Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Acting on instinct -- not always the best way to act

Talk about survival strategies: The primitive mammals (tiny, shrew-like quadrupeds), furtively crawling out of their burrows at dusk, watching out for dinosaurs -- big ones that might step on them and, more important, little ones looking to eat them -- would quickly dive for cover at the first whiff of trouble. Dinosaurs rumbling through? Dive into the burrow. Forest fire? Dive into the burrow. With luck, the fire would pass by without using up all the oxygen in the hidey-hole and the frightened little animal could live to cringe and cower another day.

The survival strategy really paid off when the Chicxulub asteroid hit: The cowardly little mammals took cover and enough survived to take over the world. The proud dinosaurs roared back at the heavens and went extinct. Some larger mammals had evolved by the end of the Cretaceous; a few were large enough to eat dinosaurs. They fared no better than their dinners. The K-T boundary shows us one place where the meek really did inherit the earth.

Not surprisingly, the 'duck and cover' instinct survives in all of us descendants of those timid little creatures today -- though, unhappily, it doesn't always serve us as well.

I well remember deposing a State Fire Marshal -- a grizzled veteran of four decades fighting and investigating fires -- who broke down in tears describing two children who'd died in a house fire -- a fire they might easily have escaped -- but who hid instead under a bed and were suffocated. Kids have an instinct, he explained. In a house fire, kids will naturally crawl into closets or under the bed. It is often fatal.

House fires notwithstanding, most of our modern stresses are mental, not physical. But have you ever noticed? When things go bad at work, when we start fighting with our spouses, when we can't pay the bills, when we're facing unhappy medical news, we clam up. We don't return phone calls; we don't do much of anything. We turn inward -- diving into a mental hidey-hole. I submit that this is the same hide-in-the-burrow instinct that guided our little shrew-like ancestors, but it's not all that helpful now.

As sentient creatures we can identify instinctive behaviors. We can understand that our impulses are instinctive, not rational. But it's still hard to overcome them. I'm trying.

1 comment:

Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

i know that shell, i have been in there so deep i liked to never got out when chuck was out using drugs... and some other times too. but things DO get better. i hope they do for you soon curmy.

smiles, bee