…and how it can explain most of the ways people work
I got very little professionally out of going to college. I studied neuroscience, but ended up in web development as a career — I haven’t used any neuroscience professionally, and didn’t take any programming courses in school. However, there was one course I took in college that honestly made a huge impact on the way I see life. It was a random elective course in biology, on the topic of evolution.
This might not seem that interesting — we all learned about evolution in basic biology, right? Charles Darwin, the finches, etc. etc. But this was an entire semester class discussing only evolution, so it was a deep dive, and I learned a ton of really interesting things that you don’t learn in normal biology’s overview. On top of that, it gave me a new lens through which to see life. Basically, since humans have had our brains formed through evolution, and use our brains to make decisions, we can use evolutionary principles to explain nearly all decisions that we make. Let’s look at a couple examples.
This is a simple and relatable example, and a case in which the impact of evolution is super clear. We will dive into some heavier topics later, but let’s get started with a little romance.
One of the most basic principles of evolution is that everyone is trying to spread their genes as much as they can. If they were not, people wouldn’t really care much about reproduction and the species would die out. Surely there have been species’ for which this was the case, but they are no longer around. If other things were more important to them than reproducing, then they wouldn’t reproduce enough to go on existing over time. An incredibly important brain-wiring to be in place for long-lasting species’ is that they should very highly value spreading their genes and reproducing.
If you are a male, you are programmed to try to have as many babies as you can manage, with as many and as good-looking females as you can manage before you start running into social consequences. This is, after all, how you spread your genes as a male. From this simple observation, we can get some good insight into the behavior of males when it comes to romance and reproduction. It is for this reason that we can explain why men cheat about twice as often as women. And why polygamy historically has been a status symbol, and why it nearly always involved men having multiple wives and not the other way around. And why many pop songs you hear on the radio are men bragging about how prolific they are with women. And why a man who gets with many women is viewed as a “pimp” or a “baller”, but this is not the case for women. People frequently cite these as examples of sexism etc, and while this may be true, it’s not because people are consciously trying to be terrible, it’s how our brains are wired by default as humans. So it takes a very strong dose of culture to un-wire this connection, and one that today is definitely being addressed, which is great.
Now, if you are female, since you are the one to carry the babies, and since you can only have one baby at a time, and the process of having a baby takes quite a lot of time, effort, and resources, you cannot spread your genes quite as aggressively as males. Therefore, you are looking to have children with one male who will stick around to help birth and raise the child. The best way to ensure the longevity of genes for a female, who literally puts a lot more of herself into each child, is to protect that investment and ensure that each child they have grows up to be stable and secure. And from this information we can also take away a bunch of insight on how females act when it comes to romance and reproduction. It supports all the contrasts in the previous paragraph about males. It explains why women generally value emotional connection more than men do. It also explains why women are approached by men more than the opposite direction when initiating relationships. And much more.
We can also easily explain why we think people are good-looking or not using evolution. We know that men prefer a certain waist-to-hip ratio in women because it indicates good health, which means a higher chance of bearing healthy children. And we also know why women prefer men to be fit and well-muscled, because it indicates that they are physically fit and more able to find food and protect the family. Additionally, it’s easy to find research linking these traits to general good health. Every aspect of how we naturally evaluate good looks can be traced back to evolution, from hair to facial symmetry to body shape.
It should be noted that these natural values can be skewed by culture. Culture, in fact, can change just about any of our values, driving people even to murder innocent women and children, which is doubtlessly against all evolutionary principles, which we unfortunately have seen on multiple occasions throughout history. You may have seen plenty of examples of how typical values of attractiveness are skewed by culture from anorexic models being considered good-looking to obesity being considered the most attractive. And it’s quite clear to anyone that neither anorexia nor obesity are indicators of good health — in fact, they are quite the opposite. This is a deep topic that we will cover in a future article, but I want to at least bring it up here to preempt objections along these lines.
All parts of the romantic song-and-dance with regards to behavior can also be mapped back to evolution. Behaviors that project confidence and abundance, states in which you are more likely to survive, are typically highly valued in the human mating dance, as are many other subtle cues. I’ll leave it up to the readers to find more examples of this type of thing, but I can assure you that there are more than enough available.
