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What exactly drives our actionsI recently finished reading The Moral Animal (read my thoughts about it here) and I found Robert Wright’s conclusion particularly disturbing. It is a book about evolutionary psychology, specifically, it details how Darwinism and its ideas have evolved since the publishing of On the Origin of Species. He suggests that an intimate appreciation for the new Darwinian doctrine he spends time illuminating will inspire an eternal deep-set suspicion. It is a survival of the fittest right? So it makes you reconsider every action in light of this subconscious goal. It involves suspicion over why you make the decisions you do, and why you are doing the things you are.

Survival is the name of the game

I have previously explored the idea of status-seeking being a shared part of the human identity, but what the doctrine suggests goes one level deeper. The status-seeking just the strategy we adopt in pursuit of the ultimate goal: increasing our genes’ chances of survival. Darwin originally proposed it is survival of the fittest in the natural world. Fitness was a measure of how effectively an animal could preserve their genes for future generations. The new Darwinian doctrine suggests that fitness is a flawed measure, and that it should be inclusive fitness.

The difference is that this new measure doesn’t require that the genes come from us directly, so long as the genes that contributed towards our individual creation are passed on. This new definition explains our natural affinity towards family e.g. siblings, cousins. Especially why in extreme situations, we would be willing to sacrifice ourselves for them. This modern definition of fitness was inspired by the theory of kin selection which is defined as an evolutionary stratagem that favours the reproductive success of an animal’s relatives, event at a possible cost of the animal’s own survival and reproduction.

In theory, therefore, every decision we make can be traced back to this core idea of boosting our inclusive fitness. This includes the people we call friends; the hobbies we choose to spend our time on; the careers that we choose to pursue.

Hold your horses

Wright understands that this is a highly cynical perspective to adopt, but it can be nevertheless a useful one. It reminds me of the idea that all models are false, and some are useful. Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate the disciplines like evolutionary psychology, especially its relatives is the social sciences are, by their nature, theoretical approximations of real-world observations. Unlike the natural sciences, the social sciences leave a lot of room for improvement. So what does Wright say?

Congratulations! That is the first step toward correcting the moral biases built into us by natural selection. The second step is to keep this newly learned cynicism from poisoning your view of everyone else; pair harshness toward self with leniency toward others; to somewhat relax the ruthless judgement that often renders us conveniently indifferent to, if not hostile to, their welfare; to apply liberally the sympathy that evolution has meted out so stingily. If this operation is inordinately successful, it might result in a person who takes the welfare of others markedly, but at least not massively, less seriously than his own.

Robert Wright

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