Phobias

Science offers few examples of successful dynasties.  Most often, the children of great scientists either find their own niches in other fields or, if they follow in their parent’s footsteps, turn out to be mere plebeian workers without brilliance.  One shining exception are the Leakeys of Africa.

Louis Leakey was certainly the greatest and most infuriating paleontologist of his era.  After him, his wife, Mary, took up the charge with nearly equal brilliance (and more intellectual discipline) at Laetoli.  Following her was their son, Richard, pushing the hominid line back still further.

Richard has moved on to the cause of wildlife conservation.  However, like a good Leakey, he had already reserved himself a successor.  His wife Maeve and her team have been digging around Lake Turkana, where they have found fragments of a specimen older than and different from Australopithecus Afarensis (Lucy and her cousins).  With the peculiar talent that seems to be part of her heritage, among the bits and pieces they have found the leg bones that highlight the most critical innovation in our lineage.

Once upon a time, we were taught that our ancestors spent eons as small, clever little mammals living in the shadows of larger and more aggressive contemporaries.  Somehow, as time went on, the clever little apes got smarter and smarter until they finally stood up, formed cooperative societies and gradually took over the world.

Unfortunately, that hypothesis seems to be wrong.  As the lovely line has it, it is another beautiful theory slain by an ugly fact.

It now looks as if the great the invention that branched us off and began the phenomenal acceleration of our tribe was not our development of an outsized brain.  Instead, the fossil record says that some not terribly bright branch of the hominid family tree simply stood up.

In other words, we did not stand up because we were so smart.  We got smart because we stood up.  Our sight reached  further, our hands became free to use tools and carry possessions, etc.

I find the impact of that seemingly minor change mind-boggling.

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Speaking of phobias, I define a true phobia as a fear that defies efforts to overcome it.  In my case, I am genuinely afraid of heights.  I worked for years to overcome it and, just when I thought I had succeeded….

I am also one of those idiots who thinks that the best way to deal with irrational fears is to confront them.  For instance, I had always been afraid of snakes and spiders.  Over the years I have learned to admire the beauty and natural niches occupied by both.  I have even gotten to the point where I reach out to handle snakes rather than recoiling from them.

Naturally, I applied the same technique to my fear of heights.  As a teenager (you remember, back when we were all immortal) I learned how to rock climb.  In college, I joined the theatre and volunteered to hang lights.

For those who have never done this, let me explain that theatre lights are hung from steel pipes mounted near the ceiling.  They are heavy and awkward things that usually have to be completely taken down and re-hung for each play.  In the old days, this involved a good deal of running up and down very tall ladders with heavy loads.

It felt very dumb to move one of those heavy wooden ladders a few feet, climb up and hang a light or two, climb back down, move the ladder a few feet, etc.  Pretty soon, you found yourself leaning out ridiculously far from the ladder to try to do one more light and save yourself another trip down and up.
But for the really suicidal, there was another way.  By swaying your body left and right, you could get the ladder swaying.  Sway hard enough and you could even get the feet on one side off the ground.  If, when the feet came off the ground, you kicked forward, you could get the ladder’s feet to come down a few inches forward of where they left off.  Repeat the process on the other side and you could “walk” the ladder just about anywhere you wanted.

I have vivid memories of my younger self blithely executing this insane maneuver around the stage.  I feel it is understandable that I thought if I had not actually cured my fear, I had at least tamed it.  At least, that is what I thought until a certain afternoon in the Sierras.

I was leading the way, trying a route across a rock face, supporting myself on a rock seam that soon decreased to maybe three quarters of an inch wide.  At this point I must have done something stupid, because I suddenly began to slide.

Fortunately, I only slid three or four feet until I snagged a heel on another seam, maybe half an inch wide.  I was in a pretty contorted position, but not sliding.  I was safe.
Safe, that is, except for one small problem.  I was frozen right where I was.

I had heard of this phenomena but had never experienced it.  I was maybe fifty feet from my hiking buddy.   There was no way he was going to be lunatic enough to follow me on a route I had just definitively proved was not safe.  Nor, had he been fool enough to try it, was there any practical way he could rescue me.  I was on my own with a body that refused to move.

As it turned out, I had quite a long time to contemplate the absurdity of my situation.  I can assure you that, having thoroughly examined the pros and cons, whatever reflex is triggered at such a moment cares neither for logic nor long term consequences.  Second by second survival is all that it recognizes.

Eventually, though, I managed to unfreeze (and uncramp) myself and backtrack my way off the face.   As the leader for the day, I then wisely declared that we should find another route.

Since that day my fear of heights has been in full blown.  Today, I not only could never “walk” an ‘A’ ladder, I could not even watch it being done.  Simply seeing people on scaffoldings or walking on girders gives me the cold grues.

Clearly, this is a true phobia.  And although I may have an overdone  case, I studied the problem enough to know that the fear of heights is the most common fear of all.  I do not know anyone who has not dreamed of falling.

Which seems peculiar.

After all, we are not birds, whose natural mode of progress involves the risk of falling.  We are not monkeys who swing through trees and risk the same fate.  And anyway, they seem to have no irrational fear of heights.  But neither do the dogs, cats, bears and elephants of this world.  Young and old, they seem to simply look down, decide if they can negotiate their way and then either go down or around as their perception dictates.

Why are they so secure and we so frightened in this one area?  Do our cells still remember that long fall when God booted us out of the Garden?  What is going on here?

How about this:  We are the only animal that, relatively recently (5+ million years ago) completely changed our bodily orientation.  Many of our current plagues, like hernias and sacroiliac pains, are signs that our adjustment to our new orientation is incomplete.

Now look at our reproductive process.  Our fertilized egg, rather than floating gently down a horizontal set of tubes to a horizontal uterus, finds itself wildly sliding down gravity’s slope to a nearly vertical uterus where it must imbed itself.  Even if it is successful in that first step, things get no easier.  We are the only mammal whose basic mode of locomotion first erects the uterus and then joggles it.

Now I don’t mean to say I am certain this is where our universal fear of falling comes from.  But perhaps I may be forgiven for imaging the embryo spending its entire first nine months hanging on by its metaphoric fingernails and cursing both the design and the designer.

And things like that can scar you for life.

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