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Evolutionary Science as an Implement of Personal Empowerment

by Ezra Niesen Monday, Aug. 14, 2006 at 4:07 PM

Scientists who study human evolution have made great discoveries into the origins of human emotions and how they affect people and interpersonal relationships. People can put these discoveries to use in their everyday lives—if they learn about them.

Evolutionary Science...
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In the debate over evolution versus intelligent design, there is far more at stake than the public is being told. About 20 years ago, scientists began studying human evolution specifically to try to discover the origins of human behavior. Essentially, they’ve been deconstructing human consciousness to try to figure out how to make it stop being self destructive. By now, enough is understood about human behavior that every type of major conflict in the world could be solved peacefully, from differences between cultures to differences between religions, to differences between genders, to name a few. Or at least, all of these types of major conflicts could be solved if only more people could learn how. (You can learn more at The Club of Budapest at, of in The Blank Slate—The Modern Denial of Human Nature, by Dr. Steven Pinker.)

Human emotion is basically a giant puzzle. Now that the puzzle is completed, it’s simple to understand. It has seemed unsolvable for all of recorded history because a few critical pieces have only been discovered within the past few years. However, people have been trying to solve the puzzle for all of recorded history, and now that these critical pieces have been discovered, all the pieces suddenly fall into place.

For example, since democracy was first instituted in America 200 years ago, there has been a world-wide shift in governments from monarchy to democracy. That’s a big clue that something about democracy appeals to individual people. Now that scientists have figured out so much about individuals, we can see why individual people learning about democracy has led to a world wide shift away from monarchy. As it turns out, for all of human evolution, the more control over their own destinies people have had, the better the chances they have given themselves to survive and reproduce. The Founding Fathers of the United States didn’t know this, but now that we can see how democracy relates to the conditions that human consciousness evolved in, we can better understand why democracy has succeeded, how it could be threatened, and ways we could improve upon the original idea to make it serve humanity even better.

For another example, theatre is one of the oldest studies of human behavior in the world. For 2,500 years, actors, directors, and writers have been making their livings by figuring out how to replicte human behavior accurately enough to make it believable to human audiences. They’ve been competing against each other as they’ve done this, so whoever has been best able to replicate human behavior has been the most successful, and the next generation of artists learns and improves upon the techniques of the most successful artists. It’s ironic that art could offer so much to the study of human sciences, but in the same way that the nuclear power was made possible (for better or worse) by people figuring out how to build an industry around Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Hollywood has been made possible (for better or worse) by people figuring out how to build an industry around William Shakespeare’s artistic genius.

For yet another example, people all over the world have developed philosophical beliefs thoughout the ages. If one group of people has a philosophical belief, a philosophical belief is exactly what it is. However, if every group of people in the world has discovered the same philosophical belief, that makes it a direct product of human evolution, because in every part of the world where human DNA exists, this belief also exists. For one example of that, every group of people in the world has discovered that people can build communities much more effectively by cooperating with each other than they can by fighting against each other. (Even Ku Klux Klan members have discovered that by cooperating with each other they can oppress other people more effectively.) 20 years ago that was philosophy. Now that anthropologists have discovered it’s a universal characteristic of humanity, it’s science.

I work in theatre, but I also, shall we say, possess certain abilities that enable me to do things with science and logic that most people assume are impossible. When I found out about the important pieces of the puzzle of human emotion that scientists had discovered recently, I could see how well they fit with some important pieces that theatre artists have known about for centuries. I don’t know how much official scientists know about theatre, but over the past year I’ve found that by combining the two on my own I can make human emotion understandable to a lot of people. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, once I realized how valuable something like this could be to a small group of materially wealthy people, I realized I’d be much better off in the long run seeing to it that it got distributed universally to everyone. So here it is:

All human emotions serve very specific functions in the original conditions of our evolution. (We don’t live in the original conditions of our evolution, in case you hadn’t guessed.) Emotions cause psychological effects in people that cause them to act in whatever way best serves their evolutionary survival. They also cause physiological effects in people that prepare them physically for that course of action. For example, when people are faced with some overwhelming threat to their safety, they feel afraid. That fear causes them to want to run away, which is usually the best way to survive an overwhelming threat. It also makes them feel cold because it diverts a lot of blood to their legs to help them run. At other times when people (and especially men) feel angry, they suddenly feel like bashing things with their hands and their bodies start diverting blood to their hands to help them do it, because for most of human evolution that was the best way people had to deal with things that made them angry. Things that make people feel disgusted cause them to gag, lose their appetite, and to flare their nostrils, because for most of human evolution that was the best way people had to keep from eating rotten food. And so on…

