Ch1 L33: Beliefs – part VII (sacrifices I)

  1. In order to fight Death [1], we evolved to detect dangers, then to emotionally react to them [2]. However, emotional evaluations have their intrinsic shortcomings, so thinking developed to counsel the emotional brain, providing it with more providential solutions [3]. A self-reflective mind should raise the question “how reliable is thinking?”
  2. Finding an answer to this question is vitally important because thinking has marked some of the darkest chapters in the history of Homo Sapiens. Take human sacrifice [4] as an example. It’s by nature a rational decision! In the last post, we discussed how thinking told us to sacrifice short-term gains for long-term benefits. That’s how our primitive ancestors (and still some people in different corners of the world [5]) has convinced themselves and others to kill one of their own kind or even child, to protect their community or family.
  3. This solution obviously sounds preposterous to us, but not to a primitive mind. Let’s study the case. Imagine that you’re driving a car and you enter a street which is blocked by 12 people, standing in two groups of 2 and 10. You’d push the brake pedal but it’s not working, so the accident would be inevitable and you’d kill some people. In this case, you’d obviously steer towards the 2 people. This is a rational decision to choose the lesser of two evils. [6]
  4. In parentheses, I have another question for you: You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a lever that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track, and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two options:
    1. Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
    2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person [7].
  1. What would you do? When I was asked this question, I said that I’d pull the lever. But to my surprise, I realized that many people wouldn’t pull the lever; because they didn’t want to be held responsible for killing a person even though they’d save 5 people [8]. 
  2. Another point would be a simple mathematical principle for survival: the fertility rate must be greater than the mortality rate. Fish lay hundreds of eggs, genetically knowing that most of them will die or get killed. But as long as few can reproduce, they’ll defeat Death.
  3. Here comes the big evolutionary trade-off between quantity and quality. Compared to the fish, mammals have fewer kids but the emotional bond makes parents do their best to protect their kids. As you know, we call it love.
  4. The extolled notion of parental love shouldn’t mislead us. The reason that mammals keep their kids safe is just for survival. Professor Sapolsky [9], in one of his lectures on behavioral biology [10], tells the story of a young lion which overthrows an old one. The first thing that he does is to kill the old lion’s cubs; so the lioness will be willing to have his offsprings. In this situation, what does the mom do? Nothing if she’s still fertile. She will fight the young lion if she’s too old for reproduction.
  5. You might object that we’re different than lions. It’s true only to some extent. Because you can still see parents who dump their kids from previous relationships/marriages. 
  6. So, the decrease in the number of kids per family has deepened the parents-children relationship. Besides, societies have also educated parents to take care of their kids; normally by shaming parents for their kids’ mistakes. So, obtaining higher respect [11] requires more measured upbringing. That’s why compared to a lioness, humankind can’t easily abandon their kids, because belief in the imaginary idea of the parental love; so, violating it seems to be unforgivable. 
  7. Having a few kids has a great emotional kickback. Not only losing one of them, but also its prospect is so devastating that parents have become overprotective and over-sensitive about their kids. The recently invented idea of baby-proofing houses and constantly monitoring what their kids are doing is, in my opinion, a sign of insanity [12].
  8. By the way, back then life expectancy was very low [13], so Death could be at any corner. Thus they would embrace it with less bereavement. Besides, Our relatively luxurious lifestyle has made giving it up unbearable. That’s why though the fear of dangers has dropped because we comparatively live in a safe environment, I think that the fear of Death itself has gone up.
  9. We will continue the discussion about sacrifice in the next post.


[1] The starting point of the journey was survival and fighting Death. Link

[2] We’ve talked about the emotional reactions in many posts, starting from the 3rd post [Link], discussing fear as the first and most dominant emotion.

[3] Again, we studied how thinking aims to modify the emotional decisions in several posts starting from the 16th. [Link]

[4] Link to the wikipage about human sacrifice.

[5] Link to a story about the human sacrifice these days.

[6] We saw in the last post how thinking advise us to choose the long-term benefit. Link

[7] Link to the wikipage about the trolley problem.

[8] Also in the 16th post, we discussed why people are reluctant to bear with the burden of responsibility. Link

[9] Link

[10] Here’s the link to the first lecture of the whole course, uploaded on YouTube. I’d strongly recommend you to watch all the lectures.

[11] We discussed respect in the 15th post, talking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Link

[12] The media also plays a big role in nudging parents towards the insanity and the stressed-out parents who can hardly think [Link] fall into their trap; when they see in shows or movies how parents babyproof their apartments or watch their babies through a monitor.

[13] Link


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