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Do human beings NEED a predator?


2002to2009
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Finals are over and it’s about time for another LOONNNNG post… :o

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes the human animal tick. The world can seem like a very cruel place. It makes you wonder where our dark side comes from. Can we blame it on the species? Are we a freak of nature that just turned out evil in a way the rest of planets’ inhabitants didn’t? A lot of people would say yes, that we are naturally evil; that we abuse our intelligence...

Facts are, we came from nature and, for better or worse, act as nature designed us. Nature itself can be very cruel and unforgiving of weakness. It can be full of good fortune and terrible tragedy, good harvests and drought; surplus killing and extinction… yet, it can be so beautiful it moves you to tears. Or maybe we just evolved to see it that way, kind of like the way our eyes are attuned to the exact same wavelength that reaches earth’s surface. Whatever the case, nature seems to be generous, cruel, ugly and beautiful simultaneously. So are people.

(While I was reading a book recently, in which the subplot was basically about the corporate takeover of and death of independent farming, it dawned on me that the modern world is moving further away from a personal connection to nature. This might be dangerous, because there’s something about being dependent on nature that makes you mindful of certain fundamental truths).

Examples of compassion are all through nature…in dolphins, in primates, and even across species; witness cases of feral humans, adopted by wolves or deer. Cruelty is just as common, though. Human beings are not so unique. We don’t hold the monopoly on meanness, only self-awareness. (…and looking at some specimens while working in the public sector, even that is suspect). Dolphins, which are more similar to us emotionally than even some primates and will name offspring after the mother, also exhibit a corollary darker side, such as when they gang up on isolated females.

I sometimes find myself envying the squirrels and the birds, forgetting the fact that a lot of them starve to death…especially the predatory birds… The only thing sure in life is that you will die. You just have to try to be happy and appreciate yourself. Because if you don’t, who will? Pain is just part of life. In a way, it can be beautiful too. It’s all part of the experience.

It is possible to feel it all too deeply, though, and our intelligence gets us into trouble on that count. Lacking predators, we invent our own to fill the vacuum, hunting ourselves relentlessly with guilt and what-if thinking.

We compete with, fear and resent each other—often for good reason—and I suspect a lot of our negative behavior stems from our MISSING being preyed upon… Millions of years of evolution is hard to fight. (Billions, really). We still have our eyes peeled for the lurking predator. Maybe that’s why we sky dive and ride rollarcoasters—for the release. It would also explain horror movies. For some of us, the thrill-seekers, turning on each other to dispel our urge to find a predator isn’t enough. We need to simulate the emotions of being hunted and escaping unscathed.

I remember, the day after 9-11, having a very interesting psychological reaction. It’s what I can only describe as a primordial urge to get close to people. It was intense and undeniable. I had never felt anything like it before, and I feel a lot. The condition was enough to overcome my shyness, and this was back when I would have panic attacks making small talk. I just HAD to connect with people, and I cared about my usual anxiety about as much as someone running after a bus cares about messing up their hair. It was much more than feeling I needed them for protection—I was hundreds of miles from New York. Whatever it was, it ran deep. Yet, as bizarre as it was for me, it also felt completely natural. It was a stunning experience, (just on a personal level, forgetting the political implications, which frankly I think are partly manufactured anyway). It made me think about my shyness in a different way, and wonder if having an enemy was a vital component of human community, at least on a primitive, primordial (and psychological) level.

What is it about having an enemy, a predator, or a general sense of some looming yet tangible danger that compels us to draw together? …Would a predator-prey scenario be more or less natural than laboratory conditions of rats being stuffed into overcrowded cages until they start attacking each other? Isn’t the world becoming just as overcrowded? Could it be that our lack of predators has, in a psychological sense, made life less natural?

If humanity faced a threat—something frightening, yet something people could relate to (like a predator in other words, because the relationship formed in nature between predator and prey can almost seem symbiotic when you take a step back and look at the species as a whole) what would be the long-run psychological implications?

Operating under that kind of threat, serial killers and all manner of dangerous minds would suddenly find their niche. They might even be necessary. Plus, the anxious would have an outlet. The guilty would have other people to protect. What-if thinking would be superfluous. (And Mother Nature’s grand design would suddenly make sense again... But, if we weren’t designed to be this successful, without predators, how else could we evolve? What now? :confused: ).

