Vanity and Human Evolution
In Yuval Harari’s widely acclaimed book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind (2015) he makes this sweeping statement: “The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.” He then makes the case that the event that catapulted these “insignificant animals” into prominence was the “cognitive revolution,” which allowed us to create “false mythical realities” the belief in which opened the door for culture to bind together large numbers of people. Harari explains:
The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it? We’re not sure. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation. Why did it occur in Sapiens DNA rather than in that of Neanderthals? It was a matter of pure chance, as far as we can tell. But it’s more important to understand the consequences of the Tree of Knowledge mutation than its causes.
The consequences, according to Harari, have been the ability to develop “delusional beliefs,” eventually like communism, capitalism, Nazism or even Justice, which he claims are like viruses that colonize our minds (meme theory) thereby binding us together. There is much truth to his exciting and creative ideas on the effects of the cognitive revolution, but to dismiss the importance of its causes goes against his own insightful claim that a vital aspect of the scientific revolution has been the ability to admit to ignorance. Scientists must not diminish that which they have not yet been able to ascertain for certain.
It is a far-fetched notion that humans relatively suddenly developed culture about 70 thousand years ago leading to the famous cave paintings and bone carvings in Europe due to a chance mutation. A new protein caused cognitive effects that allowed people to believe in myths—one last lucky piece in the puzzle that made it all work? I don’t think so. I believe that modern evolutionists’ insistence on the “rule of chance” is a residue of the now stale religion-evolutionary debate, a doctrinaire opposition to the banished idea of teleology (final causes) in any form.
To my mind, the most revolutionary book about human evolution for many years is Richard Prum’s The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us (2017). Dr. Prum is an ornithologist, a naturalist in the tradition of Darwin, E. O. Wilson (ants), Thomas Seeley (Bees), and the Cheneys (baboons). In Prum’s eminently readable book, he authoritatively resurrects Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, and convincingly demonstrates that, in birds, this process, can take place at the expense of classical natural selection for fitnes. He then takes the reader on a riveting romp to demonstrate how sexual selection has shaped our bodies and our minds in an evolutionary war between the sexes.
The peacock’s tail has long been the symbol of sexual 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.” He finally decided that there was no other answer than that these female birds had developed a taste for beauty and that they themselves were doing the selecting independent of natural selection. Here Darwin quietly endows the quality of beauty with a Platonic reality that serves as a final cause of sorts, to which the substance in the brain responds. The is heresy in this day and age! In an understated manner, he draws our attention to the fact that of course we modern humans also have highly developed tastes for beauty:
With the great majority of animals… the taste for the beautiful is confined to the attractions of the opposite sex. The sweet strains poured forth by many male birds during the season of love are certainly admired by the females, of which fact evidence will hereafter be given. If female birds had been incapable of appreciating the beautiful colours, the ornaments, and voices of their male partners, all the labour and anxiety by the latter in displaying their charms before the females would have been thrown away; and this is impossible to admit… On the whole, birds appear to be the most aesthetic of all animals, excepting of course man, and they have nearly the same taste for the beautiful as we have…
This is definitely not the classical bottom-up natural selection of chance mutations in response to the environment. This is top-down selection conducted by the fully engaged mind of a living creature in possession of a long-evolved ideal of beauty. Darwin also recognized that the female capacity to select male traits and the male traits themselves evolve in closed-loop response to each other, a phenomenon called coevolution:
The male Argus Pheasant acquired his beauty gradually through the preference of the females during many generations for the more highly ornamented males; the aesthetic capacity of females advanced through exercise or habit just as our own taste is gradually improved.
Four decades ago, when I first read these passages in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex as a young psychiatrist, I seized on the emotional aspect of the desire for beauty that motivates female birds. Darwin’s idea of sexual selection set me on a course to investigate the evolution of human emotions and motivations as manifested (in a distorted manner) in the major psychiatric illnesses. I began to consider not only the peahen’s desire for beauty, but the peacock’s equal desire to be desired for his beauty.
Freud had a concept of this global sexuality that he called narcissism, which relates to the desire to be admired (desired) by others. Narcissism has been a concept that psychoanalysts have struggled with since Freud’s time. It has had pathological implications for the curiously straitlaced psychoanalytic ideal of psycho-sexual maturity. However, in the 1970s, a Viennese-born American psychoanalyst named Hans Kohut attempted to rehabilitate the reputation of narcissism by hypothesizing that the personality possesses a “self-system” (separate from the anxiety-driven ego-system) within which the nurturing of narcissism in the child is vital to the achievement of healthy self-esteem in the well-adjusted adult. In fact, esteem and confidence themselves are fundamental elements of display, in addition to the goal desired.
In my own studies of the relevance of mental illnesses to human evolution, I recognized that the manic phase of bipolar disorder represents the escape from regulation (similar to cancer) of this narcissistic self-system into pathological hyperactivity that then dominates all mental activity. After I made the connection between sexual display in birds and the symptoms of mania, I observed that a consistent symptom of mania is the presence in the background of the patient’s mind of an imagined (but acutely felt) audience experienced as an unseen hoard of fans exuding their approval for the manic thinking and behavior, and thereby inciting the patient to ever greater heights in the “performance.”
Mania is a disabling disease, but it reveals much about our emotional makeup. The proposal is that the innovation that resulted in the evolution of our own species was driven by the development of an intensely positive feeling state elicited specifically by others admiring us as individuals. As we all know from our own lives and our observations of others, the endlessly ongoing nature of Homo sapiens’ hunger for attention from one another stamps our species like no other quality. The powerful drive to seek the attention of an audience has resulted in the development of an endless variety of species-specific behaviors that are tantamount to competitive sexual display. The pervasiveness of this strong proclivity 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.
“Grandiose” is the vivid term that captures the world of mania. This symptom is an overwrought version of imagination itself, the very capacity that sweeps the modern human animal far beyond all the other creatures caged by the earth. This is the impulse not just to do one’s duty and pull the oar, but to have everyone sit up and take notice: “Now, that’s someone special, not just the ordinary sort of person but really an original.” Encouragingly, there is often a broad magnanimous streak in the symptoms of mania.
In mania, normal narcissism becomes ruinously unhinged. A Darwinian view of mania affords insight into human avarice as wild spending sprees are a consistent symptom. The motivation to accumulate wealth beyond subsistence is far more often driven by self-display than by the primate urge to dominate, although both incentives are combined in the drive for status. Buying fun things is a shortcut to the feeling of self-esteem. The degree to which these purchases are regarded as, let’s say, cool, is the degree to which the purchase has achieved its sexually selected evolutionary function—which is to have lots of fun. Unfortunately, the other side of the highly goal-driven state of mania is that intense states of rage can be precipitated when these inflated goals are frustrated, sometimes metastasizing into dangerous paranoia.
I have concluded that mania is purely a Homo sapiens disorder. There are no animal models of mania. Often a fossil is dated by determining the age of the geological stratum in which it is found. Just such a datable “cognitive stratum” is found among the symptoms of mania. I must confess that there have been occasions when I have been temporarily drawn from my role as physician into stunned fascination by the linguistic performance of a patient in the throes of a manic illness. All manner of rhetorical flourishes and beautifully constructed phrases can pour out in a torrent. Often there is a magnetic quality to this verbal virtuosity, the meaning (semantics) of which can constitute a brilliantly creative “flight of ideas.” Beyond the grammar and meaning, the sheer musicality of it is sufficient to elicit rapt fascination. In the biography by Sylvia Nasar of the mathematician John Nash, A Beautiful Mind (1998), a visitor relates the following incident in the McLean Psychiatric Hospital in Boston, where Nash was hospitalized for schizophrenia:
Robert Lowell, the poet, walked in, manic as hell. He sees this very pregnant woman. He looks at her and starts quoting the begat sequences in the Bible. Then he started spinning quotes with the word “anointed.” He decided to lecture us on the meaning of “anointed” in all the ways it was used in the King James Version of the Bible. In the end I decided that every word in the English language was a personal friend of his.
There is wide agreement that the syntactical (grammatical) aspect of language, about which much has been learned, is extremely complex and cognitively demanding. Therefore, as Ray Jackendoff, a prominent linguist at Tufts University, puts it in his Foundations of Language (2002), syntax “has the feel of a relatively late innovation,” i.e. a recent evolutionary development.
Prior species of hominins almost certainly had robustly expressive language that already set them well apart from all other primates. However, it is the byzantine complexity of linguistic grammar that has propelled us into another sphere. It is my conviction that the verbal, syntactic gymnastics that regularly accompany mania fix the disorder as deriving from a suite of normal behaviors that were the principal adaptations in the evolution of Homo sapiens. Indeed, in The Descent of Man, Darwin associates the concept of sexual selection with vocal language in human evolution. Drawing heavily on the example in nature of male birdsong, Darwin wrote:
The impassioned orator, bard, or musician, when with his various tones and cadences, he excites the strongest emotions in his hearers, little suspects that he uses the same means by which, at an extremely remote period, his half-human ancestors aroused each other’s passions, during their mutual courtship and rivalry.
In his erudite yet wonderfully readable book The Evolution of Language (2010), the linguist W. Tecumseh Fitch supports the association between the origin of human language and song:
The core virtue of the musical protolanguage hypothesis is its logical explanation of the design features shared by song and spoken language, namely the use of the vocal/auditory channel to generate complex, hierarchically structured signals that are learned and shared across generations.
