Original Post (with comments)
Given some of the mail I’ve received of late, perhaps its time to go back to basics…
Your genes want you to drive a BMW. They also want you to be thin, tan, and to have a lovely smile. Your genes want you to be the life of the party – perhaps a musician or an artist or a celebrity of some sort. “What?” you say. That’s right. Though you probably don’t realize it, humans are genetically inclined to be aware of who’s at the top of the social totem pole, and more importantly, to emulate whatever it is those people did to get there.
According to evolutionary psychologists, our genes build our minds to pursue status in social groups. This is because, long ago, when humans were still cave-dwellers, status meant the difference between life and death. Being among the best hunters and warriors was a sure way to obtain food when food was scarce. Therefore, Mother Nature, ever the tinkerer, discovered that humans who were genetically driven to pursue status would outlive those who were not. Thus was born the status-seeking gene, and it has been with us ever since. (In truth, it is a gross oversimplification to assert that there are specific genes for this or that attribute. It’s just an easy way to say that a trait is largely genetic.)
In any case, Robert Wright chronicled this and other insights into the evolutionary history of the human mind in his 1994 best-seller, The Moral Animal. As astounding as the book was, a decade has passed and most folks still don’t know anything about why they think and feel the way they do. This is a real problem, unless of course everyone can have a BMW, and assuming that having a BMW is really all it’s cracked up to be.
It breaks down like this. From a genetic perspective, modern humans have the minds of cavemen. As soon as humans could organize sufficiently to protect themselves from nature and other humans, and could consistently procure food in mass quantities, natural selection no longer had an easy task of separating the fit from the unfit. Fitness became more a function of luck or circumstance than strength or skill, at least when it came to living long enough to reproduce (which is the only real goal of our genes). The process that had been shaping the human mind for eons suddenly ground to a halt. This is believed to have happened somewhere between 20,000 and 100,000 years ago. Since then, the genes that code for our minds have not changed significantly. They just get reshuffled again and again, generation after generation. And here we are, dozens of millennia later, mostly unaware of the degree to which the environment of our ancestors affects our day-to-day lives.
Seeking status in ancient times was a survival necessity. In modern times, it is a fool’s errand. This is because what counts for status today has nothing to do with survival. Who’s at the top of the social totem pole these days? Celebrities. Whether we’re talking about sports stars, musicians, actors, business tycoons, and even religious figures, one thing is certain – the masses are paying close attention to what they do, and, in many cases, they are following suit.
Those who get the most attention in our society are the role models, whether they like it or not. They set the cultural agenda. It has always been so. From Elvis’ sideburns to Madonna’s material girl get-up to the current obsession with “bling,” it is instantly apparent how much popularity equals status in our modern world. From shows like Entertainment Tonight and magazines like Us and People, we can see that America’s obsession with stars is a multi-billion dollar industry. But doesn’t anyone ever wonder why so many people across such a diverse land would share such a shallow proclivity?
As we learn more and more, it becomes clearer and clearer that it’s genetic. But that doesn’t mean we have to give in. As they say in the world of addiction, admitting that there’s a problem is half the battle. Like it or not, we currently find ourselves in a battle for sanity, or at least emotional stability. How many among us are dying to drive a BMW, not because it is a superior automobile, but because of how it will be perceived by friends and acquaintances? How many are depressed when they look in the mirror because they don’t resemble the celebrities they so desperately envy? More generally, how much of what we do is for show rather than for substance? It doesn’t have to be this way.
If we’re going to make any more progress as a species, we’re going to have to recognize that our minds are constructed from the genetic blueprints of our cave-dwelling ancestors, blueprints that were designed for a world that no longer exists, blueprints that are at work every day pushing us to obtain status in our social endeavors. That’s our starting point. From there, the fix is within our reach. Indeed, many have overcome their genetic imperatives.
As a species, we have a long history of taming our genes. Birth control, monogamy, the rule of law, capitalism, and gene therapy are all examples of mankind overruling genetic influences in favor the conscious desires of human beings. A cursory look around reveals that there are many who have rationally concluded that society’s value systems are fickle at best, and demented at worst. Some folks have taught their genes not to want a BMW, at least not simply because the possession of a BMW means they’re somebody. They have deliberately concluded that wealth does not necessarily equate with value as a human being, nor does physical appearance or the ability to excel in sports or in the arts. Though any one of these things may (and often should) be admired by society, at the end of the day, none matters in and of itself.
John Kerry jokingly said during the campaign season that he and George Bush had “married up.” That a statement like this is categorically unremarkable is a testament to how much the awareness of and quest for status imbues our collective perspective. If we are to keep our genes from having their way with us, the time has come to start recognizing when our concern for status is getting in the way of our enjoying life. In other words, what do we have to give up so our genes can have a BMW? Asking questions like this is the first step in enlightening the caveman in all of us.