Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Evolution in an unblinking eye

Two neighbor girls came over after school yesterday, hoping I had a key to the younger one’s garage. They wanted to ride bikes in the suddenly warm weather.

One of these girls is 8, dark-haired and tall for her age. The other is 6, on the small side and impossibly cute, with red hair and a little voice. They live on either side of us, and they’ve both known me since they were born. Nonetheless, the younger one is a little intimidated by me, so when she came in the house she went with the most natural behavior choice: watch Older Girl and do everything she does.

She walked up the short, awkward flight of steps to our kitchen right behind Older Girl, making sure to place her feet in the exact same spot on the step and hold the wall the same way. They stood in the kitchen to talk for a minute, and Younger Girl stood next to Older Girl, watching her every move. She placed her body in the same position as Older Girl, holding her right arm with her left, and her eyes shifted like a pendulum between me and Older Girl.

Me: “So. Girls. Glad to be back in school after spring break?”
Older Girl: “Not really.”
Younger Girl: “Not really.”

Me, to younger girl: “Are you sure it’s OK with your folks to be digging your bike out?”
[Younger Girl looks at Older Girl.]
Older Girl: [shrug, nod] “Yeah.”
Younger Girl: [shrug, nod] “Yeah.”

We found that I only have a key to Younger Girl’s house, not her garage. They turned to leave, Younger Girl watching and again imitating the “going down the stairs” technique. She even stopped and started over to make sure she used the same foot on the first step as her friend did.

“Bye, girls.”

(Even the nonstandard response to “Bye” was copied!)

It was a pleasing encounter. I enjoyed how the younger girl so automatically, so thoughtlessly defaulted to imitating the older one’s motions and words when she found herself in my house without her parents or my wife being around. There’s nothing novel about this behavior, as any parent knows, and I guess its function is old news to anthropologists, too. Still, I felt like I was seeing natural selection at work, right out in the open, in one of its finest forms: imitation. Imitation is not flattery, it’s survival. The governing principle must be something like, “If you’re older and larger than me, then the more closely I imitate everything you say and do, the more likely it is that I will get to be as old and as large as you, and enjoy whatever social and survival benefits come with that position.”

Despite the current ideologically manufactured “controversy,” the beauty of evolution is displayed everywhere you look. Even in the restless eyes of an impossibly cute child.


Blogger Moreena said...

I love this post!

And then there are the slightly more difficult times you recognize evolution at work. Like when your very young child refuses to let you put him/her down for any length of time, despite the fact that you are in your own safe, child-proofed home and he/she has two perfectly good legs that could use the exercise, anyway.

4/09/2005 1:17 PM  
Blogger mrs.holmes said...

That is an awesome observation. I was just talking today about how little credit we can give our parents for understanding our little selves until we actually experience the stuff our own kids do. I mean, that girl had NO IDEA you knew her every move and motivation. That's such an interesting point.

4/10/2005 2:42 AM  

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