“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.
Why do humans push so hard to amass as much wealth, fame, influence, and recognition as possible? Why do people who have become incredibly successful continue to push for more, and why do they often fight so hard to control the narrative around success? For many of us, the answer may seem to be cynical greed. That individuals who are incredibly wealthy are greedy, and they use cynicism to put others down while continuing to prop themselves up. They don’t really believe in the system and narrative they promote – they only believe in their own gain. However, Yuval Noah Harari suggests this may be an incomplete answer in his book Sapiens. Further, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler offer a better explanation in their book The Elephant in the Brain to explain our insatiable appetite for more wealth, power, and influence.
I think it is pretty common these days to see the super wealthy as a flaw in the system or as cynical and greedy people who take advantage of the less fortunate. We imagine the super wealthy to be Scrooges who don’t believe in anything but their bank account, who they get to go to dinner with, and by the number of people who know their name. We see them as empty narcissists. But Yuval Noah Harari challenges this view by writing, “a cynic who believes in nothing is unlikely to be greedy. It does not take much to provide the objective and biological needs of Homo sapiens.” So if we can satisfy our basic biological needs relatively easily, why do so many people, not just the super wealthy, push to have so much? Cynical greed doesn’t seem to be the answer.
The pursuit of status to enhance our chances of passing our genes along, and then ensuring that subsequent generations of our genes are passed along, may be the answer. Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson make this argument in The Elephant in the Brain. Much of what we do, they argue, is some form of signaling to indicate our virtues or the advantages that mating with us or teaming up with us would offer. Having incredible wealth and material resources shows to other partners and the potential future partners of our decedents that we have resources to take care of them and ensure their genes are passed along successfully. Being incredibly famous and well connected shows that we are a powerful ally and that we have many compatriots that will help and protect us if needed. Again, this demonstrates that our genes are likely to be passed along for several generations since aid will be provided in emergencies or difficult situations.
We evolved these instincts when living in small tribal bands and small communities where a drought could leave our ancestors without enough food. A flood could have dislocated our tribe, and we would have been dependent on the help of others to live. Or, we could have had a feud with another member of our tribe or a neighboring tribe, and if we had enough allies that could rally to our defense, then we might survive rather than be killed. To pass their genes along, our ancestors had to show that they had resources to survive periods where resources were scarce. They had to show they had the right connections to be worthy of saving. And they had to be a strong ally to others so that they would also be protected if needed. We continue to push beyond our biological needs because our ancestors evolved to signal their worthiness and ability to pass their genes along. That is why we buy massive homes, electric hummers, and attend cultural events where we may see other important and powerful people. It is more than cynical greed that drives our desire for more.
Yuval Noah Harari has taken silent meditation trips and has worked hard to increase his focus and see the world clearly. This helped him while writing Sapiens with taking an objective view of the history of humanity and describing where we were, how we got to where we are, and where we might head in the future. As someone who meditates, it is not surprising to see a criticism of modern life make its way into his book while he reflects on ancient humans.
Harari writes, “one of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.” Humans are incredibly adaptable, and often this is for our own good. Ancient humans adapted to living in set places, rather than roaming across varied landscapes at different times of the year. We can adapt to climate across the globe, adapt to changing family and tribal structures, and we can adapt to daily routines and expectations in life. This superpower, however, can have a downside. Sometimes we adapt to great new technologies and advances, viewing them not as modern marvels, but as common necessities that we cannot do without.
In modern life we are dependent on cars, dependent on smart phones, and dependent on the internet and everything connected to it. Every year we invent something new, improve some existing technology, and create something else that we are excited about, only to see that invention become commonplace. We get used to super fast communication, complain about how long it takes to travel across the country on an airplane, and become frustrated when our high expectations are not met. Increasing quality of life doesn’t seem to increase our life sanctification. Harari might argue that it diminishes it long-term. “We thought we were saving time,” Harari writes, “instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.” Luxuries become necessities and we become less flexible and patient without them. Harari may have been writing a book about ancient human history, but his views on the modern world, as someone who believes in disconnecting and taking silent meditation retreats, influenced the way he described the progress humans have made.
