don’t feature either? Cutout ads for wheelbarrows and car tires can run without a smiling face or a puppy, but those are pricepoint appeals to the head. When the goal is basic, visceral reaction—heart and gut—smart ads feature emotive people and cuddly or cool-looking animals.

Consumers of great literature will concur. How many classic stories can you name with neither people nor animals in them? And how many have both?

The preponderance of people, plants and animals in other works of art is obvious. Isn’t it, in fact, the absence of these familiar subjects that partly defines “abstract” art, and partly what makes it a challenge for many to enjoy?

Despite the curious conclusions of some, human interest in living things is hardly comparable to our appendix or coccyx—it is central to the human condition.

What else is there? Should we fall in love with buildings or keep telephones as pets?

Can we eat rocks?

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