Why all of this in the first place?

Okay, so evolutionary psychology can answer questions regarding why we are the way we are. But that only pushes the line of questioning one level further — what about the question ‘why are we here at all’? In other words — Why evolution? Why life?

Before we try to answer that question, we need to reflect on what ‘why’ really is. What we need to understand is that the ‘Why?’ is merely a tool within our minds. It is a tool that helps us figure out the purpose or intention behind an action. We already discussed how from an evolutionary perspective, we are all unconsciously in a race to the top of a social hierarchy and that we’re competing with each other to get there. In this context, reflecting on ‘why’ is a tool that helps us figure out the purpose of other’s actions and what their intentions are, while also helping us formulate our own intentions.

‘Why’ by nature is a question about the reasonpurpose or intention of something. But only conscious living beings can have a purpose or can see purpose in others’ actions. An object like a rock, for example, doesn’t have a purpose because it doesn’t have a mind. Similarly, processes like say the wind, or the waves, don’t have ‘intentions’, or ‘reasons’ or any ‘purpose’. That just doesn’t apply to things other than sentient beings. Purpose requires the existence of an agent with a plan. When it comes to evolution — it is merely a process, there’s no agent and there’s no plan.

Asking “why life?” is basically similar to asking ‘Why gravity?’, or ‘Why mass?’ or ‘Why the universe?’. Such questions don’t make sense and never will. These things exist. We can study how they work; we can study the rules. But there can just never be an answer as to why they exist, because that is not a valid question in the first place. 

“Humans have always wondered about the meaning of life…life has no higher purpose than to perpetuate the survival of DNA…life has no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” — Richard Dawkins

Some find it hard to accept that all of life around us is the result of a mindless algorithm. But it is a mistake to think otherwise. There is no grand plan, no ‘maker’ or ‘designer’. Evolution is definitely not an easy concept to get one’s head around. Richard Dawkin’s book The Blind Watchmaker is focused on helping people understand how such a complex world can emerge from an algorithm.

Evolution is just a process. It does not have a mind and therefore, doesn’t have a purpose. It is merely an algorithm, albeit an incredibly complex one. Our very useful tool that helps us figure out intention and purpose just does not apply to such processes. So the quick answer the question of “Why life?” is — there is no answer, and there can never be. It is like asking why the universe? or why the rock? or why the waves? We can explain the ‘how?’ part maybe, but when it comes to the ‘purpose’ or the ‘intention’ — there is none, there never was and there will never be. 

‘Why?’ exists only inside our minds.

It is very unsettling to have this realization, right? It seems that this answer is unacceptable to many. It leaves a gaping hole at the center of our existence. Many fill this hole with answers that are entirely inaccurate and have no place in science. Many start believing that the purpose of life is to be reincarnated, or go to heaven or attain moksha — phenomenon for which there is not a spec of proof or evidence.

So the answers to the biggest questions one may have about life and existence are quite straightforward. We are merely vehicles of our genes, whose sole purpose is to propagate themselves. The process by which this happens is called evolution, and why all this happens is a question to which there can never be an answer.

Reflection – Free Will

Let me confess — so far I have tried to avoid the topic of who’s really in ‘control’ — is it the genes, or is it us? Clearly evolutionary psychology paints a picture that the genes are much more in control than we think. So then are ‘we’ in control at all? Another way of asking the same question — is there any ‘free will’? This has been an eternal debate among philosophers.

First, let’s clarify what the question is here. We’re trying to figure out who’s in control — our genes or ‘us’? But what is ‘us’? In the context of this discussion, ‘me’ and ‘you’ refers to our consciousness. Most of our body is clearly not in our conscious control. We don’t consciously control say the heart, the liver, the kidney, etc. So a more precise question is who has more control — our consciousness or our genes (and the environment)?

From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, our consciousness is a tiny part of the entire machine (human body) that is being puppeteered by the genes. It’s function is highly debated, the latest thought is that it is like the marketing department of the machine that helps us interact with the outside world to find opportunities, ultimately to serve the interest of our genes. Centuries ago, Charles Darwin had already concluded that “thought… seems as much [a] function of organ, as bile of liver” Notebooks, p614. Really, what reason do we have to believe that the mind and the brain are anything different from the purely mechanical and physical processes occurring in the rest of our body? Why should we think it is anything more than an incredibly complex and incomprehensible computer?

Well, because we feel differently about our mind than the rest of our body! We feel that we can control it and experience it. How can the mind be a mechanical machine when I am clearly making my own decisions and choices? This is why the non-existence of free-will is perhaps the most difficult argument to make to a layman — we have all sorts of mechanisms in our brain that make us feel that it is ‘us’ (our consciousness) who is making the decisions, ‘we’ are responsible for our actions and ‘we’ control our destiny. But this is just a feeling that is deceiving us. Our consciousness, is a highly limited and very superficial function that is being entirely controlled by forces that are ‘subconscious’ or ‘unconscious’.

The more you think about it, the more clear it gets. This realization is already making headlines.

“Scientists link crime to low serotonin… A natural chemical called oxytocin is found to underlie love… People are getting the sense — from news in genetics, molecular biology, pharmacology, neurology, endocrinology — that we are all machines, pushed and pulled by forces that we can’t discern but that science can” 
 – Moral Animal, L6125.

Let’s look at a few groundbreaking examples that more than prove how limited and superficial our consciousness is. In these cases, something has gone terribly wrong in the brain and that exposes the inner workings and how our consciousness is really being controlled by forces we are not aware of.

Experiments were conducted on ‘split brain’ patients — people who had the link between the right half and left half of the brain cut off to stop seizures. Surprisingly, such a surgery has very little effect on everyday behavior and these were completely normal people. But some experiments done on them revealed much about how the brain works. In these patients, given that the brain is split, the left and right halves of the brain cannot communicate with each other. Now, the left half controls language and seems to responsible for most of consciousness (Moral Animal, L4717). We also need to note that the left half of the brain controls the right half of the body and the right half of the brain controls the left half of the body. In many of these experiments, the right half of the brain is shown an image (by only showing it to the left eye) and that provokes some or the other action related to that image. Now the issue is that the left part of the brain doesn’t know what was seen and thus has no idea why the consequent action was carried out, however, it is the part that is responsible for consciousness and communication! In one example, the right brain was shown the command “walk” and the patient started walking. Now, he was questioned as to why he started walking — since his left brain, which doesn’t have any knowledge of why he’s walking, is responsible for answering that question, the right answer should have been “I don’t know”. But the patient actually said he was walking in order to get a drink! The most surprising part is that time and again in such situations, people justified their actions with a lot conviction — they really believed the made up reason! In another example, a nude image was flashed to the right brain of a woman, who immediately started laughing. When asked to explain why she was laughing, again, she came up with reasons that had nothing to do with the real reason.

What does this say about consciousness? Michael Gazzaniga, who conducted some of these experiments, has said that language is merely the “press agent” for other parts of the mind — “it justifies whatever acts they induce, convincing the world that the actor is a reasonable, rational, upstanding person. It may be that the realm of consciousness itself is in large part such a press agent — the place where our unconsciously written press releases are infused with the conviction that gives them force. Consciousness cloaks the cold and self-serving logic of the genes in a variety of innocent guises” (Moral Animal, L4735). Jerome Barkow, an anthropologist has written, “It is possible to argue that the primary evolutionary function of the self (consciousness) is to be the organ of impression management”.

“not only is the feeling that we are “consciously” in control of our behavior an illusion, it is a purposeful illusion, designed by natural selection to lend conviction to our claims”
 – Moral Animal, L4743

As we have just seen, when things go wrong, we get glimpses into the inner working of the brain. We will now look at a few cases where things went really really wrong. They are described in detail in this article, from which all the quotes are taken.

In 1966, Charles Whitman killed 13 people and wounded 32 others by shooting at them with his rifle. When the police went to investigate his home for clues, they discovered that Whitman had murdered his mother and stabbed his wife to death in her sleep. We have all heard similar horrific stories. And we often wonder — how can someone choose to do something so horrible?

Turns out, Charles Whitman had a very normal life and was a normal person for the most part. “Whitman was an Eagle Scout and a former marine, studied architectural engineering at the University of Texas, and briefly worked as a bank teller and volunteered as a scoutmaster for Austin’s Boy Scout Troop 5. As a child, he’d scored 138 on the Stanford-Binet IQ test, placing in the 99th percentile. So after his shooting spree from the University of Texas Tower, everyone wanted answers.”

The evening before his rampage, Whitman composed a suicide note where he wrote “I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts… It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight … I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this …”. Further, he requested in his suicide note that an autopsy be performed to determine whether something had changed in his brain because he suspected it had. “I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt [overcome by] overwhelming violent impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail.”

When the autopsy was done, medical experts found a tumor with the diameter of a small coin in his brain. Here is an excerpt from the article: “This tumor, called a glioblastoma, had blossomed from beneath a structure called the thalamus, impinged on the hypothalamus, and compressed a third region called the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in emotional regulation, especially of fear and aggression. By the late 1800s, researchers had discovered that damage to the amygdala caused emotional and social disturbances. In the 1930s, the researchers Heinrich Klüver and Paul Bucy demonstrated that damage to the amygdala in monkeys led to a constellation of symptoms, including lack of fear, blunting of emotion, and overreaction. Female monkeys with amygdala damage often neglected or physically abused their infants”

A more recent case is about a man who’s sexual preferences suddenly began to transform. He became addicted to child pornography, and started making very inappropriate sexual advances even toward his own step daughter. He ultimately ended up in prison guilty of child molestation. When he underwent a brain scan, a massive tumor in his orbitofrontal cortex was discovered. When the tumor was removed, Alex’s sexual appetite returned to normal. A year later, he started making inappropriate advances again — they discovered that a portion of the tumor was regrowing. After a subsequent surgery, his behavior again returned to normal.

In 2001, families and caretakers of Parkinson’s patients began to notice something strange. When patients were given a drug called pramipexole, some of them turned into gamblers. And not just casual gamblers, but pathological gamblers. These were people who had never gambled much before, and now they were flying off to Vegas. One 68-year-old man amassed losses of more than $200,000 in six months at a series of casinos. Some patients became consumed with Internet poker, racking up unpayable credit-card bills. For several, the new addiction reached beyond gambling, to compulsive eating, excessive alcohol consumption, and hypersexuality.

