29 October 2017

Stranger Things As Evolutionary Psychology Realized

Humanity spend hundreds of thousands of years of its evolutionary history fighting and defeating large, creepy, dangerous animals that threatened our very existence with small groups using rocks, spears, clubs, fire and in the last 70,000 years or so, bows and arrows.

We won that never ending war many thousands of years ago. Animals, wild and domestic, kill a tiny, tiny share of all humans today. It isn't quite zero, but out of 7,600,000,000 people on the planet, the number of people killed by animals in on the order of one in ten million worldwide per year and certainly less than one in a million worldwide per year.

The only living things that are dangerous to us in any significant numbers are microbiological threats like viruses and bacteria and single cell organisms, fungi and plant poisons. Even tiny parasites are mostly a concern in only some regions of the world like tropical rain forests. For the most part we should fear germs and toxins, not lions and tigers and bears and wolves and sharks.

In Europe, we were so thorough that even almost all of the seriously poisonous snakes, frogs and spiders are gone.

The only megafauna, or for that matter non-microscopic fauna, that poses a serious threat to us anymore is man.

But, we still have innate fears that served us well for well over 90% of our evolutionary history. We are built to fear snakes and spiders and killer animals lurking in the dark and falling. We are built to battle monsters. If there are none, we are compelled to invent them mythologically so we can fulfill our already achieved destiny vicariously. It is terrifying, but it is also exhilarating and an embrace of our humanity.

Stranger Things and a thousand other manifestations of our culture stokes those ancient atrophied instincts. Until ten thousand years ago, we were all hunters and gatherers, some on land and some in the sea. It took thousands of additional years until most of us were farmers and herders. Even Europe had hunters and gatherers as recently as a thousand years ago or so.

Now, hunters and gatherers in any meaningful sense, number in the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands globally. The other 99.99%+ of us rely on farming for food and in the developed world, more than 95% of us don't produce food or other natural resources at all. Well over two-thirds of us don't even directly manufacture or build anything from natural resources, except as a minor, economically irrelevant hobby. Increasingly few of us even hunt as a hobby.

Reconciling hundreds of years of evolution with modern life is one of the most fundamental big picture issues for humanity as we build a new civilization and society. And, it only gets worse going forward. 

Planes and automobiles are starting to drive themselves, leaving us one visceral experience using hand-eye-foot coordination and our spatial sensations in our lives.

As we learn the hidden medical dangers of contact sports, like the epidemic of concussions in football, we will back away from that outlet as well.

Bit by bit we are engineering our society so that violent crime is suppressed, and with it the usefulness of self-defense training. And, the violent crime that remains is often committed with guns, which are instincts aren't terribly well honed to respond to in optimal ways.

Video games remain one of the few outlets for these natural instincts. Is it any wonder that some many people are utterly absorbed by them?

As a species, we are trying to learn how to domestic ourselves, because the world isn't wild anymore. But, these instincts run so deeply into who were are as people, that the task is not a trivial one.

This is particularly challenging in a democracy. Democracy is relatively new under the sun. And, to the extent it works, it leaves us with a government run people masses of people not designed to face modern challenges, not rigorously trained to overcome circumstances where instinct and good policy are at odds. Large cities and massive empires aren't unprecedented in history, but they are themselves recent inventions. We were not built to operate such huge social collectives. We have social instincts built for hunting bands and chiefdoms, not empires and metropolises. Why should we think then, that the public will of the masses is going to provide wise insight into running these institutions?

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