Friday, February 18, 2011

I Didn't Evolve For This, Part 2: Disaster, Disease, Damnation and Depression

To watch a news broadcast you would think we lived at the most dangerous time in history. Every day we bombard ourselves with stories of terrorists, child abductions, natural disasters, tragic accidents, wars, new killer diseases and a host of dangers that are going to maim and kill us. However, in reality humans, particularly those of us living in developed countries, have never been so safe. Never in the history of mankind has the probability been so high that a baby born will reach adulthood and that an adult will live well into old age. This sets up an interesting dynamic-living in a time when we have fewer legitimate threats to our safety while being more aware than any time in history of threats to our safety.

For most of our evolutionary history our ancestors didn't understand many of the things that were likely to kill them. Certainly the things that had sharp teeth chasing after them or angry faced hominids that were chucking rocks at them were understood well enough. (This latter scenario probably happened more often than we can really appreciate. Steven Pinker did an interesting presentation on TED describing how human beings have less chance of being killed by another human being today than in any time in history-even if you count both World Wars.) Our fear response evolved to deal with these types of immediate threats that were generally dealt with quite quickly. Either the saber tooth tiger caught you or you got away, the human trying to steal your food and wife quickly clubbed you to death or you clubbed him first, and so on and so forth. Our ancestors evolved responses to react to such threats but also learned about such threats from anecdotes past on by friends and family.

The reliance on anecdotes is important to understanding our instinctual fears. Our ancestors relied heavily on stories to understand threats. Primarily these threats were other humans or animals but there was also the threat of poisonous food, floods, or other natural disasters that they taught each other about through stories. This is important to realize because we see that humans that instinctively enjoyed stories about dangers were more likely to survive than those who didn't. Consequently we see why news stories about terrorists attract a lot more attention than a local service project.

The reliance on anecdotes also explains why people like me are terrified of flying. No matter how many times I read the probability of my plane crashing being one in a million when I step on the plane my body shakes and sweats like my chance of survival is 50/50, if not worse. We didn't evolve around statistics-we evolved around stories. It's quite likely that our experience with people arriving safely from a flight-particularly if you were like me and had parents and acquaintances who rarely traveled-is fairly close to the number of times you've heard about disasterous plane crashes on the news. Consequently if you take the number of stories you have about plane crashes and line them up to the number of flights you've experienced or heard about from immediate friends and family it's quite likely your perceived risk from anecdotes could be closer to 50/50.

One thing our ancestors didn't understand at all was disease. We did evolve many instincts that protect us from disease-such as adverse reactions to bodily fluids or corpses-but we rarely had the understanding to communicate the danger of disease to each other and never fully understood how to appropriately respond. Disease is also ill-fitted for our evolved fear instinct because unlike the threats that haunted our ancestors that were quickly dealt with and went away disease is an ever-present danger. This is particularly true now that we understand so many diseases that don't require being next to a person with a sneeze, cough or oozing wound but that occur naturally within our own bodies like cancer or auto-immune diseases.

The last danger I'll mention that our ancestors didn't have to deal with is a particularly unique one. The danger of hell. Now, my point here is not to discuss whether hell is real or not. In fact I think the fear of hell can be joined with a danger that no one disputes as being real-social consequences for our actions. While humans have always interacted with each other and had to carefully weigh the consequences of their actions socially never has this equation in our lives been so complex and pitted so many of our instincts against one another. This includes the very complex social practices and beliefs we have incorporated to deal with our complex social interactions, such as religion, which throw in more dilemmas into the equation. It isn't that these social practices and restrictions aren't useful or at times even necessary-they generally are-but they add another layer of fear into a world that is already piling it on.

The result is we live in an environment that is perpetually bombarding our fear instincts. These instincts that were so helpful to our survival have consequently become a hinderance to many. Anxiety disorders have become almost pandemic in the developed world. Similarly depression, which is often preceded by anxiety and may simply be the anxiety instinct driven to exhaustion, has become a huge problem in our modern society. In my own state of Utah, for example, anti-depressant use is the highest in the nation. While research will continue to evaluate this problem it appears that a large part of our problem may be the evolution of fear in circumstance where 'fight or flight' was generally an available option placed in our current environment where our awareness of danger is too high and our ability to react is overwhelmed.

