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?