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Defying Mother Nature

Defying Mother Nature

Where human behavior is concerned, insight has value only if it leads to change. Any good AERIE class can tell you exactly how to avoid getting killed by an avalanche, but that won't stop you from putting yourself on complex snowpacks.

In fact, it might even make it more likely.

You can make a sport of catching yourself breaking your own rules—be it pushing on for the summit past an ironclad turnaround time, or skiing the very same slope you've just decided to avoid.

According to Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler's The Elephant in the Brain, we do this not because we're hopelessly irrational, but because our brains were built to follow Mother Nature's orders—not our own.

And Mother Nature wants you to taunt that tiger.

If you've ever spent any time being human, it's a compelling argument. But the power of the "Elephant" thesis is also its weakness: if our brains are masters of self-deception, what can we possibly do about it?

It's what author and journalist Robert Wright calls an unhelpful insight—one that isn't likely, on its own, to make your life any better.

In 2003 Wright was pondering the mystery of powdered sugar donuts. Specifically, he was lamenting his inability to stop eating them. Ten years earlier he'd written The Moral Animal, one of the foundational works of evolutionary psychology, in which he'd argued natural selection shaped our brains to mislead and even enslave us.

It was a provocative thesis—one that would later influence Hanson and Simler when they were writing their own "Elephant." But knowing about it didn't make much difference when it came to craving donuts.

Wright wanted to find a way to make evolutionary psychology's insights actionable—not just to better deal with donuts, but also things like anxiety, depression, and suffering, which he believed were a natural result of our programming.

Disillusioned with traditional strategies of self-control, Wright decided to attend a silent meditation retreat in rural Massachusetts. He was drawn there by claims that Buddhism could help us better apprehend reality.

Buddhists believe human suffering is caused by an inability to see the world clearly, and that via the practice of mindful meditation, we can learn to better apprehend the truth about the world—and ourselves—and thus reduce suffering.

Those beliefs struck Wright as curiously similar to the ideas he'd explored in "The Moral Animal."

At the retreat, after five days of prolonged silent meditation, Wright experienced a moment of transcendence. He found himself looking back at his own thoughts and feelings and bodily sensations as if they belonged to someone else.

That breakthrough led to another book, Why Buddhism is True, which recounts Wright's personal journey with Buddhism, and notes how mindfulness meditation overlaps with many of the findings of modern evolutionary psychology and neuroscience.

More importantly—for our purposes—it's a functional guidebook on how to disobey Mother Nature.

Now, I have to be honest: you're not going to like Wright's prescription.

To me, what Wright is offering is not so much a way to free yourself from Mother Nature's algorithms (ie, your thoughts and feelings and automatic behaviors), but rather a way to stalemate them. That is quite a long way from a "true" victory.

I do not for a moment imagine you would find it satisfying to battle your mind to a standstill, alone in your room, meditating for hours on end, while your friends are all out woo-whoing in the trees on a powder day.

But, if any of these ideas seem to resonate, I do want to offer you a bit of a launch pad for further self-inquiry.

Wright's "Buddhism is True" is worth your time, despite its title. Read it for its model of how your mind works. Paired with awareness of the ubiquity of human social-status striving, it offers a very powerful way to understand human behavior.

If the practice of mindfulness meditation itself intrigues you, I do not however recommend following Wright's suggestions on how to meditate, or how to find a teacher. Look instead to Timmothy Kabat-Zinn's excellent Full Catastrophe Living. This matters.

And finally, if you are more focused on doing things rather than avoiding them, I strongly recommend investigating Steven Hayes' third-wave Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is built on many of these same premises.

In my opinion, the standard human-factors approach to backcountry safety was always doomed because it misunderstands the true purpose of our cognitive biases. On this page, I've attempted to give you an alternative explanation for how our minds work—and tools to make that insight actionable.

Under the best of circumstances, it's probably not the case that we're going to free ourselves entirely from Mother Nature's yoke. But it might be possible, now and then, to be a little less reactive, a little more intentional in our actions.

That seems like a worthy goal.

— January 15, 2024

Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents

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