Magazine article Natural History

Hard to Imagine

Magazine article Natural History

Hard to Imagine

Article excerpt

Sometimes I think the only realities people respond to are the ones staring them in the face. Watching a sunset from a tropical beach in midwinter, I find it almost impossible to remember how cold, wet, and miserable I felt just days earlier, trudging through mud and slush in the Northeast. Fired up to resume regular jogging by Adam Summers's description of how the human body plan makes people "Born to Run" (page 34), I don't even consider the aching, breathless, sweaty reality of running. When you think about it, though, sensory transience is probably a good thing. Where would the species be if people didn't (mostly) forget about pain as soon as it went away (think: childbirth)-or didn't, in general, downplay the risks of confronting the forces of nature?

Yet our talent for flattening all sensations that are not here and now has its drawbacks. The dearth of empathy is one of them. Hearing about the misfortunes of your family may make me stop and shudder, but I won't really feel your pain. If you're the target of genocide in Darfur, answering your cries for help across the cultural divide seems to take an effort of will beyond what most people can muster. And if all you can do is warn me about the dangers of environmental change, I'm likely to dismiss you with a wave of my hand: "We'll take care of that if it happens."

Jared Diamond, whose feature article, "Collapse," appears on page 38, has heard those confident dismissals before. "The notion that environmental geography and biogeography influenced societal development," he writes in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, is a view "not held in esteem by historians; it is considered wrong or simplistic, or it is caricatured as environmental determinism and dismissed. …

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