On September 26th, 2018 we learned about

Humans may be wired to live lazily, even if it contributed to the extinction of other hominids

It’s probably embarrassingly easy to come up with personal examples of being lazy. I admit that I’ve driven distances that were easily reachable on foot or on a bike. My kids routinely wear their shirts backwards, even after their mistake is pointed out to them. My wife seems to be only vaguely aware of the family’s laundry hamper. Each of these examples of sloth probably doesn’t amount to much in isolation, but over time they can certainly add up to rather extreme consequences. In the case of Homo erectus, researchers even think being lazy may have played a role in our fellow primates’ extinction. This isn’t great news, as modern Homo sapiens also struggle with laziness, and there’s a chance that we may not be able to ever really be rid of it.

No effort to avoid extinction

As far as we know, H. erectus didn’t go extinct because they wouldn’t deal with their laundry. There is evidence, however, that they did a very poor job managing the resources available to them, even when it surely reduced their quality of life. Stone tools excavated in the Arabian Peninsula were found to be made of very low quality rock fragments, despite an abundance of higher-quality materials within walking distance of the dig site. Unlike ancient Homo sapiens or Neanderthals that apparently transported high-quality materials for miles in order to craft better tools, the H. erectus craftsmen were confusingly content to just use whatever pieces of rock rolled down the hill into their camp.

Being slightly inefficient became a bigger problem for H. erectus as the climate started to shift around them. Researchers found that at time periods when food sources were being shaken up by changes in the environment, H. erectus didn’t seem to respond in any meaningful way. Their tool design and other survival strategies were apparently conservative to the point of being static, leaving them to the complete mercy of the droughts that probably brought about their demise.

Just like our ancestors who did go that extra mile to make better tools, modern humans would surely be protected from this degree of laziness, right? As a species, we’d never sit on our hands while our world’s climate changed around us.


Internal inertia

If it’s too early to know how closely modern Homo sapiens are willing to follow H. erectus‘ example, we do have evidence that humans are physically less active than they were in the past. Most of us don’t need to hunt or gather our own food anymore, giving us plenty of opportunities to lazily sit on the couch for hours on end (although even modern hunter-gatherers sit down for nearly half their day). Researchers following these trends don’t think it’s just that we’ve lost the will to move or anything, it’s just that being sedentary can, in the right context, be part of a successful survival strategy. Like a carnivore who sleeps nearly every hour that they’re not hunting, humans seem to have inherited a predisposition to try to save our energy whenever we get the chance.

This model may seem intuitive, but researchers recently tested these instincts on a neurological level. Test participants were, appropriately enough, tasked to play a video game that required them to identify images as either active or inactive physical activities. Most people were actually faster to click pick out the images of running or jumping, but brain scans of participants painted a different picture of these responses. Electroencephalograms (EEG) showed that more of the brain had to work to identify images of activity, whereas it was literally easier for the brain to identify images of lazing around on the couch. It seems that even imagining being lazy takes less effort than imagining being active.

So are we doomed to start making worse tools because we can’t be bothered to get off the couch? Researchers said that it’s hard to block out these automatic patterns entirely, but if we’re aware of these cognitive biases we can probably train ourselves to overcome them. It’ll just take work to do so, so maybe we should try tackling it tomorrow…

Source: Laziness helped lead to extinction of Homo erectus by Australian National University, Science Daily

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