THE EVOLUTION OF DESPAIR
A new field of science examines the mismatch between our genetic makeup and the modern world, looking for the source of our pervasive sense of discontent.
By Robert Wright
[I] attribute the social and psychological problems of modern society to the fact that society requires people to live under conditions radically different from those under which the human race evolved ...
There's a little bit of the unabomber in most of us. We may not share his approach to airing a grievance, but the grievance itself feels familiar. In the recently released excerpts of his still unpublished 35,000-word essay, the serial bomber complains that the modern world, for all its technological marvels, can be an uncomfortable, "unfulfilling" place to live. It makes us behave in ways "remote from the natural pattern of human behavior." Amen. VCRs and microwave ovens have their virtues, but in the everyday course of our highly efficient lives, there are times when something seems deeply amiss. Whether burdened by an overwhelming flurry of daily commitments or stifled by a sense of social isolation (or, oddly, both); whether mired for hours in a sense of life's pointlessness or beset for days by unresolved anxiety; whether deprived by long workweeks from quality time with offspring or drowning in quantity time with them--whatever the source of stress, we at times get the feeling that modern life isn't what we were designed for.
And it isn't. The human mind--our emotions, our wants, our needs--evolved in an environment lacking, for example, cellular phones. And, for that matter, regular phones, telegraphs and even hieroglyphs--and cars, railroads and chariots. This much is fairly obvious and, indeed, is a theme going back at least to Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents. But the analysis rarely gets past the obvious; when it does, it sometimes veers toward the dubious. Freud's ideas about the evolutionary history of our species are now considered--to put it charitably--dated. He hypothesized, for example, that our ancestors lived in a "primal horde" run by an autocratic male until one day a bunch of his sons rose up, murdered him and ate his flesh--a rebellion that not only miraculously inaugurated religion but somehow left a residue of guilt in all subsequent descendants, including us. Any questions?
A small but growing group of scholars--evolutionary psychologists--are trying to do better. With a method less fanciful than Freud's, they're beginning to sketch the contours of the human mind as designed by natural selection. Some of them even anticipate the coming of a field called "mismatch theory," which would study maladies resulting from contrasts between the modern environment and the "ancestral environment," the one we were designed for. There's no shortage of such maladies to study. Rates of depression have been doubling in some industrial countries roughly every 10 years. Suicide is the third most common cause of death among young adults in North America, after car wrecks and homicides. Fifteen percent of Americans have had a clinical anxiety disorder. And, pathological, even murderous alienation is a hallmark of our time. In that sense, the Unabomber is Exhibit A in his own argument.
Evolutionary psychology is a long way from explaining all this with precision, but it is already shedding enough light to challenge some conventional wisdom. It suggests, for example, that the conservative nostalgia for the nuclear family of the 1950s is in some ways misguided--that the household of Ozzie and Harriet is hardly a "natural" and healthful living arrangement, especially for wives. Moreover, the bygone American life-styles that do look fairly natural in light of evolutionary psychology appear to have been eroded largely by capitalism--another challenge to conservative orthodoxy. Perhaps the biggest surprise from evolutionary…