Every second of our life, each one of us has the conviction that we can decide for ourselves and that our choices are ours and only ours. We as humans take free-will for granted. It is what gives the word “human” all its dignity. We act with reference to our feelings, to our deep convictions, and the decisions that follow are under our own responsibilities. Well, there is bad news. Evolutionary psychology leads us to seriously reconsider the notion of free-will, the one that is so obvious and so precious to us.
For evolutionary psychologists, the different aspects of human behavior and thoughts have been selected for throughout the evolution, depending on which mutations have occurred and which of them gave an advantage compared to the others in terms of survival or reproduction. We are talking here about the aspects of human psychology which are constant, present in all human societies and that make us act the way we do: love, ambition, honor, blame, empathy, confidence,…
So is our mind the sole product of our genetic inheritance? Not at all. For evolutionists, if those constants can be found in varying ways in different individuals and different populations, it’s because the most important of those constants selected by evolution is our capacity for adapting ourselves to very different circumstances.
So what natural selection has actually insisted on is more our capacity to feel guilty or to crave for recognition that those aspects for themselves. The great variations of those elements in different individuals would be consequences not of our direct biology but of an optimization that takes our social environment into account, from a very young age.
Anyway the simple possibility to go through all the possible human feelings has been given to us by natural selection. What possible advantage could this have been for our ancestors, to be still here today with such strength?
Let’s take love as an example. Compared to most species, the human new-born is incredibly vulnerable and dependant. He is incapable of feeding himself or move about, and becomes a burden to his mother if she wants to gather food. The help of the father is therefore precious in the first months and years, for the survival and future reproduction of the offspring. How has evolution made sure that the father stays around with the mother and child, helping to satisfy their basic needs? By “inventing” love, therefore allowing the couple, even before conception, to trust the other one’s commitment, trust without which things would be much more difficult. Love, never mind the romantics among us, would thus be a tool for natural selection to insure survival of young humans by making the parental couple more solid. It isn’t that much that love is blind, but love, like so many other feelings, is a blindness that facilitates adaptive behavior.
Let’s look at another example which should be familiar to all of us: guilt. What the hell could guilt be useful for? What advantage could it have given to the first humans? It’s because we are prepared to admit with remorse, in front of others, that we have been bad, that we can hope to regain the trust of the rest of the group, and therefore benefit from later cooperation. It has been showed that we feel a lot more guilty if facts have already been discovered, or if they are about to be. That tends to prove that what is useful in terms of adaptation is not to feel guilty in itself, but to show to others that we do. The reason for guilt isn’t to serve the group, or to insure morality, but simply to reassure everybody about our capacity for reciprocity. It is therefore not surprising that in certain situations such as anonymous modern societies, a tendency for cheating can be more profitable that conscientious altruism.
So what a cynical point of view! Love only utilitarian, guilt hypocritical,… But everyday experience proves to us that we really feel those feelings, sometimes very strongly. However in a social environment such as ours, where what others think of us, and how they trust us has great consequences on our life, it is a capital thing to convince others that our intentions are good or that we would be valuable social or professional partners. Those that themselves believe that, will only be more convincing for others, and will therefore have an advantage compared to others in the game of evolution. This is why we feel so powerless when it comes to our feelings and how they make us act. We can act with sincere exaltation, only to find ourselves wondering a little later, once the circumstances have changed, how we could have been so silly. Or am I the only one to have known an unfortunate love story?
Social psychology has also shown that we are not very lucid about ourselves and others. When we succeed, we are convinced that it’s thanks to our talent. But when others succeed, we reassure ourselves by thinking they were only lucky. Psychologists are capable, experimentally, to dictate an action to our subconscious, but that doesn’t stop us from justifying this act with remarkable ingenuity and faith in ourselves! Even for something as simple as moving the arm, we do not decide in the way we think. According to electroencephalographic studies by B. Libet, the brain reacts in order to make the movement even before the person is even conscious of the decision to move. So much for free-will then.
So we all live in a permanent state of self-blindness, with the constant illusion that we consciously direct our life, that our opinions reflect reality, when it is the subconscious that lead the game. Mechanisms managing our aspirations and feelings are hidden from ourselves, even if we are the most concerned by them. But that’s forgetting that the most concerned are those that led to making us what we are: our genes. According to Stendhal, the faculty to speak was given to mankind in order to hide his thoughts. It would seem that thoughts themselves were given to mankind in order to hide the mechanisms of evolution. All this contributes to explaining why, despite greedily seeking happiness, we have so much trouble reaching it. The search for happiness leads us to please our desires as much as possible, in a way that is profitable to the continuity of our genetic lineage. But it is not necessarily profitable to our fulfillment in life. Natural selection doesn’t care about our happiness. Would it be possible for us to trick it at its own game, using its more ingenious tool, the mind, in order to step back a little from our feelings, and really act for our happiness? Not so simple…