Here’s something that’s unlikely to feature on your average new year’s resolution list: this year, free yourself from the dictates of your evolutionary past.
Most organisms don’t have desires and preferences. All their behaviour is determined by genetic predisposition. A bacterium does not seek out pastures with higher glucose concentrations because it likes the taste of sugar – it moves towards them based on mechanical responses from its flagella, predetermined by its genetic material. What a gripping first paragraph.
But as organisms evolved that were more complex and more conscious, they developed the ability to learn adaptive behaviour during their lifetimes. In an experiment a rat can learn to avoid a brightly lit doorway which gives it electric shocks. This is not down to any change in its DNA sequence. This is a learned response. The rat has developed a phobia of brightly lit doorways.
When this rat dies, the aversion to brightly lit doors will die with it.* But after several generations of similar exposure the rats will eventually evolve a permanent aversion to bright lights in much the same way that most wild animals are born with an instinctual fear of humans. As George Romanes pointed out as far back as 1884, desires and fears serve evolutionary purposes:
“Pleasure and pain must have been evolved as the subjective accompaniment of processes which are respectively beneficial or injurious to the organism, and so evolved for the purpose or to the end that the organism should seek the one and shun the other.”
This works both ways: humans have aesthetic preferences for flowers and greenery because these preferences led our ancestors to gravitate towards these kinds of landscapes, thus increasing their chances of finding water in the wilderness. A caveman who preferred hanging out in deserts would not have had this advantage, and thus the aesthetic preference for deserts would have been less likely to spread through the human population. Put simply, our aesthetic taste for brightly coloured flowers and lush green grass evolved because it helped us survive. The same will be true for nearly all behavioural traits that are widely spread throughout the human population. This is evolutionary psychology in a nutshell.
But just because our tastes and preferences served some adaptive function once upon a time, this does not mean that they all continue to be helpful in our radically altered modern contexts. Some of them we are stuck with, even when they are now directly detrimental to our evolutionary fitness.
Consider cheesecake. Humans have developed a sweet tooth and a taste for fat and salt because it was rare in our ancestral environments. It paid to love salt and fat and sugar because that ensured that when our ancestors did come across it, they took the chance to stuff their faces whilst they could. In fact this love of sweet things was so helpful for our survival that our brains evolved to react to a combination of fat and sugar in much the same way that it now reacts to cocaine. Eat a mouthful of cheesecake and your brain literally screams at you: “YES, DO MORE OF THAT!”
In clinical trials, sugar is more effective in soothing the distress of infants than the mother’s breast.
But in a world where salt and fat and sugar are readily available, this obsession becomes a drawback. Eat too much cheesecake and you get diabetes.
The same goes for pornography. Men have evolved to like the look of naked ladies because…well, you know. But this has spilled over into a weakness for pornography which isn’t helping us reproduce at all. Our evolutionary hardware is being hoodwinked.
It is incredibly important that we get a handle on this: a colossal amount of human activity is wasted on evolutionary red herrings of this kind, masquerading as activities which improve, or used to improve, our evolutionary fitness. Just think how many hours and dollars we waste on computer games. Computer games don’t help us survive and reproduce. Who ever got laid off the back of a good score at Tetris? But we play them anyway because they push the same buttons as activities like hunting – it is surely no coincidence that boys love Call of Duty whereas girls tend to prefer games like Sims, which cater to their nesting instinct. These games may even stimulate the same chemical rewards as the adaptive behaviours which they parrot. The fact that hunting itself is no longer necessary for our survival only goes to underline the point – our understanding of what makes us healthy and happy moves many times faster than our physical bodies and chemical wiring can adapt.
Eating meat is another classic example. Our brain chemistry is designed to jump for joy when we insert a mouthful of steak. But the reality is that eating meat is not only detrimental to our individual health it is also catastrophic for the welfare of our species as a whole.
We don’t have to be enslaved by our evolutionary programming. Because evolution has also blessed us with foresight and reason. We have the ability to make ourselves aware of the hidden forces which drive our choices – and then break from them once we realise that they no longer serve us.
When we cultivate an awareness around our choices we turn our intelligence towards its true purpose. Instead of being blind victims of forces beyond our control, we become conscious agents, deliberately designing our lives to unleash our evolutionary potential.
A healthier, happier and more fulfilling life awaits you if you do.
 Or so says scientific materialism. Actually, the children of such rats learn to avoid brightly lit doors faster than their parents. Even more astonishingly, rats of the same breed will learn the same trick faster on the other side of the world, despite having never met the trained rats. More here: http://www.sheldrake.org/about-rupert-sheldrake/blog/rat-learning-and-morphic-resonance