Could it be that Neo-luddites and similar phenomena are symptoms of an urge to recapture this more natural state of togetherness, never realizing that eliminating technology isn’t the way to do it? We’re basically brains on two legs, so technology is very natural. But, could it be that an existence without a predator is VERY unnatural, and actually causing us psychological harm? Is the sensation of a predator fundamental to the human psyche?

A lot of religions (and by that I mean virtually all) promulgate the idea of the “other” people; those unfortunate heathens who aren’t saved. More wars are fought on religious grounds than any other reason. Xenophobia, racism, sexism, ageism…all stem from an urge to distinguish a community from “others.” It’s a kind of thinking that creates an artificial enemy. A human in predator’s clothing is a flimsy substitute, because it’s based on ideology, and as ephemeral, therefore, as a thought. Even so, the need to protect that simulated sense of community is enough for millions to die over in ideological wars. Killing each other over differing thoughts or circumstances of birth makes about as much sense as our need to watch horror movies and jump off bridges hooked to rubber bands. Maybe, though, there’s a common thread that weaves though that mass insanity.

How would humanity respond if it actually had a predator in common? Not a human simulation, and not something ephemeral, like a virus, but something they could see and relate to, yet was also foreign and frightening…It would need to be a predator-prey relationship, as intimate as it is in nature.

Terrorism can’t do it. It’s not substantive enough. Anything based on ideology would lack realism. Actually, terrorism is even LESS concrete than distinctions based on geography or circumstances of birth. It might start witch-hunts along the, “Are you now, or have you ever been a terrorist?” lines and make people more fearful of each other, but it won’t unite a thing.

I saw an old black-and-white movie a long time ago about a staged crash landing of hostile extra-terrestrials. The filmmaker’s premise was that this would bring humanity together; he didn’t touch on any other psychological implications. But if you think about it, the reason why psychological problems exist in such abundance has to mean, from an evolutionary standpoint, that they used to be useful. Would the moral implications of creating a predator, even through a hoax, be justifiable if it succeeded in bringing humanity together?

I’m playing devil’s advocate here. :P Still, most people feel that something isn’t quite right with humanity as a whole, and it has nothing to do with the technology which was homo habilis’ namesake. So, if someone had the means, would it be justifiable?

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Well, I know it was just a side-point, but I take vigorous exception to the idea that "the reason why psychological problems exist in such abundance ... [is] ... that they used to be useful". There's no evidence for that. It would be analogous to saying that auto-immune diseases exist because they're useful. No, they're a side-effect of something else that's useful. The side-effects diminish the usefulness of having an immune system, but the benefits are so great that the species tolerates them. I think that it's similar with mental illnesses: that they are a side-effect of intelligence and emotion, which I believe to be beneficial enough to outweigh the side-effects.

Now, it's possible that in the artificial environment that we have created around ourselves, mental illnesses are becoming more common. It may even be possible that finding or creating a new predator might alter that. But it's my belief that the net amount of human suffering would remain roughly the same. It would just change form again, as it did during the transition from our "wild" state to the present.

Anyway, there's a reason it's called an "opinion": I certainly can't prove it. :-)

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We aim to please! :-)

Well, my personal opinion is that psychological problems have always existed, at low levels, just like auto-immune diseases and such. They'd be selected against, but because I believe them to be by-products of evolutionarily-favorable attributes (intelligence and the immune system, respectively), they would continue to occur.

I have heard other theories, though. I once heard a proposal that depression might be adaptive, in certain circumstances, by curtailing an individual's activity levels during unfavorable conditions. From my own experience, I doubt this, because my inactivity comes not at the best times, but at the most inopportune.

But that brings us to the real difficulty: doing science with any of this. It would be hard to define "psychological problems" for any species other than humans, and it would be hard to define "natural" for humans. On top of that, the design of repeatable experiments for either group would be problematic.

