Darwin the Cynic
What does “cynicism” mean? According to google, it means:
“An inclination to believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest.”
Hm. So does that make me a cynical person? Are you reading a cynical blog?
Sure seems like it. I’ve argued that debates about the “meaning of life” are intellectual pissing contests, the “pursuit of happiness” is an excuse for narcissism and crass consumerism, and ideologies are patchworks of bullshit devoid of any moral principles. Yikes.
But I’m not a cynic—not exactly. Self-interest isn’t our only motive. We also care about our children. And our siblings and our parents and our extended families. Also, we care about our groups—the various sides we take and factions we join.
So I’m not a cynic per se. I’m a Darwinian cynic. I believe people are motivated purely by self-interest, family-interest, and group-interest. No other motives exist because no other motives can survive the Darwinian process.
Consider the evolution of self-interest. A gene for thirst causes its carriers to avoid dehydration, which leads to more copies of the gene for thirst. A gene for status-seeking causes its carriers to get more status (and more access to resources and mates), which leads to more copies of the gene for status-seeking. Now think of the genes for hunger, lust, jealousy, anger, and territoriality: same deal. Genes spread when they increase the reproduction of their carriers relative to non-carriers.
Then there’s family-interest. A gene for nepotism causes its carriers to lavish resources on genetic relatives, who are especially likely to share a copy of the gene for nepotism. Such a gene will spread when the benefit to the nepotist’s kin, multiplied by the probability of them sharing the nepotistic gene, outweighs the cost to the nepotist. It’s a kind of Darwinian accounting.
Then there’s group-interest. A gene for loyalty causes its carriers to selectively help specific people—i.e., allies—who can be trusted to help the carrier in return. Such a gene will spread when the expected benefit of getting helped outweighs the cost of helping. The benefit of having allies back you up in conflicts, for example, outweighs the cost of occasionally backing up your allies. More Darwinian accounting.
But not everyone can be an ally of everyone. Being loyal to one side means spurning the other. And resources are limited, so when you and I get more stuff (like power and status), we’re taking it away from someone else. And fitness is relative—it’s about who’s out-reproducing whom—so when our fitness goes up, someone else’s goes down. Which means hurting our rivals and helping our allies go hand in hand. Ergo, tribalism.
So we have arrived at the unholy trinity of human nature: self-interest, family-interest, and group-interest.
People rarely object to the unholy trinity. You can see it all around you and throughout history. Where people object is when I tell them what motive is missing from the trinity: “making the world a better place.”
You know that motive, right? It’s the one about preaching #lovenothate, being the change you wish to see in the world, planting trees under whose shade you don’t expect to sit—all that good stuff. We love that motive. We talk about it all the time. We say our values promote human flourishing. We say our ideologies are designed to benefit everyone—not just our allies. We claim our purchasing habits, like non-plastic straws and ethically sourced kombucha, are saving the planet. Even our jobs, the things we explicitly do for money, are supposed to make the world a better place. We’re serving our communities. We’re bringing joy to people’s lives. Yea, that’s our main goal in life: generally making things better for everyone.
Unfortunately, it’s bullshit. Indiscriminate altruism, untainted by vanity, reciprocity, or partiality, cannot evolve. It just can’t. I’m sorry. Any altruism that wasn't laser-focused toward our families or our allies, or that wasn’t otherwise shrewdly calculated to increase our status, would be mercilessly selected against by evolution. Darwinian accounting is scrupulous: debts must be repaid, costs must be cut, investments must be recouped. The winds of time would strip away any wasteful beneficence to reveal a strategically selfish, nepotistic, and groupish core. Darwin said it best:
“Natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers...”
And here’s where Darwin comes out as a cynic:
“Some naturalists believe that many structures have been created for the sake of beauty, to delight man or the Creator… or for the sake of mere variety… Such doctrines, if true, would be absolutely fatal to my theory.”
- Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species
This is bad news for us. After all, our deeply held values (e.g., justice, honor, knowledge, equality, creativity, happiness, universal love) seem to exist “for the sake of beauty,” don’t they? They’re so inspiring! And they differ across cultures—a rich tapestry of values—all “for the sake of mere variety,” right? Even more troubling, we describe our values as if they were nobly designed to “delight man or the creator” (i.e., delight humanity or the world). These idealistic descriptions of ourselves, if true, would be “absolutely fatal” to Darwin’s theory. So we face a dilemma: we can either have our idealism—our beautiful variety of values—or we can have our Darwinism. I don’t know about you, but I’m going with Darwinism. Values are bullshit.
