Imperfect Choices, Conflicting Loyalties

I’ve been thinking about how often the discontents in our lives are rooted in the tension between our social bonds and our sharp sense of our individual well-being. Our genes happily carry both our social and our self-protective tendencies because both capacities, when they work together, support our survival. Like other social species, humans have long been “stronger together” when it comes to planning a steady food supply, building housing, and defending themselves. But the quickest signal that one of us is sick, injured, threatened, or being cheated comes not from a group but from our individual first-alert reactions—fear, pain, suspicion.

When our sociality—the term refers to our inherited tendency to form groups—and our sense of self harmonize so smoothly that our well-being seems complete, that’s a mutuality that we build our moral ideals on. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

But such balance doesn’t last. The self is quick to feel slighted in one way or another. In a recent family discussion, for example, several cousins and in-laws of mine told tales of flawed diagnoses and unwanted side effects.  “Damn it, it’s my body that’s at stake” was one protest. Change the wording to “my life,” “my rights,” “my money,” “my freedom” and you have a sampling of the self-protective alarms that go off when we find ourselves at odds with a group or what it stands for.

But we may be less quick to notice how often our discontent also comes not from the “me” end of the social spectrum but from the “we.” We often and easily assert the values of our family, community, workplace, ethnicity, political affiliation, religion. Liberals and conservatives denounce each other, seniors lament their juniors, believers rebuke the skeptics. As often as we defend “my” interests against a group, we also speak up for “our” values when dissidents seem wrong-headed.

Beneath all these labels,  accusations, and justifications by and about selves and groups I’m hearing more clearly the tumultuous human dilemma that sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson summed up in a memorable passage. Wilson may be best known for his thesis that natural selection favors not only those changes that benefit the individual organism but also changes that favor the group itself. Most biologists dispute the validity of such “group selection” as a separate level of natural selection. But no one disagrees that sociality itself runs deep and strong in our species among many others. And when our loyalty to our clan, party, religion or other group clashes with our sense of our own well-being, we feel angry, sad, confused, frightened, or betrayed. Here, says Wilson, is our spiritual turmoil—and our humanity.

Some years ago I read this passage in Wilson’s Sociobiology (2000 edition). The sentences appear near the close of the fifth chapter. Wilson characterizes our biological and humanistic dilemma with a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu epic from around 300 B.C. E. Here, the god Krishna steers the chariot of the reluctant prince Arjuna to an impending battle in which Arjuna’s relatives and closest friends will be fighting for the other side. Wilson writes that the theory of group selection

predicts ambivalence as a way of life in social creatures. Like Arjuna faltering on the Field of Righteousness, the individual is forced to make imperfect choices based on irreconcilable loyalties—between the “rights” and “duties” of self and those of family, tribe, and other units of selection, each of which evolves its own code of honor. No wonder the human spirit is in constant turmoil. Arjuna agonized, “Restless is the mind, O Krishna, turbulent, forceful, and stubborn.”

Krishna-Arjuna-battle (

Arjuna hesitates on the Field of Righteousness (

I remember feeling the sweep and the dilemma of human emotion here, from its biological roots to its spiritual consequences, from doubt and guilt to righteousness and war. I took in what I could, then turned the page. But the passage was the kind that sometimes plants itself in our memory more firmly than we know and rises again years later when we need it. Actually, I remembered the passage inaccurately. The condensed version that I had carried for so long included the words autonomy and sociality, two terms missing here that Wilson uses elsewhere.

Still, though, I think that autonomy and sociality are good labels for these volatile allies. We are Arjuna. We all come to the field of life with two capacities that work together though not easily or perfectly.  And I have more empathy for people, myself included, when I listen for the rumbling, ageless tension of self versus group beneath our “imperfect choices” and “irreconcilable loyalties.”

“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)


Spirituality and Evolution

My wrestling with various late-life questions that might be called “spiritual” has taken me to a fuller appreciation of evolution and our biological history. The sequence here, the process—or so it has seemed to me—is that I’ve been looking for answers and the result or goal has been a new appreciation of our past. Those who believe in traditional religions often describe a similar sequence: their search for meaning leads them to God. The pattern seems to be that the human impulse comes first, the connection with a spiritual something-larger follows.

But what if the sequence is actually the other way around, if the something-larger has been doing the prompting in some way, if what we experience as our search is the work of the “larger” force. This idea is quite common in Christianity. Christians often say, more or less, “I was looking for God, but of course it was God all the time who wanted me to find Him.”

Maybe a similar reversal makes some sense for naturalists who replace God with evolution and biological history. That is, perhaps it has been beneficial for our survival and reproductive success to be inclined towards thinking about such topics as how we got here, where we go when we die, what the essence of life is. Perhaps spiritual thinking has been adaptive.

One writer who has made this case is a commenter on this blog who goes by the name of Discovered Joys. He or she seems to be both a skeptic and a broad thinker. In a comment on a post, he describes how most of the inanimate,“stateless” processes that fill the universe take place without connection to the past; matter and energy do what they do without any “adjustments” to how those reactions have taken place in the past. However, a few “stateful” bits of matter—i. e., us—adjust our responses and processes according to memories of previous conditions. To make such adjustments successfully, it helps to have an understanding of how and why things come about as they do. Discovered Joys writes,

I think it likely that stateful organisms such as us are inclined (as a result of evolutionary processes) to be selected for building ‘narratives’, ‘rules of thumb’ etc. to improve our stateful responses. As a consequence we are conditioned to try and find meaning and purpose…. For me, the hunger for spiritualism (meaning and purpose) is an individual’s evolutionarily driven behaviour.

In other words, natural selection has fostered the rudiments of spirituality in us, the inclination to look deeply at how and why things have happened, because that tendency has been to our advantage for survival and reproduction.

A different connection is fleetingly suggested by a pair of sentences from a very different source. Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn’s A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity (2014) is a must-read about the current reformation in our knowledge of how to help other people effectively.

At one point the authors are discussing the well-established fact that our helping others benefits our own health because it creates social ties. Then they add this: “Maybe this deep-rooted social element in all of us explains our yearning for a life of meaning. We wonder about our purpose: we care about our legacy” (17).

In other words, maybe what happens is not that we help others in order to find a life of meaning. Maybe it’s the other way around: we seek purpose and meaning in the first place because unconsciously it prompts us to get out and make the social ties that are good for us. Kristoff and WuDunn don’t say more than that, but the “deep-rootedness” of the human social drive that is so important to our well-being does suggest that any quality that contributes to it, including spirituality, would have an evolutionary benefit.

Such discussions about evolution-driven spirituality are certainly speculative. Finding out if they have any foothold in reality would require a large study of whether people with so-called spiritual characteristics, whatever those may be exactly, are more successful at survival and reproduction than a random sample of the population. For all we know, the data may show that spirituality makes no difference at all in achieving evolutionary success. It may even carry a disadvantage; moody thoughtfulness about life and purpose might turn out to be a handicap for people struggling against hard circumstances. Still, the fact that spirituality is engrained in so many of us, even in our DNA, begs the question of why it got there.