Mystery in the Heartland

The vestigial adaptations to primordial rigors that have shaped human nature become troublesome, even deadly, as environments change. Take for example the human addiction to sugar and fat, the physiological basis for the worldwide success of America’s fast food diet, with its beckoning aroma of sizzling meat, its sweet shakes and sodas and now the source of widespread pathology, complaint, and controversy. The evolutionary function of these ancient appetites—fat stored as a hedge against famine and sugar for quick energy to flee predators or seize prey—is now in today’s much different environment morbidly maladaptive, even fatal, yet irresistibly attuned to our evolved nature, even among the abstemious Japanese whose oily salmon, tuna, and eel over sweetened rice are also an international favorite and, except for the important substitution of fish oil for animal fat, nutritionally analogous to a Big Mac and a shake.

Or consider humanity’s overabundant but now largely superfluous sexual appetite in its myriad, often dangerous, permutations, though infant mortality no longer threatens tribe and species with defeat and extinction as it did when a Bronze Age pro-lifer ordered the males of his flock to refrain from spilling their seed upon the ground or otherwise depositing it unproductively. An excess of sexual desire, analogous to the overabundance of spawn so that a few hatchlings may survive the hazards of pond and sea and perpetuate their species, is maladaptive in today’s crowded world, but in their busy lives millions submit without thought or volition—and with, one suspects, minimal pleasure—to the cunning strategies by which their unappeasable sexuality is manipulated for commercial, political, and religious purposes.

A similar vestigial trait may explain the anomaly at the center of Thomas Frank’s lively, heartfelt, somewhat repetitive book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which asks, but doesn’t quite explain, why the poorest county in the United States, an economic and cultural wasteland of struggling ranchers and abandoned farm towns in a burnt-over section of Kansas’s once vibrant Great Plains, gave more than 80 percent of its vote to George W. Bush in the election of 2000 and is likely to give the same or more this November, though the suffering of these and other heartland voters has worsened in Bush’s four years. “How,” a friend asked the author, referring to Kansas as a whole, “could so many people get it so wrong?”

“People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about,” Frank writes, though he might have gone further and implicated humanity in general, with its primordial fear of exile, abandonment, and death in a terrifying environment, and its corresponding submission to factitious gods and the deadly schemes of mad rulers, unvarying from before the Pharaohs to the present. Hermann Goering famously told an interviewer during his trial at Nuremberg that

people don’t want to go to war…. But, after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy…

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