A rough, gray sky, exposed by first light of day, hung windless above the concrete and glass skyline thrown 500 feet into the air, contrast illustrating the spectrum of human evolution, from wild, free and dangerous to safe and comfortable. Is it really a win?
Evolution’s Story: From wild free and dangerous to safe and comfortable
Scraggly, irregular fringes scraped through open air, a few hundred feet above the built out geometry of Manhattan.
What a distance we’ve come, I thought, around five in the morning, from there to here. No other species has done so much to sculpt the contours of the world, to build over the hazards, to harden the surfaces and reduce risks.
The opposite is also true.
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We no longer squeeze warm mud between our toes or ramble, led by intuition or instinct, through unknown woods. We are never enriched by a sunrise rain rinsing our skin.
Neural networks, our brain’s method for assembling a model of our affiliation with an external world, relinquish their skills, the plasticity to respond to less predictable, naturally occurring realities.
A Smart Animal Trends Rational
We humans are smart — like others with highly developed brains, cats, dogs, dolphins, elephants, etc. Our distinction is that we don’t adjust to as much as we change our world through thinking and planning activism.
A cat, for example, will figure a way to have his or her needs met by adjusting to a created environment, not to aggressively reshape it.
We meet our similar needs by changing the world, not letting it change us.
The biggest transition from wild free and dangerous arrived with the agricultural revolution.
Human colonies abandoned hunter/gatherer cultures in favor of tilling the land and domesticating livestock and poultry. Risk was reduced. So was pleasure.
Early researchers told us that farming made life easier.
Later, it became clear that a major feature of the agricultural revolution was a sharp reduction in leisure. We had to work many more hours to maintain our farms.
But we were safer in permanent homes, not nearly as subject to the whims of floods and famine. And we created some things we could never have expected…
Wealth, government, extended social hierarchies, and tighter nuclear families.
We invented the first cities. Cities needed bureaucrats, a whole different kind of labor force, to run them, to protect the streets, to build, to take out the waste.
Gains and Losses of Being Human
Few would want to go back full time to a more natural setting, indulging in the riches of a powerful connection to raw nature while accepting the terrifying risks. Some would, of course, at least at first.
All we’ve gained is of immeasurable value in human terms.
The intolerable horrors thrown at us by disease, the emotional battering of infant and early childhood mortality, the lawlessness that prevailed just a few hundred years ago…
The first American municipal police force was formed in Boston less than 200 years ago, launching professional law enforcement and even uniform laws.
What were the streets like before that? What rules applied and how were they enforced? And how much worse was it outside the cities where there were no rules at all?
If you don’t cringe when you think about it, you’re not really thinking about it.
But we lost too.
Our senses feed vast network of receptors and processors — the soft machines we call human — that create a reality in our mind’s eye from this massive flow of raw data.
We make up a reality out of perceived connections. And we’re born with an appetite for more.
A journey from wild free and dangerous to safe and comfortable…
We want more contact, more surprise, more change and, yes, more danger. Our minds crave the stimulation.
But because it isn’t there, not available for us anymore, our miraculous brains do some incredible things to fill in the gap…
We invent completely artificial happenings.
Scare ourselves is a common diversion.
Emotions chill in isolation.
We dive into adventure while idling in a chair.
We binge watch realities over which we exercise no influence and get no genuine experience.
In the long run, we are safer, but we’re much less the animal nature designed of us.
Are we better for it?