Saturday, December 16, 2006

On their high horses

I found this article in the "Soundings" section of this weeks BMJ. Here, I reproduce it without their permission:

On their high horses

Contemporary society is preoccupied with risk reduction. Concerns about safety and security predominate in all realms of modern life, and the perception is that if people took fewer risks they would live longer, better, and cheaper lives.

People generally eat what they eat and resort to drugs because they find it pleasurable-The same applies to their sexual habits. The focus of health education is on persuading people to forgo self gratification for the sake of their physical and mental wellbeing.

But besides eating, drinking, and having sex, there are many other types of risky behaviour that people pursue because they give them pleasure and that are promoted by contemporary culture. Most sports and competitive activities entail risk taking. Indeed, the pleasure derived from the activity may be directly proportional to the inherent risk.

Recently, in writing about our hunter-gatherer ancestors, people have suggested that risk taking was adaptive and is therefore wired to pleasure in our genetic make up. Certainly the alpha male was and is a risk taker, and alpha males are thriving because of sexual selection: the female, in order to secure fitness for her offspring, prefers to breed with the "strong."

Once the strongest was the largest, the hairiest, the most cunning, the most circumspect male. Nowadays the strongest is the best informed, the most powerful, the wealthiest, the most famous. The female of the species still prefers the strongest male, for he is likely to turn her reproductive investment into success. But successful individuals are risk takers.

One wonders how society decides what kind of pleasurable risk taking is acceptable. Is there class prejudice in this? Mountaineering and horse riding are more dangerous than sitting in front of the television, eating fish and chips, and swilling beer. None of these activities is adaptive. The former pastimes are aristocratic, while the latter are perceived as proletarian.

Members of the health establishment are more likely to break their necks falling from rocks or horses than are the majority of the population, who are likely to indulge in more down to earth pleasures. Is this why the health police tend to target watching television and drinking beer rather than horse riding and mountaineering?

Imre Loefler - Former editor, Nairobi Hospital Proceedings, Kenya