As chaos theorists have discovered in recent years, very often seemingly chaotic systems are caused by the interaction of numerous simple systems. For an example of that, all weather is caused by the transfer of heat through the atmosphere. That’s caused mainly by the sun heating the Earth, the rotation of the Earth, the geography of the Earth, and water in the atmosphere changing its states among solid, liquid, and gas.

Likewise, all human emotion is caused by an interaction of five evolutionary traits of humanity. First are the two evolutionary instincts shared by all animal species: survival and reproduction. The other three are the three basic mental abilities that combine to form human intellect: the ability to imagine abstract ideas, the ability to perceive the passage of time, and the ability to communicate abstract ideas among members of the species. Other animals have these abilities to some degree, but humans have a clear advantage in all of them over all other species.

As Dr. Andrew Newberg and Dr. Eugene D’Aquill explain in their book Why God Won’t Go Away, animals’ instincts can only be triggered by direct stimulation of their senses—the sight of a predator or a potential mate, for example. Humans’ instincts can be triggered by direct stimulation, but also by things they can imagine, things they can remember, things they expect to happen, or things they’ve heard about from other humans. (Technically these things also apply to other animals to a lesser degree, but again humans have a clear advantage over all other animals here.)

The fact that all humans possess human intellect leads to the rather obvious conclusion that for a long time humans have depended on their human intellect to survive and reproduce. Every person alive today is alive because one way or another, for the entire course of our evolution all of their ancestors have competed successfully for survival and reproduction against every other organism in the entire world. Since human intellect has played such a crucial role in this process, by now we all use our human intellects all the time in everything we do, whether consciously or only subconsciously.

Any time you, or anyone else, feels any emotion, you are reacting to something that involves either your survival or reproduction. You are reacting that way because of direct stimulation to your senses or because you imagine something, you can remember something, you can anticipate something, or because you’ve learned about something from someone else. Of course you can be doing any number of those things and any combination of those things all at the same time, and the possible outcomes are virtually infinite, but all of those infinite possible outcomes originate from those five mental characteristics.

To see the basic ways these emotions can affect people, we can look at the Maslow Hierarchy of Human Needs, which is used in education, and we can look at the Five Human Motivators, which is a list used in marketing. By combining the two lists we get one list of seven items, to which I add an eighth. All human interests fall into these eight categories. My proof of this is that I live in America in 2006, and if there was anything else that people felt was important besides these eight things, you can be sure that advertisers would’ve found it by now!

In descending order of general importance they are: Survival, safety, reproduction, social, self gratification, self actualization, self fulfillment, and fulfillment of self fulfillment.

Survival refers to anything involving immediate physiological necessities: food, water, oxygen, body temperature, and rest.

Safety refers to anything involving physical safety and avoiding risks to physical safety. This is a direct product of the survival instinct.

Reproduction refers to anything involving literal reproduction, romantic relationships, raising children, or recreational sex.

Social refers to membership in groups and interpersonal relations of all kinds. All species of primates are social animals for the same reasons people are: because they can survive best by cooperating in groups. Therefore, the social motivator is a product of the survival instinct. This is the main reason every group of people in the world has discovered that they can build communities much more effectively by cooperating than by fighting each other.

Self gratification refers to anything that makes a person feel good. Technically, this isn’t an instinct, it is the superficial result of the satisfaction of an instinct. Good feelings are the physiological reward for satisfying instincts. Since people have found so many ways to trigger superficial results of the satisfaction of instincts that have nothing to do with the actual satisfaction of their instincts, self gratification is worth listing separately as a motivator. One good example is fruit-flavored candy: Candy tastes good because it tastes like ripe fruit that will keep you alive, even though eating candy won’t keep you alive.

