Source: Hermit Musings (author)

Scientific research discoveries often fascinate me; they can get me to meditating upon our world and how it came to be. It often leads me to speculation about the message. Of course, the species that the majority of scientific studies focus on, and is endlessly fascinating, is us: Homo sapiens.

A recent example: the results of a British study identified a key region of our brain which encourages us to be adventurous creatures. It seems as if we humans are sometimes inclined to go after an unfamiliar option—rather than choose a habitual one—particularly when we sense the reward might be greater. Our life may sometimes seem as if we generally trudge the old, familiar path, day after day, following the same safe steps we’ve taken many times before. But if a new, unknown path presents itself one day, we can feel an urge to check it out.

The British researchers say that this propensity for taking a risk may have provided us with an evolutionary advantage over competing species. Those of our ancestors who were willing to take the chance to explore new territory may have been rewarded with a more beneficial environment or found a new and more nutritious food source. They prospered and passed those inquisitive genes on. (Of course, some made bad choices and perished, but we don’t know about them.)

Several million years ago, when our hominid ancestors were forced down out of the tropical trees by a changing climate (which killed off many of those trees), an adventurous spirit helped us to adapt better than our cousins who timidly clung to the few remaining trees. (Chimpanzees are still up there.) When living conditions in various parts of the pre-industrial world became wretched a couple of centuries ago, an adventurous few folks struggled to reach America. Many of them prospered. (And isn’t that what drives oppressed folks from Latin America to brave the hostile unknown and attempt to migrate to the US today?)

The British researchers found that when we choose the untried, take that risk, and find a prize awaiting us for our gamble, we are also rewarded by a release of pleasant neurotransmitters such as dopamine. This can create a feedback process that makes us desire even more. The scientists feel that this can explain why re-branding of familiar products keeps consumers coming back for more.

Evolutionary advantages, however, can sometimes be a double-edged sword. A particular trait that provides an advantage—in the way of making a species more fit—can sometimes lead to too much success. Locusts, finding a plentiful food supply, will exponentially increase their numbers until the source is gone and their population crashes. Has Homo sapiens become so successful that we are overrunning the earth, crowding into every niche, bloating our numbers to the point that we’ve become unsustainable—and about to cause our own crash? Is our propensity for adventurousness gotten us into a dangerous runaway situation? Can we learn to find a balance between our dangerous adventurousness and stagnancy?

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for your thought provoking article. It does seem like Mankind is heading for a reckoning with over population and our shrinking planet, not to mention rapacious living. What will save it, and us? My feeling is Man will need to live with more wisdom in the future; not by choice, but by necessity. How much time it will take, I have not a clue.

    We do it somehow in Star Trek. Maybe fiction can lead to reality?

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