Friday, February 11, 2011

I Didn't Evolve Under These Circumstances. Part 1: Food

It's struck me a lot recently how many problems we have because progress has outpaced our evolution. I've decided to write a few posts about these problems and hopefully do a final one about some of the possible solutions.

Perhaps the most classic example of this is found in the way we eat and use our food for energy. Human beings as far as we can tell were hunter gatherers for the vast majority of our evolutionary history. We ran, a lot, and a lot of that running was spent getting food. And since food was relatively scarce we also became very efficient at using the calories we consumed. In fact, anthropologists suspect one reason we may have evolved to stand upright is because it burns fewer calories than walking on all fours like other primates. We even evolved instincts to conserve our calories. If we weren't running to catch prey (or to avoid becoming prey) or a few other evolutionary essential functions we instinctively moved around as little as possible.

About 10,000 years ago humans began cultivating crops. While this may have created conflict with our evolved instincts almost immediately initially raising crops was labor intensive and crop yields relatively low. There is some evidence that humans did evolve some with this change-since people with ancestory coming from geographic regions with a longer history of agriculture tend to have less obesity problems than those who didn't-but the change was relatively modest. Regardless of one's ancestoral evolutionary heritage the leaps and bounds in agriculture that have led to explosive gains in food output have left almost all of us ill-fitted instinctively to stay healthy. Our insticts, evolved over eons of time with food scarcity-have led us to eat much more than we need for health and to be as sedentary as possible. On top of that we evolved cravings for foods that were relatively scarce or difficult to attain but that are essential in small quantities that are now readily accesible such that we overconsume them-like fat and salt.

It's interesting the remedies we've tried to come up with to solve this problem. One novel idea is exercise. In the movie Back To The Future III the character Doc Brown in a saddened stupor begins rambling about the future to a packed bar in the late 1800's. He tells them that in the future people will run for recreation. A man in the bar immediately pipes up with "Run for fun? What the hell kind of fun is that?" with the fellow townspeople laughing in agreement.

Indeed the idea of exercising for recreation or enjoyment is rather ridiculous through the lens of most people throughout human history. Exercise wasn't something they fit into their lives-it was something they did to stay alive. Consequently we aren't very good at motivating ourselves to do it as we were when not running meant starving to death or being eaten by a sabertooth tiger. We struggle to get ourselves moving because the urgency simply isn't there.

Likewise we are not very good rejecting food,particularly delicious foods that we crave. Again, having too much food was a problem that few if any of our ancient ancestors would have faced on a regular basis-while starvation was a constant possibility. In the rare event that a smorgasbord was made available to our ancestors the extra fat reserves kept by the body would almost certainly have been burned off in a time when food became relatively scarce.

As bad as we are at exercise our capacity to deprive ourselves of food is even more dismal. It seems over the course of time our bodies did evolve some neurological rewards for running. When we run endorphins are released giving us an improved sense of well-being. But with food depravation just the opposite occurs. While depriving ourself of food does have benefits to the function of many of our organs, neurologically we are punished for it. Cortisol, a stress hormone, is released when we fast or reduce our caloric intake. This made sense for our ancestors-since it probably motivated them to look for food immediately since the time from when they started looking for food and when they actually found it would have often been quite long. However for modern humans this creates havock-reducing calories leads to stress that often leads to increased food consumption which then relieves the stress but leaves us overweight.

So our evolutionary past has clearly put us at a disadvantage in the battle of the bulge.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Winter Solstice Celebrations

Winter solstice is an interesting time for celebration. Christmas was first instituted to replace pagan holidays held at the time of winter solstice. It is literally the day of the longest and darkest night. How fitting though that throughout the ages, whether in times of Christian dominated Europe or in the time or polytheism that people gathered to celebrate. It seems a fitting symbol of how in the times of the greatest darkness surrounding us we always can turn to the light found in friends, neighbors and family. Interestingly we interpret this scripture from Isaiah to apply to Jesus whom we celebrate in this time of darkness:

"The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined." Isaiah 9:2

In the life of Jesus we have found the symbol of all those virtues which we espouse that bring us together as human beings: compassion, kindness, love, and forgiveness. We emphasize his life as a motivating force to demonstrate greater charity and to bridge the social gaps between neighbors and friends. To create the light in the darkness.

