When I was a kid, bloating loomed pretty large in my mental landscape. We had ten acres of alfalfa, a milk cow, and several beef cattle, and we had to worry a lot about keeping the cattle from getting in to the alfalfa in the summer, or about chasing them out once they had got in. Because if they were allowed to, they would eat and eat the fresh, green alfalfa until their stomachs bloated up with methane gas and they died.

I saw a neighbor’s cow die of it. She was collapsed on the ground, her sides was bloated up like a balloon and she was fighting weakly to breath, and then she stopped. My dad saved our own cow when she got bloat. We found her in the field, where she shouldn’t be, staggering and distended. My dad came out with a hollow tube that was sharp at one end. My uncle steadied her while my dad stabbed the tube hard into her side. Green slime and gas exploded out.  It all made quite an impression on my young mind. I was somber about bloating, the way little kids can be when they are trying on being serious.

That all came back to mind recently. I am looking into getting livestock of my own in a small way. Most varieties of domestic animal I consider, the authorities warn that they are prone to overeating or overdrinking this or that, with the result that they die. Cattle aren’t the only animals that can satisfy themselves to death.

Two concepts from biology help explain this result. The first is hypertrophy. (I know y’all know this already, but bear with me while I run through it). Hypertrophy normally refers to organs that have grown all out of proportion because some natural limit on their growth has broken. NFL athletes have hypertrophied muscles for instance. In the ordinary state of things the human body doesn’t have that much time or incentive to devote to intense muscle training, or the scientific know how and technological aids to push muscle development to the very limits.  Now we do.  The result is impressive physiques, remarkable athletic feats, and joint problems and other injuries from a human frame that wasn’t meant to handle that much muscle. By extension, hypertrophy can also refer to biological behaviors or instincts that have grown beyond safe and normal limits.

The second concept is superstimulus. A superstimulus is input for some biological instinct where the input has gone beyond what would occur in the normal course of nature. Moths repeatedly bashing into streetlights is probably an example of a superstimulus. La Wik helpfully provides others. Superstimulus and hypertrophy can be two sides of the same coin. A superstimulus hypertrophies an instinct or behavior.

A superstimulus usually happens when the environment changes to send signals stronger than a creature is used to. The critter’s instincts worked fine in the environment they were adapted to, but now they overrespond.  (A superstimulus can also be deliberate manipulation. A changeling chick in another bird’s nest can get more food by exaggerating the host bird’s ‘feed me’ behavior.) Either way the phenomenon is some healthy instinct going too far when put in a situation it wasn’t meant for. The only difference is whether the change in situation was deliberate.

Cattle bloat because they have a natural, healthy instinct to eat protein-rich alfalfa when they find it.  But they don’t have a counterbalancing instinct that warns them against ungrazed fields of uniform, dense alfalfa.  Those fields don’t occur in nature.

Mankind isn’t immune from biology. That’s what it means to have a body. That’s what it means to be made flesh. Our environments change all the time and so do our stimuli. Look around for hypertrophied human instincts responding to superstimuli. You’ll find lots of possibilities.

Here are some of them.

