Everything you might think you think about the human response to apocalyptic times might be wrong
(and some new-ish music)
Welcome to my first substack newsletter - I’m trying this as an alternative to Twitter and blogging - both are too hit and miss for me. Twitter also lacks space, and twitter threads get lost. Brain Pizza will offer lots of slices of writing and analysis on brains, behaviour, & lots in between… my plan is about two pieces per month (usually on a Wednesday), and a collection of commented links most Sunday mornings. Pieces will include the main newsletter, music, and perhaps some other things. I’ll usually try and include a pic of somewhere I’ve enjoyed walking (the pic above was taken on the 11 Oct 2020 from the Vico Road looking down on Killiney Bay - look closely: lots of people in water, swimming!).
A piece I originally wrote for a panel appearance* at the wonderful Long Room Hub at Trinity College Dublin online public series: Rethinking Democracy in an Age of Pandemic. I argue that Cormac McCarthy’s tragic view of humanity is utterly at variance with everything we know about human behaviour, because of the hyper-social niche we occupy; other musings are on how our everyday life has changed because of the pandemic. Watch here; listen here.
Music - a collaboration I recently discovered between Young Fathers and Massive Attack (I know - wayyyy late - but hey!)
Everything you might think you think about the human response to apocalyptic times might be wrong
Thank you for the invitation to speak at this great series. It’s very important to maintain this contact between each other during these times – the communal contact that forms the glue of our everyday social lives, especially in this time of pandemic and social distancing.
This latter phrase is, of course, a misnomer, as this series of talks proves - we are maintaining spatial distance, not social distance, in our everyday lives. We still want – indeed - must - connect with each other. Hence the sudden rise of social media in our lives: it’s hard to think back to a time when Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Zoom, and all the rest, didn’t exist – so transformational are they, and so easily incorporated into our everyday lives. This begs the question of why we so quickly and easily use these social media, despite all the scare stories, into our lives?
And the answer from evolutionary biology, from neuroscience, from psychology, is straightforward: we humans are a hypersocial species, with co-operation and altruism at the core of our everyday lives – we help each other out so much, we co-operate so much, that we are rather like a fish swimming in water – we don’t notice the water we are swimming in.
Even our speaking together today relies on 3 speakers who have never met each other before, compered by yet another person, orchestrated within an institution with a history told in centuries, populated by people who work together, facilitated by a technology developed by many others thousands of miles away, and readily and quickly adopted – to allow us all to connect to each other.
And yet we overlook this feature of our behaviour in favour of bleaker fables. We are going through a terribly harrowing time, no doubt, with coronavirus challenging our world in ways few of us are used to. Go back a generation or two, though: talk with grandparents about the fear they had of diseases like polio – and through one of the great co-operative efforts undertaken by humans, polio has been virtually eliminated.
And smallpox: a global vaccination campaign involving the co-operation of millions, eradicated smallpox – a terrible and fearful human disease – and it is gone from our everyday lives – something we never have to worry about.
Stories of the apocalypse, of the end times, are one of the great staples of fiction. One of the most compelling and shocking visions of our common humanity is presented in a recent book and movie. It tells a harrowing tale of an unnamed father and son walking a pilgrimage of a sort, perhaps, on the road to nowhere. It presents a bleak and cruel view of our humanity, where ‘man is wolf to man’, as the old Roman proverb has it.
But I want to suggest that everything about this book, while utterly compelling, beautifully written and harrowing in ways that are hard to imagine, is psychologically, historically, biologically implausible – in fact, it is ‘not even wrong’, as the great physicist, Wolfgang Pauli, wryly and sadly said of a new theoretical notion suggested by another physicist. It, and other visions of the apocalypse, are not a guide to where we find ourselves today.
Today, in the face of the dangers of coronavirus, we are learning of the thousands of brave volunteers lining up to test new vaccines to eliminate this new and terrible threat. These are utterly remarkable prosocial and altruistic things to do: but comparable, in a way, to the millions who are serving in hospitals everyday throughout the world. No other species behaves like this – no other species establishes hospitals to care for their sick and injured. And yet, for us, it is something utterly every day.
Everyday life in The Road is reduced to a perpetual, permanent, everlasting present tense – the same words we use to describe someone suffering from amnesia, in fact: one day is much the same as another – a trudge through ash and death – with little to differentiate one day from the next - ‘mental time travel’ is pointless – for there is no meaningful differentiation from one day to the next.
