Making Sense of the Senseless: Evolutionary Mismatch and Mass Shootings

When any topic grabs my attention these days, my mind immediately starts following the thread backwards to see if human history or evolutionary theory has anything to offer in the way of perspective.

SONY DSCHere in the States, many of us are grappling with the events in Newtown, Connecticut where on Friday, a 20-year-old man named Adam Lanza killed his mother and then broke a window to gain access to an elementary school, where he shot and killed 27 people, 20 of whom were children ages 6 & 7. It has renewed the gun debate in our country, where weapons are easily bought or stolen. In this case, Lanza used his mother’s legally purchased guns against her and the others.

So what on earth could evolution possibly have to tell us about this situation?

I was truly at a loss for a while. When it comes to stories of domestic violence or rape or robbery, chances are, it has been explored and we can use terms like “cost-benefit ratio” and “gene-promotion strategy” and “resource acquisition” to help make sense of it. It also has the welcome effect of providing intellectual distance from rather gruesome, uncomfortable topics.

But here…I’ve heard some say that the persons likely to commit a mass murder enjoy the fame and notoriety. That rings hollow to me. Then, the inevitable crazy talk emerges, another method of distancing ourselves from the perpetrators: “Oh, it’s okay, they are somehow wrong in the head.” The one thing from these I can see making sense is a combo. I think some mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, lend themselves to a dissociation of the sufferer from reality, where they truly cannot understand the implications of their actions. I recently read about Jared Lee Loughner, the man who shot US Representative Gabrielle Giffords at a public event, and his interest in lucid dreaming. He believed he could control his dreams and that they represented an alternate reality. We can see where this would lead to trouble.

PsychologyTextI don’t mean to belittle mental illness’s role here, I do think it matters. But I think we can all agree that the percentage of those with a mental illness who may commit a crime such as this is woefully tiny, in the hundredths of a percent, if that. So the call for more or “better” care for the mentally ill bothers me. As though the answer lies in just listening to them and being understanding. Just give them a hug! As though diagnosing and drugging these people into oblivion is somehow the answer when we don’t fully understand the root causes of mental illness in the first place. I know, because my older brother has been through all of it, diagnosed and misdiagnosed with a grab-bag of disorders and given various meds over the years, one of which gave him diabetes. This is not proper care for those suffering with a mental illness.

Eventually, what helped me start to circle around an explanation was reminding myself that many of the problems we love to talk about today can be traced somehow to the evolutionary mismatch of our species in this modern world. I just wasn’t sure exactly how yet. A few days after the tragedy, I finally had a bit of spare time to do some leisurely reading and opened a tab that had been sitting on my computer waiting for me all week. It’s written by John Montgomery, a neuroscientist who blogs over at Psychology Today, and called Survival Mode and Evolutionary Mismatch: Environments ill-suited to our biology often trigger stress and pain.


He begins by explaining human evolutionary history, one that most folks into Paleo would recognize, chiefly that we’re just not cut out for the world we’ve built around us. And most of us are also familiar with why the chronic stress we submit ourselves to everyday isn’t beneficial for a healthy human either. Montgomery connects these by talking about our survival mode. Back in the day, out on the savannah, survival mode would’ve kicked in only when necessary when a lion came after us or something. But today:

Whenever we feel any kind of pain or emotional distress – whether it’s self-pity, for example, or guilt, or shame – we’re thrown, operationally, into a state of survival mode. Indeed, the biological reason that unpleasant emotions become triggered within us in the first place is to alert us that our survival may be at risk, and to motivate appropriate action to address that risk. When we have intense feelings of emotional pain during a breakup, for example, the feeling is telling us that a relationship that’s very important to us may soon be lost, and the pain is biologically designed, in a broad sense, to motivate behavior that may help us to preserve the relationship if we possibly can.

Good luck out there.

Good luck out there.

Then he goes into a concept I first began to understand this summer when I saw Frank Forencich speak at AHS12. Social isolation, out there on the savannah, meant DEATH. Montgomery talks about this cruel reality:

For hunter-gatherers, lacking close relationships or being socially isolated within the group is truly life-threatening. Food shortages due to a drought, for example, may force the band – not out of callousness, but simply out of survival necessity – to shed one or more band members so that the rest of the band has enough food to survive. The fewer strong attachments any specific hunter-gatherer has to the other people in the band, the greater the chance he or she will be abandoned by the band, and consequently, in all likelihood, left alone to die in the wilderness.

This makes so much of our modern behavior make sense. Let’s take an alcoholic. Let’s say he’s a mean drunk, but his kids try ever harder to “earn” his affection and their mother “enables” his habit by catering to him. The mother and the kids are both in a situation where their survival modes are ticked on, and they are coping the best way they can to that threat. In essence, they are begging him not to cast them out to the wolves to die alone. Since he has proven himself dangerous, they behave in ways that are dictated by their survival modes.

