Friday, December 22, 2017

Is your mind riding on a runaway train?

“Man’s will-to-meaning represents the most human phenomenon possible, and its frustration does not signify something pathological, at least not in itself.  A person is not necessarily sick if he thinks that his existence is meaningless."
                                                                      Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl (1959), quoted from Choron (1964)                                                                            
Darwinian selection has equipped us with a mind unlike any other creature — one that has given us art, music, farming, literature, philosophy, mathematics, space shuttles, heart transplants, Facebook, and a science that is now able to sequence the genes that inform these skills, and even ‘edit’ certain genes whose effects we don’t like. It also gave us endless economic growth, addiction to consumerism, climate change, acid rain, landfills, armies, guns, and nuclear weapons. 

But long before all of these achievements, natural selection gave us minds with awareness of 'self' that could foresee our own death.  As Dobzhansky (1967) put it, “A being who knows that he will die arose from ancestors who did not know.”  Somehow, we became the only creature afflicted with a recurring self-impermanence anxiety, obsessed with finding 'purpose' and 'meaning' through hopes and suppositions about domains for 'extension of self' beyond mortal existence. "Here is the core of the enigma: This little consciousness, this feeling of a specific me, demands that it accompany us into infinity" (Maeterlinck 1913). This obsession unfolded together with an evolved psychology—informed by 'whispering genes'—driving (and blending with) a cultural evolution designed to help buffer these anxieties (Aarssen 2010).  But this requires a never ending chasing game of 'catch up'.  

By helping to mitigate the 'curse of consciousness', selection for these self-impermanence anxiety buffers — which I call Leisure Drive and Legacy Drive — thus rewarded ancestral gene transmission success.  And in the process, they fueled much of the cultural evolution in the ‘march of progress’ that we call civilization (Aarssen 2015).  As acclaimed philosopher Albert Camus often mused, we humans are creatures who spend our whole lives trying to convince ourselves that our existence is not absurd.  And because we are only temporarily  and never really adequately  convinced, this long history of selection, I suggest, has ramped up in momentum like a 'runaway train'.  As Nettle (2005) put it, The idea of happiness has done its job if it has kept us trying.  In other words, evolution hasn’t set us up for the attainment of happiness, merely its pursuit. ... We don’t necessarily learn from experience that this is a trick, because we are not necessarily designed to do so”.  Human motivations did not evolve to deliver us untroubled minds — only fitness. It was the striving for an untroubled mind that delivered fitness, and this created ideal conditions for 'runaway selection'.
                                                                                              Evolutionists have used the 
concept of runaway selection to interpret a number of biological traits considered to have possible connections in driving certain species to extinction.  One of the most familiar of these speculations involves the Irish elk — a giant deer species, famous for its massive antlers, that went extinct about 8,000 years ago.  Antlers are produced in many mammals and are found mostly in males, where they are used as weapons for fighting (or intimidation) in competing for access to females and control of harems.  

Larger antler size advertises a formidable potential adversary to rival males, but it might also (as with the famous peacock’s tail) be associated with an evolved preference in female mate choice, if antler size is heritable and correlated with male quality.  A larger antler is more costly, and so a male that can successfully support one, may not only deter less endowed males from initiating a challenge; he is also likely to have exceptional health and superior survival prospects (regardless of any advantage in doing battle with other males).  According to a popular hypothesis therefore, Irish elk females who produced the highest quality offspring (and who therefore left the most descendants), were generally those with heritable attraction to (and who hence mated with) males displaying these larger ornaments (without knowing 
— or needing to know — why larger ones were more attractive).  Under an assumption of 'runaway selection', therefore, bigger is always better for attracting females, but the evolution of ever larger antlers in subsequent generations starts to take a greater toll on survival success, thus 
imposing a higher fitness cost. This eventually increases at a faster rate (per unit increase in antler size) than the rise in attractiveness to potential mates. If the fitness cost of larger antler size then 'overshoots' its fitness benefit, then larger antlers no longer truthfully signal superior survival success (or superior competitive ability against other males).  Extinction risk thus rises sharply  contributing possibly to the demise of the Irish elk. 
A similar kind of ‘runaway selection’, I suggest, may also be described in terms of potential effects of self-impermanence anxiety on our evolved psychology.  Our lives resemble the lives of chimpanzees more than any other animal. They have a rudimental theory of mind and capacity for culture through social learning.  But as Sterelny (2012) put it, chimps “…live in a world as they find it”; while humans “…live in a world as they make it.”  And we have made it mostly a world of delusions for chasing legacy, and a world of distractions for chasing leisure (Aarssen, 2015) — and this has made a world that is annihilating other species and their habitats at a rate not seen since the loss of dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

