Did Madness Make Us Masters of the Universe?

May 14, 2015



Israel must be like a mad dog, too dangerous to bother.”

Moshe Dayan, Israeli Defence Minister



It often feels like the world has gone mad: this month, so many Texans believed that a routine army drill in their state was a bid by President Obama to occupy them that the governor had to alert the National Guard; in the Middle East, Isis has reintroduced slavery and throws suspected gay men off the top of apartment blocks: North Korea this week executed a defence chief with an anti-aircraft gun because he nodded off in a speech by the Dear Leader: Floyd Mayweather was paid more than $100 million for an hour-long boxing match while thousands of refugees drown trying to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe, where the lucky ones crawl, starving and ignored, past sunbathing tourists on Italian beaches. A robot known as Random Darknet Shopper that was confiscated by Swiss police for purchasing ecstasy pills online was cleared of charges. Just Google “Florida news” and you'll see how crazy the world really is.


Recently, I've been reading a lot about evolutionary psychology, and it seems quite a few scientist believe that we Homo Sapiens are, as a species, in fact insane. Not only that, it may have given us the competitive advantage over other species of humans, in the same way that so many successful businessmen seem to be sociopaths who simply see the rest of us as sheep to be fleeced. The fact that we appear to have genocided our brother species of Neanderthals, Homo Erectus and Denisovans would seem to back up the theory.


In his book “Sapiens,” the historian Yuval Noah Harari points to the Cognitive Revolution, some 70,000 years ago, as the period in which we became so successfully mad. Humans could already speak to each other and make tools, as their Neanderthal brethren probably could too, but at that point some random evolutionary mutation in our brains – most likely in our pre-frontal cortex – allowed us start to believe in things that didn't exist.


Imagined realities,” Harari calls them – spirits, gods, totems, things that allowed small bands of hunter-gatherers to share belief systems that eventually led them beyond the narrow confines of kinship groups and allowed total strangers to trust each other, because they shared a belief in a higher – albeit imaginary – power watching over them.


In her book The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert meets a Swedish scientist called Svante Pääbo, who has worked on sequencing the Neanderthal genome. One of the differences he points out between our Homo Sapiens ancestors and the Neanderthals (aside from the fact the latter had bigger brains than us) is that our forebears seem to have taken crazy leaps of faith that must have seemed suicidal to the Neanderthals, such as sailing off in tiny boats across vast, unchartered oceans in the hopes that there would be an island our there they could settle: how many must have drowned or starved, simply lost to history? The same way people nowadays leap off a mountain in a wingsuit – despite the fact that there is a terrible death rate in the sport – and say they do it for fun, to push the boundaries and test their limits. When a private space company offered volunteers a one-way trip to settle Mars, almost a quarter of a million people applied.


It is borderline insane, but we can't help admiring their insanity. Pääbo, described as the “father of paleogenetics” said that he is looking out for a “madness gene,” some chromosome that our ancestors had that allowed them, and us, to believe in such useful invented realities as gods, money, insurance policies, nations and corporations – things that don't actually exist in a physical state, but which our belief in allows us to transcend our fears, to die for a cause so that our fellow believers (who are quite likely genetically related) might inherit the land.


Imagine if this way: there is an ancient valley that needs to be crossed to get to new and fertile hunting grounds, but it is full of sabre-tooth tigers and quick sand. The Neanderthals, with their bigger brains but lack of craziness, would quite rightly say it was not worth the risk. The homo sapiens, with their irrational, shamanic belief in spirits and the power of cave drawings to protect them, set out to cross it. All but one pair are killed: the survivors will see themselves as blessed by the spirits, and not only take control of the new land, but have renewed faith in their guiding spirits. The dead will be seen as martyrs, or perhaps sinners who were denied salvation.


The crazy will inherit the Earth. And so we did, it seems.


If we one day we will know that some freak mutation made the human insanity and exploration thing possible, it will be amazing to think that it was this little inversion on this chromosome that made all this happen and changed the whole ecosystem of the planet and made us dominate everything,” Pääbo says.


Once our mutated brains started churning out ideas, these ideas in turn became subject to evolutionary pressures. Memes – the intellectual version of genes – that were successful managed to get their human hosts to survive in larger and larger numbers, even if the individuals were not necessarily any better off. An example offered by Harari is of celibate priests, whose voluntary withdrawal from sexual reproduction goes against every human extinct, yet whose dedication to an idea – god, or the Catholic church – allows that idea to thrive, fixing the faith in ever larger numbers of minds and allowing them to conquer new worlds, brothers in arms against the heathens, ready to sacrifice themselves for a higher cause. And it works – as Mark Pagel write in Wired for Culture, in war a group of men that fights together stands a statistically much better chance of survival than a more rational group that breaks and runs to save themselves. When the crazy jihadists come over the hill, you want Richard the Lionheart at your side, not Richard Dawkins.


There are a million books on madness, but almost none of sanity. I've only found one, Going Sane, which struggles to define what sanity might be. After all, particular groups might be described as insane – cults, nations, dictators, Nazis and ideologues – but surely we as a species can't be?


But history is written by the victors, and victors rarely describe themselves as insane: the Nazis attempted a genocide against the Jews because Nazis were evil and insane; yet just a century or so earlier, the British carried out a successful genocide of the indigenous Tasmanians, sometimes even hunting them like they were foxes on their country estates. There was a widespread practise among American doctors in the ante-bellum South to carry out experiment on live slaves, without using anaesthetics, decades before Dr Mengele got his hands on Auschwitz's twins. You won't see that in Gone With the Wind, although 12 Years A Slave shows quite well that the South was a just a series of privately owned concentration camps.


Insanity, like morality, is often a question of consensus: as the old saying goes, if one man thinks he's the son of a god who impregnated a virgin, he's mad and should be locked up: if he can convince 10 people, they're a cult and should be treated with caution. If a million people can be persuaded, they're a religion and get tax breaks from the state.


Our imagined realities have allowed us to live in vast communities that now dominate every part of the planet, and are threatening another mass wave of extinctions. Can we overcome our collective insanities, or have we benefited from them so long that we really are incurably insane? Is a limited dose of insanity a rational choice, even?


For there are huge benefits: among Harari's “imagined realties” are the systems that allow so many of us to live free from immediate danger of death, with wealth and diets unimaginable to even the royalty of the past, while developing the incredible scientific knowledge that has allowed us to realise that we are quite likely the beneficiaries of an ancient “madness gene.”


Or, as Kolbert wryly puts it, “the mutations that make us the sort of creature that could wipe out its nearest relative, then dig up its bones and reassemble its genome.”