We've all lived with feelings from the day we were born, they're as a much a part of our lives as our arms and legs. But whereas it's easy to see what arms and legs are for, we don't often ask ourselves "What's the purpose of my anger?" or "I'm happy today - but what's the function of this happiness that I'm feeling?" Our assumption is that feelings don’t have a purpose at all - they are results. But as we’ll see, this is just a symptom of the rather naïve and self-important view we have of ourselves.
Why does food make us feel good? Why does being loved make us feel good? Why does being admired make us feel good? Why does success make us feel good?
Let's start with the most basic feeling we have - physical pain
When you put your finger in a flame, it hurts.
And it hurts for an obvious reason: your finger is getting damaged. Your body (well, actually your subconscious mind) is telling you to take action quickly if you want to keep your finger.
Pain hurts.... but we couldn’t live with out it.
And what about pleasure? Although it might not be immediately obvious why we get pleasure from such things as the opera and Picasso, the pleasure we get from eating ice cream and from having sex are much more easily explained: the fatty food helps us survive and the sex helps to procreate the species.
Somewhere way back in our deep murky past, our ancestors didn't have any feelings at all. They didn't experience pleasure, they didn't even know what pain felt like. They just... did. Somewhere near the very beginning, the earliest forms of life were single cells - like bacteria or amoeba. No nervous system, no pain, no pleasure.
And then feelings evolved...
As animals started to move around, they needed a quick method of knowing whether something was good or bad for them. The animals that felt pain when their bodies were damaged became the ones that survived - and they were the ones that had more chance of reproducing and passing their genes onto their children. Animals that had genes for pain flourished, animals that didn’t experience pain died out.
Evolution operates a carrot and stick to help animals survive.
You might say that evolution trains us a bit like we train a dog:
- we get "little dog biscuits of pleasure” every time we do something that’s good for our chances of survival, and "little chastisements of pain" whenever something happens that’s bad our chances of survival.
If something happens that is good for our survival chances - we feel good.
If something happens that is bad for our survival chances - we feel bad.
- it’s how we know what we need to do to survive
OK - but that doesn't mean that we're robots, does it? Evolution’s helping us survive; that's what we’d choose to do anyway!
Pain and hunger are good news for us. They keep us alive. We don’t mind experiencing a little bit of pain every now and then in return for that.
But evolution isn’t just about survival…
Take sex, for example…
At first sight, evolution's definitely looking like our best friend where sex is concerned: 'having sex' appears without doubt to be a choice we'd make with our free will. Not only is sex a great deal of fun, but we also need sex to survive. We need sex to have children, and if we didn't have children, the human race would die out.....
But hold on a minute... what has 'having children' got to do with us? As individuals, that is? Sure, as a species, we do of course need children. And if every one of our ancestors hadn't had sex at least once, we wouldn't be here...
...but what’s in it for us? What do we get out of sex - apart from the obvious pleasure, that is?
The truth is that each of us would still live just as long if we never had sex again. (It might feel like we were living a long time, anyway.)
Further more, sex isn't just 'not necessary' for our individual survival, it's actually extremely dangerous. Especially for an animal in the wild:
The dangers of having sex and having children:Kids! Who needs them?
- For a female, the whole pregnancy thing is just about the most expensive and difficult
job they've got. Not only do they have to find much more food to eat, they've
got a bigger weight to carry around when they're hunting and being hunted. And
then maybe there's the nest to build, and the whole giving birth ritual - and we
haven't even begun to discuss the costs of providing for the offspring,
defending them and finally teaching them the wicked ways of the world.
Even the males don't get off lightly. Think of the nightmare of the whole
'fighting for territory' thing, and if you're a peacock, you've got to carry
that ridiculous tail around with you just for a chance at getting laid.
- And then there's disease. For both genders, sex is a wonderful way to
spread disease - no condoms for our ancestors, whether they'd wanted to use them
Well, the point is - we don't.
So why do we do it? Why do we have sex… and why do we have children? Why do our brains sweet-talk us into doing something so dangerous.... if it isn’t for our own benefit?
Next: Why evolution makes us do things that aren't for our own benefit