Darwin’s original idea of associating vocal language with sexual selection remains very much alive and well today. Stop for a moment and remember when you were going through puberty, at the peak of your sexuality, how utterly enraptured you were with popular music (just ask the rock stars themselves).
There is paleontological evidence for sexual selection. What makes early human fossils recognizably modern has less to do with brute survival than with the attractiveness of males and females for each other. Modern human adults are more gracile and childlike, and have proportionately bigger heads and smaller faces (plus chins), than their hominin forebears, which is the result of a process of sexual selection known as neoteny. Retention of juvenile features resulting in more youthful-looking adults makes them more appealing to the opposite sex. Women are markedly more neotenic than males, with reduced noses and jaws. Yet onto their infantilized anatomies, most evident in puberty, human females have added exaggerated sexual characteristics, such as beautifully rounded breasts, which, in contrast to all other primates, are present even when the females are not lactating.
This view has been recently buttressed by fossils from West African Morocco (instead of the usual sites in the East African rift valley or South Africa), which were recently dated to be about 300,000 years old. They are now thought to be early members of our own species because of their—among other traits—“delicate cheekbones.” However, these skulls have an elongated braincase like prior hominin species, which then evolved into the “globular” shaped head above a “small face” that is characteristic of modern humans starting 200,000 years ago. 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 been selected for cuteness and vanity, not smartness.
The origins of body ornamentation in Homo sapiens are ancient, and this practice ubiquitously persists. The earliest cultural artifacts associated with modern humans are from around one hundred thousand years ago and are found in both the north and south of Africa as well as in the Levant. They consist largely of shells and pierced beads clearly used as body ornaments and red ocher whose use is unknown, but, knowing humans, a good guess is that it was similarly employed to decorate the body, as it continues to be used in parts of Africa. These behaviors were fundamentally motivated by vanity, and only secondarily coopted for group identity and status. It was natural for gold to supplant shells as the most valuable commodity for humans because it is far more durable and its shining luster does not tarnish, making it the ideal body adornment. Think of the gleam of Tutankhamen’s three nested coffins (Egyptian gods were thought to have flesh of gold) and the stacks of ingots in the coffers at Fort Knox. Underscoring the use that underlies the value humans place on gold is the fact that 78 percent of it continues to be used for jewelry. For evidence of the power of self-display in today’s electronic world, one need only consider the popularity of social media.
The idea that culture arose not from a cognitive breakthrough, but from closer associations between larger numbers of groups has been proposed by a number of researchers. The UCLA anthropologist Robert Boyd, a leading authority on the interaction of culture and evolution (Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, 2005), suggests, “Perhaps our complex culture does not stem from individual cognition but from the shared knowledge we construct in groups.” The general proposition that the evolution of advanced cognitive abilities in modern humans has been the result of the accumulation of shared cultural knowledge has been the subject of two recent books by Joseph Henrich (2016) and Kevin Laland (2017). However, they do not stress the crucial role played by the emotional forces that progressively strengthened human bonds that made possible learning and the maintenance of shared knowledge.
The proposal here is that H. sapiens evolution is centrally characterized by sexual selection, not just in male-female relationships, but evolving into a more general social interaction between a given individual’s “social-display” behavior and the capacity to select these displays on the part of an “audience.” Furthermore, I propose that this independent, internally-motivated expansion of sexual selection had the crucial side-effect of strengthening emotional bonds between modern humans. The power of our species’ sexually charged passion for one another progressively drew (and this process continues today) larger and larger groups of groups together allowing the trust necessary to enable reciprocity in trade, which then began playing its own reinforcing role. After many fits and starts the resulting group cohesion eventually stabilized a sufficient number of people to ignite and sustain the cultural explosion about forty-five thousand years ago in Europe.
In the current paradigm, the ability to paint the stunning cave paintings in France has been assigned to the happenstance evolution of the cognitive ability to create symbols (something used to represent something else). Darwin repeatedly reminds us that all evolution must be incremental. It is far more probable that the ability to paint a picture on a wall was the culmination of a hundred thousand years of cognitive evolution that was sexually selected to extend the power and effectiveness of individuals to ever more skillfully display themselves and their talents to larger and larger numbers of people. It is important not just to understand the cognitive “leap” to symbol making, but why our ancestors made symbols—what motivated them. As soon as one realizes that painting a picture on a wall, like wearing a necklace of shells, is just Homo sapiens being Homo sapiens, the mystery largely fades, because, in evolution, where there is will, the will will find a way.
One Comment on “Vanity and Human Evolution”
A superb overview of the theories in play!
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