Man against nature

There’s nothing particularly deep about this one (and I hear you wondering how that makes it different from my other posts, and I’m ignoring you,) but it’s just a perspective that, it seems, too many people fail to grasp.

There is a surprisingly common concept of “man against nature” that keeps popping up, not just from asinine reality shows, but routinely in outdoorsy types who feel they have something to prove to… themselves? The world? I’m not really sure what the exact motivation is, to be honest, but the gist is this: you’ve proven some point by pitting yourself alone against the elements, one person isolated from all civilization, living off the land and your wits.

I’m fairly certain much of this is viewed as harkening back to our distant past, when we didn’t rely on grocery stores and raised livestock – when we had to hunt, forage, and fend for ourselves. The belief is that, if we demonstrate that we can do this again, we’re fit examples of the species and capable of dealing with whatever nature throws at us. In some cases, it’s viewed as being ready for the eventual collapse of civilization, the government, or high-speed internet access.

A quick note that’s slightly irrelevant to the main topic: there is no separation between ‘man’ and ‘nature’ – we are as much a part of nature as redwood trees and beluga whales. We didn’t get dropped on this planet by aliens, so everything we do is natural, and that includes roads and pizza parlors. However, we do have tendencies to view urbanization as ugly, which is fine, and the overall convention is that ‘natural’ refers more to areas that have seen little impact from Homo industrialus, but this shouldn’t be taken to mean that there is any demarcation between human activities and ‘nature’ – and especially not that nature is some kind of harsh environment that we’re unfamiliar with.

There’s a more direct point, though: There was never a time when humans survived as individuals. The evidence for group, social behavior, as in tribes or foraging parties that cooperate to thrive, goes back well into the fossil record, crossing over numerous species distinctions into the point where the evidence is too sparse to make any judgments – at least several million years, and if our cousins the great apes are any indication, it goes back to before we split away from them, since they have the same behaviors. We never faced ‘the elements’ as individuals. And by extension, none of the traits we’ve developed in all that time reflect any need for individualism at all.

Let’s emphasize these time frames a little. ‘Lucy’ (Australoptihecus afarensis) existed 3.5 million years ago, was likely fur-covered, possessed only rudimentary vocalizations, and stood half as tall as we do today – and shows distinct evidence of tribal behavior. The split from chimpanzees runs at least 7 million years ago, and the split from ‘lesser primates’ such as gibbons, which also have social behavior, goes back 15 million years – over four times further back than Lucy. To all evidence, our distant relatives were cooperative long before even leaving the trees.

Moreover, there are virtually no ‘higher’ species that survive as individuals either – some of the big cats are largely solitary, but most others are still social, as are virtually every ungulate and herbivore to be found. It is extremely likely, in fact, that the big cats were a strong factor in keeping our ancestors from being solitary, since we were no match for them until we developed both pack hunting and, especially, weapons.

So the idea that we should be able to go out on our own and survive is, to be blunt, total horseshit. It reflects a completely unrealistic idea of what our past lives were like, and what we were ever expected to face. It is even less a measure of our fitness than choosing to live in the forest canopy without ever touching ground – we likely lived like that much more recently than we lived as solitary creatures.

This isn’t to say that anyone cannot tackle this as a challenge, but it’s no different from any other weird challenge to see if it can be done, like tightrope walking across large chasms or eating three-dozen hardboiled eggs in two minutes – entertaining to the easily amused, but ultimately pointless. Those who have attempted the solitary survival exercises and didn’t survive, however, didn’t fail at anything more than an unrealistic goal – not having skills that we never had isn’t exactly surprising.

There remains an emphasis on having such skills in the event that we find ourselves alone in the woods somehow; it’s not hard to find survival courses (and once again, television programs) dedicated to teaching these skills, completely separate from the idea of camping or hiking to enjoy the environment. Sure, whatever, but the chances of someone unprepared abruptly finding themselves isolated in the woods are minuscule – we might hear stories about those it’s happened to, but this is more a reflection of our curious media than the likelihood of it happening to any one of us, and compared against the general population, the chances of it occurring are even less than of winning any given lottery, itself ridiculously rare. There really aren’t that many circumstances where it can occur. Meanwhile, the chance of driving one’s car into a lake are thousands of times higher, and how many people know how to handle that?

Xtreemkooldood pursuits, like mountainbiking up towers and wingsuit surfing or whatever, are by themselves rather questionable – there’s really not much that’s being proven by them, especially not ‘fitness.’ It helps to know what the word even means; it has nothing to do with physical strength, endurance, or accomplishment, since nothing in our lives requires us to utilize these. If we survive and reproduce, we’re ‘fit’ as far as biology is concerned, and about the only aspect that might have any bearing at all on this is impressing the opposite sex enough to win out in the sexual competition – naturally, that’s if we aren’t just seen as obsessive, self-absorbed, or immature. Even then, there are probably easier and cheaper ways to accomplish this.

And if we really want to tear into the idea of ‘fitness,’ it requires examining what we might want to accomplish with it. Biologically, the ‘goal’ is reproduction – except this isn’t a goal, it’s just the tendency that emerges from natural selection. It doesn’t reflect what might be best for us, only what propagated the genes most effectively; it does, quite frequently, lead to extinction as well. If we would prefer not to follow that path, our fitness depends on seeing where we can improve on what selection has produced – for instance, recognizing that judicious use of resources is better than overextending ourselves – and planning rather than waiting on beneficial changes. Our cultures can spread ideas and attitudes faster than anything genes can promote, and will do a hell of a lot more for us than knowing how to skin squirrels. Just sayin’…

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