Fair warning, readers: I’m going to get quite hippie-nerdy here today.
The world became a lot more intelligible to me once I came to fully understand that I am a monkey in shoes.
By that, I mean that however else we might like to spin it, humans are and will always be, on some level, subject to our primitive nature. We, like other animals, are often driven by natural forces programmed into us. Many of our behaviours, for good and ill, are the result of instincts and subconscious forces programmed into us by natural selection. This is called evolutionary psychology.
For instance, what we call friendship doesn’t make sense for many animals. A member of your species who’s not your mate or your offspring isn’t helping you pass on your genes, and may actually be competing with you for resources, so you should absolutely fight them.
But if you consider that our ancestors survived by working together, then it makes sense for us to make friends. If you get on with someone, maybe (says your primal brain) they can help you find food and keep watch for danger. You don’t think about this as you’re meeting someone for the first time; I certainly don’t. I’d like to think that we’re not consciously that selfish.
By a similar token, people who are conventionally attractive tend to be more likely to land a particular job than somebody with the same qualifications but plainer features. If a robot was assessing them for the position, looks probably wouldn’t enter into it. Because a fallible monkey in shoes is assessing them, though, that pretty person has an unfair, subconscious advantage. Many of the traits we associate with beauty are often things that would have indicated a healthy ally or mate to our ancestors. Clear skin says to the primal brain, ‘That person is free of disease’. Excessive thinness says to it, ‘That person is crap at hunting’.
Fortunately, we’re capable of making conscious decisions that override the primal brain. I want to emphasise that evolutionary psychology doesn’t excuse anything a person might do; it only seeks to explain their behaviour. Theft, for instance, is ‘natural’. If you can take something from someone else that will benefit you and increase your chances of survival, the primal brain says, ‘Take it’. Our simian cousins steal whenever they can; I’ll never forget the orangutan I once observed at a sanctuary in Borneo, distracting her rival with a bunch of leaves and stealing the yummiest fruit from her with her feet.
But I believe we’re smart enough to resist the primal brain, and in some cases, we should resist it, because we are living in circumstances under social contracts that render such survival behaviours obsolete or harmful.
Racism, for instance, is thought to originate from ‘survival’ programming in our brains that no longer makes sense. Here’s the thing: racism isn’t learned, and it isn’t recent. Ancient Mesopotamians had different rules in their societies for different races. Ancient Greek philosophers came up with ludicrously elaborate reasoning to prove that they were the best (which boiled down to ‘we’re at the centre of this radius around where we happen to live, so we’re at the centre of the world’ and ‘I find other Greeks attractive, therefore we are the prettiest and best’).
Even little babies are racist. In a number of experiments on baby psychology (including one on fairness, and one on infants’ abilities to distinguish faces), researchers found that babies aged three months and up favoured experimenters and other babies of the same race as those who raised them; they were habituated to them. In hunter-gatherer days, it made more sense to be able to better distinguish between members of your own clan, and to distrust that clan over the hill, who were less likely to protect you (and, in straitened times, might eat you). They were the guys hunting your food, looking to take your territory, so they were the ones to avoid.
But that kind of thinking is now obsolete, and goes against the values, laws and social contracts on which a productive and harmonious society is based. We teach lots of values that go against the impulses of the devious monkey brain. Sharing, tactfulness and regular baths are ‘unnatural’, but just see how far you get without them for a week.
Evolutionary psychology shouldn’t be viewed as a way to absolve us of our failings. Rather, it can help us understand and overcome them, both at the wider societal level and on a personal one.
For example, my primal brain is telling me to eat some ice cream right now, but I’m not listening to it. There is not a famine coming.