Every so often on my blog I bring up signalling theory. I’ve mentioned it here, here, and a few other times. I am sure that Pam, Adam, and Noah would tell you that I bring up signalling theory as a part of around one third of all my conversations. There may be some truth to this. I am fascinated by the idea of so many of our actions and choices (from what we wear, to what or if we drive, to who we vote for) merely being a means of signalling that we are part of one group or not a part of another group. I am a free will kind of guy, but that doesn’t mean that I believe that the majority of our choices are actually volitional.
Today I listened to a podcast that talked about stotting within the animal kingdom, specifically with gazelles on African savannas. Stotting involves the animal springing high into the air, typically with all four legs in a “relatively stiff position and the back may be arched with the head pointing downward”. There are quit a few possible reasons for this behavior, one of which is what is called an “honest signal“. Honest signals “are traits, including structures and behaviours, that have evolved specifically because they change the behaviour of receivers in ways that benefit the signaller.” In this case, jumping very high says to any predators around that the animal is in good health and will not be an easy target. That is why it is worth it to the prey animal to waste precious time and energy randomly jumping high into the air, in hopes of convincing predators they it isn’t worth their effort to try to capture them.
Of course, we aren’t prey animals on an African savanna. We aren’t trying to signal predators that we will be able to outrun them. Therefore, I believe we need to consider the choices we make and why we are making them. Very often we are extending our limited resources to signal that we are part of one group or not a part of another group, for reasons that aren’t very good. Do I have Apple products because I actually like and/or need Apple products or is it just a way of signaling that I can afford them, even when I can’t? Do I use android products because I prefer them or is it just to signal that I am not one of those Apple people? Did I grow a beard because I wanted to or did I want to grow a beard because I like to think of myself as a neo-reformed evangelicals and beards are an identifying characteristics of neo-reformed evangelicals. Do I home-school my kids because it is best for my particular kids or am I doing this because homeschooling signals the social group to which I belong or signals that I am a “good Christian”? Do I read in coffee shops because I enjoy doing so or do I enjoy doing so because I want to be seen as someone who reads in coffee shops? Why did I buy a vehicle designed for extreme off-road activity when I will never take it off-road for fear that its paint will mess up?
Stotting and signalling are fine and effective for gazelles worried about predators. It can be a very useful expenditure of resources. Unfortunately, for us such expenditures often just put us in holes of our own making and separate us from other people who also bear the image of our Creator.