Self actualization refers to the use of abilities. As I use the term here, an ability is any personal capacity a person can use to advance his interests in some way or another. Some direct examples are the abilities to hunt, to cook, and to work to earn a paycheck. Less direct examples of abilities include the ability to express oneself through dance, the ability to find (superficial) reproductive satisfaction with a member of the same gender, and the ability to search for better situations in which to use one’s abilities. Self actualization applies differently to everyone, but applies in some way to everyone. For all of human evolution, people have depended on using whatever abilities they’ve had to advance their evolutionary survival. If people are prevented from using their abilities to advance their interests in life, they will feel unsatisfied with their lives. Examples of this include people who find themselves stuck working at jobs where they aren’t able to put their best work skills to use, dancers who aren’t allowed to dance, and homosexuals who are prevented from pursuing homosexual relationships. This is also the main reason that democracy has proven more popular than monarchy, because democracy allows people to put their abilities to much greater use in making lives for themselves. You’re probably reading this article right now for the self actualization value of learning something new that you can put to use in your life somehow. Self actualization is a product of the survival instinct.

Self fulfillment is the fullest use of an ability. Throughout human evolution, using abilities to their fullest potential enabled people to advance their evolutionary survival better than not using abilities to their fullest potential. Otherwise, self fulfillment is an extension of self actualization. Self fulfillment is a product of the survival instinct.

Fulfillment of self fulfillment is the use of all of one’s abilities to their fullest extents—or at least, their fullest extents possible, given the limitations of the physical world. For all of human evolution, the single best way to advance one’s evolutionary survival was to use all of one’s abilities to their fullest potentials. Fulfillment of self fulfillment gives you the sense that your life is complete. Fulfillment of self fulfillment is a product of the survival instinct.

Just for one example of how an emotional situation can involve multiple interactions of these thirteen items, if a man succeeds in establishing a romantic relationship with a desirable woman, he satisfies his reproductive instinct by acquiring an attractive mate. This applies in the short term to his desire to establish such a relationship in the first place, and it can apply in the longer term if he intends to engage in literal reproduction with the woman. If the woman had resources that the man needed to satisfy his survival and/or safety motivations, the relationship could serve those purposes also. Creating an important relationship with another person serves a social function. A romantic relationship with a desirable woman can also act as a status symbol among his friends, which is another social function. The relationship can yield self actualization, self fulfillment, or fulfillment of self fulfillment depending on the degree to which he was satisfied with his ability to seek and find a mate. The relationship can also satisfy those motivations if it offers him further opportunities for him to use his abilities.

The relationship can yield self-gratification by making the man feel good in any number of ways, including recreational sex, the prospect of reproduction, the benefits to immediate survival and/or safety it afforded him, the establishment of an important relationship, the procurement of an important status symbol, the prospects of being able to use abilities that he wouldn’t otherwise, the successful use of his ability to search for and find a mate, the successful use of his ability to search for and find a desirable mate, or the successful use of his ability to search for and find a mate who makes his life feel complete. All of these forms of self-gratification are superficial results of the satisfaction of other instinctive motivation. Each of these forms of self gratification could exist independently of the ultimate motivations rather than serve as an indication that the higher motivations were being satisfied. That superficial self gratification separated from the satifaction of the instincts that originally created the self gratification reward would lead to the classic story of a man whose romantic partner eventually realizes that the relationship was purely superficial and that as far as the man was concerned, any other woman could serve in her place equally well. That is, she realizes that to him she isn’t really a mate, she’s just woman-flavored candy.

Potentially, all of the motivations listed in the last two paragraph could apply to all actions the man undertook in regards to the relationship, at all times.

The love emotion the man feels for the woman is caused by the self gratification resulting from the positive effects the relationship has on his survival and reproductive interests (whatever they are), interacting with his ability to remember he had the feeling in the past, to imagine he will continue having the feeling in the future, to anticipate that he will continue having it in the future, to hear about the concept of love from other people, to remember the feeling of love from a previous relationship, to remember having witnessed the effects of romantic relationships on other people, and so on.

I count five factors outside a person’s basic genetic makeup as a member of the Homo sapiens species that affects his decision making process. These factors could be divided up differently, but I find that dividing them this way makes them the easiest to explain. They are, in no particular order: abilities, skills, available resources, personal history, and cultural background.

