How much of our mind is the product of biology—ape instinct—and how much of it is the product of culture? For the past century, most progressive thinkers have assumed that culture, not biology, is the dominant force in shaping human beings. Today, it is often taken for granted that our minds are tabula rasa at birth, blank slates containing only a few animal instincts and beyond that a vast, unconditioned capacity to learn and absorb culture.
The tabula rasa model of mind is dear to us because it holds such hopeful possibilities for personal growth and social change. If our minds are blank at birth, we think, then negative, repressive values must be purely cultural constructs. The only reason racism, sexism, aggression and possessiveness exist is because these attitudes and behaviors are introduced to us by our deluded culture. If only we can manage to restructure our society around enlightened values, we will be able to construct from scratch human beings free of hatred and greed.
Tabula rasa mind is also an encouraging basis for individual meditation practice. Because we like to believe that our minds were pristine and unconditioned at birth, we blame the environment—our parents, society, schooling—for introducing the negative conditioning that separates us from our pure nature. As adults, we continue this negative conditioning by “choosing” to feel jealousy, selfishness, anger and desire. We take up meditation hoping to undo the mistake and return to our original, unconditioned state. Of course, as we practice, the “unnatural” invaders inevitably return—concepts, judgments and negative emotions that we feel should never have been there in the first place. And then we blame ourselves. After all, we create our own reality, don’t we?
Perhaps we are being a bit hard on ourselves. A new body of scientific evidence has shown that much of our mental reality is not simply a matter of choice. As it turns out, our “ape instinct” is much more complex and pervasive than we ever thought. According to the emerging science of evolutionary psychology, our minds are far from unconditioned at birth. We inherit a prehistoric mind, a mind conditioned by two million years of human evolution. The theory goes something like this: during the time early humans were evolving large brains (or “mental hardware”), they also evolved a complex “mental software” that introduced meaning and organization to their minds. This mental software is not a generalized learning program that simply absorbs information from culture and environment. It is rather a bundle of hundreds of content-specific “mental mechanisms” that evolved in response to the problems of survival faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
To be sure, a lot has changed since our hunter-gatherer days. But a lot has not. We still need to recognize faces, learn a language, find our place in groups, keep up a reputation, cooperate with others, detect cheaters, deter aggression, avoid disease, find mates, raise children, and so on. While evolutionary psychologists do not deny that culture and environment shape these behaviors, they claim that they are guided by complex mental mechanisms interacting with the cultural environment. Input may vary from society to society, but the mental mechanisms themselves are biologically based, like fingers and toes—natural and intractable parts of ordinary human beings the world over.
While many of us may not like to think that our mental life has a genetic design, this is exactly the position of evolutionary psychology. Compared with the idealistic possibilities promised by the tabula rasa model of mind, this perspective brings some sobering implications. The science suggests that many of our most divisive tendencies—competitiveness, cruelty toward outsiders, social climbing, moral condemnation, revenge—are not learned or imposed from outside; they are latent in our genes. The “fault” is not just in our culture, it is deep within our biological nature.
Evolutionary psychologists study the role of genes in producing typical human behaviors. They engage in a kind of reverse-engineering, trying to piece together how the minds we have today evolved little by little through the process of natural selection. While genes do not control our behavior, they do create mental mechanisms that generate thoughts, emotions, psychological states and bodily sensations associated with those states. These mind-body processes then compel us toward certain behaviors—those same behaviors that helped early humans solve the adaptive problems they faced in the Pleistocene savannas two million to 10,000 years ago.
For example, assume that one million years ago a gene mutated to produce a “fear insects” mechanism. When a young child with this gene saw an insect, the child’s mind would automatically process this stimulus and generate the mind-body sensations of fear and revulsion. Children who naturally avoided stinging insects would be more prone to survive and reproduce than children who had no aversion to insects, and this gene would “win out” over a competing gene.
After theorizing such a possible mental mechanism, evolutionary psychologists attempt to determine if the trait is universal among humans and therefore presumably biologically based. They review the anthropological record to see if the trait appears across cultures. They also perform experiments to see if modern subjects elicit the trait in predictable ways. The “fear insects” mechanism passes both of these tests: universally, most children naturally develop an aversion toward insects at around age two, an aversion that often carries into adulthood. Of course, we should keep in mind that all mental mechanisms were evolved in and designed for a specific social and environmental setting—that of ancient bands of hunter-gatherer families—and are not necessarily adaptive to today’s environment. The modern two-year-old who recoils in fear from a moth may run blindly into oncoming traffic, a threat that didn’t exist in our evolutionary past.
