Genetic Evolution is More Complex Than You Think

Genetic Evolution Is More Complex Than You Think

A little while back I remember learning about something within genetic evolution that really surprised me. Genes that are immediately next to each other on a chromosome tend to stick together during cellular division. Physics is at play in the way that chromosomes line up and pull apart during cellular division and the separation of genes in both eggs and sperm. This can have a strange effect on how some genes get passed along. Imagine you have a gene that is crucial for survival, such as a gene that codes for whether lungs develop and a gene that is somewhat negative for survival, like a gene that makes your immune response a little less effective. If these two genes are immediately next to each other on a chromosome, then they will likely be passed along together, because it would be hard for them to be separated. If you don’t get the lung development gene, you also don’t get the weak immune system gene, but you don’t develop in the womb. If you get the lung development gene, you also get the weak immune system gene. The genes are passed along in the standard evolutionary process, but one gene seems actively harmful to survival.
 
 
I share this story because it demonstrates that genetic evolution is more complex than I had ever thought. I hadn’t considered the way that physics could influence which genes are passed along. Scientists could spend time trying to find exactly why a weak immune system gene is beneficial for survival and what competitive advantage that gene gave to a species for it to be favored by evolution. However, the real answer would just be that the gene was stuck next to a more important gene, so it kept getting passed along. An inadvertent deletion that would have inactivated the weak immune system gene may have also damaged the lung development gene, making it more likely that evolution would favor the two genes being passed along without errors together.
 
 
Looking at more complexity within genetic evolution, Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens writes, “a microorganism belonging to one species can incorporate genetic codes from a completely different species into its cell and thereby gain new capabilities, such as resistance to antibiotics.” We think of evolution as a chain, with organisms and species slowly evolving as random typos provide advantages or disadvantages to a species. But this is too simple of a model as Harari’s quote shows. A microorganism can take in genetic information from outside, completely transforming that organism in a single generation.
 
 
Science also knows, however, that this kind of genetic adoption is not limited to microorganisms. There is evidence that sweet potatoes evolved when a virus infected a potato plant and inserted its DNA into the plant. The potato adopted DNA from a different organism and started down a new evolutionary path toward becoming the modern sweet potato. This sounds like a very niche and strange thing, but it is something humans are now exploring through CRISPR technology that may be able to cure many genetic disorders.
 
 
Genetic evolution is not a simple chain. It is much more complex than we think, and there is likely more we will discover that will demonstrate how complex the system truly is.
Evolution Doesn't Care About Happiness

Evolution Doesn’t Care About Happiness

As humans evolve it is not clear that our lives are actually becoming happier. We have more stuff, better technology, and more comfortable lives, but that hasn’t always translated into happiness at the individual level. One reason why we may not be finding more happiness as our societies and technological capabilities continue to evolve may be due to evolution itself.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “according to the selfish gene theory, natural selection makes people, like other organisms, choose what is good for the reproduction of their genes, even if it is bad for them as individuals.”
 
 
Humans desire status almost to the exclusion of everything else. Higher status means a greater opportunity to find a partner and to pass your genes along. It means you have more allies to assist you, ensure your offspring receive assistance, and gives your offspring an advantage as they try to find a partner to pass their genes along. It gives you access to more resources to ensure your survival and that of your offspring, making it more likely your genes will be passed on. Status is almost everything for humans in the evolutionary game of reproducing genes. But constantly fighting for more status flat out sucks.
 
 
At an individual level, the fight for status means working long hours in jobs you may not like so that you can get a promotion, get a fancy title, and become impressive in your career. You are likely to win more allies, attract more romantic partners, and have more financial resources at your disposal if you work hard to rise up the social ladder and become a CEO. Your status will be high, but your actual life may be miserable. You will constantly be stressed over your company. You won’t have set hours and designated time-off to simply enjoy your hard earned financial resources. And if you are like most Americans, you will buy the biggest house possible, the fanciest car possible, and have the most stuff possible to demonstrate your success and status, which means you will have more things to worry about losing if it goes wrong.
 