So what happens when we add social isolation (bold mine):

The extraordinarily high levels of social isolation found today provide perhaps the most important current example of evolutionary mismatch. When people feel that they lack supportive, loving relationships, when they feel lonely for extended periods, the consequences can be devastating. Social isolation has been shown to have effects on physical health that are comparable to not exercising or even to smoking cigarettes, and loneliness is also a major risk factor for most psychological syndromes, including severe depression.

SadThis is why bullying is so devastating. It puts the abused in a position of having to watch their peers, and in some instances even friends of theirs, actively shun them. In fact, I’m guessing nearly all suicides, and I mean 99%, could be traced to some type of social isolation. Lost your job and can’t support your family? Bullied by your peers? The ladies at Bridge Club discovered your affair with the pool boy? All valid suicidal catalysts.

But the catch is that in modern life, being alone more than one might like is rarely a serious survival threat. It may not feel good to consistently have nothing to do on a Saturday night, but that on its own is almost never a sign that your life is at serious risk. Because of our hunter-gatherer past, however, being alone too much often triggers a survival-mode state in us that, like all survival-mode states, creates stress and releases stress hormones throughout our bodies and brains. And chronically high stress levels seem to be largely responsible for the physical and psychological health issues that lonely people are at higher risk for. So the cruel irony is that, although being socially isolated is rarely an actual survival threat in modern, industrialized cultures, the state of being lonely does trigger stress and survival-mode states because of our hunter-gatherer past, and so being socially isolated does often end up creating a survival risk – but mainly because of chronically elevated stress levels driven by unnecessary and inappropriate survival-mode states.

It appears that Friday’s shooter, Lanza, was truly isolated. Nearly everyone interviewed about him mentioned that he rarely spoke. He appears to have had no close friends in high school, and he was living at home with his mother. However, I think there are other ways to interpret loneliness or isolation. Let’s take the aforementioned Loughner, shooter of Gabrielle Giffords. He had what sounds like a group of friends that included one guy he had a long-standing friendship with from high school. But his schizophrenia, undiagnosed until the shooting, probably served as a barrier in his mind, sequestering him from feeling truly integrated into the group. The fact that he took Gabrielle Giffords’s answer to a bizarre question of his as an affront shows that he felt outside and other. It was enough of a perceived shun that he shot her for it.

But I think it’s also important to consider that as social animals, there’s a chicken-or-the-egg argument here. Which starts first, the isolation or the reason for the isolation? Children at play will stop playing with someone who won’t follow the rules. This is natural and keeps everyone in line, because not all that long ago, stepping out of line might’ve meant death. I also remember a story years ago about a baby rhino born in some zoo somewhere and the mother stopped caring for it and became quite aggressive against it. The zoo keepers took it and tried to raise it, but it had a degenerative neurological condition and died. I remember thinking at the time that the mother rhino was so horrible to abandon her baby that way, but now I see that she could invest no further resources to an offspring with no hope of survival. Now how did that rhino know that? And do we humans also sense when we cannot invest time and energy in someone else? Anyone who has passed a homeless person without looking them in the eye or acknowledging them would have to say yes.

Here’s my theory of what happened on Friday. Adam Lanza apparently had some sort of altercation with staff members at the school the day before, but details about that situation haven’t been released yet. We don’t know why he was at the school on Thursday but we do know that on Friday 3 out of 4 of the staff involved in that dispute were shot dead.  He goes home from this and he and his mother argue about it. It’s not hard to imagine that he and his mother probably had some friction in their relationship, because she was trying to get him ready to go to college and she was going to move with him to be in the same town. I’ve witnessed my older brother’s circuits go on overload which is then followed by him freaking the heck out, so I’m guessing the same might’ve happened to Adam. He shot his mother in bed the next morning. He solved one immediate problem—that of the overloaded circuits—but was now faced with having killed the one person who provided security and stability in his life. Then, he went back to the source of the previous day’s freak-out and made them pay. When the authorities showed up to put an end to it, he shot himself, having nothing else to lose.

LonelyThis is all armchair analysis, I’m no expert. But when I saw Frank Forencich’s presentation, something just clicked for me. I was bullied quite aggressively in high school and can fully understand what being an outsider feels like. Our culture romanticizes the maverick, the rugged individualist. But we also have our crazy cat ladies and basement-dwelling video game addicts.

So whatever the motivation was for Adam Lanza that day, I think it’s a clear case of evolutionary mismatch, probably on several fronts. For one, nutritional deficiencies may be part of the problem with many disorders (please see Emily Deans’s fantastic blog Evolutionary Psychiatry), and they may be compounding over generations. For another, because we live in times of plenty, we do not cull our herd anymore. Please note: I am not advocating for this course of action, merely reiterating what Montgomery discusses as I mentioned above. For another, the whole social isolation factor. As evidence, Montgomery gives stats:

A careful and extensive study of the Kaluli hunter-gatherers of the New Guinea highlands, for example, found that of two thousand people who were exhaustively interviewed, only one even came close to meeting the criteria for clinical depression. But in modern, industrialized cultures – such as the present-day United States – about three hundred or so people out of every two thousand suffer from clinical depression.

Folks, something ain’t right. Now the million dollar question—what can be done about it?


