A History of Risky Behavior
Musings on risk, the voices in our genes, and the way forward in an uncertain future
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves; / We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident / As the rock and ocean that we were made from.
— from “Carmel Point,” by Robinson Jeffers
It’s a gray and slightly chilly day in September 2020 and risk is very much on my mind at the moment. I’m climbing with my friend Jan and his daughter Annamaria at Linville Gorge. It’s my first time climbing here and I’m about halfway up a route that is—even for me, someone who hasn’t climbed much recently—very easy.
The route is a classic. It starts where a sandstone buttress rises up from the depths of Linville Gorge—the deepest such spot east of the Mississippi—and runs for almost a thousand feet before topping out at the rim of the gorge. The higher I climb, the more spectacular the vista, and there is much to see today.
On the other side of the crag where we’re climbing, in the aptly named Amphitheater, there is some strange activity occurring. Amidst the routine presence of climbers ascending the opposite wall, a group at the top there is erecting a structure that looks like a giant slingshot. A very long rope hangs over the edge and disappears into the forest floor below. The purpose of this activity is not yet clear to us, though we speculate.
As I make my way up the route, other climbers pass on either side of our slow moving party of three. Some are placing almost no protection. The route is an easy one, and people who know it routinely free solo it—that is to say, they climb it unroped. Still, a slip, a broken hold, rockfall, a lightning strike—many things—could result in a long and probably deadly fall in places. To free solo is to roll the dice, to confront risk head on.
‘Wilderness’ climbing, and most climbing really, is all about engaging with some level of risk. To help climbers make decisions about whether or not to climb a particular route, there are guidebooks for popular areas. These usually feature a detailed written description of established climbing routes along with a topo map or photo of the terrain. Here in the US, we also have a rating system to objectively describe a route’s difficulty, the Yosemite Decimal System.
Most guidebooks also feature some kind of protection rating system, similar to age restrictions on movies, beginning with G and ending with X. A G-rated route means there are many opportunities to place gear through which to anchor a rope and prevent a long fall. Falls on this terrain are unlikely to result in severe injury. An X rating, on the other hand, means there is little to no opportunity to place protection; a fall would likely result in death on such a route, so for all intents and purposes, it is free soloing.
As the day progresses, we reach the spacious belay ledge for the airy final pitch of the route. There is a already a group gathered here who are apparently involved with the mysterious activity on the other side of the chasm we noticed earlier.
They are setting up a slackline—essentially a tightrope—to be stretched from one side of the void below to the other. When it is in place and securely anchored, each member of the group of slackliners will walk the line from one side to the other, probably the following day, as it’s now getting late. Maybe they’ll set up a spacenet over the gorge, as others have done in past years.
My only experiences with slacklining have occurred a couple feet off the ground, not hundreds or thousands of feet up, but even then I found it difficult to walk very far on a wobbly strip of nylon webbing without losing my balance. But some dedicated slackliners are capable of all kinds of circus-like tricks—balancing in improbable positions or moving swiftly and deftly through the air, even doing sets of yoga poses from a delicate perch.
This type of slacklining, performed high in the air, is known as highlining. Most who practice it wear a climbing harness and clip onto the line with a shock-absorbing leash system to arrest a fall. Just getting back on the slackline after a fall this high up is quite a feat, or so I’ve heard, requiring tremendous upper body strength and agility. But with highliners as with climbers, there are those who also choose to free solo, and the stakes are just as high.
We chat with the highliners a bit, some who have come from as far away as Puerto Rico to do this. They are using climbing gear and techniques to rig the anchors for their highline. Everything looks solid, redundant, ‘bomb-proof’ to me. Still, the prospect of stepping out over a yawning abyss—leash or not—sends shivers through me as I imagine the dizzying and complete exposure.