Romantic relations is one area in which the influence of evolution is perfectly clear in almost all aspects. But with this in mind, let’s take a jump into some deeper and more complex parts of humanity that still trace back directly to evolution, but in ways that you may not have already subtly realized.
One important characteristic of evolution that I remember learning way back in the course I took was that evolution is not forward-looking. That is to say, evolution will almost always take the course that is most immediately beneficial to it, regardless of longer-term consequences. A great example of this is HIV. As you may know, HIV is such a difficult virus to cure because of it’s extraordinarily fast rate of evolution. So while you can devise a drug that will kill most of the HIV virus, it replicates and mutates so quickly, that almost every time at least one virus cell will be have a mutation that makes it resistant to this drug, and this cell will continue living on happily and replicating until the virus is back up to it’s former glory, resistant to that drug entirely. The typical remedy for HIV is “drug cocktails”, which reduce its numbers to be very low and hold off its advance, but never entirely kills it off. But each time it survives and re-populates, it’s entirely resistant to a slew of new drugs. Eventually, as this cycle continues, the virus becomes resistant to all drugs in our arsenal, and unfortunately for the person who has it, it carries out its course, becoming more and more efficient until it kills its host.
Now, people might think that HIV has done its job once it has killed its host. It’s an evil deadly virus after all. But the fact is, this is not true. HIV’s goal, as a living organism, is to increase in number and continue living. By killing its host, the virus itself dies, making it a very bad move evolutionarily. It’s ability to mutate and evolve quickly is both good and bad for it. It’s good in that it makes the virus resistant to pretty much any drug, so it won’t die from our medical treatments. But it’s also bad in that it eventually becomes so efficient that it kills its host and therefore itself.
Evolution is not forward-looking. It will act on whatever is best for the immediate interest of the species. This also makes it relatively selfish (but only to a certain extent, as we will see later). So what does this mean as far as human behavior?
Let’s take a look at greed. Making big money in business means beating out all competition, and that means cutting costs and increasing profit as much as possible. You may not agree that corporations are people, but a lot of the time they act like people as far as evolution is concerned. For-profit companies often have the express goal of trying to “maximize value for shareholders”, or at very least to “maximize profit.” And the companies who survive will do this at any cost, in a manner that is not forward-looking at all. After all, if one company doesn’t do it, another one will, and the second will put the first company out of business, as evolution goes. Large corporations routinely ignore employee happiness, morals, and environmental values in the pursuit of further profit. We’ve seen how Amazon treats its employees, how cigarette companies lobby the government and to sell expensive death to the public, and how oil drilling companies toss the environment to the side in search of liquid gold. If they stopped for a moment to think about it, anyone running any of these companies would know that they are doing something that is wrong and unsustainable in the long run. But the fact is, these actions increase profits now, so they are done regardless.
This concept can also easily be applied to people. As we discussed in the article on hedonic adaptation, even when people have more than enough money to make sure they and all their descendants will never have to work again (questionable whether this is even a benefit), they still will seek out more money. Often times at the cost of others’ happiness and morality, even at the costs of others’ lives. While this behavior, when viewed from the outside, seems entirely absurd, it’s simply evolution in its most basic form. Evolution is not forward looking, and just like HIV which keeps improving even when it doesn’t need to be more efficient to continue living, people will always continue working harder and harder for more money, even when they don’t need it. Even when it has a strong cost on their own and everyone else’s future. This is greed, a very basic example of evolution’s influence on us in action.
We can even take it one step further. Let’s zoom out one more level and take a look at the entirety of humanity. In a disturbing comparison, we can watch what humans are doing to the planet earth, our host, and see an almost exact parallel to how HIV treats a human body. In pursuit of more money, more prosperity, more scientific advances, we are methodically destroying our host, the planet, and all the while completely ignoring the disastrous consequences for our future as a species. The evidence for climate change and how it is destroying our land and our atmosphere is so clear and well-known that I need not even link to evidence here. On top of that, a huge chunk of the world’s energy is provided by oil, which we know to be running out, but are doing just about nothing about it as a species. Not to mention the issue of overpopulation that we will inevitably reach, and probably many more issues I am not aware of (comment here and teach me!) Our scientists have clearly shown that our current society’s style of living is not sustainable in the long term, and will destroy us and our planet. And yet we merrily live our lives out day to day as if nothing at all is happening.