 
You could alternatively move to a tropical island, wash dishes for a living, and spend most of your time on a beach. You may not have much status, but if you are ok with living quite modestly, you might find a relaxing and enjoyable day to day life. You won’t have the big fancy house and your job might still suck, but you won’t be living with the constant stress of losing everything and managing a business. Instead, you will get to clock off, leave your troubles behind you, and enjoy the sunset on a warm beach.
 
 
Our drive for status, thanks to our evolutionary drive to pass on our genes, makes us more likely to push to be the CEO, to strive for the American Dream, and to desire lots of things to demonstrate our status rather than live on the beach. Individually, evolution has pushed us toward lives that are rather miserable. It helps ensure we, and everyone else, pass our genes along by working hard and having families, but we might individually all be more happy living as beach bums in Southern California. Evolution cares about passing our genes along successfully, it doesn’t care about our happiness in the process.
Neither Too Miserable Nor Too Happy

Neither Too Miserable Nor Too Happy

Our bodies and brains seem to always keep us wanting more. A new job, a new house, a new sexual partner all seem to be able to bring us pleasure, excitement, and joy, but those pleasant feelings soon fade and the things we like tend to become our new baseline. The house we loved when we moved in becomes normal and we don’t appreciate it as much after a few years. We settle into our job and can become bored or uninterested. Our love for our partner may go from red hot to cool.
 
 
There are evolutionary explanations for why our brains and bodies seem to respond in this way. If we became complacent in our current lives and living standards, we might not push for more and might not make new discoveries, work for new thing and improved status, and might not try to have more sex with more partners. Failing to make new discoveries means that our entire tribe doesn’t advance and could get wiped out by a neighboring tribe that did make a new discovery. Failing to try to do more and become a more impressive person means we don’t improve our social status, and don’t get as many mates, so our genes don’t get passed along. And settling for just one sexual partner means we have fewer chances to procreate, again decreasing the chance that our genes are successfully passed along.
 
 
“Perhaps it’s not surprising, then,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “that evolution has molded us to be neither too miserable nor too happy. It enables us to enjoy a momentary rush of pleasant sensations, but these never last forever.”
 
 
Harari is not the first to make such an observation. This observation is part of the core of Stoic thinking. Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations wrote about the ways in which we always want more and how we lose our value in the things we have that become ordinary to us. Stoic thinking encourages that we reflect on this reality and work to avoid becoming unhappy with things that are truly great and spectacular. Stoics suggest that we practice focusing on our gratitude at having such things, rather than focus on what more we could have. There will always be more we could strive for, and our brains and bodies will always push us to have more, but that doesn’t mean it will make us any happier. Our biology is destined, thanks to evolution, to keep us from being too miserable and too happy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find a valuable place where we accept this reality and enjoy our lives, appreciate what and who we are, and strive to be great, without overreaching and becoming unhappy with what we have.
Are we Happy?

Are We Happy?

In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari asks a simple question that I had never paused to ask prior to reading his book. Are we happier than humans of the past? Are we happier than the humans who fought and lived through WWII or WWI? Are we happier than the humans alive when Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492? Are we happier than the ancient Romans? Are we happier than humans living 20,000 years ago? Are we happier than the first homo Sapiens?
“Historians seldom ask such questions,” Harari writes, “…yet these are the most important questions one can ask of history.” These questions are important, Harari argues, because most of the organization and progress of our lives is in one way or another geared around increasing human happiness. If history is not exploring the happiness of humans, than each step in human cultural evolution is a step that may not serve humans for the best. It also means that our ideas and views of how the world should be organized to help expand human happiness and flourishing may be based on incorrect judgements of happiness.
Happiness is difficult to measure and quantify. We are not actually all that good at thinking about our own happiness. Daniel Kahneman suggests that we have an experiencing self, which is our active conscious self, and a remembering self, which pauses to think back on our lives. Those two selves experience happiness differently. Getting beyond just ourselves and measuring the happiness of others is even more difficult, especially when those others lived 30,000 years ago.
So instead of measuring happiness we measure progress. We measure electrical devices, time spent in leisure activities, energy used to heat or cool homes, rates of sex, rates of violence, and other proxies for human happiness or unhappiness. These measures are probably a good way to estimate happiness, but we can see that they don’t tell the whole story. It is also possible for societies and collectives to become focused on a single measure, and drive toward that measure as if it were a goal that should be achieved to produce more happiness. Sometimes efforts to increase GDP, access to electricity, and other noble sounding efforts produce more of one thing at the expense of other things that contribute to human happiness. In the end, pursuing progress may not be an avenue for pursuing happiness
When we think about human progress, about our lives and where we want to head, and about what we think is best for society we should consider happiness. We should consider whether we are happier than humans in the past and think about whether the things we strive for are the things that are most likely to bring happiness to ourselves and others. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t have progress in our lives, that cultural evolution is bad, or that happiness is all that matters, but we shouldn’t assume we will always progress in ways that will make us happier just progress it increases our technological capabilities or brings us more resources.
Remembering Numbers

Remembering Numbers

A common theme throughout Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens is the argument that Homo sapiens changed so quickly thanks to our brains that our evolution, both physiologically and psychologically, couldn’t keep up. Evolution is a slow process, but human technological and sociological change has been incredibly rapid. Our minds and bodies are still adapted to live in a world that Homo sapiens no longer inhabits.
 
 
As an example, Harari writes, “no forager needed to remember, say, the number of fruit on each tree in the forest. So human brains did not adapt to storing and processing numbers.” Math is hard, and part of the reason it is so hard is that our minds didn’t evolve to do lots of math.  Our foraging ancestors had incredible brains (as we still do) capable of keeping track of the social and political alliances within groups of 50 to 250 individuals – a huge number of potential combinations of friends, enemies, or frenemies. But foragers were not collecting taxes, were not trying to hang multiple pictures of different sizes equally on a wall, or trying to quickly remember which basketball player made a jump shot at the same time that another player committed a foul and tabulate a final score.
 
 
The human mind was not evolved for remembering numbers, and that is why recording and calculating numbers is so difficult. It is why we can be so easily confused by graphs and charts that are not well organized and put together. It is part of why it is so hard to save money now to retire later, and why credit card debt can be such an easy problem to fall into. We are good at remembering about 7 digits at once in our short term memory, but beyond that we easily become confused and start to lose track of information. The Agricultural Revolution made numbers more important beginning about 70,000 years ago, but our brains have not caught up. To make up for the difficulty of storing numbers in our heads we write numbers down on paper (or stone tablets in the distant past), use calculators to crunch numbers quicker than we can by hand, and rely on tools that can save numbers and data so that we don’t have to hold it all in our heads. Our brains simply are not up to the task of holding all the numbers we need to remember, so we have developed tools to do that for us. Don’t feel bad if you can’t remember tons of numbers, and don’t make fun of others who can’t do the same. 
Mass Cooperation Instincts

Mass Cooperation Instincts

The last few years in the United States have been a difficult time in terms of political disagreement. President Trump was an incredibly polarizing figure who clearly lied, made up a lot what he said, and was simply not a good president. Nevertheless, he had a huge number of supporters who liked his persona, liked that he praised their social groups, and supported him so strongly that they tried to prevent the government from certifying the election that Trump lost by rioting through the nation’s capital. The former President and those who supported him in such a fanatical manner represent a problem with human cooperation and evolution. Whether we like it or not, and whether we want to admit it or not, we still have tribal instincts that drive much of our behavior.
 
 
“The problem at the root of such calamities,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “is that humans evolved for millions of years in small bands of a few dozen individuals. The handful of millennia separating the Agricultural Revolution from the appearance of cities, kingdoms, and empires was not enough time to allow an instinct for mass cooperation to evolve.”
 
 
In the book, Harari explains that humans have been evolving for a few million years separate from apes and other close cousins. Homo Sapiens specifically, has only existed as a distinct species of human for a couple hundred thousand years. That is an incredibly long time on the scale of a human lifetime, but in terms of evolution, it is a very short time. For the couple hundred thousand years of the existence of homo sapiens, only about 70,000 years has passed since the very beginning of the Agricultural Revolution – perhaps about one third of the full time that homo sapiens has existed. Humans went from a relatively insignificant species that lived in small tribal bands to the most dominant force on the planet in less than 100,000 years. And as I stated, this is a long time in the life of a single human, but a blip in evolutionary time.
 
