Is Everyone Driven By Fear; an Evolutionary Artifact, our Chief Success Mechanism?

Is Fear Paleo?

I would have to say that indeed is it. And in the extreme. We haven’t survived by accident.

…The other night I woke up at 3am, 0-dark-30, and was wondering, idly, about snakes. In our new place, I installed a doggie door — as we have a master bedroom door onto the outside backyard patio. The dogs sleep with us but now they have a means of going out to relieve, whenever. But what if a cold blooded reptile came along and simply — lured by their sense of heat from the house — meandered in through the plastic flappy door? And then found the most heat around the bed? Under the covers, as we’re sleeping…unaware?

In the end, I consoled myself by remembering that we had a doggie door for five years in the suburbs in a prior life and had not a single wild animal encroachment. What I don’t know is whether I just comforted myself because a snake in the bed — especially a poisonous one — would be an amazingly rare occurrence, or whether I was simply dismissing a real risk. I can’t say which, but in the end I suspect it’s a bit different living in civilized suburbia than out in the wild.

So dismiss all that; I did. But it — that — nonetheless can’t possibly dismiss the underlying premise: fear. The snakes — or, rather, fear of them now — were merely a consequence of the hard wiring we have that played a principle role in making us who we are.

Could it be said that successful evolution is a study in fear, however it works out?

What if…you actually live your life primarily motivated by fear — but now, modern fear? And is that normal? Indeed, it may be so! But in what context? Have you succumbed to the fear of stealthy snakes, lions and other natural predators or, have you set up shop in ways to forget real fears, all the while ushering in a whole host of contrived ones?

Has your natural survival mechanism of fear — your principal survival tool — been used against you, and most perniciously?

I’m thinking politics & religion vs. snakes & lions. But I’m of the opinion that modern neolithic city-state politics derives its credibility from neolithic religion…so let’s hack at the root.


Now, make of that what what you will.

Fear on!

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  1. NomadicNeill on October 25, 2010 at 03:02

    I wonder if this is a situation where the group as a whole, the human species, has evolved to have different traits. While we all have a little bit of the fearful trait in us (all the foolhardy humans died out quickly) some of us have it less than others. Because we also need a bit of bravery in us to help us go out exploring for new resources, living space, knowledge and ideas.

    Politics and religion do prey on the fear of people, fear of the death, the unknown, knowledge, the mob, terrorists etc. etc.

  2. Paleo Rob on October 25, 2010 at 05:34

    A healthy dose of fear is definitely natural. I recall reading some evolutionary psychology books discussing nightmares and dreams as being a way for us to realise our fears and thus be aware of them and be prepared for them.

    Unfortunately like our modern nutritional diet being filled with neolithic franken-foods, our stimulatory ‘diet’ is filled with neolithic fears and franken-worries. The government and media are putting into chronic alert mode, with their constant saturation of fear (terrorism anyone?). The best way to see it is to watch the commercial for upcoming news segments. They often are in the vain of “A shocking report coming up next, What you don’t know about ponies, could kill you, now here is a word from our sponsors, pony-be-gone”

  3. R Dunn on October 25, 2010 at 09:15

    Snakes, real or imagined, would probably be looking more for rodents rather than heat.

    Rat’s and mice are grain eaters.

    So keeping grain out of your house will cut down on the possibility of attracting rats and mice – another benefit of not having grain in your diet.

    By keeping rodents out of your house you cut down on the possibility of attracting snakes.

    If you can keep grains out of your brain, you won’t attract brain rats and then there’s a good chance you won’t have brain snakes either.

    Or something like that.

  4. Grok on October 25, 2010 at 00:17

    This is why I like you Rich :)

  5. Sean on October 25, 2010 at 01:11

    Interesting. Robin Hanson has been blogging about hunter-gatherers (or foragers as he likes to term them) vs farmers. Farmers supposedly embody the conservative ideal, HGs the liberal ideal. I don’t really agree but it is an interesting argument. Under this paradigm, farmers or conservatives are more fearful than HGs or liberals. In this post he posits that farming was created by fear (

  6. Austin on October 25, 2010 at 01:49

    Fear can be both a good and bad thing depending on how we choose to respond to it.

    • Richard Nikoley on October 25, 2010 at 03:14

      I suppose my thesis, Austin, for lack of stating it explicitly is the difference in fear response between natural and contrived stimuli.

