The Fear Factor: Caution in Our Genes

by Ray Grigg

Fear is in our genes. This is the argument presented by the theoretical psychologist, Dr. Nicholas Humphrey of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. In his studies on the evolution of intelligence and consciousness he advances the notion that we are inherently cautious as the result of a stressful and traumatic history — a caution that continues to affect how we perceive the world and, therefore, how we assess and respond to risk. Given the insights now provided by the science of epigenetics and the known influence of ancestral experience on subsequent genetic structure and expression, Humphrey’s notion about this embedded source of fear is convincingly credible.

“It is not so long,” he writes, “in terms of biological evolution, since our ancestors emerged from the terrible social and material conditions of the late ice-ages. Humans who migrated from Africa to Europe were under almost constant threat of famine, ill-health and predation. The genetic memory of those dreadful years has left our species still burdened with anxieties that we cannot easily throw off. So, even today, we modern humans approach life defensively” (NewScientist, “Placebos at Large”, Aug. 3/13). Indeed, only a few short centuries have passed since the civilizing institutions of our current society have provided the law, order and security that are the basis of our social structure. In Humphrey’s words, “Our species has moved on. For many people alive today, the specific dangers that humans evolved to fear are much less present. Living conditions have generally improved, interpersonal violence is on the wane, food supplies have become more reliable, disease less rampant, and so on.”

Despite these improved living conditions, however, the genetic memory of millennia of protracted anxiety still permeates much of what we think, do and feel. Or, in Humphrey’s summation, “We remain hostage in mind and body to ancient, ingrained fears.” This is why, as he explains, we surround ourselves with cautionary reminders. Warnings such as “Dangerous”, “Flammable”, “Poisonous”, “Slippery When Wet” and other such advisories appear on signs and labels everywhere. They reinforce our reflexive response to fear.

But this reflexive response does not always work to our advantage. Our genetic memory has over-sensitized us to be careful. “Left to follow our instincts,” Humphrey writes, “we tend to be much more cautious than we need be — indeed, more cautious than is good for us.”

Consider, for example, global warming and its obvious remedy by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. When confronted with the option of changing our behaviour now to avoid a future threat, our reflexive inclination is to maintain our immediate order and security. When confronted by the option of a relatively small but immediate economic risk today versus a relatively large but delayed risk tomorrow, our survival instinct chooses the safety of the moment. The genetic memory we have of bygone threats disposes us to prefer the comfort and security of a concrete present over the remote danger and fear of an abstract future. Any foresighted and preventative initiatives we undertake today must exercise enough conscious willfulness to overcome the involuntary fear response learned in our long-ago history.

As with most human behaviour, however, the psychology is invariably more complicated than can be explained by a single dynamic. By examining the same information from a different perspective, Humphrey reaches another important insight about fear. If we are aware that our genetic memory makes us too cautious — impairing, for example, our individual and collective ability to adjust to new circumstances — then we are compelled to invent measures to overcome the debilitating influence of this fear. So, as Humphrey notes, “We rely on society to embolden us,” a function it performs effectively and ingeniously. “Though we may not recognize it, we are surrounded by symbols and rituals that help us escape from our protective shells. These work by providing archaic safety signals — evidence that we live in an environment with firm rules, family support, material and spiritual reserves. Such signals get through to us on elemental levels, offering us reassurance that we live in a nurturing environment where we can dare to give our best.”

The sense of security induced by these “archaic safety signals” — rituals, ceremonies, religions, flags, anthems, weapons, monuments — is intended to counteract the debilitating effects of fear, to encourage confidence and risk. This is the opposing side of the cautionary dynamic. In an optimal balance of these opposing forces, the two should work together to produce a society that is safe and comfortable yet also adaptive and inventive.

But such a balance of opposing forces is extremely difficult to maintain in a functional manner. Where the genetic memory of fear prevails, the society is reluctant to change and adapt to its new situation. Where the symbols, order and structures of security outweigh the cautionary impulse of fear, the result is an adventurous boldness and confidence that exceeds the boundaries of care, a reckless certainty and optimism that is disconnected from the realities of such threats as environmental limits. We seem to be living in the worst combination of these two forces. One segment of society is afraid to adapt because of fear, while the other — rendered unaware of danger by an inflated sense of security — is proceeding as if nothing were amiss.

This unbalanced condition explains why — despite continual warnings from the world’s community of alarmed scientists — greenhouse gas emission continue to rise, setting new records year after year. Clean, non-carbon energies are being employed but their benefits are essentially undone by the thrust of an economic, political and technological system that isn’t registering the impending danger. Meanwhile, as the number of related and other serious environmental threats get too long to even list, we continue to function with a strange and fatal combination of debilitating fear and boundless confidence. It’s a journey that’s confusing, euphoric and scary — with no escape.