The New York Times recently published an article on the apparently hot new topic of neophilia (and its supposed opposite, neophobia), based apparently on a new book by the journalist Winifred Gallagher titled “New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change.” It fact, the NYT article can be characterized as a gushing review of that book. Apparently, neophiliacs lead better lives than neophobes, particularly if the neophiles can combine their novelty-seeking with persistence. Aside from the question of whether or not these categories are real or merely trendy, there is the further issue of the supposed science of neopilia. According to both the article and the book, neophilia is a genetic trait developed in humans some 50,000 years ago, at the same time as humans began migrating from Africa to explore the world beyond. Novelty seeking was a necessary spur to our conquest of the world, it seems. It “has always been the quintessential human survival skill, whether adapting to climate change on the African savannah or coping with the latest digital toy from Silicon Valley.” The rhetoric of this sentence is worth looking at: its argument depends upon a comparison, or worse an equivalence, between adapting to climate change and coping with a new digital toy, disregarding the fact that the two things are not comparable. Climate change takes generations to occur (it is quick only in geological time, not in human time), particularly to a sufficient extent to cause major changes in human behavior; on the other hand, new digital toys come out in increments of months or weeks, not years or generations. The kinds of “adaptation” required by each are also quite different. Climate change requires changes in food gathering or production, social organization, and location–if the climate gets sufficiently negative to human survival, people need to pack up and move elsewhere; but adapting to a new digital toy involves one’s susceptibility to advertising and hype, social pressure, and entertainment. One can choose not to purchase the latest toy or, once purchased, to discard it when it gets boring, turns out to be of little real utility, or is replaced by a newer version (think iPhone as an example of rapid obsolescence). Thus, the one says nothing about the other.
Embedded in this (yet another) just-so story about the prehistoric African savannah is a trite trope of the popular narrative of the out-of-Africa story: the image of the intrepid human explorers, silhoutted against a red African sky, spears over their shoulders, tattered packs on their backs, heading out of their settled and easy existence in Africa into the unknown. The journey of human beings out of Africa did not, of course, occur in that fashion. Bands of humans, seeking sustenance, moved incrementally out of Africa, so that it took generations for them to get, for example, to Asia and Europe. Those individuals who left Africa were not the same individuals who entered Europe. But it is also worth noting that “Africa” and “Europe,” etc. did not exist in those ancient times. These are modern historical concepts, as associated with culture, language families, and history as with geography. The prehistoric migrants were not aware of having crossed any borders because such borders did not exist. Moving on to the next valley or floodplain would not have struck them as particularly “novel.” The sense of having “migrated” would not have been very strong, perhaps not even present at all, and therefore there would not have been a very strong sense of novelty.
The faulty reasoning behind the evolutionary/genetic explanation for neophiloia and neophobia is demonstrated by this quotation from Gallagher’s book (in reference to the work of one Robert Moyzis from UC Irvine): “China’s mandarin system would have favored the individuals likeliest to get ahead in its bureaucracy, so that unlike his friskier brother, a dutiful son who rose up in the ranks might have acquired multiple wives and produced many offspring,” thus increasing the gene for neophobia in the Chinese population. This explains the tendency of the Chinese to stick with tradition and avoid innovations. Merely analyzing the sentence is enough to show the just-so quality of its argument: “friskier brother”? How does one know how frisky the mandarin’s brother was? Is it frisky to remain in the rice paddy rather than to migrate to the city and become an educated bureaucrat? And this bureaucrat “might have acquired multiple wives”? So there’s no evidence to that effect? And no evidence that the frisky brother had fewer wives and fewer children? Take out the provisionals, and this sentence has no argument at all. But further: Are we to believe that the mandarins produced sufficient progeny sufficiently dispersed among the general population so that the “gene” for neophobia prevailed over the gene for neophilia throughout the entire Chinese population? Prepotent sires, indeed!
If the genetic argument for neophilia made any sense, one would have to posit a similar gene in a number of other animals as well, including the horse, which originated in the Americas and migrated into Asia and Europe (eventually dying out in the Americas before being brought back by the Spaniards millenia later). That certainly is as epic a journey as that made by early humans, and much earlier. But of course the evolutionary/genetic argument doesn’t make sense. It is an evolutionary just-so story, cooked up not scientifically but culturally, an unconscious rationale for the preferred behavior of 21st century consumers, who are supposed to rush out and line up for the latest “toy” from Silicon Valley and elsewhere. We are neophiliacs because every instrument of our culture instructs us to be novelty seekers and, further, denigrates those who reject the new toys and those who even suggest that we could do with a bit of slowing down. I suspect also that it may be a rationale, however inadvertent, for complacency in the face of climate change. After all, if our remote ancestors could adjust to climate change on the savannah, we can adjust too, not through migration (too many refugees and illegal immigrants) but through technological innovation. That, too, may be a just-so story.