 
Such a fast ascent was made possible by our incredible brains and unsurpassed adaptability. But our quick ascent has not been perfect. We have not fully evolved in a way that helps us support the world we have built and the lives we now lead. As our recent political experience demonstrates, our minds still seem to be evolved to fit within small tribal bands, not within global populaces. It is easy to be altruistic among a small group of friends and to provide aid and assistance to those you personally know or to those individuals in front of you who need life saving help. It is harder to be supportive of people you differ from culturally and it is hard to find the will to aid people across the globe who are slowly dying from preventable causes. Cooperating at large scales is difficult, and it doesn’t fit the millions of years of human evolution that came before the Agricultural Revolution. Our brains allowed for a quick ascent to dense cities and eventually metropolitan statistical areas comprised of millions of people, but that change was faster than evolution. The challenge we face today is to cooperate together and find ways of living in a world we did not evolve to fit. The challenge is to develop an instinct for mass cooperation, even if it is not biologically natural for us right now.

Evolutionary Success & Individual Experience

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari shares examples of how evolutionary success for an entire species doesn’t always mean positive things for individuals within the species. His conclusion, and the evidence of evolutionary success for humans, livestock animals, and other species, is similar to the Repugnant Conclusion, an idea common in ethical psychology. As a quick summary, the Repugnant Conclusion can be thought of in the following way. Imagine our planet has 10 billion people living, and all 10 billion people would score their happiness at a 7. If you summed up the total happiness of the planet you would get 70 billion. But imagine that our world could support the lives of 100 billion people, but only if each person had a miserable life and rated their happiness level as 1 – just barely worth living rather than not living. If you summed up the total happiness of all 100 billion people, you get 100 billion, an increase of 30 billion in terms of total happiness over the planet with 10 billion fairly happy people.
 
 
Hardly any of us would want to live in the planet where there were more living people, but almost all of them were unhappy, with lives they considered only barely worth living. But evolution doesn’t really care about happiness. Evolution seems to just care about whether lives are barely worth living, and whether genes are being passed along. Yuval Noah Harari would argue that throughout history numerous species have successfully evolved through strategies that seem to follow the Repugnant Conclusion.
 
 
When we imagine evolution, we tend to think of everything getting better. Humans, plants, and animals evolve to become bigger, faster, stronger, and better able to survive. Surely, we imagine, that means that each individual has a better life and experience than the individuals that came before it. After all, each successive generation, per evolutionary pressure, should be a better fit for survival than its predecessors. Unfortunately, we can evolve in the direction of the Repugnant Conclusion, with fitness for survival having nothing to do with actual individual level fitness and happiness. Greater numbers of individuals may be able to survive if they are all a little less happy, require a little less in terms of resources, and can better manage being crammed into a tight space. Harari writes, “this discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution.”
 
 
When we think about evolution, Harari argues that, “we have to consider how evolutionary success translates into individual experience.” Today, there are far more chickens alive than at any other point in history. By evolutionary standards, chickens have done great. They continuously pass their genes along and even have another species invested in the continued survival and population growth of chickens. However, individual chickens have miserable lives, often confined to cages they cannot move around in or stand-up in. Their lives are also very short, very congested, and their deaths can be brutal. The individual experience for a chicken is about as bad as it could be, but the species as a whole is booming. Harari argues that similar things have happened in Human Evolution. We might not all be trapped in cages, but we have had changes in our species that have made the individual lives of humans worse while propelling the survival and continued evolutionary success of the species forward. Evolution does not simply mean better. It means continued survival and change in the face of challenges for survival. Sometimes the experiences of the individuals can improve, but that is not always the case.
Miserable Early Farming and Parallels to Modern Life

Miserable Early Farming and Parallels to Modern Life

“Rather than heralding a new era of easy living,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers.” When we tell a basic story of humanity, we imagine early hunter-gatherer humans as cold, scared, dumb, and barely surviving as they foraged through forests in search of mushrooms and prey. The story has these people then evolve into smarter farmers who work hard in fields, but have nice warm shelters and a happy family before eventually evolving into our modern city living, car driving humans. This overly simplified story, unexpectedly, is off with regard to the experiences of early foragers and farmers, and I think there is a lesson we can see in our own lives in the modern world.
 
