What Would a Caveman Do? Part IV

Several years ago I was chatting with a neurologist in the hospital cafeteria, and somehow we got on the subject of obsessive compulsive behavior. He felt that many human behaviors we consider to be obsessive compulsive are really just natural human behaviors that probably benefitted us as primitive creatures. Take nail biting for example.

Nail biting was probably a necessity for the caveman. Humans had evolved into creatures who used their hands for very delicate, upright activities. The natural scratching of the earth which grinds down a horse’s hoof was not sufficient to keep our fingernails cut low enough to perform those intricate deeds. We had no clippers. Sure we could sit around and rub our nails on a stone. But why do that when we had perfectly good teeth? Sorry to offend, but they probably munched on their toe nails too.

So why would we consider nail biting to be a bad or nervous habit, or an obsessive compulsive behavior? Now I’m not saying it’s a desirable behavior. After all, we have clippers. But after that conversation I started thinking about nail biting and cavemen. I thought of my own family. I’m a nail biter and so are my kids. My husband is not. He gets to cut his nails! I can’t remember the last time I cut my nails. I don’t feel nervous when I bite my nails. I can try not to bite my nails. But I am a nail biter.

Is my nail biting as inherent to me as my hair color or my hair straightness? I started thinking about genetics, and how the genes for nail biting might be passed down from generation to generation, just like curly hair (which my husband and both children have).

And then…is the propensity for having pain and painful conditions passed down from generation to generation, just like the genes for curly hair and nail biting? Of course it is.

And then…did the predisposition to have painful conditions come from my parents? Of course not. It came from the cavemen, because remember…we have not evolved since then. We have not improved our body’s ability to be pain free whatsoever. We have only improved our collective ability to prevent and treat that pain. And that’s why pill makers have jobs. Seat belt makers. Roof builders.  It’s why I have a job!

2 Responses to What Would a Caveman Do? Part IV

  1. Ricardo July 12, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

    I was thinking about the same thing and Google brought me here.
    It might not be true and we might never know but it doesn’t seem unlikely.

    I wonder if nail biting is seen in apes.
    Maybe some species or individuals have behaviors that don’t cause their nails to worn off enough.

    Also, could primitive grooming habits be the reason for other “disorders”, like trichotillomania?

    • Barbara July 16, 2012 at 3:43 pm #

      My guess is that there’s some prehistoric reason for that behavior. Maybe it’s also related to the formation of dreadlocks. How else is a caveman going to deal with growing hair. Yanking it out is painful. No scissors! So twirl it around until it breaks off! But if your roots are strong and your hair doesn’t break off easily, then maybe you form dreadlocks instead.

      Glad you came to my blog, even if it was an indirect approach! Hope you’ll keep following me.

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