I love evolution. It’s hard to not get awed by a process that took Earth, a big rock full of chemicals, and gradually chiseled it to create humans, creatures full of complex emotions and behaviors. Impossible as it may seem, the mind-bogglingly diverse human behavior can be explained via evolution.
Let’s take our sense of boredom. We dislike doing nothing so much that sitting still during meditation requires active concentration. We have this anti-boredom drive because our ancestors who were action-oriented survived longer and had more babies, ultimately outnumbering our ancestors who were happy chilling and doing nothing.
Or take our compliant nature. We like authority, we believe in things that good orators say, and we take part in superstitions because, evolutionarily speaking, being unpopular is much worse than being wrong. Our ancestors who believed in true things that made them unpopular got less sex than the ones who happily became part of whatever falsehood bonded the society together.
Lastly, take our worrying or anxious nature. Gautam Buddha called dukkha (or dissatisfaction) a core part of our moment to moment experience. This insight that we’re generally unhappy or dissatisfied with whatever we have also makes sense in an evolutionary light. Our ancestors who worried constantly and overplanned for even rare contingencies survived better than the ones who were complacent and happy-go-lucky.
The book The Elephant in the Brain dives deeper into the topic of human behavior from an evolutionary perspective – here are my notes from it.
We’re adaptation executors, not fitness optimizers
Some people have the misconception that evolution optimizes an organism’s fitness. In reality, evolution couldn’t care less about you or me (as it’s evident by the constant dukkha in our lives). Evolution is a blind process that over time increases the incidence of “greedy” organisms that survive longer and have more babies by whatever means necessary.
During evolution, small and random changes accumulate over several generations of organisms. These result in organisms with various sets of traits and behaviors. Some organisms may end up having a propensity to worry, while may be inclined to do nothing. Ultimately what trait ends up spreading in the population is determined by who survives longer and has more babies (over his/her lifetime).
What I find fascinating is that by the time a person is born, the evolutionary dice has been rolled. You, the individual organism, and your looks/behavior/smile/strength/intelligence become one of the many strategies in the wild that compete for survival and reproduction. Does being more intelligent mean you’re “better” or “fitter”? Not in the evolutionary sense, unless you happen to outbreed your less intelligent peers (which, in this specific case, doesn’t seem to be happening).
Similarly, if you’re generally unhappy and anxious, is it bad? From your perspective, yes of course. But from an evolutionary perspective, this is exactly what might be needed as anxious people take fewer risks and survive longer (they also make up for stable husbands).
The next you’re reflecting upon yourself and are thinking why are you the way you are, think in evolutionary context. You’re executing a program that’s built over a billion years since the start of life on Earth. And, unless that program was copied wrong, its sole purpose is to make you act in a way that helps it get copied into future generations. It really doesn’t care whether you like or dislike something, or that you’re unhappy or happy, or that whether it makes you do the right or wrong thing.
Remember: evolution is a blind game and people are a roll of a dice to play a specific move in that game. The interplay of different moves is what gives rise to diverse cultures, opinions, and behaviors that we collectively call as being human.
Evolution really does explain everything.