Naturally Selected Torment: Why Homo sapiens suffer and why I’d rather be a monk than Dan Bilzerian.
Updated: Apr 16, 2018
“If the immediate and direct purpose of our life is not suffering, then our existence is the most ill-adapted to its purpose in the world.” Schopenhauer 1851.
To fully understand why we suffer, we need to first ask why we feel anything at all. The question of how consciousness—i.e. subjective experience—comes to exist is still largely unclear, at least to me; but if we skip the hard part of how, the why is simple. To understand emotions, what they are and why they happen, we must keep in mind the most fundamental truth about humanity—that we are animals, or more broadly organisms. Just like bacteria, ants and blue whales, we are a product of evolutionary processes, of which natural selection is the go-to-guy when we want to understand function. Natural selection acts on variation such that any trait which enhances survival and reproduction will become more frequent in a population over evolutionary time since the genes coding for that trait are more likely to be replicated in future generations, or in biological terms have higher evolutionary fitness. The process is so obvious and undeniable that describing it seems tautological, yet it becomes less intuitive when we shift our focus to emotions.
Whether it be happiness, gratitude, grief or guilt, emotion functions to motivate behaviour in a fitness-enhancing direction. It should be of no surprise, that nothing gets us feeling quite as excited as a strawberry cheesecake or an attractive member of the opposite sex who’s ready to jump into bed with us. Our ancestors who sought out fats and sugars were less likely to starve and were able to maintain enough body-fat to ovulate and get pregnant; similarly, those who were able to attract mates of high genetic prowess had healthier offspring who were more resilient to the harsh environments that characterised our species’ history.
But wouldn’t it be better if life wasn’t such a chore at times? Evolutionarily speaking, no. Although many traditional paradigms in conventional psychology do stress well-being as the end goal of our mental processes, this is just not what they were engineered for. If we didn’t feel angry when we were cheated, we would be exploited by our Machiavellian peers. If we didn’t feel low self-esteem when we fail, we would have no drive to succeed. If we didn’t feel heart-break at the thought of a relationship ending, we wouldn’t have enduring pair-bonds with the individual we choose to reproduce with and our dependent offspring wouldn’t receive the bi-parental care they need to combat our planet’s indifferent armoury.
The worst part of being a human is not experiencing the torturous feelings above, it’s the fact that even when we are fulfilling the various inner drives that allowed our ancestors to stay in this cruel game, happiness remains elusive. Hedonism can be thought of as the appeasement of our evolutionary motives, a life that indulges our genes and evolved desires via sexual debauchery and synthesised drugs that hijack the pleasure centres in our brains. Even the most successful hedonists don’t really seem to feel content. Internet personality Dan Bilzarian flies around the world in his private jet, playing poker and mating with females that possess symmetrical faces, perfect bone-structure and a body that is screaming “I’m fertile”. Yet like many a man on his deathbed, he imparts some wisdom that many of us unfortunately don’t get the opportunity to garner first-hand—it doesn’t make him happy, at least not for long.
Why are the odds so against us? Well, if we felt conclusively happy and content, we wouldn’t strive for more. Your great-great-great(X3000) grandad didn’t think to himself “Ok, I’ve found a mate, I’ve got a baby, I foraged some food to feed them, whoop-de-do I can now relax in this hammock all day.” That guy went extinct. Your great-great-great (X3000) grandad was the one who spent ages trying to get that mate, have that baby, find that food and then felt content for about an hour before greed kicked in—he wanted more babies with more women and more food to feed them all, and once he got that he wanted even more. Taking what we have for granted and being greedy is an integral feature of the human condition and it serves our genes very well, but not our state of mind.
Insights from neuroendocrinology support this line of thinking and we know that dopamine—what in oversimplified misleading popular science (possibly like this) we might call the ‘reward neurotransmitter’—fires in anticipation, not achievement, of a reward/goal. That unrivalled feeling of having a purpose, a clear end that you’re pursuing, that’s the dopamine; and that’s why the anticipation is so often better than the real thing…because evolution is insouciant regarding our happiness, just so long as we are always striving for more, and thus “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” (Nietzche 1889).
Further compounding the problem is that one of the three conditions that selection acts on is competition. So even if your genes are doing pretty well for themselves and you’ve gathered a bunch of resources to ensure that their copies in your future offspring can survive, when you see that pal on facebook signalling that s/he has even more resources, a more attractive mate and has already given birth to a new gene carrying machine, well, you feel like shit.
Painful emotions serve important evolutionary functions, promoting behaviours that increase the likelihood of our genes being replicated. This game of life is a double-edged sword because even if we are behaving in a genetically-beneficial way, finding mates and accumulating resources, we will always want more. What good would it be for our gene masters to grant our slave minds freedom for good behaviour, there are more babies to have and more resources to nurture them with. This game cannot be completed since there is the perennial opportunity to get a higher score than the other players; and even if you are Genghis Khan with the world record, ancestor to 0.5% of the world’s population, why not strive for a new ‘PB’ and make that 0.6%?
So, what’s the solution? How do we evade the sadness trap that we were born into? The Buddha was not too dissimilar to Genghis Khan, possessing a birth-right to material luxuries and women. However, as he and other mystics over the centuries have attested to, the key to inner-peace may lie in quitting the game altogether. I’m not suggesting we all become monks, but we certainly could learn a thing or two from them and strive for a happy medium.
