Archives for posts with tag: psychology

According to an infographic I saw recently, pregnancy and childbirth are the biggest world-wide causes of death for 15-19 year old girls.  The infographic is understandably quite upset about that.  It offends our western sensibilities to hear of women this young, children almost, being enslaved to the womb  as soon as menses are happening.  To us, childbearing is something that is supposed to happen when your body is fully mature, you have decent security and a support network and a shiny hospital to give birth in.  Isn’t it?

Unfortunately, for much of the world, no.  No it isn’t.  To me, this is a prime example of the overriding challenge facing humanity now: reconciling our evolved instincts with our emerging rational thought.  We evolved to live in a very different world to the one that most of you who read these words actually live in, and even those furthest from ‘enjoying’ western civilisation probably do not have quite the life pressures of the first humans.

Childbearing is something that is supposed to happen as soon as possible, evolutionarily speaking.  The earliest humans had a rough old life, with a projected lifespan of around 20 years and the childbearing process had grown long and arduous, with a practical limit of two viable offspring at a time, those offspring being entirely dependent on the mother for a dangerously long period before they can start to contribute to the tribe.  In that situation it was advantageous (to the species as a whole) to breed as soon as possible, and as often as possible, the creation and nurturing of the next generation of the species taking evolutionary priority over the quality of life, or even survival, of the current iteration.

In the ‘civilised’ countries where marrying and breeding in the high school years is generally frowned upon, we face a terrible struggle to stop the randy little bleeders doing it anyway!  Anyone with a daughter, and who was once a teenage boy, sweats with panic at the thought of parties and concerts and nightclubs and school trips away.  The activation of the human reproductive system (after a very long wait compared to most other species) brings with it a compelling desire to use the damn thing, now, while the body is young and elastic and strong enough to bear the strains of savannah life, climbing trees to sleep, running from leopards and so on, while several months pregnant. We have beds now, and the leopards are generally no longer a problem, but that compelling desire is still there.

In the ‘first world,’ we’ve increased our lifespans, opportunities and standard of living to the point that, when viewed intellectually, the imperative to breed early does not seem so pressing, and we’ve taken control of our reproductive biology to the point that we can have sex just for fun, with a far reduced risk of unwanted pregnancies.  We don’t need to squeeze out children as fast as possible, in the hope that one or two of the nine mum birthed, before number ten killed her, will make it to adulthood.  We can plan it, get everything ready and go ahead in the almost certain knowledge that it will be ok.  In the west, a stillbirth or miscarriage is a seen as shattering tragedy, but for many elsewhere in the world it is a numbly accepted fact of life.

If we want the luxury of placing one’s own quality of life ahead of the biological imperative to perpetuate the species that western middle class life affords with its security, education and health care to be extended to all human beings, then, well, the security, education and health care have to be extended to them too.  It’s that simple, and it will mean that the middle classes of the west will have to bite the bullet and accept a slight reduction in their standard of living to effect a massive increase in everyone else’s.  Such a small sacrifice really…like going from you having a 46″ telly and me having no telly, to both of us having a 28″ telly.

We are really a very simple animal, and when achieving even the bottom layer of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is not necessarily a given, then self-actualisation goes out of the window in favour of the older, more basic, drives.

People in the developing world facing a 35 year life span, in which infant and childbirth mortality will touch every family, in which one of a woman’s jobs is to birth new pairs of hands who will hopefully live long enough to help work the farm and…oh, please…keep us all fed for another season, will respond, have responded over generations, by developing societal norms that fulfil the biological imperative to reproduce, health and happiness taking  a much lower priority.

Viewed from our privileged perspective, these norms seem, well, not normal, and it upsets us that people are forced to live like that.  Eliminate situations like this by eliminating the economic, educational and health care gulfs between the world’s haves and have nots, and you eliminate the pressures that perpetuate the evolved, instinctual behaviour and allow rational consideration of one’s individual future to take place.

Humanity stands on the lip of a catastrophe curve.

We have rushed headlong from wandering troops of balding apes on the plains of Africa to hurling ourselves and our machines into the gulf between worlds and returning safely. We have made the change so quickly, so vigorously, that we have outstripped evolution. We developed biological imperatives that gave us a survival edge on the savannah; to breed as soon as, and whenever possible, to gorge on fat and sugar when it is available, to react to alarming occurences with agitation, noise and violence. Alongside these, we developed the curious trick of thinking rationally, and that was our blessing, and has become our curse. Our blessing because it has lead the way in the development of our greatest achievements, our curse because it has lead us to the childish belief that every decision we make in our lives is rational, when in fact we are still prisoners of the primitive drives most people consider consigned to prehistory.

The human mid-brain has evolved a battery of methods to convince the callow, inexperienced, rational fore-brain to believe it is making the decision, while, in fact, most decisions are made by the hoary old lizard of the hind-brain; a knee-jerk instinctive response to a stimulus dressed up as a rational decision, like a grizzled old Sergeant pulling the strings of a Lieutenant fresh out of Sandhurst…

Remember when you went out for a meal, and spent ten minutes thoughtfully perusing the menu before finally deciding on steak? Your hind-brain had decided on steak, before you looked at the menu, before you entered the restaurant, then it let the fore-brain act like it had anything at all to do with the choice. And you believed it.

It is possible to force the fore-brain to override the hind-brain, but it tends not to be pleasant…perhaps you are not exactly flush just now, and reluctantly choose the fish, which is half the price of the steak. But you still want the steak, and you know it. It’s at moments like this that we are most aware of the dissonance between instinct and rationality, and they are a microcosm of the challenge facing humanity. The hind-brain wants the pleasure-reward of the steak now, and cares not for theoretical concepts like bank accounts. The fore-brain must find the courage to exercise it’s authority to force the hind-brain to forego pleasure now in order to avoid pain in the future, like Lieutenant Dale finally issuing direct orders to Sergeant Breslaw.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that vast swathes of the population (in the ‘civilised world’ at least) can go for depressingly long periods of time without ever exercising that rational discretion over responding to an instinctual desire for gratification now, and thus we have over population, obesity, panic and war.

The challenge facing humanity now is to make, as a species, the rational decision to take control of our own instincts and emotions, to listen to their advice and requests without handing them a casting vote, to choose the fish instead of the steak.

Except, now the fish is sharing resources and opportunities equally, accepting that many of the things we want we do not even slightly need and doing without them, the fish represents giving more to society than we take, giving up the destructive habits that damage our home, and the bank account we keep in the black is our grandchildren’s security and future and the advancement of humanity beyond it’s fragile cradle, and that satisfies the most fundamental biological drive of them all…survival of the species.

The curve, on the lip of which we teeter, offers destruction and degradation, possibly extinction, against the chance of the brightest of possible futures. Which way we slip depends heavily on our behaviour in this century. Oblivion or immortality.