Pandemic 03: Survivability Traits

by Shane L. Larson

Over the millions of years that natural selection produced modern humans, countless traits were selected becasue they were somehow advantageous to our suvival. Ultimately, some 40,000 generations ago, modern humans began walking the lands of Earth; experiments that Nature had made as it grew our branch of the Tree of Life were terminated without a second thought. Today, there are no archaic humans left — gone are those that came before us, erased but for a few fragments and bones that rise from the tomb of the Earth.

A skull of homo rhodesiensis, an ancient ancestor of humans. The Universe has long experimented with what makes humans good survivors; today there are no homo rhodesiensis left. [Wikimedia Commons]

One might ponder what it is about humans that made us the fittest in our long line of ancestors? The Latin name for our species gives a clue to what we think the advantage is: homo sapiens means “wise man.” More often than not, our intelligence, our brains, are regarded as the prominent trait that made our survival most likely. The ability to make tools, to solve problems, and to plan for possible futures are all powers of the brain that suggest its development was a good survival trait.

But for those of us who think about life in the Cosmos, we eventually ask whether or not human intelligence is a survival trait or not? Look at the utter disregard our species has for the finite resources on our planet, or the fact that we are willfully ignoring the accelerating climate crisis, or any of a hundred other existential global threats we are ignoring. It makes one question whether our intelligence is being used for survival at all.

Interestingly, the brain is just like every other physiological trait we have — it was built by Nature through a long chain of experiments in survival. The earliest parts of the human brain to develop, the paleomammalian cortex (or limbic system), is the core of human emotion and response to external stimuli, particularly danger or threats. It evolved over time, like all of your biological systems, to protect you and give you a better chance at survival. One of its safety responses is to control your psychological response to threats. Sometimes that response is designed to protect you from very tangible direct harm; at other times it is designed to protect you from very tangible threats, but ones which may harm you by overwhelming your reactions until you are completely debilitated.

We see both of these deeply ingrained threat responses playing out right now in the ongoing crises that have ensnared the world.

Death has always preoccupied humans, in biological imperatives, deep psychology, and art. This 17th Century painting from Philippe de Champaigne is often associated with the Stoic philosophies surrounding Memento Mori: “remember that you will die.” [Wikimedia Commons]

Consider how we humans perceive and deal with death. A single death can transform your worldview — the death of a close friend or a loved one has profound impact on your mental state, precisely because of the deep personal relationship you shared. Death acutely focuses your attention on the fact the memories you carry with you will be the last ones you have with that person. It also acutely focuses your attention on your own mortality.

But you don’t have to be personally related to a person, or even know them, to feel grief at the loss of life. You feel the same pain, as if it were a friend or a loved one, precisely because you understand the deep personal loss from the death of a single person. Your brain has been wired from your personal experiences to understand how single people change one another’s lives. You extrapolate those experiences to people you don’t know when you hear of their death. The result is you are devastated, tortured by grief when they die. The deaths of famous people are a curious mix of the two, since you often ascribe deep personal evolution to your exposure to music, writing, sports, and film.

As a result, the loss of David Bowie knocks you down, because you remember driving in your car with friends listening to “Scary Monsters” over and over again, and those powerful memories are inextricably melded with your knowledge of Bowie. Chadwick Boseman’s death sent you into a paroxysm of tears, not just because you admired him in 42, but because your own family has been ravaged by cancer. Your rage at the murder of Breonna Taylor was stoked by the fact that she was murdered in her own home, a place of perceived safety and sanctuary.

Tragically, our brains behave in the exact opposite way when the scale of the tragedy expands beyond numbers easily related to your own personal experiences. Word of a family dying in a car crash or an apartment fire invokes a terrible sense of tragedy. News of an airliner going down may fuel your fear of flying, but large groups of people being overwhelmed by disaster becomes, for the most part, abstract to your brain. The reason is your brain is defending itself in a rather peculiar way. You absolutely can imagine the tragedy of the deaths of thousands of people — but multiplying the agony of grief for a single person a thousand-fold would destroy your psychological balance, and your brain knows that. It clings to the abstractness of large, anonymous numbers, and lets your thoughts gloss over the fine-scale human details of the tragedy. This effect is called psychological numbing.

