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.