03 March 2017

The Battle to Rise Above the Genetic Imperative

The Economist just tweeted out this fact of the day:
In 2007, Google searches for "Kim Kardashian" overtook searches for "climate change."

All the primates seem terribly interested in the lives of alpha males and their cohorts. They track who is in favor and who is out. Not just opportunities to mate but one's own survival can depend on how attuned one is to the social dynamics that determine who is in and who is out, who is popular and who is not. The politics of high school and who is popular have deep genetic roots.

Apparently this urge never stops. Last night visiting a friend who is dying in a hospice facility, he said that as he lays in bed his mind continues to come back to the same thoughts. "What thoughts," my wife asked. "The politics of this place. So many people think they are superior to you." To our dying breath, I thought. Wow. And then I realized that it is past that: "we" are going to heaven and you are not is one of the oldest stories of civilization. Not just in groups and out groups in high school but straight through eternity.

Meanwhile, carbon emissions are changing the climate. Chicago had no snow on the ground in January or February for the first time in 146 years. Permafrost that has been intact since the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago is now collapsing. In states throughout the US, communities are setting new records for heat. Places in Oklahoma - home to our new EPA secretary who sees climate change as a hoax - hit 100 in February for the first time on record.

We did not evolve to worry about climate change in the same way that we evolved to worry about who is in and who is out in celebrity circles. It's stylish to berate the media for what they cover but right now our media is profit-driven. They don't have an incentive to cover what they should; instead, they have incentive to cover what we're programmed to care about. We do have these big brains but what they like to do is fixate on the same things the chimps do: food, sex, our progeny and social status. Religion was one attempt to raise people above the genetic imperative, imploring us to rise above the world, flesh and devil. Science and the modern world is yet another attempt to elevate our concerns to something that wouldn't occur to a fellow primate. No matter whether it's with pulpit or lectern, though, it's a tough battle to wage.

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