So, we're left at the level of philosophy, rather than science, much like the early Greeks ("The world must be round, because my pencil keeps rolling away.") That's my way of saying, your guess is as good as mine. :-)

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Guest ASchwartz

Hi 2009 and all of you guys,

2009, don't get too down on human nature. Science is learning more and more about the brain, neurons and neurotransmitters and how it all works for and against us. I also agree with Malign in that all of our moods have a purpose. The problem begins when we get stuck in one mood for too long. Yes, even sadness has a purpose. It is part of what we need to feel connection with others and sad when we lose them. I want to recommend a good book to everyone and its calle: How We Decide, and it is buy a young guy named Joshua Lehrer. He explains a lot about how we need our feelings and our thinking to help us function.

If any of you read it, let me know what you think.

Allan :)

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Hi, Dr. Schwartz! Thanks for the book rec. I will definitely check it out. Might be a while before I get to it, just fyi, since I have two other books from friends I’m obligated to read. Heh.

I agree with you, I think ALL emotions have a purpose and in fact, is part of the experience of living, as I said in my first post. It can even be beautiful, in its own way.

What I had in mind were the more severe forms of psychoses and the modern, stress-ridden souls, driving themselves crazy unnecessarily.

…Actually, I don’t look down on humanity. I’m interested in finding (in my own humble way) the purpose of a thing. For me, discovering the primitive, root cause of behavior is no more offensive than realizing that sexual desire is a result of the necessity to procreate.

But I can see why some might think I WAS looking down on humanity, viewing them in such animalistic terms. :-) For me, there’s nothing shameful in being more aware of the primitive causes of our behavior. In fact, being more aware of ourselves might make us more civilized.

Anyway, I will definitely check out that book.

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Malign, more thoughts for you: again, I can see what you’re saying. Could it be that our mental problems are the psychological equivalent of sickle cell anemia, helpful to some, but deadly to others?

And actually, that’s exactly what I was saying, too: that given the right scenario, the propensity towards some psychoses might actually be NECESSARY. Given the right scenario, that predisposition might help you survive.

But, you’re saying that psychological problems are like physical diseases. Would they be like a disease caused by a virus or bacterial infection? Hardly, unless you believe psychoses are caused by evils spirits, as some cultures still do. No, if psychological ailments were like physical disease, they would be more akin to cancer, or an autoimmune disease, as you said.

Now, the “purpose” of diseases like cancer, from an evolutionary standpoint, is to curtail overpopulation, ensuring adequate resources for the younger generation. Would that, then, be the purpose of psychological ailments—to kill off weaker members of the herd?

See, I can’t help it, but I strongly believe it’s more complicated than that. I think what manifests itself today, in our modern world, as psychological ailments used to have an application that aided survival. In the right scenario, they WERE natural.

The biggest difference, between homo sapien sapien now and say, 15,000 years ago is the lack of a natural predator, or, if you want to be more general, the lack of any strong survival pressure…so that’s where I’m coming from.

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'How we decide' - my problem seems to be that I DON'T decide. I just swing back and forth - never arriving at anything (not for long anyway).

How can this have any useful purpose?

Can't decide whether I should get this book or not!!!:;)

A brain transplant would be easier.

Interesting thought - If I had another brain would I just make it work in the same way or would it make me work in a different way? Hmmmm :)

Regards

LR

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I suspect that a new brain would just make you lurch around and try to attack all the folks carrying the torches.

I always pictured the monster singing "You light up my life" to Dr. Frankenstein.

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Going back a page to the mess of questions from '02to'09:

I have a hard time seeing any of the behaviors we call psychosis ever being advantageous in themselves. Losing touch with reality? Losing energy and withdrawing from life? I can't visualize a scenario when these would be beneficial.

I used the word 'disease', but yes, you're right, not in the sense of something communicable from person to person, or having an organic vector. Just to mean 'disorder', some change from normal functioning.

I've never heard of anyone saying that cancer, or other diseases of old age, have an evolutionary purpose. Natural selection acts by reducing the number of offspring from less-fit individuals, so that after several generations, the population is more fit, better suited to their environment. If you are a more fit individual, there is actually a benefit to the species if you live longer, so long as that allows you to produce more offspring. There is no benefit for you to die just to make room for offspring.

