When we become blinded by fear, fear-mongers win

We naturally respond disproportionately to events that frighten us, but to do so is playing into the hands of the terrorists.

I thought long and hard about whether it was appropriate to publish this planned article on fear and risk today. I began writing it sometime before the horrific events of Friday, the November 13, 2015 attack on Paris. Ultimately I decided, as indeed I argue here, that substantially changing our behavior as a result of the actions of terrorists is to let the terrorists win. I am therefore publishing this edited version today, dedicated to the victims.


As we mourn those who died in the tragic events, it is vital that we keep the matter in perspective. Advocating violence, hatred, and excessive restrictions on our freedom is exactly what the terrorists want to achieve.

In the two decades that passed between 1992 and 2012 the number of cyclists making trips in London doubled without any increase in the number of cyclists killed. The proportion of fatalities due to bike accidents covered in the news, however, didn't double, triple, or even quadruple; it leapt all the way from 6 percent to 75 percent. Furthermore, two decades ago if a bike accident was covered in newspapers, we could expect it to be covered just once. Today that number is four or five different times — different articles.

The same story is not true for the far more dangerous activity of riding a motorcycle — motorcycle deaths are still practically never reported on because, as a result of being far more frequent than cycling deaths, motorcycle deaths are not deemed as “newsworthy."

Deaths due to cycling accidents, in this case, may serve as a metaphor for the threat to our free and open society posed by terrorism. If we allowed the massive increase in news coverage of cycling deaths to deter us from cycling, we would sacrifice an activity that is so beneficial to our health that statistically the health benefits outweigh the life-years lost by a factor of 20 to 1. Just like riding a bicycle, freedom has risks and just like riding a bicycle, the benefits of freedom far outweigh those risks.

For an American living today, the risk of death due to an act of terrorism is 35,079 times smaller than the risk of death from heart disease; this level of risk is roughly comparable to the risk of death due to being crushed by your own furniture. These numbers are relatively similar for anyone living in most stable Western democracies. Even an event on the scale of Friday is a relative blip in statistical terms when compared to deaths caused by things like vehicle accidents or cancer.

It is worth pointing out that this is certainly not true the world over, however. Places where terrorism is an everyday occurrence are not free and open societies — they are places torn by dictatorships, extremists, and endless cycles of violence. If we really want to fight terrorism, a good way to do that is to have compassion for those fleeing acts of terrorism in their own countries; hatred only fuels hatred.

Now is time for mourning, but if we allow ourselves to be overcome by feelings of fear and hatred, we allow the cycle of violence to continue, which is exactly what the terrorists hope to achieve.

Follow Simon on Twitter, Facebook, RSS or join the mailing list. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Essential financial life skills for 21st-century Americans

Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
  • For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
  • Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.
Keep reading Show less

New study finds the egg may actually 'choose' the Sperm

Here's the first evidence to challenge the "fastest sperm" narrative.

popular
Keep reading Show less

New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.