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Monday, 16 November 2009

Primal Fear?

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear." H.P. Lovecraft

When one tries to look back far into the past at our pre-literate ancestors it becomes extremely difficult to consider their emotional lives with great confidence. the paucity of evidence allied to nature of those tiny clues means one must tread warily.

And yet it surprises me when writers suggest that our eldest emotion is fear. As Stuart Walton states in his book, 'Humanity: An Emotional History':
"If it were possible, as some evolutionary psychologists maintain, to decide which of humanity's emotions is the oldest, then fear would surely enter the strongest claim."

As much as I am a fan of Walton's writing, I am not so sure of this. He goes on to speak of our early ancestors walking across the African savannah in terror of the travails that faced them. Did did they really go in fear all or even most of the time? Was it really so terrifying?

It is interesting to note the behaviour of our evolutionary ancestors when considering such a notion. Do any of the great apes feel emotions, and if so how much does something resembling fear act upon them in ordinary existence? Emotions in animals is still very much a developing science but there is a view that it is valid to talk of such things without making animal emotions anthropomorphised. the renowned primate expert Jane Goodall did much to change our perception of what primates are capable of.

So if one accepts that our evolutionary cousins and ancestors were capable of some form of emotions would something recognisable as fear be one of the dominant modes of their behaviour? Do they live in terror of their predators and environment? Whilst some animals have learned caution and reticence relating to human contact, it would appear not. Nor do they exhibit anything approaching constant terror in general activity.

If nothing else it may not make evolutionary sense to have fear play so dominant a role as Walton suggests. Prolonged exposure to fear or stress induces massive stress upon the human body to deleterious effect. The same goes for animals. Whilst fear is essential for honing reflexes in traumatic situations it does not serve us so well over longer periods of time.

The point is though that there is nothing about fear, though obviously important, that says it is necessarily older or more dominant than other emotions.

I fear (if one may excuse the pun) this notion may be rooted in a hint of projection of modern man's helplessness in the face of nature without the aid of technology. Early Man knew how to live in its environments just as our primate cousins do. Whilst capable of feeling fear when needed they need not have been overwhelmed by it.

5 comments:

The Mad Watcher said...

I tend to agree.
Perhaps I do not give the human race of that time a lot of credit, but I doubt they had the imagination to fear anything at all; for example, if they could not find food, they would go hungry until they did - not worry if the fruit would ever grow back.

What if fear is not an emotion but more a reaction? What if fear, by its nature, is a side-effect of an overactive imagination?

I blame time. We never used to worry about tomorrow until we knew it exsisted. (tee-hee)

I very much enjoy reading your blog, even though your posts are few and far between, you make my mind beat a mile a minute.

scot in exile said...

you're very kind, thank you! i am rather slack these days and mean to write more and more often.

as the nature of of fear, it's still a tricky subject as no truly definitive and objective definition of an emotion exists. however, there is a general understanding that an emotion is a reaction that has an element of cognition to it.

lee woo said...

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. See the link below for more info.


#fear
www.ufgop.org

Unknown said...

I feel being human we are uniquely challenged in that we have the capability to experience non-reality and therefore experience other dimensions,experiencing oneness dimension can overcome primal fear as it is beyond mind, ego-self.

Unknown said...

I feel being human we are uniquely challenged in that we have the capability to experience non-reality and therefore experience other dimensions,experiencing oneness dimension can overcome primal fear as it is beyond mind, ego-self.