Hummer Wars

Have you ever thought about whether aggression is innate?

This morning I watched the hummingbirds around my feeders and was fascinated by their behavior!  Because I knew they were very territorial, I had decided to put a second feeder in so that more birds could share in the wealth.

One female hummingbird totally dominated both feeders. She chased away all other hummingbirds as soon as they appeared. Ms. Hummer flew back and forth, much as soldiers might march back and forth along a perimeter to insure no encroachment on their territory. I had to laugh, because I wondered when she had time to rest and eat herself!

I waxed philosophical, thinking about how human behavior isn’t so different. Even when we have plenty, we often act as if there are limited resources.

Why is this? Is it built into our genes? Can we change it?

One could say that it’s built into our brains. Competition and territoriality are evolutionary tactics that help preserve species. Our brains have developed in an additive way and have four components. Michael Dowd* identifies the four in a very user friendly way:

  • Lizard Legacy – This part of the brain handles our involuntary bodily functions such as breathing. It also permits our acquired “muscle memory” by helping us remember how to ride a bike, drive a car, and so forth. In addition, this is where our instinctual drives originate which are centered around Safety, Sustenance, and Sex.
  • Furry Li’l Mammal – This is the oldest mammalian brain and consists of the limbic system (the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, and insula). It is the seat of emotions. This part of our brain also insures our ability to learn from experience and have more complex behavior. Mammals bond with family members and also with nonkin, so this is where status-seeking and cooperation evolved.
  • Monkey Mind – This section of the brain, the neocortex, is the newer mammalian part that is constantly talking to itself, evaluating costs and benefits of perceptions, and enabling us to use symbolic language. It is also what enables agonizing over the past and worrying over the future. It offers a river of information with no effort and extra memory storing capabilities.
  • Higher Porpoise – The newest part of our brains are the Prefrontal cortex or frontal lobes, which perform complex functions of intentionality, purposefulness, and decision-making. This is the seat of self-awareness that enables a vision of the future. Drives from this part of our brain can compete with the mammalian and reptilian drives.

We could not thrive without all four parts, so don’t go downplaying any of them!We need our Lizard Legacy, Furry Li’l Mammal, Monkey Mind, and Higher Porpoise.

Dowd makes the point that our Higher Porpoise or prefrontal cortex is particularly important in our advanced cultures for survival. It gives us the ability to choose between our drives, so that the older parts of our brain do not dominate us to our detriment.

For instance:

  • We can choose to stop competing with others when we have enough and instead devote ourselves to some higher purpose. We are capable of choosing to put our energy into non-survival intentions.
  • We can notice that we’re safe and get beyond old learning that we aren’t safe. This takes dealing with any trauma in early life that led to feeling unsafe; strong emotions can sometimes get locked into our Furry Li’l Mammal part of our brains. 
  • Our Higher Porpoise brains can help us govern Monkey Mind so that it helps rather than hinders us. Undisciplined Monkey Mind can drive us crazy. The adage “Don’t believe everything you think!” is helpful to remember.

This leads me back to my original question – “Can we change it?” Our High Porpoise segments of the brain enable us to answer “yes”. However, we have to be aware and make choices, rather than going along with our drives and everything we think without questioning. Our seat of self-awareness is fully capable of this and is what makes us human!

I noticed the next day I had two hummingbirds, each dominating only one of the feeders. Did they learn to share? Or perhaps they are migrating already and new hummingbirds took their place that weren’t as competitive? And then again, perhaps the drive to ready themselves for migration won out! After all, that insures their survival.

Our survival is also contingent on the cultivation of our “Higher Porpoise”!


*Michael Dowd wrote Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World, London: The Penguin Books, 2007.

2 Responses to Hummer Wars
  1. julie tallard johnson
    September 18, 2012 | 10:51 am

    Wonderful piece. The hummingbirds are migrating too — so that energy of storing up for a trip is part of it all. Migration takes an intensity from within.

    I love the topic of competitiveness and whether or not we really need to fight for our place.

    thanks Jennifer

  2. Jennifer
    September 18, 2012 | 10:55 am

    Thanks! I like that phrase “an intensity from within”. That’s what Higher Porpoising is!