Obama's Fetal Position Advice Politicizes Evolutionary Biology

President Barack Obama just dished out some evolutionary realness to anyone worried about the outcome of the election: Don’t get into a fetal position.

Obama’s forward-facing advice, which he gave during a recent interview with the New Yorker, is the President’s nod to the early days of Homo sapiens, when curling up into a ball was an instinctive response to physical threats. When humans fold into themselves, their most important internal organs — the heart, the lungs, and the liver — are shielded from bites or blows. But with their arms wrapped around their head or legs, they’re also totally unable to fight back.

In this sense, Obama’s post-election advice can be distilled into two related warnings: Don’t give into fears about threats to your life, and be prepared to put up a fight. Evolutionary psychologists would agree: In the textbook Evolutionary Forensic Psychology, authors Joshua Duntley and Todd Shackelford write that natural selection shaped our responses to threats to “minimize the costs of victimization” while it’s taking place. “Curling into a fetal position may help to deflect blows from an attacker away from a victim’s head and internal organs,” they write, noting a possible evolutionary basis for this behavior but also, notably, placing the human firmly into the role of victim. This, incidentally, is exactly what Obama wants Americans to avoid.

The fetal position's namesake is the ultimate defenseless victim.

Think about the situations in which humans curl up into the fetal position. There is, of course, the namesake fetus, which is the ultimate defenseless creature. People who have undergone extreme psychological or physical trauma instinctively curl up in order to avoid further damage to the internal organs or brain. Opioid addicts, similarly, fold into the fetal position when they are in the throes of withdrawal. By doing so, all of these people are merely trying stay alive — not change the situation that’s causing them pain.

While Obama’s evolution-inspired advice may seem a bit unexpected, his interview as a whole championed a scientific way of thinking, consistent with his outspoken views on the importance of STEM education and fact-based policy changes in a “post-truth” world. ““Societies and cultures are really complicated. . . . This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and its messy,” he told the New Yorker, describing how he explained the election outcome to his daughters. Rather than curl up in the fetal position and allow yourself to be a victim, he says, it’s best to ask: “[Where] are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward?”

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