This spring, Robert Wright teaches Beyond Tribalism: How Mindfulness Can Save the World, a six-week Tricycle Online Course about the psychology of tribalism and the ancient Buddhist tools that can make us happier and less reactive. To learn more and sign up, visit learn.tricycle.org.
At the risk of overdramatizing the human condition: Have you ever seen the movie The Matrix? It’s about a guy named Neo (played by Keanu Reeves), who discovers that he’s been inhabiting a dream world. The life he thought he was living is actually an elaborate hallucination. He’s having that hallucination while, unbeknownst to him, his actual physical body is inside a gooey, coffin-size pod, one among many pods, rows and rows of pods, each pod containing a human being absorbed in a dream. These people have been put in their pods by robot overlords and given dream lives as pacifiers.
The Matrix is sometimes said to be a “dharma movie” because it allegorically captures the human predicament as Buddhism depicts it: Life as ordinarily lived is a kind of illusion, and you can’t be truly free until you pierce the illusion and look into the heart of things. Until you “see it for yourself,” as one character explains to Neo, you will remain in “bondage.”
That robot overlords are behind the illusion afflicting Neo is in one sense a blessing. They give him something to rebel against—and rebellions are energizing! An oppressive enemy focuses the mind and steels you for the struggle ahead.
That would come in handy with the Buddhist struggle against illusion, because meditation, a big part of that struggle, can be hard to sustain—getting on the cushion every day, even when you don’t feel like it, and then carrying the insights from meditation into everyday life. Too bad that in Buddhism there’s no evil perpetrator of delusion to fight!
In traditional Buddhism, actually, there is: the Satan-like supernatural being named Mara, who unsuccessfully tempted the Buddha during the epic meditation session that led to his great awakening. Mara, though, has no place in the more secular Buddhism that has been spreading through the west in recent years. Kind of disappointing.
But there’s good news on this front. If you would like to think of meditation practice as being a rebellion against an oppressive overlord, there’s a way to do that: just think of yourself as fighting your creator, natural selection.
After all, natural selection created the human brain. If the Buddhist premise is true, if there are illusions so deeply embedded in us that it takes concerted effort to dispel them, then maybe they were put there by natural selection. I believe that’s the case: that the very illusions Buddhism warns us against are products of our evolutionary past.
Fully explaining what I mean by that would take a whole book (and, in fact, I just published that book!) But the basic idea is pretty simple.
The starting point is that natural selection “cares” about only one thing. (I put “cares” in quotes because natural selection is a blind process, not a conscious designer.) And that one thing is getting genes into the next generation. Genetically based traits that do a good job of that will spread through a species. Those can include mental traits, such as feelings and patterns of thought and ways of perceiving things.
The previous paragraph isn’t news—it’s Evolutionary Biology 101—but it has one rarely noted implication: the kinds of thoughts and perceptions and feelings that the brain encourages aren’t necessarily the kind that give us an accurate picture of reality. They may give us an accurate picture of reality. In fact, they often do. But if particular misperceptions helped get the genes of our ancestors into the next generation, then genes that foster those misperceptions can become part of our species. And that seems to have happened.
A trivial example is that people tend to overestimate the speed of approaching objects. From natural selection’s point of view, this misperception is presumably a feature, not a bug: better to get out of the way of a charging animal, or a spear-wielding human, too soon than too late.
A less trivial example is the tendency, so emphasized in Buddhism, to not fully see and reckon with the impermanence of things. Perhaps the clearest example of this is our frequent failure to reckon with the fleetingness of pleasure.
From natural selection’s point of view, that fleetingness, the evaporation of the gratification we feel after eating food, say, or having sex, is a good thing. After all, if the gratification didn’t evaporate, we wouldn’t get busy pursuing more nourishment and more sex; and animals that don’t stay nourished and don’t reproduce prolifically won’t get many genes into the next generation.