10 Responses to “Making Sense of the Senseless: Evolutionary Mismatch and Mass Shootings”

  1. Karen – I heard on CNN today that 20% of adults and 25% of children suffer from mental illness. The first thing I thought about was why? Surely this is not the norm, well this mismatch whether evolutionary or not. Definitely exists. Thanks for a stimulating read.

  2. VERY well written and tied together. “Too late smart” my mother likes to say. And I like to say we are becoming more aware every day. Thank you; you hit the nail on the head.

  3. So let’s work backwards to answer your million dollar question. If part of it is an evolutionary mismatch, we need to make things ‘match’ better.

    In particular, let’s focus on matching or ‘fixing’ social isolation. Unwanted social isolation isn’t about loners, but about failed joiners … those who want and try to fit in with a group but are rejected on some level. Evolutionary, group rejection pretty much meant you were toast, and, as you point out, lead to some serious stress levels, which in this day and age can have a domino effect.

    So, ideally, we need at least a double edged approach here. First, we need to identify better the children/people who have a hard time fitting in with ANY group. Second, schools need to be have set aside time, actual part of the curriculum time, where the whole goal/purpose is for kids to be in and interact as groups. Yes, force them to be in groups from a young age.

    A perfect solution? Of course not. Nor a complete one to this incredibly complex problem. But looking at this from an evolutionary perspective, we were forced to be in groups for our very survival. Lacking that today, where can we ‘force’ group interaction? Unfortunately, our homes and families are not tribal or communal as they once were, leaving schools as one of the only places where we have this opportunity. I’m not even sure how we can make this happen at the school level, but I think we overly focus on individual achievement.

    I don’t know. Schools seem overwhelmed already with trying to get kids to pass standardized tests and not fall apart at the seams from our growing diversity. I’m certainly not the first one to suggest we approach some aspects of education differently, blah, blah, blah. Anyway, my mind too has been trying to make sense of the senseless since last Friday.

    • Sorry for the late response, Aaron! And thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      My thoughts are that there is no way to “fix” social isolation except on the individual/community level, meaning it takes familial groups to accomplish that. It cannot be done via institutional means. But the flip side of that is that I suspect things like bullying actually do have a positive role, it’s just that we’re so socially disconnected that its purpose is divorced from the context now. Meaning, some teasing would’ve served a great purpose in learning and keeping tribe members safely within the group, but today, it just serves to isolate more and push the already fragile even further away. Classic case of mismatch.

      As for education, I haven’t posted on this fully yet, but I don’t look to schools as a solution to anything. I feel like modern “education” is in fact a huge part of the problem. Show me one indigenous culture that sequesters their youth away from everything in the world to “learn” abstract concepts while being forced to sit still and pay attention. You’ll not find one if you look. Another classic case of mismatch.

      We are all too happy to blame symptoms instead of the disease. I don’t mean to sound extreme, but almost everything about modern life is suspect. We all respond to it differently and have varying ills because of it due to our individual vulnerabilities.

  4. I found your blog today and have really enjoyed all the posts I’ve read so far (many more to go!). Thank goodness someone intelligent is commenting on what is happening in our health and social circles.

    After many years of researching topics surrounding Lyme Disease and other biological baddies, I think that in the future there will be much more research devoted to how pathogens affect mental health. I don’t think that’s what happened in this instance, but just wanted to chime in that health is a whole picture – nutrition, genetics, pathogen load, stress etc. You’re right, mental health is poorly understood and I wish more studies on food allergies/intolerances, pathogenic causes and effects of these on babies/children would emerge.

    • Thank you, and welcome!

      Yes, the pathogen effect on behavior is seriously fascinating and a ripe area for research. Another one I just learned about is the presence of other people’s cells in our bodies, meaning our mother’s from when we were born and our children’s from when we carried them. These cells, so far, are found to be both positive (sometimes repairing other cells in the body) and negative (triggering autoimmune reactions).

      It’s sad that we have so far to go with understanding ourselves, because so many need help now.

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful discussion on a really tricky topic. I’ve been reading articles in ecopsychology, which suggests that pretty much all humans in our modern society are less-than-sane, or actually, not fully matured emotionally and mentally.

    The way I see it, we basically traded our sanity in order to conform to the needs of our technology and industrial social infrastructure. Why those things earned more value than human health I have no idea, but we are always eager to get new technology, and adjust our lives and behaviors so that we can use it, without thinking about how it may impact our happiness or health.

    • We humans are great at solving some problems and replacing them with others. For example, when it comes to our food we solved problems of supply, seasonal availability, loss to rodents, issues of scale, etc., but we ended up with industrialized garbage, feedlots, miles of monocrops that degrade the land, and petroleum-fueled produce from all over the globe.

      Always the law of unintended consequences.

      Yes, I agree, we don’t fully understand what we’ve traded for our modern lives. Especially as we are driven further into our minds, from the tangible to the intangible, toward more abstraction, I expect more and more issues to arise from it. And then of course, one could always argue that we’re just in an evolutionary transition point. Things are uncomfortable now, but won’t be later. I’m not buying it, but it’s an interesting devil’s advocate position.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: