In biology class, I learned about genes – that they serve as tools to help us reproduce. This idea seems simple enough, except that it’s backwards. It turns out that we’re the tools that our genes use to help themselves reproduce. Let this sink in for a moment. We are programmed by our genetic information, very much like the software of our computers, to have complex behavior that ultimately helps these genes reproduce. For one thing, this means we are much less in control of our actions than we’d like to think. This also means that we often exhibit quirky behavior that only makes sense in light of the evolutionary context that the behavior developed in.
While we are conscious creatures, there’s an arsenal of unconscious mechanisms at work, and they color our behavior in profound ways. I have a few posts forthcoming that explore this topic in detail. Each will cover an aspect of our behavior. Although the discussion will generalize explanations of behavior to everyone, please note that I refer to the evolved mechanisms contained in all of our genetic information and potentially exhibited in our behavior. Some of what I’ll discuss will offend our ethical sense (which in itself is one of the topics) so please bear in mind that the discussion is about the the programming from our selfish genes and not a reflection of any individual’s conscious sense.
Being aware of our programming allows us to do something about it. We don’t have to be slaves to our genes.
We often think that having a [proportionally] large brain is something very central to being human. While this is certainly an attribute unique to humans, it’s not the cause of our uniqueness. Think about it. If having a large brain is so advantageous, then how come other animals haven’t evolved to have it? As you’ve probably guessed, there are tradeoffs to having a large brain.
Consider the human brain. Although it’s proportionally humongous compared to the brain of other animals, it takes about 2-3% percent of our body mass. But look at the energy usage. Our large brains use about 20% of the calories we consume. That’s pretty darn expensive. At that price, we better be getting a lot out of it. We do, as humans, because we have culture. Through culture, we’re exposed to a staggering amount of information from others. Consider everything you’ve learned from friends, teachers, and extended family. That large brain is put to use because we have so much useful and trustworthy information to put in it.
Now consider the case of non-human animals. They don’t have anything close to the vast culture that we humans do. Their culture is limited to immediate family members because non-human animals have no way to control conflicts of interest between non-kin. This statement reveals a couple of interesting things. First, that it’s actually disadvantageous for non-human animals to have expensive, large brains because they have very little to put in them. Second, that the ability to control conflicts of interest between non-kin is essential to our humanity. While I discuss its importance in our uniquely large brains, managing conflicts of interest is central to our unique language abilities.
So in a nutshell:
Large brains require culture.
Culture requires trust in information from others.
Trust requires controlling conflicts of interest.
On a side note, while culture is a requirement for large brains, it is not sufficient. As hinted above, large brains require a consistent source of rich food to meet energy needs. Also, large brains take a longer time to develop and thus require that individuals have access to protection during this development time. These needs are afforded by the human village, another consequence of solving the conflict of interest problem.
For an extended discussion of large brains, culture, conflicts of interest, and human uniqueness, please see my colleagues’ book, Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe.
We like to think that we have free will – that we’re not like other animals which are governed by their biology. But if you think this, you’re gravely mistaken. We humans, as biological creatures, are under its rules. Our decisions are fueled by dopamine on rules built through evolution. You have two choices: refuse to acknowledge this and be a slave to your desires, or accept your underlying biology and learn to become wary of its unconscious influence. If you choose the latter, continue reading below.
Our psychological mechanisms often hide their purposes from consciousness and have strong influences on our behavior. We share many of these mechanisms with other animals. The feeling of hunger causes cravings, and of course there’s the sex drive. Some are pretty helpful, like the fight or flight response while others appear to do more harm than good, like in the case of nervousness.
There are uniquely human unconscious forces as well. As social creatures, we feel all sorts of social forces, such as morality (we know when things are right and wrong) or in-group/out-group forces (the need to fit in somewhere, or to despise outsiders). We literally feel these forces and they, without a doubt, affect and sometimes dominate our behaviors. Love (often characterized as a mental disease) and its less potent variants (such as lust) certainly affect our behavior beyond normal conscious will.
Our brains are incredible pieces of technology shaped by evolution. But are we using our built-in technology as it was optimized for? The world today is very different than what many mechanisms evolved for. Also, we have access to ways to abuse our technologies, such as drugs. Cigarettes work on the level of brain chemistry, as do most other drugs, including alcohol. Processed food is chock full of sugar and fat targeting evolved mechanisms to help us in times of starvation.
We should be mindful in how we use any technology, especially that which is built into us. Do you understand why you desire something? Are you responding in positive ways to unconscious mechanisms? Or are you merely pressing evolutionary buttons (or letting others do so for their gain)?
Have you noticed how deceptive advertising is? Breakfast cereal companies make health claims on their products – very misleading. Website ads purport weight-loss miracles – complete scams. Trickery appears to be all over our communication mediums. It’s so commonplace that we might accept it as a normal part of society. We seem to tune it out often enough. But there’s just so much manipulation, bringing us closer to non-human animals and turning back the the clock on our evolutionary progress.
Think, in all of the animal kingdom, humans are the only species to have an incredibly extensive communication system. Language (a technology built into us that we often take for granted) in humans greatly surpasses that of any other creature. There’s a simple answer as to why no other creature engages in this: manipulation. If any information can be spread, then false information can be spread. In non-human animals, spreading false information is a good strategy as there is always competition with others. This is why non-human animals don’t evolve strong communication (except in the case of closely related individuals where we do see some level of communication). Humans are unique in their ability to suppress these conflicts of interest and because of this, they assured that information communicated wasn’t malicious information, at the time elite communication evolved. (For a full detailing our our language history, see Chapter 9, Voices from the past: The evolution of ‘language’, in Death from a Distance)
Back to contemporary society, we see that manipulation is everywhere. The ancient condition that allowed elite communication to sprout is terribly disrespected. Today, we’re constantly exposed to deceptive information. A big problem is that much our mental mechanisms are too trusting and leave us open to manipulation. Another is that companies can get away with misleading people, and they’ll do it because it’s in their interest to do so. In the ancient condition, there were enforcement mechanisms to prevent the dissemination of bad information. We don’t have a very good system in place for that now. We need better enforcement on misleading advertising. We, as a whole, would be living much better lives with the absence of manipulative information.
We’re blessed with the incredible technology of elite communication. If it isn’t used mindfully, it will go to waste. It will be ignored. It has already happened to some degree. And where it hasn’t, often lie the victims of manipulation.
An article on CNET today discusses how concerns for privacy are diminishing, especially in our ever-growing information age. In the work I do on human uniqueness, I’ve explored the evolutionary relationship of morality and transparency. It appears that this growing transparency (and thus decline of privacy) is a very good thing for our populations as a whole. A look at the human ethical sense shows why.
Shaped by natural selection, the human ethical sense is finely tuned to work in our especially social environment. Generally, the best self-serving strategy (and one that is indirect) is to contribute to your social coalition; directly selfish behavior is usually a bad strategy because of the strong coercive threat imposed by the rest of the group. The exception is when directly self-serving actions can go by unnoticed (privately). This would net a benefit for you but it wouldn’t be good for the others. Simply put, the greater the transparency (and the less the privacy), the better off a group is as a whole because this causes each individual to avoid the then inferior directly self-interested strategy.
A quote by federal judge Richard Posner in the CNET article illustrates this entire concept really well: “As a social good, I think privacy is greatly overrated because privacy basically means concealment. People conceal things in order to fool other people about them. They want to appear healthier than they are, smarter, more honest and so forth.” Issues regarding privacy are very evocative because of this; they involve an individual’s direct self-interest.
Our technology allows us to change the social norms of privacy. Individually it appears we’re getting comfortable with the decline of privacy. Between generations, there is no uncertainty since newer generations are better at adopting technology. There has certainly been friction (we’ve all heard of people getting busted by posting stuff to Facebook) but people will adapt to the growing transparency of their lives. The big question that remains: how so? Will our norms change to deem currently inappropriate behavior appropriate? Or will people commit less such inappropriate behavior? My best guess is that it’ll lean towards the former when there’s no social harm and towards the latter when it’s our collective interest that people change.
