I believe it was Carlsbad Caverns that my family toured when I was going into fourth grade. We were taken deep beneath the earth’s surface, and guided into a large domed cave within the natural underground tunnels. The tour guide told us to put our hand 12 inches in front of our face, and he turned off the flashlight. “Can you see the outline of your hand?” he asked. We all could–or so we thought. There was no light at this depth in these caves detectable by the human eye, and the outline we thought we saw was simply a construction of our brain. A single match was then lit, flooding the ballroom sized cavern with enough light to see every stalactite and stalagmite in wonderful detail.
It seems likely that a humans’ aversion to new ideas is rooted in evolution. If what you have been doing has always worked for survival, changing it could be quite dangerous. Why let someone convince you to go out on a limb that could snap, instead of continuing practices that have always kept you alive? It is understandable that our survival instincts tell us to fear change, and support the status quo. If there were berries and game here last year, there will probably be next year as well.
But in evolution danger lies in too homogeneous a species. There is still much mystery surrounding why, but about 70,000 years ago the human population of earth “bottlenecked” and was reduced to somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 individuals. Humans were extremely endangered and essentially almost went extinct. For the people living before the event or series of events or long-term change, there was not much reason to change what had worked for survival. But for some reason, a bunch of humans died off, and only a small group survived.
I don’t know why that group survived. It could have been a genetic variation, or special skills one group possessed, or perhaps, the ability to adapt. While many other humans could not break with tradition in terms of “what has always worked”, maybe a small group was able to reassess their method of survival, and change it in order to survive in the new environment. Whether the new environment was caused by climate, predators, wars, disease, famine, or aliens hardly matters. What matters is the ability to predict upheaval, and properly prepare for that change.
70,000 years ago there were probably a lot of people that knew something was happening, but did not know what to do about it. They probably continued living the only life they knew, and died because of it. There were probably also people who did not see any change coming, and failed to prepare out of ignorance. Others might have continued hunting the hypothetically disappearing game until the very last one was eaten, and then starved, refusing to believe that their way of life could possibly change.
Some humans might have seen a change coming, but prepared for the wrong change, or predicted an event that never came to fruition. But what we know is that there were a select few who were either lucky, or smart. I like to think that the survivors were the ones who were not afraid of the light. It seems that people who were the most open to learning, who could consider new ideas, and adapt to their environment would be most suited to survive, and I don’t think that has changed.
This does not mean any new idea should be seized upon and believed wholeheartedly without proper scrutiny; some of those early humans died because they saw the wrong change coming. But equally detrimental was refusing to see the light, and therefore not adjusting reactions to escalating dangers. The ultimate survival skills lie in those who can objectively and rationally consider risks and rewards. Shutting out a new idea is just as likely to end negatively as blind faith in a new idea, or being convinced that the oldest idea is novel.
Moving into the twentieth century, what humans must do to survive is be vigilant and logical. There are those who stand on their front porch and watch as a tsunami rolls in, and there are those who run to the top of mountains to be rescued by aliens who never show. We want to avoid each category. We should learn about the tsunami and assess the weather report: the risk to an area, the scope and magnitude, and the timing. But there’s no harm in hearing out the would be extraterrestrial pilgrims either; just beware of seeing something where there is nothing. Often your instincts will be correct, and there will be no facts behind the theory. However it does not hurt to listen and objectively consider data, you may be surprised by the result and learn things that seem so obvious in hindsight.
Sometimes we are more comfortable in the dark, imagining our hand is visible, than seeing our real environment illuminated. In a place so dark, it does not take much light to see your true surroundings. Don’t continue to imagine that you see your hand in the dark. Be brave, and light the match; it will illuminate things you never knew were there.