I begin to lead the final pitch of our route, crossing my rope under the highliners’ anchor lines and wishing them luck, traversing out onto a face that is pleasantly but not wildly exposed. I top out a few minutes later and belay my friends up. Dusk is approaching as we begin the long walk out. I am carrying my rack of climbing hardware and a 70 meter rope in my pack and soon fall behind. Alone with my thoughts, I ponder notions of risk some more.
Getting to the base of our route earlier in the day was risky. The descent trail was rocky and still very wet from the heavy rains of the previous week. My pack, easily 50 pounds, was top heavy and ungainly as we followed a steep and treacherous path down into the gorge to where we thought the route started. Earlier in the summer, a would-be climber fell here; he was seriously injured and required a helicopter extraction. I slid on a few occasions, but not far and without any serious consequences.
In these pandemic days, even the act of riding in a car several hours with my friends—serious and safety minded as I know them to be—was now risky in a way that I was still getting used to thinking about. The actual climbing of the route was, ironically perhaps, the least risky part of the day.
The experience was worth it though. While the day’s adventure was a far cry from some of the more serious climbing endeavors I’d attempted in past years, I recognized something I’d been missing. Beyond good company and beautiful scenery, engaging with risk, however slight, satisfied something in me.
For much of my previous adult life, a weekend climbing trip after a stressful or exhausting work week left me feeling serene, recharged even. The physical and emotional intensity and subsequent exhilarating rush from climbing routes near my limit put everything else into perspective. Like an intoxicant, it made me happy in a very visceral way.
I imagine these feelings and motivations are similar for highliners, skydivers, kayakers and thrill-seeking adrenaline junkies of every stripe. But maybe there’s more than just the quick fix of the so-called ‘adrenaline rush’ involved here.
Much research has been done on the biochemistry of the human brain, in which chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and others influence our emotional states, impulses, and appetites. There is even evidence to suggest that our neurochemistry is in some cases genetically determined.
A Gene for Risk and Human Migrations
I recently began reading Craig Childs’ archaeological odyssey Atlas of a Lost World. In this book, the author retraces, sometimes literally, the routes of the earliest human migrations into North America from Siberia.
The story begins far in the past, possibly as early as 30,000 years ago, with the existence of a hypothetical Bering Strait land bridge. Following this route over dry land into Alaska, the distant ancestors of current indigenous peoples in North and South America began a trek that would take thousands of years, encompass many generations, and cover thousands of miles to eventually populate the two continents.
As Childs’ book details, there are various theories as well as archaeological evidence pointing to how these early peoples made their way through the forbidding arctic landscape of the time and what routes they probably took. But a more elusive and more intriguing question remains: What drove these people to set off into the unknown in the first place?
Childs poses the question, appropriately enough, during a climbing trip in a part of Alaska that the first immigrants to North America may well have passed through on their way to the interior. “Why go off on a lark across the ice when there was already so much to do where you were? The drive may be innate,” he concludes. After discussing animal studies demonstrating genetic areas that correlate with adventurous or risk taking behavior, he wonders about similar effects in people:
“For a human, this might be identified as a calling, an urgent voice. Or insanity. The increased genetic presence of the dopamine receptor known as D4 is correlated with restless behavior and what is known as “novelty seeking”—the kind of people who are reckless or adventurous, in need of something new.”
Pondering the motivations of his present company of climbers and adventurers, Childs relates their drive for adventure to historical genetic data on various groups of early migrants and where and how they settled. “Among Native American genomes and those of their ancestors,” he writes, “the presence of D4 is correlated with an individual’s distance from the land bridge.”
The data show that the D4 marker is less pronounced in populations remaining for a long time in one place. But peoples who settled Central America and eventually South America had proportionately much higher rates of D4 “elongation”—in the argot of population geneticists, they possessed the D4-7 allele, or variant, of the D4 gene.
The effect of the D4-7 allele, and more broadly, of the extent of neuro-genetics in influencing human behavior is fascinating stuff. I first became familiar with these and related ideas through a book called American Mania: When More Is Not Enough written by UCLA neuropsychiatrist Peter Whybrow.