What’s ironic about all of this is that as rational beings with intellect and the ability to predict the future, at a macro level we are still nothing more than basic cells, happily evolving our way to assured destruction. And while a small number of people work hard to inform the public about and this, scientists have repeatedly shown that it’s simply not enough. Our highly developed prefrontal cortices have the ability to reason on a higher plane than evolution, but collectively we are just not able to get there.
Let’s take a break from such a heavy and relatively depressing example and end on a high note. Many people point to generosity as a counter to evolution. Why would anyone be generous if we are only looking out for ourselves after all? How does “giving things away for free” fit into the model of “survival of the fittest”?
It turns out this can be explained by evolution, and in fact mathematically modeled. The example we looked at in my evolution class all those years ago was about vampire bats, and how they share blood to increase survival. Yes, it’s kind of gross, but the results are fascinating, so stick with me here.
Vampire bats have a difficult task in order to get food. They need to suck the blood of another animal without being caught or injured. Most animals tend to notice when someone is trying to suck their blood, which makes this very challenging. For the bats, they are not always successfully able to accomplish this task, and if they can’t for a couple days in a row, they will die of starvation. In fact, after just 60 hours, the bats will starve to death if they are not fed. But some bats who have managed to feed have been observed regurgitating blood to feed those who have not been able to. What a baffling behavior, scientists though at first — how could this increase odds of survival? They key is in reciprocity. A bat who is full loses only a very small amount of survival potential by giving up some blood to an hungry bat. However, the hungry bat gains much more in return — the small amount donated increases their survival chances much more than the loss that same amount decreases the survival chances of the donor. The way this works is much like the prisoner’s dilemma. Here’s a chart to demonstrate:
If the bats did not engage in this behavior, experts estimate that 80% of vampire bats would die each year (ref). Talk about generosity leading to survival!
So while this behavior may appear to fly in the face of evolution’s principles, it is still a selfish action at it’s core — an action that aims to increase an individual’s chance of survival over time.
You may have seen John Oliver’s recent exposé on televangelists (if not you should watch it), and recognize this same principle at work in the way they convince people to give money. The money that is given to televangelists is “not just” a donation to a “good cause” — people give because televangelists tell them that they will receive good fortune in return. They “sow seeds” (aka donations), so that they can grow into good fortune and more money coming back to them in the long run. Sort of like investment, except that it’s a massive scam and they just take your money and never give you any returns.
This makes me wonder why many organizations that rely on giving (mostly charities), do not take advantage of these basic principles of human behavior. There are a few wonderful charities like Charity Water and Watsi that expend a lot of effort informing donors about where their money is going and who it is helping. This is not by any means a notice that if they are in need they can rely on the people or causes they helped, but it’s certainly a step closer. My girlfriend did a lot of work in college for an organization called Building Tomorrow, and we recently visited one of the schools they funded in Uganda and got to meet the kids and teachers. One of the kids made a speech in front of the whole school thanking Building Tomorrow, the parents, and my girlfriend for helping to fund their education. They said that they love guests and encouraged us to tell friends to visit as well. This was an incredible experience, and makes you feel like your time and money are going towards something that is truly worthwhile, rather than down a black hole of something to somewhere, as it is with almost every other charity organization.
But Wait, There’s More!
This is just a small selection of a few core tenants of human life that can be explained entirely by evolution. I hope at this point you can trust that these are not the only parts of our lives explainable by the same theory. Over the course of this blog as we discuss and break down many different areas of decision-making, we will inevitably encounter evolution time and time again as a driving influence on human behavior, and each time you will find a convenient link back to this article.
Thanks for taking the time to read this lengthy piece, and I sincerely hope you learned something! And as always, I welcome any and all feedback — just highlight a line and leave a comment.
Photo is of a Toucan, taken in Brazil. This is one of the most incredible-looking animals I have ever seen, and represents the fascinating diversity of evolution.
If you liked this article, please “recommend” it using the small heart below and to the left. Thank you!