“This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction.”
Harari wrote that passage while discussing industrial farms and milk production in his book. He argues that industrial agriculture does a good job of providing for the objective needs of animals, but a poor job of providing for their subjective needs. It isn’t too terribly hard to ensure that a dairy cow has sufficient food and water, sufficiently sanitary living space, and is inseminated so as to have a calf and begin producing milk. It is difficult, however, to successfully operate an industrial scale milk production facility that allows cows to just be cows and experience the typical subjective experiences that make a cow life worth living.
Animals in industrial agricultural settings today have been separated from the worlds that their brains and bodies were evolved to live within. “Evolutionary psychology,” Harari writes, “maintains that the emotional and social needs of farm animals evolved in the wild, when they were essential for survival and reproduction.” We can provide a life for animals that meets their objective needs for survival, but that may not meet the needs their brains and bodies were adapted to before they were brought into a human centric industrial setting.
This evolutionary psychology framing for the needs of animals as shaped in the wild is also helpful for viewing humans. We are still animals, and our needs and psychologies were shaped over millions of years as human beings evolved in harsh, wild conditions. We can explain our late night ice cream binges partly on our evolutionary psychology. We can explain sexual promiscuity (possibly to some extent) on evolutionary psychology. We can also explain our tribalism in terms of evolutionary psychology. Even though we live in a different world today where I can safely sit inside at my computer for hours, I still have fears around social status, threats, and not being able to find a mate. Like a dairy cow, much of my objective needs can be met fairly easy, but that doesn’t mean that my subjective needs, the ones seemingly built into my brain through evolution before humans lived in our current setting, can just as easily be fulfilled. In some ways humans have turned ourselves into factory farmed animals, making it easy to meet our objective needs but creating a world that does little to help us address our subjective needs developed through evolution in the wild. The lesson of evolutionary psychology that Harari applies to farm animals can also be applied to us.