  7. Laurie D. on October 25, 2010 at 17:25

    Sometimes fear can be quite motivating and even exhilarating. We had a 6 foot black rat snake living in our 160 year old log house’s dirt floor/stone wall basement for several years. We never had any mice and I didn’t worry about him down there much. One day, I saw the snake draped over some boxwood hedges in front of our front porch. No problem – we often saw him hanging about outside in the summer. However, about an hour later, I happened to go up in our attic (curved pie-shaped steep steps) and facing me at eye level was the snake on the landing. He had crawled up the porch columns, into the porch roof, and into the attic through the log walls. I was not happy thinking about the snake climbing around my stuff up there. I got my daughter to fetch a shovel – she came back with a machete. Rather than have the snake take up residence in the attic (and maybe crawl into my warm bed one winter night), I had a bit of a bloody fight with the guy and hacked him into a few pieces. (Not easy with a dull machete – he was a good 3 inches thick). The adrenaline rush was real. Darn thing wiggled for an hour after – we tossed him into the field for the turkey vultures. I know this is not really what you were getting at, but that snake can come in that doggie door. Just sayin’. It brings a whole new level of respect from my high school students when I tell that story. ;)

  8. JP on October 25, 2010 at 04:22

    Fear is essential to survival. There are many ”systems” linked around it. (there is an hormonal response for both fight and flee). Here is a little story : A girl and me went to watch a movie a few weeks ago. After the movie, we were in the metro and a weird old guy approached us. He kept trying to come way to near (intrusion in my ”bubble/space” aka in this non physical sphere of ours that signal potential threat). Nothing bad arrived because I took matters in my own hands. However, my heart started beating faster (brain sent a signal to modify oxygen uptake way before the potential physical activity…which actually coincide with studies on lampreys). I got a rush of adrenaline too (to the point that i got a massive headache afterward. Without fear, you are a useless prey. Fear is just a byproduct of our will to live (and if you are into the whole evolutionary thing, pass on genes).

  9. JP on October 25, 2010 at 04:26

    P.S : Using fear in politics is like selling refined sugar. It will work because it exploit a pre-existing system that we all have. (a natural preference for sugar, and a natural fear reaction to potential threat). The best way to have power in this world is to exploit pre-existing systems of the human body (which is why marketers work with psychologists, politicians have wars, fatty and salty foods are addictive (processed foods), etc.)

  10. pecanmike on October 25, 2010 at 04:45

    I believe the snakes in your dream were actually the Rangers coming to kick your Giants ass.

  11. Tommy on October 25, 2010 at 05:05

    Fear, as in the case of JP’s Weird guy event, is natural. I have heard many claim they have no fear or have been in situations/fights and weren’t afraid….they are either full of crap or weren’t really in any serious trouble. Fear is natural. Learning to control it or deal with it/fight through it/use it, is key. Once fear turns to “panic” you’re screwed.

  12. Russ Taylor on October 25, 2010 at 05:22

    I agree with Tommy, who looks like he must do some training as well. Anytime I’ve been in a fight in a ring, tournament, or even a few times out and about I’ve always had fear. Not paralyzing fear, but it’s in there. Then it’s just up to you to use the fear in it’s proper way.

    And I probably sound like a backwoods hermit saying I had never heard of Christopher Hitchins. But man, that guy is awesome!

  13. Paul on October 25, 2010 at 05:22

    I would have to agree with Tommy a bit, i personally make a distinction between what I label “fear” and “anxiety.” JP’s example to me would be fear — it was a legitimate response to unfamiliar stimuli. Many times i think we construct our own “anxiety” though, which may have no trigger and is not so much of a response as it is a construction of our mind. I believe they can both trigger similar physical responses, however.

  14. Joseph on October 25, 2010 at 05:48

    I agree with those who point out that acute “fear” of real danger is natural, while constant dread of fake danger is ridiculous (at best) and pernicious (at worst). As someone who has spent far too much time afraid of fake danger (coal and ashes from the heavenly Santa Claus), I have learned firsthand that the “purpose” such danger introduces into human life comes at a great price, one that I am no longer willing (or even able) to pay.

  15. Elenor on October 25, 2010 at 06:23

    I run a dating, mating, marrying advice list (on Yahoo) and I sometimes rail to the members about the ‘purpose’ (*whose* purpose, eh?) of the media — which is to excite the primitive fear centers of the brain (and thus mess up our brain chemistry and … stampede us in a (/someone else’s) desired direction. Why, I ask them to consider, do the news media in Atlanta or Los Angeles lead off with a fire in Massachusetts? Because they have gory video, of course, and our little primate brains make us watch and feel emotion — and thus, as Paleo Rob says, we do what we’re programmed to. (TSA’s “security theater” in the airports, with its ever-ratcheting-up inane and idiotic “safety” measures, has a lot more to do with conditioning the sheep to follow orders and stand in queues than with creating safety in the air!)

