Are humans wired to survive?


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. Josh Clark here with Chuck Bryant, a pair of staff writers from HowStuffWorks.com. How's it going, Chuck?

Chuck Bryant: Good, Josh, just a pair of writers.

Josh Clark: I see you're still rocking your Braves cap even after you said I'm not so sure I'm watching any more this season.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, but the hair's getting long.

Josh Clark: Whoa, I just thought you were going to say you're a true fan.

Chuck Bryant: I am a true fan.

Josh Clark: So Chuck, the Braves might not be doing that well. It's almost like they've lost their will to survive.

Chuck Bryant: That's a really great set-up, Josh.

Josh Clark: Thank you very much, Chuck. You know that if they have lost their collective will to survive, that is flying in the face of evolution.

Chuck Bryant: It is.

Josh Clark: In the opinion of many. Supposedly, we are wired for survival.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. I believe we are.

Josh Clark: I think you should give the example of the Japanese hiker, Mitsutaka Uchikoshi. I love that guy's name.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. He's great. He's a good guy. This was just a couple of years ago. This guy was hiking with his friends in Western Japan. Went off - I think he went to go down the mountain by himself, for some reason, and he tripped. As good as they can tell is he tripped, was knocked unconscious. The last thing he says he did was fell asleep in a grassy field. And you might say to yourself, what's the big deal. The big deal is he woke up 24 days later.

Josh Clark: Yeah, he was awakened by rescue workers, right?

Chuck Bryant: Rescue workers, 24 days later.

Josh Clark: 24 days later. He was unconscious, supposedly the whole time.

Chuck Bryant: The whole time.

Josh Clark: When they found him, he was a cool 71 degrees Fahrenheit, which is basically the temperature of an average corpse.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: That has not been refrigerated.

Chuck Bryant: Right. His organs were almost completely shut down, almost no heart beat. And he lived because they surmise that he almost went into a state of hibernation, like a bear would.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chu ck Bryant: Even though we're not supposed to be able to do that.

Josh Clark: No. We're definitely not supposed to be able to do that.

Chuck Bryant: I've tried.

Josh Clark: I have too. Actually, I usually do it every winter, but unsuccessfully. I can rarely get my body temperature down that low. 79 is the lowest I've ever gotten it and that took a lot of willpower too.

Chuck Bryant: I bet.

Josh Clark: So yeah, you use this guy as an example in your article, "Are humans wired to survive," and I think it's a sterling example. We are seemingly programmed to continue to live, to protect our genes, to protect our offspring. And you give some great examples. This is one of those wonderful articles where somebody in one of our editorial brainstorm meetings came up with this idea. It was based on zero research.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: When I was doing supplemental research for this podcast I went on and typed in humans wired to survive. Nothing, there's nothing out there.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: There's no study that this was based on. It was Chuck using his own brain and drawing all of these conclusions from existing data. And I thought it was beautiful, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: Right. I appreciate that. When I went to do this research, I did the same thing you did and I really didn't find much. I decided that really the only way to research if we're actually wired, naturally, to survive is to see what human instincts we naturally have that we don't think about. They're just in us that help keep us alive.

Josh Clark: And not just instincts. You also mentioned biological processes, like our old friend, fight or flight.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Chuck, I wrote an article on the theory of everything. It was about this guy who figured out this lead group, this really mind boggling math that was the answer to everything. It was the underlying cause. I think, just based on our podcast, the fight or flight response is the theory of everything.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: We always come back to it.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it does come up a lot.

Josh Clark: Yeah, so we'll go over it one more time, real quick. Shall we?

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: Okay. So basically, you're confronted with danger. Your brain releases or sends signals for your body to release hormones, like adrenalin, which act on your cells and basically, energy is taken from digestion and put towards enlarging your pupils, increasing your respiration, your heart rate, basically getting you ready to either pound somebody or run away from a pounding.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And the fact that this happens involuntarily, that we don't have to think about it, you can't really control it even if you do try to think about it.

Chuck Bryant: No, because people try to and you can't.

Josh Clark: Right. That, in and of itself, is kind of evidence for survival, based at the very least on Darwin's Theory of Evolution, which is very much about - well almost all about natural selection, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right. Do you want me to tell everybody what that is?

Josh Clark: Yeah, please.

Chuck Bryant: Natural selection is really a pretty basic concept. I can illustrate it to you guys like I did my article. Let's say you have red worms and brown worms. And over time, birds decide they really like to eat these red worms, so they keep eating red worms. And then they just start reproducing less and less. The brown worms are not getting eaten, so they're reproducing more and more. And over time, the red worms dwindle until eventually they could go away completely. So only the strong survive and that's kind of the basis of old Chucky Darwin's whole thing.

Josh Clark: Exactly. And fight or flight is almost physical evidence of that.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Yeah. So what are some other examples that you gave?

Chuck Bryant: Well there's one - actually there's so many. Babies crying appears to be one way we're wired.

Josh Clark: Yeah, that was a cool one.

Chuck Bryant: Because most babies in the animal kingdom are born with a little bit of ability. A newborn horse will stand up and be running around within the hour. Sharks are born underwater and they're pretty much on their own from the moment they're born. Human babies are really the only ones that are born kind of defenseless.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: So a baby's cry is just their natural instinct to keep alive, telling mom and dad, hey this is what I need or I need something. And it's further evidence in the fact that they can change the volume and the pitch of their cry, depending on how urgent their needs are. So that's hard-wired, buddy.

Josh Clark: Yeah. Another example that you gave was that we have been shown to be able to visually recognize changes in our environment.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: With living things more than inanimate objects.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And actually, I was looking into that and I found that there was a 2005 Arizona State study that suggests that that very instinct to pick up living things may actually tie in to modern prejudices. You want to hear about that?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. This is news to me, my friend.

Josh Clark: Yeah. It's kind of cool; although it's basically just you know. I'm sure there's some neo-Nazi group that's picked it up to use it as evidence that we shouldn't mix races or something stupid like that.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: But basically what the Arizona State researchers postulated was that we, since we're programmed to recognize changes in our environment and we used to live in these small tribes of people that looked a lot alike, any time we saw somebody who didn't look like the rest of us, we usually perceive them as a threat.

Chuck Bryant: Right. That makes sense.

Josh Clark: And even though we don't live in tribes any more, this relic of tribal living or hunting and gathering still remains and explains modern prejudices, why people are xenophobic and racist and all that.

Chuck Bryant: Right. Anything that's not like you is threatening.

Josh Clark: Exactly. And I thought that was pretty interesting that it tied into that instinct, that survival instinct of visually recognizing organic changes in the environment.

Chuck Bryant: Right. I've got another one.

Josh Clark: I want to hear it, chuck.

Chuck Bryant: Good. There was a study that the BBC did for the television program called Human Instinct. It was really kind of cool, that I watched. And this isn't' the most scientific study, as you've pointed out to me in our down time.

Josh Clark: I wasn't going to say it, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: But it is pretty cool, nonetheless. Humans are born with an immune system. And there's different genes that indicate what kind of immune system we have. You might be better at fighting off the common cold. I might be better at fighting off yellow fever. People have these immune systems and the theory is that you want to pick out a partner for reproduction that has a different immune system than your own because you'll have babies that are more robust against a wider range of sickness and disease. And they've proven this by the fact that - or by the theory that people do this through their nose, actually smell rather than visually when they're picking out a reproductive partner.

Josh Clark: Now how do they prove this? I love this test.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. They got the show's host and they got these six women at University of New Castle, six lookers to sleep in the same T-shirt two nights straight. They put each of their T-shirts in a jar and they had the blood work done before to see what kind of immune system they all had. And then this show's host sniffed all these shirts and put two aside that he found the most pleasing to his nose! And then put two aside that he found the least pleasing and then the other two, he could take it or leave it. And interestingly enough, it supported the results, the findings. The two that he liked the most shared zero of the same genes, immune system genes as he did. And the two that he did not like shared the most; five out of six were the same. So this kind of indicates that we smell around for a good partner that will effectively leave us with robust babies that will keep the human race going.

Josh Clark: The reason I find it unscientific is because you can't go wrong with girls from the University of New Castle. Like you said, they're all lookers. Go Fighting Brown Ales. But this whole concept of creating, wanting, innately to create more robust offspring, that kind of jives with Richard Dawkins theories. Have you heard of him?

Chuck Bryant: No.

Josh Clark: Not the Family Feud host.

Chuck Bryant: Okay. That was Richard Dawson.

Josh Clark: Right. This is Richard Dawkins. And they're often confused. They kind of look alike a little bit. They used to party together in the 70s.

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: Richard Dawkins is a zoologist. And just based on his observations and some studies, that kind of thing, he concluded that the human body, us, in general are just kind of these mindless vehicles for genes, that it's really our genes that are interested in survival and we get out instincts from our genes and our genetic makeup, that kind of thing, which command ourselves, which in turn basically make us do all the things that we do or carry out all the processes that we're supposed to carry out. And basically, our entire point of existence is to protect and pass along this genetic line.

Chuck Bryant: As if we were wired to survive.

Josh Clark: Yeah. It's thrilling.

Chuck Bryant: Proof enough for me.

Josh Clark: Agreed. So I think everybody would be very well off to go read Chuck's article, "Are humans wired to survive," on HowStuffWorks.com. Don't you agree, Chuck?

Chuck Bryant: I hope so.

Josh Clark: And find out how you can get $600.00 from Charles Bryant. Chuck, where's this influx of cash coming from?

Chuck Bryant: Josh, it's coming from your own pocket, dude.

Josh Clark: How so?

Chuck Bryant: Well, it's called the economic stimulus check that everyone received not too long ago from President Bush. And I had a hard time getting worked up for that, personally because it was kind of our money to begin with.

Josh Clark: Yeah. I chipped in 1/260 millionth of that $600.00 you're getting.

Chuck Bryant: So thanks for giving us back our own money.

Josh Clark: Yeah, exactly. It's kind of a thing, but I guess the real question is are you actually going to hand this over to one of our listeners or me?

Chuck Bryant: I'm not, but the real question is does that really make a difference in our economy.

Josh Clark: I don't know, but I know our colleague Jane McGrath wrote an article called, "Can tax rebates really prevent an economic downturn. I would advise anyone interested in the answer to that question to go read it on HowStuffWorks.com. Wouldn't you?

Chuck Bryant: I'm going to do it right now.

Josh Clark: Awesome.Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com. Let us know what you think. Send an e-mail to Podcast@HowStuffWorks.com.