In fact, if individuals didn't wear out, there would be no reason for offspring at all, except for replacement. But sadly, we do. We accumulate damage from radiation, from oxidative by-products of metabolism, and so on. We have repair mechanisms that work fairly well, but not perfectly. If we needed to, we would almost certainly evolve better ones, but those cost energy. It's cheaper to reproduce, so that's what happens. It's all a matter of balances: we live long enough to have a fairly good chance to reproduce, and that's it. Humans have only recently been living long enough to regularly reach menopause (a time after which we no longer reproduce), and we are rare among animals for that. There's just no evolutionary reason to make individuals who live after they have reproduced. It's only because our young take so long to reach maturity that we started living this long in the first place.

I guess what I'm saying is that it's never in the interest of the species to generate some individuals who die before the rest. When it happens, and it does, it's because of some competing force. Remember, our whole lives are spent competing with entropy. We consume massive amounts of energy over our lifetimes to make up for all the order we impose on our molecules.

Anyway, my two cents seem to have undergone some inflation. Sorry 'bout that.

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Going back a page to the mess of questions from '02to'09:

I have a hard time seeing any of the behaviors we call psychosis ever being advantageous in themselves. Losing touch with reality? Losing energy and withdrawing from life? I can't visualize a scenario when these would be beneficial.

I used the word 'disease', but yes, you're right, not in the sense of something communicable from person to person, or having an organic vector. Just to mean 'disorder', some change from normal functioning.

I've never heard of anyone saying that cancer, or other diseases of old age, have an evolutionary purpose. Natural selection acts by reducing the number of offspring from less-fit individuals, so that after several generations, the population is more fit, better suited to their environment. If you are a more fit individual, there is actually a benefit to the species if you live longer, so long as that allows you to produce more offspring. There is no benefit for you to die just to make room for offspring.

In fact, if individuals didn't wear out, there would be no reason for offspring at all, except for replacement. But sadly, we do. We accumulate damage from radiation, from oxidative by-products of metabolism, and so on. We have repair mechanisms that work fairly well, but not perfectly. If we needed to, we would almost certainly evolve better ones, but those cost energy. It's cheaper to reproduce, so that's what happens. It's all a matter of balances: we live long enough to have a fairly good chance to reproduce, and that's it. Humans have only recently been living long enough to regularly reach menopause (a time after which we no longer reproduce), and we are rare among animals for that. There's just no evolutionary reason to make individuals who live after they have reproduced. It's only because our young take so long to reach maturity that we started living this long in the first place.

I guess what I'm saying is that it's never in the interest of the species to generate some individuals who die before the rest. When it happens, and it does, it's because of some competing force. Remember, our whole lives are spent competing with entropy. We consume massive amounts of energy over our lifetimes to make up for all the order we impose on our molecules.

Anyway, my two cents seem to have undergone some inflation. Sorry 'bout that.

Hey man--the whole thing about comparing psychoses to autoimmune diseases was YOUR idea. :)

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Wow, this was a lot to digest!

"I think what manifests itself today, in our modern world, as psychological ailments used to have an application that aided survival. In the right scenario, they WERE natural."

02-09, I work with children (tons of them), and I also have had to grapple hard in therapy with the impact of my childhood on my current mental health.

The scenario where psychological ailments naturally aided survival is childhood!!! A child goes psychotic to escape a terrifying trauma. A child goes mute and shuts down into depression, keeping a low profile, to escape further abuse, or neglect. Another child will go on hyper tantruming overdrive to get control back in a desperate fight against extinction. All the primitive stories of survival and the primitive mental responses the ill-equiped young mind comes up with are still very much alive in childhood.

There is a neat and tidy thing that happens when we get older. "Forgetting, and moving on." Deep down the untidy things are still operating though.

I do not feel despairing about all this, btw. And I know I cannot ever tidy up everything, no matter how much I delve into my past. Sometimes it is enough to recognize the enormity of what I was faced with, and how my little self was just doing what it could. Taking a moment to be compassionate about it all, without having to figure out every last bit.

Little kids could use that compassion too. So many are so very alone and they are right there where the survival drama is all happening, when the story of their coping is being written.

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Wow, this was a lot to digest!

"I think what manifests itself today, in our modern world, as psychological ailments used to have an application that aided survival. In the right scenario, they WERE natural."

02-09, I work with children (tons of them), and I also have had to grapple hard in therapy with the impact of my childhood on my current mental health.

