Conclusion: Surviving desire

The !Kung San live in the deserts of southern Africa. Until just a few years ago, they lived off this harsh land as nomads, gathering plants and hunting animals much as their ancestors had for ten thousand years or more. Some of the first Westerners who contacted them in the 1960’s asked what they wanted. For the San the answer was obvious: water. They live in a desert and are perpetually searching for water. Even a slow drip from one of our faucets would provide for a small band of people.

Lo and behold, there is plenty of underground water in the Kalahari. In 1962 the Westerners drilled five boreholes in the area known as !Koi!kom, thereby providing a stable water supply. Unfortunately, these San simply traded one nightmare for several others. Normally, they are nomadic, moving from place to place as animal migration or plant seasons dictate. With their boreholes, the San unpacked and settled down nearby. Soon they had depleted all the animals and plants within practical walking distance.

Furthermore, the San had never needed to develop any sanitation methods, leaving their garbage and bodily waste just outside their huts and fireplaces and moving on before debris could build up. Mother Nature took care of recycling. Wedded to their water and unwilling to move, however, they found that their waste piled up and began causing illness. Satisfying the San’s water dreams quenched their thirst but made them hungry and sick.

The problems of the !Kung San illustrate the intricate balance between an animal’s instincts and the environment. Today we each face more profound versions of these problems. Our love of possessions, food, and generally easy living has moved us far from our natural setting, creating a plague of troubles in the process.

Our world is changing with dizzying speed. A new computer is outdated by the time it is installed, and a week seems like an eternity in the Internet world. In contrast, evolution is ploddingly slow, and human genes have not changed very much in thousands of years. Plato would have been puzzled by e-mail, but he enjoyed the same buzz we do from a fine glass of wine. His brain contained exactly the same genetic pleasure buttons that we have.

In fact, our genes are largely unchanged from a time long before Plato. Genetically, we are still cavewomen and cavemen despite our living in ultramodern homes. This mismatch between our genes’ natural world and the modern world causes many problems. Drug addiction, obesity, gambling, and bankruptcy do not, however, stem simply from innocent discord between ancient and modern worlds. The explanation is more sinister. ...

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