What We Know About Ourselves: Dharma and Science
Evolutionary psychology for meditators
By Jourdan Arenson
The simplicity of meditation means just experiencing the ape instinct of ego.
How much of our mind is the product of biology--ape instinct--and how much of it the product of culture? For the past century, most progressive thinkers have assumed that culture, not biology, is the dominant force in shaping human beings. Today it is taken for granted that our minds are tabula rasa at birth, a blank slate, containing only a few animal instincts, and beyond that, a vast unconditioned capacity to learn and absorb culture.
The tabula rasa model of mind is dear to us because it holds such hopeful possibilities for social change. If our minds are blank at birth, then negative, repressive values must be purely cultural constructs. The only reason we have racism, sexism, aggression and possessiveness is because these values are introduced to us by our deluded culture. If only we can manage to restructure our society around enlightened values, we will be able to construct, from scratch, human beings free of hatred and greed.
Tabula rasa mind is also an encouraging basis for meditation practice. Because we like to believe that our minds were pristine and unconditioned at birth, we blame the environment--our parents, society, schooling-- for introducing the negative conditioning that separates us from our pure nature. As adults, we continue this negative conditioning by "choosing" to feel jealousy, selfishness, anger and desire. We take up meditation hoping to un-do the mistake and return to our original unconditioned state. But as we practice, the "unnatural" invaders inevitably return--concepts, judgments, negative emotions that we feel should never have been there in the first place. And then we blame ourselves. After all, we create our own reality, don't we?
Perhaps we are being a bit hard on ourselves. A new body of scientific evidence has shown that much of our mental reality is not simply a matter of choice. As it turns out, our "ape instinct" is much more complex and pervasive that we ever thought.
According to the emerging science of evolutionary psychology, our minds are far from unconditioned at birth. We inherit a prehistoric mind, a mind conditioned by two million years of human evolution. The theory goes like this: During the time early humans were evolving large brains (or "mental hardware"), they also evolved a complex "mental software" that introduced meaning and organization to their minds. This mental software is not a generalized learning program that simply absorbs information from culture. It is rather a bundle of hundreds of content-specific "mental mechanisms" which evolved around the problems of survival faced by our hunter gather ancestors.
To be sure, a lot has changed since our hunter-gather days. But a lot has not. We still need to recognize faces, learn a language, find our place in groups, keep up a reputation, earn praise and avoid blame, cooperate with others, detect cheaters, deter aggression, avoid disease, find mates, raise children, and so on. While evolutionary psychologists do not deny that culture and environment shape these behaviors, they claim these behaviors are guided by complex mental mechanisms which interact with the cultural environment. Cultural input varies from society to society, but the mental mechanisms themselves are biologically based, like fingers and toes--natural and intractable parts of ordinary human beings the world over.
Compared with the idealistic possibilities promised by the tabula rasa model of mind, evolutionary psychology brings some sobering implications. The science suggests that our most harmful tendencies--competitiveness, cruelty toward outsiders, social climbing, moral condemnation, revenge--are not learned or imposed from outside; they are latent in our genes. The fault is not just in our culture, it is deep within our biological nature.
The good news of Buddhism is that the process of evolution has not reached an end. It continues in our own lives, especially in our spiritual strivings. In this article, I hope to show how the findings of evolutionary psychology can help us in that spiritual quest. Some of these findings are apt to burst a few idealistic bubbles: we cannot return to a pristine nature we never had. On the other hand, evolutionary psychology can help us accept and understand our biological nature, and thereby build the wisdom and compassion necessary to transcend it.
Evolutionary psychologists seek to understand the human mind by understanding the evolutionary process that designed it. To do this, they engage in a kind of reverse-engineering, trying to piece together how the minds we have today evolved little by little through the process of natural selection. They are not interested in the competition between species, but rather the competition between genes within the human species.
Natural selection creates new traits and adaptations in a species by putting genes through a process of trial and error. New genes arise in an individual organism by chance mutation. If a new gene produces a trait that decreases the organism's chances of reproduction, that gene, and the trait it produces, will not be passed on. This is the fate of the vast majority of genetic mutations.
