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  • Dr. Mike Brooks

Survival Over Truth: Evolution's Deceptive Design


Welcome back, my fellow connectors! I encourage you to begin this journey with my first blog in the series — it’s a doozy called Finding Greater Peace and Joy in Our Crazy World. I promised to tie things together in ways both familiar and surprising to you. However, I think it will be a really entertaining journey, so please join me for it.


As part of an even bigger story arc, there is my personal journey in all of this. I hope to get around to that eventually, because it does connect me to this moment now, the passion that I have for this topic, and the work that I am doing. However, telling the whole backstory would sidetrack us from the more important story arc.


For now, let’s just say my scientific and spiritual sides have often been at odds. At times, it has felt like there was a war within me. In somewhat of a minor miracle though, my scientific and spiritual sides have quit battling one another and made peace. I really doubted that I’d ever live to see the day, but here I am!


Now that my spiritual and scientific sides are at peace, I see connections with a clarity and conviction that I just can’t ignore. I believe this inner peace has freed up my brain to see things differently than ever before. I believe this inner peace has been fertile ground for my recent wave of epiphanies, satoris (spiritual awakenings), and new ideas.


I am compelled to write about these new connections as we’re about to dive deep. However, first we need to set the stage because everything connects. This article serves as another stepping stone in my series exploring the synchronicity of science and spirituality in our modern world.


Previously Covered in This Series: The Pursuit of Truth Requires Flexibility

We’ve been exploring truth, and I’ll summarize where we are now in case you don’t have time to catch up.

·         We need truth to light our way on the journey of life as we try to navigate this complicated world of modernity.

·         Technology is a change accelerant. We are both “terraforming” and “technoforming” our world.

·         The technology of artificial intelligence, AI, is like “change on steroids.” This extremely powerful and versatile technology will continue to evolve and proliferate quickly.

·         Our biological evolution cannot keep pace with technological evolution.

·         Our world of modernity is very discrepant from that of our evolutionary ancestors.

·         We must be flexible or, as Bruce Lee said, “be water,” so that we can adapt to the rapid, complex challenges of modernity.

·         Given that our world is changing more rapidly than ever, we must be more flexible than ever to pursue truth so we can skillfully navigate the dynamic, unfolding challenges of this world.


We Did Not Evolve to See Truth

Lt. Daniel Kaffee: “I want the truth!”

Col. Nathan Jessep: “You can’t handle the truth!”— From the movie, “A Few Good Men”


We have a bit of a paradox on our hands. If being adaptive is so crucial for us to survive and thrive, why is it often so hard to see the truth clearly? Even those earnestly seeking the truth can’t agree on much and argue about almost anything imaginable. Even if we agreed on what “truth” is, the reasons we can’t see it clearly are many and beyond the scope of this blog series. For example, psychologists have identified scores of cognitive biases that distort our perceptions of reality and affect our decision-making and behavior. Why do we have senses and brains that deceive us? Why would our own mind hide the truth?


“Against our will, our souls are cut off from truth.” — Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations”


One of the reasons that we have difficulties with perceiving truth, with seeing reality, has to do with the purpose of truth. Truth isn’t desirous for its own sake. It serves a higher purpose. The purpose of truth is rooted in our evolutionary history. Truth is about survival itself.


We’ve got this built-in drive to survive because, well, that’s how evolution shaped us. If it hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here! We share this drive to survive with all living creatures, including plants. For instance, as we know, plants need sunlight to survive and thrive. If a sun-hungry tree or plant germinates within a shaded area, it will grow toward the light. It doesn’t “choose” to do that. It is a built-in mechanism. It is fundamental to its very existence.


Similarly, humans, like all mammals, have a fight-flight-freeze instinct to help us avoid various dangers, especially predators, so that we may live another day. We have the desire to be safe and healthy, and we want this for our children and loved ones as well. This is inherent, and it has to be this way in order for us to survive as a species.


So, if survival is the goal, how does happiness fit in? From this perspective, happiness can be viewed as an evolutionary payoff for meeting our physiological and psychological needs effectively. Thus, we are biologically motivated to pursue happiness, including both pleasure and contentment, because it enhances our chances of survival to do so.


Viewing Reality Through an Evolutionary Lens

Through the lens of evolution, not knowing what’s true or real could actually be a matter of life or death. In this way, for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, what was “true” in the world were the things that them survive. As Harvard cognitive psychologist Dr. Steven Pinker noted in How the Mind Works, “Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life and death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness.” Our ancestors needed to be able to discriminate friend from foe, healthy from unhealthy, and safe from dangerous (e.g., “It is good to eat this and bad to eat that.”). In this sense, accurate discernment was a good thing because it meant distinguishing safe (e.g., eating a portabella mushroom) from unsafe (e.g., eating a deathcap mushroom).


In addition, in order to survive, it was critical for our ancestors to learn to make predictions based on available information (e.g., If I hide long enough by this water hole, I will likely be able to kill game for dinner!). Not knowing, or uncertainty, would often spark the curiosity to explore, discover, and learn (e.g., “I wonder if there could be food or water over this hill? Let me check…”). In other situations, uncertainty would elicit anxiety or fear so that we would know to avoid potential danger. (e.g., “It’s dark, and something is making strange noises over there in the bushes. I’d better get away from it!”).


So how does our brain manage all these predictions and uncertainties in a way that sets us up for survival? Enter prediction-error learning. Prediction-error learning motivates us to move from uncertainty to certainty because that’s key for survival. In simple terms, prediction-error learning is our brain’s way of course-correcting. It kicks in when there’s a mismatch between what we expect and what actually happens, nudging us to update our beliefs or strategies for the better.


In this way, prediction-error learning is our brain’s way of doing Bayesian reasoning (i.e., updating probabilities based upon new evidence) on autopilot. It is a process of updating our beliefs in real-time as we gather more information, helping us navigate the challenges of life. This is another way in which our brains were “wired” to help us learn from our experiences in order to help us survive.


Don’t Let Truth Get in the Way of Survival

Our ancestors didn’t need to see the world for what it really was. They just needed to know enough to help them survive. For example, the Earth looks flat. It looks like the Sun rises in the sky and is a relatively small object. Our eyes (or our brains) deceive us though. Even though the Earth appears flat and the Sun seems small and close, science tells us the opposite is true.


Moreover, our sense organs only help us perceive a tiny fraction of all of the information available to us within our environment. We evolved to perceive what we need to for survival. Other animals have senses that are fine-tuned to their survival needs, like the bloodhound’s sense of smell or the eagle’s keen eyesight. Yet, different/heightened senses evolved within those organisms because it helped them to survive/flourish within their respective environments.


Likewise, our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t need quantum physics to survive — just basic Newtonian physics was enough. For instance, they needed to understand that falling off of a cliff would be bad. They didn’t need to understand concepts like Schrödinger’s Cat , which could be simultaneously alive and dead in a quantum universe. Rather, they just needed to know if the cat could hurt them…or was edible.


On the other hand, we’ve all had moments where our “gut feelings,” our instincts, guided us. For instance, we have all probably had a gut feeling to take a different route home or avoid a suspicious person. The accuracy of these feelings wasn’t important. What mattered was the possibility they could help us dodge danger. These instinctual judgments are deeply embedded in our psyche. They are remnants from our ancestors whose survival often depended on snap decisions rather than a comprehensive understanding of the truth.


As cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman describes in The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth From Our Eyesfitness beats reality. That is, survival is more important than the truth. So, through natural selection, perceptual and cognitive distortions of reality naturally emerge when it helps the organism survive and reproduce. In essence, as Hoffman argues, our brains were molded by natural selection to be effective survival machines rather than objective interpreters of reality. As a result, what we see, feel, or believe isn’t always aligned with the absolute truth, but often skewed in favor of what has historically helped us survive.


The Negativity Bias

One of the most telling examples of our survival instinct at work is the psychological principle known as the negativity bias. This cognitive “tilt” evolved to prioritize our survival over a clear and factual understanding of the world. Erring on the side of caution or even self-deception was often beneficial because it increased our odds of staying alive. Take, for instance, the experience of mistaking a long, thin vine for a snake while foraging for food. In this case, it’s safer to overreact and jump back. If it turns out to be just a vine, there’s no harm done. However, if we fail to react and it is a venomous snake, it could mean the end of us.


