Tag Archives: Tinbergen’s why questions

Red or Green?

This was taken in December 2014 during a visit home. Note the complete lack of snow or any sign of winter present.

I was born and raised in Las Cruces, New Mexico. It’s hard to pick out what I miss most about this gorgeous little city nestled in the desert. Perhaps it’s the overwhelming friendliness–the way that people aren’t afraid to joke and laugh with total strangers. Maybe it’s the 350 days of sunshine a year and the blissful ability to perceive the 70’s as brisk weather. Or, it might just be that little green pepper, the one that tastes like pure happiness and instantly transports me back home–Hatch green chile.

I am about to make a claim that will sound utterly ridiculous to most people and completely mundane to any New Mexican: My favorite hobby is tracking down and consuming Hatch green chile.

A picture of me that my roommate took at the Wegmans’ Hatch Chile Festival in Binghamton, NY in 2016.

To understand how it is that I can declare grocery shopping and eating as the hobby that most defines me, one first needs to understand that green chile is not just food to New Mexicans–it’s a central part of our culture. In fact, this weekend tens of thousands of people will descend upon the New Mexico village of Hatch for the annual Hatch Chile Festival. But it doesn’t take a special event like a festival to get New Mexicans excited about green chile, we incorporate it into everything that we eat. We add green chile to burgers, pizza, sandwiches, and breakfast. We have green chile wine, green chile toffee, and green chile custard. Fast food chains like Sonic or McDonalds let you add green chile to any of the menu items for a few quarters. New Mexico is even the only state that has an official question: “Red or green?”

In 2010, I moved to New Paltz, NY to attend grad school for my M.A. in Psychology. In the months prior to my departure, each joyful congratulations about my move from my fellow New Mexicans was quickly followed with their condolences that I would soon be unable to easily get green chile. Indeed, I found one of the hardest adjustments to my new life on the East Coast was the difference in food.

A combination platter smothered in green chile and cheese.

Each time I would return home, my mom would have a combination platter smothered in green chile waiting for me in the car so that the second I was off the plane I could start to get my green chile fix.

However, to my surprise, I wouldn’t have to go completely without green chile while I was in New York. Each time that I would stumble upon a place that had Hatch green chile it would be a day of intense celebration. I would quickly buy 20 pounds or more to store in my freezer to carefully portion out through the next year. Beyond just the joy of having my stash of peppers in the freezer, was the fun of getting to share this treasure with New Yorkers who had never even heard of Hatch, New Mexico.

My first Hatch Chile Festival at Wegmans in Binghamton, NY in 2014. I literally wept tears of joy in the parking lot when I smelled the green chile roasting.

From explaining to the perplexed employees what the hell I was planning on doing with that much green chile, to introducing my friends to the wonders of this food–these were the moments where I got to share New Mexico with New York. I would tell anyone who would listen about our cultural obsession as I channeled Bubba from Forrest Gump with my endless list of everything that green chile can go into. Through following leads and sheer luck, I was able to have a stock of green chile in my freezer for 5 out of the 7 years I was in New York.  

Now, as I begin my life down in the south, I was overjoyed to find in my first week here that a local restaurant was willing to sell me Hatch green chile. The manager was very kind as he gently explained that they could, unfortunately, only sell it to me in 5 pound bags. I did my best to hold in my laughter as I explained that this wouldn’t be a problem as I was hoping to buy 20 pounds to freeze. After confirming with him several times that he did hear me correctly and that I did understand how much that would cost (~$80), he brought out the most beautiful sight that any New Mexican living out of state could possibly see:

20 lbs. of Hatch Green Chile that I acquired during my first week in Alabama.

So, why do I have this obsession and can Tinbergen’s 4 questions help get at the answer?

Proximal: Proximate is always the easy one. At the most basic level, I eat green chile because green chile is delicious. I continue to seek out and consume green chile because it tastes very good to me. The more interesting question, of course, is why?

