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 it’s 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 eyelevel. 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).

But 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. But 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.

But 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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6 comments to The Shrew in my Brain: Snakes and the Evolved Body—Part II

  • Phil

    Loved the article. It never ceases to amaze me how much room there is in Mormon theology for truly moving and testimony-affirming insights, for want of a better word, like your conclusion, that don’t require rejecting anything vital or fundamental to the essential message of the gospel or to our salvation. Thanks.

  • Velska

    I have noticed these reflexes at work in myself. I have never had the privilege of analyzing them so profoundly, but I hear you. The body of Man was made from the Earth – and we don’t have a better answer to the How than biology.

    It would be interesting to know how much these automatic responses can be “unlearned” within a lifetime. I could do without some reactions I have observed myself having.

  • Cap

    Great article! I agree. It is so amazing how intertwined everything in our life, and our world is. Watching and learning about the history of our planet and knowing where we are to eventually end up means a lot to me. This is a perfect example of how science and religion can get along, and support eachother.

  • b

    It’s interesting that you give (very valid) biological reasons for your actions. I’m a psychologist-in-training, and would give different (and, I think, valid) reasons without directly appealing to evolutionary processes. You’ve now created a problem for me which I’ll have to think through… how does one separate psychological processes from biological? Where is the line? Is there a line?

    I don’t think that all psychological processes/variables emerge from the biological. Likely many do. As a biologist, are you an epiphenomenalist? Do you think the mental just supervenes onto the physical? I’d like to take a firmer stance here, but I’m still incubating my ideas.

    Hope you don’t mind my feedback- I’m not ever trying to threadjack, just recording my reactions.

  • SteveP

    Phil, I would also like to see more attempts to bring the great and afferming stories of our evolutionary history into the great and affirming stories of our theology.

    B, your comments are more than welcome! I’m not an epiphenomenalist, I think there is a back and forth between the physical and the mental. Because we are missing much of the equation (spirit) in the underlying story I’m not sure it can be sorted scientifically. However, much is explorable through science and the physical has to be the basis of much of the mental (see my post on my going crazy here). Also, the only way we can make progress in science is to make the assumption that there is a physical explination. Physicalism has to be the assumption of any scientific exploration. Only when we fail (as we have in consciousness-as-such) do we start to suspect there is more afoot than we can understand scientifically. But we should keep looking for physical explinations if we want to use science to its best advantage.

    cap and Velska, keep studying the history of our planet cause we will live here a long time! Nice thoughts!

  • Beautiful thoughts on the inspiration behind evolution. I believe the same way, and I wonder why others do not. To each his/her own…

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