Cambrian: Opinion

When innovation outpaces instinct, fear can gain a foothold

Steve Provost.
Steve Provost.

What happens when innovation outpaces evolution?

The answer is all around us. I’m not talking about machines taking jobs away from people; there’s something more fundamental at work here: how we survive. It’s changed quite a bit, especially over the past couple of centuries, but we’re having a lot of trouble changing with it.

Call it growing pains. The human species emerged in a world where short-term survival defined success — not just for us, but for pretty much every kind of animal. A successful hunt meant another meal and a better shot at living another day … as long as you stayed away from whatever might be hunting you.

Someone living in the Stone Age could expect to survive 20 or maybe 30 years (remember the science fiction classic “Logan’s Run”?) Fred Flintstone might have looked middle-aged in the cartoon, but chances are the real Fred didn’t live quite that long.

As time went on, though, we used our brains to rise to the top of the food chain. We learned to stay away from other predators — or dispatch them if they tried to mess with us. Our life expectancy grew gradually longer as we turned our attention from short-term to longer-term threats: disease, famine, lack of sanitation … challenges we confronted during the Middle Ages.

We did a very good job of meeting those challenges. In fact, we made astonishing progress in a very short period of time — at least when measured against the full span of our time on this planet. Anatomically modern humans emerged on the scene 200,000 years ago, and it’s only in the past century or so that scientific advances have sent our life expectancy skyrocketing. The world average was 31 years of age — still around Stone Age standards — as of 1900; by 2014, we’d added four full decades to that.

So, for all but the last tiny fraction of our species’ existence, we’ve been concerned with just making it through the day.

And old habits die hard.

That’s why the politics of fear work so well, even in modern society. We’re so conditioned, as a species, to looking over our shoulder and worrying about the most immediate threat that, despite our recent success in meeting long-term challenges, we fall right back into our old “fight or flight” patterns the minute someone sticks a bogeyman in front of our faces.

We ignore simple mathematics — one of the sciences most responsible for our success in shedding our primitive skin — and react instead to threats that are negligible but visceral. We take out our sledgehammers and apply them with full force to those gnats buzzing around our faces, allowing ourselves to become distracted from far more significant threats to our existence.

We’ll consider spending billions of dollars on a wall to keep out a few of those gnats (potential terrorists), when we could be using a large chunk of that money equipping our children — through education — to prolong and enhance their lives. We’ll shell out 10 times what other countries spend on a mega-military to guard against big, bad predators, while funneling money away from health care to protect ourselves from microscopic ones.

How many Americans die in terrorist attacks and how many die from heart attacks? How many have died in invasions of our sovereign territory, and how many have died from invasive diseases? Health problems pose a far bigger threat, numerically speaking, than “bad guys,” but it’s a lot harder to make scapegoats of cancer and diabetes than it is to trash-talk Muslims or Mexicans.

Or, in previous generations, Jews, Chinese and the Irish.

Those are the kind of “threats” that consume us in the public forum, whether we’re watching the news or listening to political speeches. And there’s a reason for this: We’re conditioned to react to threats that seem the most immediate, the most shocking to our senses, because that’s the kind of threat our ancestors dealt with. We’ve scratched and clawed our way out of the prehistoric fight-or-flight hole, but our instincts keep tempting us to dive right back in.

Politicians, salesmen, the media and others exploit those instincts because they can gain an advantage from doing so, whether it be measured in votes, revenues or ratings. If it bleeds, it leads. Clickbait works. So do rants on Twitter and alternative facts if they appeal to our baser instincts rather than our higher selves.

It’s not just folks on the right wanting to spend less on health care and more on a wall. It’s people on the left spending millions in litigation over a 1-in-100,000 chance that a chemical might cause cancer rather than donating that same money to research that might find a treatment. It’s people taking the high road when they’re winning, then sliding back down the mountain once they’ve lost. It’s fixating on “microagressions” by a majority rather than trying to elevate those in the minority whom we’ve ignored or oppressed.

I’m not saying all chemical concerns are frivolous or all terrorist threats are overblown. What I am saying is we pay far too little attention to far greater threats because we’re so preoccupied with the kind of shocking, graphic fears that most worried our Stone Age ancestors.

We’re not in the Stone Age anymore, and it’s time we realized it. Unless we do, I’m afraid we might well end up right back there.