Embracing Evolutionary Reality

The biological roots of our condition

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

Psychologists distinguish between momentary happiness and satisfaction. Momentary happiness just means feeling good. Satisfaction is our overall rating of our life. Raising children provides satisfaction, but may not make us happy at the moment.

After hundreds of years of philosophy, religion, and medicine the human race remains unsatisfied. It doesn’t seem like we’re significantly happier in either of those ways. That’s puzzling.

I covered initial answers to this problem in a previous letter. But there’s much more to say.

Another answer is that we don’t want to be happy.

There are more things in life than feeling and satisfaction. Many sacrifice momentary pleasure for wealth, prestige, power, and virtue. We can’t always have our cake and feel good too.

A deeper answer is that evolution didn't design us to be happy. It shaped us to promote the survival of our genes. That’s a completely different thing.

Past humans who felt safe and secure in their environment did not survive. Humans who were paranoid and prudent – even when they had nothing to fear – did. These people overreacted 9 times out of 10, but because they survived that one time when relaxed humans did not, they successfully reproduced and passed on their paranoia. We can thank them, or at least the evolutionary process that produced them, for the benefits and costs of our anxiety levels.

Life without pain or anxiety seems attractive, but it would often be short.

Randy Nesse, Good Reasons for Bad Feelings

Ancient humans who were content with their lot didn’t reproduce enough. Some level of dissatisfaction is required for reproductive success. Genghis Khan had hundreds of children. One does not imagine him happy.

Not only did evolution not design us to be happy, it formed us in an entirely different environment. Our wealth now makes us sick:

The greatest boon of modern life is also the greatest villain: the availability of plentiful food. Or, rather, foodlike substances manufacturers concoct with the exact combinations of sugar, salt, and fat that we most desire. Those desires were helpful on the African savanna, where sugar, salt, and fat were scarce; now our preferences make us obese and ill.

Randy Nesse, Good Reasons for Bad Feelings

The human animal is naturally unsatisfied. The striving for happiness is just another symptom of his condition.

Is this a pessimistic message? Not necessarily. With understanding, comes calm. As the Marcus Aurelius reminded himself:

My goal is the truth and the truth has never harmed anyone. The man who’s harmed is the one who persists in his own self-deception and ignorance

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.21

The desire to be happy — in either sense — causes us suffering. Let it go. Feeling good isn’t what ultimately matters. Being good is.

Our biological machinery will make that difficult. That’s ok.

🎯 Action

Consider how you and everything around you are the product of complex forces acting over millions of years. From this larger perspective, let go of the trivial and refocus on what matters.

🔗 Resources

📰 Check out The Smarter Brain: A newsletter full of bite-sized ideas for better habits. Each issue is especially focused on what you have direct control over: your attention and decisions. Read it here.

📖 Leaf through Randy Nesse’s Good Reasons for Bad Feelings for an excellent introduction to evolutionary psychiatry. This book contains many lessons. The most important ones for our purposes here are that negative emotions, like anxiety, are often useful and that evolution doesn’t optimize for human wellbeing.

Most of the responses that cause human suffering are unnecessary in the individual instance but still perfectly normal because they have low costs but protect against huge possible losses. They are like false alarms from smoke detectors. The occasional wail when you burn the toast is worth it to ensure that you are warned early about every real fire. An occasional experience of unnecessary vomiting or pain is worth it to ensure protection against poisoning or tissue damage. This is why it is usually safe to use drugs to block vomiting and pain.

Randy Nesse, Good Reasons for Bad Feelings

🪷 For a Buddhist approach to evolution, see Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True. In this book, Robert Wright argues that evolution supports the Buddhist picture. Life is unsatisfying because we’re creatures that are constantly inventing new desires. The solution isn’t to chase satisfaction, but to exit the game all together. There’s much overlap here – but also some differences – between that picture and the Stoic one.

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