Epistemic status: Casual
And in the end, the dominant factor in Gethenian life is not sex or any other human thing: it is their environment, their cold world. Here man has a crueler enemy even than himself.
I am a woman of peaceful Chiffewar, and no experts on the attraction of violence or the nature of war. Someone else will have to think this out. But I really don’t see how anyone could put much stock in victory or glory after he had spent a winter on Winter, and seen the face of the Ice.
–Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
My father was a serious alpinist in his youth, and taught us a few things about mountains when we were kids. For instance: you always say hello to people you pass on the mountain.
Why? Because the mountain can kill you. “Hi” means “You are a human like me, and this mountain is our common threat. If you scream for help, I will come for you.”
There’s a certain solidarity between humans that emerges when we’re faced with a potentially hostile natural world. If we passed on the street, we’d be strangers. There’d be no bond between us. We might even engage in conflict, under the right circumstances. But on the mountain, all of that falls away. By default, in the wilderness, a human face is a friendly face, a glad thing to see if you are lost or hurt.
If you are in the desert and you see someone obviously suffering from dehydration, you’ll share your extra water with them. It won’t feel like some kind of altruism or charity, it will feel obvious. It’s instructive, if you’re used to thinking of giving as an unpleasant duty, to experience some situations where it’s natural to be kind. Kindness becomes practical and natural and obvious when the physical environment is hostile. Suddenly everything becomes simple: it’s human life against bitter nature, and nothing else matters. “All men are brothers” becomes a concrete reality.
There’s something clarifying about man vs. nature situations, even at the minimal level you can experience by hiking a technical scramble alone. I’ve found that a certain alertness kicks in when I have to figure out where to put my hands and feet; I’m scared of falling, I have a heightened awareness of physical/spatial reality, and I don’t care at all about looking foolish or getting dirt on my clothes, because the important thing is to get off the damn mountain without any injuries. I also am much less lazy; “get to the top” or “get to the bottom” make it feel natural to push a lot harder than “run X miles” or “lift X pounds,” almost as though reaching topographical milestones taps into some primal source of motivation. Mountains make life more real than it usually is in civilized life.
There’s a traditional overlap between mountain climbing and math; the Russians had their math camps in the Urals for decades. Alan Turing, Sophus Lie, Niels Abel , and many others were avid hikers; a disturbing number of mathematicians have died in hiking accidents. If I can speculate about the connection, it might have something to do with love of solitude, tolerance for pain and effort, or this heightened-reality effect from spatial problem-solving. I certainly get a disproportionate number of good ideas while on runs, bike rides, hikes, or long walks alone.
All traits in living things evolved either through natural selection or sexual selection — that is, either they make you less likely to die, or they make you likely to have more children. (Compare survive-the-winter mode vs. grow-and-reproduce mode.) These are both important to inclusive fitness, but they sometimes work at cross-purposes — for example, sexual ornaments can become so large and unwieldy that they start to impair survival.
You can also map cognitive or behavioral traits to natural-selection vs. sexual-selection. For instance, dominance competitions and play-fighting (like stags butting antlers) are about sexual selection and competing for mates, but survival-related behaviors like escaping predators or figuring out how to survive natural hazards are about natural selection. We probably got much of our sensory processing and spatial awareness through natural selection, but social awareness is at least partially sexually selected.
Some behaviors are ambiguous. Was the evolution of hunting among humans due to the extra calories from meat (a natural-selection explanation) — or as a way of demonstrating fitness to mates (a sexual-selection explanation)? Hunter-gatherers generally rely more on plant foods than animals, so maybe hunting large animals was more of an elaborate show of strength and bravery than a survival necessity; on the other hand, meat really is nutritious. By analogy, I think it’s likely that human intelligence is part survival necessity, part ornament.
My intuition is that mountain-climbing and, generally, coping with wilderness, cultivates the parts of cognition that are about survival and natural selection, as opposed to competition and sexual selection.
There’s a kind of sexual-selection-related aggression in which fighting is fun. You’re a red-blooded, well-fed, fit person with lots of energy to burn and plenty of ego; you want to compete, and maybe to pick a fight. You’re full of rajas. Maybe you’re a little bit of a Cavalier. The highest expression of this mindset I’ve seen so far is the Iliad (modern translation by Ian Johnston here).
That is not the mindset that the wilderness cultivates. Survival-cognition is clear and practical and understated and a little cold. One of my coworkers has joked about the “Utah phenotype” of the kind of people who move to Utah for the outdoor endurance sports — small, unassuming-looking men, whom you wouldn’t guess as great athletes to look at, but who will keep up an absolutely crushing pace once you get them on a mountain.
War, contra Le Guin, is probably a blend of aggression and survival. There are several generations of men in my family who have been in the military, and they were small, serious, practical, extremely tough people; more survival-oriented than aggression-oriented (though of course survival sometimes means killing your enemies.) I suspect Ulysses S. Grant, for instance, of being this sort of fighter. Pure aggression without survival is play-fighting, and modern warfare is definitely not that.
Technical skill is usually very survival-oriented, which I think is a big part of why the math/mountains connection is so strong. The stories I’ve been told about what it’s like to be a sysadmin or ICU nurse suggest that this clarifying, no-bullshit, get-it-done attitude comes alive in their sort of man-vs-nature situations (well, man-vs-disease or man-vs-bug). Status and competition and ego and sex simply don’t matter when you’re trying to keep people alive and their machines working. You can’t lie to Reality or sweet-talk it or intimidate it, you have to figure out how it works.
Jeffrey Tucker has a nice essay contrasting the (rather reactionary) view that fighting gives drama and purpose to life (the sexual-selection mindset) with the struggle to accomplish productive goals and build a free advanced civilization, a “fight” that isn’t about fighting. The latter can be painted in a dramatic and glorious light too, despite being a fundamentally different thing.
For serious survival goals — things like overcoming disease, poverty, and violence — you really need survival-mindset. I suspect that sexual-selection-mindset is healthy and natural and joyful and many people will have fuller lives if they cultivate it to some extent. But humanity-wide goals are pretty much entirely about the survival-related stuff. Meredith Patterson has some thoughts about her shift towards survival-mentality that I pretty much agree with; when your enemy is something like “poverty”, you have to avoid the attractive nuisances of interpersonal conflict. Serious goals require seriousness — not like “never laughing or taking a break”, but staying realistic and not getting caught up in drama.