Thursday, December 19, 2002

Surely we're more than evolution?

But..! Surely we're more than evolution?

It has been suggested confidently that 'evolution' is entirely responsible for whether something makes us feel good or not: that our brains have been programmed by millions of years of natural selection so that the only time we ever feel 'good' is when there's been an increase in the survival chances of our genes.

Surely not?

How can 'survival of the fittest' be responsible for all of our behaviour today - like listening to music, watching football, donating to charity? How can the pleasure we get from relaxing in front of the soaps or a reality TV programme have any effect at all on our genetic fitness?

It seems highly unlikely. Ridiculous, even.

But the problem is this: if not evolution, then what? If it wasn't evolution that programmed our brains to like Reality TV, then what was it? And remember that 'I'm the one that chooses what I like' isn't an option. We can't reprogram our own brains and tell ourselves what feels good, otherwise we'd all be blissfully happy, regardless of what was on TV or who was holding the remote.

If not evolution... then what?

When we talk about animal behaviour, there's never an assumption that animals have developed beyond their evolutionary origins: biologists accept that every behaviour of an animal has to be understood in terms of its evolutionary advantage.

Equally, if we go back far enough, there is no doubt that our ancestors were no more ‘free’ than the animals that are alive today. It’s up to you how far down our evolutionary tree you go, but at some point you’re going to reach an organism that was less complicated and intelligent than a common garden slug. So, if it’s safe to assume that today’s slug has no freedom of choice other than to carry out its genetically programmed purpose, then it’s safe to assume that our distant ancestors were similarly restricted.

So the question is, if we evolved from such a creature, how did we change from being that creature without free will to a modern human being with the ability to do what it likes? What method of change gave us this free will, if it wasn’t evolution?

Surprisingly, this is quite a difficult question to answer. Because science hasn't yet come up with an alternative mechanism of change other than 'evolution by natural selection'. We simply don’t know of any way that humans could have stopped being ‘just evolution’ and started being 'us'.

What could have reprogrammed our brain so that we stopped liking the things that evolution programmed us to like, and started to like the things that we ourselves decide to like?

Next: href="">What about culture, society, our upbringing?

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