In his essay The Kekule Problem, the author Cormac McCarthy poses a question: what if language, instead of being the natural byproduct of evolution, is something more akin to a virus? What if nature didn’t put the human brain on an inexorable march toward the acquisition of language, but language suddenly infected our brain, forcing it to adapt in a manner similar to our immune systems when confronted by an exotic pathogen? McCarthy asserts that many of the problems plaguing the human psyche – the disconnect between the conscious and subconscious minds, the inability to adequately grasp abstractions – is due to a state of discord as two competing modes of communication try to influence the thought process: feeling and intuition in the style of our human and non-human ancestors, and words in the form of spoken language. Though language occupies the prime real estate of our brains, we haven’t had language long enough that our brains are comfortable using it.
In a broader context, McCarthy is referring to something that is well-known by scientists, philosophers, and intellectuals of many disciplines: that human beings are not very well-evolved. Sure, since the days of a few hundred individuals roaming the plains of East Africa we’ve increased our population by the billions, colonized every landmass, and outcompeted every species who could have posed a threat to us. By those standards, Homo sapiens is a wildly successful species. Our brains alone are more complex and sophisticated than any living thing anywhere, ever. However, newer and more complex isn’t always better – just ask the owner of a German car the first time they have to take it in for service. Sharks have been on this planet since before trees existed. In the intervening hundreds of millions of years they’ve changed little, and never while being at risk of destroying their planet. It’s a fallacy for people to believe that human beings represent the pinnacle of evolution and will cease evolving.
If anything, Homo sapiens is in a nascent phase of its evolution. The hallmarks of a transitory being are all there: vestigial organs, atavistic hereditary diseases, and a psyche fractured between the coarse instincts of animalkind and the high reason of mankind.
Human beings crave connection and affection with other human beings, but find their love-drive at odds with their selfish natures. People seek knowledge to improve their lot in life, but in attaining knowledge they bring themselves nearer to what I ironically call “the eldritch truth”. The more people know about themselves and the world around them, the more they are forced to confront the things that emerge from the shadows. The first monster that creeps from the shadows, upon learning how large and how old the universe actually is: the knowledge that human beings are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and individual persons even less so. Hitler may have killed millions, but the mountain of corpses he left behind looks quaint compared to that left by smallpox which, in turn, will be dwarfed by the eventual death of our sun. The second great monster is that free will is, for all intents and purposes, an illusion. Everything was decided in the moment that initial cosmic burst brought our reality into existence. There was never a reality in which you weren’t born, you didn’t cheat on your wife, that coin flip came up as heads, or that one as tails. Everything was preordained when one cluster of particles was set on a collision course with another. The third great monster is the knowledge that, however rational you may think you are, you are beholden to atavistic instincts, often in subtle and indirect ways. You can’t help but feel a pang of jealousy when your wife starts spending time with a younger, more attractive coworker and will attempt to rationalize this feeling by claiming that she is ungrateful for your attention. You will recoil from a water snake even with the full knowledge that the creature is harmless. You have been programmed by society and biology. With enough perseverance you can sometimes deprogram yourself from the effects of former, but never the latter.
The fourth monster is knowledge of death. Human beings are alone in the animal kingdom in their understanding of this abstraction, and that knowledge is a perpetual source of dread. Knowledge of death forces us to anguish over choices, none of them good. Stay with your husband in a boring marriage or take a risk on that attractive coworker? You only have one life, your time is finite, so don’t fuck it up. Study hard, save money, and invest in your future, or enjoy the sensuous life and expose yourself to ruin down the road? Either way, you only have one life, your time is finite, so don’t fuck it up. Beget children to extend your existence past your death – at least for the sliver of time before you are forgotten and the DNA you passed down has been diluted with that of many others – or enjoy a life free of obligations and responsibilities? You only have one life, your… well, you get the point.
Human beings are, by and large, egotistical creatures. We do possess a sense of empathy, and an instinct for sociability, that can create the impression of synchronicity with another person. The vast majority of our existence, however, is spent entirely in our own heads, limited to what our senses can perceive and the way our brain interprets those impressions. Only by comparing our private, inner experiences to those of other people’s can we relate to them, though the understanding is largely academic. We are solipsistic by nature and, as the centers of our own universes, the idea of death is horrifying. Our own existence is the only thing of which we’ve ever been certain. The knowledge of that existence coming to an end is akin to our own, personal apocalypse, inevitable and growing larger on the horizon every day. Millions would prefer an eternity of torment if it meant they could continue existing. Every human being struggles with the idea of a universe without them.
Once an obscure figure known only to educated Nihilists and Philosophical Pessimists, the Norwegian philosopher Peter Zapffe has enjoyed a small resurgence in recent years due to horror writer Thomas Ligotti and the HBO series True Detective. In his essay The Last Messiah, Zapffe outlined the four ways the human mind copes with knowledge of mortality in order to keep it from spiraling into depression and Nihilism:
- Isolation, “a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling”. Essentially, “turn off the news, it’s too depressing,” or, “don’t tell me about that, I don’t want to know.”
- Anchoring, a “fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness,” a defense mechanism in which a person will find meaning by assigning disproportionate importance to concepts like god, country, community, ethnicity, culture etc.
- Distraction, the mechanism by which, “one limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impressions.” This process serves to suppress traumatic thoughts by keeping the mind occupied with television, books, sex, drugs, music etc.
- Sublimation, when people lessen the impact of negative thoughts by reconstructing them in a sanitized, downgraded, or comical way. For example, making a joke about the Holocaust, or including a graphic rape scene in a movie so that it may be viewed from an aesthetic, rather than personal, perspective.
