Posts Tagged ‘Evolutionary Heritage’

Is Our Evolutionary Heritage Placing Us at Risk?

July 21, 2013

I believe it is common knowledge that one of the reasons those of us living in the developed countries tend to be overweight, or obese, is that in the earliest stages of the development of our species it was beneficial to survival to store up bodily fat when food was available. This enabled our species to survive when food was not readily available. It was also beneficial to consume foods high in calories. As food is readily available in developed countries today, and there is a tendency to favor foods high in calories. So behaviors that once were beneficial, are now no longer beneficial, and are even potentially harmful.

There is an analogous situation with respect to how we respond to stimuli and how we process information. In earlier times, there were many sources of danger both from other species and within our own species. Consequently, it was beneficial to respond quickly to potential dangers. It is our sympathetic nervous system that responds to potential danger and produces stress. Our parasympathetic nervous system has the role of counteracting our sympathetic system to reduce stress and calm ourselves. An argument can be made that our evolutionary heritage has left many of us with a predisposition in favor of the sympathetic nervous system even though, for most people and in most places, this predisposition is no longer beneficial. There are other factors in addition to a likely evolutionary predisposition that increase the problem. Given the preponderance of crime shows and violence on television and in the movies, people develop a sense of danger that is not proportionate to their actual individual risk. News reports of violent crimes, mass shootings, and terrorist acts increase the sense of danger, when the actual probability of their occurring to most individuals is extremely low. Few people are aware that about 50% of law enforcement officers retire without ever having fired their weapons in the course of their duties. Even with the vast news coverage that has been given to the Trayvon Martin case, there has been virtually no mention of the fact that if there had been no gun, no one would have been killed, and there would have been no trial. The belief that the solution to the problem of gun violence is the arming of more people is clearly false. More guns increase, not decrease, the likelihood of violence.

As has been mentioned in previous healthymemory blog posts, System 1 processes (if you don’t know what System 1 processes are, enter System 1 into the blog search box) were especially beneficial to the early survival of our species. And while System 1 processes are beneficial most of the time, they can have erroneous outputs and System 2 processes must be engaged. A very simple way of thinking about this is that System 1 is reacting, whereas System 2 is thinking. Mindfulness involves shutting down System 1 processes and allowing the flow of System 2 processing.

More information can increase the resort to System 1 processing in an effort to try to keep up with the information overload. Nate Silver notes in his book, The Signal and the Noise, a surprising result of an earlier technological innovation that greatly increased the dissemination of information, the printing press. It produced the Protestant Reformation that plunged Europe into war. “From 1524 to 1648, there was the German’s Peasant War, the Schmalkaldic War, the Eighty Years War, the Thirty Years War, the French Wars of Religion, the Irish Confederate Wars, the Scottish Civil War, and the English Civil War…The Thirty Years War alone killed one-third of Germany’s population, and the seventeenth century was possibly the bloodiest ever, with the early twentieth staking the main rival claim.”1

One can argue that the advent of the internet has increased the dissemination of information, produced information overload, and has resulted in similar problems: terrorism, religious wars (in the 21st century if you can believe it), and political polarization, which has impeded, if not prevented, effective government.

The solution to this problem is clear, it is mindfulness. We need to try to establish contact with reality, with our bodies, and our minds. (Enter “Mindfulness” into the healthymemory blog search block to learn more about mindfulness).

1Silver, N. (2012). The Signal and the Noise. New York: The Penguin Press., p. 4.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.