What Are You So Scared of? Saber-Toothed Cats, Snakes, and Carnivorous Kangaroos.
The evolutionary legacy of having been prey.
Julie Larsen Maher/Wildlife Conservation Society/Oak Ridge Nat. Laboratory.
In the developed world, we live in the most peaceful, healthful time in history. The murder and violent crime rate is dropping; we are vaccinated against the most deadly diseases of previous generations; our houses protect us from most storms; relatively few people go hungry. The average lifespan is longer than it has ever been. Then why do we walk around so anxious, so full of fear? The answer is not terrorists, TV, Republicans, or Democrats. The answer is our legacy of ancient fears, the result of having spent millions of years running from predators. Our fear response is more influenced by the ancient species we struggled to escape than any modern challenges. We live in a demon-haunted world.
Until not that many generations ago, Homo sapiens and our primate ancestors found shelter under lean-tos, in caves, and up among branches. Exposed and relatively defenseless, our predecessors stood a good chance of being eaten by bigger, badder, species. For most of our evolutionary history as primates, we were far more likely to play the role of Big Mac than Big Man on Campus. Our ancestors evolved many traits to help them escape that fate—if not forever, at least long enough to reproduce and pass their genes along. These responses still frame how our bodies work today, which would be great if we were still being stalked by large cats. But Vegas performers notwithstanding, most of us are not.
Nor was it just cats. Humans were eaten by giant hyenas, cave bears, cave lions, eagles, snakes, other primates, wolves, saber-toothed cats, false saber-toothed cats, and maybe even—bless their hearts—giant, predatory kangaroos. Amazingly, these are just the predators that consumed our ancestors during relatively recent history, the past 100,000 years or so. Go further back in time, and the diversity of things that ate our kin goes up (particularly given that our earlier, pre-hominin ancestors were progressively smaller). Some predators, such as leopards, ate many of our ancestors. Others, like crocodiles, komodo dragons, or sharks, took their bites, but more opportunistically, savoring the occasional human or proto-human the way one might enjoy some special holiday treat. We were, in other words, their thanksgiving turkey.
In those few places where large predators are still common, primates, especially cute baby ones, are eaten with great frequency and alacrity. When our species evolved, human children were special only in as much as their hairlessness made them slightly easier to digest. Even today, where humans live alongside predators, both children and adults get eaten. Harry Greene, a herpetologist at Cornell University and one of a handful of my colleagues more likely to be eaten by a wild animal than to die of old age, and Thomas Headland, an anthropologist, recently conducted a study of Agta hunter-gatherers in the Philippines. Harry was excited to find that the Agta lived among a high density of pythons. The Agta tend to be not quite so excited; Greene and Headland found that one in four Agta men had been attacked by a reticulated python. Of the 120 men whose stories were considered for the study, six had been killed by a python. That’s a death-by-python rate of 1 in 20. Those are lousy odds, but most of us have escaped such risks by living in houses and cities and living where our ancestors killed off the most dangerous predators, be they tigers, cave bears, or giant, carnivorous kangaroos. We should be grateful for having escaped—and yet we haven’t really escaped, because our bodies are burdened by our long history of trying to get away.
When our hamburger-size ancestors lived in trees, it was extraordinarily valuable to be able to respond immediately to the potential presence of a predator. Many primate species have alarm calls that are specific for different predators. The first primate nouns were almost certainly those embedded in calls that meant, “Oh shit, big cat!” “Oh shit, giant eagle!” or “For the love of god, did you see the size of that snake?” In this way, predators may have had a positive impact on who we are now, having given us the precursors of language, or at the very least, cussing.
In addition to inventing words for these predators, we also responded in other ways. When we saw or heard a sign of danger—a movement in the grass, a strange shadow—hormonal reactions screamed out inside our bodies. These fight-or-flight responses sped up the heart, increased blood flow to muscles, caused hyperventilation (to get more oxygen for quick reaction), and made us more likely to respond quickly to a predator by searching for it, hiding, running away, or for the truly brave, throwing a stick and then running away.
These fight-or-flight signals and associated jumpiness and anxiety are part of the problem in modern urban life, part of our discontent. They are triggered by all sorts of ordinary activities. Thinking of taxes causes our hearts to beat fast. So does being late for a meeting, forgetting your homework, or contemplating how to pay for a home improvement. In none of these cases does our fight-or-flight response serve a purpose. It gets us agitated. It makes our heart beat faster. It prepares us to run, but to where? To what end?
Rob Dunn is the author of The Wild Life of Our Bodies, the story of our changing relationship with predators, parasites, mutualists, commensals, and all the rest. He is a science writer and scientist at North Carolina State University, where he studies the stories of the species that have lived alongside humans as we have spread around the world, be they bacteria in your belly button ants in your backyard or cave crickets in your basement.