“There’s No Natural Selection For Happiness”

“Like evolution, history disregards the happiness of individual organisms” (p. 243) writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari analyzes early human history for its indifference to personal well-being and its drive toward population growth—the same features that mark the forward motion of evolution. It is only in the modern era that civilization may be doing more for individual happiness, and the price we pay for that shift may be that we leave nature further behind.

It’s a provocative view. I, like many Americans, carry around a vague and positive sense of the “progress” of history— as I sit here with my computer, with food and water nearby in the kitchen, in a peaceful town. But Harari vividly sees the costs as well as the gains.

He looks at three “revolutions”: the Cognitive Revolution about 70,000 years ago, when we attained language and our current intelligence level; the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago, when food gathering slowly gave way to food growing; and the Scientific Revolution of the last 500 years.

In between the Cognitive Revolution and the Agricultural one, intelligent foragers led healthy, mobile, and interesting communal lives. Their diet was varied, labor was not arduous, and members of the small communities were closely connected. But as they took up growing a very few crops, raising animals, and settling down, they gave up such lives in exchange for towns, cities, and elites. The food supply and the farmers themselves became susceptible to drought and disease, and daily labor became exhausting and monotonous. Agriculture led to larger populations but not happier ones. And it did so in small steps, as each new luxury—food storage, land ownership, cities—became a necessity that no one wanted to give up.



The process of irreversible steps towards a growing population is also the footprint of  successful evolution. Variation and reproduction are partners in trying to make a growing number of DNA copies, while along the way “There’s no natural selection for happiness” (386).

Since the Scientific Revolution 500 years ago, the ambivalence of cultural progress has deepened. Sapiens, Harari writes, have attained more control over nature while destroying a growing number of species. We have reduced extreme poverty and illness and raised global population numbers, but we’ve also raised material expectations and have raised individual discontent along with them. We Sapiens are on our way to becoming god-like in prolonging and even designing life itself, yet we remain in the dark about what we want to become in the future.

As we modify the human body more drastically, through surgery and genetics, will we even remain human? The “Brief History” in Harari’s title refers not only to the length of the book but also to the question of the duration of Sapiens as a distinct species.

I found the first half of Sapiens, about the foraging era and the Agricultural Revolution, more compelling than the second part about recent trends. I don’t think we can effectively judge the deepest shifts in the era that we are still living in, and we are generally poor prophets. But the book is a fascinating application of evolutionary thinking.

I’ll conclude by letting Harari speak for himself, especially about language, the growing power of human “fictions,” social groups, and the foraging and agricultural cultures.

The new linguistic skills that modern Sapiens acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation…. Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all….Legends, myths, gods, and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution….Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate in large numbers. (21-25)

Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals….Below this threshold, communities, businesses, social networks and military units can maintain themselves based mainly on intimate acquaintance and rumour-mongering….But language enables us to create fictions, myths that could unite hundred of millions of people….Churches…States…Judicial systems are rooted in common myths….There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings… [So-called “primitive” people] cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Modern business-people and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. (26-28)

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google. (32)

Sapiens did not forage only for food and materials. They foraged for knowledge as well. To survive, they needed a detailed mental map of their territory. To maximize the efficiency of their daily search for food, they required information about the growth patterns of each plant and the habits of each animal….Each individual had to understand how to make a stone knife, how to mend a torn cloak, how to lay a rabbit trap, and how to face avalanches, snakebites,or hungry lions….The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history. (48)

On the whole foragers seem to have enjoyed a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than most of the peasants, shepherds, labourers and office clerks who followed in their footsteps. …The forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives than agriculture or industry do….In most places at most times, foraging provided ideal nutrition… The foragers‘ secret of success , which protected them from starvation and malnutrition, was their varied diet. Farmers tend to eat a very limited and unbalanced diet….Ancient foragers also suffered less from infectious diseases. Most of the infectious diseases that have plagued agricultural and industrial societies (such as small pox, measles and tuberculosis) originated in domesticated animals and were transferred to humans only after the Agricultural Revolution….Average life expectancy was apparently just thirty or forty years, but this was due largely to the high incidence of child mortality. Children who made it through the perilous first years had a good chance of reaching the age of sixty, and some even made it to their eighties. (51)

[About 10,000 years ago,] Sapiens began devoting almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species. From sunrise to sunset humans sowed seeds, watered plants, plucked weeds from the group and led sheep to prime pastures.…  Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity. They told a tale of progress fueled by human brain power. Evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent people. Eventually, people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature’s secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat. As soon as this happened, they cheerfully abandoned the grueling, dangerous, and often Spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant, satiated life of farmers.

       That tale is a fantasy. There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time. Foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agicultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of animals they hunted and the plants they gathered. Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure….The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud. (79)


Beavers, Humans, and Evolution

Despite all the links of many kinds between us and our animal ancestors, the obvious ways in which we are unique remain striking. Unlike any other species, we talk a lot, we learn by listening, we hold meetings, we make plans, we create complex technologies, and we build organized communities. How did we become so different? How did we come to live in such mini-worlds of our own making, in our cultures?

