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March 5th, 2021
Most emotions are bad reflexes. They are rapid-fire suppositional programs for instant behavior. Behavior that often satisfies some kind of short term threat or desire, but undermines long term cooperation and peace.
This seems strange. Wouldn’t the evolutionary process hone the utility of emotions to ensure they are fine tuned to our needs and our survival?
Certainly, it’s without a doubt that emotions have been shaped by this process, but what’s important to note is whether or not our current situation resembles the situation in which those emotions were honed. For the vast majority of time during which our bodies and minds were being shaped under evolutionary pressures we existed within small groups of hunter gatherers - hardly the situation we have today with billions squabbling and squaring on social media platforms.
Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist who first found a correlation between primate brain size and the average social group size. His research further gave rise to a proposed number known as “Dunbar’s number” which is the upper limit on the number of individuals that can exist within a stable, cohesive social group. That number is proposed to be somewhere between 100 and 250. Now we can certainly be aware of more than 250 people, but our ability to have inter-personal relationships with a number of people larger than 250 just isn’t possible for the vast majority of humans.
Dunbar’s research examines the mean group size of humans before the rise of modern civilization, and as one would expect, human groups have been around Dunbar’s number or far lower for most of the time modern humans have existed. This means that our emotional hardware is not evolutionarily honed for social media and cities and population numbers that don’t even really register in the conceptual mind. Our Palaeolithic minds and bodies are essentially living in an alien situation. What worked for small groups of humans doesn’t seem to work terribly well for massive populations.
But, at least on an individual level, we can edit these default reactions. Instead of acting upon every emotion that pops up in response to life, we can take the arguably unnatural action of simply not reacting and thereby allow some time for the emotion to subside in order to mindfully take stock of what the best course of action might actually be.
We might even go so far as to note that things like hiking and camping or simply being in the natural world are so conducive to good feelings because our feelings are calibrated for such circumstances. But it goes beyond this. The natural world often demands a robust ability to be present and vigilant. As difficult as this can ordinarily be, in the natural world, it comes more naturally. Something atavistic arises in the human psyche, and awareness feels far more in tune with surroundings. This need for presence and our rapid-fire emotional behavior makes sense. The quintessential example of a predator attacking, or a rival tribe attacking demands the ability to rouse highly motivated behaviour through emotions at a moment’s notice. Compare this to present day life: many jobs do not require a high degree of presence and we are pressed more and more to think in terms of the future as opposed to reacting to the present.
Where the past calibrated us for the here and now, the present and the future presses us more and more to plan for a further future.