These are extreme examples, do they tell us anything about normally functioning people? Most definitely. They show us that our consciousness, our behavior, our decisions are mostly controlled by forces that we don’t have the slightest clue about. In these unfortunate cases no reasonable person would think they did these things by choice and that their ‘free will’ guided their actions. Why then do we think that the rest of us ‘normal’ people have something called ‘free will’ and are making our own choices? What happened in these cases was that the subconscious forces that control the consciousness started sending inappropriate signals. But if you ask them — they would still feel like they made the choice and they had free will. Whitman wrote “I decided to kill my wife”, not “I am not in control and some subconscious forces made me kill my wife”. Free will is an illusion. We feel that we are making our own choices, but we are actually not in control.

It is worth discussing another very interesting experiment that throws light on this discussion.

In a seminal study by psychologists Lyn Abramson, PhD, Lauren Alloy, PhD, and others in 1979 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (Vol. 108, No. 4, pages 441–485) participants were asked to press a button due to which they may or may not see a light bulb appear on a computer screen. After a number of such trials, they were asked to rate their control from zero (no control) to 100 (total control). It turned out that people who were depressed were actually very accurate in judging how much control they had, and non-depressed or happy people consistently overestimated their level of control. While this could be true for a variety of reasons, it affirms what I have observed — happy people are much more prone to thinking they are in ‘control’ and have ‘free will’ than depressed people.

So what are the forces that control our thoughts, feelings and behaviors? The genes and the environment. There is much debate about which one is more important. Robert Wright’s analogy is quite insightful — “As we’ve seen, everyone is a victim not of genes, but of genes and environment together: knobs and tunings. Then again, a victim is a victim. A stereo has no more control over its tunings than over the knobs it was born with; whatever importance you attach to the two factors, there’s no sense in which the stereo is to blame for its music.” (Moral Animal L6072). In his book, he writes a lot about what this implies about the justice system and how do we deal with this realization. “that some of our motives are hidden from us not incidentally but by design, so that we can credibly act as if they aren’t what they are; that, more generally, the “delusion about free will” may be an adaptation… free will is an illusion, brought to us by evolution. All the things we are commonly blamed or praised for — ranging from murder to theft…- are a result not of choices made by some immaterial “I” but of physical necessity. “This view should teach one profound humility, one deserves no credit for anything,” Darwin wrote in his notes. “Nor ought one to blame others”. (Moral Animal L6111)

“Darwinism will increasingly frame this picture and give it narrative force. We will see not only that, for example, low serotonin encourages crime, but why: it seems to reflect a person’s perception of foreclosed routes to material success; natural selection may “want” that person to take alternate routes. Serotonin and Darwinism together could thus bring sharp testament to otherwise vague complaints about how criminals are “victims of society.” A young inner-city thug is pursuing status by the path of least resistance, no less than you; and he is compelled by forces just as strong and subtle as the ones that have made you what you are. You may not reflect on this when he kicks your dog or snatches your purse, but afterwards, on reflection, you may. And you may then see that you would have been him had you been born in his circumstances.” (Moral Animal L6133)

We must view a wicked man, Darwin wrote in his notes, “like a sickly one.” It would “be more proper to pity than to hate & be disgusted.” (Moral Animal — L6166)

4. Our Glorious Future

There is a silver lining around the dark cloud of evolution. We know that the algorithm that created us is deeply flawed and corrupt because of all the pain and suffering it creates. But we are beginning to decode this algorithm.

For instance, we’ve discovered that two neurotransmitters or chemicals in our brain, seem to be largely responsible for how happy we feel. They are called serotonin and dopamine.

“In vervet monkey societies, dominant males have more of the neurotransmitter serotonin than do their subordinates. And one study found that in college fraternities, officers, on average, have more serotonin than do their less powerful fraternity brothers.”
“serotonin seems to relax people, make them more gregarious, more socially assertive… In fact, one of alcohol’s effects is to release serotonin.” (Moral Animal, L4160)

Turns out, happiness is nothing but some combination of chemicals in our brain. 

Evolution doesn’t make us directly pursue genetic proliferation, it makes us pursue happiness instead. One might consider this a design flaw – if you really wanted us just to proliferate our genes, why go about it in such a convoluted way? Why all this drama of happiness, pain and suffering? But in this flaw lies our salvation. This design flaw presents us with an incredible opportunity.

For a moment, let’s imagine the best possible world. There are words for it — paradise, utopia, heaven. What does this look like? Everyone is extremely happy, euphoric, satisfied, and at peace with everything. There is extreme amounts of love, friendliness and brotherhood — everyone considers everyone else as if they were a part of one big loving happy family. Everything is full of wonder and awe.

Well happiness, euphoria, love, satisfaction, friendliness, etc are all just feelings. Each of these feelings in turn is merely some or the other combination of chemicals in our brain. We’ve been misconstruing paradise, thinking its a physical place we have to transport ourselves to. Rather, it is a state of mind. Now, how do we reach this state of mind? The problem is evolution has designed these wonderful feelings of happiness, love, peace, in our minds, but programmed them to occur very very sparingly. Negative feelings like anxiety and stress are much more abundant. Remember, evolution’s agenda is genetic proliferation, and in no way is it focused on maximising our happiness.

But again, we are beginning to figure out what these feelings really are – just a bunch of chemicals in our brain! If we figure out how to control these chemicals, there might actually be a way to get to this paradise we have all been dreaming of. But would it work? What happens if we somehow artificially increase these chemicals in our brain?

“The reality is that at some level we have already been doing this for thousands of years by using psychoactive substances (substances that affect the way we feel). Tea and coffee increase dopamine, alcohol increases serotonin and to some extent dopamine. Most of the ‘drugs’ allow us to temporarily experience extreme levels of one or both of these chemicals. Most antidepressants also work on one of these chemicals… By the turn of the twenty-first century, perhaps $400 billion or 8% of world trade was in illicit drugs.”  (The Hedonistic Imperative)

So manipulating these neurochemicals inside one’s brain isn’t exactly a novel idea. But here’s something that’s probably new to you – philosopher David Pearce actually believes that paradise is something that can be engineered. Since its actually just a bunch of chemicals in your brain, we can figure how they all work. We may not have the knowledge and tools to do that today. But its just a matter of time until we actually do. And then it becomes merely a design and engineering problem! In a manifesto called ‘The Hedonistic Imperative’, David Pearce suggests a long term vision where we begin by creating designer drugs to engineer this paradise for us, and ultimately we make it permanent by reengineering our genetic code itself!

In fact, David Pearce doesn’t see this is as a fantasy, he calls it a prophecy – soon enough, most people will realise that there is a big disconnect between what we want and what we are made for. Science is already making huge strides to figuring out what happiness really is and how we can affect it. Once it becomes technically feasible to do so, will we not actually do it? According to David Pearce – utopia, paradise, heaven is the ultimate destiny of mankind – and its just a matter of time before we engineer it right here on earth.

David suggests that in the future humanity will experience “states of divine happiness” that are “orders of magnitude more beautiful” than anything we can experience today. He says that our primitive minds do not have the capacity to even imagine these extraordinary states of mind – “even if we could glimpse the future, perhaps we’d be like cats watching TV”. We will have “profound love for our fellow beings”. In case you are wondering about the practicalities – he writes that we will be more creative, productive as well and that it is technically possible to be very productive while having these ultra-happy and loving feelings. 

“There are unimaginably good times ahead”. David was himself a major depressive and ending suffering has always been the biggest priority for him. In the Hedonistic Imperative, he claims that we will end suffering and negative feelings not just for us, but for all sentient beings – “At some momentous and exactly dateable time, the last unpleasant experience ever to occur on this planet will take place. Possibly, it will be a minor pain in some obscure marine invertebrate”. He suggests that nanotechnology and robotics will help humanity erase suffering from all beings on our planet.

Now before your head explodes, lets pause here a bit to reflect. I’d say most people who read these ideas reject them instinctively. Yes, we all want some sort of paradise – but really, is this the only way? It seems really crazy! And if this is the only way then maybe we should reconsider this whole paradise thing… Are things really so bad?

For me, the answer to the first question is – most definitely, yes, this seems to be the only way out. Evolutionary forces control our every thought, feeling and behaviour – all the evidence is very clear to me, and now that this idea has been rattling around in my head for more than a decade, I can so easily relate to it when it comes to my own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. These evolutionary forces have created happiness, empathy, love, and all the feelings we care about, but we feel them so sparingly. And the same forces also created sadness, hatred, depression, anxiety, anger, and death. These bad feelings and phenomena aren’t going anywhere because they are essential to how evolution works. So if we let evolution just run its course, it is in no way going to lead to some paradise on earth. In fact, evolution has been at work for billions of years now – and it has never brought us any closer to paradise. 

So if we ever want to even try to get to paradise, we will have to hack into our own brain and rewire some stuff – whether it be through designer drugs, genetic engineering, electrical stimulation or some other method. I have no doubt that hacking into our own code is the only way we will ever get to any kind of paradise. But this last part paints a bit of a horrific image to most people. It’s actually quite funny – it almost seems like evolution has implanted in our minds a severe aversion to messing with its code! 

So now the next question is, should we do it? The answer to this question actually depends on whether you’re a happy person, or a not so happy person. A depressed person is very easy to convince – he feels the negative feelings like depression and anxiety every single day. Most such people feel that life is quite terrible. It’s not fair that they feel terrible all the time and something needs to be done about it. In fact many of them are already heavily messing with the code by taking anti-depressants.

A happy person is much harder to convince. Most of the times they feel the positive emotions, not the negative ones. To them life is great, many would even say beautiful. So why do we need all this crazy stuff? What if we mess it up and create something much worse? I must admit it’s quite tough to convince these happy people at an instinctual level, so unless they are willing to think this through slowly and intellectualise it, it’s quite a long shot. But let’s try it! To all the happy people, I have a few questions for you.

