I get this question a lot, about whether humans are still evolving. It often goes like this…”If natural selection were real, why have we not lost our wisdom teeth, or our appendix, as a species. If we no longer need it, why is it still there? Shouldn’t evolution take care of them and cause them to no longer be physically formed in our bodies?”
Well, there’s some truth to that, for we indeed could get along just fine without either of these. However, the big consideration is whether their absence would be beneficial.
Evolution is the idea that good traits are rewarded, and bad traits are punished. Well, it’s not that evolution is rewarding and punishing, it is life that does that. It’s in the cosmos.
Allow me to elaborate…
When good traits (strong bones, clever hunting ability, etc.) allow individuals to successfully reach reproductive age, and then create more offspring than those with, say, weaker bones, or deficient hunting skills, the genes responsible for those good traits get passed on to the next generation. And then if that generation also performs well, the cycle continues on and on. And then eventually, as they are passed on more and more, because they make their “owners” more successful at breeding, these genes and traits flow through the population.
The opposite happens with bad traits. When diseases and afflictions strike down individuals, such that they don’t make it to reproductive age and cannot reproduce, the genes that are responsible remain a small percentage of the population, because they don’t spread to future generations. They don’t get passed down, because their “owners” don’t reproduce.
The idea of natural selection shaped our living world that eventually gave rise to us. We were born out of natural selection and evolution just like whales, dogs, dinosaurs, and yes, apes. However, the basic laws of natural selection, which state that a species tends to retains traits and genes that prove to be most successful in producing the next generation, and the next generation after that, tend to no longer apply quite so well to we humans. There seems to no longer be a “survival of the fittest” character to our society. But why? After all, we are all but products of our grandparents’ good genes that got them to have sex and reproduce, right? Doesn’t that make the case that things are status quo in the human evolution arena?
Well, yes, this is especially true with past generations, even recent ones, where having multiple kids was a necessity. They were needed to work on the land, help produce food, and ultimately assist in keeping the family members all alive. Thus, in this instance, the traditional rules of natural selection remain in place. When a farmer was especially good at growing food, he would expand his operation and get more land and have more kids (or perhaps the other way around). Thus, the human population was expanding disproportionately in the direction of more skilled and smarter people that were able to plan ahead to ensure frontier survival of his or her clan.
What is unmistakable in today’s world is that in developed nations, the most skilled (skilled by today’s standards) are not necessarily having more children than the average. In fact, many are having fewer. There seems to be no pattern to “survival of the fittest.” Those “fit” members of society, as society would deem today, are what we’d term the successful ones. Yes, sure, success comes in many forms, you've got to be happy, blah blah blah, but let’s just say those “with the most resources” is what we’d define as success in this case. In other words, those with the largest potential to create very large families. Just think how many children billionaires could easily bring through to adulthood/reproductive age given their resources. Technically there should be an innate desire to yield more offspring that correlates to the ability to do so. But not many billionaires have 1000 kids.
So, my point is not that there are no millionaires with large families. There are many…and there are examples at the other end of the spectrum and everywhere in between.
The point being, is that the system of natural selection is completely out of whack with humans. There is no longer a correlation between the ability to produce offspring and the actual number of offspring one has.
Those with the most resources and aptitude for many offspring are deliberately choosing not to in a seemingly maladaptive way. Shouldn’t there be some sort of intrinsic or subconscious need for us to continue to procreate intensely? Why would this fervor that all other animals exhibit have just dropped out of our species in favor of accruing more personal wealth, or selfishness, or greed, or whatever you want to explain it as.
Perhaps it is because this desire is still in us and it burns just as strongly as ever, we're just not looking at it the right way.
What I propose here is that there may be an underlying motivator even more basic than the desire to spread ones genes. Perhaps this motivator is the primitively subconscious reason why we want we want to propagate our species.
What if I told you that the desire to have offspring is not so much of a want to sire children, but more of an innate desire to live forever. It’s probably not that obscure of a thought, that intrinsically anything living wants to continue to live, in one way or another, as long as possible. And how does one live forever if we biologically cannot? Through their heritage. By very definition, heritage is defined as something handed down from the past, though generations. For the past many thousands of years we’ve accomplished this goal with our genes, by having children.