American Mania is Whybrow’s attempt at explaining the rise of the dysfunctional and pathological consumer culture of modern American life and how it is literally making many Americans sick and crazy. Importantly, the book was initially published in 2005, before social media had really taken off in the US. Recent criticism of this relatively new and addictive technology only adds weight and significance to Whybrow’s analysis.
Throughout the book, Whybrow examines cultural attitudes and conditions that are central tenets of the American identity within the current milieu of what he has termed the “Fast New World” of modern American life. Among these are the pursuit of happiness, the supercharged ideologies of entrepreneurialism and individualism—and particularly the negative effects of technology and material abundance on our brains’ chemical reward systems, which for much of evolutionary time were programmed for adaptation to the conditions of a world of relative scarcity.
But one of the most interesting points of Whybrow’s discussion comes back to the underlying neuro-genetic impetus, prevalent in some populations but almost absent in others, e.g., the Japanese, that seems to drive risk-taking behaviors such as the migratory impulse as well as addictions and compulsive behaviors. He states:
“The dopamine system, through modulation of the brain’s reward pathways, plays a central role in curiosity and novelty seeking, behaviors that feature prominently in the typical migrant profile. Hence it is the relative activity of these information superhighways—the genetically programmed balance among these systems—that helps determine the differences in behavior that exist among individuals.”
Whybrow’s argument is supported by and elaborates on archaeological and genetic evidence provided by researchers like Lynn Fairbanks, Chauseng Chen, and Luca Cavalli-Sforza. And while the specifics of their data are fascinating, it is in a conversation with one of Whybrow’s case studies, a man named Marcel, that the book’s central point is most succinctly made: “‘[W]e Americans because of our self selection as migrants are probably genetically predisposed to be risk takers.”
It is a fascinating proposition here, that areas of American life and traits of the national character, for better and for worse, may owe to the genetically predetermined biological drives of a nation composed largely of (relatively) recent immigrants. There are obvious exceptions to this, for example those who were brought here against their will, such as enslaved Africans.
Still, according to this theory, there is a relatively high proportion of individuals in the national population whose appetite for risk is ‘dialed to 11’ and who are more susceptible to the vicissitudes of the dopamine system. Americans as a people may be more prone to addiction and addictive behaviors like gambling, where risk and reward become enmeshed, as well as impulsive activities like shopping and overeating. Many of us are hard-wired for instant gratification.
In the context of evolutionary history, this genetic programming may have conferred an advantage in many situations, and as Whybrow argues, it may be partially responsible for the unique culture of innovation and creativity for which America is well known. In the context of much of modern American life however, the increased susceptibility of our dopamine system to external triggers may be a liability to our own personal health and the health of our society and planet. This is especially true insofar as it fuels and perpetuates the forces of consumerism, greed and material acquisitiveness.
Overcoming Evolutionary Biology
In his sequel to American Mania, titled The Well-Tuned Brain: Neuroscience and the Life Well Lived Whybrow offers his insights into how we can overcome some of the increasingly common behavioral pitfalls that lie in our paths in an affluent and increasingly technologically dominated society. Crucially, we must understand that many ‘decisions’ and ‘choices’ we make in our daily lives are driven by neural mechanisms, like dopamine genetics, that are much older and deeper than the recently evolved rational part of the brain, the cerebral cortex.
Where American Mania is focused on identifying and diagnosing a kind of ‘social disease’ expressed at the level of its individual constituents—particularly through the use of individual case studies—The Well-Tuned Brain recognizes the potential for positive global change built on a shift in our understanding of human behavior and its motivations. Specifically, we must understand the role of emotions like self-interest in many of the large-scale ecological and environmental problems we face.
