“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.