Imagine you were a caveman or woman. You’re living in your cave. Heating is not so great. Refrigeration is decent, but imperfect, so most of your food must be caught or gathered fresh. You probably don’t know much about sanitation, so minor bacterial problems are a big deal. Communication with neighbors might not be so genial, and because you’ve got no money, you can’t hire or buy decent security systems.
Let’s move forward a million years. You’re a pre-industrial farmer; let’s just say for the sake of argument in northern Europe. Your dwellings thermoregulatory system is crappier than the cave, so you freeze in the winter, bake in the summer. Your non-GMO crops are small and unpredictable in their yields, so every now and again, people starve to death or contract ailments from malnutrition. Sanitation and refrigeration hasn’t changed much from your Neanderthal brethren, so tiny things cause big problems: plagues, infections, infestations, blights, etc. Your kids die of common colds. Even your feudal masters are subject to these annoyances.
Whether you were a Neanderthal or a serf, your primary motivation in life was likely to create stable living systems: protect yourself against the elements, disease, marauders and other existential threats.
From a Darwinian perspective, what differentiated those who made it and those who perished was probably a combination of constitutional fortitude and mental plasticity. Back in the day, because the world was so unstable, because the wrong handshake could kill you, because one cold night could mean losing a limb, you had to be adaptable and mentally nimble because the perpetuation of life was so uncertain. If you had to quarantine you mother, so be it. If you didn’t grow enough food for the winter, you couldn’t just supplement from the Pathmark grocery store—you had to eat less or you’d starve to death.
It’s tough to make an argument for a whole retrogressive movement toward these primitive living systems. Most of us like hot water, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, antibiotics and the myriad innovations that have made, for most of us in the “developed world,” our lives far more stable physically.
The developed world has been a master of the physical world for almost a hundred years now. Barring a few really minor meteorological phenomena, the last time Mother Nature really knocked us out was the influenza outbreak of 1918-1919. We live in an age of predictability that would be inconceivable to a person living a thousand years ago. We are sure there will be food for the winter. When we sneeze, we don’t see it as a portent for death.
But there is a major pitfall to physical stability: It makes our lives predictable. In this predictability, I think we have become neurologically crystallized (see: boring, lifeless). In pre-industrial times, there was a precariousness that characterized daily life—you had to be on your toes, you had to mentally adapt to your environment, or you’d die. It was this very mental fluidity/neurological plasticity that allowed humans to evolve so much from a technological standpoint.
The shit-storm of a world we live in is not merely a problem with a inequitable power distribution, removal from the processes of production, and other easy scapegoats for societal breakdown—it’s also a matter of mental dullness. Huge swaths of populations are neurologically frozen. Because their minds have been lulled into the certainty of existential continuation, there is no excitement, no unpredictability. This lack of existential unpredictability often serves to hinder mental plasticity. The things we adapt to now–technology, reduced incomes, moving to other states/countries–pale compared to an existential threat. The consequences of not adapting to these things might be social alienation or professional irrelevance, but it’s not death. We don’t have to change. When we don’t have to adapt, we don’t change, and when we don’t change, we don’t evolve (note: Darwinian evolution states that the species that adaptation, not strength, is the key to natural selection).
So the question is: without refusing technological advances that have generally made our lives better, how might humankind learn to evolve again? How can we as a species extricate ourselves from the mechanized, neurologically stultifying practices that have been created around existential sustainability, e.g.. hyper-consumption, workaday life, ceaseless industrial growth, overpopulation?
I don’t know. But I think the first thing to do is to bring consciousness to our behavior, ceaselessly asking, “why am I doing this?” And, “Is this leading to my conscious evolution, or am I cog in the machine of an outmoded system (whether your involvement with this system is professional, cultural or biological), one that uses material progress and financial gain as an erroneous proxy for existential perpetuity?”
The other thing to do is do the things that scare you. Facing fear often induces neurological plasticity.
While I might lack a detailed prescription to treat the ailment of neuropathostasis, it’s important to begin trials for various treatments. It is my sincere wish that we rid the world of this deadly condition, because spending the duration of one’s life unaware, blind to what this mechanism called a ‘human life’ can perform, is, and always has been the deadliest plague of all.