The Kindness of Evolution.

Lately I’ve been reading books by Kim Stanley Robinson. He’s a contemporary science fiction writer who ranges freely into dystopia and utopia. I first read his Mars Trilogy and I’m now following that up with New York 2140. Imagine New York fifty feet deeper in water than it is now. Half the buildings in Lower Manhattan are partially submerged and roads are now canals. Flooding has not stopped the rapaciousness of capitalism, however, which has gotten worse in the next one hundred years. It may just get its comeuppance though. Robinson’s work, although not high literature, is prescient in my estimation and is a fun read.

Most people would consider the drowning of coastal cities a disaster, and it undoubtedly is, but we don’t have to wait until 2140 to find out what coastal flooding can do. We’re getting a taste of it now. We’re also getting a taste of what fire can do as well as tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes, etcetera. Reading the news these days, and you’ll be introduced to fires in British Columbia, dams bursting in China, and floods ravaging Germany. So, disasters are not uncommon, and the News media are only too happy to tell you all about them. 

Still, we don’t seem to be able to get prepared for natural disasters so as to mitigate the worst of the damage they cause. Recently, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, opined that they would have to do better in the future regarding disaster preparation. I might note that disaster preparedness is only going to happen if there is money to be made in doing it. That may seem cynical, but history bears me out, I think. 

One thing we have to recognize is that there are many kinds of disasters, and they don’t all unfold at the same rate. A volcano usually happens at a very fast pace, but climate change, which must be considered a high magnitude disaster, unfolds are a glacial pace although some of its effects unfold as quickly as any natural disaster because, in effect, that’s what they are.

Something very interesting about human psychology is the surprise or denial we all experience in the face of disaster. Flooding? Well, we didn’t expect that now did we. Cancer? Surprise, surprise! Why me? Climate change? Nah, it ain’t happening. 

Robinson has an explanation for our reactions to disaster or catastrophe:

“…you can’t really imagine a catastrophe will hit you until it does. People just don’t have that kind of mental capacity. If you did, you would be stricken paralytic with fear at all times, because there are some guaranteed catastrophes bearing down on you that you aren’t going to be able to avoid (i.e. death), so evolution has kindly given you a strategically located mental blind spot, an inability to imagine future disasters in any way you can really believe, so that you can continue to function, as pointless as that may be. It is an aporia, as the Greeks and intellectuals among us would say, a “not-seeing.” So, nice. Useful. Except when disastrously bad.” (from “New York 2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson)

So, Robinson argues that natural selection has kindly provided us with a “strategically located mental blind spot” when it comes to disasters, including death. Death for all of us is the ultimate, unmitigated disaster, but we deny that it’s coming, or we just turn the other way and hope for the best. We just can’t believe or accept that a disaster is happening. I expect that other species have much the same reaction to disaster that we do. It would be impossible to be anticipating disaster all the time. As Robinson points out above, if that were the case “you would be stricken paralytic with fear at all times”. 

As Robert Sapolsky notes in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers*, zebras are stricken with fear when they are chased by a lion, but if they avoid getting killed, they return to grazing on the riverbank as if nothing had happened. Humans, on the other hand, can imagine future catastrophe, but not in a way we can really believe. For example, as I drive down the highway, I don’t expect that around every curve an oncoming car will skid into my lane and crash into me head-on. If that were the case, I think I’d have to give up driving. Same goes for death. If I thought about my death every minute of every day, I would be unable to function in life. 

Thanks to evolution, we have a “mental blind spot” when it comes to catastrophes and disasters. Life would be impossible without it. Still, we must deal with the generalized anxiety that the possibility of disaster engenders, hence our proneness for getting ulcers and/or visiting psychiatrists.

*Sapolsky, Robert. 2004. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, New York: Henry Holt.

2 thoughts on “The Kindness of Evolution.

  1. Your thoughts are always provocative. This commentary strikes close to home for me. The underlying premise that we have a blind spot leads to a daily source of frustration for me as almost all of my clients refuse to let me design their projects to mitigate future disasters. I disagree with all the Hoohah about our genetics. This is a willful Blindspot that we choose to hide behind. All of the reports have been written regarding all these disasters and we know exactly what causes them and how to prevent them. But unless they are mandated in law, the known solutions will not get implemented. How many times have I heard a client say to me, “do I really need to do this? Is it required in the building code?” The one thing I do agree with in your commentary is that we are still entirely driven by profit motivation. If there is no money in it, it won’t get done. Oddly enough, our attempts at incentivizing new technologies that can save our future and mitigate the disasters all seem to come up very short. Change, Even for the better, is very difficult. I think that given the carrot or the stick choice, the stick is going to be the most successful given our big stupid brain.


    1. Well, Tom, I think we may have to agree to disagree on this one. The point I make is that we cannot anticipate catastrophe or disaster happening to us personally. Robinson argues that our reluctance in this regard is ‘genetic’ in origin, which just means that we have a built-in reluctance to believe that disaster can happen to us. Of course, disasters happen to other people. That’s fine. The reason your clients aren’t interested in mitigation is that they don’t believe they need it because, mygawd, disaster will never be visited upon their heads! Disasters are for other people! Why spend money on useless mitigation?
      We know all about disasters and catastrophes in the abstract. We do know what causes them and how to prevent them, but it never applies to us.


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