McCarthy, like so many others, presents a view of our common humanity, living our everyday lives, as something savage, contained only by a thin veneer of civilisation. And when civilisation is lost, so are we.
Now, I ask you to undertake an act of imaginative mental time travel: back about one hundred thousand or so years to the cradle of humanity in Africa. Here, we see something remarkable in trace fossil sites. These are sites where footprints, imprinted in sand and mud, have become records of passing humans. There are several such sites, often with 100s of footprints.
And what do they reveal? They reveal the quotidian, every day, record, of we humans through our prehistory: walking in groups, carrying children, walking with sticks, occasionally with a broken toe or other deformity, through an inhospitable landscape, with food scarce, and predators aplenty.
And what did we make of it? We humans walked out of Africa, and conquered the world: day-by-day, step-by-step – in groups, in families, in tribes. We did not conquer the world with one guy marching into the wilderness, spear aloft – we did it together.
And this is our secret – the one that allows everyday life to proceed so easily – we are hypersocial, altruistic, cooperative animals, supremely sensitive to the behaviour of others.
And this is why we are so alert to norm-breaking – jump the queue at your local shop while everyone else is standing patiently, walking slowly forward, and see what happens.
No other species has spread around the world in the promiscuous fashion we humans have. We populated the planet by endurance walking in migratory families, tribes and other groups: our walking necessarily evolved in a social and group context. Remarkably, merely hearing the footsteps of others walking activates our brain networks supporting social cognition, emphasising our particular sensitivity to the footfalls, and impending presence, of others.
And walking today is so very important. Perhaps we realize it more now when regular movement and exercise are so uniquely challenged, with spatial distancing keeping us ‘sheltering in place’. Walking is especially important as it is one of our few accessible forms of exercise.
Even how we walk has changed: it's more social, in a way. We used to sometimes bump shoulders and perhaps mutter apologies while scrolling on smartphones; now, we watch each other's movements to slightly sashay away, and we smile at each other – at a safe distance.
Going for a walk, of course, acts against our in-built tendency to conserve energy. For most of our history, food was hard to come by. After a long day walking and foraging and hunting, we would sit, and tell stories or sing songs to each other. But we’ve largely solved the food gathering problem now; shops and restaurants and home deliveries make cheap calories easily available. We no longer walk mile after mile to gather food; instead, we can sit and eat, easily. Perhaps too easily. We have designed movement out of our world, and sitting around into it.
Recent experiments show that as few as three or four days of inactivity reduces muscle mass in the legs, starting to replace muscle with deposits of fat. This isn’t much of a problem when you’re 30, but it is when you are 60, needing assistance to stand up out of your chair. And the cure? Get up, move about – and fight the frailty that can come with aging – by walking.
The traffic between brain and body is indeed two-way: in and out. Many essential molecules are produced by contractile movement of muscles (‘myokines’) – through the activity of brain the brain entraining and controlling the body. If you’re not moving about, placing heart and muscle under a bit of positive and necessary stress and strain, then these molecules are not really produced at all in response to that positive stress and strain. And they can’t perform their essential roles in maintaining, repairing and nourishing brain and body. Movement through the world changes the dynamics of the brain itself. Recent experiments show that walking increases the strength of the signals in parts of the brain concerned with seeing and other senses, such as touch. This is the biological reality of the phrase “on the prowl.”
The movement we profit from, and have evolved for, is walking. Walk we must, and walk we should, to keep our mental and social worlds open; to stop the walls closing in. Our lives – every single day – require it.
Music - here’s a collaboration I recently discovered between Young Fathers (an amazing Scottish group) and Bristol’s Massive Attack (who don’t need any introduction). This is a discordant, jangly, piece of music, set to unsettling lyrics:
Massive Attack, Young Fathers - Voodoo In My Blood (live; shot from a single location in Hyde Park) - This gives a feel for a live performance.
More musical collaborations like this, please.
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Rita Duffy, Artist in Residence at the Trinity Long Room Hub; one of Northern Ireland's ground-breaking artists who began her work concentrating primarily on the figurative/narrative tradition. Her art is often autobiographical, including themes and images of Irish identity, history and politics. Rita's Raft Project at the Trinity Long Room Hub here.
Rishi Goyal, Director of Medicine, Literature and Society at Columbia University, and an Emergency Medicine doctor. He is broadly interested in the intersection of medicine and culture and is more specifically interested in the areas of medical cognition and identity and representation after illness.)