Evolution follows a very simple rule: genes live on only if passed on. Clearly then, the organisms that prevail in nature are those who are able to pass on their genes; those that are best able to protect themselves and their offspring. Since all the creatures are the result of such a harsh process, they are adapted to serve themselves – or, rather, their genes. This is interpreted as meaning that we measure the payoff of actions in promoting oneself and one’s position. And, as much is true, we always try to maximize the payoff of something. But, from a simple rule one can get a complex system.
In the article Evolution, Religion and Society, in the section “Pass on our genes” – how?”, I argue that while instincts and unconscious goals – our programming – may be evolved to help passing on one’s genes, we do not live to pass on our genes, but to follow the programming. We usually do not have sex to get babies, but because we simply want to have sex. It is our programming.
Considering the overall goal of protecting and passing on one’s genes, it is certainly not in the self-interest of the obese man to eat chocolate. However, it is in his self-interest according to the drives we have evolved to have, among them to eat. For we do not eat for health or to survive, but because we want to eat. We evolved to have this want, or drive, for the sake of our health and survival, but the drive works independently of its purpose. A lawn mower does not turn itself off when there is no grass, and its workings do not change when presented different grass than before.
Now, consider the possibility that we evolved to help others in our group. Avoiding for now the question of how we, by our unconscious nature, identify our group, remarking simply that our consciously identified group does not necessarily correspond to the unconsciously identified. The latter being what triggers our programming. Even if we evolved to do this because it, in some sense, benefitted ourselves, it often happens that we do it by some unconscious urge – by our programming – regardless of whether it can ever benefit us in the particular case.
Evolution is not conscious – it is only a consequence of natural laws and properties. If evolution developed hammer and saw for building, it would apply these tools whenever an act was identified as “building”. In order to protect the family, several animals, among them humans, evolved to develop bonds to the family. But the process of developing the bond cannot have knowledge of whether any genes are shared – what triggers “develop bond” is based on other criteria. And whenever they are met, bonds are created – thus we have cats treating chickens as their own offspring, and husbands raising the mailmans child.
The argument that since evolution favours those who are best at helping themselves, every person, at the core, acts only for selfish reasons is flawed. Every person acts only according to the “programming”. While this programming may be evolved only to serve the individual, we do not act only to serve ourselves. If a driver picks up a hitchhiker and drives him to his desired destination, one does not say that the driver drove to achieve the hitchhikers errand.
We always act out of self-interest, but self-interest is to follow our programming. To assume that one always, in every situation, will try to achieve the highest payoff for oneself is true. To assume that payoff is measured by money, power and status is false. The goals we really follow lies in the unconscious – and our conscious ideas do not always fit.
Often, money, power and status really are what we want to achieve, but this does not mean they are the only things that trigger some unconscious process. Surely, we cannot have evolved to want money, but money simply triggers some part of our programming; like we did not evolve to eat donuts, it is identified as food and triggers our drive to eat. Surely then, something else than money can also trigger the same part of us. Payoff can simply mean helping a friend. Or achieving “fairness”, even if it reduces one’s own position in terms of power or money.