In the meantime, enjoy the ride. With the emergence of computers and internet in our pockets along with facial recognition technology, we’ll soon be able to learn all about a person by just looking at him. MIT is already on this. Perhaps we all better clean up our acts sooner rather than later. And who knows, the world may very well quickly become a much better place.
It’s a law of life (which is based on the laws of chemistry and in turn physics). All creatures, including humans, seek to fulfill self-interest. Though technically, it’s the genetic information of the individual that is “seeking” self interest (there’s no conscious thought here of course, but in the competitive world, where resources for survival are limited, the ones that don’t seek self interest don’t survive while only self-interested genetic information survives). Still, for the most part, this means that an individual is generally seeking his or own her interest.
But wait; aren’t humans are known to be an altruistic species!? It is true that humans help out other humans on an unprecedented scale, but it’s under the guise of self-interest. An essential component to the uniqueness of humans is that their best self-interested strategy is to cooperate with and help out others. This doesn’t mean that we consciously or intentionally behave selfishly. Most of this behavior is hidden beneath our mind as subconscious processes.
One exception to self-interested behavior is when evolved mechanisms malfunction because they’re operating in a different environment than intended for, as is sometimes the case in our modern human world. Other than that, the rule of fulfilling self-interest will always remain. It scales beyond genetics, to other levels such as cultural information and especially entities within industries. While we sometimes find the behavior morally offensive, we should understand that it is completely rational.
The world we live in today is vastly different than the world our minds, and behaviors, evolved for. Humans originally developed their unique traits about 1.8 million years ago and the greatest achievement then was the formation of village-like societies. Nothing changed until about only 40,000 years ago, where still, the greatest accomplishment was seasonal trade between tribes. But at a mere 10,000 years ago, humans formed large scale civilizations and our societies had grown massively from that point to this very day. Because genetic evolution moves so slowly, it cannot create adaptive behaviors to keep up with a radically changing world. It is very unlikely that human behaviors adapted to the last 10,000 years; without a doubt, they aren’t adapted to the radical societal changes of the last 150 years.
So we’re left in a modern world of today with a brain built for a world 10,000 years ago. Obviously, we see quirks. We see irrational behavior because the mechanisms in the head were built for an entirely different environment.
In Spring 2007, I took a course at Stony Brook University on “The Biology of Being Human”, taught by Professor Paul Bingham and Instructor Joanne Souza. The course seemed harmless enough at first but boy was I in for a shock. I had two major revelations. The first being what “science” really meant and how it worked. It is the the tool naturally ingrained in us to make sense of the world. The second revelation was the application of science in colossal proportions. Evolutionary biology transcended the natural sciences and reared its head into the social sciences. Psychology, history, economics, sociology; they were all joined together in a fascinating understanding of what it means to be human.
In a nutshell, the [scientific] theory stated that humans became unique when they began to cooperate with each other in large numbers. This was facilitated by access to coercive weapons that allowed conflicts of interest to be managed. All other uniquely human traits evolved soon after. Culture formed. Elite communication (language) was feasible because information from others could be trusted. Large brains made sense because of the information available from others. Every time new coerive technology controlled conflicts of interests on a greater level, human advancement shot up. Concepts of economic systems, governments, and morality could be realistically understood. And, most importantly, we could use this knowledge to practically better the world in all manners of life.
Until recently, all I could really tell people was such a brief story (or tell them to take the course if they were students). However, the instructors have published a book on this incredible material and it is meant for a mainstream audience: Death from a Distance and the Birth of Humane Universe: Human Evolution, Behavior, History, and Your Future. There’s more information on it on the website. I highly advise you to check it out.
The instructors are also offering a fully-online graduate level version of their course. Information on that is also on the website.
As a matter of transparency, I should note that I’m involved with these professors in several ways. I’ve done research with them (some of which is touched on in the book!) and am in the process of coauthoring a manuscript for publication. I’m also doing work for them on the technology end. Lastly, I have and still instruct parts of their course. Although I’ve received financial compensation for the latter two, it’s work that I really care for and feel strongly about. I truly hope that this theory succeeds in bringing for a brighter, more humane future.