Jan 21, 2012

Creatures of Habit

My grandmother always travels with two gold sovereigns.

That's a 1904 Edward VII, and a 1900 Queen Victoria.

In a way, that sums up Queen Pat. Born of Empire, she's never upgraded to the now-more-common practice of secreting a few US dollars about your person when venturing into foreign climes. Shillings may have gone the way of the colonies, but By George my Gran will keep her bullion coins as emergency currency.

It got me thinking about habits, and how one acquires them.

My Gran told me that her father - Rattonshaw, the Parsee Zoroastrian diamond trader - used to give her and her siblings a sovereign on their birthdays, only to take it back for "safe-keeping". Turns out he was re-using the one sovereign between them all, the enterprising fellow.

Of course, sovereigns were always a safe bet to have on your person. Remember James Bond's first-ever gadget? But perhaps the childhood association with her father made it a comforting tradition for my Gran to maintain.

But are all habits learned behaviour? Or could some be genetic?

One of my bad habits is picking at my fingernails. Charming, I know. If not otherwise engaged with typing, writing or shoving food into my craw, my fingers will naturally drift towards each other, and scratch around the cuticles.

I thought it was something I had started doing in order to stop biting my actual fingernails. Or perhaps a response to stress. But I've noticed that my Gran - who has lovely long nails, no trouble growing them - also scratches at her fingertips.

Now while I see my Gran reasonably regularly, her base in Vanuatu means she's never been a constant physical presence in my life (my relatives on both sides are spread all over the world, and we all seem to work quite well with the distance). I'd be happy to admit to learning that behaviour from her, if I honestly thought I'd spent enough time with her in my younger days to observe it.

So does this (admittedly anecdotal) evidence point to some sort of genetic predisposition to nail scratching? There does seem to be some research that points to genetics being a factor, but honestly, what evolutionary purpose does it serve to have fingernails that look like you've just dug your way out of your own coffin?  

An even more complex example is my general messiness. My mother, father and brother are all neat freaks. If habits are obtained purely by observation, familial instruction and nurturing, I should be Captain of the Good Ship Mr Sheen. But instead there's an unwashed wok in my sink and I'm writing this instead of cleaning it.

Of course, nature didn't pay off for me here either. Unless there's someone else in my genetic ancestry who has a messy gene so dominant it got past the ferocious gatekeepers of my parents.  Someone for whom the life of the Empire allowed her wondrous opportunities to have domestic servants - in India, in Iraq, and in the New Hebrides....

...actually, I'm not going to blame Queen Pat. She was in the Navy, after all.

Do you have any bad habits (or even good habits!) that you think you've inherited? Or ones that you know you've picked up from watching alone?


  1. Martha & the Muffins sang:

    "its a habit of mine to watch the sun go down...."

    I am breaking my habit because it annoys the shit out of friends & colleagues:

    My habit is to point out that the sun (also known as Chad) does not rise or set, but the earth rotates.

    I have a habit of pointing out the difference between 'concrete' & 'cement'.

    I have a habit of educating folks about the distinction between 'sewage' & 'sewerage'.

    I blame Mum for my pathetic, pedantic desire to correct others, because I see spicks & specks in the eyes of others & fail to see the plank in my own.

  2. Of course, you mean "...to point out that Chad (also known as the sun)..." ;)

  3. Good habits? Not sure I have any of those.

    Procrastination I may have got from my father, no bit of work around the house is so important that it can't wait for something (anything else).

  4. Good pondering questions, but the whole evolutionary biology approach to behavior is fraught with dubiousness. Whilst I recognize that genetics can be a great boon, lets not forget all that our genetic structure can do is assemble proteins. Thats it, any explanation beyond that requires a lot more work than just pointing out a correlation.

  5. I bite my nails, yuck I know...

    However the more important thing to focus on is your diamond trading zoroastrian ancestor. Have you got the most interesting family in the world, and have they written a book about them yet?