The human brain is exceptionally complex. That is undeniable. But one driver of human behavior, known by social scientists as the savanna principal, provides a better understanding of why we are the way we are. According to the American Sociological Association, “the human brain has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment.”
Basically, our brains haven’t evolved to handle modern day situations. Here’s why.
Our ancient ancestors in the sub-Saharan savanna had to be on constant alert for lions and other predators. If a hunter-gatherer heard movement within the tall grass, he or she knew it could either be the wind, or a lion waiting to strike.
As a survival mechanism, the human brain evolved to be suspicious of danger, attributing conscious forces, like hungry lions, to possibly random events, like wind rustling the grass. It’s better to suspect a threat instead of assuming certain situations pose no danger. If that hunter gatherer assumes it’s just the wind every time he hears the grass rustling, he won’t be prepared for when it actually is a lion, and he may become breakfast.
This mechanism is still engrained in our brains today. But we now live in an increasingly complex world, one which our brains may not yet be prepared for. We look for patterns in unconnected, random events, in search of a potential threat. This may explain why xenophobia is so common in every culture. On another note, it may also explain why people buy into baseless conspiracy theories about scientific facts that are not easy to digest.
Scientists around the world are under unanimous agreement that human activities are warming the Earth at an unprecedented rate (the few who aren’t usually receive funding from fossil fuel lobby groups) . But this phenomenon is so subtle that, at least for now, it can go unnoticed by the average layperson. Unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, the effects of human induced climate change are slow and insidious, something our brains often have trouble processing.
So when a teenage girl by the name of Greta Thunberg helped organize a series of global marches to create awareness of the problem, it’s no surprise she was subject to ridicule, vitriol, and countless conspiracy theories that made little sense.
Of course, the conspiracy theories haven’t just been on Greta. Since this uncomfortable fact became available to the masses, tribalism, instead of action, has been the main theme of the human response.
Even world leaders are more concerned about tribal loyalty than protecting life on Earth.
Perhaps Greta conjures so much anger because she reminds us how primitive we really are. Because we don’t see her as an intelligent girl who overcame the psychological constraints that evolution imposed on all of us. Instead we see her as a hungry lion hiding in the savannah, while we ignore the real threat behind us, which is like a stealthy python coiling itself around our bodies.