I’m only just being formally introduced to the phenomenon of “vacuum activity”, and the first definition I have found is this one, from Wikipedia:
Vacuum activities (or vacuum behaviors) are fixed actions of animals, which are triggered by inherited behavior patterns, although the usual key stimulus is absent. This type of behavior shows that a key stimulus is not always needed to produce a behavior. Vacuum activity is hard to define because it is never certain that no stimulus of any kind triggered the behavior.
Squirrels that have lived in metal cages without bedding all their lives do all the actions that a wild squirrel does when burying a nut. It scratches at the metal floor as digging a hole, it acts as if it were taking a nut to the place where it scratched though there is no nut, then it pats the metal floor as if covering an imaginary buried nut.
Lorenz observed that a bird that catches flies snapped at the air when flying as if it were catching insects though there were no real insects there.
Weaverbirds go through complicated nest building behavior when there is no nest building material present.
Adult cats that were weaned too early “suckle” exposed human skin when relaxed. Also, cat litterbox training is based on redirecting a vacuum activity (burying faeces to minimize scent exposure to potential rivals or prey; absolutely useless to a housecat) into a productive habit for a pet.
Richard Dawkins has characterized some aspects of religion as vacuum activity in humans. Dawkins suggests that gratitude and grudges in vacuum — i.e. where there is no person responsible, e.g. good or poor weather — leads to the vacuum activity of giving thanks or blame with no recipient, with a side effect of inventing gods as a target for the thanks or blame.
Apparently, this phenomenon is related to displacement activity:
A displacement activity is the result of two contradicting instincts in a particular situation. Birds, for example, may peck at grass when uncertain whether to attack or flee from an opponent; similarly, a human may scratch its head when it does not know which of two options to choose.
Displacement activities often involve actions to bring comfort such as scratching, drinking or feeding.
The first description of a displacement activity (though not the use of the term) is probably by Julian Huxley in 1914. The subsequent development of research on displacement activities was a direct consequence of Konrad Lorenz’s works on instincts. However, the first mentions of the phenomenon came in 1940 by the two Dutch researchers Nikolaas Tinbergen and Adriaan Kortlandt.
This looks like fertile territory to me. We’ve discussed cognitive differences between ourselves and autistics. We’ve discussed cognitive differences between Neanderthals and anatomically humans – and who knows what Erectus could tell us if we had his DNA? It seems plausible to me that, as the body plan over our ancient ancestors changed, so did the shape of their minds and their behaviors. Is it possible that when you feel as if you are working at cross-purposes with others or even yourself, that there is some biological truth which underpins this perception?
Well, there is a deep biological truth here, but what is it? In order to look for examples of vacuum activity in modern human behavior which we can pin on their precursors in the distinct cognitive and behavioral differences of our separate human lineages, we will first have to understand more about those differences. We need to know what Neanderthal was doing up there in the Caucasus mountains that distinguished him from his southerly cousins, and how these behaviors impacted upon selection among both groups.
For me, one of the more surprising arguments made in the Neanderthal Theory of Autism is that Neanderthal was living a pastoral life, and raised livestock. Some have argued that Neanderthal was born knowing how to grasp a stone and use it as a tool the same way that bees are born knowing how to build a honeycomb. There is some evidence which may support this in the research which observes brain activity in subjects as they are shown photographs of different objects. When people are shown objects within a certain size range, for example, it is known that the tiny region of the brain correlating to grasping objects lights up with activity. Without consciously trying, one of the first thing that humans do when confronted with an object is process how to grasp it.
The author of the NToA has suggested that Neanderthals were using stone tools to build fences or perhaps animal pens. Flutes and whistles, he argues, were used to call animals – a practice still in use today by shepherding societies. Neanderthal’s skeleton indicates a well-muscled and robust frame, and he was a dedicated carnivore despite his infrequent consumption of plants. This would have required a high-protein diet, and this would not be easy to maintain in the harsh conditions of Europe in the grip of an ice age. Even his brain would have required more nutrition, being 6-8% larger than our own. If he mastered animal domestication, then he wouldn’t have to rely so heavily upon his skill as a hunter or the presence of game. Examination of the remains of Neanderthals revealed that they sustained injuries which are most analogous to those found in modern day bull-riders! The prevailing wisdom is that Neanderthals sustained these injuries through close-combat and confrontational hunting. This is based in part on the fact that the spears associated with Neanderthals appear to be too heavy to throw. The shape of Neanderthal’s frame suggests that despite being very powerfully built, he would not have been able to throw spears as well as anatomically modern humans.
Still, is it possible that Neanderthals were actually domesticating animals? According to the NToA, it has been proven that the animals eaten by Neanderthals were taken at the top of their usability. Ordinarily, carnivores stalk game and pick off the young and the vulnerable members first in order to avoid the unnecessary risk of injury. Thus, we are left in a situation where early humans had to solve the problem of securing meat and storing it for the lean times. Furthermore, the very animals that constituted the staples of the Neanderthal diet are today domestic and domesticable animals! What a very strange predicament to consider, after all. We are left to surmise that our fair-skinned neighbors to the north were born to raise livestock.