Ignorance a survival instinct?

Last week I was sitting in my car waiting for someone and I noticed five men on the roof of a house across the street. They were tearing up the existing shingles on the roof. One of the men was standing with his back to the ground, his heels resting precariously on the eaves trough. Another man was sitting on the edge of the roof with both legs hanging off the edge. All of the men were moving about on the roof as comfortably as if they weren’t two stories up, and none of them had any safety harnesses of any kind. It got me thinking about our mental condition as human beings.

I can understand that while doing a job like roofing you would develop a certain level of comfort about your work (“I’ve never fallen before? Why would I fall today?”), but what is it about us that allows us to reach that place? I think that it is ignorance, and my theory is that we have ignorance ingrained into our DNA as a survival instinct. I think that if we didn’t have the ability to see danger, and subconsciously choose to ignore it, we’d never have done any of the amazing things we’ve done in our history. We probably would have been too afraid to do anything, and we would have become extinct as a species long ago.

I’m not talking about ignorance in terms of the negative connotation that most people give it. I’m talking about ignorance as a necessary part of survival. The reason it inevitably gets a negative connotation is because we don’t use it exclusively to accomplish “good” things. Take drug addicts, for example. Everyone knows that certain drugs (Heroin, Crystal Meth, etc) are incredibly dangerous and damaging to your health, but they do it anyway. Why? Sure, everyone has their reasons for doing drugs: “I hate my parents”, “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up”, “My life is boring”, etc. But regardless of their justification, they are choosing to ignore that it can kill them.

I have a friend that is a fishing guide at a lodge in Northern Saskatchewan. This is a lodge that can only be reached by airplane (it lands on the lake) and would classify as “adventure tourism”. My friend says that at least twice each season he will be having “shore lunch” with his customers and a bear will show up. My friend is 6’4″ tall, and he says that these bears are so immense that it is like facing off with a living, hairy truck. He is not allowed to carry a gun for protection because it is federally protected land. The only thing he can do to protect himself and his customers is get the hell away. Whenever in this situation, he will send his customers directly back to the boat (facing the bear, backing up slowly), and he will stand between them, trying to make himself “look big”. Once they are in the boat, he will slowly back up and get into it. Then he will get away as fast as humanly possible.

He tells me that he’s been six feet away from the biggest bear you can possibly imagine, had the bear roaring at his face, thought to himself, “This is it”. He’s survived this, and he’s gone back again, and again, and again. To a place where the rules of our society to not apply. Where things are truly “wild”. A place where ignorance is an absolutely necessary part of survival.

Can you imagine?

5 Responses to “Ignorance a survival instinct?”

  1. ADM

    Nice post. Funny how I checked your blog to see if there’s been any new posts and there was nothing.. then I clicked to page 2 and back again in literally 10 seconds and this post was up. Good timing eh? ;)

    Anyway as for your friend, I think that if he gave up on going back then why wouldn’t he give up on everything else? Life is a bit of a risk and if don’t take chance then I believe you would never move forward.

    Like you said we would never have achieved the things we have in the past if we didn’t take risks.

    Though I say all that and I’m usually too afraid to take risks myself. Kind of ironic.

  2. Mark

    @ADM: Thanks! That’s exactly my point about my friend – from my perspective it is crazy, but thanks to the wonders of humanity it is something that he does anyway.

  3. James

    I don’t think it’s a willful ignorance, I’d say it’s recklessness, at least in the case of the roofers.

    Beyond that it seems to me that people are valuing the reward higher than the risk. There’s obviously a reward for your buddy to take people off into the wilderness to eat lunch – likely beyond the check at the end of the week.

    With the roofers, it’s likely that they’re confident that they’re not going to fall and, as safety precautions may not be required by law (or enforced very well, if they are), then any doubts they have about the risks they’re taking are subdued by the mentality that they don’t want to look like a sissy trussed up in front of their pals. That and it’s likely that harnesses and ropes get in the way more than anything.

    It also seems to me that some people are far more reckless than others. I think that I’m maybe more cautious than most. Others do some outright stupid things. For example, we live on a rural road, twisty with a lot of blind hill crests and corners, yet while the weather is nice, there are often groups of dummies screaming down the road on their crotch-rockets at unbelievable speeds. I mean, it’s not uncommon to drive around an unsighted corner and come across half a dozen deer in the road, or someone passing in a dumb spot, or just the guy in the 2 ton pick-up going too fast for the corner and crossing into the oncoming lane… Last summer some of these jokers went by and an hour later the ambulance goes by (it’s a looooong way from medical services out here). One of them got bent out of shape and that was the end of his story. I can’t conceive how it’s worth it, but I know that another batch of them will do the same thing this year.

    Alright, I have more to say, but I’ll cut it out here.

    Thanks for the article, Mark.

  4. Zane Beckman (fysicsluvr)

    I think another important survival instinct is the ability to forget.

    If you stub your toe on something, you watch out for that spot for the next few days, but you get over it. If your mother dies, yes it hurts for a while, but you get over it. If there was a car accident at a particular railroad crossing, and someone you knew was killed in it, it can be hard to drive near there for a while but you get over it. Pain has to be painful enough to fear it, but not so painful that you’re scarred for life.

    Ah the wonders of evolution. (or creation, if you must… speaking of survival instincts…)

  5. Krak

    Federal smederal, a bear charges me and I didn’t provoke it – its getting a .45 in the face. Those laws are ridiculous. But as for your post, I’d say you got it spot on. Doing something dangerous and knowing the dangers, but doing it anyways – thats living man. I don’t want to live in a bubble.

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