What emotions do you really feel on a day to day basis? Yes, you may feel love, happiness and peace but really how often in your day to day life? Your state of mind mostly revolves around work, which is nothing but some kind of goal that will improve your status. At its best, work can be exciting, inspiring and fulfilling – but really how often do you feel like that about your work? You’re happy, but your mind is a pretty disappointing space if you really think about it. Because how often do you tell your family, your loved ones that you love them? How often do you actually feel deep, emotional love for them? In fact, have you noticed how you can’t even really hang out too much with your family or your friends? You may not say it out loud, but many times you have ill feelings like frustration, anger and jealousy towards your own family and friends. You have ego issues with your own loved ones. The people that we love the most are also the ones that we hurt the most. So then how deep is your love?

How often do you tend to have mindblowing insights about your work or your life? How often do you appreciate beauty deeply, the way those poets do? How often do you have real peak moments where you’re insanely happy? In these moments you may have felt the urge to shake everyone up and make them realise the love, the beauty… Tell your family you love them. But the moment passes and you never get to it.

In the end, your mind is just a tool that tirelessly works to protect the interests of your genes. So even for the happiest people in the world, things are great, but not really that great. And they could be better. Much, much better. So coming back to our question – should we do it? Should we mess with our code to try and overcome some of these evolutionary constraints?

Funny thing is, we have already been doing it for centuries! The medical professional is perhaps the biggest example of this. We are cutting open bodies, replacing parts and organs. Of course, before the advent of the field of surgery, many would’ve objected and been scared by it. The human body is sacred, how can you just cut it open and mess with it? Today it’s an everyday reality that people are very grateful for.

Drugs and pharmaceuticals purposefully hack into our code when we consider the code ‘faulty’ – from simple allergies to diabetes to cancer. The use of painkillers is perhaps the best example. Say you picked up an injury. Your genetic code is programmed to make you feel pain. But today’s society says no, it is not right for someone to feel pain and encourages you to take some painkillers. These painkillers literally hack into our code to stop the pain – they stop the release of certain chemicals and prevent them from reaching our pain receptors.

So we are hacking into our own code left, right and centre. But ultimately, happiness is what we care about the most. So why not directly hack into the emotional systems of our brain in order to start engineering paradise right here on earth?

And probably one of the biggest concerns is – what if we mess it up? How the hell will any of this even happen? It’s crazy and scary! But again, this is a design and engineering problem. 200 years ago if someone said we should make a vehicle that can fly in the air and transport people – it probably would’ve sounded way crazier and scarier than this proposition. But design and engineering showed us it was possible. We may have no idea how a bridge, or a tunnel or even a building stands and doesn’t collapse, but we are not scared by it. We either figure it out and its happier ever after, or we fail without causing much of a dent. Similarly, all of this can happen in a safe, sensible way – with the support of science and medicine, with experimentation, all in a controlled way.

Most people who don’t have the perspective of how evolution is pulling the strings react negatively to these ideas because they are ‘unnatural’. But in light of everything we have discussed here – there is nothing glorious about the ‘natural’ anyway! “Nature is barbarious and futile beyond belief”, as David Pearce puts it. The evolutionary perspective puts the our genetic code in a horribly negative light and you would rather welcome all kinds of hacks to make it better.

Personally, I am bothered by a couple of issues in terms of going in this direction. The first one comes from my personal experiences with a few people that I’m close to who got on to SSRIs as a treatment for their mood related disorders. SSRI stands for Selective Seretonin Reuptake Inhibitors, essentially a compound that increases seretonin in the brain. I’d go as far as to say this has been one of the first incredibly successful mind hacks humanity has made that directly increases happiness. But there seems to be a dramatic change in personality, in who the person is, when he or she gets onto an SSRI. This is not surprise, because when you go from being depressed to being happy, you see a huge increase in confidence, which causes many unexpected behavioral changes. This can result in new frictions, changes in relationships, group dynamics, etc that may be unsettling for the people around the person. 

But then in each case, the SSRI itself has been the biggest blessing to the person’s life – it has ended years or decades of depression and anxiety. So the peripheral effects may lead to a adjustment period, but it’s definitely been worth it. For me, the big lesson here was that any changes to happiness will bring changes to the personality, to who the person is and how you are to interact with the person. This will bring some sort of learning curve for all us, but that should most definitely be worth the trade off.

The second concern is how society and the law will deal with this effort. If tomorrow someone came up with a safe mood-enhancing substance or other kind of ‘hack’, would it even be legal to produce and consume it? The laws currently are very favourable to such efforts when done for the reduction of suffering, but highly unfavourable when done for the sake of ‘enhancing’ one’s happiness. But then at some point the laws were favourable to slavery and were unfavourable to women’s rights. Ultimately the laws will reflect what most people consider is the right thing to do.

So yes, I believe we should go in this direction. People are interested in hacking the code for many agendas. The transhumanist movement advocates for hacking our code to enhance our intellectual and physical abilities. Of course, once the tools are available, the hacking will happen in many different directions. To me, happiness will always be the first priority. Why does someone want to be smarter, or stronger? So that they can feel good about themselves. Ultimately it’s always about the feeling. Also, making everyone super smart and super strong doesn’t create any kind of paradise, in fact you can imagine it getting pretty ugly! Happiness, love and empathy is what can get us there.

So, we need to start hacking into our happiness. In fact, the purpose of this entire piece of writing is actually to issue a war cry to the entire world – we need an organised effort around this. It may really be the most important human project ever.

Of course, this is not to undermine the incredible efforts being made to battle various diseases and also poverty. But these ‘happiness hacks’ work on a different dimension altogether. You could be incredibly healthy and wealthy, but at the same time incredibly depressed and unhappy – in fact, almost all the depressed people I know belong to this category (surprise, surprise!). Or you could be suffering health problems, but you could be happier than the average person – not really dwelling on your health problems and still enjoying life. Money, beyond a certain threshold, doesn’t make you any happier as shown by many studies. Extending the human lifespan and even achieving immortality is another hack people are quite excited by. Our lives may get longer, but we need to also ensure they are really worth living! Is there any point to quantity without quality?

The dimensions of health and economic growth are getting tremendous attention from nations, charities, researchers and the likes. The dimension of happiness is being sorely neglected. And this is no surprise for two reasons. First, we haven’t even realised its a dimension to be worked upon. Improving health and eliminating poverty are things anyone can easily understand and agree with. But a tiny fraction of the people on our planet today see the world with the evolutionary perspective outlined in this book. And without this perspective, there are a million ways to actually justify, rationalise and be okay with the way things are. Second, we know much too little about happiness and the neurochemicals that produce those feelings.

One aspect that has been getting attention is the treatment of depression, anxiety and other mood-related disorders. Since these are seen as ‘diseases’ or ‘disorders’, we are finding ways to battle them with an array of tools, including some powerful pharmaceuticals. And while this may not be as exciting as creating paradise on earth, it is undoubtedly more important. About 10% of the human population suffers from ‘major depressive disorder’, which basically means they experience an extreme form of depression that is virtually lifelong. Extremely negative feelings of anxiety, sadness, self-hatred and shame pervade almost every moment and every thought for most of them. They never feel happy, many don’t even really know what happiness is. Fortunately, we already have a few pharmaceuticals that are able to help many of them feel better.

The treatment of depression and paradise engineering may seem like two very different objectives, but the path is going to be very similar. Ultimately, we need to see both these efforts as a redesign of the human emotional system.

Figuring out the purpose of life – of my life and of life on earth has been a lifelong obsession for me. The answer will give me a direction, a higher purpose, some kind of mission – that’s what I always thought. For a long time I had no good answers. And then I got the answer and it was so obvious – the purpose of life is genetic propogation.

Evolution simply wants us to make copies of our genes. But it does this in a very convoluted way – instead of making us aware of this agenda and pursuing it directly, it makes us pursue happiness and also creates terrible pain and suffering on our planet. That’s what makes it evil, barbarous and futile. But in that dark cloud there’s a silver lining. Because along with all the suffering, evolution also created happiness. It created ‘good feelings’. And these good feelings are in and of themselves valuable to us. They are what make life worth living. The purpose of our lives is to chase these good feelings.

Good feelings are what we really want, but evolution uses them sparingly and puts all kinds of constraints on them. But we’re beginning to understand that these good feelings are just a bunch of chemicals in the brain, and it’s possible to hack and tweak them. So our pursuit of good feelings is undoubtedly going to lead us to hack into our code. We are already doing it, but there’s a long way to go. The ultimate purpose of our lives is to reengineer our genetic code to create a paradise on earth.

But where do we even begin? Over the years I’ve identified a few fronts that we could begin working on and you can find my thoughts and action plans on the ‘What Now?’ section of my blog. My wish is for this to be a larger effort. Lets get started with this, however we can. Lets accelerate our progress. 

I wanted to conclude this piece of writing by issuing a war cry to philosophers, neuroscientists, and humanity in general. We need ideas. We need action. We need to create paradise on earth.

I will leave you with an inspirational quote:

“We must accept that the future depends upon us. Interventions by mythical or divine characters in white robes descending from the clouds, or by visitors from other worlds, are illusions that cannot solve the problems of our modern world. The future of the world is our responsibility and depends upon decisions we make today. We are our own salvation or damnation.” — Jacque Fresco (The Best That Money Can’t Buy)

The End.

3. Happiness

We have learned that this whole mess that we call life is created because our genes want us to make copies of themselves. But is that what ‘we’ want? No! We want all sorts of things, and never even directly think about genes and copies and all that stuff.

So what do we want? A happy family, good relationships and friends, a good job… The list goes on. But why do we want those things? As we learned in the previous chapter, we want these things because we are programmed by our genes to want them. But we don’t seek them in a conscious and calculated way, rather we are driven toward them by subconscious forces — drives, feelings and emotions. Quite simply – we seek them because it makes us happy. And I use the word ‘happy’ here to refer to all positive feelings.

An interesting exercise is to think of anything you want or do in life, from day to day to long term. You go to restaurants, why? To eat good tasting food and make conversations with friends or family. Why do you do that? Because you like those activities. Why do you like them? Because it produces good feelings. If you keep asking the question ‘why?’, you are always brought to the ultimate reason for everything we do – either it produces a good feeling in our brain, or helps us get rid of a bad one. From buying a car to brushing your teeth, it’s all about how it makes you feel. This brings out a critical insight:

We don’t directly pursue genetic proliferation, we pursue happiness instead.

