The Meaning of Life

In the 2 million years since we deviated from the ape line, we mastered fire only 100,000 years ago and started congregating in permanent, geographically rooted communities of more than a few hundred people only in the last 11,000 years. If we count the time we’ve been genetically and behaviorally human as one day, we didn’t start dwelling in settlements until 11:52pm.

Genetic evolution takes place over hundreds of thousands of years. No significant genetic evolution has happened in the short interval since behaviorally modern humans appeared a few hundred thousand years ago. Exceptions include adult lactose tolerance and other minor gene-culture co-evolutionary adaptations to a sedentary agricultural diet and cold climates.

Maybe we evolved traits that have laid dormant until modern times? As Darwin’s contemporary Wallace observed, natural selection does not select traits in advance of their utility. Everything we were adapted for then we are adapted for now with very few improvements. Therefore everything we attribute to the achievements of human civilization are cultural extensions of a fundamentally hunter-gatherer brain. This process of cultural extension has been enabled by one thing: neoteny, or extended childhood and adolescence.

In other words, most of what has changed, even though we have transformed our Stone Age tools into Godlike science and technology, turns out to be superficial from an evolutionary perspective. This is very hard for us to grasp, because we grow up thinking that everything important about humanity has been accomplished in the last 6,000 years in a steady march of progress. But it turns out that all we have really been struggling with for the last 6,000 years is population pressure and survival. Our basic nature is still unchanged and this is the insight that holds the key to our future as a species.

The most important aspect of this unchanging nature is a consequence of our dual nature as individuals and group beings. The 19th century father of sociology, Emile Durkheim, called this duality homo duplex. In modern times, it is called multi-level natural selection.

In culture, our nature is revealed in a myth that has reproduced itself endlessly through the rites, rituals, set, music, religions, politics, stories, and soap operas of every culture: that we are born to find and found our tribe, and, out of identity and love for them, burden ourselves to save them from their enemies, and do it on a bigger and better scale than any previous generation. It is the heart of all myth and the basis of the highest forms of individual happiness. It contains the very meaning of our lives.

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