Miscellaneous content from the original enlightened caveman. Some serious, some not. Take your chances.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Your Genes Want You To Drive A BMW

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.


Blogger Charles said...

Hello very interesting but I would like to see more information to support your claim that our genes haven't changed much since the cavemen of 100 000 years ago. I heard argriculture only started 12 000 years ago. And besides argriculture does not mean that evolution does not take place anymore. A fit man will mate with more women than a cripple.


12/28/2004 08:29:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: Charles' comment

A fit man CAN mate with more women than a "cripple", but that doesn't mean that he does. The fittest people we have are the ones not having children: professional athletes. Even the moderately fit people--middle-class folks--are having just enough kids to replace themselves. Those people who are having the most children are the poorest and usually the least healthy.

In modern socities, even the poor find it immesurably easier to feed themselves than our ancesters ever did (and usually the poorest eat the least healthy food to boot). Being weak and poor is no longer a death warrent; these days, pretty much everyone can survive. Couple this fact with the fact that the poorest (i.e. the least educated) are the ones least likely to use birth control, and there you have it: the poorest and least healthy are the ones having the children.

Bear in mind that today's least healthy peoples are still some of the most healthy peoples in history. So when I say that they're the least healthy, it doesn't mean that they're downright UNhealthy.

12/28/2004 04:17:00 PM

Blogger enlightenedcaveman said...

Consider this. You have a population of 100 humans. The carrying capacity of the environment (i.e. how many people it can sustain) is only 80. There are five subgroups within the total population - the jocks, the brainiacs, the skaters, the wastoids, and the cripples - 20 people in each group. Let's say, just for ease of discussion, that each group's identity (jock, brainiac, etc.) is 100% genetic. Now, given the fact that 20 people will not survive, what we have is a competition. Who will win? It depends upon the environment.

If the environment is an african savannah, the jocks and brainiacs have an obvious advantage. If the environment is a commune in San Francisco, the cripples and wastoids might have a leg up. The point is that the genetic code of the individuals is determining whether they'll live or die. And if the environmental conditions stay somewhat constant for a few generations, the result will be the utter disappearance of the sub-groups that can't make it.

This is basically what happened for thousands of years as new species of hominids came into and exited the scene. But then, at some point, the whole situation changed. The competition effectively ended. Whether this is because natural selection stumbled on the cooperator hominid (us) or because she got rid of the dead weight hominids is irrelevant. One of two things (or both) happened - either the carrying capacity of the environment increased to allow for all species to survive (which is what you'd expect with the advent of agriculture) OR the number of species of hominids (and their associated numbers of individuals) decreased. Either way, natural selection no longer had struggle over which to preside.

I think of it as a game of musical chairs. For eons and eons, hominids were going round the circle. When the music stopped, some did not have seats. They perished, and their genes disappeared from the planet. The rest kept going. Eventually, there came a time when everyone had a seat - natural selection included. No one was eliminated. As soon as this happened, natural selection took a seat on the bench (to mix metaphors a bit). She's been there ever since.

12/28/2004 10:41:00 PM

Blogger enlightenedcaveman said...

One more thing - evolution requires three things - when they exist, it happens - always.

1. Reproduction (or replication) with inheritance. You must have an entity that makes copies of itself, and it must pass its traits (or some percentage of them) on to its progeny.
2. Variation. There must be differences between the individuals.
3. Selection. There must be a competition - a limited number of individuals being selected. The individuals selected must be selected according to some traits that they have the individuals not selected do not have.

As soon as humans found themselves in a world where number 3 from above was no longer a factor, evolution was done (in any significant way). Make sense?

12/28/2004 11:37:00 PM

Blogger Michael Gersh said...

One thing is missing from your three criteria, Caveman, and that is stress. While your three criteria are necessary and correct, the history of genetic changes, in humans and other species, shows that significant changes only occur during times of great stress. When a population is stressed, such as during an Ice Age, or other great climatic or environmental change, reproduction becomes much more difficult, and superior genetic traits are more likely to be greatly expressed upon the succeeding generations.

Reading the work of neurophysiologists, like William Calvin, has shown me that human and proto-human populations show little if any change during periods of little stress, such as the last 15,000 years. Big changes in cranium size and stature take place during the die-back periods, such as the Ice Ages. Even so, there is no way to know whether the brain changed and made more complicated syntax possible, or that the new syntax caused larger brains to have a reproductive advantage.

But one thing we can know for certain, and that is that there will always be those who deny their animal self, and seek to denigrate the ideas we discuss here. These people feel a need to be superior to Neanderthal artists who created cave paintings in (what is now called) France about 40,000 years ago. To those people, I say go to France and have a look. If you can not recognise your brother's work. you are not trying. To people like Charles I say that there are people alive today with small cranium size and heavy brow ridges, but some of them are smarter that you are. And Neanderthals are even a different species than we are. Cro Magnon women from that same time period would have no difficulty mating with very high status males right here, today. And I bet that their brothers could be lawyers and accountants as well.

The point is not that evolution has stopped. The point is that all the evolution in the last dozens of millenia have made very little difference in the way we perceive our world and our feelings. It is possible to rise above our impulses and live a "civilized" life. To me, the way to do that is to understand who I am. When I get the impulse to copulate with a strange female, I enjoy the feeling. I do not act upon it. When some strange man flirts with my wife, I hope that she enjoys the feeling as well. To those who deny that they have the feeling, I wonder just how out of touch with yourself you are. I have a great marriage, since my wife and I revel in our animal selves, but we choose to raise a family in a modern society, with rules of behavior that, to us, make a lot of sense. But if a breakdown in my time machine marooned me in France 40,000 years ago, I am sure that I would do well and, after a period of adjustment, fit right in.

12/29/2004 06:19:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Micheal - good point. I think you can capture the stress component of the eqaution in the selection part of the three requirements. Selection is really a pressure. When it is weak, Mother Nature gives rise to lots of variation. There is nothing culling the herd, so to speak, so all comers are accommodated. But things change when the environment's carrying capacity changes for the worse. As soon as fewer individuals can be sustained by the environment, selection pressures increase, separating the fit from the unfit. The numbers dwindle fast, and what you're left with is a small subset of the oiginal population. Evolution has occured.

The most stark example of this phenomenon is the Burgess Shale. The organisms that were alive in the early Cambrian period were flat-out bizarre, and, fortunately for science, they were encapsulated in Canada in an area called the Burgess Shale. There are body types that seem to be hybrids of the body plans we see today. The explanation, as argued by Stephen Jay Gould, is called Punctuated Equilibrium.

The idea is that the Cambrian began with an explosion in life. Things had stood still for eons and then, all of a sudden, life went crazy. Nature came up with mutation after mutation, and many of them gave rise to organisms that could make a living in the wide open and fertile landscape (and seascape). In short, natural selection had nothing to work with. The relatively desolate earth had plenty to offer most any living creature. Gould's assertion from this evidence was that evolution happens in fits and starts, not gradually as Darwin and others, like Richard Dawkins, always claimed. This is one of the most heated debates in the world of evolutionary theory.

For what it's worth, I am inclined to believe that there is a way to reconcile Dawkins and Gould. I think the phenomena of self-organization is the link. Check out Stu Kauffman's "At Home In The Universe." He's a genius. I've had beers with him - trust me.

Lastly, Calvin is a badass. Check out his book, "Lingua Ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain." It's essentially a series of conversations between him and a linguist named Derek Bickerton about how you can theoretically get from ape behaviors to syntax. Good stuff.

12/30/2004 04:07:00 AM


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