Evolution has created us in a way where we are not directly aware of its motives but instead, we are made to pursue those same motives in an indirect way — by pursuing ‘happiness’ instead.

But do we ever get there? Why does happiness always remain a pursuit? There’s never any end to it. However big an achievement we make, you can’t cherish it for too long, if at all. It’s always onto the next thing. We are never done and we always want more — why? Because from the perspective of the genes — you can always do slightly better. There is always another step up on the social ladder. You are programmed to work tirelessly for your genes.

Happiness always remains a pursuit because that’s how evolution designed it. In fact, from the perspective of our genes, happiness is merely one of the very many tools that our genes use to guide our behavior and make sure that we are successful in carrying out its objectives. Sadness, pain, depression, anxiety are perhaps even more important to the genes, and these feelings are utilized regularly to make sure we don’t isolate ourselves from society, to make sure we feel bad if we don’t succeed, etc.

This is worth reiterating. Happiness is everything to us. It is what we pursue in everything we do. It’s what gives meaning to our lives. But for our genes, happiness is merely one of the many tools that is to be used to guide the behavior of the vehicle.

“the puppeteer [genes] seems to have exactly zero regard for the happiness of the puppets [us]”  (Moral Animal, L596).
“Unfortunately, they [genes] don’t care about us.” (The Hedonistic Imperative)

We are not designed to be very happy. We pursue happiness with all our heart and will, but it’s almost like a bait – we contously try to grab that bait but we can’t hold on too long and it always slips through. In the process we end up doing the bidding of our genes – climbing social heirarchies and protecting the interests of our genes. This might be a bit disheartening, but what’s even worse is that for many of us – there is incredible pain and suffering involved in this process.

Us humans may have a problem with the pain, suffering, unfairness and injustice in this world but from an evolutionary perspective, its only natural. It is simply evolution at work. This is even more obvious in the wild. Young offsprings get eaten alive, families get separated. Most species live in fear and anxiety as they may get eaten any second. Nature is full of suffering and misery.

“Nature is barbarous and futile beyond belief.”  ( Hedonistic Imperative)
“Natural selection… is an “evil” process, so great is the pain and death it thrives on, so deep is the selfishness it engenders.” (Moral Animal, L651)

Throughout history, we have always had problems digesting this reality. We didn’t understand why the world was the way it was, but we’ve always thought there’s something horribly wrong with the world we live in. And we have developed very interesting ways of coping with it. Many of the major religions deal with it by offering a reason for why the world is the way it is, and almost all of them offer some kind of ‘graduation’ to a hypothetical better place.

Christianity attributes the sorry state of the world to the original sin of man, and offers a way out of this mess in the form of heaven. Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism explain why we suffer by offering the karma theory, where you suffer today because of bad deeds you may have done in your past life. Buddhism goes so far as to say that the very purpose of us being born into this world is to suffer. And the way out of these unending cycles of suffering is attaining the state of moksha or nirvana. 

The presumptions with these ideologies is that our ‘creator’ is inherently good. There is some or the other reason for which man suffers so much — and  it almost always is due to his own actions, and in some way is his own fault.

But the picture being painted here is quite different — evolution, the process which created us, is inherently bad and evil. It is a blind and heartless algorithm that has zero regarding for the happiness of the beings it creates. Suffering, pain and death is built deep into its code. If we let it run its course, like it has been for billions of years now, in no way will it lead to a better, happier world — that’s simply not its agenda.

But that is our agenda, right? We want to get rid of the pain and suffering in this world and we want to go to a ‘better place’. Is it possible in light of what we’ve just learned? And if yes, how do we get there?

2.5 Everything Else

Over the last few chapters, we have explored so many different aspects of our lives and in each case made the connection to how it helps in the game of genetic proliferation.

At this point, hopefully you see how many of our key behaviors have a strong link with genetic proliferation. But does every little thing we do really just serve our genetic interest? It’s quite easy to keep making more and more of these connections, and sometimes if you can’t really make a connection, it’s there but just not very straightforward and obvious.

Evolution works in mysterious ways. One of the most counter-intuitive examples is that of play in children. Children have a very strong drive to play with other children. Children playing may look like meaningless fun, but there is a lot going on if we dig deeper. Play is a way of children to learn very valuable social skills, and also start negotiating social heirarchies from a young age. It’s really on the playground that children learn what is okay and what is not okay to say and do. It’s incredibly important learning, so much so that many children who don’t play much face many problems socialising in the future. ‘Free to Learn’ by Peter Gray is a very insightful book that explores the evolutionary perspective on children’s play.

What other connections can we make? Let’s start with a typical day. You wake up and usually follow your hygiene routine. Hygiene is of course incredibly important for your health, and thereby for the survival of your genes. Looking clean and smelling nice is also a signal to society that you’re a person of means. And for women there’s the extra effort of using beauty products and make up to send out signals about their fertility. They are faking it but it works for the hunter-gatherer brains of men.

And then you’re off to work, many of you in your fancy cars that are again sending out status signals. Work is something we already discussed at length. You come back home and maybe you work out – fitness is one of the most visible signals you can send out in society, and of course was especially important historically in our EEA. 

Or maybe this evening you simply watched a movie or TV show. This one’s a bit tricky. I can’t make a direct connection to how watching movies is good for your genes. I am inclined to believe it is more of a ‘hack’. Just like pornography is a hack that tricks people’s minds into thinking they are having a real sexual experience. Movies and TVs didn’t exist in our EEA. So when we watching characters and stories on TV – we are tricked into believing that the story is actually happening in our lives. That’s what keeps us engaged and produces some very deep emotional responses.

On weekends you may go out to a restaurant, club or an event of some kind. You are basically doing some maintenance work on your social ties and maybe also ‘making your presence felt’ in specific social circles. After all if we don’t ‘keep in touch’, how can we count on each other to reciprocate. You may be going to an event for a particular cause or a particular artist, but that’s simply a way for you to filter the population for people who have similar values as you. After all you can’t impress everybody, especially the ones that don’t share your values.

You may take vacations to far away places, which in itself shows you have the means. You take photos there or buy things from there that you can later show off. Or maybe you don’t do any of that and go out just because you enjoy the natural beauty and landscapes. There is a very predictable set of landscapes that humans prefer, and again they are all environments similar to our EEA – vast open spaces where we can use our sharp eyesight to our advantage.

It may help to explain a few things humans do that may at the superficial level seem totally contrary to the objective of their genes. Suicide is a prime example – if everything we’re doing is for our genes to proliferate, then how come some people choose to end their lives? 

Well, if by ending your own life you can somehow increase the chances of proliferation for your genetic relatives, then suicide can have a good genetic payoff. Bees and ants do this all the time – they give up their lives to increase the chances of reproduction for their ‘queen’. But how would someone conclude that they should give up their lives in this manner? Well, as usual, we are guided by our feelings. People who are driven to suicide usually feel the most extreme forms of shame and self-hatred. They may feel they are a burden on their own family. All these feelings and conclusions might be completely misguided – but that’s how they feel and they can’t help it. And in their worst moments, they may act on it.

Adoption is another phenomenon that seems to fly in the face of evolution. If it’s all about the genes, why would someone ever invest in raising someone else’s child? Adoption seems to be a sort of ‘hack’ into our parental drive just like many other hacks we have discussed like contraception, pornography and movies. Evolution works through feelings, rather than cold, calculated judgement. It seems that it is easy for these feelings to latch on to ‘inauthentic’ objects just like sexual drive latches on to pornography.

Also, in our EEA we lived in larger groups rather than the nuclear family setups we see today. Reports from many hunter-gather tribes of today suggest that they don’t have as strong a concept of children ‘belonging’ to a set of parents. Rather the children belong to the tribe. “It takes a village to raise a child” was quite literally the case in our ancestral past. Its no surprise then that humans have a natural tendency to have parental feelings towards any child. Our genes might have purposefully designed these feelings that come with parenting to be more generally applicable, given the context of our past.


As you may have guessed, I actually do believe that all our thoughts, feelings and actions arise purely to serve the interest of our genes. To me, the evidence is overwhelming and compelling. I’ve been believing this for more than a decade now and it only makes more and more sense with time. You start seeing the evolutionary forces working at every level – from the world economy to fleeting, meaningless thoughts.

I’ve tried to outline the most salient arguments in favour of the evolutionary view in this book, but there’s so much more to it. Evolutionary psychology is a field of science and there are countless books, articles and studies on the topic. I’ve linked to some of my favorite resources in the reading list.

At this point I would imagine most of you are not as convinced as me. You may be struggling to digest that literally everything you think, feel and do is for your genes. But you would probably concede that a significant part of what is going on in your life can indeed be explained by evolutionary forces. Wherever you stand on this spectrum, I encourage you to read on.

Only part of the purpose of this book is to convince you that genes are running your life and the whole world. The other part deals with what this really means for the long term future of life on our planet.

What Now?

This book may have given you many insights and a totally new perspective on what’s really going on in the world. But what do you do with that? What does it mean for us and our lives?

This perspective has helped me find the answers that I’ve always been looking for and helped tremendously in my understanding of the world. I have little doubt that it has had a huge impact on not just my perspective, but my relationships, my personality and even my ambitions. But at the same time, if you ask me what immediate impact could or should this perspective have on you or humanity in general – I’m really not sure. In fact, I’ve struggled to answer that question for many years now. I do intend to explore that, but through separate blog posts.

But hang on…

We aren’t done yet. The evolutionary perspective I outlined was just a necessary foundation to achieve the real purpose of this book. We are about to take an interesting turn. Fasten your seatbelts for this one!

2.4 Reproduction

“reproduction is the sole goal for which human beings are designed; everything else is a means to that end.” (Red Queen, L62)

In the last few chapters we have explored how social status is one of the most important currencies in the game of human evolution. We explored how, historically, high status men have had tremendous reproductive success. But what’s in it for the women? In this chapter we will look at attraction and reproduction from an evolutionary perspective.

