I’ve been reading a new book called The World Until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond (the Guns, Germs, and Steel guy), about what we can learn from ‘ancestral’ (i.e. hunter-gatherer) societies. He’s pretty clear about the things we might not wish to emulate: strangling widows, for example, or allowing a first-time mother and newborn infant to die alone on a beach, following a breech birth, because a laboring mother should be able to fend for herself. Life expectancy is pretty damned lousy in these communities, in part because — I’m not making these numbers up, I swear it! – poisonous snake bites account for 14 percent of all adult deaths among the Ache of South America. (Note to readers: it’s been a while since I’ve mentioned my snake phobia, but this seems an opportune moment.) Jaguars cause another eight percent of adult Ache deaths. I’m not paralyzed with fears of wild cats, so this didn’t really grab me in the same way, but you begin to grasp pretty quickly how we moderns got from 40 to 80 in life expectancy years.
On the other hand, hunter-gatherers seem to know how to churn out robust, capable, highly empathetic children. Depression and loneliness are virtually unknown in these parts. Babies are held night and day, not only by mothers but by a whole cadre of caring adults (“allo-parents,” he calls them). Moms aren’t guilt-tripped or isolated; everyone’s a working parent and a caregiver. Obese parents in soft beds aren’t rolling over and smothering their newborns to death nor are they being hectored by various child development camps to be, variously, more or less nurturing, more or less “stimulating,” more or less indulgent or strict or sensible. And, for the most part, kids just play, play, play, which is how — text alert! – they learn important life skills like self control, compassion, judgment, and caring for younger children. (Bigger news flash: furtively watching your parents have sex and then imitating the sex play with your friends doesn’t, actually, turn you into a deranged pervert.)
In summary, it’s a mixed bag where ancestral people are concerned. But there’s one excellent hunter-gatherer trait that really got my attention. Diamond describes something he calls, “constructive paranoia,” the practice of extreme vigilance around every day activities that carry, individually, a low probability of danger but which in aggregate can dramatically increase one’s likelihood of disability or death. So, for example, the New Guineans with whom he works are super-anxious about falling trees. They will sleep out in the open rather than under the protective embrace of a big tree just in case it might topple over in the middle of the night. Diamond thought this level of caution was frankly overwrought, and on one occasion he said so; it was so clear to him that this particular tree in question was deeply rooted and in no danger of toppling over. But then he started noticing how often he heard a tree fall over in the New Guinean forest. Ever day, somewhere, a tree seemed to fall down. And Diamond reflected on the absence of medical care in the New Guinean forests, the consequences of being harmed in any way by such a tree-toppling calamity (sprained ankle, infection from the injury, lameness, death…all of which basically mean no food for the extended family), and in that context the paranoia he’d observed seemed entirely sensible. So Diamond started applying this “constructive paranoia” to his own modern life, too, taking precautions like not standing on ladders to do home repairs (falling from ladders being a frequent cause of brain injury in older adults) and becoming a much more careful driver. These seemed like far more sensible interventions than worrying about plane crashes and lightning strikes.
I’ve been thinking of ways to incorporate this new constructive paranoia in my own life. For example, it occurs to me that maybe it would have been a good idea for a family with two hapless, inquisitive dogs, recently relocated to a rural area known for its rich porcupine habitat, to consider buying veterinary medical insurance before the hapless/inquisitive dogs decided to ferret out a bristling porcupine for a mighty battle of quills vs. (dim) wits.
A more constructively paranoid person than I would have carefully studied Jared Diamond’s book before heading into the forest: