Human Nature – Part VI: Homo vanitas
Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote, “Nothing can be more gentle than [the human] in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes, and . . . civilized man.” If Rousseau were around, he would probably identify apes as the stupid brutes, but I would extend his “civilized” qualifier to the entirety of own Homo sapiens species. While schizophrenia is effectively an emotional fossil pointing to the process of pre-modern social communication, an evolutionary analysis of mania (manic phase of bipolar disorder) indicates what our own species has brought to the hominin table when it first appeared around three-hundred-thousand years ago.A disabling disease, mania reveals much about our emotional makeup. In each of us there is an intensely positive feeling elicited specifically by others admiring us or simply holding the attention of others. We might refer to people who are highly motivated to seek attention as being boastful or as having a “big ego,” however, in mania this normally balanced propensity spins out of control and pathologically seizes the sufferer’s mind in the same way that the singular process of believing seizes those who suffer from schizophrenia. As we all know from our own lives and our observations of others, our endlessly ongoing hunger for attention stamps our species like no other quality. This powerful drive to seek the attention of an audience is directly analogous to competitive sexual display epitomized in nature by the peacock’s tail. This social need for display has led to the development of an endless variety of species-specific behaviors. Although there are scattered indications of this new motivation since our species’ beginnings in the form of body ornamentation with pigments and pierced beads and shells (presumably for necklaces), sustained evidence appears about 40,000 years ago with cave art and carvings. The pervasiveness of this motivation in humans has rendered us at the same time brilliantly creative, cruel, and absurd. Ancient biblical texts have distilled these qualities into a single word: vanity.
Yale ornithologist Richard Prum has written a groundbreaking book, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us (2017). Dr. Prum, a first-class field naturalist in the tradition of Darwin and E. O. Wilson, embraces what I believe is Darwin’s most brilliant and courageous hypothesis, his theory of sexual selection. While thinking about how elaborately useless male traits in birds could have evolved by natural selection, Darwin, who famously suffered from psychosomatic symptoms, wrote a colleague that “The sight of a feather of a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze on it, makes me sick.” Darwin’s largely ignored conclusion was that the mere desire for beauty—pleasure itself—has been the driving force behind the aesthetically pleasing aspects of not only our bodies but also our temperaments.
There is paleontological evidence for sexual selection in Homo sapiens. What makes early human fossils recognizably modern is that they portray a person that is more physically attractive to us: they are more gracile with childlike skulls. The elongated braincase of prior hominin species evolved into the globular shaped head with a small-and-divided brow ridge above a small face that is characteristic of modern humans. It is reasonable and parsimonious to assume that these transformations were the result of sexual selection in the direction of the appearance of an infantile skull. We have selected each other emotionally as well as physically, in large part by the self-reinforcing desire, and desire-to-be-desired, for looking (and acting) youthful. Compared to the deal-making, transactional capacity of competing politicians and businessmen, the parsing of political attitudes towards our own species’ signature motivation of vanity is far subtler.
A view of mania through the lens of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection affords insight into human avarice, as wild spending sprees are a consistent symptom. Many in the American West tend to view the profit motive with felt romantic echoes from the gold rush and wildcatting for oil. In the celebrated 10th Federalist Paper, James Madison places his finger on the cause for violent factionalism as both the limitless inclination and the differing abilities of people to acquire what Alexander Hamilton refers to in Federalist #12 as “those darling objects of human avarice and enterprise.” Madison expresses a central attitude of many on the political right towards our new mind when he concludes that “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.”
Indeed, the other side of the highly goal-driven state of mania is that intense states of “narcissistic rage” can be the response when these inflated goals are frustrated, sometimes metastasizing into dangerous paranoia. A patient who in health could be a delightful person with a balanced family life, but then, after stopping medications, could rapidly pass through euphoria into an embattled paranoid state, barricaded in his home. Mania exposes a tragically dark side of our new mind, which, in its extreme is exemplified by the toxic capacity of an individual, like Hitler, to mobilize the narcissistic rage of an entire nation inflaming a reawakened lust for domination. In assessing these tragic flaws that afflict our species, the principal distinction between left and right is that the right views them as fixed and “sown in the nature of man,” whereas I view them as a transitory phase in an unfolding drama. My view is liberal because I believe that human nature is in the process evolving toward an integrated equilibrium between our ape mind, and our old and new human minds. What is the nature of this progressive process?
We are a relatively young species. Superimposed upon six million years of a collective mind infused by justice, we now possess a new ego-mind animated by a human emotion that can be summed up in the word desire. We Homo sapiens are the primates who desire. And what is it that we desire? We desire each other: constantly, relentlessly, and irrepressibly, which has resulted in the overall strengthening of bonds between individuals, thereby inducing an emotional force pulling together larger and larger intercommunicating groups (for hard evidence, go here). UCLA anthropologist Robert Boyd, a leading authority on the interaction of culture and evolution, suggests, “Perhaps our complex culture does not stem from individual cognition but from the shared knowledge we construct in groups.” However, in addition to creating the glorious beauty and intelligence of our culture, the relentless stress of population amalgamation can also be viewed as the root source of our intractable internecine violence.
The daily barrage of news sustains an acute awareness that appallingly depraved group violence is part of human nature. Convergent evidence covering up to about 120,000 years ago plus observations of contemporary hunter gatherers indicate that warlike instincts have been part of human nature even early in our species pre-history. However, it is my contention that “us versus them” loyalty and patriotism have only recently been evolved by group selection in the manner Darwin proposed, largely within our own species. Although we are childlike and fun-loving, our signature vanity can reawaken and, indeed, inflame ape-appetites to dominate one another, which, although suppressed in pre-modern hominins, would not evaporate.
Nevertheless, my liberal view is that the strengthening of human bonds has resulted in our own species’ fundamental evolutionary vector to coalesce, and that our “fallen” state of tribal enmity (now manifest on a national scale) will ultimately be transitory—the growing pains of a species amid the process of reasserting justice, the deepest passion of our humanity. But how can we recognize the evolutionary process in which we are immersed?
6th post in series of 7; see others on right panel.
Last post in series next week