Map of confirmed COVID-19 infections per capita (total divided by local population) as of 17 Sept 2020. The global scale of this crisis is beyond normal, everyday human experience. [Wikimedia Commons]

Which brings us to the current crisis. Without fail, the coronavirus Pandemic is a global crisis, not to be shirked and ignored. It kills people — 948,000 worldwide, and 202,000 in the United States (as of today, 17 September 2020). For virtually everyone who contracts the disease, there are long term consequences that we are only now beginning to understand — cardiovascular damage, fatigue, deterioration of your joints, and damage to your nervous system. The dire effects are why scientists and public health experts are so adamant about controlling the spread of the disease.

But unless you or a family member or a close friend have had (or died) from COVID-19, your brain protects itself. The psychological numbing associated with the scale of the pandemic takes over, and underpins all your thinking, regulating your personal behaviour as well as guiding your response to widespread social safety measures designed to cap the disease. Numbing can dull your sense of danger, leading to you not being as safe as you can be. An unfortunate lack of perceived danger might convince you that everyone who is responding with great caution are being silly, and it could lead you to rebel against social safety measures like a teenager against curfew. Your brain is protecting itself by convincing you it isn’t as serious as it is, but it is lying to you. You can control such responses, but only through diligent practice and self-reflection, and fearless trust in what the scientific data is really saying, not what we want it to say.

And so, our conversation returns to where it began. The brain of homo sapiens, with its capacity for abstract thinking and predictive speculation is the product of millions of years of evolution. Each stage in the long chain of natural selection helped our ancestors survive a ruthless and dangerous world, leading to us today.

So are our brains a trait that makes us fit for survival? The Universe developed our brains because along the way it seemed to be protective. But psychological numbing exposes us to threats that can decimate our species, like coronavirus to be sure, but other existential threats are on the horizon: pressures of population on limited natural resources, human wasting of natural environments, and the catastrophic collapse of the climate at the hands of humans. 

One could easily conclude that on the scale of our civilization, psychological numbing is not a survival trait, and the great experiment known as “humanity” will terminate, and fade into oblivion. It has happened before, with megalodons, sabre-tooth tigers, and trilobytes. That termination has happened to humans too — gone are our ancestors, Australopithecus, homo erectus, and the Neanderthals. But it has happened to our civilizations before too — gone are the ancient cultures of the Indus Valley civilization and Mesopotamia, and only fragments of the ancient Anasazi remain in the American Southwest, all erased by droughts that destroyed their supportive, agricultural systems. Humans are not immune to being erased by the Universe.

The Tree of Life is vast and tangled, but many more species have died than have lived, unable to survive the challenges the Universe throws at them. [Image: Pixbay]

But on the other hand the Universe has stirred another ability into the experiment — our capacity for reason, the ability to look at the Universe, figure out and predict what is happening and why, and doing something to protect ourselves. In some fashion, we have learned to utilize that trait and act in complete contraction to other biological imperatives our brain would like us to respond to. The Universe is testing out the idea that software updates, designed to circumvent hardware weaknesses and previous programming, might be a good survival trait.

Whether or not our reason adds to our survivability in the long term remains to be seen. We have yet to come to the end of this crisis, and do not yet know if our civilization can collectively shore up our defenses, or if we will continue to capitulate our future on the basis of wishful thinking. 

Either way, the Universe does not care. The Universe is callous, ruthless, unflinching. It is no mere tyrant, it simply has no reservations about terminating experiments that cannot survive in the face of adversity. Perhaps homo sapiens will sink into extinction; perhaps there will be some new strain of humans, homo postero, that will not be so fact resistant, and can survive more adversity than we.

As a brilliant fictional scientist once observed, “Life finds a way.” The Universe will find a strain of humans fit for survival, even if we are not.

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This is the third in a series of posts about scientific reasoning, instigated by the Pandemic of 2020. The first post and links to the rest of the posts in this series are:

One response to “Pandemic 03: Survivability Traits

  1. Pingback: Pandemic 01: Learning in a Time of Crisis | Write Science

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