    I counsel my list members to quit watching any TV news for 30 days (you’ll still get the highlights of what’s going on; it’s everywhere around you) and let your primate brain take a break from someone else manipulating you to feel and think and do what does not apply to your actual current situation. Concentrate on your own life, your own needs, desires, and pleasures (or, in the case of my list members: in doing the things that might lead to finding their mate…). So long as you allow people/groups/companies who do not have your best interests at heart to manipulate your brain chemistry, you’re doing yourself a serious disservice — physically and mentally/emotionally/psychologically. Go Primal/Paleo and stop watching the news!

    • pecanmike on October 25, 2010 at 06:48

      I’d say you are giving very good counsel regarding watching the news. I was once a news junky and it made me anxious and pissed off. I stopped watching any news but maybe small snippets once in a while. I feel much better and focus more on what directly affects me not bullshit I can do nothing about.

    • LCforevah on October 25, 2010 at 08:51

      Elenor, I have given up TV cable service for over a year now, I don’t even have the box to get network channels. I was really apprehensive because I know myself well enough to see that I was a TV addict, and I worried how I would react.

      It’s been heaven. No one who hasn’t done this understands how damaging to the brain and the psyche it is to interrupt concentration every fifteen minutes with commercials. My critical skills have improved, and I am better able to debate others on any topic under the sun.

      I get my news from foreign new services on the Internet since I can read three languages. It is a sad sad sad fact of life that our news media are so corporate owned and driven, that they have become not just worthless, but harmful to every American citizen. They all lie by commission AND by omission.

    • Richard Nikoley on October 25, 2010 at 09:13


      Could not agree more. It was probably four years ago that I read Fooled by Randomness by Taleb that I quit watching all news, or listening to radio talk shows, etc. The important stuff will find it’s way to you. Now, I listen to NPR, classic rock, or podcasts like Jimmy Moore or Robb Wolf.

      • MJ on November 7, 2010 at 14:23

        I just googled that title and I definitely need to read it. I also speak 3 languages and usually get my more accurate less biased news from international sources. I just got tired of journalists acting like pundits and as someone who hates being pitched stuff I try to avoid being marketed to. I can smell an attempt to get me to buy something from a mile away and consider it an insult to my intelligence. If I needed that product I would have looked for it or made it myself dum****. Anyway, I’m rambling I just wanted to throw this link at you:

  16. ben on October 25, 2010 at 06:50

    i agree, rich, all the way. Both thinking about the general mental activity and acumen that is garnered from being afraid (ie. thinking of a way out of a problem/danger, assessing risk, checking family status, etc) and the physical elements like cortisol release, adrenaline release, etc associated with the vaunted fight or flight stimulus. Very paleo, very innate to us. Fear, and the response to that stimulus, is right at our core.
    I suppose its another way of saying survival/staying alive, or survival of the fittest. This is probably another reason why you dont really see fat or sickly animals in the wild – they are still governed in large part by pure survival so either they react well to fear or they are culled.
    Leave the implications to everyone in their heads.

  17. David Csonka on October 25, 2010 at 07:06

    I’m afraid of fearful people. LOL, I know that sounds funny. Fearful people are unpredictable and unreliable in dangerous situations when people’s lives are really on the line.

  18. Brian on October 25, 2010 at 07:35

    My thought is that fear is innate – a trait. Something we cannot get away from. Since we really have nothing to fear and it’s got to manifest, we buy into a bunch of “stuff” — heart disease, cancer, saturated fat, etc… (to stay within the realm).

    It leads to role reversal. Men turning into women and vice-versa. Our biology is all jacked up. You’ve got a bunch of estrogen-dominant fat guys walking around, scared to death of heart disease. So they drink soy milk, go low-fat and eat almost no protein. And they really don’t know how to deal with it. Seriously. Our president is afraid to tell his wife he ate a hamburger. Most TV shows depict men as big, fat puss-balls that couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag — and has to be saved by a woman. Is it any wonder…

    That’s the bad news.

    The good news is, once they’ve got their hormones fixed, they can worry about snakes in the house. A more appropriate manifestation of the fear trait.

  19. Samantha Moore on October 25, 2010 at 07:43

    Catholic priests= hysterical sinister virgins!!!!!! I LOVE this guy! Thanks, Richard!