You may already have the intuition that what men look for in women is quite different from what women look for in men. And as usual, evolutionary psychology has some remarkable insights to help explain these differences.

The root cause of these differences is biological in nature. A human female has a physical constraint in how many offsprings she can produce. Also, there is huge biological effort for her in producing and raising an offspring. For the human male, there is no physical constraint as such in the number of offsprings he can produce and no biological effort either. This may seem like a small difference, but it dramatically changes the strategy for the genes.

If you can only make a few investments in your lifetime, you would be very very careful in making those investments. Women are thus incredibly choosy about getting sexually involved with a man. In contrast, if you have no limit to how many investments you can make, you would not stop to think before you make one. Men are thus very eager to have sex with a range of partners.

“On average, young men profess to desire about eight different sex partners in two years, whereas young women profess to desire only about one in the same time period” (Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, p68)

You may not have needed a survey to confirm this very obvious fact that women are much more choosy than men when it comes to getting sexually involved with someone. But what really governs their choices? What are they looking for? We already established that they have a limit on the quantity of offsprings they can produce. So when you can’t really go for quantity, you go for quality – your genes are better off if you try to ensure that whatever offsprings you do produce are well protected and taken care of.

So what women are really (subconsciously) looking for in their partner is someone who will provide for her offsprings. There are two factors that tell her how well this will go. One of them we have already discussed at great length – the man’s social status. But you may be wondering – why social status? Shouldn’t she be looking at his wealth or resources? Of course, women do consider wealth and resources to be important factors and they also serve as a good proxy for social status. But very few of them fall in love with someone purely for the resources. There’s usually something else that impresses them – some other qualities, talents, etc. And we already explored in the last few chapters how these qualities and talents are nothing more than your USPs in the social status market. So it keeps coming back to social status, but why?

To fully understand this, we need a bit of a history lesson. Modern humans, as a species, have been around for around 100,000 to 300,000 years. But we mostly existed in small hunter-gatherer tribes of around 150 people for 95% of our history, before we started congregating in much bigger ‘civilisations’ in the last 5000-7000 years. So the time before this recent period is called our ‘environment of evolutionary adaptedness’ or EEA. Evolution is a very slow process – so our genes and psychology do not change much in the span of a few thousand years. So some aspects of our psychology start making much more sense when we look at it with the lens of our EEA.

And when you consider tribes of 150 people, without any laws, any rights or any police, you start realising why social status is much more important than wealth and resources. In such an environment, what’s most important is the support, the respect and the love of the other members of your tribe. Without that, your resources don’t mean anything because they could so easily just be taken away by someone else who has the support of the tribe! In such a context, your power and influence over others is what really counts. We are all still stuck with this same hunter gatherer brain.

So this is the reason why social status and power is so incredibly important in general and also why women really value social status in men. But there is another factor that is as important for women, if not more. Again, what a woman really wants, subconsciously of course, is a partner who will be able to protect and provide for her offspring. And social status tells her his ability to do so. But what about his willingness? A woman could partner with a high status male – but how does she know he will be committed to providing for her offspring and not just drift away? The second factor that women look for in men is emotional commitment.

Women are continously looking for signs that their potential partners are emotionally committed to them. Think of any movie or novel that women consider ‘romantic’ and you’ll clearly see this theme of emotional commitment. In romance novels that are aimed at the female market “sexual acts play a small part in these novels; the bulk of each book is about love, commitment, domesticity, nurturing, and the formation of relationships. There is little promiscuity or sexual variety… His character is often discussed in detail but not his body.” (Red Queen, L4718)

Evolutionary psychology proposes that at the subconscious level, each woman is doing this complex evaluation of potential mates primarily based on the two criteria of social status and emotional commitment towards her. She is not aware of most of these processes, instead she is guided by the feelings she experiences toward a potential mate. So the ‘love’ or attraction she experiences for someone isn’t as random as we tend to think it is. Rather, it is based on a plethora of cues her subconscious mind has already picked up regarding the social status and emotional commitment of her partner.

And what are men attracted to? You don’t need to go digging too far in the subconscious mind for this one – it’s physical attractiveness. I’d like to reinforce here that we are discussing attraction, not necessarily marriage. We are interested in how evolution shapes this specific feeling of being attracted to someone. Marriage becomes a much bigger consideration and commitment, and turns out that men and women are equally choosy when it comes to marriage.

Men are very easily attracted to any woman who seems physically attractive to them. Why? Let’s think about it in terms of their evolutionary strategy. We already discussed how men have the physical ability to spread their seed far and wide. But the genetic payoff would only come if their sexual partners were fertile and capable of bearing his offspring. Turns out, all the factors that men consider to be ‘attractive’ in women, are purely indicators of fertility. Beauty has pretty much been broken down scientifically.

“Beauty is a trinity of youth, figure, and face.” (Red Queen, L4545)

Youthfulness is a direct measure of fertility as a woman’s ability to bear a child is tightly related to her age. We evolved in a time when there were no birth certificates to tell a woman’s age. So the early men evolved an ability to gauge a woman’s fertility by her physical appearance. Turns out — “the most noticed features of female beauty decay rapidly with age: unblemished skin, full lips, clear eyes, upright breasts, narrow waists, slender legs, even blond hair, which, without chemical intervention, rarely lasts beyond the twenties” (Red Queen, L4513). Men are attracted to women with fuller lips, upright breasts, etc because in our EEA that was the best indicator of a woman’s fertility.

Today, women use make-up and other products to enhance exactly this set of features. And it works. It’s yet another ‘hack’ that tricks our hunter-gatherer minds.

When it comes to the figure, a low waist to hip ratio (WHR) is considered the most attractive. Turns out that a woman’s WHR is lowest when her fertility is the highest — around age 25. Before and after peak fertility, a woman’s WHR is much higher. This is a feature that “fashion has always emphasized above all else. Bodices, corsets, hoops, bustles, and crinolines existed to make waists look smaller relative to bosom and bottom. Bras, breast implants, shoulder pads (which make the waist look smaller), and tight belts do the same today” (Red Queen, L4477).

It’s no surprise then that Bollywood (the Indian film industry) is obsessed with thinner waists (“kamar”) and rappers in the USA wax lyrical about bigger hips. These physical aspects of women have always been attractive to men.

When it comes to the face, we know empirically that there is an attraction to the average face: “This attraction to the average — to a nose that is neither too long nor too short, to eyes that are not too close together nor too far apart, to a chin that is neither prominent nor receding, to lips that are full but not too full, to cheekbones that are prominent but not absurdly so, to a face that is the average, oval shape, neither too long nor too broad — crops up throughout literature as a theme of female beauty” (Red Queen, L4560). It is not exactly clear how this impacts in terms of genetic proliferation, but the averageness of a face may be some indicator of the quality of the genes itself.

Things like beauty have been considered very subjective — “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Evolutionists like to say instead that “beauty is in the genes of the beholder”. Our genes very precisely shape what we are attracted to. 

“It is impossible to name a time when women of ten or forty were considered “sexier” than women of twenty. It is inconceivable that male paunches were ever actually attractive to women or that tall men were thought uglier than short ones. It is hard to imagine that weak chins were ever thought beautiful on either sex. If beauty is a matter of fashion, how is it that wrinkled skin, gray hair, hairy backs, and very long noses have never been “in fashion”? (Red Queen, L4308)

Now, just like women are very particular about emotional commitment, men are incredibly particular about sexual commitment – because before DNA tests became available, it was impossible for a man to be sure that the offspring his partner produced was his. And there are many social practices that help men solve this problem.

“In most societies women travel to live with their husbands, whereas men tend to remain close to their relatives” (Red Queen, L2882). And it’s not just humans, turns out all apes share the practice of females leaving their original family to join the male’s family. This may be perhaps because “If the husband is away hunting all day in the forest, he can ask his mother or his neighbor whether his wife was up to anything during the day.” (Red Queen, L3506). The fear that some other man may impregnate one’s wife is incredibly deep-seated in men. “The use of veils, chaperones, purdah, female circumcision, and chastity belts all bear witness to a widespread male fear of being cuckolded and a widespread suspicion that wives, as well as their potential lovers, are the ones to distrust.” (Red Queen, L3606)

And what about male handsomeness? It exists, but doesn’t matter as much.

“Male handsomeness is affected by the same trinity as female beauty — face, youth, and figure. But in study after study, women consistently agree that these factors matter less than personality and status. ” (Red Queen, L4576).

From an evolutionary perspective, the pattern is much too clear.

“Deep in the mind of the modern man is a simple hunter-gatherer rule: strive to acquire power and use it to lure women who will bear heirs… Wealth and power are means to women, women are the means to genetic eternity. Likewise, deep in the mind of a modern woman is the same basic hunter-gatherer calculator, too recently evolved to have changed much: strive to acquire a provider husband who will invest afoot and care in your children. Men are to be exploited as providers of parental care, wealth, and genes.” (Red Queen L3767)

And there is tons of experimental evidence that supports these claims.

“Bobbi Low has surveyed hundreds of societies and come to the conclusion that male ornaments almost always relate to rank and status — maturity, seniority, physical prowess, ferocity, or ability to indulge in conspicuous consumption — whereas female ornaments tend to signal marital or pubertal status and sometimes husband’s wealth.” (Red Queen, L4619)
“When David Buss of the University of Michigan asked a large sample of American students to rank the qualities they most preferred in a mate, he found that men preferred kindness, intelligence, beauty, and youth, while women preferred kindness, intelligence, wealth, and status”. (Red Queen, L4110)
“while women pay attention to cues of wealth and power, men pay attention to cues of health and youth.” (Red Queen, L4110)

Other Species

So far, we’ve only discussed evolution as it applies to us humans. A brief look at how it works for other species may help put things in context.

Species differ a lot in terms of how they attract reproductive partners. In humans, its high status that leads to high payoff for the genes, because we are social animals. But if we think about lions as a species, the dynamics are driven much more by raw physical power. Male lions have to fight other male lions to gain reproductive access to the ‘pride’ — a group of females who will exclusively mate only with the leader of their pride. The lion’s mane is actually a representation of the lion’s physical power — if a lion wins a fight with another lion, his mane grows thicker, longer and darker, and it dwindles if he loses.