Functional: Before we ask, why green chile tastes “good” to me, we should  really start by asking, “why do we taste things at all?” In general, it is adaptive to have keen gustatory abilities so that you can detect potential toxins. Thus, when something tastes “bad” we generally develop an aversion to it; and, lo and behold, that thing that tasted “bad” is more often than not something that could be potentially harmful to your health and should be avoided.

In fact, Dr. Gordon Gallup gave a fascinating talk in the SUNY New Paltz Evolutionary Studies seminar series when I was a grad student that argued that one of the major overlooked factors in the mass extinction of dinosaurs was their inability to develop taste aversion to toxic plants

Now, to our main question. There are a couple of reasons for why I have such a positive reaction when I consume this substance. One interesting evolutionary hypothesis proposed by Dr. Jennifer Billing and Dr. Paul Sherman in the late 1990s suggests that spices (many of which are powerful antimicrobial agents) may aid in reproductive success by cleansing foods of pathogens; thus, those individuals who find these flavors enjoyable would have an advantage when it comes to health and survival since the food they consume is less likely to be contaminated. To support this hypothesis, the authors demonstrate that areas with a higher mean temperatures and thus a higher likelihood of food spoilage (i.e. pathogen contamination) also contain more spices in their cuisine. Given the hot climate of the southwest, it was likely adaptive to incorporate chile peppers into the local cuisine.

Another reason for my green chile obsession is likely due to this being an in-group marker for my identity as someone born and raised in Las Cruces, NM. By eating green chile, I feel connected to my group–something that is highly desirable in an incredibly social species like humans. Additionally, it might be that demonstrating my ability to consume spicy foods is a form of costly signalling as it demonstrates pain tolerance.

Phylogeny: We can also make an argument for an evolutionary legacy here. Humans have been adding spices to their food for thousands of years. Additionally, we see this cross-culturally which suggests a shared evolutionary history.  In fact, in Billing and Sherman (1999), 22 out of the 34 countries examined had chile peppers in their traditional recipes.

Ontogeny: Preference for green chile does depend on a number of factors related to age and reproductive state. For instance, as I’ve grown older, I have started to enjoy hotter peppers than I did as a child. Additionally, it might be that this preference for spicy foods would change depending on my current reproductive state. A somewhat controversial theory put forth by Margie Profet in the late 1980s and later expanded upon by Flaxman and Sherman in 2000 suggests that a pregnant woman’s taste aversions and cravings in the first trimester are an adaptive mechanism for protecting a vulnerable fetus as well as a vulnerable mother who is immunosuppressed in the first trimester so that she does not reject the growing embryo. This could mean that preferences for spicy foods like green chile might change during this stage. 

In conclusion, if you ever get the chance to try Hatch green chile–do it! Just be warned that you may end up with a packed freezer and an uncontrollable reaction to suggest that every meal you have “would be better if they added green chile.”

For Additional Reading: 

  • Billing, J., & Sherman, P. W. (1998). Antimicrobial functions of spices: why some like it hot. The Quarterly review of biology73(1), 3-49.
  • Flaxman, S. M., & Sherman, P. W. (2000). Morning sickness: a mechanism for protecting mother and embryo. The Quarterly review of biology75(2), 113-148.
  • Profet, M. (1988). The evolution of pregnancy sickness as protection to the embryo against Pleistocene teratogens. Evolutionary Theory8(3), 177-190.

Run it! Run it!

Sing the title of this post to “Run it” by Chris Brown while watching this gif and tell me you didn’t smile.

I wrote this before I realized someone else also wrote about running as their hobby…. hopefully our posts are different enough to not be redundant.

Me after my first 5k!

Running is not something I ever thought I would enjoy. Even after I started running for fitness, I did it infrequently. I would push myself too hard, injure myself, and have to back off before I could do anything else. Last year, I decided I wanted to participate in a color run (specifically Color Me Rad). I learned how to pace myself and trained like crazy. I discovered it was something I enjoyed… a lot! I even decided I would sign up for the running class here at UA (who doesn’t want class credit for doing something they love?). Anyway, here is my experience with running using Tinbergen’s four “Why” questions.