The scenario where psychological ailments naturally aided survival is childhood!!! A child goes psychotic to escape a terrifying trauma. A child goes mute and shuts down into depression, keeping a low profile, to escape further abuse, or neglect. Another child will go on hyper tantruming overdrive to get control back in a desperate fight against extinction. All the primitive stories of survival and the primitive mental responses the ill-equiped young mind comes up with are still very much alive in childhood.

There is a neat and tidy thing that happens when we get older. "Forgetting, and moving on." Deep down the untidy things are still operating though.

I do not feel despairing about all this, btw. And I know I cannot ever tidy up everything, no matter how much I delve into my past. Sometimes it is enough to recognize the enormity of what I was faced with, and how my little self was just doing what it could. Taking a moment to be compassionate about it all, without having to figure out every last bit.

Little kids could use that compassion too. So many are so very alone and they are right there where the survival drama is all happening, when the story of their coping is being written.

Hi, FindingMyWay! I think you're on to something. To find out the reasons for why we behave the way we do, we may not need to look any further than our children...humanity's "tabula rasa."

I agree with what you said about survival mechanisms. That's why I was able to forgive the bullies from grammar school...at one point, I came to an understanding that they behaved that way out of a kind of instinct, and also fueled by parenting, or lack thereof.

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Back to the Tom Brown books, somewhere in one of them the Apache man that taught him says that acts of survival are sacred. He purposefully sought out survival situations as a vision quest to purify himself spiritually. Living in the harshest of conditions got him in contact with the essence of things. So in his way he ends up agreeing with you that we need survival situations; in fact that is part of what is wrong with us that we are too removed from the sacred acts of survival. Just another angle on this interesting discussion!

The Germans sort of put the two together...childhood and nature I mean. Many of their kindergartens are actually in the forest out in the elements. Can you imagine how we'd be if we formed our coping skills and personalities in that milieu??? It intrigues me.

Edited by finding my way
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Wow indeed! I am not sure if a predator will unite people so much as a good idea will. Should a group of people face a predator, their sense of justice will dictate how they will respond. So, instead of a world where people must live in fear to be together, I prefer to think of people more as explorers.

Through characters, stories explore human values, raise moral dilemmas, and project the consequences of particular, conspicuous choices. One can appreciate this while reading Shakespeare's Macbeth, or watching an episode of Law and Order. What should the character do? What should you do? Thanks to our relatively powerful minds, we are able to project into the past and the future, and enjoy the present; and, part of what makes these stories we learn of so interesting is our ability to manufacture and simulate scenarios without really experiencing them. We can place ourselves into the shoes of another, be they real or fictional. I am Jack Bauer of 24, Detective Green or ADA Rubirosa, would I do the same?

But, why do we do this? To what end do we immerse ourselves in these scenarios? In our lives? One theory is that as human beings are a part of nature, our ability to think expands the universe of possibilities that nature enjoys. Our very existence is like nature's pandora's box. Through humanity's evolution, nature expands boldly into the world of thought and self-awareness. As we innovate and invent new technologies, we are able to explore this 'new frontier' in ways that were unimaginable even a few generations ago.

From pictures on a cave wall to the internet, it is through this increased flow of information that eventually compels each individual to face the issue of existence, an issue that increasingly cannot be brushed aside or ignored. Geographical limits often confined peoples to a particular set of beliefs, religious or otherwise, which were prevalent to their locations. But, through an unbridled, uncensored internet, people are gradually more capable of exploring all sorts of life views. Even those who cared not for any particular world view will eventually suffer some event that forces them to (hey...I think I fall in this category somewhat) explore and re-explore the ideas surrounding their existence in a bid to answer why we go through all this crap? But, really, in all seriousness, the deeper question is the one famously attributed to Socrates: What is justice?

The word justice summons images of court rooms, lawyers, and politicians. However, the concept of justice goes to our sense of morality and fairness, how things, individuals and societies should interact with each other, and what should or should not be considered virtuous. Laws are merely an attempted reflection of our collective sense of what the answer to this question may be. As one tries to explore the question, it is difficult to even begin without considering both the individual and the society at large. Thus, to ask the question is, in some sense, to re-affirm the bond between oneself and the group.

Of course, in the end, if justice turns out to involve setting loose a predator to force people together, then I suppose it's all good. But, I am sure we are not at the point where we would say this is so.... :(

Edited by kaudio
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