Perhaps the most challenging and enduring problem of our evolutionary past was learning to successfully compete and cooperate with the most cunning of animals—other people. Because of the huge adaptive importance of negotiating the social environment, evolutionary psychologists believe that we evolved a host of mental mechanisms to guide us in the tasks of human interaction. Their findings are most interesting and controversial. For instance, Rutgers University anthropologist Robin Fox describes what might be the biological roots of xenophobia and racial prejudice:
We have a deeply built-in fear of the stranger. This is part of a Paleolithic spacing mechanism. Tribes were separated in space, and there were some individuals that were like you and some that were not like you. . . . We have a special part of the brain that sorts through faces looking for familiarity. Those that are least familiar are those that are going to be most frightening. And even if nature doesn’t provide the cues to familiarity, like skin color, . . . we provide them for ourselves with things like costumes, haircuts, tattoos, headdresses, or anything that distinguishes who we are and who they are . . . . Something deep down in that Paleolithic brain registers “Different, Different, Different!”
The same mechanism is at work in friendship and cooperation. The biological basis of social cooperation is a reciprocity mechanism common to social primates such as monkeys, apes and humans. Basically, the mechanism encourages us to seek out win-win relationships and avoid lose-win relationships. We both win if you pick my lice and I pick yours. But what if I pick your lice and you refuse to pick mine? Since favor-trading is vulnerable to cheating, we are also equipped with the cognitive apparatus to monitor the fairness of social exchange. This is the part of our mind that watches like a six-year-old to see that nobody gets a bigger slice of the birthday cake. When we catch a cheater, alarms of anger immediately go off. Watch this mechanism the next time somebody cuts you off on the freeway: Cheater! Unfair! Somebody get that guy!
Everybody experiences similarly instantaneous reactions in other situations. We are all immediately excited when we see people fighting. We are irresistibly fascinated by gossip about people important to us. We tend to become nervous in the presence of powerful authority figures. These tendencies all developed because they provided some adaptive benefit in our evolutionary past.
This is not to suggest that we are slaves to our biology. The prehistoric mind contains varied, complex structures that feed back to the environment, allowing incredible variation. For example, a mental mechanism that urges us to seek social status looks to the culture for information about what constitutes that status. The social status–seeking mechanism is universal; what is valued in a given culture is variable. Depending on the group, social status can come from being a cold-hearted hit man, a shrewd politician, a devoted employee, a loving parent or a selfless monk.
Different mental mechanisms also provide vastly different strategies depending on the environmental circumstances. For example, evolutionary psychologists theorize that a “take more risks” mechanism is activated in poor, unmarried young men who commit crimes. In effect, this mechanism says: “You’ve got nothing to lose. You might as well steal, cheat and even rape because that’s the only way you’ll get your genes into the next generation.” This same mechanism is dormant in the mind of the family man whose circumstances have activated another mechanism that says: “Protect your children, save your money, don’t take risks, and you’ll see grandchildren for sure.”
While mental mechanisms produce great variability in behavior, the mechanisms themselves were designed for a single purpose: to make us survive and reproduce. Biologists have a joke: a chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg. From a biological perspective, the same is true of us: human beings are how genes make copies of genes. Natural selection has endowed us with minds that cast us into a drama of love, lust, compassion, reverence, ambition, anger, fear, guilt, obligation and shame—all for the purpose of making more genes.
Of course, from the human perspective, we have to believe that there is a deeper experience behind all the drama. We must note the crucial limitation to evolutionary psychology—that it can never reveal our spiritual nature. We must avoid the danger of falling into the cynical interpretation that truth, art and beauty are merely tricks of our genes to get us to reproduce. Anybody who would explain away these experiences by reducing them to biological processes is, as the late Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah said, “like a person who keeps chickens and collects the droppings.”
We can avoid this mistake by recognizing a crucial distinction—our biological nature is revealed by an objective inquiry into the mind; our spiritual nature is revealed by a subjective inquiry into the mind. The cynics are right: no spiritual nature is revealed by objective inquiry. Only through subjective practices such as meditation can we discover faith, values and insight into the conditioned mind. In meditation, we can experience mind-body processes without being enslaved by them. We can slow the mind’s whirling and begin to see our physical sensations and psychological states—the playing out of mental mechanisms—with a clear and penetrating awareness. We can experience their impermanent, insubstantial quality, and thereby gain a measure of freedom.
It is here that evolutionary psychology provides insights into our biological nature that help us to live wisely within our limitations. It tells us that to be human is to be pushed and pulled by an ancient collection of ape instincts, that we can neither return to a pristine nature we never really had nor evolve into utopian, “perfect” beings. At the same time, evolutionary psychology does not predict that we can’t rise above our mental mechanisms. That is, while some part of everybody’s mind is naturally aroused at the sight of people who are obviously racially or culturally different, we are not necessarily doomed to hatred, war and strife.
And what of our evolutionary future? While we cannot afford to wait for natural selection to change our biological nature, all attempts to rid oneself of that nature are doomed to failure. Instead, we must accept the powerful push and pull of our prehistoric minds without becoming deluded by them. Marpa, the 11th-century Tibetan saint, embraced this paradox as he wept over his dead son. A disciple asked him: “You tell us that everything is an illusion. How about the death of your son? Isn’t it an illusion?” To which Marpa replied, “True, but my son’s death is a super-illusion.”