Hormones Rule: Why We Do What We Did 20,000 Years Ago

By: Ken Streater | Leadership | Blog

There are over 60 hormones in humans. Scientifically speaking, hormones are internally secreted biochemical compounds formed in endocrine glands and transported by bodily fluids to affect the function of targeted organs.  Put less scientifically, hormones are “chemical messengers” that travel in your blood to different tissues or organs. In some cases they are designed to make changes in your body over time and in other cases they change how you are and what you do in an instant. Put it into street cred language, hormones make us and make us do what we do.

As a species, our hormones have changed a little bit over time, as evidenced by how much body hair we have now compared to our earliest ancestors 200,000 years ago. We even have less hair than our more recent predecessors of 20,000 years ago, when our species first started to farm. However, much as the shape of our ear has not changed an iota over thousands of generations (assuming a generation is 20 years), hormones trigger actions in humans today that were required when we were simply hunting and gathering or learning how to make fire and water seeds.

The perfect example of hormones still trying to do today what they were needed for eons ago is goose bumps.  We all get these when we get cold or feel scared or are indescribably amazed.  Physiologically, we get goose bumps because our hair follicles are trying to get our hair to stand up when the hormone adrenaline races through our body. Adrenaline? Yep, goose bumps are from this hormone (yes, it is a hormone, not a drug or some other biochemical agent) that makes our heart race and helps us to run faster.

Our ancestor’s hair needed to stand up when they were cold for obvious reasons: it gave them a thicker human coat to insulate and keep their core warm. Today we don’t rely on hair standing up to get rid of those chills, we just turn up the heater or put on a microfiber super baffle polyethylene terephthalate fashion jacket made of 83% post-consumer oil-based products, aka fleece.  Fleece is the byproduct of our being relatively hairless for thousands of years, much as Granny Smiths are the byproduct of the engineering of Adam, Eve, and Sir Isaac Newton’s favorite fruit. It is easy to understand goose bumps to keep us warm biogenetically, but what about goose bumps which appear when we are afraid or awed?

“Hair-raising.” Modern lexicon even labels the type of event that causes goose bumps even though our hair doesn’t much stand up anymore. We get goose bumps today when we are afraid or in awe. Back then hair-raising happened when a huge animal that could kill our distant relatives came into camp or cave. Their body hair stood on end as they stood together, hoping they looked bigger than they were. Hair standing up added an extra few millimeters of size and everyone standing together gave them strength in bigger-looking numbers, and in some cases the predator ran off. This allowed our forefathers and mothers to live another day. Why then, after 20,000 years of not living in complete fear of predators–since domestication means we do not regularly face a huge beast and need to get bigger to scare that beast off–do we get goose bumps? And, where did awe-generated goose bumps come from if we originally were just trying to defend ourselves? From hormones that remain relatively unaltered from 20,000 or 200,000 years ago.

Hormones cause us to get goose bumps in reaction to something bigger than ourselves. Now, whether a stunning sunset, a video of a kitten scaring off a violent pit bull to save a child, a song that captures the essence of our heart, a stranger saving the life of another stranger, or a look into the eyes and soul of your child, hormones give us goose bumps and then unify us in marvel. Today, when true survival is still genetically a first concern but sociologically not necessarily so, we have evolved into feeling awe courtesy of hormones still trying to do their thing. We react to something too big to comprehend and are brought together in that awe.

Adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, cortisol, estrogen, and testosterone. These are all hormones that create natural and unconscious actions and reactions, courtesy of their original purpose to keep us alive and propagating. We cannot deny their pulls and pushes on us, any more than we can ignore the autonomic nerves that make us breathe every few seconds. Hormones are not going anywhere soon, as seen by how long they have been around. But unlike our earliest distant cousins, our brains can help us recognize and then massage their driving force on behavior in order to create a better life. In doing so, we do ourselves more favor than damage, positively shift the evolution of our species, and create a balanced life that honors rather than compromises our capacity to do good and be well.