Now don’t get me wrong. We try very hard to appear as if we had beautiful values, lovingly designed to promote the greater good. Appearing this way (and appearing to not care about appearing this way) boosts our status. It increases the odds that others will favor us as allies or mates—a big win for our genes. So Darwin the cynic understands virtue signaling. That makes sense. He also understands unconscious virtue signaling, where people have no idea they’re virtue signaling (or even think they’re bravely opposing virtue signaling), to signal their virtue. That makes sense too. But the genuine article, the real McCoy—the impartial, unreciprocated, non-status-boosting sacrifice for the greater good—cannot evolve.
People really do not like this. They try to wriggle out of it in all sorts of frantic ways. They flail around and say things like, “Not everything was directly selected for by evolution! Some things arose by accident!”
And they’re technically right. Not everything is an adaptation. Optical illusions are an accident—a byproduct of the way our visual system evolved. For example, the two tables below look like they have different dimensions—a quirk of stereoscopic vision—even though they’re identical:
Unfortunately, this “happy accident” story hardly saves us from despair. Yes, it is possible to accidentally improve the world, as a kind of mistake, when we were actually just trying to help ourselves, our families, or our allies. How inspiring. Yes, we might occasionally improve the world in some totally random way—a result of a genetic mutation or something. How uplifting.
I’m afraid these are our only options, folks. There’s no way out. The theory of evolution forces us to adopt a more cynical view of human nature—a view that rules out any basic desire to make the world a better place. I call this more cynical view, which everyone should adopt because it is correct, Darwinian cynicism.
“But David,” you say, “what about the people who donate to charity anonymously? How do you explain them?”
Buried signaling. For a nosey species like ours, few things in this world are truly anonymous, and there’s at least some chance that an anonymous donation will be detected and gossiped about by at least some nosey people, at least eventually, if the donations are made repeatedly. Yes, anonymous donations are going to be noticed by far fewer people than public donations, but if donating anonymously gets you much more status among the people who do notice (“Wow, she donated anonymously—what a saint!”), then those extra status points could offset the costs of burying the signal, making it a good strategy overall (none of this has to occur consciously, of course). The fact that people look upon anonymous donors with awe and reverence, while quietly judging “showoff” donors as vain self-promoters, supports this theory. There really are extra status points to be gained here.
Perhaps you don’t buy it. That’s fine. But if you don’t, I invite you to come up with a better theory of anonymous giving that Darwin would find compelling. I guarantee you the exercise will steer you in a cynical direction.
“But David,” you say, “what about moral progress—the expanding circle? Doesn’t that show we have a genuine desire to make the world a better place?”
No, I’m afraid it doesn’t. You don’t need a desire for moral progress to get moral progress, any more than you need a desire for traffic to get traffic. Here are some of the best, cynically Darwinian explanations I’ve seen for moral progress:
It’s a side-effect of capitalism.
If you only sell stuff to members of your tribe, you’re not going to make as much money as someone who sells stuff to everyone. The same thing goes for consumers. If you only buy from your tribe, you’re going to get crappier stuff. Ditto for workers. If you only work for your tribe, you’ll get fewer job offers. And if you reward workers based on tribal loyalty, instead of productivity, you’ll get lower productivity, and less profit. That’s how all these WEIRD ideas about “meritocracy” and “treating people equally” emerged. They were self-interested strategies for buyers, sellers, workers, and employers. But once the capitalist pro-tip of “treating people equally” spread (and got written into the constitution), people started to look like hypocrites for not, you know, treating people equally. Low-status groups used the hypocrisy to rally people to their side in political conflicts.
In a market economy, status accrues to those who are most successful in providing desirable goods and services at affordable prices. So when low-status groups enter the labor market in greater numbers, they rise in status. For example, at the turn of the 20th century, women entered the labor market in greater numbers. Why? Because with the rise of automation, there was a decline in manual labor that advantaged humans with greater upper body strength and no uteruses (i.e., men), and a rise in other kinds of service-based labor that women were good at. Women’s status, accordingly, rose. They began to leverage their rising status to advance their self-interest, as humans are wont to do. No, they weren’t seeking moral progress for everyone: the suffragists excluded African Americans from protests and didn’t like the idea of black men voting.
