Evolution's error: how human nature went awry.

Author:Grigg, Richard

Biological evolution cannot literally err. The ability to make a mistake requires sentience, and evolution is not a sentient process. Hence, the "error" of my title is employed metaphorically, but is no less telling for that.

It has frequently been remarked that the human skeleton is far from the optimum structure for creatures who walk upright. But what's more fascinating, and ultimately more significant for human life and for the humanist worldview, is how evolution has failed to provide us with the resources required to secure the kind of life satisfaction that members of our species have sought since our earliest days on this planet. There is a profound disconnect between the "flourishing" (eudaimonia) of which Aristotle speaks, something we'd all like to achieve, and the tools evolution has provided us. Indeed, we can go further: the impulses that evolution has bequeathed us can be positively inimical to our quest for fulfillment when filtered through the large brains that we often regard as evolution's greatest gift to us. Of course, that very desire for personal fulfillment is a function of evolutionary impulses being interpreted by the Homo sapiens brain.

That desire is only infrequently fulfilled to our satisfaction. Perhaps Henry David Thoreau overstated the matter when he famously opined that the "mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Still, only the most naive among us really believe that our lives can ever be perfectly satisfying or that we can attain to the sort of existential meaning we might wish. But is this state of affairs a result of our continually bungling our own individual life quests? Not really. It turns out to have more to do with a so-called evolutionary bungling.

Many of our existential frustrations are a function of basic evolutionary drives going awry when filtered through our large brains. Obviously we need the survival instincts evolution has built into our species, including the sex drive and the instinct to compete. A competitive streak was especially beneficial back when humans were regularly faced with a challenge such as scarce food resources. But that competitive impulse, to take but one example of our animal instincts, frequently undoes us in contemporary human society.

Consider the following scenario involving poor Fred. Thursday turned out simply not to be Fred's day. His morning at work started off well enough. He successfully plowed through most of the documents in his inbox. But then office politics reared its ugly head. Joanne stopped by his office to say that she really hoped he would get the promotion he was seeking. That fired up his limbic system, and Fred was rewarded with a stomachache. He was in competition with...

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