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To get a handle on this line of thinking, you have to understand a bit of evolutionary psychology. This is the relatively new discipline that applies evolutionary theory to the science of the mind. Robert Wright’s bestseller The Moral Animal (1994) was the first book to bring it to the attention of the masses. The idea that concerns us here is the notion that natural selection made its last significant changes to the human mind somewhere between 20,000 and 100,000 years ago. At that time, humans were nomads living in small groups with close kin. Life was challenging, to say the least. The humans that were still around when mankind conquered his environment and placed natural selection on the sidelines are our ancestors. Their genes have been mixed and matched over the millenia to give us the population of humans on the earth today. It turns out that their minds had some very important adaptations that are still with us today.
For starters, they were genetically programmed to cooperate with one another. With life and death hanging in the balance on a day to day basis, the ones who banded together fared better than the loners. They were the fittest, which is why they survived. Genes that led to behaviors that promoted cooperation flourished. The other major adaptation has to do with the quest for status. With limited resources available, humans in ancestral times fell into hierarchies, much like chickens fall into what is known as a pecking order. The ones on top got their pick of the food, shelter, and mates. The ones on bottom missed out and died off. Therefore, humans developed the tendency to recognize their place in the hierarchy and to do whatever it took to move up. These two adaptations produced a host of human emotions, and it those emotions that influence much of how we interpret and react to the world today, even though it bears no resemblance to the environment of our ancestors.
Emotions are the connection between our genes and our behavior. Not always, of course, but a lot more than we would expect. We are certainly not robots driven entirely by our genes. However, the emotions that have their basis in our DNA are at work every day of our lives, coloring how we deal with everything. The emotions that come from cooperation are the feelings of friendship, gratitude, anger, sympathy, and loyalty. The emotions that come from the quest for status include admiration, envy, and resentment. We feel these emotions today because they were the key to survival for our ancestors.
In caveman times, humans did not have the cognitive ability to conceive of the value of cooperating. Their genes simply programmed them to experience emotions that led to cooperative behaviors. For example, one who does a favor for another should expect that favor to be returned. Over time, individuals who repaid favors were met with feelings of friendship. This was nature’s version of a good credit history, so to speak. Individuals who did not return favors were met with anger. In this way, man’s emotions led him to participate in mutually beneficial, or in scientific terms, reciprocally altruistic relationships. Gratitude was felt when one was in debt, prompting him to repay his benefactor. Loyalty was an extension of friendship – humans looked out for those who always repaid favors, knowing that there was nothing to lose. Sympathy was man’s version of bargain hunting. When a guy was down on his luck, a few scraps of meat could mean the difference between life and death. The sympathetic caveman could then expect the meat to be repaid at a profit. Nature is quite shrewd sometimes. This is definitely true with respect to status.
Envy kept the caveman in pursuit a higher place on the tribal totem pole. By wanting what the high status individuals had, one would take actions that would lead him to obtain it. And though he may have been jealous of those high status individuals, he was likely to have admired them. This would keep him close enough to them to learn what it was they did to get to the top. Resentment, on the other hand, served to knock the high status individuals off the hill. Resentment prompted individuals to take actions that would reduce the status of the leaders, thereby elevating their own. It is amazing to imagine cavemen cooperating and angling for status simply by following their genetically-driven emotional drives, but that, according to evolutionary psychologists, is exactly what they did. The problem is that these emotions are still a major part of our mental machinery. They are the reason why we humans are much more alike than we are different, and they are the reason we can’t seem to solve so many of the problems in our world.