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Silliness and Survival

An article by John Pfeiffer appearing back in Science '81 (what can I say? Most of my anthropological reading comes from reserves lists, as I process them) speculates that since human beings waste so much time and energy on silly pursuits, there must be some sort of evolutionary advantage to it all.

Fancy that. Instead of seeing "the impressive human ability to waste energy" as some sort of outcome of the advancement of human cultural evolution, Pfeiffer sees it as a possible catalyst.

His argument is that you don't see most carnivores wasting time or energy in vain pursuits like sky-diving (technology and opposable thumbs aside). Carnivores are either pursuing food or lazing around (e.g. lions, which sleep or drowse 20 hours a day). Never mind that human beings have culturally advanced to a place where a large percentage of the world population (at least, most of the energy-wasters) don't have to conserve all their energy for periodic massive bursts effort wherein they locate and acquire enough calories to survive. Many humans are currently swimming in an excess of calories; they have plenty of energy to waste. And while it seems especially so in this day and age, one could argue that humans have had an edge on caloric acquisition for so long, that we have probably been wasting time for many, many generations, maybe all the way back to Lucy (or Eve, if you insist).

But my point is not to prove or disprove this theory. My point is, it's a damn cool theory, and really, the only big hole in it is comparing us to full-fledged carnivores. Pfeiffer is absolutely right. We waste all kinds of energy (witness this blog), and for no good reason. Or is there a good reason? Is it encouraged, both genetically and culturally, because the energy-wasters of today are the geniuses of tomorrow? Pfeiffer says:

"[Energy-wasting] may have paid off handsomely in crisis times, for example during the settling of Oceania... about 3000 B.C. It was not mere wanderlust: People left their homelands because they had no choice, probably forced to migrate because of soaring populations. But the evidence suggests that they were prepared by the time the pressure was really on, that they had already, through 'energy-wasting' activity, learned enough to undertake voyages far out of sight of land....

"We can imagine the nature of most of those early experiments... The wild ones were having their ling with drag races and games of chicken in sailing vessels, daring one another to go farther and farther out into unknown waters... overnight and then over several nights... And they must have invented all the time, tinkering with new sails and new boat designs and various versions of outrigger gear...

"In the process, they discovered a great deal about the ways of the sea... [though] the wild ones paid a high price for their adventures. Many of them learned the hard way about whirlpools, sudden, violent storms, waters awash over treacherous reefs... [but] the crews and the boats and the experience were all at hand when long-distance voyages were no longer mad stunts but the only means of survival."

It's a fascinating portrait, and I think it helps explain some things about evolution, both technological and even biological.

"Perhaps the readiness to do or believe practically anything, to indulge in the most far-out of lunatic fringe behaviors, is a form of survival insurance," says Pfeiffer. It's just a fun thing, to think that all the times we act crazy, we're really just maintaining the flexibility to adapt, come the Apocalypse.

That appeals to my sense of humor almost as much as it does to my Inner Anthropologist.

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