The three threes. “Three hours a day, three days a week for three weeks.” That, apparently, is what parents have to go through to get a conventional diagnosis that their baby suffers colic. Just one little factoid from a podcast on NPR about a clinic in Rhode Island dedicated to colic. A trial that, as a non-parent, I simply do not think I could withstand. As the report’s introduction noted, the sound of a baby crying provokes a desperate need to do whatever it takes to stop it.

Back when I was an eager post-grad, I spent hour upon hour, day upon day, listening to very young chicks peeping, counting, in fact, their peeps. Peeps per minute was an objective measure of something I would have preferred to call distress. What shocked me was not that the chicks were distressed, but how distressed I became. Why did the distress calls of a species that I had parted company from some 310 million years ago upset me so? I gave what I now recollect as an extremely silly seminar about the innate qualities of distress calls, analyzed with the absolute height of sophistication, a spectrograph.

Later exposure to the sheer exuberance of Amotz Zahavi and his handicap principle of honest signalling offered a possible explanation. Distress cries sound piercing because they are easy to localize. They have evolved specific and shared characteristics that enable any creature listening to pinpoint the source of the sound. But this is not simply to give the parent a hint of where the problem is. It is a blatant evolutionary threat. Or, as Zahavi so memorably put it: “Fox, fox, come quick and eat me! My mother doesn't love me!”

Faced with that, no wonder parent animals are so keen to silence the distress calls, whatever it takes. Any that didn’t respond with alacrity would not pass on many genes. How, then, did colicky babies survive?

Imagine, back on the African savannah, a hominid infant bawling the three threes. If a passing lioness or other predator didn’t seize the moment (and the infant) I can quite imagine an adult in the band bashing its brains out against the nearest rock if only to silence it. Heck, parents today admit to that sort of feeling towards their own children. Most do not succumb, but some do. There’s something very odd going on, that’s for sure.

Perhaps there was no colic back then? I await enlightenment.

2021-09-06: Zahavi was a force of nature and a delight to be with. His views on how to conduct warfare were informed by his biological insights, but alas do not find expression in this glorious collection of papers inspired by his ideas.

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