Yesterday on the day of winter solstice we invited neighbors over for a small party. We told our immediate neighbors we would be doing this instead of distributing treats to neighbors as we usually do. It was a great time to talk to neighbors who, in the time of winter, we communicate less with as we hurry from our cars into the warmth of our homes. As we talked with our next-door neighbor after the others had left Christmas carolers from our LDS ward came and sang to us. We distributed our cookies to them as we joked and laughed. After it was all over I was so grateful for that evening-the enjoyment of good company is far better than any present dropped off at the door.

I am grateful for the light of so many in my life who shine in times of darkness-whether literal physical darkness at winter solstice or the darkness of emotional pain and loneliness. I am also grateful for people and symbols that inspire us to share a little more of that light-whether religious or secular, real or fanciful, as long as they motivate us to love, charity and goodness.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Patriotism and Spirituality

One time during the medal ceremony of the Olympics some years ago I watched as the gold medalist responded emotionally to the raising of her flag while the anthem of her country played. I don’t recall what country she was from except that she wasn’t from the United States. I thought it was interesting that while I could relate to the emotion of patriotism I couldn't really feel it with respect to her flag or anthem. The flag and the song meant nothing to me and consequently the ceremony evoked little within as I watched it. However, there were of course many times when watching the U.S. flag rise to "The Star-Spangled Banner" that strong emotions had come. Of course I doubt most outside of the United States feel those emotions for our anthem or flag.

Emotions of patriotism obviously depend heavily on the environment in which one was raised. We feel patriotism for a country because we have been instructed to do so but also because we can identify certain key aspects of our lives that are associated with it. Most people do not leave their home country to find a new one and/or develop patriotism towards a country in which they were not born.

The same would seem true of spirituality. I attended a Catholic mass in the Florence cathedral once during my LDS mission . Attending a Catholic service in such a magnificent building, over 500 years old that had undoubtedly been a place of worship for innumerable notable figures in Catholic history, would have undoubtedly brought great emotion to any devout Catholic. However for me while I can't say I felt nothing that I would usually associate with spirituality, I certainly would not say I had anything akin to the type of experience I had in Mormon sacrament meetings or especially the temple. There were of course those that seemed to be very caught up spiritually in the ceremony and I certainly met many who had such strong spiritual experiences associated with Catholicism in general that they had made enormous sacrifices. Religion, like citizenship, also seems to be something the vast majority of people maintain throughout their life-with most living and dying in the faith they were born into (if they maintain any religious affiliation at all) and this in spite of the relative ease of switching religious affiliation when compared to citizenship.

There are of course many exemptions to both situations. Despite what the majority do many do in fact change their citizenship and religious affiliation and we assume with that change for many their feelings of patriotism and spirituality change as well. Interestingly enough though the ones who do make these dramatic changes often have similarities. They are disproportionately the poor, for example. While this is fairly obvious with citizenship (how many Canadians are moving to the United States when compared to Mexicans, for example) but religion often sees this trend as well. Scriptures even recognize this fact, suggesting that humility brought about by poverty can lead to the change of heart necessary to bring conversion. Another less common scenario but common enough is a romantic interest. This seems to be more prevalent in religion-where someone meets a potential spouse of a different faith and then converts-but I have certainly seen it occur on multiple occasions with citizenship as well.

All this seems to line up quite well with how evolution by natural selection would explain our spiritual and patriotic emotions. It would seem both these emotions, distinct though they may be as they certainly were for me, help to define and bind us into social groups. They create bonds with other humans that encourage collaborative efforts, mutually beneficial reciprocating acts and unification against outside forces. Such emotions depend heavily on the environment in which one was raised but such emotions can be swayed. There is great risk in changing social groups since it is extremely difficult to make up for the advantage of the experience and knowledge one gain's growing up within a social group. There are also many social mechanisms built into each social construct to prevent the loss of it’s members and to protect against infiltration from ‘outsiders’. However we would see that it would generally make sense for someone to change social groups in the event that another social group offered a relative evolutionary advantage-additional resources for one's survival, more opportunities for mutually beneficial reciprocating acts or a better potential partner for procreation. Consequently we see that our emotions evolved to tie us to the social group we were born into most of the time but with the ability to also change towards a different social group in the event that there is considerable potential for an even greater evolutionary advantage elsewhere.

