How Huge Hyenas Hindered Human Evolution.

March 6, 2015

Investors have long displayed an inability to behave in a manner suitable to effective investing. To allocate capital in a detached, dispassionate manner. To forgo the act of second guessing themselves at every waking moment. To shut off and steer clear of the 24/7 news cycle.
Of course, we're doomed to continue such behavior. For at least another couple-hundred thousand years.
We remain scant more than cavemen. Then ancestral lineage of Australopithecus. Wandering the African plains.  Better suited to outwitting saber tooths than contending with billions of gigabytes competing for our limited cognitive resources.
Accordingly, investors struggle with the multitude of neurosis that corrupt their investment abilities. Cognitive dissonance. Confirmation bias. Optimism bias. Loss aversion. Choice paralysis. Recency bias. Among others. Each a consequence of our inability to contend with the mental, logistical and physical demands that were not required for most of our four million years of evolution.
In his book, Man the Hunted, noted anthropologist Robert Sussman contends that--contrary to popular belief--early man was not quite the bad ass we've long thought he was. In fact, fossil records indicate that primates may have spent millions of years as prey rather than predator. Greatly influencing the evolution of early man. And continuing to impact the men we have become.
Man's intelligence, cooperation abilities and other skill sets developed from his constant attempts to outsmart the predators of the day. This directly contrasts to the oft accepted theory that early humans were apex hunters, possessing killer instincts and dominating their early environs.
Aside from making me feel vastly better about my own manliness, Sussman's theory explains much by way of the means that humans deal with today's challenges.
Generally accepted since 1924, the idea of "Man the Hunter" represents the generally accepted paradigm of human evolution. Having been developed from Judeo-Christian ideology of man as an inherently aggressive, natural-born killer. In fact, Sussman explains, this line of reasoning is in stark contrast to evidence provided by the fossil and living non-human primate evidence.
"Australopithecus afarensis was probably quite strong, like a small ape," Sussman says. Adults ranged from three to five feet tall. Weighed 60 to 100 pounds. Further, these small, bipedal primates had small teeth, more indicative of a fruit and nut diet than that of a carnivorous predator.
Sounds like my 11-year old. Minus the healthy food. But, I digress.
It would not have been possible for early man to consume much meat devoid of the fire that made cooking possible. The first tools did not appear until two million years ago. And fire likely arrived 800,000 years ago. Leaving some archeologists and paleontologists to conclude that man did not possess a modern, systematic method of hunting until 60,000 years ago.
Importantly, Australopithecus was an "edge species." Meaning that he could live in trees and on the ground. Edge-species primates, then and now, tend to belong to the prey rather than predator category.
So, what did Australopithecus have to fear back then? Uh, plenty.
The predators at that time were huge. And their populations were ten times larger than today. Bear-sized hyenas. Saber-toothed cats. Other mega-sized carnivores, reptiles and raptors. I write this from beneath my desk just at the thought of it. Imagine living among those beasts. Honestly, my wife would eventually have tired of protecting me.
Armed with small teeth and standing three-feet tall, early man hardly had the capacity to contend with such apex predators. So he developed cunning. Used his brain, agility and social skills. Instead of hunting these beasts, he avoided them at all costs.
Fossil evidence reveals that approximately six to ten percent of early humans were killed by these apex predators. Teeth and talon wounds on bone and cranium fossils indicate that, despite his developing guile, man often represented little more than a huge hyena's Happy Meal. This was roughly the same rate by which antelope and ground monkeys fell to predation.
Perhaps Australopithecus's brain was too small to grasp the obvious survival strategies that might have tilted things in his favor. That is, one need not outrun the huge, bear-sized hyena. One need only outrun the Australopithecine between one and the huge, hungry, bear-sized hyena.
Sussman theorizes that modern human traits like cooperation and socialization are not the result of early man's hunting other animals. They likely developed from our having been hunted by those animals. From our early attempts to outwit such predators.
Consequently, man learned to live in permanent social groups. As did most diurnal primates, including apes and monkeys. A result of living in daily fear of becoming a raptor snack. Such habits devoted more eyes and ears to early danger detection. Not to mention more individuals to attack, mob, or confuse predators by scattering.
Personally, in the presence of any apex predator, I believe I would have been better suited to "scatter and confuse" than "mob and attack."  But, who can say for sure?
Point is, for millions and millions of years, man evolved with one critical task in mind: run, hide and survive!
Which brings us back to today.
Safely sitting in our homes and work places, it's little wonder we have trouble investing amid a profusion of negative headlines. Difficulties putting capital to work amid an environment replete with disagreement. A lack of consensus reminiscent of a funhouse hall-of-mirrors.
Studies show we're terrified to lose our money. We equivocate money with living standards. So losing money equates to living less comfortably. Or not really living at all. So touching a sensitive nerve developed within four million years of evolutionary code. A built in survival mode. Fight or flight.
While we no longer need cower from the apex predators of old, many investors feel as if they're contending with an all-new type of predator. Especially after the market meltdowns of '01 and '08. Both events saw an increasingly trustful, exuberant public acclimating to a rising market. Only to have a Wall Street-bred T-Rex step furtively from the shadows and devour half of Main Streets' nest eggs. After which we scampered back to our caves. Hoarded our nest eggs. And quivered like a wet Australopithecus at the thought of another attack.
Today, investors have cautiously stepped from their caves. Begun to invest, slowly, as our ancestors may have tread gently in search of food. We may require another century or two for before our mental apparatuses fully adapt to the required psychology of effective investing.
The last 15 years brought two horrific bear markets. Investors were victimized by Wall Street's predatory practices. By Washington's misguided policies.
Have these events left us better prepared for the next crisis? More capable of managing our emotions in the face of impending danger? Probably not. Too much evolutionary conditioning. More likely, investors will simply scatter and run.
Proving once again that you can take the man out of the cave, but you can't take the cave out of the man.

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