A Look at Evolution

When I listen to a parent despairing over their child’s fascination with video games and social media, I like to imagine a caveman mother’s concern about her hairless offspring, worried about how he will ever keep warm. I think about the father hominid, wondering how his son will make it through the treetops with those prehensile thumbs of his. I wonder if alarm bloomed in a Neanderthal’s heart when her daughter’s bulbous high forehead set her apart from the other infants.

Apologies for having my anthropology all wrong, but parents’ universal reaction when evolution shows up in their kid is to want to turn back the clock. Parents only feel secure when their kids seem normal. And normal means where the parents think evolution should have stopped.

Parents know that times have changed and activities are different, but they still want their children to be the kind of kids their grandparents would approve of. The trouble is that technology has changed things so much in the last two generations that a child’s literal physical environment is vastly different. Advertising surrounds us on every usable surface and tells us all to want more and go faster. Nobody is telling people to sit down, pay attention, and comply with authority. It just doesn’t sell.

I see no signs of things going backwards—with children settling down to read a good book and happily doing repetitive homework. I don’t see them going back to the landline phone to talk to their friends or giving up TV and video games to play in the yard. Parents who expect their children to enjoy working hard at paper-based tasks are probably courting disappointment.

Why is this? Why is our electronic media body-slamming our beloved paper-based society? Because the human brain has always loved speed and hates to wait. When the technology was slow and the distances were great, people had to wait, to pace themselves, to plan. Slow and careful came to be seen as a virtue.

But what does human evolution think about that? The evidence is that the human brain has always lit up in response to anything that broadens its horizons and lets it go really fast. Nothing is going to stand in the way of that. Once we go fast, we are not content with slow. Touch screens trump paper every time.

If we feel embarrassed when our child is resisting the old work ethic of step-by-step learning or when our child must be reasoned with before they will do something, it just means that we have stepped into the brave new world without knowing it. It does not mean we are bad parents. Perhaps education has not caught up with the amazing, lightning-fast circuitry that now sparkles in our children’s brainpan.

Let’s face it: the signs of the world to come suggest that the ability to do ponderous repetition over long periods of time is losing its market value. That may be a bad thing—evolution will let us know—but it is still happening. Patience and planning will always have a role in success, but it may play a smaller part. People who can think this way will probably go the way of engineers and math majors—absolutely essential to the betterment of humanity, but there may not be many of them.

What may emerge as the preeminent survival skills is the ability to mentally turn on a dime and to quickly work deals with other people that satisfy both parties. This is because there are so many people and companies in the world now that the rigid person who cannot negotiate or spot an opportunity will fall in the dust like the dinosaur he has become. Training our children to always be compliant might have been adaptive in a world where large businesses offered stability and security. Now it is a recipe for obsolescence. We might as well give them a buggy whip as we send them out into the world.

If we feel like we are often haggling or negotiating with our child, maybe it is because that is exactly what evolution is pushing us toward. In the future, our kids may need those skills more than unquestioning obedience. When we see our kids absorbed in video games, reacting instantly to one surprise attack after another, think of them as preparing themselves for a global world of instant change at electronic speed.

In other words, what we call Attention Deficit Disorder may be where we have been heading all along. Knowing how to enjoy and pursue superficial social contacts (facebook, Google, etc.) may be turn out to be an excellent way to prosper in the global environment. Certainly the traders and explorers in the old days were the fittest specimens as it turned out, working the outermost edge of social evolution with great benefit for us all.

It remains to be seen if this will continue to be the direction of our evolution, but barring a technological catastrophe of some sort, can you really see it slowing down or kids becoming more docile and respectful of authority? In prehistoric times, the evolving brains that craved novelty and speed kept our species competitive for survival. It worked so well that humans ultimately were able to create their own environments, not just adapt to what was there.

The lifestyle the young human brain likes is fast, stimulating, and worldwide. Our children’s brains have smelled the change in the air and are responding like all new generations have responded: eagerly flourishing in the new environment. They may be adapting to their environment faster than we can keep up, but isn’t that what parents have always wanted for their children? As far as evolution is concerned, a child’s primary job is not to please the grandparents, but to be prepared for the future. 

 

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.

 

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