Monday, May 11, 2020

Self, purpose, and tribal mentality as Darwinian adaptations (or…Why why aren’t we all enlightened?)

This is a post like the one I offered on March 13 that passes on a bit of writing that I think might develop into a longer piece of work. I hope the following ideas and assertions make some sense to readers:

One ultimate cause of human behaviors is the endless cycling of a “Darwin machine,” operating at the level of cells, individuals, and groups of humans. As entities - from the most simple virus particles to complex human cultures - reproduce or renew themselves to persist through time, small errors or variations that end up enhancing reproductive fitness become dominant in the population. The grand master is multilevel selection, and there is a conflict between individual-level selection (individuals competing with other individuals in the same group) and group-level selection (competition between groups). Within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. E.O. Wilson risks the oversimplification of suggesting that individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue.

The array of social emotions supporting tribal cultures that have occupied most of human history, as well as the more recent emergence of language, thought, and material culture, can be rationalized with this model. Taken together, they have enabled formation of large complex societies bonded together by laws, religions, and assumptions about purpose, meaning, and self that are unique to modern humans.

Nations and religions link language and meaning to more ancient evolved instinctive social emotional behaviors that bond groups of humans and other primates. This link is revealed when logic and language are turned inward (by both ancient meditative traditions as well as modern neuroscience) in a way that reveals that our common experiences of self or purpose are confabulations, or illusions - illusions nevertheless that have been necessary for forming complex human linguistic cultures, illusions which our emotional hormones and nerve circuitry have evolved to support.

Given the clear scientific evidence, why don’t we transcend these evolved linkages between our biology and our illusions? Why have those regarded as spiritually ‘enlightened’ throughout history remained a small minority of the population? Perhaps it is because those who become enlightened or awakened to the illusory nature of the self are granted a perspective on basic emotional drives that can divests them of much of their power. Enlightenment is subtle, not noisy, it doesn't engage the passions as well as blind devotion to nations and gods. This is why secular humanism, with its more muted versions of spirituality (‘I’m spiritual but not religious’) finds it difficult to compete with the ego-rich passions of nationalism and theism.

Because our evolved social brains incline us to cling to a complex array of nations, religions, and tribal identities that parse the world into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ we find it difficult to accept that we are a common humanity that would most effectively face our current pandemic and environmental crises by joining together.


  1. Thank you sharing this insight. I very much agree. It is tragic.
    The „enlightened“ are strived by power because they endanger the system.
    Complex systems have emerged (in particular economic systems, monetarian reward). Its rules can not be understood by an “emotional brain” at its actual stage of development.
    In this context everything “enlightened” (humans, systems, ideas) is not welcomed. It is taken for a mutation and will be fought by the retarded brain that still works on the basis of emotions as shortcuts when it processes data and makes decisions.
    We are dealing with a prototype of a Greek Tragedy: humans have developed complicated systems to ease their lifes (financial system to name one) on the one hand. But, on the other hand, human’s evolutionary state is not ready to deal with them and in them. Think of the psychological research done on economical behaviour.
    I suppose this is what makes tech-gurus to lay low in politics and hope for AI and Kurweil’s expectations what it might bring.

  2. Thanks for your comment!