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Self-Knowledge • Behaviours

How Badly Adapted We Are to Life on Earth

We’re used to singing the praises of the human mind and body: these are, from many perspectives, truly astonishing pieces of engineering. We have brains capable of doing fractal equations, translating Finnish into Bengali and performing La Traviata – and bodies that can scale the Matterhorn, send balls over a tennis net at 263kph and create new life that can last up to a century. And yet for all that, we should admit how questionably designed we actually are in many areas, if only to forgive ourselves for the mess and sadness we typically generate. It’s not simply our fault; the machines we’re trying to live through are riddled with flaws.

We are the outcome of evolutionary processes that have left less than ideally adapted to most of our tasks. Our anatomy is filled with redundant or vestigial organs. We have no need for our coccyx, the last part of our vertebrae that is the remnant of the tail that now gives us backache and growing pains. Nor do we have any use for our wisdom teeth, male nipples or appendices.

Comparable vestigial problems exist in the mind. Our suffering is the consequence of our astonishingly sensitive and complicated brains (capable of working out the velocity of Saturn and detecting the tiniest nuance in a sonata in c major) left to struggle with the humdrum realities of existence. We bring an intense quest for order, logic, harmony and beauty to bear on the drudgery, muddle and chaos of our daily lives. We are over-engineered apes humming with directionless static nervous energy. It should be no wonder that most us don’t sleep too well.

To list the problems further:

– Our wiring is massively and awkwardly over-sensitive to our personal pasts. Most of us still haven’t dealt with our childhoods in old age.

– We tend to be very and unhelpfully mean about who we are. We’re far kinder to most of our enemies than we are to ourselves – largely because we internalise methods of self-judgement that are modelled on some of our own meanest judges from our stubborn histories.

– We’re very bad at thinking: we panic easily, we resist important thoughts, we long for distraction and are squeamish interpreters of ourselves. We have a devilishly hard time working out what job we might do, how we might tap into the best of ourselves and what is truly driving us.

– We get wildly over-alarmed about some threats while ignoring others, especially the threat of not appreciating what we have while there is still time. We can’t correctly assess the real dangers or spot the opportunity costs. We are always more worried about wasting money than time.

– We worry far too much about the consequences of others’ views of us: we behave as if we still dwelt in small tribes where every piece of gossip could actually matter and waste years improving our image in the minds of strangers who don’t care about us in the least.

– We exaggerate our chances of happiness – and suffer from bitter disappointed hopes as a result. We can’t gracefully accept just how likely it is that we won’t be rich or won’t have happy marriages – and rail at the unfairness of our condition, which is in fact just the statistical norm.

– We are addictive creatures with short-term compulsions, especially for food, alcohol, pornography and sitting on sofas.

– We think of sex far too often, given the opportunities and our other priorities.

– And finally, of course, we are entirely biased towards being unhappy. Very little in our biology is interested in us being content. There was clearly an early evolutionary advantage in being fretful and easily triggered: the others got eaten. The machine we live within would rather we were worried 99% of the time rather than lived in a relaxed way and fell prey to a tiger. So we let finest days pass without appreciation. We can’t – naturally – ever ‘live in the moment’, a ludicrous and inadvertently cruel phrase.

In order to deal with our troublesome ill-adapted bodies, we invented medicine, nutrition and exercise. To help us cope with our equally wonky minds, we need to lean just as heavily on philosophy, therapy and psychology.

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