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.
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!