In an interesting commentary, Geoffrey Miller (2006) considers that the reason why we have not yet made contact with other advanced extraterrestrial life is perhaps not because we are alone in the galaxy, but because evolved technical intelligence (like ours) has some deep tendency to be self-limiting, even self-exterminating.  More generally, I suggest that runaway selection for Leisure and Legacy Drives has generated two dire consequences for humanity:  (i) a civilization now on the verge of collapse (yes, collapse); and (ii) the ramped-up demands of these drives (from biological evolution) are starting to exceed the supply rate of available domains (generated by cultural evolution) for satisfying them. In other words, the 'shelf lives' for 'newer and better' distractions and delusions become shorter and shorter, while Leisure and Legacy Drives become stronger and stronger.  And so, because of these elevated intensities, civilization moves faster and faster to collapse.  And despite their elevated intensities, these deeply ingrained human motivations are now, I suspect, becoming less effective as self-impermanence anxiety buffers, thus accounting possibly for the high and increasing incidence of anxiety disorders, depression and suicide (Curtin et al. 2016, Nock 2016).

Where is all of this likely to lead us?  In my recent book, I have suggested that a new model for cultural evolution might come to our rescue through 'biosocial management', involving deployment of a deeper and more broadly public understanding of the evolutionary roots of human motivations, especially those associated with our responses to self-impermanence anxiety (Aarssen 2015).  Failing this, perhaps through transhumanism — with technologies of nanobiology, robotics, gene editing, and interfacing computer chips — we might engineer ‘human 2.0’, complete with a mind permanently hard-wired / 'programmed' to be untroubled, free of self-impermanence anxiety (among other 'impurities', presumably).  

Or, if old-fashioned biological evolution continues to have sway, perhaps our distant descendants will persist and flourish by evolving a mind more like the minds of all other animals, and like the mind of our distant ancestor that we last shared with chimps:  a mind completely unaware that one’s existence is absurd  indifferent to the fact that time inevitably annihilates all that one does and all that one is, and that soon it will be as though one never existed at all.  

I think I would rather that cultural evolution somehow come to our rescue.


Aarssen LW (2010) Darwinism and meaning. Biological Theory 5: 296–311.

Aarssen LW (2015) What Are We? Exploring the Evolutionary Roots of Our Future. Queen’s University, Kingston.

Choron J (1964) Modern Man and Mortality. The Macmillan Company, New York.  

Curtin SC, Warner M, Hedegaard H.(2016). Increase in suicide in the United States, 1999–2014. NCHS data brief, no 241. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2016.

Dobzhansky T (1967) The Biology of Ultimate Concern . The New  American Library , New York .  

Maeterlinck M (1913) La Mort. Bibliothèque- Charpentier, Paris.  

Miller G (2006) Runaway consumerism explains the Fermi Paradox. Edge: The World Question Center.

Nettle D (2005) Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile. Oxford University Press, Oxford.  

Nock MK (2016) Recent and needed advances in the understanding, prediction, and prevention of suicidal behavior.  Anxiety and Depression 33:460-463. 

Sterelny K (2012) The Evolved Apprentice: How Evolution Made Humans Unique. MIT Press, Cambridge.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The evolutionary roots of happiness

A wonderful campaign to promote happiness and well-being — Project Happy — was launched recently by students at Queen’s University at Kingston.  I teach a biology course there called ‘Evolution and Human Affairs’, where students explore the evolutionary roots of a wide range of topics concerning the motivations and cultures of humans. Wanting happiness is, of course, characteristic of the human condition. As acclaimed philosopher and psychologist, William James (1902) put it: “How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure”.   Efforts to promote happiness then are likely to benefit from a deep understanding of why this emotion matters so much to our species. 

We can examine this using what evolutionary biologists call ‘Tinbergen’s four questions’ regarding a particular behaviour: (i) what mechanism triggers it? (Proximate cause); (ii) how does it develop within an individual? (Ontogenetic cause); (iii) what is its function in terms of adaptation? (Ultimate cause); and (iv) how has it evolved within lineages? (Phylogenetic cause). 