In theory, children will outlive the parent by a generation, and then have their own kids, creating a river of genes throughout the ages, causing those genes to live forever. But what if there is another way to leave a legacy in today’s modern society that satisfies our subconscious need to live forever. As many people are realizing, having excessive children (we’re talking, like 10+) is impractical in our very financially-based world.
But what if there was now another way to have a part of you live on and on and on – to create that legacy we may all be striving for. What if you could live forever via fame – by positioning your self to never be forgotten? What if one’s lasting impression on this earth, via history books, streets and football stadiums with your name on them, etc. etc., is just as rewarding, subconsciously, as the transfer of your genes to future generations.
Fame comes in a variety of shapes. To me, solving a grand scientific mystery, discovering a new world (colonial times), becoming a country’s president, or being a famous music star, are all kind of the same thing. They all get your name, and your family’s name, into a lasting legacy that will be written down, recorded, and remembered forever. Because of the genius you’ve created, your name…your legacy…will live forever. Perhaps this is on the same plane as our genes living on forever, which has up until recently, been best solved by having as many offspring as you can.
This now brings us to the quest for fame. It’s rather easy to see how being president of the US, a famous football player, or starting the next great tech company, would give you this fame. And perhaps that speaks to some of our best and brightests’ remarkable drive for achievement. It’s certainly not easy to get that type of fame. Perhaps in caveman days they would have been the ones to have had the most offspring due to their tenacity, smarts, and resourcefulness. Or, maybe today the skills needed to get famous have little to do with cave man abilities. It’s hard to say. The main point is that the drive for this type of achievement is still alive and well in us. We’ve just traded offspring for something that’s a bit more practical in today’s modern world – still perhaps seeking the underlying motivator all along…creating a legacy.
Here’s where it could get interesting.
So, what if you know you're never going to be president, nor interested in starting the world’s next greatest business, nor becoming the top quarterback of the NFL? You probably still have at least a little drive, don’t you? What if there were a way to become a little famous? Maybe not on the same scale as a president or world-famous athlete, but perhaps famous to a circle of friends, coworkers, or acquaintances.
In comes social media (I know…stay with me here).
Sure, maybe it’s only being famous amongst 122 of your peers, but for a day, you are the headline. This is a quantifiable unit of fame, getting you one step closer to a long-term legacy. If only briefly, you are indeed showing up just like the celebrities that are going to live forever. Perhaps social media is tapping into a very primordial subconscious need of ours, hence the almost worldwide universal participation (and obsession) with it.
Maybe you’re trying to become the next viral video star by performing a crazy stunt on camera. Or, maybe you settle for less, and just want to be famous by discovering that video first, and then sharing it with your peers, and you get a little secondhand credit (which is at least a little famous, isn’t it?). To get real nerdy here, I suppose second hand credit would be similar to having a fraction of your genes being passed onto the next generation (eg, aunts and uncles share 3/8s of their genes with their nieces and nephews and are known to go to great length to nurture, safeguard, and defend them).
You can see that the examples are virtually endless, as new ways to become famous via social media pop up. There is even now very reliable ways to make a living via social media, so you are becoming famous while also being practical. Perhaps this is the holy grail, which is why so many people are trying to create brands of themselves via hashtags, twitter accounts, et al.
Now yes, you’re probably thinking about the jump I made from famous presidents, athletes, and business founders, to social media “stars.” That IS definitely a jump. But my point is that maybe the subconscious reward we feel is not all that different, as long as it in some way “counts” towards our quest to pass along a heritage to future generations. At one time it was through siring offspring, now there are other ways that might tap into an even more fundamental goal.
As we often wonder, why the selfie stick, why the overindulgent social media use, why the need for all the fluff, perhaps we will now view them as just having a bit of that primordial instinct we all have, and have always had. Yes, it’s being expressed in a bit of a different way, of course. But, I suppose you could say that these new generations are just trying to live forever, and adapting to the tools of today.