Not playing the game
So, if hedonism is clearly a recipe for dissatisfaction, the challenge of chasing happiness is an evolutionary loaded dice which never lands in our favour, or if it does somehow rolls over pretty soon without being rethrown; then perhaps spirituality is the polar opposite—an attempt to harness wellbeing by rejecting our evolved nature? The spiritual (for lack of a better word) traditions—here I’m using this vague multi-functional word to refer to any philosophies whose principal pursuit is the attentuation of suffering e.g. Buddhism, Vedanta, Hippyism—were right in suggesting the outside world can only give you temporary happiness (because dopamine will always push you to chase something else). That’s why some people choose to relieve themselves of all their possessions and meditate in caves for years on end—if you can find happiness in the absence of strawberry cheesecake and beautiful people willing to sleep with you, then maybe that happiness won’t be so fleeting. When we look at the shared tenets of these traditions, the reoccurring pillars are:
a) Remain in the present-moment: The evolutionary functions of fear, guilt and anxiety are all to avoid future threats to our genes and the repetition of past mistakes. If we can stay present, the future and past cease to exist, as do these emotions. Our genes may have been well served by mental time-travel, but our wellbeing has not. Whilst in our society this cognitive faculty is particularly pronounced, there is flexibility in the brain regarding our levels of future-orientation. When my colleague asked hunter-gatherers whether they wanted one prize today or five in a week’s time, they all went for immediate gratification; when she asked farmers and labourers they all chose to wait. This makes sense since hunter-gatherers have no storage mechanisms or accumulation of wealth, they truly live for the moment, focusing on acquiring food day to day. Conversely farmers must plan seasons in advance; and my dad went to enrol me in a top primary school the day I was born in the hope it would help me get a good job 20 years later. It’s no wonder we are always worrying about the future given that in our environment resource acquisition occurs on a timescale that is many orders of magnitude longer than those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. So, it makes sense why our plastic brains have adapted to lose touch with the present moment; but if we meditate we manipulate this plasticity to serve our mental health rather than our evolutionary fitness, we replace anxiety about the future with moment by moment awareness.
b) Suffering is caused by attachment to desire (of which evolution gave us plenty): Buddhism considers this assertion as one of its ‘noble truths’. It’s that constantly nagging perfectly evolved dopamine system telling us we need to achieve/acquire more and more to be happy, continually raising the bar of what we need and never granting us fulfilment. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Unfortunately, dopamine fools us countless times, and only when you acknowledge this and shut out the perennial whisper telling you that your assistant is prettier than your wife or that actually you need another pay rise, will you escape dopamine’s dictatorship.
c) Anicca: One of the three marks of Buddhism emphasises the need to accept the transient nature of our universe—nothing is permanent, and everything is constantly changing. So many of our unwanted emotions are related to change—heartbreak, bereavement etc.—these are threats from natural selection warning us to maintain relationships with the co-parent of our offspring and avoid the death of kin who share our genes. When we disobey them and divorce our spouse or suffer the loss of a loved one, we endure these mental tortures because for a threat to be effective, it must be credible, and to be credible, it must be executed. Like the last point, anicca comes back to attachment and desire; whilst it is very natural to become attached to possessions/people and desire that things remain as they are, if everything is indeed impermanent then attachment and suffering are two sides of the same coin. Practicing detachment and embracing transience will therefore reduce suffering, “the only way to make sense of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance” (Alan Watts).
d) The illusion of the self: This is probably the most integral part of spiritual experience. Your self-concept is held together by a string of coherently ordered memories, a sense of relationship to your body and your momentary subjective experience. This is super important because it allows us to have a self-identity which can be populated with goals, preferences, memories, desires which all make for a great gene-replicating vehicle. It’s confusing, but in physical reality there really is no you, only a constantly changing bundle of atoms. Yet somehow when your neurons are arranged in some very specific way, you get this feeling of being you and seeing colours, tasting flavours, hearing noises, touching textures and smelling aromas. If you take the right psychedelic drug, meditate for long enough or somehow over activate your left inferior parietal lobe and right angular gyrus simultaneously, you can experience what it’s like to not be separate from the universe. Unfortunately, this point is so unintuitive because of the very fact that we have evolved a sense of a separate self, that it is difficult to put into words; it is something to be experienced rather than read. I haven’t been able to fully experience this; but I have had some small glimpses that last about a millisecond. Nevertheless, I hear that you feel damn good, whatever you feel really means when you recognise that there is no you, that is. Being able to access this altered state of consciousness via any of the means mentioned provides a more lasting contentment than the waves of happiness provided via hedonistic pursuits, which tend to come crashing down rather quickly; rather than indulging the self, we’d be better off trying to lose it altogether.
Spirituality takes practice, and of course it’s not easy to oppose our nature—an evolved psychology that torments our minds for the benefit of our genes. But following instinct or hedonism is the equivalent of playing the game of life under a rule set which insists on dissatisfaction. A by-product of our complex cognition and evolved self-awareness is our capacity to reflect and philosophise; this is a dangerous strategy that natural selection has conjured up because it allows us to realise that playing the game is not in our own interest. The genomes of thousands of celibate mystics have now gone extinct, many of them claim to have escaped suffering, and they certainly curtailed the inevitable suffering that awaited their progeny. Whilst on the surface their teachings may sometimes be wrapped-up in absurd supernatural narratives, the core guidelines are logical defences against some of natural selection’s cruellest innovations, and we’d be missing a trick by not giving them due consideration.
Thanks to Uttam for his very thorough and insightful comments on the first draft which greatly improved the final version here.