Our First Nature Needs Second Natures

You, at this precise moment, are doing at least two things that show... "It is in our first nature to need second natures." These second natures give us access to a behavioral toolkit that is nowhere in our genes. 


It is in our first nature to need second natures. We are born to acquire new habits which give us access to a behavioral toolkit that is nowhere in our genes. But this otherwise wise strategy means we often act without consciously thinking.

1. You, at this precise moment, are using two second natures (one easy one hard). English is a particular configuration of your first-nature language system which, if acquired early, became a second nature easily and automatically. But reading is a second nature skill needing hard slow schooling.

2. Language is innate but using text is “painstakingly bolted on.” Maryanne Wolf notes that reading has “no direct genetic program passing it on…” It can’t have: text has been widely available for only about 20 generations, and most of us have illiterate ancestors much more recently.

3. Yet you are using your painstakingly acquired textual skills effortlessly, decoding this string of symbols without a second—or even a first conscious—thought. That thoughtlessness is a second-nature miracle, which billions of us routinely repeat.

4. Darwin understood the importance of second natures noting that: “anything performed very often by us, will at last be done without deliberation or hesitation, and can then hardly be distinguished from an instinct” and that “nature by making habit omnipotent, and its effects hereditary, has fitted the Fuegian” to his environment. Those short sentences sow the seeds of ideas still insufficiently harvested and of confusions yet unclarified.

5. Habits are “omnipotent” because repetitive behavior is mainly what evolution works on. In calling the effect of habits hereditary Darwin followed Lamarck who believed that acquired traits could be inherited. Though falsified for first natures, that idea is fitter for second natures (= acquired behavioral traits, which are culturally inherited and cumulatively improved).

6. Born with brains far from finished, we evolved to absorb easily, or acquire arduously, the second nature habits of our culture. This gives us a behavioral toolbox that can adapt much faster than our genes, and means we can avoid reinventing behavioral wheels.

7. But second-nature behaviors tend to be triggered automatically. We consciously think before we act less often than we think we do. Instead we spend much of our lives thoughtlessly reaping the repeated harvest of habits previously sown.

8. The sapiens in Homo sapiens means wise. But much of our wisdom isn’t individual, it’s collective, relying on the solutions of wiser others.

Reason dictates that we should choose our second natures wisely, since force of habit ensures we will repeatedly enact them without deliberation. We are habit-forming and habit-farming animals.

 

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

American education: It’s colleges, not college students, that are failing

Who is to blame for the U.S.'s dismal college graduation rate? "Radical" educator Dennis Littky has a hunch.

Percentage of college student dropouts by age at enrollment: 2-year and 4-year institutions

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • COVID-19 has magnified the challenges that underserved communities face with regard to higher education, such as widening social inequality and sky-high tuition.
  • At College Unbound, where I am president, we get to know students individually to understand what motivates them, so they can build a curriculum based on goals they want to achieve.
  • My teaching mantra: Everything is permitted during COVID-19. Everything is permitted during COVID-19. Everything is permitted during COVID-19.
Keep reading Show less

The mystery of the Bermuda Triangle may finally be solved

Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.

Surprising Science

One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.

Keep reading Show less

STARTS 11 AM ET | The 'Great Midlife Edit': How to master your middle years

Did you know that shifting to a positive perspective on aging can add 7.5 years to your life? Or that there is a provable U-curve of happiness that shows people get happier after age 50?

Big Think LIVE

Add event to calendar


Keep reading Show less

These countries are leading the transition to sustainable energy

Sweden tops the ranking for the third year in a row.

AXEL SCHMIDT/DDP/AFP via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

What does COVID-19 mean for the energy transition? While lockdowns have caused a temporary fall in CO2 emissions, the pandemic risks derailing recent progress in addressing the world's energy challenges.

Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…