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How well do our primitive emotions equip us for modern life?

Thursdays 25 July to 8 August 2002, 9.00-9.30pm

We scream with rage, moan in pain, cry out in ecstasy, shake with terror and run like the wind when we absolutely have to. These reactions are common to us all and their roots lie very deep in our past. Mankind has undergone approximately 135 million years of evolution. With modern life only accounting for a tiny fraction of this time, evolutionary psychologists say that our minds have not had time to adapt to the ‘refined’ modern world. In Primitive Streaks Peter Evans looks at how our ancient body systems work and whether they can ever fit into a modern world.

Broadcasting House and Peter Evans

Programme 1 - Fear

Are you frightened of anything in particular? Heights, maybe, snakes, or spiders perhaps? Peter Evans suffers from vertigo and, in the interests of scientific inquiry and authenticity, he stands on the top of BBC Broadcasting House to try to get to the bottom of what fear is all about.

The scientific explanation is that being frightened releases hormones into the bloodstream that opens up our airways to get more oxygen into our lungs, making our heart beat faster to pump the oxygenated blood around our bodies and providing our muscles with the necessary fuel to do battle or run away - the so called fight or flight reaction.

The roots of the reaction lie far back in our evolutionary past, and deep in the most primitive areas of our brains: an area which is shared across the animal kingdom - from readers in biochemistry to reptiles! So our distant ancestors - hunting and gathering across the savannah, then later settling and dwelling in caves and woodland - felt fear just as we do. They certainly lived in a fear-provoking world, not knowing where the next meal was coming from, or even whether they would be the next meal.

In the 21st century, there is little risk of becoming sabre toothed tiger lunch, but we try to cope with the strain of the modern world using precisely this fight or flight mechanism. And too much of what is a good reaction to short term fears, can lead to panic attacks, strokes, heart disease and depression.

Our primitive streak needs updating, but evolution is moving too slowly to help us.

Listen again to programme 1 Listen again to Programme 1

Programme 2 - Love

For anyone who's experienced the all-powerful, mind-capturing, heart-filling obsession that is 'falling in love', there is no denying that overwhelming feeling. Falling in love is like being taken over by some irresistible force. You can't do much about it when eyes meet and hands touch. It's all out of your control.

But what drives this universal experience? Does it spring from some deep-seated emotion forged in our brains way back in our evolutionary past? Is it a primitive streak? In the second programme of the series, Peter Evans finds out - within limits - that it is.

Listen again to programme 2 Listen again to Programme 2

Programme 3 - Altruism and Anxiety

Have you ever done a favour for a complete stranger? In evolutionary terms it doesn't appear to make much sense. Helping someone you're not related to won't help your genes be passed on so why should you bother? The contentious science of evolutionary psychology suggests we have a deep-seated tendency to do other people favours even when there's - apparently - absolutely nothing in it for us. It's the glue that cements society together and so choosing to do things for others may actually benefit the individual.

But what about anti-social behaviour and common psychological problems: anxiety, gloom, low morale, depression? In the final programme, Peter Evans discovers that the evolutionary psychologists even have explanations for such apparently maladaptive traits.

Listen again to programme 3 Listen again to Programme 3
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