Fiery Fears

Pains real. Fears not.
Pains denied, Fears alive.
Pains accepted, Fears rejected.           (anon)

There’s a pair of decent books tackling the tricky subjects of hate and fear. [1] I’ll say more about them later, but Rush Dozier makes one particularly provocative statement; humans are the only species that isn’t innately afraid of fire.

Is it true? An internet search doesn’t tell us very much. Maybe it’s one of those universal truths that modern science doesn’t deem interesting enough to verify. Scientists, like the rest of us, assume that it’s true because everyone else since the beginning of time has also assumed it’s true. I don’t want to make any waves, so let’s agree. Humans are the only species on Earth that isn’t afraid of Fire. We’ll take this as a fundamental truth, and call it axiom number one.

What I mean by innate is that there is nothing about not being afraid of fire that isn’t learned. In fact, what I’m saying is that babies like fire. I’m pretty sure that most parents teach their toddlers to avoid fire. It’s pretty, it’s red, it’s inviting, it goes snap crackle pop, it’s warm, and – WATCH OUT! You’ll get burned! Did this ever happen to you?

This is yet another statement that science should check into, using the same tried and true methods that have gotten us into skyscrapers and airplanes. Since it’s not a scientific fact, let’s make another bold statement; humanity’s lack of fear of fire is totally due to nature. This means that nurturing, or learning, has nothing to do with it.

Any behavior that is one hundred percent nature comes from our program. Our program is something we all know with no training required. Sucking mother’s nipple for food is something we want to do as soon as we get shoved out the birth canal. One hundred percent natural. And there’s axiom number two.

Biologists know that our program is written in DNA. That’s like saying this essay is written using letters of the alphabet. Our DNA program is extremely large, so it is divided into subroutines and extra apps, called genes. These are like the paragraphs and concepts in this essay. We have about thirty thousand genes, and they probably all work together. On top of this our genes have preferences, just like the apps on your phone. The settings are somewhat randomly chosen for us as soon as we’re conceived. There’s about three million settings for each of us. The professionals call these settings SNiPS – for single nucleotide polymorphisms.

Somehow, shared among all people, is a combination of genes and SNiPs telling us not to be afraid of fire. It’s one of the biggest things making humans totally distinct from all other animals. The same DNA, written differently, tells chimps, mice, birds and snakes to fear fire. We lack this trait, and all other animals have this trait. Yet, if you go back far enough in time, we will find an ancestor that links us to all other animals. Somewhere along the line, a bizarre combination of genes and SNiPs gave rise to us, modern man, with a new type of strange behavior. Biologists call distinct behaviors like this, phenotypes.

Here’s the craziest thing about fire. It’s powerful. It cooks meat and veggies so we can digest them more easily and stay healthier. Fire keeps bad animals away. Fire allows us to work when it’s dark outside. Fire changes ordinary Earth into extraordinary tools, like arrowheads, pottery, glass and steel. We are a species and a society born of fire. Yet, we take fire for granted. That’s too bad, because we should appreciate it for the great abilities it gives. So, the first step is to think back in time, to a period when we didn’t have this ability.

Go back far enough, say two hundred thousand years ago, and you’ll see our distant ancestors, hiding in trees, eating fruits and dirt, probably hanging about in small groups. They very likely acted much like today’s chimpanzees – our closest cousins. Let’s call this particular tribe ‘the standing up people,’ or Homo erectus. [2]

Now, as happens in successful tribes, there are babies. One particular baby was born with a set of genes and SNiPs that were very different from all the others in her tribe. It was a difference no one could see, but it was still there. She grows up, safe, sound, and happy. Then comes that fateful day.

The tribe is taking shelter from a storm, lightning and thunder surrounding them. They huddle together. Suddenly, nearby, a bolt of lighting ignites a pile of dead wood, bringing fire to life. The thunderclap, the light, the flare, and the living combustion of wood makes the tribe hoot, holler, and run away. That is, all but one. Our heroine has no fear, and has not learned to be afraid of fire. Instead of running, she gingerly approaches the bonfire rising before her.

She advances, observing everything in wonder. She picks up a long stick whose end is engulfed in flames, noting how it has acquired a smoldering sharpened point; the first hardened spear. Or she may have found a cooked squirrel, the first fast food.

Or, and this is the truly most wonderful moment in our ancestry, perhaps she looked up from her smoking spear and roasted squirrel and sees, across the flickering and snapping wood, another Homo erectus. He’s not from her tribe, and he, too, is not afraid of fire. The moment is right, she and he spend time together. And eventually you, I, and everyone we have ever known throughout history comes into existence.

In that moment, that Promethean portal gave birth to their love, their offspring, and an entirely new species. It’s quite possible that a single blaze sparked the rise of ‘people who think,’ or Homo sapiens. Our heroine was, in fact, Eve, the mother of all humans today.

What makes us so special? Our laugh? Dogs laugh, so not quite that. Our brains? Dolphins are bigger yet, and birds are proving to be pretty darn smart. Wars? Watch insects duking it out sometime. Our tools? Nope, birds and even some insects have those. Our high technology? There’s something to this. Where does all that technology ultimately come from? Fire.

We are a species forged in fire. It never would have happened if we hadn’t evolved the phenotype that describes not being afraid of fire. So, assuming that only one species, Homo erectus, isn’t afraid of fire, and assuming that behavior is one hundred percent natural, then we must conclude that this behavior is one of the most critical factors in differentiating us from all other life. Therefore, what made Eve so special was that she wasn’t afraid. It may be two hundred thousand years too late, but thank you Eve.

Think about that the next time you have to confront one of your own fears. Perhaps YOU could be the start of a whole new species.

[1] Fear Itself – Origin and nature of the powerful emotion that shapes our lives and our world.
Why we hate – understanding, curbing, and eliminating hate in ourselves and our world.     Both books by Rush Dozier. Published by McGraw-Hill, 1998 and 2002 respectively.

[2] Sequencing Y Chromosomes Resolves Discrepancy in Time to Common Ancestor of Males Versus Females, G. David Poznik, Brenna M. Henn, Muh-Ching Yee, Elzbieta Sliwerska, Ghia M. Euskirchen, Alice A. Lin, Michael Snyder, Lluis Quintana-Murci, Jeffrey M. Kidd, Peter A. Underhill, and Carlos D. Bustamante. Science 2 August 2013: 562-565.
Y Weigh In Again on Modern Humans, by Rebecca L. Cann. Science 2 August 2013: 465-467.


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