However, if a new gene produces a trait that makes the host organism more effective in reproduction, this gene will be "selected," that is, passed on to the next generation. In this manner, highly successful genes and traits spread throughout the species, gradually overtaking "competing" genes and eventually becoming "species-typical" traits.
Biologists have long studied how genetic design produced the species-typical morphology of our bodies --the physical organs, systems and chemistry common to all humans. Evolutionary psychologists study the role of genes in producing typical human behaviors. Now, a gene cannot reach out and control behavior. Instead, it creates mental mechanisms which generate: 1) thoughts, emotions and psychological states, and 2) bodily sensations associated with those states. And these mind-body processes compel us toward certain behaviors. What kind of behaviors? Behaviors that helped early humans solve the adaptive problems they faced in the Pleistocene savannas 2 million to 10,000 years ago. In other words, mental mechanisms provide a sort of automatic emotional or cognitive processing that helped our ancestors overcome the challenges of survival and reproduction.
Evolutionary psychologists often conduct a simple mind experiment to explore how natural selection might have shaped mental mechanisms. For example, assume that 1 million years ago there appeared (by chance mutation) a gene that produced a "fear insects" mechanism in young children. When a young child with this gene saw an insect, the child's mind would automatically process this stimulus and generate the mind-body sensations of fear and revulsion. Would genes that created such a cognitive mechanism be successful? Yes, children that naturally avoided stinging insects would be more prone to survive and reproduce than children who had no aversion to insects. And this gene would certainly win out over a competing gene that said "play with insects."
After theorizing about a possible mental mechanism, evolutionary psychologists then attempt to determine if the trait is universal among humans, and therefore presumably biologically based. They review the anthropological record to see if the trait appears across cultures. They also perform experiments to see if modern subjects elicit the trait in predictable ways. The "fear insects" mechanism passes both of these tests. Universally, most children naturally develop an aversion toward insects at around ago two, an aversion that often carries on to adulthood. Similar mechanisms exist which produce fear of snakes, strangers and dark unknown places.
One of the most important points to keep in mind in thinking about evolutionary psychology is that all mental mechanisms were evolved in and designed for a specific social and environmental setting--small bands of hunter-gatherer families who roamed the savanna planes of the Pleistocene era, 2 million to 10,000 years ago. The mental mechanisms we inherit from our ancestors are therefore not necessarily adaptive to today's environment. The modern two-year-old who recoils in fear from a moth will blindly run into on- coming traffic. Fear of insects is automatic, but parents have to work hard to teach their children to avoid speeding cars because that threat didn't exist in our evolutionary past.
Perhaps the most challenging and enduring problem of our evolutionary past was learning to successfully compete and cooperate with the most cunning of animals --other people. To survive and reproduce, our ancestors had to master a huge inventory of social skills including: reading other people's emotions and motivations, perceiving threats to one's position, earning and maintaining status, recognizing and deferring to high status people, defending oneself without enraging others, punishing those who cheat, judging the reliability of a partner, attracting a mate, and keeping a mate from being attracted to others.
Because of the huge adaptive importance of negotiating the social environment, evolutionary psychologists believe that we evolved a host mental mechanisms that guide us in the tasks of mating and social interaction. It is in these areas that the findings of evolutionary psychology are most interesting and most controversial. Here Rutgers University anthropologist Robin Fox describes what might be the biological roots of xenophobia and racial hatred:
"We have a deeply built-in fear of the stranger. This is part of a Paleolithic spacing mechanism. Tribes were separated in space and there were some individuals that were like you and some that were not like you, who were by and large not well disposed to you. Therefore, we have a similarity detection mechanism built into us. From childhood, we tend to develop a picture of an ideal form or face from the observation of the people around us. We have a special part of the brain that sorts through faces looking for familiarity. Those that are least familiar are those that are going to be most frightening. And even if nature doesn't provide the cues, we provide them with things like costumes, haircuts, tattoos, headdresses, or anything that distinguishes who we are and who they are.... Skin color is merely one aid to this inborn xenophobia. Something deep down in that Paleolithic brain, registers 'Different, Different, Different!'"
It is important to note that Fox is not predicting that humans cannot rise above this mechanism or that we are doomed to hatred, war and strife. He is, however, predicting that some part of everybody's mind is naturally aroused at the sight of people who are obviously racially or culturally different.
This is not to suggest that we are slaves to our biology. The prehistoric mind contains varied, complex structures that feed back to the environment, allowing incredible variation. For example, a mental mechanism that urges us to seek social status looks to the culture for information about what constitutes social status. The "social status seeking mechanism" is universal; what is valued in a given culture is variable. Depending on the group, status can come from being a cold-hearted hit man, a shrewd politician, a devoted employee, a loving parent, or a selfless monk.
Different mental mechanisms also provide vastly different strategies depending on the environmental circumstances. For example, evolutionary psychologists theorize that a "take more risks" mechanism is activated in poor, unmarried young men who commit crimes. In effect, this mechanism says: "Look pal, you got nothing to lose. You might as well steal, cheat and even rape because that's the only way you're getting your genes into the next generation." This same mechanism is dormant in the mind of the yuppie family man whose circumstances have activated another mechanism that says: "Protect your children, save your money, don't take risks and you'll see grandchildren for sure."
While mental mechanisms produce great variability in behavior, the mechanisms themselves were designed for a single purpose: to make us survive and reproduce. Biologists have a joke: "A chicken is an egg's way of making another egg." From a biological perspective, the same is true about us: human beings are how genes make copies of genes. Natural selection has endowed us with prehistoric minds which cast us into a drama of love, lust, compassion, reverence, ambition, anger, fear, guilt, obligation, and shame--all for the purpose of making more genes.
Of course, from the human perspective, we have to believe that there is a greater meaning behind all the drama. And here we must note the crucial limitation to evolutionary psychology--it can never reveal our spiritual nature. As a result, there is the danger of falling into a cynical interpretation of evolutionary psychology: "Truth, art and beauty are tricks of our genes to get us to reproduce; God is just a product of the chemicals in our brains."
This is true as far as it goes. Our spiritual nature can be described in biological terms. One researcher has done so in a book called Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs. But anybody who would explain away spirituality by reducing it to biological processes is, as the late Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah said, "like a person who keeps chickens and collects the dropping."
We can avoid this mistake by recognizing a crucial distinction. Our biological nature is revealed by an objective inquiry into the mind. Our spiritual nature is revealed by a subjective inquiry into the mind. Evolutionary psychology looks at the mind as "it," asks "how does it work?", and discovers organic design and functional purpose. The cynics are right: no spiritual nature is revealed by objective inquiry. For such a revelation, we must experience the mind as "I." Only through subjective practices, such as meditation, do we discover faith, values and insight into our spiritual nature--the Buddha-nature that transcends our biological nature but, at the same time, is not separate from our biological nature.
Of course, there is a danger in subjective inquiry, especially if we embrace the tabula rasa idea that we can create our own reality from scratch. We can get lost in the lofty fantasy of conquering all negative urges and emotions and becoming perfect beings. Here, evolutionary psychology can serve as a reality check by reminding us of the simple object of meditation--the mind-body process of ape instinct.
In meditation, we aim to experience the mind-body process without being deluded or trapped by it. We slow the mind's whirling in order to see the mind-body process clearly. We see the mind-body process clearly in order to experience its impermanent, insubstantial quality, and thereby gain a measure of freedom. But there is a paradox: if we want freedom we must first find acceptance. Evolutionary psychology helps the meditator by identifying particularly powerful patterns in the mind-body process that he or she must accept.
Mental mechanisms act on us by producing 1) sensations in our bodies and 2) psychological states in our minds which together compel us toward certain "adaptive" behaviors. Normally, these mind-body experiences seem solid and oppressive. In meditation, however, we take time to experience these physical sensations and psychological states--the playing out of mental mechanisms--in a clear and penetrating awareness. As US-born monk Ajahn Sumedho says, "You're cutting to the center, to the still point where you can see it for what it is and not be frightened and deluded anymore... And yet that still point is not in the mind, it's not in the body. This is where it's ineffable."
