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Our Hands Hold Weapons That Our Minds Can’t Comprehend

Our technology is outpacing, and subverting, our ancient biological design.

The recent U.S. assassination of an Iranian general in Iraq has attracted much media attention. Arguments about it abound, and the attack will surely have international political and security implications. But reflecting on it also offers a glimpse into an important psychological phenomenon: How the capacity of our technology is outpacing and subverting the ancient designs of our biological brain.

In other words, a gap now exists between the tasks our brain has evolved to manage and the tasks it is currently asked to manage. This general idea was developed and articulated in the 1990s by the emerging sub-discipline of evolutionary psychology. The general argument, as described by evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, goes like this:

“Natural selection, the process that designed our brain, takes a long time… The environment that humansand, therefore, human mindsevolved in was very different from our modern environment. Our ancestors spent well over 99 percent of our species' evolutionary history living in hunter-gatherer societies… for 10 million years, natural selection slowly sculpted the human brain, favoring circuitry that was good at solving the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors… The world that seems so familiar to you and me… has lasted for only an eyeblink of time when compared to our entire evolutionary history…

Natural selection is a slow process, and there just haven't been enough generations for it to design circuits that are well-adapted to our post-industrial life. In other words, our modern skulls house a Stone-Age mind. The key to understanding how the modern mind works is to realize that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern Americanthey were designed to solve the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.”

Air Force Photos
Source: Air Force Photos

This gap between the environment our brain has evolved to master and our current environment finds expression in multiple and diverse phenomena. Let’s take obesity, for example. Our culture (and the modern world as a whole) is in the midst of an obesity epidemic. This development is too recent and rapid to be caused by genetic changes. Yet it also goes against the unrelenting cultural pressure and preference toward thinness. What gives, then?

A big part of the answer relates to the aforementioned gap. For most of our history, we have lived and evolved in an environment where food supply was scarce and unpredictable. In such an environment, over-eating, slow metabolism, and fat storage tendencies are adaptive, and so they were selected into our food intake and processing mechanisms.

Alas, due to rapid technological progress, in recent years, our environment has changed dramatically to become food-saturated. Our ancient mechanisms of feeding and digestion are ill-matched to this new environment. In a food-saturated environment, the tendency to overeat, store fat, and metabolize slowly results in excessive weight gain. This is akin to what would happen if the polar bears, whose thick fur evolved in a freezing environment to store heat, suddenly found themselves in a scorching desert. The same mechanism that worked to protect them in the heat-scarce environment will kill them in a heat-saturated environment.

Here’s another example: Teen pregnancy is a problem throughout the world, as it is associated with high risk and negative future outcomes for both infants and mothers. But why would that be? From a biological, evolutionary perspective, it is clear that the function of puberty (the onset of fertility) is to produce offspring. Puberty occurs in the early teen years. Effective contraceptives are a recent historical development.

Most mothers in human history have been teenage mothers. If teenage pregnancy were inherently risky and suboptimal, evolutionary pressures would not have selected for it. At the same time, the phenomenon of teen pregnancy is also difficult to pin solely on culture, since most modern nations strongly advocate against teen pregnancy, and most have behavioral mores and laws of consent designed to discourage teenage sex. What gives, then?

Well, our understanding of the "gap problem" provides a clue. We can see that our new, modern, complex, technology-heavy work and social structures require an educated citizenry, which means that youngsters must spend their teenage years in school. Early pregnancy disrupts the education process.

In this present scenario, our cultural expectations that young women avoid getting pregnant are, therefore, at odds with the ancient biological mechanisms setting the teen years as prime pregnancy time. This situation selects for higher risk of pregnancy for those teens who are marginalized culturally, or whose bonds with modern cultural institutions (i.e., education, health care) and values (i.e., women’s and children’s rights) are otherwise frayed. And so, those teens most likely to get pregnant are also those who are more likely to experience co-occurring circumstantial hazards—poverty, stress, lack of prenatal care, etc.—that confer heightened risk and dimmer prospects for their children and them.

Which brings us back to the recent assassination in Iraq. That operation was made possible by powerful recent cultural innovations—drone and missile technologies that enable us now to track, pinpoint, attack, and destroy either a single car or a city of millions in some faraway location without ever laying a human eye directly on—or coming physically face to face with—the chosen target. For most of human history, aggression and killing meant eye contact, face-to-face interaction, and close physical proximity to the target. Our brains have evolved to comprehend hitting another person with a rock and felling them.

Modern lethal aggression—as embodied in this recent attack—is a different phenomenon altogether. Our brains have not evolved to comprehend the ability to kill a person—or 100,000 people if we so choose—7,000 miles away instantly by pressing a button. In other words, when it comes to lethal aggression, our hands are now holding weapons that our brains are not designed to comprehend.

The full implications of this gap are not yet wholly understood. But in some ways, our predicament is akin to that of a 4-year-old sitting behind the wheel of a race car. It is unlikely to end well.