While some may feel this detracts from the beauty of spirituality and patriotism I think it gives us a greater appreciation of both while enhancing tolerance towards others who may differ in those essential aspects. There is beauty in a process that was woven together over eons of time to form the intense emotions that bind us together and yes, sadly at times, pit us against each other. However in recognizing the process for what it is we can begin to realize there is both positives and negatives to these evolved instincts and seek to embrace an improved sense of patriotism and spirituality. A system of patriotism and spirituality that doesn't exclusively embrace one’s ‘in-group’ and shuns others but one that opens up spirituality and patriotism. A belief system that is open enough to facilitate each individual finding the greatest potential happiness and fulfillment in the beliefs that best fit each individual's needs and desires while encouraging the greatest degree of positive interaction between all members of the human race.

(Images from Wikipedia from the entries for Olympic Games, Florence Cathedral, Naturalized citizenship and Prayer respectively).

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thoughts On Thankfulness

The week of Thanksgiving has ironically given me the reminder of so many things that I often take for granted that I ought to be grateful for. The week started out with Aspen being diagnosed with pneumonia and with me experiencing a persistent dull pain in my right hand and arm. Fortunately Aspen has improved-though she is still quite sick and now I've got her cold-and my pain subsided. However it has been a great reminder of so many things, like good health in myself and my loved ones, that I often take for granted. It was for this reason I somewhat jokingly-though somewhat seriously-posted my Facebook status as "I'm grateful that I have so many things I can take for granted".

Unfortunately though one of the most tragic of all human frailties is our inherent failure to appreciate that which we already have. We persistently engage subconsciously or consciously in the pursuit of enhancing and improving our situation with such diligence that we leave no mental space to relish the incredible bounty of our current circumstances. There is even a well-known saying that describes this reality-'the grass is always greener on the other side'. The first great tragedy in this is we so often imperil the great blessings we already have-jumping towards greener pastures only to realize the grass now looks greener where we once stood. The second aspect of this tragedy is that ingratitude robs of us the joy of what we already have. There is a certain irony in the situation that so many us experience. Here we live in a time and place (the United States) where our standard of living far exceeds that of the vast majority of humankind both past and present and yet we squander it's enjoyment lamenting how we don't have as large a house as a friend or relative, drive a car as fancy or that we don't have other commodities and services available to those wealthier than ourselves. Similarly we taint the joy of our good health daydreaming of being in a healthier, better-looking body and worst of all we ruin beautiful friendships and family relationships as we drift to thoughts of the types of friends and family we'd rather have.

All this has brought me to a recognition of the wisdom of one aspect of the tradition I was brought up in. As is true for most raised in religious traditions I was instructed on the importance of daily prayer and especially the importance of always including specific things for which I was grateful. Now I'm not going to discuss or argue whether or not someone actually listens to prayers. I have friends and family on both sides of that argument. But regardless of one's beliefs one can see the benefit to the person praying. Admittedly as in all religious practice there is the tendency to become repetitive and to lose any real meaningful reflection-but with effort for true focus on the positives of one's life there can be clear benefit. Such prayer gives a daily time of meditating the things going right in one's life-a time when one sets aside the persistent chase of the unattained (and often completely unattainable) social status, material goods, or the imagined perfect relationship for recognizing that even if none of those things are achieved that we have so much that we can sow happiness from already. It doesn't mean that we necessarily forget to seek after improvement in our life as that pursuit itself can offer us great rewards-but it does leave us with greater fulfillment regardless of the success of our efforts. I think even from a secular perspective a practice of daily contemplation upon the things for which one is grateful can brighten one's life. Even if one doesn't feel all blessings we possess are from divine providence I feel gratitude and appreciation for good fortune requires no benefactor. So this Thanksgiving I've decided to try harder incorporate the daily practice of thankfulness into my life. Happiness of the least price but of the greatest worth is often found in the appreciation of what we already have.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Missing My Grandparents

