Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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29/5/16: thinking of ourselves as slightly evolved cave people...

Disclaimer: the following is opinion, where facts are stated they are correct to the best of my belief but I cannot easily back them up.  I justify this on the grounds that today is Sunday, academic referencing is for Mondays through Saturdays.  In my opinion.

I've long been of the opinion that a fair bit of human behaviour can be explained by thinking of ourselves as slightly evolved cave people, and can think of a number of examples to illustrate the point.  Those of us privileged to lead relatively affluent lifestyles do not need to worry, in the normal course of things, where the next meal is coming from.  The cave person in us does worry, however, and so is telling us to eat when the opportunity arises - which in an affluent context can easily lead to obesity.  Similarly, sweet things correspond to a necessary but difficult to find part of the cave person diet, so it makes sense from their point of view to have a strong liking for it.  Transported to a modern affluent context, where sweetness can be highly concentrated through processing and can be made readily available, this again can be somewhat of a problem.

Our responses to stress also reflect our cave dweller ancestors.  Put us under stress and our higher order thinking shuts down, amounting to binary decision making: yes / no, run / stay, fight / flight.  In a modern working situation this is not terribly helpful, when stressful situations may well require complex solutions which we are not then in a position to work out.  Similarly, the cave person under stress is necessarily going to engage in physical activity, so stress generates the production of adrenalin to help here.  If adrenalin is produced but no physical activity results, this in effect results in a poisoning of our systems.

Similarly, repetitive strain injury reflects the fact that our bodies, which evolved over millenia, are not designed for the fast, small, light pressure we apply to modern keyboards - again, our cave person ancestry throws light, I suggest, on modern problems.

But let me take the argument one step further.  Consider a tight knit small cave community living within a day's walking of other such communities.  The immediate reaction to anything out of the normal - seeing a person not recognised, an unfamiliar sound - is to assume that there is a problem.  This may prove ultimately to be incorrect, but from a survival point of view this immediate response makes sense.  Coupled also with the principle that, from an evolutionary point of view, the key thing is the survival of the collective rather than necessarily any single individual.

How does this manifest in a modern context?  Well, consider what happens when we go to sleep.  Our brains are quite used to the idea that there's going to be a certain amount of noise going on - somebody else breathing, the wind, the surf if close to the sea, a car coming past if near to a road.  And speaking as someone who can quite easily fall asleep in front of the TV, the noise that we can sleep through can be quite loud.  It's the job of our unconscientious selves to make a decision, when hearing a noise, whether this counts as background so we can continue to sleep, or represents a possible danger and so a reason for waking up.  This gives one possible reason why people can find it difficult to sleep on first arrival at a new place to stay.  Again, in the first instance, difference is associated with possible danger.

But I would go further than this, and I'm aware that I'm now entering rather more contentious territory than I normally do on this blog.  A problem in this part of the world is that, as recorded in this new story, albino people are at risk of murder in the belief that their dismembered body parts have magical properties.  Speaking as someone who has stood 3 metres from an albino person talking about this, this for me is no theoretical faraway possibility, it is right here and now.  How do such beliefs come about?  Can I suggest that one reason is the primitive fear of difference, which regards individuals as expendable in protecting the majority - although clearly in this case, there is nothing for the majority to be protected from.  But rationality is really not the driving force here.

Can this not also go a little way to explaining why the fat child with thick glasses is bullied at school?  We see someone a bit different to the normal and something deep within ourselves feels threatened and we react negatively.


I remember meeting a woman in the 1980s who was in her 60s. She had lived all her life in South London and, when I knew her, was prone to saying what to me sounded the most appallingly racist things.  But let's think about things from her point of view.  If she was in her 60s in the 1980s she was born in the 1920s at a time when the non-White population of the UK was well below 1% and concentrated in a small number of mostly urban areas - so the Black population in Liverpool goes back hundreds of years.  She was already in adulthood in 1948 when the Empire Windrush arrived in the UK from Jamaica, signalling the beginning of large scale non-White migration to the UK, so that today the population is approximately 10% minority ethnic background.  But of course the 10% is not evenly spread, in her lifetime she would have seen her part of London go from entirely White, through a period when there was a small non-White presence to when there could have been as many as 50% locally.  So during that time firstly there would be nothing to talk about, to a period when a certain type of discourse, which would now be regarded as racist, was considered as entirely normal within the immediate community she lived in, to a time what that discourse is considered reprehensible.

Have to say, I have a considerable amount of sympathy with this woman and the transitions she was expected to make.  Are we not in danger of being remarkably intolerant in demanding that she should be tolerant?

Another scenario was put to me in my PhD viva (actually, my second PhD viva, long story I'm happy to tell in private).  Again from the 1980s, a White girl from a working class small town had a black maths teacher assigned to her class.  She reacted extremely negatively, including refusing to touch her exercise book after he had handled it.  What should be done here?

To my mind there at least three (potentially overlapping) issues here: the immediate management of the situation, the welfare of the teacher, and the need to work with the girl to modify her views.  If the decision were mine, would I rearrange the classes so that the girl no longer had this teacher?  I wouldn't be happy to do so, but I might consider that it may in the short term be the best way forward, not least for the teacher concerned.  Would I consider this to be a disciplinary matter?  In terms of the immediate issue in hand, yes, this would be necessary, we cannot allow youngsters to behave like this.  But where does this behaviour come from?  It is perfectly possible that she is reflecting the attitudes of the adults in her family and immediate social circle.  In addition, my understanding of the relevant research is that whilst negative, punitive actions may contain a situation, it is positive approaches which can ultimately bring about attitudinal and behavioural changes.  Is there not a need to start from where she is and work with her from there?


I suppose what I am saying here is that, just as repetitive strain injury reflects a use of our bodies for which they were not designed, so our society has changed at a speed which our subconscious selves cannot easily keep up with.  We are being asked to be tolerant of all kinds of things even while our inner cave person is shouting, 'Danger!  Danger!  Danger!'

Conclusion?  In moving towards a more tolerant society we need to make sure that tolerance reaches every which way.  Just as body guards needs to learn to over-ride their own survival instincts in order what they should, where necessary, put their lives in danger to protect the person to whom they are assigned, we are asking people, through education and exposure, to over-ride some deeply engrained beliefs and attitudes as we work towards a positive, diverse, equal society.  Being intolerant of the intolerant really is not a sustainable way forward.

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