 
The first thing to recognize is that farming is hard, and was especially hard for the first humans to truly settle into an agricultural lifestyle. It was not a guarantee that farming and agriculture would be the best way for humans to live for continued survival and the future evolution of the species. However, that is what happened. Harari asks why this became the path of human evolution and social growth took given that farming is miserable, barely produced sufficient food at first, and left early humans dependent on a single crop. His answer generally tends to be the cooperative benefits and safety that agricultural communities offered to humans, even if it ruined every other aspect of their lives. “Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease,” Harari writes.
 
 
Humans had evolved over tens of thousands of years to be great foragers. We have not evolved for the same period of time to be great farmers. Farming was incredibly difficult work from the start, and it made people’s lives as a whole worse off at the individual level while increasing the wellbeing of a select few and ultimately raising the potential of humans as a collective. In some ways, this doesn’t feel too different from modern society. There are still those who farm and those who are working in awful situations (think of the Dirty Jobs tv show) so the rest of us can live clean and leisurely lifestyles. Some of us are the equivalent of the first humans to begin farming, while others of us are the equivalent of the foragers who stuck to their adventurous lifestyle rather than adopting an agrarian life, and still others are like the ones who reaped the benefits of the agrarian society without having to do the farming themselves. For me, thinking about the history of humanity and the parallels between the modern world and the world of our ancestors helps me think about how I want to live and how many before me have lived.
 
 
Surely, whichever path I choose can be defensible based on how humans of the past chose to live and how our species evolved. Do I feel that I can’t be tied down to a particular spot and job? No problem, even while agrarian societies were getting their foothold, foraging continued to be a better lifestyle than farming, its only natural that I would be the modern day equivalent. Do I feel that I need to work hard and produce something meaningful for myself and all of society, even though all that hard work sucks? Sure, that’s only natural, look at all the humans who settled in communities to begin farming and change the direction of human evolution. And do I feel like I should be able to enjoy the benefits of hard work by making smart decisions and setting myself up well to enjoy life even though I’m dependent on the work of others? Well, that’s natural too, just look at the people who became leaders in agrarian communities without doing the farming themselves. The point is that we don’t necessarily have to defend our decisions and lifestyles as being ‘natural’, or as the ‘best way for people to live’, or as anything other than how we are choosing to live now. There is a huge range of possible ways of life, and it’s not always clear what is going to lead to the most flourishing for humanity or the greatest chance of evolutionary success. As Harari notes, farming was not a clear path toward successful genetic continuation for the first agrarian humans, but it worked out. Before them foragers drove human evolution in small tribes for a hundred thousand years. It’s not clear exactly where we are headed, but there are lots of ways to try to get there.
Unsurpassed Adaptability