In many bird species, it’s the males that have to be physically attractive to seduce the females. Take peacocks for example — the bigger and brighter the peacock’s tail, the more attractive he is to the females. The criteria that the females are genetically designed to look out for differ from species to species, and is determined by the ecological environment in which the species evolved.

In fact, there are many species in which the entire game is flipped — it’s actually the males who are more invested in the offspring and thereby the more choosy gender. Mormon cricket, pipefish seahorse and Panamanian poison arrow frog are some examples. Parental investment theory sheds light on the balance of parental investment between the male and the female of each species. What’s incredible is that once we figure out where a particular species lies on the spectrum of female to male parental investment, we can make some highly accurate predictions — the gender with higher parental investment is always the more choosy one, is smaller in size compared to the other gender, is limited in how many offsprings it can have, etc.

Humans are actually only slightly tilted in favor of more female investment than male. There are species where males have zero parental investment and such cases seem much harsher — in elephant seals just one male will fight all other males, at times to death, to get exclusive reproductive access to all the females. The species where the investment is equal, interestingly, tend to be peaceful and many bond with a single partner for life with no attempts of adultery — for example bonobos and many bird species.

2.3 Social Status

High status helps the genes by providing access to a much higher quantity as well as quality of mates.

“Throughout history powerful men have usually had more than one mate each, even if they have had only one legitimate wife.” — Matt Ridley (Red Queen, L2691)

If we look at our history, it becomes more and more obvious that reproduction was really at the center of all our status pursuits.

“The connection between sex and power is a long one… In the ancient empire of the Incas, sex was a heavily regulated industry. The sun-king Atahualpa kept fifteen hundred women in each of many “houses of virgins” throughout his kingdom. They were selected for their beauty and were rarely chosen after the age of eight — to ensure their virginity. But they did not all remain virgins for long: They were the emperor’s concubines. Beneath him, each rank of society afforded a harem of a particular legal size. Great lords had harems of more than seven hundred women. “Principal persons” were allowed fifty women; leaders of vassal nations, thirty; heads of provinces of 100,000 people, twenty; leaders of 1,000 people, fifteen; administrators of 500 people, twelve; governors of 100 people, eight; petty chiefs over 50 men, seven; chiefs of 10 men, five; chiefs of 5 men, three. That left precious few for the average male Indian whose enforced near-celibacy must have driven him to desperate acts, a fact attested to by the severity of the penalties that followed any cuckolding of his seniors. If a man violated one of Atahualpa’s women, he, his wife, his children, his relatives, his servants, his fellow villagers, and all his lamas would be put to death, the village would be destroyed, and the site strewn with stones.”
“in almost every case, power predicts the size of a man’s harem.” — Matt Ridley (Red Queen, L2622)
“Chinese emperors were also taught to conserve their semen so as to keep up their quota of two women a day, and some even complained of their onerous sexual duties.”
“it is one thing to find that powerful emperors were polygamous but quite another to discover that they each adopted similar measures to enhance their reproductive success within the harem: wet nursing, fertility monitoring, claustration of the concubines, and so on. These are not the measures of men interested in sexual excess. They are the measures of men interested in producing many children.” — Matt Ridley (Red Queen, L3054)

Even in modern day hunter-gatherer tribes, “the chiefs of nearly every tribe throughout the world succeed in obtaining more than one wife… studies of the Ache, the Aka, the Aztecs, the Inca, the ancient Egyptians, and many other cultures suggest that, until the common use of contraception, male power translated into lots of offsprings” — Robert Wright (Moral Animal, L4254).

Of course, you may be thinking we have come such a long way since those days. So this link between social status and genetic propagation doesn’t really exist in today’s world. We have gone beyond it, and overcome it.

Again, not so fast. I must admit – it does look like the link between the two factors has maybe weakened in recent times. But I strongly suspect that there’s just something wrong with the way I’m looking at it – because in every other way I can see that the precision with which we go about achieving the objective of our genes.

Perhaps, given the social norms of today, we have subconsciously changed our strategy from quantity of offsprings to quality of offsprings. The objective of the genes is to proliferate and survive through many many generations to come. So maybe we are genetically better off having fewer offsprings and focusing on their well being or genetic success – in the end, it’s better to have 2 offsprings and ensure they have offsprings, rather than have 10 who are not reproductively successful.

Or maybe this can simply be explained by contraception. High status men may not be having more babies than other men but they may be having more sex. Contraception is a big ‘hack’ into the evolutionary process. Evolution doesn’t directly make us want to have a lot of babies, it does it indirectly through sexual attraction. And contraception has broken the link between sexual attraction and sexual reproduction. So even if high status men are having more sex it’s not resulting in more babies anymore.

So the connection between higher social status and number of offsprings may be a bit of dilemma. But that has not affected one bit how strongly we pursue social status. And social status, even today, in and of itself is incredibly valuable. It pervades every aspect of our lives and our society. We will talk in detail specifically about social status gives you an edge in the marriage, dating or ‘mating’ market in subsequent chapters. But let’s touch upon how it affects many of the other aspects of our lives.

All your life people are judging you and you are trying your best, whether consciously or subconsciously to impress them. The game is on pretty much the moment you were born. How quickly you started sitting, walking and talking are the main discussion points – society is keeping a tab on the little innocent you from a very early age. And once you get to school it’s even more obvious. The entire educational journey of a child is little more than a contest and a competition to show that he is better others – not just academically, but in many different arenas. Parents are often trying hard in many ways to showcase the abilities of their child. The entire world around the child is constantly judging, constantly trying to evaluate his ‘qualities’ or his social status. You try to get into the best college, try to get the best job – all just as a signal to society that you are better than others. That you have a higher social status.

You may be thinking – but I was never like that. I didn’t care for these things. But then what did you care for? Being creative? Expressing yourself and your talents? However you want to put it, it was just a different route to the same destination. You may have played a different game, but you still wanted to win.

Travelling has all kinds of status signalling attached to it. Pretty much everything you buy is some kind of status signal. It’s very obvious in the case of luxury goods where you are showing off your wealth, though of course your story will be about its quality, design or ‘tech specs’. Or on the other hand you may buy something cheap and effective to show off your values of thriftiness. In either case, you did tremendous research, almost entirely to ensure you have a great story about it and puts you in a good light; makes people appreciate you.

We carefully build resumes and linkedin profiles to list down our social status in a professional sense. What we’re saying is – you don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s a list of organisations that are validating my social status. And what do you think is really going on in our personal social networks like Facebook and Instagram? At a subconscious level, we are constantly positioning and marketing ourselves and our status in society.

Ever noticed how the atmosphere changes when a ‘high profile’ person enters a room? Noticed how your own behaviour and awareness changes? Even where you stand and where you look changes. A single gaze from a high status person can sometimes dramatically alter how you are feeling. We gossip exponentially more about people who we consider to have a higher status than us – celebrities are the perfect example. We cherish and value relationships with higher status people much more. For high status people, all the rules are different. The world seems to bend to their wishes and demands. To go out of the way to please them.

All the world’s a stage. We are all constantly sending status signals out in the world in so many different ways. There’s even evidence to suggest that random conversations and discussions we enjoy are basically just a game where people are trying to show off their qualities – be it intellect or just their sense of humour.

You tend to laugh much more at jokes cracked by a high status person. In fact, something as enjoyable as laughter is proposed to be an instrument that reinforces group hierarchies. Next time you’re having one of these ‘innocent’ discussions, try to notice who gets the most eye contact, attention and laughter from the group. You might just start seeing the invisible hierarchy.

The subconscious drive for higher status is as high as ever today. In fact with the digital age I would argue it’s even higher. Before we used to be happy being the smartest, or most good looking person in the neighbourhood. Now we try to do it on twitter and instagram, where the playing field is much much bigger. And society values and rewards higher status as much if not more than ever.

Once again I’d like to reinforce that all of this is happening at a subconscious level. You bought an expensive car or bag because it is actually exciting for you. And for a few days after the purchase you literally bask in its glow. It may be short lived and sporadic, but you actually get a huge ‘kick’ out of these behaviours – they are rewarding in and of themselves. But ultimately, as usual, you did the bidding of your genes and achieved higher status for yourself.

Experiments have repeatedly demonstrated how  we are more forgiving, more willing to do favours for, more likely of seeking friendships with higher status people than low status people.

The Social Attention Holding Theory by Gilbert (1990) is a powerful theory that demonstrates how most of the emotions we have names for may actually serve the purpose of negotiating status hierarchies.

Rage is proposed to be a reaction to the loss of status. It “may function to motivate an individual to seek revenge on the person who caused the status loss.”

“Envy is linked with rank in that people experience envy when someone else has resources, houses, mates or prestige that they want but fail to possess.” The experimental evidence is totally in line with what evolutionary psychology would expect. Women tend to experience more envy of rivals who are more physically attractive than they are, whereas men tend to experience more envy of rivals who have more sexual experience and more attractive mates (Hill & Buss, 2006). Why this is so is the topic of the next chapter.

Depression is thought of as an “emotional reaction to the loss of status”, that occurs “when a person loses his or her looks, is fired from a job, perceives himself or herself to be a burden on others, or fails in some socially visible manner”.

So all of these feelings that can be so overpowering and uncontrollable are essentially mechanisms built by our genes to regulate our pursuit for higher status.

“If there were ever a reasonable candidate for a universal human motive, status striving would be at or near the top of the list.” (Barkow, 1989; Frank, 1985; Maslow, 1937; Symons, 1979).

2.2 Work

So what are we all chasing in life? Everyone seems to be pursuing some things, right? For many people, it is probably money. In today’s world, that is immensely important — at the basic level we need money to survive, to feed ourselves and our families. And at a higher level, money can get us all kinds of luxuries to live life to its fullest. But surely, that is not all we are seeking. And it’s probably true that the ‘greatest’ people who walked this earth didn’t really care that much about money — Gandhi, Einstein and others. They all chased different ideals —  freedom and equality, scientific discovery, etc. So, clearly, each person is chasing a different ideal or thing, and we are all different in what we choose to pursue. Right? Not so fast.

