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Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Revolutionary Purpose    by Deirdre Barrett order for
Supernormal Stimuli
by Deirdre Barrett
Order:  USA  Can
W. W. Norton, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

In Supernormal Stimuli, Deirdre Barrett, an evolutionary psychologist at Harvard Medical School's Behavioral Medicine Program, gives credit to forerunners in her field: 'Some references are quoted prominently throughout, including Niko Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz, and William Jones. Others are mentioned only in the myriad reference notes at the end. The book - and indeed society - is indebted to these hundred of researchers in ethology, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology who are helping explain the enigmas of human behavior.'

It was Nobel Prize winner, animal behaviorist Niko Tinbergen, who used the term supernormal stimuli for his study results. One such study involved song birds who abandoned 'their pale blue eggs dappled with gray' to nurture painted dummy eggs. At times the 'Day-Glo blue dummies' were so big, it caused the parent to slide off them, only to try over and over again. The scientist also found that the parents 'preferred to feed a fake baby bird beak on a stick if the dummy beak was wider and redder than the real chick's.' Tinbergen was intrigued by a theoretical article, On Instinct, by German biologist Konrad Lorenz, who broadly experimented in a similar area, with pets, including goats and geese. For example, Lorenz found (the photo is among the 55 illustrations in the book) that geese followed him in a line just as they did their parent.

Barrett gives an example of supernormal stimuli in the European Cuckoo, wherein 'a female cuckoo will sneak into the nest of another species when the parent bird is away and lay an egg, shoving a rightful one out so the count will be correct'. She flies away, repeats the same action in other nests 'leaving the care of her progeny to the unsuspecting adoptive parents'. For humans, who evolved in a nomadic lifestyle, rather than in densely populated modern cities, Barrett explains how supernormal stimuli work on our primitive instincts in ways that have little to do with their original purposes in areas like pornography, sales of romance novels, marketing of cosmetic products, and so on.

Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Revolutionary Purpose is thought-provoking, eye-opening, informative, and entertaining. Deidre Barrett's additional publications include Waistland and Trauma and Dream.

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