This principle also holds true for “stranger danger,” an important instinct for our ancestors. It is a survival mechanism to protect us from potential harms from predators or rival tribes. Meeting a stranger could result in death, perhaps even threatening one’s family or entire tribe. So, a heightened sense of fear, trepidation, and caution at the first encounter with unfamiliar beings or situations is an adaptive trait, leading us to err on the side of caution. In essence, our brains perform organic, automatic cost-benefit analyses to optimize our survival chances. While this may lead us to misperceive the level of threat, these perceptual errors are entirely understandable within the evolutionary framework.


The negativity bias doesn’t just influence how we perceive physical dangers; it also extends to our social interactions and our modern information landscape. For example, an insult tends to linger longer in our memory than praise, and a failed company presentation can haunt us more than a successful one uplifts us. This bias even affects our media consumption. We’re naturally drawn to negative news over positive stories, a tendency that’s been exacerbated by the 24-hour news cycle, the internet, and social media.


Our inherent negativity bias has a ripple effect that distorts not just our personal experiences but our collective understanding of the world. It creates another cognitive bias called the availability bias, which skews our perceptions of reality. The news is biased toward negativity because of the negativity bias, and our overconsumption of this negative news makes us think that events like abductions, shootings, and other tragedies are more common than they actually are.


This pervasive power of bad influences not only our individual behavior but also entire systems like media, which thrives on human attention steered by our negativity bias. This leads the majority of us in affluent countries to internalize a generally pessimistic view of the world and our future. Moreover, it affects our emotional well-being as we are more fearful of bad events happening than the actual data warrant.


Default Mode Network

Understanding the power and reach of the negativity bias lays the groundwork for delving into another neurological phenomenon that also plays a major role in our lives: the default mode network. Far from being idle, our brains are actually quite active when we are at rest. Researchers, including Harvard social psychologist Daniel Gilbert, have found that parts of our brains serve as experience simulators, a concept popularized in Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness and his TED Talk. This unique capability allows our brains to project us into possible futures or revisit the past to test hypotheses, make sense of patterns, and even simulate potential dangers. The activities within the DMN are aimed at ensuring success and survival within our ancestral environments.


The DMN operates largely in the background and works unconsciously. Thus, the term “default mode” is an apt description. Due to our innate negativity bias, our thoughts often gravitate toward identifying and resolving possible threats to our well-being. This was incredibly advantageous in our ancestral environments. The DMN helped us develop tools and language, discover fire, and advance beyond our hunter-gatherer origins.


Importantly, the DMN isn’t solely a problem-solving tool fixated on doom and gloom. It also enables creativity, self-reflection, and complex planning. However, in our modern world filled with novel challenges, the DMN sometimes misfires. Take rumination as an example. We might find ourselves endlessly mulling over a complicated work problem or relationship dilemma without finding a clear way forward. The mismatch between the problems our DMN evolved to solve and the complex issues we face today often results in counterproductive or even detrimental outcomes. It’s as if these complex problems of modernity get stuck whirling around as our brains try to solve unsolvable, negative koans (e.g., If I don’t check my phone, I’ll miss something important. But if I do check my phone, I’ll miss something important happening right in front of me).


And he puzzled and puzzled ‘till his puzzler was sore.” — The Grinch from Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”


The Takeaway?: Modernity Is Mismatch

Everything about humans — our physiological and psychological needs — are grounded in our evolutionary history. The mechanisms that once helped us survive and thrive are now sometimes at odds with our modern circumstances. We never evolved to see truth, but only the realities that helped us to survive within ancestral environments.


As part of this evolutionary process, we developed a negativity bias. It is rooted in the hundreds of thousands of years we spent in nomadic, hunter-gatherer tribes. Although it served us well in those ancestral environments, it’s less suited for the complexities and challenges of modern society. Our brains, crafted for a very different world, often struggle to skillfully navigate the problems of modernity. This discrepancy between our evolved traits and our current surroundings is a critical concept known as evolutionary mismatch.


We see the strains of evolutionary mismatch on both individual and societal levels. This fascinating topic, with its profound and far-reaching implications, will be the focus of our next article. Please join me as we go deeper down the rabbit hole. Things are about to get REALLY interesting!

 

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