  • Historical: Legends of the first marathon come from Greece in the 5th century BCE. After the Athenians defeated the Persians at Marathon, Pheidippides was tasked with delivering the news to Athens.
    Statue of Pheidippides on Marathon Road

    He ran approximately 26 miles (the length of a modern marathon) to deliver the news, and subsequently collapsed and died from exhaustion. Competitive marathon races were started in the modern Olympic Games in 1896 to honor this part Greek history.
    Let’s rewind a little bit before moving on. In the 16th century, jogging was a common part of training for swordsmen. In the 19th century, running was part of the training regimen of many athletic sports. The modern running fad was started when Bill Bowerman published Jogging  in 1966. Recreational running was born from these events.

  • Proximal: Why did I start running? I actually hated running for P.E. or really for any other reason when I was younger. My mom used to say “I will only run if I’m being chased” and I adopted the same philosophy. I knew people who played sports and even some who ran for fun, but it never interested me. In fact, I actively avoided it.
    My pre-running/post-health craze stage at color guard camp (I’m in the pj pants… it was early)

    In my later years in high school, I became interested in health. I restructured my diet, started exercising outside of P.E., and discovered I really enjoyed it. However, running didn’t come until later. The real reason I started running is vain and I’m hesitant to even admit it. I was reading health-related articles one day and read that long distance running releases hormones that slow down aging. I was sold! (I’m pretty sure this is not what I read but it’s the same idea. This, however, says HIIT is what prevents aging.)

  • Developmental: Thinking back on it, I became interested in health at the peak of my adolescence. I was already concerned about how I was viewed by my peers. All teenagers are. However, the concept of “dieting” wasn’t really introduced to me until high school, when some of my friends joined the dance team and were required to maintain their weight (something about extreme weight gain/loss throws off your center of gravity, resulting in bad form, injuries, etc…) which I thought was horrifying at the time.
    With the color guard my junior year before a parade!

    But, of course, I wanted to fit in, so I  joined in. I was also a member of the color guard throughout high school, and if you’ve ever tried to toss a flag into the air you know it takes some strength! I found that I really enjoyed learning about nutrition and health and why our bodies work the way they do.

  • Functional (physiological): A theory developed by David Carrier
    Quidditch on the Quad my freshman year… a LOT of running was involved in training/playing

    suggests humans are evolved for long distance running, specifically to facilitate hunting. This is called the Endurance Running hypothesis. Here’s a fairly short video of David Attenborough talking about persistence hunting in the Kalahari and it’s awesome:

Head Above Water

When I came to UA as a freshmen, the first club I joined was the Alabama Kayak Club.  I have always loved kayaking, and growing up I would often drag my kayak across the street to a channel leading into the Back Bay (I’m from Biloxi, MS, which is on the coast).  However, I soon learned that the club’s kayaking has nothing in common with my own experiences.  We do white water kayaking here. White water, which means going down a narrow river with tons of waves and currents that are just waiting to flip you over and drag you over the underwater rocks.  Meanwhile, the bay that I am used to paddling in is so tranquil that it appears more like a lake than part of the ocean.

I had always loved adventure and the outdoors and wanted to go white water kayaking, so this was a challenge that I was ready to face.  Through club practices, I slowly began to learn how to navigate the waters and roll up if I flipped over.  Soon, the dread terror I felt looking down a river became a bubbling of excitement as I prepared to soar down the churning water. AKC became like a family to me here.

AKC at one of the Locust Fork races.
AKC at one of the Locust Fork races.

We saw each other every week, had parties at the AKC house, and went on camping trips to the races (which sometimes got a little bit rowdy).  Kayakers across the state would come to these races, as I was introduced to the kayak culture.  The kayakers are usually men (and interestingly enough, almost all the members of AKC are male engineers) who love being outdoors, enjoy the rush of adrenaline from going down a particularly challenging rapid, are friendly, and prefer camping and kayaking to going to the beach.