I was looking through my Aunt Loni's blogs and came across a blog she had made of pictures of her parents, my grandparents from various times of their lives. Of course as a grandchild I recall them only looking like this:

However I love seeing pictures like this when they were close to my current age:

Admittedly such pictures do fill me with a bit of melancholy. I feel sadness at not seeing my grandparents any more and in being able to enjoy their warm hugs and beautiful smiles. I miss being able to hear their remarkable life experiences and to hear of times and places that were so different from my own. They brought so much joy into my life and taught me so much that I treasure.

There is also sadness in what I never asked. In part I am sad because some of the questions I don't know if I would have the courage to ask them even if they were here today with me. I think it's unfortunate that some of our greatest struggles as human beings and consequently some of the things that we would gain the most helpful insights from others regard questions that we dare not even discuss and even fear to acknowledge as difficult.

However with the sadness of those pictures also comes appreciation and joy. Appreciation at lives that were well-lived and happiness on reflection of the experiences that they enjoyed and savored. Appreciation that I had the incredible opportunity to enjoy their association and love. But also apprecation of the solemn reminder that time marches forward. That under even the best of circumstances we grow old and slow in our pace and that eventually this life will be over. But in each moment there is the now, the now which can be embraced and loved while simultaneously planning to make each future moment just a little brighter and better-just as I feel my grandparents did both for themselves and for others.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Thoughts on Gay Marriage

I had not given much attention to the matter of gay marriage until it really impacted those I knew and cared about. About two years ago I learned that a former roommate and close friend of mine from BYU had announced he was gay. Despite living in the same house with this friend for 3 years it never once crossed my mind that he was homosexual. He had hid his private emotions from us completely. However I did know him to be one of the most compassionate and considerate human beings I had ever met. I was repeatedly impressed by the great efforts he made to improve the lives of those around him and how much patience and kindness he showed to family and friends.

When I learned that he was gay I was overcome with great sadness. Admittedly some of the sadness was because of the biological difficulties a gay man faces, like being able to have children, since I had always known he would make a fantastic father. But I also felt an overwhelming sadness for all those years growing up in the Church where he must have been incredibly burdened with guilt and sadness wondering what he had done to feel the way he felt and how he would ever change and/or be accepted. I felt terrible for all the hours he had listened to all my problems when he must have been dying inside from feeling he couldn't talk to anyone about his internal struggle. And worst of all I felt terrible knowing that if he had talked to me while we had been at BYU I wouldn't have been very accepting or helpful.

However for all the sadness I was grateful that my friend had accepted who he was and embraced a path that seemed to offer him greater happiness. He had found a partner that, like him, wanted to eventually raise a family and since they couldn't marry they had a commitment ceremony. While I didn't have the opportunity to attend the ceremony I did meet his partner and he seemed like a great guy and most importantly knowing my friend I'm sure he would only select someone who reflected his own excellent character.

Marriage comes with an incredible amount of privileges. It comes with many privileges that we might consider superficial, such as tax breaks or the ability to easily transfer property, but it also comes with privileges of remarkable individual and social trust, such as joint guardianship of children. It is perhaps something we take too lightly in providing to heterosexuals. Anyone who can find a partner of the opposite sex can simply walk into the county offices and with twenty dollars be offered all the social privileges of marriage regardless of the level of responsbility they've demonstrated or the manner of crimes they've committed. There is certainly still all too many for whom marriage is simply a means of attaining wealth, citizenship, power or some other unworthy goal. Yet I think of my friend and other gays who I have met since then who seek marriage. They seek to affirm their relationship with their lifelong partner who they love and trust. They seek the social trust and ability to raise a family that I know they would carry out as well or better than the vast majority of heterosexual spouses. While I know there will be those homosexuals, like all too many heterosexuals, who mess up marriage and who use it's social advantages to attain ignoble ends there are so many gay men and women who, like my friend, have demonstrated themselves far more worthy of that social endowment than any of us. I think the institution of marriage would only be strengthened and enriched to be shared by such men and women.