Wising up

note: this essay originally appeared in Paleo magazine  

“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”

Isaac Asimov


By this point in the game almost everyone in the Paleo world is familiar with the idea of mismatch (Or, to dress it up in sexy academic language, “the evolutionary discordance hypothesis.”) The idea is simple: Our bodies evolved in a wild environment and are deeply wired for natural habitat, natural movement, natural sensation and natural human relationships. But for better and for worse, we now live in a radically different world, an alien environment that challenges our minds, bodies and spirits. As a consequence, our health suffers.

Specific solutions to mismatch are diverse and individual, but in a more general sense, what we’re really seeking is a wiser and more humane way of living in this alien world. In other words, our goal is not simply to do things in some particular way, but to become wiser in the way we live. In this sense, our vision is to live up to our species name, Homo sapiens.

Sapience is often defined as the ability to act with sound judgment in a complex, dynamic environment. The binomial label Homo sapiens was created by Carolus Linnaeus in his 10th edition of Systema Naturae, published in 1758. Linnaeus believed that the predominant feature of the human species was wisdom, hence the name sapiens.

Of course, now we know that Linneaus was perhaps, to put it charitably, over-optimistic in his assessment of his fellow man. Maybe he didn’t get out much. Maybe he was being ironic; perhaps his proposed taxonomy was all in jest. Or maybe he had the good fortune to be surrounded by exemplary human beings who behaved well in complex situations. In any case, it is now becoming blatantly obvious that sapience is not an innate quality of our species. Perhaps we are best described as Michael and Ellen Kaplan put it in the title of their book, Bozo sapiens.

Today we see folly all around us. Every day brings some new round of ignorance, some new spasm of destruction and atrocity. For every act of sapience, we seem to perpetrate a thousand acts of blindness. For every act of wisdom, a thousand Darwin awards. And you can forget about the audacious presumption of the annual “Wisdom 2.0” conference of technological “visionaries”– we haven’t even reached wisdom 1.0 yet. And as for the doubly vain-glorious label Homo sapiens sapiens, don’t get me started.

As a species, we are immature; a work in progress. As the saying goes, we know just enough to be dangerous. Indeed, Yuval Noah Harari, in his recent book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, called us “the deadliest species in the annals of planet Earth” and an “ecological serial killer.” At best, sapience is an aspirational label; the most we can say at the moment is that we are Homo not-yet-sapiens.

When pressed, most of us will claim to value wisdom and yet sapience seems to have fallen through the cracks of our modern world. We have no curriculum or training for this essential quality and it’s strikingly absent in our modern conversations, eclipsed by the weight of commercialism, technology, efficiency and incessant activity. Incredibly, no one seems to have time for wisdom anymore; we’ve triaged it out of our lives.

It wasn’t always this way of course. All the great traditions have stressed this quality. But today, our technologically-obsessed culture stands out as a glaring exception. We seem to have lost this essential focus, replacing it with speed, cleverness and mindless innovation.

Clearly, mismatch challenges us to act with more systemic intelligence. And so the questions for our age and all the products of our age: Is it sapient? Is it relevant? Does it perpetuate the mismatch between our bodies and the modern world? Does it contribute further to the destruction of habitat and human community? Or does it illuminate a path to some more harmonious and sustainable future?

What does the Paleo community have to offer this confused and foolhardy species? A great deal we would hope. In a primal environment, survival demanded attention to relationship, especially our relationship to habitat and one another. Habitat and tribe, after all, are our primary life support systems, our external organs. In this context, wisdom was to be found, not in dominating or ignoring one’s habitat, but in learning its subtleties. By paying attention to the rhythms of nature, the hunter brings his body into alignment with the ebbs and flows of light, moisture, plants and animals. It is through learning, watching, listening and feeling that the hunter finds his success, his life and his wisdom.

The good news is that we can still find sapience. It lives in the humanities and the arts, in ecology and most clearly, in the world of health. This is where the Paleo movement might excel. We understand the power of context and the power of relationship. If we can slow down and learn our world, we too might help our species live up to its aspiration.