Survival Instinct

Posted: January 6, 2007 in Culture, Health

Is the human survival instinct muted in the modern, industrialized world? Until sometime after the third or fourth year, infants and toddlers require nearly constant supervision — frequently to keep them safe from themselves. Very young humans require a period of years to learn enough about their environment to be wary of its dangers. For a young child, peering over a precipice, inserting fingers in crevasses (or objects in electrical sockets), eating anything that will fit in the mouth, and pulling furniture down on top of them are dangers normally warded off by parents, as the child has yet to develop a sense of imminent danger, as opposed to the immediate sensation of discomfort. Later in childhood, perhaps sometime after the acquisition of language, children still need considerable supervision, as things like playing with fire or firearms (often discovered in a parent’s closet), stepping into or playing in traffic, and use of appliances don’t yet register on them as potentially hazardous.

Does the protection of one or both parents mute the survival instinct? I can think of lots of cases where kids step blindly forward, blissfully unaware of the risks they are taking. For instance, swimming environments (pools, lakes, beaches) are notoriously dangerous for nonswimmers and beginners. As a lifeguard, I’ve hauled my share of overextended kids out of the water, usually sputtering and sometimes crying but no worse for wear. I also have a very clear memory of my own childhood, being perched atop the roof of the next door neighbor’s front porch as I wavered in my decision to jump off into the pile of leaves in the front yard 1.5 stories below. (I eventually chickened out, thank goodness.)

Teenagers get a driver’s license at age 16 or later and often develop an unwarranted sense of power and immortality behind the wheel, risking high speeds and maneuvers for which professional drivers train carefully. Speaking to some Army recruiters last month, I learned that many new recruits believe that joining the military will give them the opportunity to externalize the first-person shooters they’ve grown up with on video game consoles, complete with the reset button when they get shot or killed.

At what point, then, do we humans develop the same self-preservation skills as our forebears? I think perhaps never, at least in the U.S. Especially after the birth of a child, an adult may develop a new sense of responsibility and be less willing to take stupid risks, but there are still lots of yahoos who drive through Yosemite with the kids in the SUV and attempt feeding the bear through the open windows or traverse barriers to feed animals in zoos. The number of adults killed by vending machines toppling on them is unexpectedly high.

In bygone days, our very survival often depended on the ability to recognize threats and to either avoid or neutralize them. I suspect two reasons moderns often fare poorly (think of The Darwin Awards) are that we’ve learned to expect that we will be protected by others (parents, manufacturers, etc.) and we have placed potentially hazardous objects and animals well beyond our normal environment so that when we do come into contact with them we have no skills to work with. Our instinct for survival is thus muted; or if the instinct is still there, the ability to actualize it is diminished.

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