I count everything that makes an individual unique for reasons beyond his own control as an ability. This includes all genetic traits, all physical abilities regardless of their source, and anything else that doesn’t fit into any of the other categories for any reason. Sight, for instance, is the ability to see. Intelligence is the ability to think. Poor health is an inability to endure harsh environments. An assertive personality gives a person a great ability to assert himself. For a specific example of a way that abilities influence a person’s decisions, to a person who is in good physical health, a tall mountain might look like something he could climb, while to a person in poor physical health the mountain would look like something he couldn’t climb. For another example, I’m 6’3”, which makes the top of my refrigerator look like a convenient place to put things.

Individual skills are any skills that a person has learned. The better he is at the skill, the more he will be able to use it to advance his evolutionary interests. For example, to a person who can read English fluently, who can read French with some difficulty, and who can’t read Japanese at all, English writing will look easy to read, French writing will look difficult to read, and Japanese writing will look impossible to read. To a person who could read Japanese fluently, Japanese writing would look as easy to read as English writing would look to the other person.

Available resources consist of anything the person has, or doesn’t have, to draw upon beyond his physical self to achieve his objective. If the person has resources and can use them, they will affect his decision making. If the person doesn’t have them and needs them, they will affect his decision making differently. If the person has them but can’t use them in a situation, they won’t affect his decision making. This includes physical resources, but also more abstract things, such as time, another person’s personality, the laws of physics, and artificial laws. For instance, a person who has 25 minutes to drive to work will make different decisions based on that time resource depending on whether he needs 20 minutes to drive to work, 25 minutes, or 30 minutes. Likewise, the existence or non-existance of environmental laws affect people’s decisions in how to dispose of toxic waste, as will the consequences or absence of consequences for breaking those laws.

Personal history overlaps somewhat with skills, because it includes everything the person has ever learned. Unlike skills, it includes everything the person has learned that doesn’t directly relate to the situation. That can include things that relate to the situation indirectly, such as abilities or skills for enduring (or not enduring) any situation, and things that the person thinks relate to the situation but don’t actually. For instance, if a woman has been physically abused, a person who raises his voice at her probably will be perceived as a threat, which will lead the woman to making decisions to escape abuse, even if she doesn’t have specific skills to use in escaping abuse, and even if she was no danger of being abused in this case. If the person who raised his voice didn’t intend to abuse the woman, then the woman’s reactions won’t make sense to him.

A person’s cultural background will teach him values of objectives and approaches, that is, objectives he should or shouldn’t work toward, and ways he should or shouldn’t work toward them. This overlaps with personal history, but it is a specific source of abstract influences on the person’s decision-making. It is the most pervasive and least tangible form of learning from life experiences, because the person doesn’t necessarily learn from specific events or even realize he is learning from them. Instead, cultural values are learned gradually over time by association. Usually the person takes them for granted as the way the world is supposed to be, without realizing it’s only the way the world is supposed to be according to his own culture. I’m sure we’ve all run into this at some point, haven’t we?

That’s it. All human behavior revolves around these 18 points. Any time you feel an emotion, you are being affected by some combination of these. Any time someone else feels an emotion, they are being affected by some combination of these. Any time you have a diagreement with someone else, the two of you are being affected differently by these 18 things. Usually the best way to resolve your disagreement, or at least to begin to understand it, is to identify where it originates. Basically, every main character in Shakespeare’s plays has figured this out the hard way. Shakespeare was able to write plays about this happening to people because he figured it all out ahead of time, whether he did it consciously or only subconsciously.

Because all life depends on energy, all life revolves around the efficient expenditure of personal energy. No one ever undertakes any course of action that they perceive to be a waste of personal energy, because to waste energy would contradict the survival instinct. (However, a person could waste energy intentionally for the self actualization value of proving that he was capable of wasting energy, in which case he would be expending his energy as efficiently as possible to achieve his goal. When I say that theatrical directors have turned understanding human behavior into a fine art, I’m not joking!) Ultimately, people always expend their energy in whatever way they perceive to best protect the survival of their DNA. A lot of times people’s perceptions are misguided, but people always act upon that perception.

Take a suicide bomber for example. A suicide bomber blows himself up because he believes that offers him the best opportunity to protect the survival of his DNA. If he had children and blew himself up in order to kill some people who were threatening his children, he would be helping to protect the survival of his DNA. If he didn’t have children but did have nieces or nephews, he would still be helping to protect the survival of his DNA, because his nieces and nephews carry some of the DNA he inherited from his parents, even though it’s not as much as his own children would carry. But what if he doesn’t have any children, nieces or nephews?