  20. Weston on October 25, 2010 at 08:13

    The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset in his Meditations on Hunting (definitely recommend this book to people with moral issues to killing animals) brought up fear:

    “The beast’s fear… but is it so certain that the beast is afraid? At least his fear is not at all like fear in man. In the animal fear is permanent; it is his way of life, his occupation. We are talking, then, about a professional fear, and when something becomes professionalized it is quite different. Therefore, while fear makes man slow of mind and movement, it carries the faculties of the beast to their greatest performance. Animal life culminates in fear.”

    I think like other stressors, a chronic application of fear will no doubt be a bad thing in terms of health and longevity… or hell, over someone’s quality of life overall. To get more specific, snakes are paleo, so the real question should be on how do we cook said snake when it foolishly comes through our dog door!

    Lastly, I love the Hitchslap video. Christopher has been a hero of mine for years. Definitely a perfect example of a modern critical thinker.

  21. Bill on October 25, 2010 at 10:32

    Thanks for the Hitchslap video.
    You’re probably aware he’s struggling with throat cancer.

    Hitch is a one off. I hope he can last many more years.

    He’s a bloke I would love to share a bottle or three of wine with.
    He seems to have told fear to fuck off.

  22. Richard Nikoley on October 25, 2010 at 11:23


    I’m pretty high right now on some of my readers — those who’ve chosen to comment here most particularly.

    I’d like to say that I gave a lot of thought to this post, but I didn’t. In fact, I got back from a party last night, liquored up, and before I knew it I was compelled to write. As sometimes happens when I write in an inebriated state, I wonder what I’ll think of my post in the morning when fully clear of mind.

    I’m happy to report that I liked it this morning.

    But I’m not willing to fool myself, either. It is entirely possible that I liked it primarily because of all these awesome comments, not a single one bemoaning the atheistic undercurrent.

    So whether it is that I got an idea out in just the right tone — scotch & all — Christopher Hitchens cleaned up for me in the video, or I’ve chased a lot of readers away — again — who will not even bother to let me know in a parting shot, I just don’t know.

    I will tell you this, however: I very much enjoy my status in the Paleosphere as quit different from the way everyone else handles things. I intend to maintain it, from time to time.

    • matthew on October 25, 2010 at 21:29

      Here’s a parting shot, bemoaning the atheistic undertone!

  23. LCforevah on October 25, 2010 at 12:31

    Hitchens is invaluable and will be greatly missed. His debating skills are unmatched, even Dawkins can’t get remarks off as quickly as Hitchens can. I have reread many of his arguments and use them myself shamelessly.

    There is no American schooled equal. Hitchens’ mastery of the English language will be greatly missed.

    • Tracy on October 26, 2010 at 15:10

      Loved the Hitch video… been a fan of his for a few years now and yes, he will be missed if this cancer gets the better of him. He’s appearing in my city late November, debating Tony Blair on religion… tried to get tickets but they sold out in the first day. Anyone who’d like to see it streamed live can do so though (google Hitchens Blair Toronto, or go to MunkDebates dot com). Sad that I’ll have to settle for live streaming when he’ll literally be down the street from me, but better than nothing.

      Great post, Richard!

      • Richard Nikoley on October 26, 2010 at 15:24

        You’ve got to be fucking kidding.

        Tony Blair…on religion?

        Let me guess? It’s makes the job of the Nomenclatura all so much easier (Google the N word, if you don’t know it)?

  24. Lynnsey on October 26, 2010 at 08:12

    Not that this is paleo or primal or whatever, but IMO there is nothing wrong with embracing some modern inventions and still live as primally as you can. My suggestion would be to get one of infrared doggie doors that will only open if the dog is wearing a special infrared tag. See, not only would I worry about snakes, but where I live there are raccoons….evil rabid and scary racoons. I would hate to have one of them wind up in bed with me, LOL!

  25. Sebastien on October 26, 2010 at 13:02

    One of the main fears that most guys carry around since ages is fear of approaching women. A lot of the “pick-up” guys think that this fear is deeply implanted in us because approaching the wrong woman or in a wrong way in paleolithic times could have got us killed. I think it makes sense. Relics of those old fears might also be the reason why almost everybody is civilized countries are so afraid of bugs and spiders, even though we know with our logic that most of them are harmless.

    • Bushrat on October 27, 2010 at 22:33

      I don’t think paleo man had to worry about killed so much as ostracised. The fear I feel before speaking to a hot girl is the same fear as public speaking, not the fear I get when I get into a situation where I could get killed.

