As a first year at Alfred University, I spend a lot of my time people-watching. I have attended hours and hours worth of classes, student organization meetings, other kinds of gatherings that range from sort-of-wholesome to maybe-less-than-savory — and in attending these activities, I observed a pattern of behavior in my peers that I couldn’t quite figure out. This is my first time participating in a college setting, and so these patterns were new, but they felt oddly familiar. Familiar in the way that certain things I will never do again are still muscle memory, or that there are certain reflexes I have that I no longer need to depend upon. And beyond traits that I developed on my own, there are also vestiges, gifts which my body did not know would be rendered obsolete in the world that it was born into. Like if you had mentioned one time that you wanted to take ice-skating lessons and now the universe, 200,000 years later, is still giving you and your billions of descendants skates that won’t even fit.

And so what are these patterns really? What are the behaviors in my peers actually suggesting? Is this some kind of mass regression? Are we dealing with lingering social consequences from the pandemic? There must have been some sort of environmental cause. Maybe it was something in the water? (Lead? Sodium? Imp scat?) I was carrying my empty plastic gallons to one of my secret water sources, a secluded oasis that contained an easy flow of properly filtered water that, compared to my Brita, had a purity which made it feel like a fresh spring on consecrated ground. It was Eden in a water fountain. Which got me thinking about the dawn of man, naturally — and it hit me. Egads. By Jove. Holy freaking mackerel. We have become our earliest ancestors. 

I went to my dorm and immediately took to the internet, which had reached a sort of consensus that what distinguishes humanity as we know it and our ancient predecessors are highly-developed cognitive and behavioral traits. A good example would be the trait that allows for abstract thought and complex language. This one is easy. Most students on campus are familiar with academic writing, but I can say without a doubt that every member of faculty that has assigned an essay has received at least several dozen in turn that indicate the absence of abstract thought entirely. I can look at my own recent essays for some of my classes and see the same with Dick and Jane levels of observation. “Look, Spot. Oh, look. Look and see. Oh, see,” and such. And certainly, one might say, well academic papers are at least full of complex language! Well, academic papers are barely written in the same language that we speak in. How do college students communicate with their friends? I think there’s a complex level of understanding and intuition that comes with communicating with one another, I mean so rarely do we say what we mean and depend upon assumption, but I think this is a trait that comes with the absence of language! This is something found in animals and plants and fungi that people barely consider sapient. Maybe this is hyperbolic, or maybe you can read this string of texts my friend Phoebe (a student of UAlbany) and I sent to each other. 

This, to me, feels closer to ants communicating through pheromones than any kind of dialogue between two human people. And yet the efficacy of communication is the same. A wise man once said, “Why say lot word when few word do trick?” 

But our regressions in language may not exactly be universal. It’s not even one of the behaviors I first observed when coming to this comparison of college student and pre-neolithic lifestyles. Thought and language are not as concrete and measurable as watching students fear fire in drills and announcements and heavy regulations for highly flammable buildings as though man had yet to control it. And because we have yet to control fire, it is easy to assume we have yet to create agriculture. There is a distinct lack of self-sustainability and utter dependence on the natural resources in our environment, like Starry in Ade that is replenished by the will of God alone or the crunch wraps from Freshens that contain secrets of in the folds of each tortilla that whispers contempt for the natural world untouched by man. We forage at salad bars and collect ourselves en masse in large queues like very polite and very ravenous wolves above a slaughtered lamb… if the lamb were a tray of rice with an entire pineapple in it as some kind of garnish. But we don’t always entirely know what we’re consuming. Because unlike lambs, God definitely had no hand in creating “beef enchilada soup” and who is to really say that the avocado flavored mayonnaise actually has avocado in it? And if so, WHY? So we use our basest senses, we poke and prod and sniff and lick before committing to eating something unidentifiable. And even this can be unreliable.

Luckily, something we do and always will have, is art and innovation. And perhaps these things are indicators of abstract thought! We create things! There are things that have utilitarian purposes, like spoons made from coffee creamer cups and stirring sticks, finger splints from ballpoint pens, and slightly-better-than-standard-vodka vodka by putting fruit in it and creating fruit that contain all the bad parts of alcohol. The wonders of innovation! Those of us who prioritize utility over self-expression will wear clothes that we find especially breathable or comfortable. And those of us who prioritize self-expression over utility will flaunt our finest animal-skins in our Doc Martens and trendy knitwear that we’ve spent hours tirelessly weaving. 

Another great thing is that we don’t even suffer from predation! Okay, well, actually, maybe there’s a little bit of predation. And when we don’t experience it, the fear of it is definitely still present. High-stress is something that can exacerbate that fear tenfold, which is funny, because the rigor of some students’ coursework can be a great producer of stress. It makes me wonder as to whether or not our minds subconsciously register completing work as life-or-death as though we were experiencing an active, dangerous threat. This probably has nothing to do with 37% of college students (recorded in a data pool of 96,000 students during the 2021-2022 academic year in the annual Healthy Minds Network survey) reporting anxiety disorders. 

There are some behaviors that indicate modernity, like identifying ourselves with groups beyond mere coexistence (in friends, clubs, majors, colleges, and so forth), but I think really the connection between prehistoric behavior and the college student lifestyle, no matter how small or vague, is indisputably present on campus. From the fear of fire before mankind first learned how to control it to the fear of predation that carries onto treating coursework like it has teeth, we are not at all that different from our earliest ancestors.