Unsurpassed Adaptability

Something I think about a lot, especially when thinking of the great diversity of human experiences, is how incredible human adaptability is. Humans have found ways to survive across the globe. Humans appear to have first evolved in Africa, with several different waves of human species spreading from Africa across Europe and Asia, and eventually across the oceans to the Americas and to Australia. From savannas and plains, to tropical jungle islands, to frozen tundras, humans have found ways to adapt and live. At this point, we have found ways to survive for long stretches submerged in metal tubes or floating outside the atmosphere in tubes. We have settled in the driest deserts, the wettest rain forests, and even have ways of surviving in the coldest, frozen polar ice-scapes.
This adaptability of humans is truly astonishing, especially when you look back at human history and put us in context with other animals and species. Yuval Noah Harari does this in his book Sapiens and he marvels at how quickly the human species was able to conquer the globe. He writes, “The human blitzkrieg across America testifies to the incomparable ingenuity and the unsurpassed adaptability of Homo sapiens. No other animal had ever moved into such a huge variety of radically different habitats so quickly, everywhere using virtually the same genes.” Adaptability has been a human super power since the early days of the cognitive revolution, when humans began to find ways to live in places that our genes had not evolved to fit.
I’m in awe of our adaptability and think about it whenever I am in a situation I didn’t expect and when I meet people who live dramatically different lives than my own. I am inspired by what some people can push their minds, bodies, and existence to become. I am also dismayed at how terrible life can be for others, and how they nonetheless manage to survive. From the Holocaust, to modern civil wars, to the squalor of tribes in the poorest parts of the globe, it is simultaneously inspiring that humans have survived such awful conditions and depressing. Our adaptability means we can survive and put up with terrible things, languishing in a state of mere existence for years or even generations. Just as our adaptability can allow us to be astronauts, athletes, and chess grand masters, our adaptability can allow us to be prisoners of war, sex trafficking victims, and impoverished peoples. Our unsurpassed adaptability is what allowed our species to conquer the planet, but it is also what has allowed us to pump green house gasses into the atmosphere and allowed us to devastate wildlife and ecosystems.
Our adaptability is amazing and has been since the early days of Homo sapiens, but it does have a cost. While it can allow us to be our best, it can perpetuate our survival at our worst. It has allowed us to flourish as a species across the globe, but has also allowed us to do great harm to the planet. Moving forward we need to continue to adapt, but should strive to do so in a way that makes life better for all, that finds a new Pareto efficiency between all of us and our planet.
The World that we Subconsciously Still Inhabit

The World we Subconsciously Inhabit

Evolutionary psychology, and evolutionary explanations for modern day human behaviors, have become more popular recently. The argument is that much of what humans do today, some of which makes sense and some of which doesn’t seem to make sense, can be understood by looking into the distant human past and understanding how ancient humans lived. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in his  book Sapiens, “the flourishing field of evolutionary psychology argues that many of our present-day social and psychological characteristics were shaped during this long pre-agricultural era.” The era mentioned by Harari was the tens of thousands of years during which ancient humans lived in small bands as hunters and gatherers.
Humans lived with scarcity for tens to hundreds of thousands of years. Humans were not the most physically dominant and impressive species on the planet, didn’t often have a lot of food to eat, and didn’t have much security in terms of shelter or family. In such an environment, humans evolved specific genes to help them survive as relatively weak scavengers in small groups. But evolution for humans did not stop there. Cognitively, humans continued to improve and brains became more powerful, ultimately allowing humans to shoot up the dominance ladder, creating modern societies. Our new environment is dramatically different than the environment that almost all humans have lived in. Over a few hundred years we have created societies of abundance, of hundreds of thousands to millions of humans living together in close contact, and societies of impressive technological comfort. But evolution is much slower than our ascent, and has created challenges for us.
Regarding our modern environment and situation, Harari continues, “this environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed, and pressured. To understand why, evolutionary psychologists argue, we need to delve into the hunter-gatherer world that shaped us, the world that we subconsciously still inhabit.”
Harari explains that our bad habit of overeating sugary and greasy food becomes understandable if we look back at the environment that our human ancestors found themselves in and evolved through. Sugary food was rare. Ripe fruit, and greasy meat was hard to come by for a foraging species that couldn’t compete with larger animals to defend a downed antelope or tree full of figs. If a human did find a bunch of ripe fruit or a carcass that wasn’t being attended to by some hungry hyenas, then the human’s best bet was to eat as much as possible in one sitting. Today, in affluent societies, we have all the food we can want – we can even have it delivered to our door – but we still have the  genes that told our ancestors to eat as much as possible when sugary and greasy food was available. This mismatch doesn’t serve us well in the modern day, but the evolutionary psychology argument suggests that it was beneficial for survival in the past. Evolutionary psychology allows us to better understand ourselves today by exploring how our ancestors lived and what genetic pressures were placed on them. The challenge we now face, extending far beyond genes that influence our preference for foods, is that we no longer inhabit the world that our genes and bodies evolved to fit within. Subconsciously, and at an instinctual level likely influenced to a high degree by our genes, we still inhabit worlds that no longer exist. Our evolutionary past and psychology haven’t caught up with the modern world we live in, but we don’t always realize that is the case.