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)