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May 26, 2010, at 4:51 pm — Blogs / / / / / / /

THE CAVEMAN HYPOTHESIS: Why now is better than it seems.

Another new semi-regular “column” from me: The Caveman Hypothesis. Simply put, this is my idea that a great many idiosyncracies, tendencies, and behaviors we humans have in the 21st century make a lot more sense when you strip away the effects of our technology, knowledge, and relative luxury and consider things as they might have been in the early history of man.

That was a time—covering most of our species’ history—when evolution still acted on us to pretty much the same extent as any other animal. We lived to be 15 or 20 or maybe 30. We got eaten by wild animals, died of horrible infections, and struggled each day to find food and shelter and to reproduce and make more of ourselves. In these conditions, those better equipped to survive did, and passed those traits that made them successful on to their children. Those who failed at this brutal game were taken out of the gene pool. This barely happens now, and it is a function instead of medicine, agriculture, weaponry and societal structure that we live such long and peaceful lives. And these long, peaceful lives give us lots of chances to stray off the short, narrow path of survival and procreation we were built and programmed to travel. These long, peaceful lives sometimes lead us to turn our formerly useful instincts and behaviors against ourselves.

That is the Caveman Hypothesis. It’s the idea that maybe we can cure some of what ails us by taking things back, oh, twenty or thirty thousand years. Weird idea, I know. Hopefully you’ll stick with me and give it a chance.

Some quick thoughts on how the Caveman Hypothesis applies to this idea that we are living in a horrible, chaotic time—or even the biblical “end times”. Our most incredible physiological gift as a species has got to be the brain. Our brains are immensely powerful—even in raw computational ability they’re still more powerful than the fastest computers, though perhaps not for long—and process huge amounts of sensory information many times per second. At a young age, babies and children are building up brain connections that represent their memory and understanding of the world around them. By adolescence, these connections actually begin to thin out, pruning away excess information. The same happens in visual discrimination. The brain spends a while as we grow up learning to ignore things that are not useful information. (If you think about it, we couldn’t spend every moment noticing every detail of everything we see. We don’t focus too much on insignificant detail because, well, in the caveman days, we’d get eaten.)

I really think this is the basis for what we’ve got in any age: a preponderance of doomsday predictions and a marked prevalence of the notion that the good old days were better than the present. As we age, our unpleasant memories fade away, since the pleasant ones make us feel good and therefore get more use. At the same time, we’re excercising our caveman instincts to be wary and to look for the things around us that endanger our survival. Our lives of peace and relative luxury allow this instinct to get a little out of control, and I think that manifests as a tendency to worry and focus on the bad things. So every day we’re faced with our preoccupation with what’s wrong and worrisome in the moment, and how it contrasts with our fading blissful memories of our past.

Since nobody wants to fill their time up with hunting with spears, running from tigers, and rubbing sticks together to make a fire, we have to accept that these instincts will never again have adequate purpose to keep them from running rampant. Instead, our best chance is to man up (or woman up, of course) and just remind ourselves that our lives are greater than the sum of our fears.

I challenge you, then: Stare down some of your fears about the present—some of your worst. Give them a good looking-over and ask if you are spending a little too much time a little too close to them. There were plenty of things wrong with the past, and there are plenty of things right with now. It just isn’t quite as instinctive to notice them.

POSTSCRIPT: I’m doing this with one of my own worries right now: the health care plan. The recently passed health care overhaul may not be perfect, it may not accomplish all we think it ought, and I suppose it could even do some damage. But regardless, Americans tend to find a way, and wrongs will be righted. And frankly, in the process, I’m sure more rights will be wronged. For every second I spend thinking about it, I lose a second to fix a problem, create something good, or spend time with people I love. So good riddance.


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