Open Mic: The Animal Within

The internet is hijacking our instincts

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Kane Reinholdtsen/Unsplash

I finally get “Baby on Board” stickers. Twice per month, I bring my infant to grandma-care via 101 South. After a few slogs through Santa Rosa, I discovered that children count for HOV purposes—wonderful!

Autumn brought darker mornings and, ignorant of my baby in the backseat, other drivers reacted strongly to my HOV lane usage. A woman overtook me down the on-ramp, swerving and shouting. A man brake-checked and flipped me off at the HOV 2+ sign. Animals!

No really, animals. Like most mammals, humans evolved in hierarchical packs where status matters. If Thag takes your fishing spot and you do nothing, others will tomorrow and you starve. We descend from people that did something, and to those (ignorant) drivers, I took their place in traffic.

Modern humans have walked Earth for 200,000 years. Ten thousand generations passed us their knowledge about tools, building, navigation and wildlife. We also inherited their tendencies to judge strangers, imagine motives and assume the worst—all in a split second.

For most of human history, any day might mean fending off death. Then civilizations happened 300 generations ago, the Industrial Revolution 10 generations ago, and within our lifetimes, Internet and mobile connectivity. Surviving predators and finding food was largely replaced by rush-hour commutes and navigating supermarkets.

Life still presents fight-or-flight moments, but for most people those are few. And yet, our brains are constantly primed for threats. Those enraged drivers saw something (incomplete), drew (false) conclusions and reacted aggressively with primal instincts that we all possess.

Problematically, those same instincts are hijacked by threats online. News and viral posts grab our attention and trigger judgments, sometimes solely on headline and photo. We are creatures of habit with our information sources and get similar perspectives on repeat; without us intentionally seeking conflicting views or evidence, those half-baked, instinctive judgments settle as true.

Then a pandemic hit. Self-isolation exiled us online, where chronic fear shades everything we see. I hope for better, but despite our suffering together, the country remains divided—with anger and blame rampant. All these things are related.

You animal.

Iain Burnett lives in Forestville.
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