“Folks, it’s time to evolve. That’s why we’re troubled. You know why our institutions are failing us, the church, the state, everything’s failing? It’s because, um – they’re no longer relevant. We’re supposed to keep evolving. Evolution did not end with us growing opposable thumbs. You do know that, right?”
― Bill Hicks
There are moments in life when you have to stop and think about the status quo, the universe around you, your journey through it that led to your current whereabouts… Whether you want to or not. Those moments that, when they occur, force even the most avid workaholic doing 120 hours a week or that over-revving fiend, on whatever upper floats his boat, to take notice and pay attention. Tally the score if you will.
And even though life these last few years has started to resemble some delightfully twisted modern rendition of Dante’s La Divina Comedia, you still know when these moments hit you, without a shred of doubt. A good fat slap in the face by our cosmic joker-friend. And maybe he’ll offer a little side-bet. Like Buddha found out long ago, the trick is not to care if you lose. Or better yet, realize that you can’t win in the first place – not while thinking about it in those terms at least – all while fighting like a madman to win anyway. But I digress as usual.
The reason I mention all this is that a moment like this – a slap by Lady Justice herself this time; she found me being in possession of a kilo of something she herself still hasn’t learned to appreciate for some reason – made me ponder how susceptible our thoughts are. (said lady made sure I had some spare time to think about these matters). To the situation, to emotion, to consequence, to preconception. We are fundamentally wired for bigotry. And we have evolution to thank for it.
Perfectionism, to the point of being pathological, is a fitting example. Its benefits in survival in our cave men-days are glaringly obvious, but today, to those who suffer from it, it can be a nuisance in the best of cases and downright crippling to those extreme, high strung, but clenched specimens out there. With a degree of pleasure, I implore all you perfectionists out there, especially those who have deluded themselves into the belief that their affliction is a merit, thus attempting to drag us down with them, to really let the following paragraph sink in.
Perfection is a foreign concept to our bodies and to the evolutionary process. How could it not be, being dependent on random freak-events? Evolution doesn’t work that way. It favors whatever works best amongst available methods. Evolution doesn’t choose a side. She sits back and enjoys the show, blissfully ignorant to all the possibilities out there.
Evolution is unable to go over unused methods to see if there are better ones out there. All the improvements evolution brings forth start as an error in fact: An error in the DNA copying process, that takes place when gametes (i.e. eggs or sperm cells) are created in a future mother or father, causes a mutation in its offspring’s DNA. Most of these never live to see the light of day because of it. some came into the world handicapped, horribly disfigured, or mentally twisted. I mean, just take me for example…
But now and then the mutation causes a benefit to a creature’s survival chances, making it more adaptable to its surroundings. This equals better chances of reproducing, and in this way, the new trait is passed along and spreads. This process happening over tens of thousands of years is what gave birth to new species – It’s how the first single-celled organism, over millions of generations, eventually morphed into the mind-fuckingly complex machines that we call home. The human eye, for instance, was actually built to see under water, since the first eyes (those of sea creatures) developed there. When one of our less lazy fish-selves decided to check out the neighborhood and crawl to land, their eyes functioned only so-so on dry land, as they had been ‘designed’ for underwater viewing. But did nature throw away those eyes to begin evolving a new set? Of course not. Nature made due with was already there, patiently waiting for a mutation that would solve this. In view of the fact that you are able to read this article, the waiting was rewarded.
In the same fashion, going from the meta – to the micro level, a constant and quite radical battle for precious real estate is going on in every one of our tiny little skulls. All the different factions of the human brain battling for more Lebensraum. If one part gives out or becomes useless, the others are already waiting to steal the space vacated by their former colleague. This is nicely illustrated by the heightened remaining senses often reported by people who lose one of them (given they did have the lost sense before losing it; If you are born blind your brain won’t waste any space on image processing systems from the get-go). This lack of space – in part caused by the evolutionary demand for a head that would fit through a woman’s pelvic bone during birth – is one of the reasons why many shortcuts are taken in the human brain.
For those who want to dive deeper into the mechanics of evolution, the crew from Kurtzgesagt summarizes it quite skillfully:
Clearly, evolution is a process of compromise: Whatever works best out of the available options (usually) is more likely to be passed on and so it does. But a winning trait can have a downside too: Our craving for foods that are high in sugar and fat is a perfect example to illustrate this. For the most part of our history, these foods were always in short supply. At some point, a mutation caused someone to get a higher dopamine release in his brain after eating high-calorie foods than others, causing greater feelings of pleasure. This, in turn, made him or her eat more of these foods when they were available, giving them a higher chance of surviving than those who just ate a little and were thus more susceptible to starvation when they weren’t available. Now that these foods are readily available to us, however, this trait has become a burden rather than an advantage, illustrated by the grotesque Mario Kart-like scenes of personal mobility scooters and their gnarling drivers at Wall Mart, to name an example.
