The Facsimile of Meaning

Most of the activities our ancestors spent the majority of their time on have been automated or largely replaced by technology. Chances are good that the majority of your great-great grandparents were farmers, but few of us today hunt, gather, plant, harvest, or otherwise spend our days physically producing food; few of us will ever build our own houses or even sew our own clothes.

Evolution has (probably) equipped us with neurofeedback loops that reward us for doing the sorts of things we need to do to survive, like hunt down prey or build shelters (even chimps build nests to sleep in,) but these are precisely the activities that we have largely automated and replaced. The closest analogues to these activities are now shopping, cooking, exercising, working on cars, and arts and crafts. (Even warfare has been largely replaced with professional sports fandom.)

Society has invented vicarious thrills: Books, movies, video games, even roller coasters. Our ability to administer vicarious emotions appears to be getting better and better.

And yet, it’s all kind of fake.

Exercising, for example, is in many ways a pointless activity–people literally buy machines so they can run in place. But if you have a job that requires you to be sedentary for most of the day and don’t fancy jogging around your neighborhood after dark, running in place inside your own home may be the best option you have for getting the post-running-down prey endorphin hit that evolution designed you to crave.

A sedentary lifestyle with supermarkets and restaurants deprives us of that successful-hunting endorphin hit and offers us no logical reason to go out and get it. But without that exercise, not only our physical health, but our mental health appears to suffer. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise effectively decreases depression and anxiety–in other words, depression and anxiety may be caused in part by lack of exercise.

So what do we do? We have to make up some excuse and substitute faux exercise for the active farming/gardening/hunting/gathering lifestyles our ancestors lived.

By the way, about 20% of Americans are on psychiatric medications of some sort, [warning PDF] of which anti-depressants are one of the most commonly prescribed:

Overall, the number of Americans on medications used to treat psychological and behavioral disorders has substantially increased since 2001; more than one‐in‐five adults was on at least one
of these medications in 2010, up 22 percent from ten years earlier. Women are far more likely to take a drug to treat a mental health condition than men, with more than a quarter of the adult
female population on these drugs in 2010 as compared to 15 percent of men.

Women ages 45 and older showed the highest use of these drugs overall. …

The trends among children are opposite those of adults: boys are the higher utilizers of these medications overall but girls’ use has been increasing at a faster rate.

This is mind-boggling. 1 in 5 of us is mentally ill, (supposedly,) and the percent for young women in the “prime of their life” years is even higher. (The rates for Native Americans are astronomical.)

Lack of exercise isn’t the only problem, but I wager a decent chunk of it is that our lives have changed so radically over the past 100 years that we are critically lacking various activities that used to make us happy and provide meaning.

Take the rise of atheism. Irrespective of whether God exists or not, many functions–community events, socializing, charity, morality lessons, etc–have historically been done by religious groups. Atheists are working on replacements, but developing a full system that works without the compulsion of religious belief may take a long while.

Sports and video games replace war and personal competition. TV sitcoms replace friendship. Twitter replaces real life conversation. Politics replace friendship, conversation, and religion.

There’s something silly about most of these activities, and yet they seem to make us happy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying knitting, even if you’re making toy octopuses instead of sweaters. Nor does there seem to be anything wrong with enjoying a movie or a game. The problem comes when people get addicted to these activities, which may be increasingly likely as our ability to make fake activities–like hyper-realistic special effects in movies–increases.

Given modernity, should we indulge? Or can we develop something better?

8 thoughts on “The Facsimile of Meaning

  1. Great observation. And it’s even more convoluted than that, as I’m sure you realize.

    I’m thinking of eating disorders. It appears that ED are a Modern problem. There was some study not too long ago that showed that on the island of Fiji ED went from 0 to like 30% after the island was equipped with technology (tv, internet and such)

    One the wonders about the excersize thing. Having a daughter with anorexia nervosa, excersize was part of her issue. So now I’m recover, we can’t suggest she excersize. So the primary method of dealing with her anxiety is medication, which has its own stupidity attached to figuring out which one works.

    It seems like even the simple solutions or evolutionary explanations are failing to be a feasible antidote, such that it could be we are in the middle of a change in how humanity is reckoned as a sort. That evolution might one day not be sufficient to provide reasonable explanatory solutions.

    We might find that we have becomes effectively unanchored from ‘ancestral’ humanity, having had to develop a brand new idea of where humanity stands as a biological universal creature.

    Perhaps. 🤪

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you. I wish you and your daughter lots of luck. That must be a very hard condition to cope with. I think evolution has equipped us to obsess (for good or ill) about food. Normally it’s hard to get food, so that obsession makes sense. But in the modern world, with food easy to get, that obsession can head off in unhealthy directions.

      The modern world has a lot of other things making people nervous, too. Did a hunter gatherer ever have to worry about whether he’d get into college or get a job? They didn’t have to deal with the stresses of living/working in huge groups and they married pretty young, eliminating years of dating/wondering if they’ll ever meet someone suitable. Hunter gatherers have plenty of stresses of their own, but they seem more acute–either there is food, or there is not. Our stresses are more things we just have to live with.

      Good luck.


      • >eliminating years of dating/wondering if they’ll ever meet someone suitable

        You left out how pre-state males would have the option of raiding their neighbors for women and/or hunting their territories’ women. Not to mention that by extension of having healthier genomes and either more attractive bodies (larger breasts, hair texture, skin color…) or more ways to trick males into seeing them such (access to perfumes) and modern human women have more Sexually Market Value than their ancient sisters.


  2. Hello! I have to say that full-time farming is not healthy. My mother got terrible back pain from working on a potato field in her youth. My uncle preferred to work construction in the city (also hard labor but not this hard) rather than stay in the village. Country women begin to look like grannies much earlier than city women, and not just because of unfashionable clothes. I doubt that life is very fulfilling either, or why would people there drink so much? I’m talking about Russia, Southern countries (I have family in the Mediterranean too) have less alcoholism and disfunction but probably more premature aging because of so much sun exposure. Most people don’t want to live like that or their kids to live like that. To send your kid off to study in the city is universally seen as achievement.
    “Weekend farming” on a dacha, though, is many a Russian’s hobby. Growing easy vegetables like carrots and onions on a small plot without overworking is much more pleasant and still lets you connect with nature. If there’s a forest around, you can also get the hunter-gatherer thrills (becoming an actual hunter is difficult but anyone can pick wild berries). I’d recommend that to Americans too. They don’t even need dacha plots because they have backyards. I see Canadians grow stuff in their backyards. Just hire someone with a mechanical tiller to till the soil – that’s the most backbreaking and unpleasant work. What climate zone are you in?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I am afraid there are no really good solutions. We can fiddle around and experiment. Here is an idea. A lot of people discovered that deadlifting heavy weights does something fundamental for men – far more than the usual body building type training. It is a spiritual thing, almost. I have a hypothesis that a very similarly fundamental, transformative, finding-yourself exercise for women esp. those who are insecure about their femininity and attractiveness could be dancing. A kind of dancing where they can feel sexy – belly dancing, for example, it is popular around here. What do you think?


    • Well, dancing is a lot of fun. I’ve never tried belly dancing myself, though I’ve a cousin who likes it. When I’m unhappy, I find gardening helps (digging, carrying heavy things, fresh air, sunlight, exercise, sense of accomplishment, etc.) I’d wager that almost any serious exercise has a similar effect.


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