  26. John Campbell on October 26, 2010 at 16:04

    Very cool post and comments – they cut to the heart of humanity, evolution, life, the universe and everything – apologies to Douglas Adams. I think its pretty clear we are all huge colonies of DNA out for one thing – their own survival in the future. Fear is the primary, although not the only, survival and replication mechanism these DNA have to control us. We don’t have to listen or give in, but as long as we are DNA creatures, there it is. Our paleo or evolutionary lifestyles come from the same source – DNA.

    Read The Robots Rebellion by Keith E. Stanovich and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel C. Dennett. We wouldn’t be here without DNA and those primitive mechanisms including fear, but we can rebel and move beyond those primitive mechanisms. I haven’t read Richard Dawkin’s, The Selfish Gene, but Stanovich argues we are not simply at the mercy of our DNA. I’d like to think so.

    Mass media knows how to push those buttons to appeal to our DNA driven mechanical thinking just as a delicious meal can or a beautiful body can. Our nature cannot be denied. You just don’t have to be a slave to it when you recognize it.

    Thanks Richard.

  27. Bushrat on October 27, 2010 at 22:34

    I’ve often wondered how many political movements (looking more at the left here) are motivated primarily by fear and having a nanny government to protect them from life.

  28. In on October 30, 2010 at 13:54

    But I’m of the opinion that modern neolithic city-state politics derives its credibility from neolithic religion…so let’s hack at the root.

    I guess I’m going to be the guy that objects to the (militant) atheistic undertones. Neolithic religion (i.e. Christianity) in the West (not counting Islam in Europe) at worst cause problems on a minuscule scale like certain types of intolerance. There are much bigger fish to fry out there. Western civilization, in particular America, has been rapidly declining for many decades. There are many aspects to view in the spectacle of the death of the greatest civilization ever known. The physical degeneration that is well known to paleos, declining moral, ethical and standards of decency, declining aesthetic standards in art, an increasingly corrupt political elite catering to an increasingly balkanized and exasperated set of interest groups all lobbying for their piece of the pie, PC hypersensitivity on the order never before seen. Some of our most significant problems can’t even be discussed in the mainstream because the truth is offensive to so many people. We live in an age of lies and I know you know this is true because you are frequently exposing the lies about nutrition (lipid hypothesis anyone?).

    My point in this comment is that “neolithic religion”, particularly Chritianity in the West deserves little blame for our problems. In fact the decline of Christianity in the West is likely only to hasten the fall. It is well known in sociology that when a social group embraces religion, it has the effect of improving conduct. This acts as a stabilizing force in society.

    Consider an analogy to food preparation techniques that developed over thousands of years in traditional societies. These things developed because they worked at producing healthy bodies. Religions are similar to food traditions in the moral, ethical and psychological sphere. Religion is part of socializing individuals into society. People aren’t born capable of acting in rational mutually beneficial ways. They have to be brought there through structures in society, yes, even religions that are highly dubious.

    What is not apparent to Hitchens, Dawkins, Sam Harris and other militant atheists is that religions are a tool of group survival. Multi-level selection in addition to natural selection. Religions and societies that grow under them persist because they work and lead to the survival of the culture. It seems very dangerous to me to tear down the traditions that have sustained Western civilization. There could very well be ethical and humanistic structures provided by Christianity, without which Western Civilization would never have existed (this was the opinion of the American founders, btw).

    I object to your post and the Hitchens video, not because I think religions are true or wholly positive (they are neither good or bad, religions are a double edged sword IMO) or that they are above criticism. I just think the discourse has gotten waaaayyy out of balance. All these people like to beat up on Christianity but ignore the elephant(s) in the room (e.g. multiculturalism).

    • Richard Nikoley on October 30, 2010 at 14:47


      Rather than pick at this which I don’t have time for anyway, I just want to be clear.

      My attack on religion is not one of religion qua cultural traditions or even religion qua entity. My attack is epistemological.

      I attended a memorial service for a friend who died a week or so ago and it was at a Unitarian church. Not only did I enjoy the whole service from start to finish but I was highly impressed at how religious traditions were placed in their proper context. Add to that something I would offhand term “ancestor worship” and, as I said, I was impressed.

      My beef with religion is the irrationality of literalism, which is an epistemological flaw.

      After the service I began mulling over the idea of whether there’s a religion of church suitable to the Paleo mindset and I think I may have found it. But first, I need to do some studying up on Unitarians and Secular Humanists.

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