Hunting is another clarifying example. Being on the hunt for something, whether it be Bambi or new boots, causes the brain to release dopamine, making you feel excited. Once we caught Bambi, after a few sniffles and a lot of blood and gore, eating its meat again makes dopamine levels rise, rewarding us for our behavior. Now that we hunt for new shoes in stead of life-supporting calories, this mechanism has come to haunt us. Studies showed that in the case of new footwear (and shopping in general) dopamine levels plummet after the purchase, leaving us wanting another ‘fix’. The process is the same with drugs in essence, except that the source of dopamine flooding is now a substance instead of a behavior.
Back to the gray matter, our brain. With the amount of input it gets to process every day and the bandwidth that is available, it has no choice but to devise systems to simplify information by categorization. Stereotypes, generalizations and group thinking are a direct result of this process.
For more info I recommend these reads:
But why am I delving so deep into this already more than thoroughly explored subject matter? Because knowing the evolutionary compromises that were made in creating the beastly bipeds that now roam our once virgin planet, is a key to understanding yourself and to overcome some of the basic flaws we experience in reasoning and in observing the world, ourselves and others. Here are some examples taken from psychology, which I think are particularly important or illustrative.
There are many types of attribution errors, all of which at some time or another improved a beings’ chances of survival or reproduction. If they didn’t they wouldn’t have survived the natural selection process, after all. They concern errors in attributing traits and making conclusions about the behavior of the self and other people.
The fundamental attribution error, for instance, refers to the tendency to attribute causes to internal factors such as personality characteristics and ignore or minimize external variables when judging others’ behavior. Hypocrites as most of us are, when it comes to explaining our own behavior we tend to do the opposite; when we ourselves err, we are more likely to blame external forces than our personal characteristics. In psychology, this tendency is known as the actor-observer bias. It, together with the fundamental attribution error, is a very common mistake, particularly among individualistic cultures.
Analogously, there is the group attribution error. It refers to the tendency to take the characteristics of an individual group member as reflective of the group as a whole (especially when that behavior stands out) and/or that a group’s decision reflects the preferences of individual group members, even when information suggests otherwise.
Earlier I mentioned Stereotyping, a related phenomenon. It has its use, as categorizing bits of information is the way our brain is able to keep up with all it needs to process. Not doing this would likely result in a total meltdown. Nevertheless this also but all too often results in oversimplified views, unjust racism and depraved ignorance in general. When we become too lazy to check on our own thoughts and fail to look at them from a 3rd person perspective, we become caged as it were, in our own subjective ignorance.
Did you ever stop to think that, equivalently, your expectations directly affect your perception, which has been proven time and again? We tend to ignore information contradicting our current point of view while exaggerating evidence that supports it.
The list of examples goes on seemingly forever, and it is definitely worth it to dive into this subject matter more deeply, but the conclusion we can draw from all these examples is quite clear already: Always question yourself and your thought process, by becoming fully aware of the logical steps you are taking in drawing your conclusions. Always be the devil’s advocate, always try to take the opposite view as well, always distrust your own take on things. Failing to do this is at the root of many of societies’ problems while boosting people’s’ susceptibility to manipulation.
But lest we forget, at some point they helped us survive! It is up to us as individuals now to overcome them by being mindful of our own thoughts. Take evolution into our own hands. Wake up, and don’t you dare touch that snooze button again! Just like in evolution, we are right in the middle of an age of getting rid of old antiquated systems in general, in all aspects of life; ways of thinking, societal structures, technical developments, energy sources, basically everything is up for an overhaul. That makes the current time both the most exciting time to be live in almost all of human history, but also one of the hardest to keep up with. I say enjoy the mad ride down the maggot hole. Wave good bye to all the maggotry of the past.
Time to get off my rhetorics chair now before I get preachy! After all, we do not want to oversimplify things, as it were. Naturally…
And that’s how the bud crumbles, for now…Enjoy thinking about thinking, until the next time we meet.
Aron was born in 1983 in Alkmaar, The Netherlands. After attending high school in Alkmaar at the Murmellius Gymnasium he went on to study Experimental Psychology at the University of Amsterdam (U.v.A.), earning his Masters degree with merit in 2012, after attending the U.v.A. for 10 years. Why hurry when you are enjoying yourself, right?
Writing his thesis on a parapsychological subject, he chose to devote (the psychological science part of) his career to a controversial field, studying subjects like life after death, telepathy, extra sensory perception and telekinesis. Read more…
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