Fifty-thousand years ago before humankind first adopted language there was no civilization, no modernity. We were mute, brutal animals, not at the top of the food chain, and shared the earth with other species of Homo, the Denisovans and the Neanderthals for example. Our primitive brains were, like children’s, at a lower state of excitation. Our minds, over those fifty thousands of years, became more complex, organized, and hierarchically structured. Mental parts differentiated and integrated into smoothly operating machines. By sacrificing this loss of entropy we gained civilizations, socialization and cooperation in mankind’s repertoire. By 10,000 years ago we had wiped out all other species of Homo. We had neutralized many of the predators that had plagued us for millennia- animals, weather, starvation, illness. We developed an expectation of survival. Evolution gave our new brains and new civilizations the thumbs up from natural selection as they improved our odds of survival enormously. We had made our devil’s bargain… while losing mental entropy we increased our chances of reproduction markedly. While Freud’s pleasure principle states that the mind seeks the lowest level of excitation, humankind increased its excitation level in exchange for security. We would learn to live together cooperatively, in less mortal danger and greater excitation in exchange for a marked increase in security. Indeed the world’s Homo sapiens population has exploded.

This bargain is now in jeopardy. A microscopic virus has placed us all in mortal danger, with the elderly leading in risk. Images of body bags in refrigerator trucks haunt the news and panic accelerates as one literally endangers one’s life by going to a school, store or place of worship. The bargain that has so confidently, in many respects, kept its word, is now failing us. We’ve returned to the risk pool of our ancestors, afraid to leave out homes, talk to our neighbors or shop for groceries. But this is what we accepted a loss of entropy for. As this bargain crumbles we may see, and indeed have already seen, civilization itself deteriorate. The lure of the primitive is always present, and, given an excuse, will re-emerge with agility. The goal now must be to move beyond viral inexpediency and solidify society on an even more intense footing than before. Once the bargain starts slipping it may be harder to reinstate than we ever imagined.

Published by Steven Lesk, MD

Board certified, adult psychiatrist for over 35 years. I have written a book on evolution and schizophrenia. It's call Neanderthal's Dream: How Changes In Evolution Brought Us Mental Illness and May Someday Take It Away Again.

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