It’s a side-effect of communication technologies (itself a side-effect of capitalism):
We didn’t evolve to estimate a group’s formidability based on census statistics; we evolved to estimate it based on how big and well-coordinated they look. To our stone-age brains, a marching minority looks bigger and stronger than it really is, as a percentage of the population. Transportation moves far-flung minorities into the same space to flex their muscles, and television transmits the image to everyone in the nation. When marginalized groups create the illusion of collective formidability, we no longer want to mess with them.
When tribes start to become equally powerful, or start to appear equally powerful due to mass media, it creates an intergroup stalemate, a kind of mutually assured destruction. Hot wars turn into cold wars. Cold wars turn into culture wars.
It’s a side-effect of democracy (itself a side-effect of capitalism)
When marginalized groups flex their muscles and win the right to vote, savvy politicians compete to attract their votes, and the coalition that recruits them gains political power. The partisans who find themselves in a political coalition with the marginalized groups start to look upon them with fondness. We like our allies—they’re on our team. So you get performative allyship and a decline of overt racism among whichever political coalition joins up with ethnic minorities. If that happens among cultural elites, who shape social norms, then you might get some new social norms about “political correctness” or “wokeness” or whatever you want to call it. And you might get a backlash to these norms among the elites’ political rivals (i.e., the working class “populists”).
This is all very interesting, but don’t miss the point: moral progress was an accident. In fact, it must have been it accident, because our motives were designed by natural selection, and a motive for “moral progress” makes no evolutionary sense. Which means we shouldn’t feel too proud of ourselves. We’re the same old primates we always were—selfish, nepotistic, and groupish. We have the same capacity for evil, and the same capacity to rationalize it, as our forebears.
“But David,” you say, eyes filled with innocence, “are you saying we should give up hope on humanity?”
Idealism? I think the answer is yes. Once we confront the unflattering nature of human nature, it’s hard not to be skeptical of those who say they want to make the world a better place. When people claim to have this goal, in any of its high-minded manifestations, we should raise an eyebrow. We should wonder whether their real goal is more selfish, nepotistic, or groupish than they let on.
This isn’t hard to do. We do it with corporations all the time. We don’t think Starbucks’ real goal is “to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, one neighborhood at a time.” That would be naïve. The real goal of Starbucks is more selfish—to maximize profit—which they have profit-driven reasons to conceal. When we try to predict what Starbucks is going to do next, we don’t think to ourselves, “Hm… what would most effectively inspire and nurture the human spirit?” No, we ask ourselves, “What’s going to make Starbucks the most money?”
Darwinism should cause us to view humans in a similar way. Humans have PR systems built into their brains, and they’re just like the ones Starbucks has. This means we cannot take what humans say about themselves at face value, any more than we can take what the Starbucks PR team says at face value.
Darwinian Cynicism Is Good
Presumably, you’re reading this blog to better understand reality—to see through the bullshit stories we tell ourselves. Well, the biggest bullshit story of all is that humans are special: we’re not mere animals, but something grander and otherworldly—something outside the bounds of evolution. This bullshit story helps us act like the worst kind of animals while seeing ourselves as angels. Just think of the most villainous groups in history—the most zealous Nazis, Maoists, inquisitors, and holy warriors. None of these groups saw themselves as apes vying for dominance. None of them reflected on their ugly, unconscious motives. In the theatre of their minds, they were valiant heroes waging war against the forces of darkness, ushering in a glorious utopia for mankind. They didn’t just think they were making the world a better place; they knew it. They felt it in their bones. We should be very, very troubled about this.
We talk a lot about the dangers of cynicism. But we almost never talk about the dangers of idealism. If you reflect on the history of bloodshed—the cracking of eggs for utopian omelettes, the revolutions that devour their children—the world will invert itself before your eyes. Morality is immoral. Idealism is cynical. Inspiration is depressing. Meaning is meaningless. What should terrify us most is not the lone cynic, but the mob, the movement, the higher purpose—the feeling of being part of “something larger than ourselves.”
Yes, there were some Machiavellian cynics who grabbed hold of the reigns of power. But those cynics would have never gained power without crowds of starry-eyed dreamers cheering them on. Cynics aren’t the problem. Solidarity, romanticism—the ecstasy of a glorious revolution that promises to purge the world of evil—that’s the problem. Idealism is the problem.
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