Tuesday, July 07, 2009


If you think human beings appeared instantaneously on Planet Earth 10 thousand or fewer years ago, you should probably skip the rest of this piece and save yourself the aggravation. It’s about some aspects of human evolution -- the brain in particular.

If the brain is viewed through certain imaging devices and a snake is put in front of us, our brains light up like Christmas trees; if somebody tells us the odds of Earth being struck by a meteor in the next 1000 years are high, a little spot twinkles. Our brains are more geared to primitive fears than to future threats -- because they evolved that way.

Most of us have never been bitten by a snake, the majority of snakes are not a threat to us, anyway, but the part our brain that process the information takes no chances. The fear of snakes is something that must be suppressed with practice; the brain is able to ignore future threats all by itself.

A prime example was what Katrina did to New Orleans. Engineers and city officials knew the levees would not hold under the strain of hurricanes at a certain level. A lot of the city was bowl-shaped and everyone understood what would happen when (not if) water poured in. Still, every year after hurricane season passed, people put the danger out of their thoughts.

Millions still smoke cigarettes, aware that there is a connection with cancer. However, since it isn’t usually an overnight disease, it can be easily ignored -- unlike a snake hissing in front of us or a growling mountain lion. Most smokers have periods of fear, but all it takes is for the next chest x-ray to come in clear to relegate cancer to a distant threat.

Our nonchalance about the future is also why so many of us don’t floss after every meal, eat properly, save money or keep our houses in good repair. In my own case, it’s why I will agree to appear almost anywhere to give a talk if it’s at least 2 months in the future.

Reduced to its simplest terms, we are still using a brain that evolved to protect us from wild animals while living in a period where we need to focus on the future because there are some real problems looming ahead of our race.

Until 40 thousand years ago, another species called Neanderthal shared the Earth with Homo sapiens before vanishing, probably because they could not compete with our species. We now understand that we shared 99.5 percent of our DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) with Neanderthal. The differences were minute but we survived and they did not.

Maybe they were less able to look forward than we are. Rest in peace

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