To be fully human in the 21st century is to celebrate the fact that we are an expression of a multi-billion-year process of creativity, that we are related to all life, and that our Great Work is ensuring a just and thriving future for Earth and its gloriously diverse species. Practically speaking, it is also to recognize and honor the fact that we have mismatched instincts and that we are surrounded by supernormal allurements.
There now exists a worldwide consensus within the scientific community about the nature and history of the cosmos—from the subatomic realm out to the edges of the visible universe. We are astonished by the grandeur and majesty of our common creation story—the epic of evolution, also known as Big History, or the Great Story.
Thanks to a fully evidential worldview, a profoundly intimate relationship with our inner and outer nature is now possible. We begin to catch a glimpse of the awesome role of the human in the universe process. For with us, the universe brought into existence a creature by which it can begin to know—to reflect on—its vastness, its beauty, its amazing journey, and to consciously participate in its continuing evolution.
To be fully human in the 21st century is to welcome an awareness that we didn’t come into this world, we grew out from it—in the same way an apple grows out from an apple tree. This move, from seeing ourselves as separate beings placed on Earth (“the world was made for us”) to seeing ourselves as a self-reflective expression of Earth (“we were made for the world”), is an immense transformation in human identity.
A look at our inner nature, and the challenges of living in a modern world, reveal that science offers a no-less-empowering worldview shift.
Science has done much to help us understand the world around us, but until recently there was no evidenced-based understanding of the world within. Ignorance of our inherited drives has been one of the greatest causes of suffering throughout human history—individually and collectively.
Every religion offers beliefs about our inner workings. But until recently, we had no measurable knowledge about how our minds and emotions actually work—what drives us, and why? What we have learned, through a wide range of evidence, is that the powerful biological instincts we inherited are ‘mismatched’ for the supercharged environments we have created.
Within us are instincts molded by millions of years of evolution to have us think and behave in ways that certainly benefitted our ancestors. Indeed, all of us alive today owe our existence to those very same instincts. But what have they done for us lately? To be blunt, they’ve made many of us fat, some addicted, and most of us in denial about how we are impacting the planet.
Our instincts can hardly be faulted. We are surrounded by supernormal allurements: processed foods, feel-good drugs and alcohol, internet porn, and media sources that are no longer tethered to reality. Our ancestors faced none of these challenges.
Our ways of getting news, interacting with friends, and dealing with enemies have been altered beyond recognition by modern technologies. Our opportunities for indulging romantic or sexual urges would be unrecognizable even to our great-grandparents.
The cultural contexts have changed enormously—but our brains and bodies have not. We still have the same fears and desires as our ancestors, but now those instincts are out of sync with life conditions.
Compounding the problem is that we’ve all inherited exquisite skills for self-deception. The human brain not only distorts perception and memory; it then uses its extraordinary powers to rationalize or justify the distortion. In essence, our brain regularly tricks us—and then masterfully hides the evidence!
Consider: Prior to microscopes, it wasn’t just difficult to understand infection; it was impossible. Prior to telescopes, it was impossible to understand the universe. The same is true of our inner world. Without an evolutionary grasp of why our instincts and emotions are the way they are, it isn’t just difficult to wisely choose and live our priorities in this fast-paced, modern world. It’s effectively impossible.
Our long history of living in primitive conditions and in small tribal groups did not give us instincts or equip us to deal with the supernormal allurements surrounding us today.
Especially for the young, trying to master one’s animal urges without first learning why they evolved, and without appreciating the purposes they once served, is like trying to figure out why your car is running poorly when you’ve never been taught what’s going on under the hood.
As Edward O. Wilson has written, "We exist in a bizarre combination of Stone Age emotions, medieval beliefs, and god-like technology."
We cannot, of course, change our instincts—but we can change how we relate to them, how we manage them. Thanks to the evolutionary sciences, we now can understand our instincts and finally face our challenges with a measure of lightness and compassion and with practical tools that actually work.
The process begins with distinguishing fault from responsibility. We can thereby free ourselves of the burden of guilt, shame, and self-condemnation from choices we’ve made in the past, while stepping up to the responsibility to fashion a better future.
We can feel our heart expanding in gratitude, generosity, and compassion for self and others—and our inner state will not only match but strengthen the ways in which we already are serving our community and the world.
Published on 14 July 2012