What we can Learn from the Savanna

4 Jun

Let’s go back over 2 million years of evolution to life on the Savanna – where humans were living on open grasslands in Africa, making stone tools and using them to butcher wild animals.  We lived in nomadic tribes of a few hundred members, with practically non-existent racial diversity, in a 100% natural environment.  

What was MOST important to our ancestors then?  Seriously, what’s your answer?  Think for a moment … …. … 

My answer was that we needed to hunt lions (men) and gather food (women).  It turns out though, that food was actually plentiful and that what we most needed was to avoid being eaten.

If we had to rely on original thinking for the complex mechanics of not being eaten, our brains would be totally overwhelmed.  Because our thinking (prefrontal) brain had an extremely limited capacity (and still has — estimated at less than 1% of our total brain capacity).   Instead, we evolved to rely on:

  • Instinctual behavior (encoded in our DNA); and
  • Learned behavior (acquired from a lifetime of experiences).

We also had to rely on each other to avoid being eaten, as isolation meant almost certain death.   So, our brain developed to attend to our social environment.  We became very socially aware:  

  • We rely on non-verbal body position and gestures – both at a macro-level (we all know about slouching and arm folding), and at a micro-level (body twitches, breathing patterns, eye flickers, skin color, etc.).
  • We migrate towards conformity to the behavioral standards of the group.  Need I say more than the 1970s trend for puke-green appliances, or the 1980s love of big hair?
  • We practice congruence (of body and mind).  Our bodies reflect our internal emotions and thoughts.  It’s hard to be convincing in sharing an inspiring story while curled up in a ball, and we are extremely good at detecting incongruence.
  • We mimic.  A lot. And with all our senses.  Neuroscience even recently discovered specialized neurons known as “mirror neurons.”
  • We adhere to status hierarchies.  All social animals do.
  • We value relatedness over difference.  More alike is more familiar, more known and more predictable.  It’s safer that way.
  • We react to stress.  Cortisol and adrenaline were designed to manage episodic and rapid physical threat.  And it was usually better to over-react than to under-react (and be eaten!).  But perhaps that’s not the kind of stress we encounter today.  Though we certainly experience (or imagine) a lot of stress today.

Although we like to think of ourselves as being rationally in “control,” we’re not.   We are pre-wired and diverted by these instinctual and learned behaviors.  Sometimes the way in which they were evolutionarily designed no longer serve us well.

Maybe it’s time to start paying more thoughtful attention to our innate and learned social awareness behaviors:  non-verbals, conformity, congruence, mimicking, status hierarchy, relatedness over difference and reaction to stress.  

How are you unconsciously living and leading your life?  

It’s worth some thought, and I’m curious to know…

Anna Minto

Founder & CEO, Transformational Change

AMinto@trchange.com

LinkedIn.com/in/annaminto

One Response to “What we can Learn from the Savanna”

  1. Shabnam June 16, 2021 at 1:42 pm #

    Thank you for unfolding this great subject that has been forgotten so clearly!
    As you mentioned and science shows we humans are more that 75% reaction and not much response unless we become aware of our pre-wired subconscious reactions and bring them to consciousness that helps us practicing the use of our frontal lobe and critical thinking and responding!

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