Why Casey Anthony trumps the end of the world
By Michael Mountain
Casey Anthony, who danced the night away while her child lay dead, probably in the back of her own car, has managed to rivet the attention of millions of us. How, we wonder, could anyone behave like that?
A few decades from now, a jury of our children and grandchildren may be asking themselves how it was that we, too, were dancing the night away, fixated on the soap operas of life when a great extinction of animals was taking place, the oceans became barren, and the Earth was becoming dangerously overheated.
How is it, they may wonder, that we could so easily absorb every last detail of what one woman may have done to her child while remaining largely oblivious to what we were doing to our own children and the Earth’s bounty for generations to come?
What Casey Anthony did may be baffling to us. But what we’re doing to billions of our own children by destroying the environment we’re bequeathing to them is, in its own way, equally baffling. It’s not that we have malicious intent. And it’s not that we’re terminally unintelligent. So, what’s going on in our heads?
For answers, I turned to Zoe’s science editor, Dr. Lori Marino, senior lecturer in psychology at Emory University, and a leading expert on the evolution of the brains of large mammals, including humans.
“The reason we’re so fascinated by stories like the Casey Anthony one,” she said, “is that our brains evolved to be sensitive to stories at that level – gossipy stories about individuals, families, and personal relationships – stories about things that are happening at a very local level. Our brains have difficulty processing things that are far ahead in time . . . or really with anything much beyond what we can see or hear in our immediate environment.”
Dr. Marino explained that this is why we’re having such a hard time coming to grips with the fact that the atmosphere is warming, the climate is changing, and there’s a whole tide of global effects rising around us.
“These are all very difficult things for the human brain to grasp,” she said. “But something like the Casey Anthony story is exactly at the level that the human brain is geared to comprehend. For tens of thousands of years, what mattered most to us was getting our genes into the next generation, and the way we’ve learned to make sure of that is by managing our social relations – like watching where the food is and keeping an eye on who’s doing what with whom, and so on.”
The reason we’re so taken with the Casey Anthony story is because it’s all about social relations going wrong. It’s a tale of lies and intrigue and murder and cover-ups. And we devour stories like this because they’re the stuff of classic primate behavior, which is what we humans really understand best.
Needless to say, this does not bode well for the situation that’s now unfolding around the planet. And while we humans have developed the technology to destroy the planet on a global level, our brains haven’t developed to the point where we can understand the true consequences of having that technology.
So, is there any light on the horizon? Dr. Marino noted that our one saving grace may be that we’re very good at dealing with immediate threats that we can see and feel – like an earthquake or an invasion.
“9/11 was a great example of how we can come together to meet a local catastrophe,” she said. “It shows what we humans can do when we’re motivated, and it says a lot about the human spirit.
“But if we don’t see it until it’s too late, then that’s not so good. As long as the mass extinctions and melting icebergs are out of our immediate sight, it’s difficult to get most people to comprehend what we’ve been setting in motion. It’s going to have to hit us hard on a personal level in order for us to react. Unless we feel that it’s affecting us personally, we just don’t act.”
Whether or not we’ll be able to get our heads wrapped around the big threats that are coming down the pike in time to make a difference is something the jury is apparently still out on.