6/01/2011

Evolutionary psychology

I shoot people through the prism of evolutionary psychology and project their true colors on the wall.  It's a hobby.  We're all driven to understand others.  Social animals from our primitive beginnings, we need to understand our own species.  Life and death decisions depended on how well we understood our clan, trading partners, mates, and competitors.  Our ancestry bequeathed on us modelling software -- genetically encoded in our brains -- for explaining and predicting others' behavior.  It's a handy tool even in the modern age.  Look how easily your brain detects the motives and machinations of others, despite their ruses.  What an important piece of software!  We can even turn the app on ourselves so that we might understand our own puzzling behavior, if we're brave enough.  But know this.  The only valid model, contrary to a hundred fashionable psychological theories, is primitive man, the hominid, the hairless ape whose brain has evolved and persevered the rigors of 5 million years in the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Other models compete for explaining the human condition.  You've got your positive psychology movement, behaviorism, the ghost-in-the-machine, the noble savage, socially constructed man, etc.   All rubbish.  I predicate my model for understanding humans on this simple postulate: 6,ooo years of culture can't compete with 5,000,000 years of biology.  In fact, all culture can do -- when it succeeds at all -- is redirect evolutionary forces into civilized channels.  This is why socialism always fails and that loathsome system, capitalism, remains the best game in town; we serve our own needs.  Forget all that huminist crap.  We're just animals with  jim-dandy computers inside our heads.

Recently I was trapped in a traffic jam.  I wrote about it on my blog.  And I've been thinking about it ever since.  Driving for 24 years, I've marveled at how angry traffic makes me.  At first blush, one inclined to view people through the lens of evolutionary psychology might doubt driving could affect us at all.  Automobiles are, from a biological perspective, a brand-new novelty.  They've only been around for 100 years -- just a click on the clock in evolutionary terms.  Driving doesn't garner us food or shelter or status or sex.  It's just a means of travel.  So how could driving resonate in our primitive brains with their Serengeti Plain software?  Yet it does.  Driving taps into the deepest, most fundamental layer of our emotional core -- the lymbic system.  I wasn't joking when I described myself as temporarily insane with rage during that traffic jam.  For an hour or so, I was no different from the raging primate of my ancestry -- minus some body hair.

Here's how I explain it.  Driving isn't just novel travel.  It's the 20th century permutation of the herd.  And it indeed evokes our herding instincts (or better, our prairie instincts, as we roamed the prairies as hominids).  Our cars become our bodies -- extensions of our bodies.  Driving puts us in a trance in which our rational minds doze and our instinctive mentalities thrive.  We intuit the dangers of lagging.  Our hominid sensibilities go on alert when we slow down or grind to a halt.  Imagine life on the prairie to understand why traffic jams ping our instincts. We become tempting prey to enemies on the hunt.  We're wasting resources, too: loitering on the great plains exposes us to the elements, food scarcities and manifold mishaps.  We can't rest, eat or mate on the trail.  In the Serengeti, sluggishness spells death.  This is why we hate commuting.  This is why traffic jams rattle our cages.  What irony that within one of our most celebrated technological triumphs, the automobile, we devolve into the apes of our ancient ancestry.

It's just a theory, I guess.  Just my model for explaining my behavior.  It helps me feel less insane and more normal.

20 comments:

Jennifer Fabulous said...

That's a really interesting theory. I have never thought of driving as "herding" before but it does make sense.

I always figured road rage stemmed from everyone's inner ego or competitive spirit. We either want to be the winner on the road (beating the red light or speeding ahead while everyone is behind us) or our ego gets bruised (causing rage) when the "winners" are assholes to us (cutting us off on highway or tailing us). That's how I've always viewed it. But I like your theory too.

It's a fascinating mixture of a bunch of things I bet. :)

Diane Laney Fitzpatrick said...

I, too, often wonder why we behave and react differently in our cars. Frustration over being in a long line of traffic is very, very different from standing in a long line at a concert or a bathroom. Road rage is very, very different from regular off-road rage. I think we can all agree on one thing: It's the stupid car's fault.

SQT said...

I think your intuition about capitalism extends to traffic jams too-- bear with me. It's the same kind of self interest. We don't give a damn whether the herd gets to its destination on time, we're all about our own schedules. But that's a good thing too. I'm invested in not crashing my car or injuring myself, so I take care not to drive like I'm part of a demolition derby.

Evil Twin's Wife said...