Ajahn Chah captured this approach when he asked his male disciples to contemplate lust: "Look at a beautiful woman. What does that do to you? As soon as you see the face, you see everything else. Do you see it? Just look within your mind. What is it like to see a woman? As soon as the eyes see just a little bit, the mind sees all the rest. Why is it so fast?"
It is so fast because a mental mechanism is at work. Most men know this mechanism well. We glimpse a young woman and, in a flash of mental processing, we see--and desire--all the rest. Women are not so sensitive to visual arousal for adaptive reasons (different reproductive hardware required different mental software surrounding courtship, mating and child rearing). But everybody experiences similarly instantaneous reactions in other situations. We are all immediately excited when we see people fighting. We are irresistibly fascinated by gossip about people important to us. We tend to become nervous in the presence of powerful authority figures. These tendencies all provided some adaptive benefit in our evolutionary past. Nowadays, they are more often than not triggered by movies, television and magazines.
In meditation, we attempt to calm the mind so these instantaneous reactions are not quite so instantaneous. Once we have a little mental space to reflect on our compulsions, we may see that there is only fleeting satisfaction in chasing after them. This is not just a spiritual cliche; it is biological fact. Natural selection, the process that filled our prehistoric minds with compulsions, has no concern for our inner peace and happiness. Just the opposite. As Robert Wright puts it in The Moral Animal, "We are designed [by natural selection] to feel the next goal will bring bliss, and the bliss is designed to evaporate shortly after getting there."
It is not that all our goals are unworthy. There are mental mechanisms that urge us to love and protect our family, to fight for a worthy cause, to become useful and responsible members of society. But evolutionary psychology lays bare the "twist of ego" in our higher callings. From a biological perspective, a mother loves her child fiercely because her child contains copies of her genes. As cynical as that sounds, consider this: it is naturally easy to love our own children, parents and siblings. Extending that love to people outside one's family, tribe, country and race has always been a problem for us.
The same twist of ego is at work in friendship and cooperation. The biological basis of social cooperation is a "reciprocity mechanism" common to social primates, such as monkeys, apes and humans. Basically, the mechanism encourages us seek out win-win relationships and avoid lose-win relationships. We both win if you pick my lice and I pick yours. But what if I pick your lice and you refuse to pick mine?
Since favor-trading is vulnerable to cheating, we are also equipped with the cognitive apparatus to monitor the fairness of social exchange. This is the part of our mind that watches like a six-year-old to see that nobody gets a bigger slice of the birthday cake. And when we do catch a cheater, alarms of anger immediately go off. Watch the mechanism the next time somebody cuts you off on the freeway: "Cheater! Unfair! Somebody get that guy!" In the evolutionary past, when we lived together in small groups, it made adaptive sense to react this way to cheaters. Nowadays, we sit in traffic and fume over cheaters whom we will never see again.
Another important task in all social intercourse is to convince others that our actions are morally and logically justified. And so our cognitive apparatus is geared to make it effortlessly easy to see all the evidence supporting our position; seeing the other side is much more difficult. As Wright explains: "[The] human brain is, in large part, a machine for winning arguments, a machine for convincing others that its owner is in the right--and thus a machine for convincing its owner the same thing."
The ape instinct of ego may well be behind our most sincerely felt moral impulses. Evolutionary psychology thus reminds meditators to be circumspect when self- righteousness and spiritual pride arise in the mind. "Natural selection has worked its will to make some things seem 'obvious' and 'right' and 'desirable' and others 'absurd' and 'wrong' and 'abhorrent.'" says Wright. "What we take as an untouchable moral intuition may be no more than a relic of our evolutionary history."
And what of our evolutionary future? While we cannot afford to wait for natural selection to change our biological nature, all attempts to get rid of that nature are doomed to failure. Instead, we must surrender to the powerful push and pull of our prehistoric minds. But we need not be deluded. Marpa, the 11th century Tibetan saint, embraced this paradox as he wept over his dead son. A disciple asked him: "You tell us that everything is an illusion. How about the death of your son? Isn't it an illusion?" And Marpa said, "True, but my son's death is a super-illusion."