Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson speaks with journalist and author Scott Carney (@sgcarney) about his new book, “The Wedge: Evolution, Consciousness, Stress, and the Key to Human Resilience.”
Book Excerpt: ‘The Wedge’
By Scott Carney
As a society, we’re crippled with anxiety, autoimmune conditions, fatigue, loneliness, and a generalized sense of unease that no matter how much we insulate ourselves from the natural world, eventually the hard realities of nature are going to win out in the end.
In order to reconcile the biology that we inherited from our archaic past with the world we live in today we need to find tools that reprogram our nervous systems with stimuli that would have been familiar to our ancestors.
But first, I’m going to have to ask a rather hard question.
What’s the point of being alive in the first place?
The way we generally understand evolution, the guiding principle of life on this planet really just boils down to birth, survival, procreation, mutation and death. It’s a fundamentally mechanical process that makes the miracle of life pretty darned uninteresting. Evolutionary biologists understand evolution in thousand- and million-year increments. They don’t have the resolution to understand the individual experience of an ancestral mollusk, platypus or primate. And this has made me wonder whether all those scholars who painstakingly examine endless fossil iterations have gotten it all backward. Perhaps there’s something about this moment—right here and right now—that gives purpose to that evolutionary drive, something so obvious that we’ve just missed it.
Here’s what I think: Maybe the point of life is the very experience of being alive—those moments of joy, empathy and love, as well as those of pain, sorrow and loss; things that can never show up in the fossil record. Maybe those feelings are actually what evolution seeks to preserve.
We feel love, hate, ennui, angst, depression, fear and everything else because having those capabilities passed on an evolutionary advantage. Emotions create a symbolic link between what’s happening in the world and what occurs inside of our bodies. And because evolution is a rather slow process, it would be hubristic to think that the sensory and emotional tools that Homo sapiens have access to appeared fully formed when the first member of our species started walking the Earth between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago. Look at the anatomy of any mammal and you’ll see familiar structures—bone plans, lungs, hearts, eyes, brains, etc. Those organs were all useful enough to survive the culling process of evolution. And, insofar as cognition relies on anatomical structures in the brain, it makes sense that most other creatures with similar brains have some level of emotional and sensory experience comparable to our own. Consciousness and our sense of self evolved because evolution put it there.
To this day, consciousness and the hidden mechanism that drives it remain poorly understood. But we know this: It didn’t start fully formed. It evolved from simpler life forms and the tools they had to sense and react to the environment. Those creatures wanted to live. Their collective desire was an evolutionary force in its own right. Or, to put it another way, senses and emotions evolved to give purpose to life.
Where most evolutionary biologists see discrete endpoints that add up to the slow process of change over millennia, none of those minute iterations could occur without the unique individual experience of each ancestor along that line. The way we teach evolution makes it seem that the only forces affecting a species are the glacially slow processes of natural selection and gene mutation. To these scientists, evolution is a conversation between the environment and an animal’s physique, with nothing in between. This all-too-big frame overlooks the individual creatures who had to have a reason to transmit genes from one generation to another.
All biology clings to life. The threat of death undergirds hormonal releases, muscle contractions and atrial function. It defines sensations through a lens of pleasure or pain, then determines whether or not the actions we take are necessary or needlessly risky. If life were a song, we can be pretty sure it ends in a minor key. But the point of life isn’t to land a good job, fund a retirement plan, work 40 hours a week at a desk until you’re too old to continue and then die comfortably in your sleep. The point of being alive is to have experiences that make it all worthwhile. Death is the greatest teacher, because it offers us a stake that defines what kind of life we want to have.
In today’s society, there is a basic assumption that the key to human health rests on the twin pillars of diet and exercise. We tend to believe that if we just eat the right things and then move in the ideal ways, somehow the calculus will yield healthy results. However, there’s a third pillar that we almost entirely ignore: all the ways the environment molds biology. Environmental signals are the levers, dials and buttons that send messages directly to our nervous systems. Our nervous systems, in turn, use that input to direct how our body responds to the challenges around it in terms of hormonal releases, metabolic shifts and a million other activities that pass below our conscious thought.
Evolution baked these automatic mechanisms into biology in the same breath as it formed out ability to sense the world. The two go hand in hand. When we feel good–our biology has feel-good responses. When we are under stress we have stress responses. And therein lies the key to human resilience. If you can learn to train and control how you feel stress, you have the ability to alter your physiology.
And you can do this because there is a moment of choice on the razor’s edge between when you have control over your physiology and when your body’s autonomic programming kicks in and continues on autopilot. This small space is the crux of consciousness itself where we all literally have the power of mind over matter. At the smallest level it’s akin to what you do when you feel a sneeze coming on, and decide to resist the sensation and override the process. Or how you decide not to feel ticklish when someone gently strokes your ribs. You create space between stimulus and response and master your body’s reaction. As you train that ability, it allows you to take control over fear, anxiety, depression and even chronic illness and autoimmune diseases. It lets you access heretofore levels of human endurance, just as easily as it calms your nerves during tax season. It’s a basic ability that we all have that makes us more conscious. More human.
That moment of choice is what I call “The Wedge.
Excerpted from “The Wedge: Evolution, Consciousness, Stress, and the Key to Human Resilience.” by Scott Carney. Copyright © 2020 by Scott Carney. Republished with permission of Foxtopus Ink.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.