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James Lynch

Hi Chris,

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast with Rick Hanson, a meditation teacher and psychologist. In the interview, he was discussing evolutionary psychology, but made a couple arguments that didn’t make sense to me.

1) Dr. Hanson argues that the brain contains a “negativity bias” due to human necessity for threat recognition during prehistoric development, which is why we tend to fixate on one negative comment instead of ten positive ones, for example. Much of his work focuses on positive self-directed neuroplasticity, or ways to “heal the negativity bias of the brain.” On some level, this makes sense, but my understanding of hunter-gatherers is that they are generally very happy, grateful, and feel that nature provides them with abundance. What do you think about the existence of an intrinsic negativity bias in the human brain? Is it possible that civilization has created this negativity bias?

2) Dr. Hanson also argues that prehistoric humans lived in small bands, with only sporadic contact with outside groups. However, he also argues that they were competing for scarce resources, which may provide the basis for humanity’s capacity for cruelty towards those identified as outsiders. However, I would think that prehistoric populations would be so low that competition for resources wouldn’t be much of an issue. Is there any data supporting this argument?

3) He lastly argues that due to external pressures, internal group cohesion and reproduction within the same band would have been selected for. He also says that racial prejudice may have roots in avoiding outsiders with potential pathogens. However, I would think that excessive intragroup reproduction would cause inbreeding and genetic defects. Furthermore, my understanding is that exogamy is practiced by most of our closest primate relatives. What does the research say about intergroup hunter-gatherer interactions?

I admire Dr. Hanson’s work in general, but I think these arguments about evolutionary psychology are rather too dependent on conjecture. Do you have any insights on this matter?