A model for the first three of these is depicted below for the interpretation of human happiness. Hence, we have happiness when we feel pleasure, we feel pleasure when we satisfy desire, we satisfy desire when we meet a need, and we have needs because they promoted gene transmission success —  evolutionary fitness — in ancestors.

Interesting to note here is that a happy life is not necessarily a ‘meaningful’ life. Life has happiness when desires/drives are sufficiently satisfied. But for many, life has 'meaning' only when a particular desire is satisfied, rooted in a particular need:  esteem for the 'inner self', characterized by a sense that it somehow exists apart from the material body, and so, unlike the latter, is not impermanent.  This need is uniquely human, and so then is the desire that satisfies it — something that I call Legacy Drive: a deeply ingrained susceptibility to delusions of being able to leave something esteemable about one's identity/personhood — an 'extension of self' — that will endure beyond mortal existence, e.g., involving influence through parenthood (mirroring one's selfhood by shaping the selfhood of offspring and grand-offspring), recognition (admiration/status/prestige) through deeds/accomplishments, or transcendence through religion or spirituality (Aarssen 2010, 2015). Thus, when life has 'meaning' in this sense, it normally evokes at least some degree of happiness.  And we strive for it because our predecessors who were so motivated were more likely to become our ancestors. 

But life can have happiness without being meaningful in this sense because there are other fundamental needs that, when met, also satisfy desires that trigger doses of pleasure (Fig. 1). Importantly, this includes the need (also uniquely human) to be distracted from 'self-impermanence anxiety' when delusions of legacy don’t seem to be (or aren't) working. These distractions are commonly deployed through something that I call Leisure Drive: a deeply ingrained disposition to be easily drawn to free-time indulgence in opportunities for enjoyment — as an 'escape from self'. Typically, these involve motivations that hack into pleasure modules/triggers (serotonin/endorphin/dopamine rushes) that have deep evolutionary roots associated with meeting core needs (e.g. for survival, social affiliation, sex, endearment, kinship) that rewarded the gene transmission success of ancestors — and manifesting in many modern cultural products for pleasure-inducing distraction / 'escape', like toys, stories, games, aesthetic entertainment, consumerism, humour, recreational sex, meditation, intoxication and psychedelics (Aarssen 2010, 2015).

Note that effective domains of Leisure Drive in this sense need not be particularly exhilarating.  In many cases, they may be pleasant enough (e.g. restfully reclining on the sofa while mindlessly flicking through TV channels) simply because they bring a welcome solace:  digression from the agonies of existence, and of the human condition in particular — the ‘curse of consciousness’ — personal knowledge of eventual mortality, and hence the nagging worry that time will inevitably annihilate all that we do and all that we are. The role of leisure here then is, most essentially, palliative. It delivers respite — a vehicle for periodic escape — from the human obsession of trying/needing to convince ourselves that our existence is not absurd.

Is there 'meaning' to be found in these domains for 'escape from self'?  Perhap not; maybe they are just about being "Distracted from distraction by distraction, filled with fancies and empty of meaning" (Eliot 1943).  But some might describe these distractions as providing a different sense of 'meaning' — one based not in striving for meritable legacy (wherein 'meaning' evokes happiness), but rather, in striving for an untroubled mind.  In other words, a central purpose in life, for some, may lie in maintaining just (and simply) that — an untroubled mind. And if this can be delivered through the intentional deployment of triggers for pleasure, the resulting happiness then indeed evokes a sense of 'meaning'. Of course, this requires a regular and repeated deployment of these triggers; it only works if we keep coming back for more.  Importantly then, the act of 'striving' here is just as true for those whose remedies involve mindfulness and meditation as it is for those who are drawn more to other distractions, like toys, stories, games, and good times with friends at the pub.

As Blaise Pascal (1670, Pensées) put it:  "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone."  The remarkable irony in this is that our predecessors who were most afflicted with this inability were probably those who left the most descendants.  Thankfully, at least, in our efforts to gain, keep, and recover happiness, there is a large 'menu' to choose from (Fig. 1) — although some options may be more edifying than others. One of the most edifying (and with deep evolutionary roots) is represented in the advice of many wise grandmothers: There is always someone worse off than you. Find them, help them, and you’ll feel better.


Aarssen LW (2010) Darwinism and meaning. Biological Theory 5: 296– 311.

Aarssen LW (2015) What Are We? Exploring The Evolutionary Roots of Our Future. Queen's University, Kingston.

Eliot TS (1943) Four Quartets. Harcourt.

James W (1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature . Longmans, Green & Co., London.