What was I thinking, choosing a hobby that is so inherently dangerous?  The potential of accidents in the river, the discomfort of camping, and the prospect of being on the water while it was literally snowing were not enough to defer me from the adrenaline, comradeship, and beauty of kayaking, but why?  Here are the answer to Tinbergen’s 4 “why questions” that explain animal behavior.

Historical:  Kayaking is not a modern invention.  Throughout the ages, humans have seen different expanses of water and crafted suitable vessels that would allow them to cross.  The kayak itself was first used by the Inuit around 8000 years ago.  That’s a lot of time for this skill to evolve and be passed along.  For the Inuits, being able to kayak meant being able to provide food for your family and a quick method of travel.  These invaluable skills, and the processes that come along with them, would have been inherited through the generations.  While I do not have any Inuit in me, I do have Native American, and though Native Americans used canoes, most of the concept is the same.  I might have inherited a propensity to be on the water due to my Cherokee ancestors.

I practiced safety while swimming in rapids by diving into the Coosa river.
I practiced safety while swimming in rapids by diving into the Coosa river.

Additionally, scientists have found several genes that are linked to risk-taking behavior, such as white water kayaking.  As Americans, we have conquered the environmental dangers and stresses that still plague underdeveloped nations, so we have found other ways to express these risk-taking genes, including extreme sports like white water kayaking.  Most of America is composed of immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, who were more inclined to risky behavior as they had to leave the life the knew to come to an unknown land.  These risk-taking genes were probably passed on throughout the generations.

Proximal:  I’ve always been someone to go for adventurous, outdoorsy experiences in my travels, from hiking to skiing to scuba diving.  Something I had always wanted to learn how to do was white water kayak, but there was no where around for me to learn.  The thought of coursing down a river with the water rushing around me, not having to actually paddle to go anywhere (unlike flat water kayaking, which makes the arms extremely sore) seemed so thrilling to me.  When I was presented with the opportunity where I would not only be taught how to navigate the waters but also have an instant group of people who would go with me and act as a safety net, I jumped at the chance.  If I had not had a group of experts who were willing to teach me and go on rivers with me, I never would have been a white water kayaker.

A joint house-warming party for the president and the AKC awards.
A joint house-warming party for the president and the AKC awards.

Developmental:  This one is fairly straightforward.  I was new in Tuscaloosa, did not know many people, and was looking for acceptance from a peer group.  Humans are extremely social creatures, and college-age students in particular place an emphasis on friends and peer groups.

Part of the culture of college is forging connections with different people and being introduced to new ideas.  AKC provided me with an instant group of similarly minded students, and provided me with a means of relaxation after all the stresses of my studies.  I couldn’t do schoolwork 24/7, and kayaking each week was a welcome break.

Functional:   White water kayaking is a very physically and mentally demanding sport.  The mind has to be adaptable and able to make quick judgments in order to navigate rivers.  Depending on the speed of the rapids, there might only be seconds to properly set up the boat and hit the right line on the river to avoid flipping or running into rocks/fallen logs.

Besides mental capabilities, the evolution of the human body have allowed us the reflexes and physicality to stay upright on the river.  Muscle coordination is used to paddle.  In a sense the paddle becomes an extension of the arms, and you have to be aware of exactly where and how it is hitting the water.

A sense of balance, developed in the ear, is crucial, for the boats are extremely unstable and without proper adjustments of the body and weight in response to the current, a kayak will be immediately flipped.  Humans have a need to survive, and this survival instinct has helped me.  When I flipped over a huge expanse of rocks, the adrenaline kept me from panicking as I calmly put my body through the motions necessary to roll.  That was a huge accomplishment for me, and gave me a tremendous amount of confidence.  If I can remain calm while my head is being slammed by rocks and I am trapped upside down in the freezing water, I can do anything.

I flipped while attempting the slalom race at Mulberry; I couldn't roll at the time so I had to swim down the rapids
I flipped while attempting the slalom race at Mulberry; I couldn’t roll at the time so I had to swim down the rapids