It may appear that we are not all chasing a common ideal or thing, but if we dig deeper we realize that all of these ‘different’ things we want to achieve are merely different strategies to achieve the same goal — higher status in society. Money is one way to get there, but there are so many different ways. People pursue knowledge, human rights, and many other ideals. But how can we know if it’s in fact pursuit of a higher social status that is driving all these strategies? One piece of evidence is the existence of hierarchies — everywhere you see there seem to be social hierarchies, some not as obvious as others. Posts and titles that signify your position in the social hierarchy exist in virtually any organization — academia, business, health / hospitals, and are actually most prominent in religions, even the ones that denounce materialism.

“Religious leaders tend to have high status, and it is not beyond the pale to see their preachings as a form of exploitation, a subtle bending of the listener’s will to the speaker’s goals. Certainly Jesus’ teachings, and the Buddha’s teachings, and Lao-tzu’s teachings had the effect of amplifying the power of Jesus and Buddha and Lao-tzu, raising their stature within a growing group of people.” — Robert Wright (Moral Animal, L6408)

Dig deep into any particular pursuit, passion, career, and you will find that the intention is always to climb to the top of some or the other hierarchy. Hierarchies have existed not only in the primate species from which we have evolved, but many other mammals as well.

“If you took a zoologist from another planet, showed him our family tree, and pointed out that the three species nearest our limb were inherently hierarchical, he would probably guess that we are too. If you then told him that hierarchy is indeed found in every human society where people have looked closely for it, and among children too young to talk, he might well consider the case closed.” — Robert Wright (Moral Animal, L4144)

But this is harsh, right? This perspective seems to discredit the greatest of the great and reduces everything they did to a very ordinary goal of achieving higher status. However, we must understand again that all of this works at the subconscious level — it is not that Gandhi thought, “leading a freedom struggle is an ideal way for me to achieve higher social status”. As we saw earlier, evolution shapes the things we do by creating feelings that operate at an unconscious level. And these feelings were probably common among all great men — tremendous passion and drive, a great desire to achieve some ideal for society. Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King truly felt that freedom and equality are ideals worth dying for, and this theory doesn’t question that at all. All it says is — the drive we feel to achieve things and make a difference is ultimately related to our genes achieving their objective as it helps us achieve a higher social status.

“the social discourses that supposedly lead to truth — moral discourse, political discourse, even, sometimes, academic discourse — are by Darwinian lights, raw power struggles.” — Robert Wright (Moral Animal, L5636)

Again, we are trying to answer the question — why do we do all the things we do? Most of us seem to spend a majority of our day working toward something we want to achieve or attain. To many people this is a degree, a job, a higher designation / position. To many visionaries and leaders it is to achieve some or the other ideal. To many religious people it is to attain a higher post, higher knowledge or salvation. But all of these pursuits are motivated by an inner drive. The argument is that this ‘drive’, just like every tendency and emotion that we feel, is ultimately serving the purpose of our genes. How does it do that? The drive ultimately helps us achieve higher social status. How status really helps our genes is something we will explore in detail in the next few chapters. 

In especially happy or driven moments, we often hear people say how they will one day “rule the world”. Or that “I am the king of the world” (Titanic). Or that “they are on top of the world”. Unfortunately, we don’t hear very often someone scream with joy saying “I want to help this world!” or “May everyone in the world be happy!”. Such is the nature of our drive and even our happiness — it’s ultimate purpose is to be on top of the world, to achieve the highest social status and when we actually feel a sense of achievement or feel ecstatic, it comes out in so many words.

I admit that it may be hard to see your own pursuits in this light. You may be thinking, I’m pursuing design, or teaching or whatever because that’s my passion. Not because of some social status thing! But think again. Within that particular field, what really are you pursuing? You want to get better at it right? You want to improve. You want to contribute and make a difference. These are the ‘proximate causes’. From an evolutionary perspective, what you really want is appreciation and recognition. You may not care about being a world famous celebrity, but you want the design or art community, or just people around you to think you are valuable, you have something to contribute. You want someone else to appreciate you or validate you.

Whatever work fails to achieve this, quickly dies. We say there is no ‘market’ for it, but that’s just another way to say you didn’t get the appreciation you hoped for. You may seek this validation by selling your product or service to others. You may seek it from your coworkers or bosses. Or you may seek it by selflessly helping others for no money. The sources are many but ultimately, through your work or passion, you are seeking love, recognition and validation from others. In the corporate world they call it sales and profits. In politics they call it power. In evolutionary language, we call that social status.

It’s not hard to see how even this very piece of writing and my pursuit of answers to the biggest questions in life emerge from this same drive to pursue higher status. I have always had an obsession with trying to figure out the purpose of life — of my life and of life in general. You can say it’s been one of my biggest passions and interests. This started at a young age, and I have no clue how or why – just like how it is with most such ‘passions’ people have. I very sincerely feel that this pursuit is incredibly important. I have been very driven to find answers and spread the truth to the whole world. But of course this passion and drive is just another ‘game’ — another endeavour that may ultimately lead to higher status in society. We all feel driven toward our passions and interests and we don’t really stop to think why they exist or where it is indirectly leading us. We don’t consciously realise it but ultimately these are all just different routes to achieve higher and higher social status.

Now, how does a higher social status serve the purpose of the genes? That is exactly the topic of the next few chapters.

2.1 Family and Friends

Most of us really care deeply about our families. We feel a special bond with our family and everyone who is a ‘blood’ relative. There is clearly a strict distinction between friends and family — our love for our family seems to be much more unconditional than our love for our friends. Of course, all this seems incredibly obvious to you — that’s just how you feel and it is a feeling that has always been with you. But evolutionary psychology (EP) needs to demonstrate how such a powerful force as love for family is ultimately serving the agenda of our genes.

Evolutionary psychology’s take on this is quite obvious and straightforward and you may have already guessed — we share 50% of our genes with any one member of our immediate family — brothers and sisters, father and mother. Thus, their interests are 50% as important as our interests, as seen from the genes perspective. Another way of saying this — our genes have designed mechanisms (love for family) in their vehicles, that increase the chances of survival of their copies residing in other vehicles (immediate family members). This phenomenon is called kin selection.

The feelings that parents have for their children are incredibly powerful and special. Many parents proudly claim that everything they do in their lives is for their children. To care, to provide for and to nurture one’s children is a universal human value.

Again, EP’s task in explaining this from the gene’s perspective is quite simple — our children are the primary hope for our genes to continue proliferating. It is no wonder that we go to such extremes to not only provide for our children but do our best to make sure they are as successful as possible, because in their success lies the success of our genes. In other words, unconditional love for our children is merely a mechanism that evolution built into our psychology, ultimately only to serve the interest of our genes to proliferate.

And these mechanisms seem to be very purposefully designed. How much you love someone seems to have a lot to do with how important they are in the proliferation of your genes. While parents’ love for their children is incredibly strong, children’s love for their parents is seemingly not as strong. Our genes don’t really count on our parents making more copies of them, for obvious biological reasons. The love between a husband and wife is also one of the strongest ones because that is the fundamental bond that leads to reproduction. Some of the strongest emotions one can feel are thus during courtship – the reproductive stakes are simply too high and our genes make sure we know that.

What about siblings? You love your brother or your sister probably as much as your parents, or at least that’s what this genetic math would predict. And then come the set of relatives that you share 25% of your genes with – cousins, uncles and aunts. Of course, you love them and consider them your family – but your feelings for them are typically a big step down when compared to your immediate family. And then below this 25% you stop caring too much. Of course, you may ‘get along’ with some of the distant relatives even better than your direct relatives and you may have some serious issues with your immediate family. So, I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that your love for family exactly correlates to how many genes you share with them, but there seems to be a very clear overall pattern. 

It’s horrible to be putting numbers on such things as love for your family and my apologies for that. This is probably a good time to be warning the faint hearted – throughout the rest of this book, we are going to be looking under the hood of the human mind. We will be dissecting each and every aspect of our lives to evaluate some of the dark inner working of our genes. None of it is easy to digest, but if you can keep the nausea at bay, there are some profound and powerful insights to be gained.

What about the relationships we have with those who don’t necessarily share any genes with us? There are many other people in our lives that we like and have some sort of relationship with – not just friends, but also colleagues, business partners, even your local vendors. Evolutionary psychology puts all these relationships under the umbrella of ‘reciprocal altruism’. We may be nice, friendly and cooperate to this set of people but our relationship with them is based on a foundation of ‘tit-for-tat’. We are nice to them, but we expect the same from them in return. If they stop reciprocating that in any significant way, our feelings for them change very very quickly.

This simple diagram from the wikipedia page shows how reciprocal altruism works:

You may perhaps have felt this at work or in business relationships. I think many of our relationships with ‘brands’ and organisations also show a similar pattern. Consider your favorite restaurant, ecommerce store, and then also think of the ones where you’ve had bad experiences. It usually starts with cooperation and good faith. If this cooperation continues for a long time, we are basically building a huge bank balance in our relationship ‘bank account’. When the bank balance is very high, we become ‘fans’ and loyalists. We rave about the person or the organisation to everyone.

When the bank balance is high, even if the other party does something that is disappointing, we are easy to forgive – but we do take note that there was a bit of a hit on the bank account. But in case of relatively new relationships, there is no relationship bank balance as such so even at the slightest disappointment, we experience strong feelings of being wronged and cheated. Our feelings for these brands, business relations or friends are basically an indicator of our ‘net balance’ – our subconscious mind has been keeping a detailed record of all our interactions, and it creates the appropriate feelings for us. So we don’t have to do all this mental accounting every time, but rather just trust our feelings.

You may have had an experience, where it all seems to be going very well and we are very happy about the relationship, but suddenly it goes south. Suddenly, our liking goes to an extreme disliking. The relationship bank balance has run negative. 

Our relationships with our friends also follow a similar pattern of reciprocation, or tit-for-tat. With our best friends, often the bank balance is very strong and also the reciprocation is very consistent so there may never be a bad moment. We are continously making more deposits with each interaction and having a lot of fun together. So its easy to never realise the deeper mechanism at work. But with our not very close friends we might sometimes see this mechanism – say you are obliged to go to a party that you don’t really want to go to, or otherwise have to go out of your way for a friend who is not too close. The feeling is not right. You start questioning whether you really need to go. Am I that close to him or her?