  • Obesity: We’re getting fatter. One theory is that we’re just not used to having a yearlong, lifelong abundance of every kind of food. Another theory is that the tastes we crave and can’t stop munching are the tastes that are rarer or sporadic in nature: fats, sweets, salts, or simple starches.  They are rare no more. Another theory is that junk food and snack food manufacturers have precision engineered their products to hit our cravings.
  • Alcohol and Drug Addiction: There is some evidence that populations that haven’t been exposed to alcohol for as long, especially distilled alcohol, suffer more alcoholism. North American Indians are the classic example for the argument, but also northwest Europeans (who tend to binge drink to drunkenness more than southern Europeans do). Recreational drugs are another possibility. Take cocaine. There is a population of Andean Indians who may be accustomed to coca leaves. But most of us aren’t Andean Indians, cocaine is an extract of coca leaf that trebles and redoubles its potency, modern breeding techniques and commercial pressures have increased the potency of the leaf anyhow, and modern agricultural production and supply and wealth have made it ubiquitously available and affordable.
  • Social Media: Social media are deliberately engineered to trigger our natural social behaviors and instincts. But they do an end-run around the natural barriers that time and distance would put on our sociality and give us cues that we are being social and interactive even when the interactions lack most of the depth and context that normal sociality would have.  Social media also exaggerates our social cues, like the ‘feed me’ changeling chick.
  • Media: we grow up in small, very intimate social groups, and our instincts are probably adapted to relatively small social groups anyhow: clan, extended family, neighborhood, village.  Whether deliberately or accidentally, the mass media exploit and distort the instincts we have for spreading news and information to each other. (This is apart from the simple visual tricks that media use to attract attention, such as bright colors and quick movements). First, we simply aren’t accustomed to the idea that people and places that appear immediate and familiar aren’t necessarily so. We aren’t adapted to it. Back in the day, you would only get near real-time, vivid, and detailed information about some unfolding disaster if it closely touched people you knew.  Now we see disasters or scares from all over, and we don’t naturally and instinctively have the mental equipment to ignore them or at least to put them in perspective. Second, we aren’t accustomed to the media’s agenda setting. In the smaller, intimate setting of the family or the neighborhood, there are not so many events all happening all the time that it is necessary to filter through them. So when the media present us a menu of news, we tend to think that the menu is, in fact, the only things that are going on. But there are hundreds and thousands of things going on nationwide at any one time. There are dozens of press releases going out this hour. There are dozens of protests on all kinds of things, all happening today. The media has to be highly selective. The information we are presented is not ‘the news.’ It is a massively filtered version of the news. Even when the media don’t say anything false and don’t tell us what to think, they shape our mental agenda in a way that our instincts and mental toolkits don’t naturally accustom us to. Third, there is a framing effect.  Framing occurs naturally, of course.  But in our local spheres the framing can be less powerful because we are more directly connected to events.  We have access to unframed information.  In the media, all information we recieve is inherently framed.  Finally, the media rely on shallow social cues of objectivity that we aren’t fully equipped to doubt. In real life, we usually know enough about people to know that they have motives and personal agendas, and we adjust accordingly. Even then, there are objectivity cues that can be abused, as in gossip. The media provides a superstimulus of these cues.
  • Pornography—visual sexual stimulation wasn’t addictive aforehand because it wasn’t as widespread, cheap and easy, and varied.  There is some tentative evidence that males have a slight inborn tendence for novelty in sex, perhaps because it costs less for a male to sow wild oats.  If so, pornography abuses that novelty instinct–not even King Solomon in his glory or the Sultan of Turkey would have had so many women if he wanted.  Pornography substitutes the cues of sex–naked women, visual stimulus, apparent sexual activity–for actual sex.  Finally, I believe that mankind has a slight instinct against body fluids, as a protection against disease.  Because the core sexual human behavior involves body fluids on both parts, I also believe that sex inherently includes an element of overcoming or setting aside taboos.  I suspect that the pornography industry exploits this element of the sexual instinct too.
  • Childlessness—Our instincts and behaviors for childbearing just aren’t adapted to easy and effective contraceptives. Reproduction would have been much less a choice in the old days. Further, social systems didn’t exist that cared for you in your old age by taxing other people’s (the social science suggesting that old age pensions reduce TFR by up to .5 is surprisingly solid).  Our desire for status no longer aligns with childrearing, as it once would have. Finally, our increasing wealth and length of education may give false signals to people’s internal clocks about when they are ready to grow up and have children.
  • Gaming—gaming and gamification triggers accomplishment feelings, and reward and praise circuits, in ways that are spurious.
  • Dating and marriage expectations—ubiquitous media presenting an idealized and romanticized version of the other sex and of daily life feed false information into our mental toolkits for judging what is normal and average.
  • Peer pressure—the peer group would have been limited in our prior environment.  The implicit ‘vote’ against parental or church standards and teaching wouldn’t have been as large. But social media, warehouse high schools, general media, and increased mobility create a much larger real or even illusionary peer group.

The biological concept of superstimulus is curiously parallel to the doctrinal concept that sin consists of some good thing that has got bloated. C.S. Lewis remarked that “[e]very sin is the distortion of an energy breathed into us.” See also President Packer’s teaching that one key in the gospel piano, played disproportionately, makes for an ill tune or basically any sermon on chastity.  Both science and religion recognize the possibility of instincts and adapations that are helpful in the context they were meant for, but harmful outside it.

In Part II, I will address specific prophetic responses to the superstimuli in our changing environment. Though some argue that ‘old, out-of-date’ priesthood authorities should be heeded less the more rapidly the world changes, I will argue that it is precisely when our instincts and social customs are least adapted to the new environment that we need prophetic counsel the most.

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