Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Climbing and Evolution

I was reading a very interesting piece in the New York Times about predators and the role that fear has played in the evolution of the human species. The author vividly reflected on the nature of dying by being attacked by a lion:

It’s hard to imagine how terrifying such a death must be. To be asleep in bed and to wake to hear a rustling sound, to see an animal leaping, to feel its breath on your face — think of the sweat, the panic, the contraction of your gut, the pounding of your heart, the gasping screams.

In a number of regions of the world, this happens with amazing regularity and of course it happens all the time to animals. Her larger point was in regard to the problem of fear and what humans find scary as opposed to what they should find scary. Thus logically we should fear mosquitoes more than bears. However, the author points out, "But here’s the thing. Today, in many parts of the world, the human being most likely to cause your violent death is: you."

This in my mind leads to an interesting question. Why, given that humans have evolved to become masters of nature in so many regards, do so many seek to revisit the primal sensations of fear? And even more interesting what are the ways in which fear is sidelined, channeled, even erased in these situations?

Climbing is always a potentially lethal activity and yet there is the sense that the human mind can and does find ways of adapting to situations that pose mortal danger. Some are technical solutions, such as equipment, while others are more mental or psychological. As climbers, I think we are all aware that fear inhibits performance and can indeed represent a greater danger than the actual climbing situation presents. How did we get to the point where we could discuss with ourselves rationally entering a dangerous scenario and moving through it safely? It seems to me that there is an aesthetic question at the heart of the matter, that there is something beautiful that we seek in the midst of danger and that beauty consists not in the fear itself but in its successful banishment or at least suspension for a while. This behavior is not be primal, it seems to me, but evolved, like much of our human behavior, in a relatively brief time and reflective of the same remarkable traits that brought art and language into the world. Its higher purpose may ultimately remain a mystery.


Kate T-C said...

Lovely post. I've often thought that the process of working through fear in climbing brings us more fully "into the moment" as the yogis say.

The classic goal of meditation seems to be a form of enlightenment where we exist fully in the moment, no past, no future. The mind is clear and sharp, and we feel love and connection.

Now, how you get to that place is up to you. Climbing gives us the opportunity to focus in the face of fear, and find the stillness of mind that comes from that. Yoga requires focus in the face of pain, and there is a similar peace that emerges there.

And there are many classic physical meditations that bring us to our limits to find the beautiful completeness on the other side: fasting and prayer, long pilgrimages, even ancient tantra.

The idea of putting yourself in a martial situation in order to find mental clarity and peace is nothing new. Climbing is just another way of practicing a very old art.

Peter Beal said...

Great response. However climbing is not a martial situation since you do not have an opponent that seeks to harm you. Nor is it necessarily meditative. Needless to say I have no fixed ideas on exactly what the attraction is.

Brent Apgar DC said...

Interesting question, I'm curious to see what kind of responses you get.
To take almost a completely biological view (which I do believe a large part of), is that risk taking is an evolutionary hold over.

Originally when people survived more through hunting and gathering, if we didn't find some kind of reward/mental high during risk taking we wouldn't have survived long.
So part of my theory is that we as climbers, surfers, bullriders...etc have simply surrounded a biological need for that stimuli with our own personal mysticisms to justify why we participate in risky activities.
Great post,

sock hands said...

i disagree: gravity and fear seek to harm you. the most apt opponent is often not tangible.

Shawn Mitchell said...

Nice questions, Peter. Here's a question I hope is not obtuse, triggered by this passage: "This behavior is not primal, it seems to me, but evolved, like much of our human behavior, in a relatively brief time and reflective of the same remarkable traits that brought art and language into the world. Its higher purpose may ultimately remain a mystery."

My simple school understanding of natural selection is that variation over time is driven by any mutation that enhances survival or reproduction. Language confers obvious advantages on those counts, but what about art? More intriguingly, prompted by your essay, of what benefit could be pleasure in confronting danger? The show of prowess would seem double edged. It might attract mates, but increase the chance of dying before breeding. How does that net? Perhaps it rewards deception: the member of the tribe that can pull off feats that *look* dangerous, but aren't really so lethal, has the upper hand. Sounds like climbing to me!

Afterthought in response to Brent. Food would seem reward enough, without the need for hardwired psychic response.

Brent Apgar DC said...

The effects of neurochemistry that my post alludes to answers both your questions. "What benefit could pleasure be in confronting danger?"

If finding/getting food is in itself a dangerous, perhaps life threatening activity there's a huge advantage if you can get psyched, high, or find pleasure in the activity itself... otherwise you'd sit, terrified, in the cave and starve.