The Evil Twin hates his commute, although it's only 5 miles to his office and 5 miles home. Me? I just roll out of bed and I'm on the clock.

Penny Lane said...

this post sounded so smart.

Color me impressed

Impulsive Addict said...

All the blogs I'm reading are talking about sex tonight. Well guess what? M is at a Bachelor party and won't be home tonight. This just sucks.

And why does a traffic jam piss me off like nothing else can? I really want to cut people while I'm driving irrationally after a traffic jam.

Thanks for your sweet comment. Too bad you didn't go to my church. ;)

XLMIC said...

How did I KNOW you would like that song? Hahaha! (I'm no longer using 'lol')

I glazed over on this post…just thinking about traffic makes me want to start texting or playing video games. That's how I get through those rough commutes. But I have 4 kids to help watch out for cops so I don't get busted.

And like Penny said…it sounds so smart, but like Impulsive Addict said…I am thinking about 'other' things tonight! I need to read this again when I can focus better.

dr.alistair said...

marshall mcluhan in his theory of media, suggests that all media are an extension of parts of ourselves. he goes on to suggest that these extensions of ourselves can anesthetise the extended limb, organ or mechanism.

and the car is a media.

and the medium is the message....

this aphorism can be confusing, especially when discussed by media types, who tend to be oblivious of the true nature of media, which is to replicate it`s self.

cars make more cars.

cell phones make more cell phones.

computers make more computers.

and humans make more humans.

the reason why you get angry in a car when forced to stop for extended periods is because it becomes clear to you how powerless you become when, as content for media, you are redundant.

Christopher said...

I suppose that's why I get the thrill of making a kill when I find gas for 5 cents cheaper.

Epic Fail said...

I think it is revealing that, if cars become our bodies, why did the entire auto industry target women with their lines of SUVs? It would seem that deep down inside, auto marketing gurus believe that women secretly wish to be big, fat, pushy bullies in shiny chrome shoes.

Makes sense to me. ;-)

JUST ME said...

Dude I think you're on to something. We feel all powerful in out giant vehicles (even those Prius owners), so the idea that something would GET IN OUR WAY makes us amazingly angry.

I don't really get angry over much, but when someone cuts me off, I have a moment where I want to murder them.

Shabbygal said...

Funny< aftyer living in Cali for 15 years then moving to Iowa I just laugh at the people here who complain about the traffic. It is so non existant here! I do get very pissed when i get stuck behind farmmer Bob on his tractor!Thanks for praising my music choices I owe a lot to my oldest son who is a musician he broadens my horizon! BTW i don"t own an Ipod weird huh! LOL

Raven said...

ok, so even though I'm sure I didn't understand like most of what you were saying here in this blog post, I think I agree? I think I like it?

still not quite sure.

might have to read it again. and maybe again.

Baloney said...

Why do I love Tulsa? Hardly any traffic.
Of course, the world's worst drivers live here.
Long live road rage!

A Daft Scots Lass said...

I love road rage

Deborah said...

OMfrigginG.

I am now commuting and have terrible arrogance when on the road. No one better F with me, you know?

This makes such perfect sense. I will mantra some of this while my blood pressure is soaring while driving.

And, yes, I'm one of the people that others want to kill here in Minnesota. I use ending lanes to move forward more quickly (it's a lane isn't it? Why else is it there??). Here in MN the 'polite' peeps think we should line up immediately when an ending lane is indicated. Miles in advance of the lane actually ending.

I'll never figure that one out so I soar ahead and cut in at the end.

I do believe we're supposed to zipper ourselves in that way. Things wouldn't bottleneck so badly if we all did it.

Oh dear! You always make me comment endlessly! I blame you!

Mona said...

Men are more animals than animals...

Do I sound like a misanthrope.. I guess I am one of sort...

Big Butt! You are planning to study Eugenics?

tornwordo said...

It surprises me that Tucson has traffic. I recall it being rather podunk. Lovely, but spare. I am a different person in traffic. I scream, I honk, I shout profanities, I confront other assholes. (This has gotten me into trouble more than once.) Later, I wonder who that person was that inhabited my body.

Rox said...

I, too, have the road rage. It's truly when I do my best swearing. Sadly, my Jeep is in the shop and I'm stuck at home now. I feel like a 15 year old kid. Grounded. Wings clipped. Will you go buy me some beer?

6 Happy Hearts said...

I knew you were ingenious the first time I read your blog. Tell the truth. You're a published writer in the real world.