The nightmares in our DNA

Sat Feb 27, 2016

I’m sure you are familiar with the “nature vs nurture” debate. If not, google it - I’ll wait.

Got it? Good. For me, most explanations for human behaviour can be lumped into the “nurture” side - a bias, no doubt, fostered by my time studying anthropology at university.

However, there is something to be said for the “nature” side as well. Evolution bakes instinctual responses into the DNA of all animals, after all. Horses, for example, have an innate fear of snakes, and therefore snake-like objects. Sometimes, a horse will rear when faced with a snake-shaped stick.

So what vestigial instincts from our hunter gatherer days linger on to colour our nightmares today? Most people assume that man has always been at the top of the food chain; but this assumption is an arrogant one, albeit unsurprising. We’ve been top dog for thousands of years now and are used to our dominion over all of God’s creatures.

It was a different story thousands of years ago. There was an animal that evolved to be a specialist predator on humans - the Dinofelis. When mountain lions and other big cats attack a human today, the victim often survives because modern cats don’t have teeth that can pierce our skulls. The Dinofelis, however, had short, dagger-like teeth that punctured the skull with one bite.

The grisly forensic evidence can be found today in African caves, where skulls show the tooth holes left by this slinking predator who attacked in the dark of night.

Humans fought back. We invented spears and other piercing weapons. We drove the Dinofelis into extinction. We won.

However, the nightmares remain in our ancestral memory. They are the monsters under our bed. The silent menace in the dark. Nobody has to teach a young child to be scared of large cats. I’ve seen this for myself. When I pretend to be an elephant, or even a snake or a bear, my kids laugh it off. But when I pretend to be a slinking tiger-like creature, complete with cat like movements, my kids run screaming.

We feel safe when have control over our environments. Perhaps our domestication of cats is an attempt to subjugate our former oppressors and desensitize our primal fears. Maybe we find cats amusing because we’ve performed the ultimate reversal and made our greatest enemy…cute. Is it any accident that we invented the Internet so we could watch cat videos all day long?

I misspoke a little when I said we are top dogs on planet Earth. We are still prey to micro-organisms that we can’t defend against with traditional weapons. Disease, plagues, viruses, and other modern killers of our overpopulated world were not nearly as devastating to the small nomadic tribes in our distant past. But our homogenous and globalized societies today are especially susceptible.

Perhaps the next nightmare to insinuate itself into our DNA will be of large crowds where diseases spread like wildfire. Perhaps, in some post-apocalyptic future we will have reverted to roaming in small cohesive groups, using our human ingenuity and survival skills to elude the vast zombie hordes that threaten to infect us. Wait a minute, did I just describe The Walking Dead? The most popular show on TV right now?

It seems our collective nightmare has already begun.



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