Jussi Ahola

Curious humanist

Are we scared of the wrong things?

The way I see it, many of the problems that we humans face in this day and age result from the mismatch of what biological evolution has shaped us into and what cultural evolution has surrounded us with. Biological evolution, which in our case means the evolution of the species known as humans through natural selection, is a slow process that takes generations to have any noticeable effect. For a favourable gene to propagate in the population, several rounds of reproduction are needed.

Cultural evolution, meaning progress in the fields of technology, society, and information handling and storage, on the other hand, is a much faster process, on which there are evidence of it speeding up instead of slowing down. With fast information connections all around, a favourable meme can propagate in the population in practically no time at all. Progress is accelerating.

In the current state of affairs, human biological evolution doesn’t stand a change of keeping up with human cultural evolution; it is bound to trail behind. Though some research points to human biological evolution also accelerating, the rate of cultural evolution’s acceleration and current speed renders this change practically non-existent.

All in all, the shape of life on this planet is now moving so fast via cultural evolution that evolution by natural selection is, for practical purposes, standing still.
Robert Wright, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny

This state of affairs isn’t by any means just current: biological evolution has been trailing behind since the human species stepped on the ever-accelerating escalator of cultural evolution. For all we know, the gap is widening, causing new and interesting problems that earlier generations didn’t need to worry about.

Many of the common fears that we humans have serve as great examples of the mismatch of how biological evolution has wired us and what cultural evolution has shaped our surroundings into. Let’s take a look at one these fears.

If you yourself aren’t particularly afraid of snakes, at least you can probably think of someone who is: the fear of snakes seems to be somewhat widespread in the population and, in fact, it has been shown in some twin-studies that the fear of snakes is innate and visceral by its nature, instead of being learned behaviour. This makes snakes regular cast members in horror movies and Halloween imagery. The fear of snakes is easily explained away in evolutionary terms: if your instincts advise you to stay away from snakes, which are potentially venomous, at least in our ancestral home of Africa, you have a better chance of passing that snake-avoiding gene on to the next generation. Probably for similar evolutionary reasons, baby rhesus monkeys are afraid of toy snakes and baby humans spend 7-8 seconds longer looking at pictures of spiders than pictures of flowers. With this evidence at hand, it’s not too far-fetched to claim that we humans are born with the fear of snakes, or at least with a strong perceptual template for them.

The consequences of cultural evolution aren't, of course, just rainbows and unicorns. To contrast the threat of snakes with one of the less uplifting consequences that cultural evolution has brought about, the human species doesn’t seem to be instinctively afraid of air pollution exposure. A horror movie where a fine-particle smog would invade a city and over the years cause painful cases of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease does not come across as a major box-office hit. Yet the WHO has estimated that in 2012 air pollution caused 7 million deaths globally. How many do you think that were caused by snakebites?

Though the behaviour to avoid smog can, of course, be learned through education, nowhere even close to the time it would take for biological evolution to make us instinctively afraid of smog has passed. The same goes for cheeseburgers, candy bars, chronic stress, sofas, and many other things that cultural evolution has brought about. Biological evolution is bound to trail behind cultural evolution and we are just starting to learn how to live with this fact.