Fear is contagious. Natural selection has wired us to sense fear in our surroundings and make it our own. Zebras might not get ulcers from chronic stress but those that fail to activate their acute stress response when others around them are stressed are more likely to miss cues of threat and be consumed by a predator. Absorbing secondhand stress from others is a survival instinct—an adaptation shaped by prehistoric environments to promote evolutionary fitness.
However, our culture is evolving faster than our ability to biologically evolve. Too often, we helplessly rubberneck trainwreck events—often sensationalized by media for attracting attention and profit—despite their remote connection to our personal survival. For example, fear of the Ebola virus in recent weeks has become more viral than the virus itself. In the modern technology age where fear memes can spread around the globe near-instantly, our tendency to absorb secondhand stress from our ubiquitous, 24/7 media culture to activate our own stress response can produce maladaptive responses that are out of proportion to the actual threat.
You are probably aware of the concept of second-hand smoke, which increases the risk of disease and death. You should probably be aware of another deadly scourge: second-hand stress.
Natural selection has wired us to sense the stress of others and make it our own. If you are a gazelle and you don’t freak out when others around you do, then you might be the one about to be consumed by a predator you haven’t seen yet. Animals detect the stress of others through various sensory signals such as alarm calls, olfactory cues, or visual behaviors. Plants detect distress signals of others in the form of ethylene gas that activates their own stress response (fittingly, second-hand smoke contains ethylene). The ability to detect second-hand stress is a survival instinct that can promote evolutionary fitness.
Stewardship is defined as the responsibility to shepherd and safeguard the interests of others. Many of us are in positions of stewardship on behalf of others in public corporations, private enterprises, and charitable organizations. Warren Buffett, perhaps the most widely followed business leader of our time, speaks often of the importance of stewardship in business. It is striking, then, to see the dearth of courses discussing the concept of stewardship at top American business schools.
In the online course catalogs of the top five MBA programs in the America (as recently ranked by US News and World Report), “stewardship” is nowhere to be found in any course title. To put this into context, each of these schools offers at least five classes with the word “leadership” in the title. In the detailed descriptions of courses offered at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, tied for #1 in the same report, the word “leadership” appears 108 times. The word “stewardship” is not mentioned once. The closest mention of the word appears in the context of how to steward yourself in a course entitled “Leading Your Life.”
Hiding In Plain Sight is a collection of essays that I have written on investing, healthcare, and life.
A Little Experiment
For the sake of experiment, read the next sentence once, while counting the number of “f”s that you see.
“Five-winged flies are the result of years of scientific study combined with the experience of many years.”
Most likely, you counted an “f” in each of the more vibrant words of the sentence: “five,” “flies” and “scientific.” Most people only see these three “f”s, when in fact there are six. The other “f”s are hidden in the unassuming preposition “of”. Your mind probably skipped over each “of” because it processed these words without absorbing the raw information of the letters that composed them.
Although heart disease is common today, it was likely a far less frequent cause of death than predatory assaults among our prehistoric ancestors. Anyone reading this article is the fortunate descendant of an unbroken lineage of organisms that escaped or survived predatory attacks before reproducing.
The responses that help us survive predatory attacks are collectively called the fight-or-flight system. This system drives three major vascular responses to injury: coagulation (to counter blood loss), vasoconstriction (also to counter blood loss), and inflammation (to combat microorganisms and to promote wound healing). Together they helped our predecessors survive a predator’s bite. These responses are called upon reflexively no matter what the source of injury.
The immune system defends hosts against internal and external biologic threats. It also records an antigenic map of the environment such that it can appropriately respond to stimuli as benign or threatening.
A lesser-known function of the immune system may be to sample the microbiome for potentially beneficial traits it can add to the host inventory. Rather than executing wholesale destruction of pathogens, the host can benefit by domesticating invading organisms or parts thereof. The function can be summed in the word “xenovation”, innovation achieved through the selection and integration of foreign traits. Implications for biologic evolution, meme evolution, and computing evolution are discussed.
Components of pathogens can be processed and rendered benign or useful through various mechanisms. A historical example of this phenomenon is the domestication of one prokaryote (or at least its energetic machinery) by another to form a eukaryote. A current example is the processing of pathogen antigens for surface redisplay to other players in the immune system. The ability to protect against reinfection is a trait acquired via the pathogen. It is intuitively appealing to speculate that the immune system is in a perpetual state of exploration for innovative traits through domestication.
The exact mechanisms by which immune cells domesticate microbial traits remain to be elucidated. How sequences associated with those traits might end up in the germline also remains to be investigated.
Social mobility enabled by innovations in technology, communication, and transportation has dramatically increased the liquidity of our relationships. Some of the hard-wired social traits that we inherited from our tribally-minded ancestors may be maladaptive and not properly suited to handle modern relationship dynamics.
Our attraction to new social opportunities was shaped when such opportunities were far more limited than they are today. Not unlike our attraction to sweet, fat, and salty foods, little selection pressure existed in the old world for evolving upper limits on our attractions for new social opportunities. But does a tendency to be intrigued by new social opportunities make us happier people in a world where access to new opportunities is virtually limitless?
Evolutionary medicine (also referred to as Darwinian medicine) is the application of evolutionary theory to the understanding of human ailments.1 2 3 It explores evolutionary mechanisms of disease, offering a complementary framework to the proximate mechanistic explanations that prevail in medicine today. In this paper, we consider the application of evolutionary theory to the treatment of ailments.
A major contribution of evolutionary medicine is the framing of human diseases as maladaptations of our prehistoric factory settings. Our physiologic processes were shaped during prehistoric evolution to meet the needs of the era, but those same processes may behave maladaptively in the modern environment and produce disease. We take that notion one step further and propose an overarching therapeutic paradigm for human ailments based on evolutionary theory—the induction of adaptations in the body as a way to treat disease. It is the idea of creating somatic traits in the body that evolution might otherwise need to create over many generations through the sheer force of variation and natural selection. In the same way, that evolution has endowed us with traits that shield against biotic and abiotic stress to maintain homeostasis, we propose treating patients by endowing the body with buffers against ailments.
To “curate”, in the modern vernacular, is to select and design a collection from a larger set. In a world where people have access to too much of nearly everything — things, experiences, information, and people — curating has emerged as a core skill to succeed in life.
In a way, we are all curating whether we realize it or not. When we furnish a house, we select specific artifacts from a vast number of potential options and arrange them in a way that enables particular form and function. When we speak or write, we select words from an ever-burgeoning lexicon and order them in a way that produces a particular narrative. When we spend time during the day, we pick our activities from a virtually limitless set of possible choices according to a design of our choosing and call it a day. The company we keep is the small subset of people with whom we have chosen to interact out of the 6 billion other humans with whom we share this planet.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of “American Girl in Italy”, Ruth Orkin’s iconic photograph of men ogling Ninalee Craig as she walked down a street. Despite the cultural stigma now attached to its practice, the rubbernecking of young beautiful women is an everyday phenomenon. From an evolutionary perspective, prehistoric males who did not instinctively tune to visual cues of potential mates with beneficial traits and fecundity would face adverse natural selection pressure. Presumably, males living today have inherited the tendency to rubberneck nubile females because such proximate behaviors translated to improved ultimate fitness during natural selection.
In similar fashion, people driving by a car accident turn their heads to look. In nature, an organism that does not tune to signals of carnage is ignoring potential useful cues of threat in their vicinity and could be subject to elimination. Our tendency to rubberneck trauma, thus, is an adaptation inherited through evolution through the survivorship bias of those who attended to cues of stress that can improve our Darwinian fitness.