Friday, January 28, 2011

Are We Designed To Self-Destruct? Pt 1

I came across this comment in a discussion at Hit & Run (Reason Magazine's Blog) which got me thinking:
If what we know about human evolution has taught us anything? It's that people are pretty good at making decisions about their own survival.  -Ken Shultz
Is this really true? 

The idea behind sin taxes, banning fast food restaurants, etc, is to protect people from themselves. So how good are folks at actually looking out for their own interests, especially their health?

People certainly engage in some quite self-destructive behavior: smoking, drinking, driving without seat-belts, doing all three at the same time, etc. (No, watching reality television doesn't count)

People also engage in a lot of self-preserving behavior: reading about their health, exercising, trying to eat healthy foods, doing all three at the same time, etc.

Some people engage in mostly self-preserving behavior, and some engage in mostly the opposite.

There are tons of factors involved in why people might engage in paradoxically self-destructive behaviors, but the Handicap Principle, The Wolverine Principle, and an inherent weakness for calculating abstract risk are the three that come to my mind.

Risky behavior seems to increase mating prospects. Unnecessary risks, just like unnecessary antlers , are a way to signal evolutionary health and evolutionary fitness. Showing off is imbued in us (and plenty of other creatures) by Natural Selection. Animals that reproduce by mitosis don't feel compelled to ride a unicycle backwards, try to jump Snake River Canyon or drive a Hummer around an urban environment. After all, where's the payoff?

So some self-destructive behavior seems to be sown genetically for mate selection. It would make sense that increased risk-aversity with age also bestows an evolutionary advantage. Take big risks when young, become more risk averse when it's time to rear the kids and grandkids (and that's a whole 'nother subject, the importance of inter-generational support and feedback in an HG community).

Howard Hughes went from one extreme in his youth to the other extreme in his old age. Mentally ill or genetically over-programmed? You be the judge. I say both (but isn't mental health mostly a function of genetics? (Ed. and time and place. One society's crazy is another's Van Gogh and vice versa)).

The Wolverine Principle (which I just made up but I'm sure has a proper name and plenty of research) goes something like this: wolverines, by being so willing to take risks such as attacking wolves, bears, tanks, Janet Reno, etc, are able to punch above their weight (or ecological niche). They've carved a spot out of the ecosystem that really shouldn't be there for them with their extreme ferociousness, their huge lack of risk-aversion. Now think about our puny human ancestors trying to out-compete amazingly well-adapted predators such as wolves, big cats, and ferocious bunnies. Surely, there must have been selection pressure to be a wolverine and spit in the face of overwhelming odds, as in all those movies Hollywood makes. Those little guys with mustaches who want to start some shit with the tallest guy at the bar (which was usually me) could easily be following some sort of genetic programming along these lines, not that there isn't a cultural aspect to this behavior.

Another possible reason for self-destructive behavior, and this one is also linked with age: humans tend to be really bad at calculating abstract and long-term risk. As we get older, we seem to improve at this somewhat, perhaps from the perspective of added years. You can quote stats to someone with a mortal fear of flying all day long about the safety of air travel vs highway travel, but that's not going to soothe them. The abstract nature of long-term risk seems to allow people to ignore the obvious health hazards of, say, smoking. "Yeah, I know, it's gonna kill me, but ya gotta go anyway, right?" Also, some people are just much better at delaying gratification (the short term pain of nicotine withdrawal vs the long term increase in health). I suspect that the ability to delay gratification might have been very heavily selected for in neolithic times, to the exclusion of intelligence, but that's just my pet hypothesis.

So there seems to be a variety of factors that could explain the evolutionary paradox of self-destructive behavior.

In my next post I will take a look at the flip side of the coin. Self-preserving behavior.


  1. Darn. I was hoping the Wolverine Principal involved short, muscular Canadians with adamantium claws and a penchant for cigars.

  2. Hey, talk about someone able to punch above his weight. I heard Wolverine whupped Superman so bad, Sup had to go back in time make it not happen.