If you can convince someone that acting in a certain way will result in his living forever in eternal paradise, literally you have taught the person to perceive that pursuing that course of action will result in his protecting the survival of his DNA in the most effective way imaginable. If he also gets to spend the rest of eternity with his family or gets 72 virgins out of the deal, so much the better! There is no scientific evidence to suggest these perceptions have anything to do with the actual survival of people’s DNA, but people’s instincts don’t make them aware of the existence of their DNA. People’s instincts make them feel like surviving and reproducing, and if you can offer them the most perfect forms of survival and reproduction they can imagine, that can go a long way toward convincing them to do anything.

Any time you communicate with anyone, you are attempting to evoke a favorable response from the person. You want the person to react in a certain way, so you are communicating to try to get them to feel like reacting in the way you want. Of course, the other person is doing the same thing to you. In general, the best way to make the situation turn out favorably for yourself is to find a way to make it turn out favorably for the other person too. If it turns out unfavorably for the other person, you can expect them to remember it, to start imagining, and to start making plans for the future of ways to exact their revenge. If that person can get his hands on a gun or a suicide bomb, you could be in a lot of trouble!

Any time you’re communicating with anyone and their communication seems unclear, watch how the person is expending their energy, through their body language, their tone of voice, their facial expressions, and the words they’re using. The person is trying to do one of two things: survive or reproduce (or both). They are using three mental abilities to help them do that, there are eight basic ways they can pursue their goals, and there are five additional factors that can affect them. They are communicating with you to try to get you to react in a way that will prove favorable to their goals. They are expending their energy in what they perceive to be the most efficient means to achieve their goals. So: How are they expending their energy to try to evoke a reaction from you that they perceive to benefit their survival and reproduction as efficiently as possible?

I call this the Web of Human Behavior because by establishing 18 points of reference you can deconstruct any emotional situation from romantic relationships to terrorist attacks. By doing so, you can identify what you are trying to do and what the other person is trying to do. Depending on the situation, you can take an active approach to achieving your goals, to maintaining your emotional well being, and (if possible) to resolving conflicts in ways you and the other person will find mutually beneficial.

Someone once asked me, now that I’ve put so much rational thought into human behavior, what good do I think it will do when most people don’t put this much rational thought into their behavior? Two ways spring to mind.

First, now that we’ve put this much rational thought into building weapons and destroying the environment, the only hope for the survival of our species is for us to start putting at least as much rational thought into solving the problems that made those things seem like good ideas in the first place.

Second, Osama bin Ladin obviously put a lot of something that at least closely resembles rational thought into plotting his war against America. Over the past five years I’ve heard a lot of people talking about ways to combat terrorism, who obviously don’t even fully fathom what Osama bin Ladin has done. In the same way that democracy can be improved upon by understanding why it works in the first place, a person who figures out how democracy (or Western civilization in general) works can build the ultimate weapon to weild against it. Osama bin Ladin figured out how to threaten people’s survival, and to do it in a way they hear about from other people, they can remember, and they can imagine happening to them. Five years ago he killed 3,000 people in a very dramatic way, and ever since then politicians and corporate media have been advancing their own interests by making sure that 300,000,000 people continue to live in fear of him—by telling people what he did, by making people remember what he did, and by getting them to imagine him doing it to them. His goal is to destroy America, and by getting a lot of people to act the way he wants them to, collectively those people are destroying America for him. Even now, five years into the war, America is still completely unprepared to fight it, because the terrorists’ most powerful weapon still exists in our own minds. What weapon can you build that can defeat weaponized fear?

How about… weaponized personal empowerment? People learning enough about themselves and other people to learn how to avoid threatening other people, how to cease giving value to their own lives at other people’s expense, and how to emotionally out-maneuver other people’s attempts to make them live in fear? Traditionally, attemps to define the correct way for people to treat each other would be considered philosophical beliefs of right and wrong. However, now that we’ve filled the world up with weapons and with people who feel threatened by Americans, the belief that people should resolve their conflicts peacefully is now simply a scientific approach to making people the least likely to want to kill us.

Despite how long this article has been, I haven’t even scratched the surface. I have a free audio book on evolutionary psychology and its potential uses, which available through my website. I write in rock ‘n’ roll dialect, so hopefully anyone with a tenth grade education can understand it.

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