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Inheriting Second Natures

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It is in our first nature to get second natures. Born with the habit of acquiring new habits we access a behavioral toolkit that is nowhere in our genes. A weakness of this otherwise wise strategy is that we often act without consciously thinking.

You, at this precise moment, are using an easy and a hard second nature. 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 skill requiring hard slow schooling. Language is innate but, as Steven Pinker says, 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.

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.

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. 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, which are acquired behavioral traits that are culturally inherited and that can be cumulatively improved.

Born with brains far from finished, we are destined to absorb easily, or to acquire arduously, the second nature habits of our culture. This enables us to avoid reinventing behavioral wheels and gives us a behavioral toolbox that can adapt much faster than our genes. With this comes a predisposition for second-nature behaviors 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.

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.

Previously in this series:

It Is in Our Nature to Be Self-Deficient

Jag Bhalla About the Author: Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at It explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles Follow on Twitter @hangingnoodles.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 6:59 pm 04/25/2013

    IMO, Darwin was referring to something quite different from speech acquisition, as there seems to be an inherent ability for all infants to recognize and produce a fixed superset of phonemes, those that are not incorporated in a language learned by around 5 years of age are about that time eliminated, as if neural networks are deleted. This inherent capability for language acquisition is not just a matter of repetition or training, as in riding a bicycle…

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  2. 2. jsweck 5:41 am 04/26/2013

    Language is a kind of habit, and all habits are learned. Habits are information stored in memory, aka software. That software forms the basis of perception in mind. Perception is always anchored to a software system. That software does the analysis/ problem solving aspect of perception. Computers work the same way – all sensors and effectors are tied to software entities. Logic gates and neural nets are irrelevant – they are hardware systems.

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  3. 3. jtdwyer 7:50 am 04/26/2013

    jsweek, no, language is not a learned ‘habit’.

    Please, for example, refer to “Neural language networks at birth”,
    Its abstract states:
    “The ability to learn language is a human trait. In adults and children, brain imaging studies have shown that auditory language activates a bilateral frontotemporal network with a left hemispheric dominance. It is an open question whether these activations represent the complete neural basis for language present at birth. Here we demonstrate that in 2-d-old infants, the language-related neural substrate is fully active in both hemispheres with a preponderance in the right auditory cortex. Functional and structural connectivities within this neural network, however, are immature, with strong connectivities only between the two hemispheres, contrasting with the adult pattern of prevalent intrahemispheric connectivities. Thus, although the brain responds to spoken language already at birth, thereby providing a strong biological basis to acquire language, progressive maturation of intrahemispheric functional connectivity is yet to be established with language exposure as the brain develops.”

    The research report’s introduction begins:
    “Humans have the unique ability to acquire language. In 1871, Darwin (1) postulated that language is an instinct. The fact that young children acquire language spontaneously when provided with language input already suggests a biological predisposition to acquire language.”

    Instincts are not learned habits.

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  4. 4. jsweck 10:33 am 04/26/2013

    Hi jtdwyer,
    All aspects of language are learned – words, grammar, writing, and prosody, etc. If a person is not trained in language, then they will not think, speak, or write language. There is no special language processor in the brain. The cortex is a vast memory system. Big memories potentially mean big software, and big software means big problem solving and complex behaviors. Newborns have no mind at all, just some bootstrapping automation – like a computer. Only after lengthy learning does language exist. The software in the brain is not some paint job on the system, it’s the stuff that actually understands the world and solves the problems – the software is the mind. Each mental capability is anchored in this vast mind software system. Genetics (the hardware manufacturing software) does not determine this system. The important part of who you are as a person is this software. So you can’t manufacture whole people using genetics, just the hardware portion of the system.
    You can see how this works using a computer example (let’s say, making it speak). From a hardware perspective, you need to informationally tie a speaker to a memory. Now when an electrical engineer probes his memory hardware he’s going to see signals roughly in proportion to the signal that’s being processed. This doesn’t mean that his hardware is in control of the system, or determines behavior. Only software can determine significant behaviors. In a normally functioning system, from a hardware perspective, what you see is quasi-random behavior. That’s because the hardware is not in control – the hardware simply does as it’s told.
    The quality of the system’s language is directly proportional to the quality of the software. The only contribution that the hardware supplies is the ability to run more software, and the ability to run that software faster. The actual perception of things and the habits of the system are all determined 100% by the software system. The hardware never participates in the perception of anything – habits, experience, or learning. These concepts only make sense in a software context. There is no such thing as “perceiving hardware”.
    The software system is always completely separate from the hardware. This is why psychology is completely separate from biology. If one day we replace the biology, the psychology will stay the same.

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  5. 5. curmudgeon 11:42 am 04/26/2013

    “There is no special language processor in the brain.”

    Say what now?

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  6. 6. jtdwyer 6:38 pm 04/26/2013

    Hi jsweck.
    “… Now when an electrical engineer probes his memory hardware he’s going to see signals roughly in proportion to the signal that’s being processed…”

    I’m a retired information systems analyst – I’ve written a great deal of software and configured the hardware and software for some of the world’s largest computer systems. In my professional opinion you should drop the computer analogy – it’s not helping you make your case.

    Children learn to speak without any instruction in grammar or syntax, etc. I strongly recommend you read at least the abstract of the peer reviewed research report quoted in my preceding comment. Sorry I don’t have the energy to continue this discussion.

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  7. 7. jsweck 1:20 pm 04/29/2013

    Curmudgeon – there is no specialized hardware to solve mind-like things in the brain. In the computer world, this is also true – there are no special walker-behavior generators, speech- behavior generators, etc. There is only hardware and software. The software is the system that does these things. It’s the software that has the mind subsystems. This is why psychologists don’t traverse neurons to solve mental problems. The memory system content is what needs to be traversed.

    I’m not using an analogy – that is exactly how I see it, in the plainest language. So kids figure out their own grammar, it’s all still learned,(stored in memory), therefore it’s all software. I get the sense that you disagree with parts of what I’m saying – which parts?

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  8. 8. lhf_laugh 5:26 pm 04/29/2013

    The fact that most of our behavior is second-nature, or habit driven, is proving extremely hazardous to our health. We are following cultural leads, which are leaving us underactive, sedentary, stressed and overeating. It’s time to be counter-cultural.

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  9. 9. ultimobo 6:34 pm 06/7/2013

    sorry to continue the computer analogy – but I was telling my IT students (young, impressed with computers) a few days ago that if the brain contains (say) a billion neurones, and each can form a connection (dendrites) with 100,000 other neurones, then – correct me if I’m wrong – the number of possible neural pathways (memories) in the brain can be a billion to the power of 100k or a number with nearly a million zeros.

    When I asked them how many zeroes in your latest computer – terabytes, etc – let’s see – 12 zeros ? Wow – suddenly they saw the difference.

    Thus I summated – computers are really fast at serial calculations like maths without making human mistakes – but when it comes to complex life problems – ‘what should I do !?’ – we typically first ask a friend – who has a complex understanding on many levels of our personality, likes and dislikes, skills and experience, and can consider on multiple (parallel) levels and come up with a single short answer – ‘don’t worry about it’ – or ‘hurry up and do this’ – and it can be the correct and best advice more often than not.

    As for second order vs habit – driving is very difficult at first, but becomes habit – repetition reinforces/reduces the resistance of synapses of somesuch so much of our repetitive decision-making becomes automatic – this is necessary to prevent us being overwhelmed with information each day (viz Aspergers or such).

    Call it second order – call it parallel processing – I call it wonderful – while others are busy playing with their ‘smart’phones I’m gazing at the perfect blue sky – works for me !

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