There's a Problem with Our Desires
Humans want a lot of different things—food, sex, NFTs, emotional validation, the Cuisinart Belgian Waffle Maker from Williams Sonoma, etc. You’d think it would be impossible to identify any pattern to this cacophony of desires.
But you would be wrong. There is one pattern, and it’s a problem. A big problem.
Here’s a list of things we want and don’t want. See if you can spot the pattern:
We don’t just want to make money; we want to make more money than our neighbors.
We don’t just want a job; want to have a more prestigious job than our peers.
We don’t just want people to like us; we want people to like us more than they like other people.
We don’t just want to be educated; we want to have better educational credentials than our competitors on the job market.
We don’t just want to belong to a group; we want our group to be better than other groups.
We don’t just want to have opinions; we want to have more interesting opinions than other people.
We don’t just want to be attractive; we want to be more attractive than our rivals.
We don’t just want to be a good person; we want to be holier than thou.
We don’t just want to help the environment; we want to be greener than thou.
Did you spot the pattern? Of course you did. It’s the unflattering way our desires work. We’re constantly comparing ourselves to the people around us, and we’re never quite satisfied until we’re just a little bit better than, or better off than, they are. This isn’t true of all our desires (sometimes, we’re just thirsty and want a glass of water), but it’s true of a large percentage of them—dare I say most of them. The majority of our time and energy is consumed by small-minded social competition, and we really hate to admit this. Our need to cover it up is, perhaps, the greatest source of human bullshit.
Why are our desires secretly like this? Because natural selection, the thing that made our desires, is an icky, competitive process. Animals compete with members of their species for genetic representation in future generations. They do this by competing for physical stuff (like food and territory), social stuff (like friends and mates), and the capacity to get social and physical stuff (like status and power). The competition rages over thousands of generations, and the winners leave more descendants than the losers. We are descendants of the winners, and we have inherited their winning characteristics, including their desire to win—and to conceal that desire from themselves and others (in order to win).
“But David,” you say, “What about cooperation, empathy, and love? Don’t we want what’s best for our families and communities?”
Yes, but that doesn’t change the fact that natural selection is an icky, competitive process. We still want our families and communities to get more stuff than other families and other communities. That’s part of what it means to love someone: to care about them more than other people—to be willing to hurt other people to help them if necessary. Wherever cooperation evolves, it merely pushes the competition up to a higher level; it doesn’t make it go away. When single cells first banded together to form organisms, it didn’t lead to a universal Gaia; it led to competition between organisms. When organisms first banded together to form groups, it didn’t lead to world peace; it led to competition between groups.
If we are referring to natural selection, then something must be selected over something else. Most evolutionary biologists think of the “something” as a gene and the “something else” as an alternative gene. But you can also think of the “something” as an animal and its family (who are likely to share the gene). Or, if you want to get more controversial, you can think of the “something” as a group of animals whose Darwinian fate is intertwined.
But as soon as you posit a “something”, you must also posit a “something else”—other genes, other members of the species, other families, other groups. It is the ongoing competition between the “something” and the “something else” that defines what natural selection is. When the “something” reliably outcompetes the “something else”, that’s what we mean when we say it was “selected for”.
The reason our desires exist is because our ancestors, who had them, reliably got more stuff than their rivals, who didn’t have them. That means our desires must have somehow caused our ancestors to get more stuff than their rivals. How did our desires cause our ancestors to get more stuff than their rivals? In all likelihood, by motivating them to do that. Maybe there’s a way for a desire to get selected for without motivating us to do that—like, say, the desire to drink water when thirsty. But when it comes to the social world, where we spend most of our lives, our desires pretty much have to be competitive. That’s their reason for existing.
Here's the problem. It never ends. Our secretly icky desires cannot all be fulfilled. We cannot give everyone what they want if what they want is to be better than, or better off than, other people. Our desires simply don’t fit together. We will never all get along. Utopia is either unachievable, because most of our desires are in conflict, or undesirable, because nobody wants to be happy. We’re all running as fast as we can, and we’re going nowhere.
This is the tragedy of the human condition. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel, no satisfying resolution to the human drama—like, say, happiness for everyone, or an end to social hierarchy. We’re just going to keep jockeying for status and resources until we obliterate ourselves or go extinct. It sucks.
What sucks even more is that no one (to my knowledge) has even identified this as a problem, much less thought about how to solve it. It’s not even on anyone’s radar.
So, uh… what are we going to do about this? Any ideas?
(Click here for the sequel to this post, in which I give my idea.)
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