With our close friends, especially if its a group of friends – there are some other patterns and mechanisms at work as well. There is usually a hidden heirarchy among group members with those on the top being the ‘alpha’ and the close associates being ‘beta’ and so on. And the dynamics and relationships within this group may perhaps skew the strict ‘tit-for-tat’ principle. So there are some other evolutionary forces that dictate our relationship with close friends.

But what EP is really proposing is all those good and ‘noble’ feelings that we have towards our genetic non-relatives – like friendliness, love, care, kindness, etc are actually coming from this mechanism of reciprocal altruism. And this means that they are not unconditional feelings. You may consider yourself a ‘nice’ person in being kind to a stranger or acquaintance, but it that other person even slightly wrongs you, your feelings will change dramatically.

Humans consider themselves to be incredibly empathetic, sympathetic and altruistic. But these feelings are all serving the selfish purpose of our genes. They exist not because our genes want the world to be a better place, but because they directly help the genes. And our subconscious minds keep a detailed track of who’s helping, and who’s not. And we are not very kind to the ones that are not. In fact there’s a whole array of feelings to help us deal with that – hatred, vengeance, anger, etc.

The perspective from which EP operates may be incredibly disillusioning, and very hard to swallow. But this is going to be the theme of this section. From the perspective of EP, all our feelings, all our values and everything we care about is actually a result of billions of years of evolution, the purpose of which is singular — proliferation of genes. EP becomes a quest to unearth what evolutionary problems each of the mechanisms in our brain (thoughts, feelings, desires), were designed to solve — everything you think and feel exists because it solved some or the other evolutionary problem.

“We can confidently assert that there is nothing in our natures that was not carefully “chosen” in this way for its ability to contribute to eventual reproductive success” — Matt Ridley (Red Queen, p4).

Unfortunately in this case, many may find that the truth is very bitter. I encourage you to treat this as an intellectual exercise and not let your emotions be in the way of your understanding. Once we understand the truth and accept it, there is so very much to be hopeful about and look forward to. The future is unimaginably bright. There is immense glory at the end of the tunnel. Bear with me while we get to that.

Conscious vs Subconscious

At this point, it is very important that we understand how evolution actually operates — we act on our feelings and we are not conscious of the evolutionary motives of our feelings. We love our family not because we think “they share copies of my genes so I should care about them” but because we feel love for them. Our genes guide our behavior by creating powerful feelings like love for family.

Another way of saying the same thing is in terms of the ultimate and proximate causes. The proximate cause of things may seem obvious — we care for our family members because we love them, and since everyone understands what love for family feels like, we are happy to accept that explanation. However, EP digs deeper and ask the questions: why do we love our family in the first place? The answer to that question unearths the ultimate cause – which is that we care for our family members and love them because they carry copies of our genes, which we are programmed to protect and serve.

The point is, we are almost always clear about the proximate cause, but the ultimate cause is hidden from our conscious mind. That’s just how evolution works — it never deemed it necessary for us, the vehicles, to have the knowledge of it’s motivations. Rather, it governs us to serve the interest of the genes by creating strong feelings that guide our behavior.

A great example of this is sexual attraction — evolution gets us to have sex by making us feel attraction and lust(proximate cause), and not by giving us the knowledge that all this is ultimately to proliferate our genes (ultimate cause). In fact, up until a point in our history, we were not even aware that sex actually leads to reproduction! It would be safe to assume that most living things actually don’t know that sex leads to reproduction, but get around to it because of the strong emotional drives that evolution has created.

“The evolution of human sexual psychology seems to have preceded the discovery by humans of what sex is for. Lust and other such feelings are natural selection’s way of getting us to act as if we wanted lots of offsprings and knew how to get them, whether or not we actually do. Had natural selection not worked in this way — had it instead harnessed human intelligence so that our pursuit of fitness was entirely conscious and calculated — then life would be very different. Husbands and wives would, for example, spend no time having extramarital affairs with contraception; they would either scrap the contraception or scrap the sex.” — Robert Wright (Moral Animal, L724)

2. It’s all about the genes

“Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin.” 
— Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene, p1)

The biggest leap mankind ever made in terms of understanding who we are and why we are here was when Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution.

What is Evolution?

Evolution is the process that created all of life. From the single celled organisms to the blue whale, everything was born out of this process of evolution.
It was discovered by Charles Darwin in 1859. “Today the theory of evolution is about as much open to doubt as the theory that the earth goes round the sun”, says Richard Dawkins in his very popular book on evolution — The Selfish Gene. He also quotes zoologist G. G. Simpson who said about the question ‘What is man?’ that “all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely”.

How did it begin?

It is not all that clear how life began. One theory, as Richard Dawkins explains, is that it started with a very unique molecule that we today refer to as RNA about 4 billion years ago. What made this molecule unique is that it could create copies of itself. But this ‘copying’ process was not perfect and every once in a while ‘mutations’ would occur that would give rise to completely new shapes and forms. These mutations lead to variations that make evolution possible. Trillions, quadrillions or an incredibly high number of mutations and reproductions later, the world is as we see it today. All of life, including all of us, came from a common ancestor that existed 3.5 billion years ago.

But let’s not get hung up on exactly how it started. We are interested in how it works, and what it means for us, and it may not be so important to understand how it started. For instance, one may not know much about exactly how the universe ‘started’ with the Big Bang, 15 billion years ago, but that doesn’t discredit one’s understanding of gravity, stars, galaxies, etc as they work today.

What is important to understand is that all living things are products of evolution. We are products of evolution. Our life was created by evolution. So to uncover the purpose of life, and to answer some of the deepest questions about life, shouldn’t we be turning to evolution? Some truly amazing insights come out of such an investigation. Turns out, our minds, our behaviour and everything we do in our day to day lives is profoundly influenced by evolution — we just don’t realise it. Evolution can explain so much about why we are the way we are and why we do the things we do.

How does evolution work?

Evolution is most often explained as “the survival of the fittest”, which is a very appropriate explanation. However, there has been a lot of confusion over the decades about this statement as it is quite ambiguous — the survival of the fittest what? Many have assumed the ‘what’ to be the species, or a particular group of individuals or the individual itself. The right answer, we now know, is actually genes. It is the genes that are the fundamental unit of evolution, and evolution is all about the survival of the fittest genes.

There are obviously a lot of technicalities when it comes to how genes work and how evolution works. For the purpose of this essay, what we need to understand is that it is at the gene level that evolution operates, and our bodies are merely vehicles that carry and propagate those genes.

This point is incredibly important to understand. Many seem to misunderstand evolution, thinking that it is about the survival of the fittest individuals, and that our genes are merely a way to pass on our characteristics from generation to generation. It is exactly the other way around.

“The body is merely an evolutionary vehicle for the gene, rather than vice versa” 
— Red Queen, p9

‘Survival of the fittest genes’ is central to how evolution works. The individuals are quite simply just a medium for the genes to be passed on. Unlike individuals, genes can live on and on through different vehicles for millions of years. As discussed previously, the genes from our last common ancestor live on in our bodies today, 3,500,000,000 years later!

So evolution is about the survival of the fittest genes. But how do the genes survive? They survive only if their vehicle (in our case the human body), survives and reproduces. Reproduction is absolutely critical and is central to evolution — it is the only way the genes can survive given that the vehicle has a limited life-span. Genes are successful if they make many copies of themselves, which happens when the vehicles reproduce.

The key ideas so far are worth reinforcing. Evolution is a process that created genes. These genes have a very clear purpose — to create as many copies of themselves as possible. In amoeba, a single celled organism, the genes create copies of themselves by simply splitting the ‘mother’ into two identical ‘daughters’. In higher species, a male and female reproduce sexually. Thus, the whole world becomes an arena where genes constantly battle to make copies of themselves — they battle with weather conditions, they battle with other species like viruses, bacteria, lions, tigers and they battle with members of their own species all just to survive and reproduce. The way they do this is through creating living individuals, who are programmed to survive and reproduce so that the genes achieve their objective of making copies.

Neither evolution, nor genes are living things and they do not have consciousness — they cannot think or feel. But it so happens that they give rise to individuals who can think and feel and do all sorts of things.

Thus — we, and all other living things, are merely vehicles of these genes and they need us to create copies of themselves. And evolution, the force behind all of life, is basically a competition of the genes to create copies of themselves.

Okay, so we now understand a little bit about the fundamentals of how evolution works. What we need to fully realize at this point is that every molecule in our body is created specifically to serve the objective of our genes (to create copies of themselves). This profound realization is the first step toward answering the deep questions about life and its purpose. The same logic also applies to our brain, our mind and our behavior — the ultimate reason for everything that we are and everything we do stems from the objective of our genes. To understand why we are the way we are and why we do the things we do, we need to understand how the objective of our genes shape our mind and our behavior. The field of evolutionary psychology does exactly that.

The central idea in evolutionary psychology is that everything we do, everything we want and everything we like is ultimately dictated by the interest of our genes. Our brains, our minds and ultimately our behavior are all serving only the interest of our genes.

“The basic ways we feel about each other, the basic kinds of things we think about each other and say to each other, are with us today by virtue of their past contribution to genetic fitness.”
Robert Wright, Moral Animal — L444

But how can that be? We wake up every day and try to achieve things that we want to achieve. We are the ones deciding what we want to do according to our likes and dislikes, our desires. Ultimately it is us who control our life and destiny, right? What does that have to do with genes? It has everything to do with genes, and evolutionary psychology is a field dedicated to showing us how.

Evolutionary psychology (EP) proposes that all of human behavior — everything we do, everything we like, all of our feelings, all our hopes and dreams, ultimately come from the interest of our genes to make copies of themselves.This is not easy to digest. But let’s dive right into it. What are the things that matter to you the most? Family? Friends? Finding a partner you love? Working on something meaningful, or contributing to society in some way? But evolutionary psychology (EP) states that the only thing that matters is proliferation of genes. So then how come we care about all of these other things?For EP’s proposition to be true, it must show clearly how each of these things that we care about so deeply, are ultimately helping propagate our genes. And it does that so very well.