Another thing that’s good, from natural selection’s point of view, is for us to have what you might call an unbalanced view of this gratification. We tend to focus intently on the fact that pleasure will accompany the reaching of some goal like food or sex, but not to focus on the fact that the pleasure will vanish shortly after we reach the goal, and perhaps will give way to a restless longing for more. After all, keeping in mind how fleeting pleasure is could dull our pursuit of it! Natural selection seems to “want” us to not see, or at least to not fully see and fully consider, this impermanence.
Note that natural selection here demonstrates an indifference not only to the clarity of our vision, but to our happiness. In engineering the brain so that gratification would evaporate, it engineered us to be recurringly discontented. No wonder suffering is, as the Buddha noted, such a common part of life as ordinarily lived.
Indeed, dukkha, the ancient term typically translated as “suffering,” is sometimes translated as “unsatisfactoriness.” This translation makes a lot of sense in light of evolution. Natural selection “wants” us to be recurringly unsatisfied, to keep seeking a bit more of the things that in the hunter-gatherer environment of our evolution helped spread genes: more food, more sex, more status. And the less we get the picture, and the less we see how short-lived the ensuing thrills will be, the more ardently we’ll pursue them. We’ll be driven by craving (tanha, in Buddhist terminology) to stay on what psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill,” pursuing the ever-receding horizon of lasting gratification.
All this may make our predicament sound a bit absurd, but you haven’t heard the half of it. In a modern environment, so different from the environment that we evolved in, brains designed to help spread our genes, sometimes at the expense of happiness and clear vision, don’t even succeed in helping us spread our genes! When you’re surrounded by junk food, drugs, and online enticements ranging from video games to pornography, following the drive for sensory gratification isn’t a ticket to prolific reproduction. (And of course, we have contraception, so even when people get their sexual pleasure via real sex, not porn, the sex is, from natural selection’s point of view, in vain.)
So in one sense, we’re not slavishly adhering to natural selection’s agenda. Or at least we’re not adhering to it as slavishly as our ancestors did, because the environment we’re living in sometimes thwarts that agenda. Even so, if you ask what it is that’s deluding us, and in some sense enslaving us, it is still fair to single out natural selection as the culprit. After all, it built the equipment that’s doing the deluding and enslaving. To be addicted to drugs or to porn or to junk food or to video games is to follow the biochemical lures natural selection built into the brain, to blindly accept the guidance of the feelings that are natural selection’s levers of control.
Besides, even if we’re not toeing natural selection’s bottom line (not spending each day doing things that will get our genes spread), we’re still often serving values natural selection embedded in us: acting as if we and our kin (that is, the carriers of our genes) are more important than other people, as if the welfare of people unrelated to us matters little if at all. Indeed, we try to actively undermine the welfare of some people, such as our rivals, and our view of them is distorted accordingly. As the Buddha put it, our senses so warp our judgments that all our “rivals rank as ‘sorry, brainless fools.’”
If you look at the full array of tools natural selection uses to get us to serve its values, you start to see how this could explain some of the most fundamental illusions that Buddhist philosophy emphasizes: illusions about the “self” that we see as being at our core and illusions about the “essences” we tend to see at the core of other people and things.
I won’t here elaborate on these illusions, or explain why it makes sense to see them as products of natural selection. But, as I explain in the aforementioned book, Why Buddhism Is True, there is good reason to believe that this is the case. Evolutionary psychology, the study of how natural selection shaped the human mind, gives strong support to the Buddhist diagnosis of the human predicament.
What evolutionary psychology doesn’t do is offer a way to pierce our illusions, and so to lessen our suffering and the suffering we cause others. Buddhism, though, does. It offers meditative practice that, in the context of Buddhist teaching, helps us start to see through the distortions that natural selection built into our brains. Mindfulness meditation, for example, can make us more aware of the feelings that natural selection used to shape our thought and action and can help us choose whether to accept their guidance. It offers weapons with which to rebel against our “creator.”
Of course, our creator did, in a sense, pave the way for this insurrection. The brains it built make us capable, in principle, of perceiving the illusions it instilled in us and fighting our way toward clarity. So if you want to pepper your struggle against natural selection with the occasional expression of gratitude, feel free. But don’t give up the fight.
[This story was first published in 2017]