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Summer Classics: The Shrew in my Brain: Snakes and the Evolved Body—Part II

Hopefully, you are now convinced by the evidence in Part I, that I am not afraid of snakes. The point being, not that I am fearless and brave, but this:

I am jogging along the banks of the Danube. I turn into Danau Park, with its green grasses, large old trees, strolling couples, and a smell and feel of wild things (even though it is quite tame). It’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining. I am tired. I am glad to be almost done with a long (for me) run. Suddenly, and without any premonition that this was about to happen, I find my knees at eye level. This is quite shocking as you can imagine. In the next few milliseconds, I register absolute and utter surprise that I have leaped into the air.

Now those of you who know me, know that I cannot leap high. My kids make fun of me when we have those father and son jumping contents where my teenage son is flat palming the ceiling in his leap, and I can’t touch it with my fingertips. To get the image right about my jumping ability, imagine a four year-old jumping up and down trying to knock a balloon out of your hand. She jumps higher than I can.

Well, after the surprise of finding myself in midair, is the surprise at how high I’ve jumped. I’ve definitely got air. My feet are pulled up tight so that if I were on the ground I’d be squatting in a way that I could wrap my arms around my knees. The events that follow all happen in milliseconds, but the sequence of events is quite clear in my mind, much shorter than in the telling mind you. Next, at the apex of my jump, my head rotates left and down really fast and my eyes lock on a two-foot snake laying in the grass (or is it lying in the grass—I’m never sure) by the side of the path. My body contorts so that my legs kick out and away and I land awkwardly away from the snake. I step back and watch it go. I am calm (however I am not tempted to pick it up, having learned how dangerous a snake can be to your scent organs (as described in part I).

I think about what just happened. I never consciously saw the snake before I jumped. My consciousness was focusing the day, the surroundings and maybe how much I missed my family—being alone in Vienna as I am. But, I never saw the snake. However, my brain did. Some primitive neurology, derived from selective forces likely at work when my body’s grandmothers were late-Cretaceous shrew-like insectivores scrambling among the legs of fierce dinosaurs, picked up there was a snake in the grass. The message ‘leap now!’ was marshaled into action without consulting me. I got to find out about the snake after all the fuss was over. Me, I would not have been afraid of the snake at all (well, except for . . . you know), but my poor brain is terrified of the things.

My jump was purely instinctual, reactive, and unconscious. There was no free agency. No deliberation. Only after the fact did I learn why I was jumping. And I might add, it seems to me my brain was way overreacting. Sheesh. What a baby.

These things speak to my being a mammal, and what it means to be a mammal. I find this empowers me in some ways to know that my spirit is linked with deep time and deep processes. That my body is connected to the earth, to those stars that formed the chemicals I’m made of, like carbon and oxygen, that it is linked to those fish that swam in ancient oceans, to those odd little reptiles that became mammals, to those small statured apes who walked upright three and a half million years ago, seems very important. Vital knowledge even. In the end the Celestial Kingdom will be made from this Earth. I find it wondrous that Earth’s history is entwined in my history and that this history will continue on into the eternities. How wonderful that my spirit is linked to a body with its deep ties to this very planet that will ever be my home. There is something amazing and important about that. Evolution: Connecting us to the history of an amazing universe in which our spirits apparently need such ties to be truly happy. Amazing.

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3 comments to Summer Classics: The Shrew in my Brain: Snakes and the Evolved Body—Part II

  • Your jumping sounds like it fits James-Lange theory. Your brain saw the snake; you automatically jumped; your limbic brain assessed the sympathetic nervous system; and the emotion of fear was produced. Yes, it is a primitive process, with a long evolutionary history.

    But, your cortex, the intellectual part of your brain, is NOT afraid of snakes. I believe you, because our behavior is packaged into modules.

  • Left Field

    I’ve never had any particular fear of snakes, but I remember an incident when I was about 9-10 years old. I was walking in the forest near my house when right at eye level, hanging off a limb, was a green snake that was just in the process of swallowing a silver-spotted skipper larva. Even at that age, I could identify both species and knew that they were perfectly harmless. But somehow the sight of those orange eyespots looking at me out of the gaping mouth of a green snake a few inches from my face startled me enough that I retreated quickly. After a minute or two, I got my wits back, chided myself for my irrational reaction, and went back looking for the snake. I never found it.

  • kreed

    I very much liked your concluding thoughts – for some reason, it is important for spirits to inhabit a mortal evolved body. A mortal evolved body living on the surface of a tiny planet(s) among literally trillions of others in the universe.

    On thing this does is give us a natural experience with a very limited body. We are expected to overcome the animal emotions (snake slaughtering for entertainment?) and tendencies. The natural man as enemy of God? How better to do it than placing our spirits into a completely natural physical body (if that is indeed how it works … ).

    As we all have seen, the playing field is not level. Some people have an easy (from my perspective at least) life. Others are beset with major physical and mental limitations. Others become addicted to drugs, sex, porno, tobacco, power, …, all things to overcome or avoid.

    In short, we are immortal spirits inhabiting animal bodies for a time. I believe the test is how we deal with what we have. For a Down’s syndrome person, the test may be easy. Death releases a spirit that literally could not be held accountable. The parent’s challenge is much greater.

    We are physically inhabiting evolved animal bodies with all the genetic baggage that comes with them. We all live in a historical time period where the scope of our understanding is limited by that time and culture.

    Is this not a perfect plan? The test built in? Do we really need a devil at our shoulders to tempt us? We already have a lot of temptation simply as a part of being human.

    This is what I love about Mormon doctrine – it fits perfectly into my understanding (limited as it is) of nature. We are what we are, and we are to expand on what we are given the limitations of our inherited natural abilities. So “judgment is mine, saith the Lord” makes perfect sense. We simply cannot judge how well someone is dealing with what they were born with.

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