Here’s an interesting perspective:

beaver (wikipedia)


To understand the role of culture in human evolution, it is helpful to start with the beaver. Beavers exhibit the remarkable trait of damming up streams to form ponds and then inhabiting the ponds, thereby protecting themselves from predators. This trait is clearly “hard-wired:” If the sound of running water is broadcast to captive beavers, they proceed to pile sticks on top of the speaker. It also exemplifies niche construction: Beavers are adapted to the ponds that they themselves create; they are selected for their ability to produce the niches upon which they depend.

And so it is with the human. The niche to which we are adapted— human culture—is a niche that we ourselves construct; we are selected for our ability both to produce and to inhabit culture-based niches. Since human culture is encoded in and acquired by symbolic languages, this means we have been selected for our symbolic minds in the same way that beavers have been selected for their dam-building skills.

The passage is from a 2003 article on “From Biology to Consciousness to Morality” by Ursula Goodenough and Terrence W. Deacon. There is a lot to take in from these insightful paragraphs. My paraphrase: The characteristics of living things depend on the traits that best contribute to the organism’s capacity to survive and reproduce in its environment. But beavers, like humans, turn this relationship between organism and environment on its head. Instead of adjusting to an environment, we and the beavers create the environment in the first place. We both find the right niche by actually making the niche. To do so, beavers are hard-wired for building dams, humans for using language.

Human examples abound. Every home (maybe every room), every community, every automobile, every organized group is a self-created niche. Perhaps even our clothes. Even our smartphone is a pocket-sized niche of manufactured language and image. And it’s one we keep contributing to, to make it the way we like it.

Deacon and Goodenough’s paragraphs are the kind of application of natural selection theory that shows us not only how our traits may have evolved but what our essential and surprising characteristics are in the first place.

Sam Harris and the Science of Morality

Morality and values are usually considered aspects of life that science can say nothing about. In The Moral Landscape (2010), Sam Harris argues the opposite.

Questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose–are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood….The more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human value….A more detailed understanding of these truths [about well-being] will force us to draw clear distinctions between different ways of living in society with one another, judging some to be better or worse, more or less true to the facts, and more or less ethical.

For example, hundreds of thousands of school children are beaten by their teachers with wooden boards every year. Such corporal punishment is legal in 21 states. Is it wise—is it moral—“to subject little boys and girls to pain, terror, and public humiliation as a means of encouraging their cognitive and emotional development”? “The research indicates that corporal punishment is a disastrous practice, leading to more violence and social pathology.” The argument that corporal punishment is acceptable because it is based on religion and is an integral part of certain cultures does not outweigh the evidence of its destructive effects. It remains immoral.



Harris sites other, similar cruelties, including female genital excision, human sacrifice, slavery, foot binding, and ceremonial rape. His judgment of them is resisted by secular academics who have long held that there is no absolute moral truth, that morality springs from culture, that therefore the bizarre practices of other cultures cannot be judged by our own standards. Harris’s reply is that “the mere endurance of a belief system or custom does not suggest that it is adaptive, much less wise.”

Critics praise The Moral Landscape for challenging our assumption that the factual nature of science has nothing in common with values and morals. Harris believes that the two are, in reality, interdependent: facts entail certain values, such as objectivity, while values are based on perceived facts about how people respond in certain situations. In this way, our growing knowledge of the brain can serve as the foundation for greater human well-being. Much as scientific advances in medicine have improved human health, so advancing knowledge about the brain can help people flourish.

But the book has been criticized harshly on several grounds. One is that basing morality on well-being is not as new as it sounds. Two hundred years ago, Jeremy Bentham proposed that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” One weakness of basing morality on happiness this way is that justice takes a back seat; crimes require punishments even though those punishments may make the family of the criminal unhappy.

Moreover, critics say, Harris’s examples—corporal punishment, genital mutilation, etc—are extreme and straightforward instances of morally indefensible practices. But in a nuanced debate over whether a specific case of, for example, theft or adultery is justifiable, the well-being of the individuals may be too vague and inconsistent to serve as the basis for moral judgement.

well being cloud

Well-being: too many versions to serve as a foundation for morality.  (shutterstock.com)

For me, The Moral Landscape began feeling claustrophobic after a while. Harris belabors his critique of the boundary between facts and value but overlooks ways in which science already plays a part in morality and ethics. He might have cited, for example, the contributions of psychology to understanding such topics as happiness, the role of money in well-being, and the nature of power. He might have considered the role of science in moral decision-making whenever DNA is used to identify a criminal  and whenever economic data helps shape programs to reduce poverty.

As for the whole study of evolution, Harris dismisses it with the comment that moral behaviors that may have bestowed some survival benefits long ago make no contribution to our leading “deeply fulfilling lives” today. This makes no sense. Our capacities for cooperation and other social experiences, acquired over millennia, are for many people the very keys to a fulfilling life.

The relationship between science and morality is intricate, and understanding it more clearly is an important task for modern culture. Harris’s book is a step in that direction but is not the whole picture.