From the moment we’re born we are equipped with a repertoire of physical and psychological traits, whether we like it or not. Like a brand-new computer operating system that comes with Excel, Word, PowerPoint, etc, our operating system comes with emotions such as jealousy, fear, love, anger, etc.
It’s obvious such attributes have played a role in our evolution as a species, and have been key to our survival. Without fear, early humans would’ve been hounded by lions, without love we could’ve never bonded to raise families and work together in groups. But some of our default settings have their limitations in the modern world. In fact, they can be outright dangerous.
That’s because of what evolutionary psychologists call the Savannah Principal, or the notion that it’s difficult for the human brain to cope with situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment. Thousands of years ago, it made sense to fear those who looked different from us. Tribes were usually close knit and rarely interacted with members of other groups, except when they were trading or at war with each other. Contact with other tribesmen often led to the latter.
In the modern world, where global cooperation has been key to our success, and war can lead to nuclear Armageddon, the irrational fear of other groups (tribes) has resulted in systematic mass genocides. It’s easy to believe racism and xenophobia are a thing of the past, but that tribal default setting remains in all of us, and still runs very strong in a significant percentage of the global population.
The human brain is also ill equipped to process certain realities, such as the fact that the Earth is round. Naturally, we take the world as we see it, the reason we continue to say things like “the sun has risen over the horizon” instead of “my side of the Earth is moving in the direction of this very bright star.”
Scientific discoveries have made what was once a simple world into something freakishly complex, where it turns out we live on a floating rock in a vast and seemingly endless expanse of energy that’s in constant flux.
There’s a reason over one third of Americans can’t accept the scientific consensus, and believe global warming is a hoax. There’s a reason membership of the Flat Earth Society continues to grow even though the planet’s roundness is obvious from the window seat of an airplane, and there’s a reason populist leaders, who appeal to our most primitive emotions, continue to gain power.
Overcoming our embedded default setting is an uphill climb against our very instincts, but it can and has been done before, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to live in cities, in relative peace with our neighbors of different ethnicities. We wouldn’t have made it into space, and instead of smartphones we’d be holding rocks, ready to hurl them at the first stranger who crosses our path.
But our default settings still wield more power than we’d like to accept. In the last century we’ve developed extraordinary control over the natural world, yet our brains haven’t fully evolved with the times. Our decisions are driven more by convenience and short-term desires than by concern for places distant in location and in time.
Amazingly, we’ve managed to avert nuclear catastrophe, for now. But we’ve annihilated countless species of animals, bred billions more into existence to torture and kill them for food that clogs our arteries, for clothes, and for entertainment, and we’ve inundated our oceans with trash, poisoning the atmosphere and heating the planet at an unprecedented rate, hastening our demise.
Now, more than ever in human history, we have to unite and combat a crisis that our own default settings helped to engineer. It’s an uphill battle against ourselves, but it can and must be won.
Otherwise we’re just another computer program trapped in its default settings, with a virus that’s on the verge of shutting down the entire system.
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