In Letters From a Stoic a passage from Seneca reads, “How noble it is to be contented and not to be dependent upon fortune.” Something I find myself returning to all the time is the idea that I am fine and complete on my own, without needing external validation from someone else to tell me that I have value. I can be successful, I can pursue my interests, and I can participate in society without needing someone else to tell me what I am doing is good. I don’t need someone else to tell me when I have become successful or if I am still not up to par. I don’t need another person to tell me that what I spend my time working on and engaging with is worthwhile.
The quote from Seneca reminds me of those efforts of mine to be ok with who I am and what I do. To be dependent on fortune is to be dependent on someone else for external validation and is to be continually striving to fill part of ourselves with things that will never fill us. The reality is that we don’t really need that much money in the United States to survive (compared to the life of mansions, porches, and Lululemon that we picture in our minds). We definitely need some money, and having a lot of wealth makes life a lot more bearable, but we don’t actually need as much as we generally pursue. At a certain point, buying a new sports car, buying a bigger house, wearing designer clothes, and mounting a huge TV on your wall becomes about something other than the thing you are purchasing. Those extravagant purchases beyond what is really necessary become a statement. They are a way for us to show the world what we have achieved and to ask someone else for their validation of our lives.
When I was getting to the end of my undergraduate career my motivations for my behaviors and desires became more clear to me. I started to see that I had placed expectations on myself that were driven by a need to impress my family. I wanted to land a job right after school that would make my uncle say, “Wow, good job, all that hard work paid off.” I wanted to buy a house that my mom would look at and say, “Very impressive!” And I wanted to buy a sweet classic muscle car that my brother would see and say, “Dude that’s awesome.” My entire mindset was focused on what I thought other people wanted me to be and achieve, and not on what I actually wanted to work toward or what I actually needed.
When we can be content with ourselves individually we can live a more peaceful life. When we can see that the external motivations on our life are made-up and likely can’t ever be achieved, we can start to focus instead on goals that are truly meaningful to us, rather than aim toward goals that are meaningful to someone else. Best of all, we can turn that attitude outward and become more accepting of people without requiring them to show us something impressive to deserve our love, friendship, and respect. This puts us in a more healthy place where we work toward creating value as opposed to working toward obtaining things and we place our own value in meaningful relationships and making the world a better place.
Something interesting in a lot of human communication is how frequently we address something without saying anything explicit about the the thing we are addressing. We talk about one topic but are often implicitly or sneakily also talking about another thing. The front conversation is what we are actually saying and the literal words of our speech, but there is also a hidden back conversation taking place that others may or may not be aware of.
This type of communication can be very helpful for humans. We can hint at something or subtly reference a topic that may be seen as taboo in some cultures, groups, or settings. The way that people react to these quick and hidden references tells us a lot about who we are around and helps us shape the conversations we have, even if we are not consciously aware of the messages or even of other people’s reactions. Michael Bungay Stanier addresses one form of this hidden background conversation in his book The Coaching Habit when he looks at the way we use requests in the work place.
We often try to soften our conversation when giving people orders or requesting that people complete specific tasks. Saying “do this now” or “complete this by this date and time” can sometimes be too forceful or inappropriate depending on the work culture, group dynamics, and team member roles. One way, but certainly not the only way, we soften our speech is by using the word “want”. Bungay Stanier looks at “want” construction in his book and helps the reader think through what is being said in the background when we say something like “I want you to complete this by December 2nd.” His careful analysis is useful if our goal is to be more clear with our own communication in explaining what work needs to be done by a set deadline.
First, Bungay Stanier encourages us to look behind what is being said to try to understand why types of needs are driving the conversation. He writes, “You can see that recognizing the need gives you a better understanding of how you might address the want. And there’s a flip side to that as well. As you frame your own request for what you want, see if you can articulate what the need is behind the request.”
When someone above you in the organization says, “I would like to have that report done by the 2nd” he is asking you to complete something because he has some type of need behind the report. That underlying need is greater than the individual report, but your work helps support his need. In this way, the sub conversation is “we have an important meeting on the 4th, and we really need to show that we are well prepared going into that meeting. The data in the report is key to us having all the information we need, and we need to finish the report in time to give us a chance to review and prep for the meeting on the 4th.” Being aware of the why and understanding the sub-context helps us better address the actual request. We can take this awareness and use it in our own conversations so that we are making sure that the why behind our requests is not hidden and lost in a sub-conversation (although if your why behind a request is “to make me look good”, you may want to rethink your actions and initial request).