30.The Hazards of our Evolutionary Heritage

by Culture and Anti Culture

(For context see Post 1)






It is commonplace to acknowledge that the sum of human activity on the earth is destroying the basis for our own life and that of other organisms. This is a recent development.  The capacity to degrade the living systems of the earth has grown out of the isolation, refinement and intensification of a certain kind of thinking.  The power of thought itself is the source of mechanical invention, industrial production and mass consumption.  (All machines have first arisen as thoughts in the heads of men.)   This power has not only unleashed death-forces on a vast scale, it has also led to the destruction of our aesthetic environment.  (The postmodern world is brutally ugly.)  As the central instrument for technical creation and control of the products and forces of nature, abstract, mechanistic thinking has developed at a furious rate for the last two centuries, overshadowing and suppressing more profound elements of the life of soul.


The deeper strata of human life, from which arise the great manifestations of culture, depend upon an element of depth, of living power in the thoughts, feelings and deeds of human beings.  Without the element of depth in thinking, feeling and willing, there can be no wisdom (“Where there is no wisdom, the people perish” – Proverbs)


Science and technology arose from the broader human culture but, in a way, have detached themselves from it – and now dominate it completely.  The design of a machine or a logical system has nothing of instinctual darkness about it.  All is surveyable in clear concepts, “in the light of day”.  This is not the case with the life of feeling or impulses of will – love and enmity, desire and repulsion, fear and courage.  They rise up, so to speak, out of the depths of our inner life.  Thinking and its products are at the service of these forces, which emerge from the hidden regions of our common human nature.  The depredations of global capitalism, for example, driven by greed, by pathological appetite, are only possible by appropriating these products of thought.


These are self-reinforcing feedbacks.  The power of science and technology, born out of thought, works on and, in turn, is worked upon by these deeper forces of our nature.

This is at the heart of the maddening tragedy of postmodern anti-culture.  Whatever else we are, we humans are animals.  We are not the outcome of a special creation.  Our animal nature, manifest in peculiarly human ways, is an expression of an evolutionary legacy, many ages in the making.  The buying, selling, consuming, hedonistic world of modern production and marketing-driven economic life parasitizes this legacy, without regard to the consequences (the “externalities”).  It has led us into a cul-de-sac that threatens our survival.







Our primitive instincts (thirst, hunger, sexual desire, temperature regulation and others) are only a small part of our evolved drives.  There are many evolutionary adaptations we never think about or notice.  These adaptations emerged and supported our survival under conditions infinitely remote from those of modern life.  When we live out these patterns we are acting out ancient archetypes of feeling and behavior.


Some of these innate tendencies are:

1. Impulsiveness, that is, the tendency to discount the future in preference for immediate satisfaction.  (It appears to have aided the ancestral hunter-gatherer in obtaining nutrition.) This is heavily manipulated by all forms of advertising.


2. Novelty and reward seeking, curiosity.  (Also supported food gathering.)  Endlessly exploited in software development.


3. Habituation. Almost any repeated actions or stimuli are taken up into patterned, compelling (that is, unfree, coerced) states of mind and action.  (Habituation is and was vital for survival – stalking prey, lighting a fire and, now, driving a car.)  Habit is one of the great unrecognized pillars of human life and is easily manipulated.  At its worst, this can express itself as the habitual impulse to consume, like a rat repeatedly pressing a bar to receive a food pellet.


4. Desire for status (power) within a group.


5. Mimicry.  The tendency to feel and act in imitation of others is deeply ingrained.  It is also vital to all learning.   For example, learning language without mimicry is inconceivable.


6. Sociability.  We have an innate tendency to be integrated into a group.  (Our forbears had a vital need to band together in order to survive and flourish.)


7. The desire for meaning (salience).  The need to organize the world into more and less important phenomena, such as threats and opportunities.  (For example, noticing ripe berries on a bush, but avoiding the thorns.)  In the postmodern anti-culture, this can appear as strong inducements to confer undue meaning on trivialities, as in the hobbyist and collector, fads and manias.


8. Desire for orientation.  We have a strong desire to “know where we stand”

All these innate evolved traits are with us regardless of our background. Their form and content vary with culture, education and experience, but the tendencies are simply part of the fabric of what and who we are.  We act out these ancient adaptations.  To the extent this is so, we are “adaptation executors”–we carry out (“execute”) a once survival-enhancing pattern (adaptation) from our evolutionary past.  The pathetic aspect of this is not that we are predisposed in so many ways by these adaptive patterns, but that they have been hijacked and perverted into the world of  “Idiocracy” (2006 film ). We are swamped by technology-powered advertising and propaganda, seamlessly delivered in a virtually constant stream, inflicted on us from the basest, most evil motives.


Advertising and propaganda always address us as if we were free beings.  There is a universal human aversion to being regarded as a slave, as the instrument of the will of another, and it flatters us to be treated as if we were acting out of our own being.   This can be seen as a variant of the drive for status and recognition, but it feels like the drive to be a free, autonomous agent, to have absolute personal dignity.  Here there is a great irony.  It is self-evident from the calamitous, slavish mass conformity and consumption of postmodern life, that there is something amiss here, a great gulf between a desired and imagined state of affairs, and reality.


If this pretended autonomy were actually possible, what would it look like?  In a sense it would mean, by degrees, becoming less “adaptation executors” of our inherited endowment and acting on our own behalf, as a species unto ourselves – as true individuals.   We would use our faculties to determine that which truly suited us and how we might obtain it.  We would determine our own “fitness” (what genuinely pleased us most, not the instinctive program of our evolutionary endowment.)  We would thus maximize our own genuine well-being and would be creative self-guiding individuals rather than “adaptation executors” alone.  (To be truly human is to be both.)

This is a strange issue to talk about. At the heart of it is the perplexing idea of free-will, which we will address in a subsequent post (Neuroscience and free-will). What would it be like, even partially, to break free of the overwhelming stream of present coercion and inducements in order to think our own thoughts, refresh and revivify our feeling life, and enliven our will? What could even begin to make that possible?

One cannot simply refuse to be an “adaptation executor”–the listed predilections are inevitably part of who and what we are. They must be schooled and guided through the cultivation of different tendencies, through a higher life of the soul.


Think of the archetypal example of Socrates, walking barefoot through the streets of 5th century B.C. Athens, striving for a conception of truth and virtue and, through conversation, inviting his reluctant fellow citizens to accompany him.