“One thing that clearly does not work in shaping human behavior is to appeal to moral virtue without regard to self-interest. Reason, as David Hume understood, is the slave of the passions,” Whybrow writes. But, he optimistically concludes:
“…the challenge is one of assuming personal responsibility for the health of our families, our schools, and our communities, and for the ecology that feeds us… it is through the rewards of mutual attachment that collective change becomes possible. Throughout the adventure that is human history, cooperation has repeatedly proven to be more interesting and more profitable than unbridled self-interest. I believe that cultural sentiment, deep down, has not changed.”
My interest in Whybrow’s research began years ago after reading a piece by Nate Hagens, a student of Whybrow’s at the time. Hagens’ thought-provoking post (from The Oil Drum) is titled “Living for the Moment while Devaluing the Future.” It also delves into the evolutionary biology and psychology that informs our modern modes of decision making, particularly as they relate to our thinking about climate breakdown and other looming ‘wicked problems’ our civilization is faced with.
The post begins with an image of a sabre-toothed tiger devouring a wooly mammoth with the wry caption: “Dumbo, caught obsessing about higher planetary CO2, did not leave any descendants." Humorous though the image is, it sums up the current human predicament, and the thrust of Hagens’ piece, rather well. In so many words, humanity remains predisposed by evolutionary biology to act instinctively in the moment rather than to ponder a more distant future that we may not survive to see—especially if we devote our energy to pondering it over our immediate will to survive. It matters little that the circumstances of our survival have changed drastically in the last moments of our biological history.
Hagens frames his discussion in terms of what economists call the “discount rate.” In terms of economics, the discount rate encapsulates the value of an item in the future in relation to its immediate value. It’s the basis for the principle of interest and asset valuations, and informs models of financial risk. But the discount rate also applies to behavior in the natural world. “We REALLY prefer the present,” Hagens asserts:
“Animals (and humans) have their own internal discount rates exogenous from the market on how they choose between the short term and longer term options offered them in life. Since many animals have short lifespans, they have been shaped through evolution to gather resources and reproduce quickly before they die (this is not a conscious motive—they innately pursue behaviours that were historically successful)…”
Much of humanity’s inappropriate behavioral response to current conditions vis-a-vis climate breakdown comes down to neurochemical mechanisms evolved over a long and very different history from our present environment. We are not wired to think about the big picture in the same way that we are when we respond to immediate events or opportunities that trigger our brains’ dopamine-driven reward systems.
“The origins of this behavior are quite logical—animals that deferred opportunities to eat, might come back and find their food stolen, or they might have been eaten themselves in the interim—the long arm of selection would have favored organisms that valued immediacy over those who preferred to wait. The way they were 'favored' is via the incremental crafting of biological neurotransmitter response pathways.”
Like Whybrow, Hagens concludes by emphasizing the importance of the non-rational, what he terms ‘emotional triggers,’ to motivate systemic change rather than appeals to intellect or reason. He points out that many successful environmental achievements were brought about by emotional triggers, for example, the banning of DDT.
However, he cautions, “The problem with climate change/peak oil, is when we do get the emotional trigger, it may be a gatling gun on full bore and all the benign mitigation possibilities will be superceded by immediate needs.” In the intervening years since the post’s publication, the analogy of the gatling gun seems more and more appropriate.
The question of whether or not we can overcome our biological programming to think ‘logically’ about the future is itself a sort of paradox. Logic and rational thought, while they have overwhelmingly contributed to the development of the technologies and systems which threaten our planetary systems today, are very recent developments from an evolutionary perspective. They are no match for the powerful biological imperatives that govern our everyday behavior. Reason is indeed the slave of the passions.
The ultimate conceit, and failure, of the Age of Reason—and the ensuing waves of scientific and technological progress brought about by it—is that humanity would presume to understand itself and its motivations through the lens of reason. Yet hope seems to lie in our capacity for consciously understanding and recognizing the potency of the ‘irrational’ desires, impulses and urges that really motivate our behavior on this fragile planet.
By acknowledging and understanding our psychological and cognitive blind spots, can we begin to shift our civilization’s destructive trajectory? We are running out of time to find out.