The mechanisms Zapffe described all serve the same purpose: to suppress human consciousness to the very point that it will avoid contemplating the eldritch truths. Not exactly characteristic of an organism that has reached the peak of its evolution. Right now, human beings occupy a tier in their evolutionary history where they possess an excess of intelligence relative to their emotional capacity to handle the truths illuminated by that intelligence. Our psyche is at war with itself.
So, where does that lead us going forward? What is the man and woman of a million years from now going to look like, once evolution has taken its course and we’ve had more time to grow into our brains? Honestly, I have no idea. I’m not an evolutionary biologist, and even they would balk at answering so ambitious a question. But I do have plenty of speculation, and I will say with some certainty: it probably isn’t going anywhere good.
Scientific advancement has lessened the impact of two of the major factors in natural selection: athleticism and disease resistance. Of course, neither of these traits will go away as significant factors in natural selection. That would be impossible without imagining some kind of post-human, post-singularity society. Evolution, however, deals with large numbers over long periods of time, and as these traits take on less importance it will strengthen the expression of other traits in the gene pool. As physical strength becomes a less viable strategy for securing resources, it will lose some of its allure as a desirable trait for a mate. Other traits will begin to express themselves with greater frequency as the most successful breeders will be those favoring intelligence and sociability. There simply isn’t as much incentive to fight well, run far, or move quickly as there once was.
Disease resistance, often communicated to potential mates through smell and other subconscious cues, has long been the most important evolutionary trait. It doesn’t matter how athletic, or clever, or good with people you are once the plague comes knocking. Scientific advancement, however, may be eroding the importance of disease resistance as an evolutionary imperative.
Take the West African Ebola outbreak of 2013 – 2016. The three countries where the outbreak was most severe – Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea – had an estimated 11,000 casualties. The combined populations of those three countries is about 24 million, meaning that the virus killed about .04% of the population. It’s a testament to modern methods of disease management – in three countries with some of the worst health infrastructure in the world, no less – that an epidemic of a deadly hemorrhagic fever killed less than half of one percent of the population.
Contrast the recent Ebola outbreak to epidemics past. It was common that a community might suffer twenty, forty, or even sixty percent casualties from contact with a new disease. What began as a human tragedy, however, became an evolutionary triumph. Most survivors owed their life to a natural resistance against the disease. They would pass that trait onto their children and, within a few generations, nearly everyone in the community would have a hereditary resistance to the killer that decimated their forebears. The next time the disease cycled through their area, casualties would be few and far between. Two centuries ago, Native Americans succumbed by the millions to European diseases; today, there’s practically no difference between the immune systems of a Native American man in Colorado and his white European neighbor. Modern medical practices are disrupting this process and – making the big assumption that medicine will continue to progress at a rate similar to that of the last two centuries – resistance to infectious disease will become increasingly irrelevant as a mechanism of natural selection.
So what will humans become in a post-disease, post-hunting, post-foraging, post-warfare society? If the ability to secure resources remains the most powerful factor in sexual selection, and money is the most important resource, then it follows that intelligence and social status will be disproportionately important drivers of sexual selection.
That bodes poorly for humanity, precisely because intelligence isn’t good for us. The smarter we get, the louder the eldritch truths bang on the doors of consciousness. It’s no secret that intelligent people suffer from neurosis, anxieties, doubts, and low fertility rates. Imagine an entire society too smart to anchor their beliefs in gods and nations, and too depressed to work toward the survival of future generations. The way I see it, there are four outcomes to intelligence becoming the dominant force in sexual selection, listed here from most to least likely:
- The bad outcome: People become so intelligent that they throw in the towel, too traumatized by exposure to the eldritch truths to care about the continuation of the species.
- The worst outcome: The same scenario as above, only people continue to reproduce. After all, being miserable hasn’t stopped people from breeding yet, and evolution cares only for the happiness of its creations insofar as it affects their ability to propagate.
- The pointless outcome: As evolving intelligence pushes people further into depression and hopelessness, only the stupid will breed, or stupidity will come to be considered a desirable trait for maintaining emotional health. Overall intelligence will decrease and stabilize at the present level (or thereabouts). Over millennia, the pendulum will swing back and forth with little overall change to human consciousness.
- The good outcome: Humanity will continue to grow more intelligent, but will coevolve emotional systems to cope with the consequences of so much sapience. Even someone who grasps the eldritch truths can be happy if their brain chemistry is telling them they are happy.
Of course, this theory hinges on the assumption that technology will continue to mitigate the greatest of our existential threats, and there will be no unexpected environmental changes steering our evolution into uncharted waters. Either way, if there’s anything to take away from this amateur augury, it’s this: nature doesn’t care if we’re happy. Nature designed us with certain biological cravings, made us feel pain and discomfort if we ignored those claxons, and motivated us with the temporary cessation of pain should we satisfy those cravings. You’re miserable because you’re supposed to be.
So, take solace in the fact that you are not alone in your despondency. Your unhappiness isn’t the symptom of a defective spirit, a lack of gratitude for life’s gifts, or any other nonsense invented to shame you into complacency with the isolators, anchorers, distractors, and sublimators of the world. As a human being, you are evolutionarily programmed to suffer – and it won’t get better for us any time soon.
Links to the people/media mentioned in this rant:
Cormac McCarthy, The Kekule Problem: http://nautil.us/issue/47/consciousness/the-kekul-problem
Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race: https://www.amazon.com/Conspiracy-against-Human-Race-Contrivance/dp/0984480277/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1498514172&sr=8-1&keywords=the+conspiracy+against+the+human+race
Peter Zapffe, The Last Messiah: Out of print and unavailable