Hunter-Gatherers Lost in the 21st Century

Well, the problem is that the part of the brain that does rational thinking, the neocortex, is “neo”. It is new. It arrived rather late, about 250,000 years ago. Until then our decisions were made by a more ancient system in the brain, the limbic system. The limbic system creates our emotions and emotional memories. So if we were confronted with a situation, the limbic system would pull out memories of emotions from previous similar situations. And if felt good, we did it; if it felt scary, we ran away.

The neocortex didn’t supplant the limbic system; it was an add-on. When information arrives from the senses telling you what is going on in the world, that information goes to both the limbic system and the neocortex, but it gets to the limbic system a quarter second before it reaches the neocortex. That’s a long time. It is long enough for the limbic system to flood the neocortex, and it does, with emotions and emotional memories and its own emotional decision about the situation.

My daughter majored in cognitive science in college. And when the professor was describing the limbic system to the class, he told them a true story of a man who was walking beside a river, when all of a sudden he found himself standing in the river, holding a baby.

What had happened was that his eyes saw a drowning infant. His limbic system flooded him with emotions and the emotional imperative to save the baby. He jumped in the river and saved the baby before his neocortex ever registered that there was a baby.

This kind of thing happens all the time—you jump out of the way of a car literally before you realize you have seen it. Then the neocortex steps in and weaves a story around the situation—a story of decision and free will—and makes a nice, tidy, analytical memory of the situation.

What I am saying is that a lot of our decisions, especially the quick ones, the ones where we don’t think we have to think about it much, the ones we don’t mull over, have a very large emotional component to them. Indeed, we can’t make any decisions without the limbic system. We need to rehearse the situation beforehand and know which decision will make us feel good and which might make us feel guilty. People with damaged limbic systems can’t make decisions, as it turns out. So all of our decisions have an emotional component.

And many of those emotions are left over from a time when the presence of a stranger could be a life-threatening emergency. So we can’t get around our negative emotions toward outsiders very well simply by trying to be rational.

Now things obviously aren’t hopeless. We all know many people who have learned to value and look forward to being with people who are different from them. But notice that I said “learned”. It isn’t natural behavior for the person in the flatlands of Oakland to feel positive toward the richer person on the hill—or vice versa. It isn’t natural behavior for a gang in Oakland or Los Angeles to be nice to the gang in the next neighborhood. It takes training to change this.

So that is who we are, toward people in our “in group” and toward outsiders.

Now all of this instinctive, evolved behavior worked fairly well in our communities until fairly recently. In my grandparents’ time, the 1890s, 1900, most of us in the U.S. were still living in something approximating the environment we evolved for. Three quarters of us lived on farms or in very small towns. Those in the cities had been in rural areas within a generation or two, so this story of the farms and small towns is the story of all of us.

In those towns we recognized everyone around us, were close to many of them, and fear of small-town gossip kept us in line, just as Dunbar said—Granny wagged her finger if you got out of line.

But then there came a rapid rise of technology that made possible the rise of big agriculture. Big agriculture brought us something we had never had before—reliable food surpluses. The population grew very quickly, it exploded, and because of mechanization almost none of us have to be on a farm.

So today 80% of us live in cities. Our environment has changed radically. The people around us are mostly strangers. This is not at all what we evolved for.

And there was another trend that came with the transition from farm to city. Difference, the characteristic we use instinctively to identify a stranger, has been magnified in new ways. Before 1900 there was a relatively small number of occupations. People might be farmers, or craftspeople, or work in or own a shop. And everyone understood these jobs.

There was also a relatively small spread in income for the general mass of people. Families tended to be large by our standards, because big families are needed for farm work. So a family looking at another family in another county or neighborhood saw people like themselves, spending their whole lives raising all of those children, occupying their time in ways that were common and understood, and making do with the same economic resources.

But the rise in technology brought a huge expansion in the types of occupation. I may know the job titles of my friends and neighbors, but I really don’t understand how they spend their time every day and why. And before I retired, they certainly didn’t understand what I did every day as a physicist.

Moreover, within those occupations there is a huge disparity in income from rich to poor, with families segregated by income in our neighborhoods. Now when a family in one neighborhood looks at a family in another neighborhood they are likely to see people with very different priorities and levels of privilege, doing things all day that are unfamiliar.

We don’t know or understand the people we are looking at anymore. And we see hundreds, or thousands, of people every day who are not in our “in group”. This isn’t what we evolved for. Yet human nature has not had time to evolve. It is the same as it was.

Amazingly enough, we don’t do too badly. New York City is not a pit of vipers. Studies show that we still each have our “in group”, which averages 3-7 intimate relatives or friends, plus about 20 people whom we know well and go to for help, and enough more we know somewhat well to add up to about 150, the Dunbar number.

But that is 150 out of a population, in Pasadena, California, for instance, of 148,000. Whether we think about it or not, most of the people we see around us every day are strangers. And conditions have gone much farther in this direction since the mid-1970s.

Government policies, especially tax structure policy, economic developments, and corporate greed has hugely increased the income gap between rich and poor. And so we now have desperately poor people segregated in certain areas of our cities. There are no rich people close in any sense to the “in group” of the poor. Some of those poor people are in what I would call the slums of Oakland.

In such circumstances the 60-70% of the conscience that is formed by our environment gets formed in ways that are practical but don’t favor what we call civilized behavior, and crime, especially crime aimed at acquiring money and property, and all the attendant violence, grows in frequency, as it is in Oakland.

So what can we do?

First I would like to make a brief remark about what we are doing. We are doing the evolutionarily natural thing. We are making ever more punitive laws to lock up more and more of “those people”, to keep them away from us.

But if you take the species-wide, historically long view that I have been talking about, and look at the causes of these crimes, you will come to the conclusion that these methods don’t’ work. They don’t attack the causes. And indeed, the statistics show very little effect on the crime level.

So what does work?

Two problems stand out as needing our attention. The first is that while neighborhoods can be friendly and cooperative because they have populations below the Dunbar number, violence between neighborhoods is legendary, especially in situations of poverty and competition for resources. Think about gang-on-gang violence, the legends that grow up in one neighborhood of New York about people in the next neighborhood, hostility between neighborhoods. And we have a lot of neighborhoods. We need to be able somehow to knit together neighborhoods through real relationships, to do what the Buddhists call “destroying the illusion of separateness”.

Published by the LA Progressive on November 1, 2011
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