Everyday Survival

27 11 2009

Everyday Survival by Laurence Gonzales has the interesting tagline – Why Smart People Do Stupid Things. Obviously, it’s the tagline that attracted me towards the book. I expected to find some wise, funny and witty insights into the subject matter, but I’ve quickly realized as I read through the book that  I was wrong in hoping so. The book had a totally different direction and far more depth than I originally conceived.

In trying to find answer to the question – “Why Smart People Do Stupid Things?” -, the author has explored many subjects including but not limited to evolution, physics, astronomy, psychology etc. Laurence even went on some adventures like going deep inside the supposedly infinite cave, traveling far to a place uninfluenced by the modern life etc.

The stupid things the author is interested to investigate resemble the following:

  • People getting lost and be scared inside a state park, which is just 3/4th mile wide and a mile long
  • The author himself mistaking a real rattlesnake for a rattlesnake-looking ashtray of his grandmother
  • A pilot acting in a nervous and incorrect way to a seemingly usual issue during the flight thereby leading it to crash
  • Tourists eager to watch the volcanic eruption utterly incapable of estimating or even conceiving the magnitude of the impact

The author explains how the behavioral scripts that we create guide our behavior in same or similar situations  and how they can make us fail to see the obvious anomalies. Also when we don’t have any scripts to follow in an entirely unexpected situation, we fail to act in any sensible manner which in some cases can lead to our doom . This can be clearly witnessed in the tsunami victims on the beach.  They have already ignored any warning signs of the nature, and as they watched the giant wave coming forward, they just stood there unable to realize its potential to destroy their lives. Nothing in their experience prepared them for such an event. There were no behavioral scripts to follow.

So, when modern people are faced with ancient hazards, they don’t know how to react. This is largely because we have dropped our guard and are in a ‘vacation state of mind’. With all the progress made by us, we have grown complacent and built up the illusion of safety net around us. We lost curiosity to know things around us.

The author goes as back as the origin of the universe and start of life in trying to understand our true nature. He makes it a point that ‘life’ itself is only a minor part of the overall grand system and the entire human race is like not more than just a fleeting second in the geological time. By pointing out how insignificant the human race is, despite being the most intelligent species on the earth,  to the grand system, the author urges us to be more humble and just play our part. If we act unwisely by upsetting the nature, as we are doing it right now, wiping us out is not a big deal for the system. Our earth has seen many extinctions so far. The author opines that Global Warming is really an important thing to think and act upon, if we wish our future generations to survive. Life will continue whatever may be the conditions, but the human race may not. The author also talks a lot about entropy and how this law governs all the events in the universe including the emergence of life.

The author’s argument for the cause of Global Warming really caught my attention and I kind of bought it. It has had a great effect upon me as it seemed to reverse my view on the issue until then. My earlier take on Global Warming that it’s largely a myth propagated by fund and fame seeking research organizations was shaped by Michael Crichton’s State of Fear. It might be silly to be influenced by fiction in such matters, but that novel seemed brilliant to me and I was awed by Michael’s arguments and conclusions.

Having discussed and explored lot many things, Laurence concludes his work by reiterating that by a habit of knowing – a craving to know – our world and ourselves and by the simple act of consciously paying attention, we can enrich our lives and can even cast a protective web around ourselves and our children.

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