These Genes are Killing Me

When we consider such far-flung modern phenomena as professional sports, presidential politics and the popular press, we are constantly reminded that the central problem facing the human race at this stage of our march across the history of our planet is the conflict between our genetic inheritance and our current living situation.

Our genetic inheritance comprises not only our physical characteristics, but also our behavior patterns and emotional constitutions. Genetic changes take place on a vast time scale – thousands of generations are necessary to elongate a bone, adapt an organ or to hone a skill. The human genetic code, which each of us carries in every cell of our bodies and brains, has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, during almost all of which we were tribal savages, nomadic hunter-gatherers and short-lived, omnivorous predators.

Therefore we are all operating with instincts, reactions and skill sets designed for violent, merciless killers.

The past 5,000 years of civilized progress, all of our achievements and arts, are but a blip on the slow curve of evolution, and have yet to produce any measurable changes in our genetic code. We were built for more primitive and untamed times, in which our short desperate lives were constantly in danger, and we survived only by being the baddest beasts on the block.

Just as natural selection favors faster runners and bigger brains, over the millenia it also favored certain personality types and behavior patterns. In the savage world in which we evolved, qualities like aggressiveness, physical violence and blood lust were survival prerequisites. The most efficient killers, the most ruthless hunters, and the most paranoid plotters survived, and propagated these same qualities, until we truly became the baddest of the bad.

It is this terrible inheritance we must come to terms with if we are to continue to survive in the technologically transformed world of today. For today we cannot afford unbridled aggression, constant paranoia and physical violence. There are too many of us on the planet, and our weapons are too terrible, to allow these indulgences from our adolescence as a species to guide our coming of age.

If we continue to behave in the manner we were bred to behave, we are headed for certain extinction. Many of the most disturbing phenomena of modern living – alienation, mental illness, mass murder, soccer hooliganism and reality television (for example) – stem from the disconnect between what our brains and bodies evolved to deal with and the brave new reality we are forced to face every day.

Fortunately, humans are very good at developing coping mechanisms. We are nothing if not adaptable. Out of necessity we have developed mechanisms to channel and sublimate our aggressive, bestial instincts. Politics is warfare with words instead of weapons, but employs many of the same tactics – attack, defend, defeat, gang up on, infiltrate, stab in the back, etc. The whole world of sports, professional and recreational alike, developed as a way to practice martial skills, but over the centuries has evolved into a way to channel aggression and the drive for physical dominance into socially constructive, rather than destructive, channels. The popular press, mass media and the blogosphere have become a channel for all sorts of venting, exclusionary bonding, fear mongering, scapegoating and purging which was previously acted out with deadly violence within and between tribes, producing physical rather than emotional and metaphorical damage.

But while you can lead your tribe out of the jungle, you can’t clean the jungle out of some members of your tribe. Boys will be boys, and a considerable segment of the boys on our planet continue trying their best to kill each other. Far too many of our resources, and the mindsets of the far majority of those in power, are held hostage to ancient cycles of hunt and kill, massacre and revenge, defend through destruction.

Because we are mired in the bygone battles we were bred to fight, we are unable to win or even engage the urgent troubles of today. The ancient blood lust, romantic and deeply satisfying on a viscereal level, is like a cigarette habit acquired in adolescence – it feels good and looks cool, but it’s going to kill us for sure if we don’t quit soon.

About dowbrigade

Semi-retired academic from Harvard, Boston University, Fulbright Commission, Universidad Laica Eloy Alfaro de Manta, currently columnist for El Diario de Portoviejo and La Marea de Manta.
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