Once in a college biology course, we were discussing nervous systems of different species.
Some species like mammals, reptiles and birds have complex nervous systems that govern their behavior and allow them to learn things. This why when all the people are gone from a house, cats immediately seek out the butter dish. They’ve learned when there is no one there to yell, throw shoes at or beat them, that is the time to strike at any unprotected butter.
Other species, like mollusks, worms and Kardashians have simple nervous systems. This means they can only react a certain way to stimulus.
To illustrate this, we studied a spider. Once the instructor pried me off the ceiling and convinced me it was okay to be in the same room as this devil arachnid, we started the experimenting.
During the test, the end of a pencil was pushed toward the spider. Each time it would stand up on its rear legs while spreading its front ones and looking entirely terrifying.
Again and again, someone would push the pencil close to the spider, which saw it as an enemy, and it did the same thing every time. It never got to the point the spider ignored the pencil, walked a different direction or told us to go jump off a bridge.
This is because the spider had a simple nervous system — the forces of evolution, God’s preset programming, or perhaps a mixture of the two, had given the spider only one response to an approaching threat. It had no choice in how it reacted.
The class reached a scientific consensus that the spider was “stupid.” Personally, I felt like it was also flushable, but I was overruled and it was released back into the wild to remain nightmare fuel for the next sorry sap who crossed its path.
Fortunately, humans have a choice as to how we react to stimuli … or do we?
In spite of assurances from everyone that the water supply is stable, reliable and plentiful, people bought cases of bottled water by the dozens, because that’s what you do in a disaster apparently? People rushed to buy water, toilet paper and beer, why wouldn’t you?
Well, for one thing we all rationally know that panic is not the answer, nor is hoarding, nor is drinking one’s self into oblivion.
Yet, this seems to be many people’s reaction — “What? The water system is fine and unaffected by this? Well I best buy enough bottled water to drown myself in, you know, just in case.”
Perhaps this is a primal urge hardwired into our DNA from our ancestors who existed as hunter-gatherers. They would see a shift in the seasons coming, and hoard all the berries, woolly mammoth carcasses and toilet paper they could find in order to survive the winter. They didn’t have online shopping, warehouse outlets or grocery stores. Current archeological records indicate primitive man at best may have only had Kmart.
Fortunately, retailers are putting limits on things. This helps us manage the primitive instinct to buy 20 gallons of milk. Where would you even put it? Who has room in their fridge for that?
It’s in our primitive survival instinct to take care of ourselves first. However, men, and more importantly, women, have the most complex nervous systems of all. We can grasp beyond simple survival. Using the evolutionary — or perhaps God given — gift of intellect we’ve grown beyond instinctive hunter-gathers to become philosophers, space explorers and UFC champions.
Yet, there is still this primitive remnant in our brain, triggered by fear, which compels us to hoard and buy excess when we know it will make it so someone else can’t get the essentials of life.
Use your complex nervous system for compassion, rationality and reason in unreasonable times.
Don’t be a spider.
Spiders are icky.
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