Our out-of-date Instincts

Many of our instincts have passed their sell-by date. They had a very long shelf-life but now after a few million years, they’ve expired. They are no longer good for what they were designed for. Why so? Because the world has changed and our brains have not.

Our distant ancestors (homo homo) evolved around 2.5 million years ago. Then ~250,000 years ago we, anatomically modern humans (home sapiens) arrived on the scene. Our brains have been evolving for a very long time and all during that time we lived in a world that was quite different from the modern world.

The first humans were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Only in the ~10,000 years did they settle down into groups of around 150 individuals or so, and began agriculture. To a first approximation, we’ve only been hunter-gathers living hand to mouth.

We are survival machines. Every one of us is a direct descendant of an unbroken line of millions of ancestors who survived long enough to reproduce and pass on their genes. Therefore our brains evolved to make us suited to the environment our ancestors faced. That makes us entirely unsuited to the modern world.

My thesis is that our instincts evolved to be superbly suited to a world that does not exist any more. Therefore it is no surprise at all that what we naively believe to be true about the world is precisely wrong.

To survive, our ancestors had to have beliefs about the world that matched the world they lived in. Our instincts make us precisely well-suited to survive in that ancestral world but now the world has changed. So almost all of our untutored beliefs about the world is significantly and saliently wrong. Our instincts which have served us so well for so long are now seriously out-of-date.

We believe the world is flat; that the sun, the moon, the planets and stars revolve around the earth; that we live in a zero-sum world (in which if you have more it must be because someone has less); that too many people is a bad thing; that resources are limited and exhaustible; that only what is seen matters, not the unseen; that only the immediate effects of an action matter, not what’s in the distant future; that only intended consequences obtain, not the unintended; that for society to function it must be planned; that trusting strangers is dangerous; that competitive aggression is better than cooperation; etc.

All of that is not so anymore.

Our hard-wired instincts need to be over-ridden through changes in our software. That change in software is done through education (broadly understood.) We can learn to over-ride our instincts.

We humans are general purpose machines. (We are ‘machines’ is only a manner of speaking. We are organisms, not machines. There’s a distinction that we need to make.) We can learn to do anything we please provided we put in the time and effort.

None of us born a physicist or a cellist or a farmer or any of the hundreds of thousand of different specialized workers we do become. The hardware of our brains is essentially the same; only the software loaded to run on the hardware makes the difference.

Here’s problem, though. The wrong software can be loaded, so to speak. People can be — and usually are — taught the wrong thing. When that happens, we believe in all sorts of kooky, stupid ideas. Once the wrong software is in place, it’s very hard to re-program the system.

The government education system, often deliberately and with malice aforethought, messes up the software. Why? Because it benefits those in government. This problem has been investigated by generations of social scientists and they have discovered solutions.

Let’s find out how the world works first. Then we will get an handle on why the world is the way it is.


Here’s a bit that I wrote elsewhere which is worth repeating.

We have come a long way in the short time of 250 years (relative to the past 300 thousand years or even 10 thousand years). Life expectancy at birth used to be less than 30 years; now it is above 70 years for the vast majority of people across the world.

Every measure of human flourishing — child mortality, morbidity, health, education, housing, entertainment, travel, comfort — have improved at an accelerating pace in just the recent past. Not just that, standards of civility and morality have improved beyond anything that anyone would have imagined just a few centuries ago.

To cut a very long story short, let’s just say that life for all (to a first approximation) of human existence has been inescapable horror. It’s never been a picnic in the park. Even in our most trying personal circumstances we should remember to be thankful that we were born in the modern world, and not the ancient world.

Recognizing that life is vastly and immeasurably better than it used to be even in the relatively recent past is not to say that life is heavenly now. For sure things can be better. Being used to constant improvements we have come to expect advances in the material condition of humans. But those advances are neither certain nor are they inevitable. Why is that so?

The Questions

There are important questions that we need to investigate. What exactly is the cause of material poverty? Who is a poor person actually? What is the way out of poverty? What are the necessary conditions for poverty? What are the sufficient conditions for poverty? Why was poverty so prevalent in the past and not so in the present? Will there come a time when there will be no material poverty in the world? Will there be a time when there will be no poor people in the world? Poverty and poor are related but not the same concept.



Author: Atanu Dey


6 thoughts on “Our out-of-date Instincts”

  1. “To cut a very long story short, let’s just say that life for all (to a first approximation) of human existence has been inescapable horror.”

    From today’s viewpoint, it may seem that life in the middle ages or cave-dwelling-days was inescapable horror. But maybe our ancestors considered their life as tolerable/intolerable as we find our lives today. They felt hopeful enough to reproduce and rear their children. Had they been entirely hopeless, they would have committed mass suicide without procreating.

    1. baransam1:

      Life is hard. Not just for humans, it’s hard for all animals. All animals reproduce. That does not imply that they do that because they are satisfied with their lot and are hopeful about the future. The urge to reproduce is a biological drive genetically programmed, not a rational response to one’s present and future expected conditions.

      I will agree that people in the bygone days did have some consolations and accepted their lot as fine because they really did not have much else to compare their dire existence to. I really feel sorry for those who suffer poverty today — because they can see how much better their lives could be but it isn’t.

      1. Would this mean that the current generation doesn’t have the capacity for satisfaction that future, technologically advanced generations will have? I was thinking of satisfaction as something relative, rather than in absolute terms, but satisfaction might not be the term I’m looking for.

      2. Meet:

        This much is sure: that each future generation would have more knowledge than the previous generation because the future generation would have the accumulated knowledge of the previous generations and the new knowledge that was not there before. Therefore the future generations would be better able to meet their challenges and satisfy their wants both in absolute and in relative terms.

  2. Sir, We are repeatedly talking about life expectancy. But as per my understanding, long back there were many people who lived hundreds of years, right? Not only that in today’s world even if life expectancy has increased, are we living a happy and satisfied life? Probably because the resources available here are not enough or because we are not satisfied with that, we have started looking at other planets. This is what our forefathers were also doing, right? That is the reason why we have reached this level of comfort. It is true that, with the advent of technology things started evolving fast. But the process of evolution is there from the very beginning. Like Meet mentioned, since they were not aware of the comforts that will come in the future, they might not have felt that their life is detrimental. What is your thought on this?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: