Monday, November 7, 2016

Why we need different minds to contribute to human progress

Stay with me here, I'm going to get a little bit technical, but it's all for a good cause.

The survival of any species depends on adaptability. Changing environments mean different selective pressures favouring different traits over time. As generalists, we humans tend to adapt to change very well.
Behavioural trait variation within populations is seen across species, not just humans. In plain words, this means that 'personality' varies within populations, and we observe this in the real world.
But have you ever wondered why we see such massive variation in human personalities? Why there are consummate extroverts, stereotypical introverts and everything in between? Why we have constant risk takers and those that are completely risk averse?
And have you ever felt like you've been born in the wrong time?
Let me start from the beginning...
We, like every other organism we know, live in an evolving and ever changing environment (it just depends on the timescale of the change). We gauge the success of a species by how long it has survived and how well it has populated its own niche.  But times change, and so do environments. The traits that were once a means to success can become useless, or even detrimental to the survival of a species. New traits, or traits that have lurked in the background of the genome, can quickly become predominant when they give an individual an advantage over their environment and fellow individuals.
Human personalities, which have a strong basis in their genetic makeup, differ greatly. These varying personalities are well adapted to different social and physical environments.
In periods of stability and relative abundance, risk and change averse personalities will dominate and do better. It makes sense right? If conditions are great and we are well adapted to them, why fix what ain't broke?
In times of instability, where resources are limited or the environment is constantly changing or becoming harmful, those whose personality tends toward adventure and risk taking and are better adapted at handling change will have an advantage.
So having these personally traits present at all times in a population makes survival sense in a species as a mechanism to take as much advantage from whichever situation arises.
That's just a bit of a biological background on the personality and adaptive change for survival phenomenon.
What I'm interested in for this article is how this affects individuals in an environment where their personality is not so much selected against (placing evolutionary rules on the human species is kind of a complex thing since we took over control of some of that evolution for ourselves, but that's a very interesting topic for another article) but not the most adapted personality to the current environment.
In many ways, from the individual viewpoint, our current society is a very stable one. Here in the West most of us have abundant food, adequate shelter, we can care well for our young whose survival rates are very good. We don't have to physically fight for our safety on a regular basis and the future appears, in the medium term at least, to be more of the same. It would seem that we currently live in a time largely favouring the risk averse personalities who function best in an unchanging environment and stable social structures.
What does this mean for those of us who have a more adventurous and less risk averse personality? This is a very interesting question, and one I think the answer to might be just the thing many people have never known they were looking for.
For instance, does the thought of doing the same type of job year in year out for the rest of your working life, living in a suburb, having children and being the average Joe fill you with dread, make you depressed or frustrated? You might be one of those who just doesn't quite fit into the current status quo. You get frustrated with the mundane and champ at the bit for something more 'meaningful'. You want change, you want variability and challenge. This is the sort of environment that is more suited to you.
I was interested to observe the Mars One hype years back when the announcement for recruits came out. What interested me most was the type of person that would, in all seriousness, apply to permanently leave their home planet to undertake a mission of colonisation on a dangerous planet. A mission with many risks and the harsh reality that loved ones back on earth will, in all likelihood, never be seen again. Where was the benefit to the individual? What was their reward?
I already knew the answer, because, as I suspected after reading the stories of shortlisted candidates, these people had personality traits similar to my own. I call this type of personality the 'Colonist'.
People who do best in changing environments often crave such environments. It's the challenge and the unknown that excites them. Many of the early settlers of countries were such people, coming to an unknown land filled with dangers for the chance of opportunities not afforded to them back in their homelands.
Projects like the Mars One mission and the recent SpaceX project represent a civilisation scale undertaking that could not only propel humankind forward, but allow the people who join it to be a part of something grand and shared and previously unknown. This is a powerful motivator to those who are attracted to challenges.
So don't think there's something wrong with you of you get frustrated over the dull nature of everyday life where others appear calm and contented. It's perfectly fine to have these frustrations as you may likely be a 'Colonist'. It could simply be that you are one of nature's tools for adaptation and survival, just born in the wrong period of humankind's existence.
Take heart, because although our existence is swamped by the unchanging everyday, there are still so many changes ahead, some good (technological changes that will reshape society and possibly ourselves, philosophical shifts for the betterment of humanity, space exploration) and some not so good (environmental change caused by human activities etc). Either way the world is full of challenges, we just have to find them and involve ourselves with addressing these important issues in order to discover meaning and a niche for ourselves.

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