If you reduce the life of the planet into an hour on the clock, then the only living things that are alive in the first 45 minutes or so are all single celled organisms. Mammals didn’t come into existence until the last 10 minutes, and human beings did not walk the planet until the last half second. If you also reduce the time that the human race had existed on this planet to an hour, the modern man (people who had invented agriculture and no longer need to hunt and gather food) won’t appear on the clock until the last second.

Yes, our existence is bleak, brief and insignificant in comparison to the grand scheme of things. As homo sapiens sapiens, we spent 99 percent of our time on this planet in jungles and on the African safari living in the caves, hunting and gathering foods for survival. Our brains and bodies are clearly evolved through natural selection in environments very different from that of our cave-dwelling ancestors. How do and how can the ways in which our ancestors lived in these harsh environments shape the way we think and behave? Those are the questions that evolutionary psychologists try to answer.

Many people are offended, annoyed, or even pissed off when I talk about Darwin’s theory of evolution. They get even more put off when I talk evolutionary psychology and attempt to explain why we have the tendency to behave certain ways, and how these inclinations are “hard-wired” into our brains through a process known as natural selection.

For instance, girls often feel as if I am looking for an excuse for men when I tell them that there is a explanation, a biological explanation as to why their boyfriends cheated on them. Or, that I am devaluing life and its meaning by saying that the only reason for our existence is to pass on our genes to the next generation in order to continue the survival of the species.

This is a typical conversation that I have with people.

F: Do you know why you like sex so much?
B: Why?
F: Because you are programmed to like sex by evolution. You are maximizing your reproductive success by putting all that sperm to good use.
B: ….That’s absurd. I wasn’t thinking about making babies…I have sex because it feels good.

Yeah “feeling good” is the proximate reason why people have sex, but that’s not the ultimate reason. The ultimate reason is to pass on your genes by procreation.
There’s a big misconception going on here – a confusion of discrepancy between the ultimate causation/motivation and the proximate causation/motivation as to why we do the things we do and why we naturally find certain things attractive and enjoyable.

From the “proximate causation” perspective (the way entities work here and now) our lives are full of purposes and meanings, along with our motivations, desires, goals, and decisions which are largely conscious. This is also the motivation and desire felt by humans in real time. The proximate causation of wanting to be with another person of the opposite sex is because of “love”. The proximate causation of sex is because we are horny and that it feels good. The proximate reason as to why we like chocolate is hungry and that it tastes good.

From the “ultimate causation” perspective (why and how something is evolved by natural selection), humans are here on earth for two (ultimate) reasons : To survive and to reproduce. (Actually, I should state that our lives have only ONE meaning, and that is to procreate and pass on our genes. The reason why we would want to survive in the first place is so that we can have offspring. But to do so, we must first keep ourselves well and alive).

Therefore, the ultimate motivation for sex is the continuation of the species, and the ultimate inclination for eating certain foods is because our bodies need to be nourished in order for us to survive long and well enough to procreate and to take care of our offspring. But keep in mind that ultimate motivations are largely unconscious. We want to have sex because it feels good and because we like our partners (proximate motivation driven by memes); however we don’t always consciously think about or want to have an offspring (ultimate motivation driven by genes and natural selection). But we get sexually turned on anyway when we are watching porn, fantasizing about sex alone, or when we are with our partners because natural selection built a brain that seeks sexual pleasure. This is so our genes can “unconsciously” and “automatically” pass themselves on to the next generations, using our bodies as carriers or vessels for their transmissions.

The mistake people make when they attempt to attack evolutionary psychology, and the reason why people tend to disagree with me when I say stuff like “life has no meaning”, “the only purpose to life is to make babies”, or “he is cheating on you because he wants to spread his genes” is due to the confusion between “proximate” and “ultimate” causations/motivations. I am merely speaking from the “ultimate” perspective, when in their minds, they are thinking of the “proximate” causations to our inclinations. Yes, life does have a meaning besides reproduction from the “proximate” perspective. But from the “ultimate” perspective, the only “purposes” to life are reproduction and survival.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most basic humanistic tendencies and inclinations, as I will try to explain the “ultimate” reasons for these behaviors and motivations for these “hard-wired” traits.

Why do we like candy and (other sweets)?

Everyone likes to eat sweets. Even newborn babies who were never “taught” to enjoy sugars have a natural tendency for sweets. And the proximate reason is because they taste good. But ultimately it is because sugars are high in calories, and that foods that are calorie packed were beneficial to our survival when we were hunters and gatherers that lived in caves millions of years ago. Our sweet tooth is an evolved sugar/calorie detector, and that it is wired into our bodies and brains so that we would seek after and be inclined to ingest foods that are high in energy/calories. There’s nothing INTRINSICALLY sweet about sugars or chocolates.

Candies and fruits are made up of molecules and glucose that are not in themselves “sweet”. You can put glucose under the microscope and observe it all day, and still see nothing “sweet” about them because they are just molecules. You have to look inside our brains in order to understand why sugar tastes sweet. We are genetically hard-wired to enjoy sweets because we have evolved brain modules that intrinsically seek after sugar and high energy foods.

Our ancestors who didn’t have these mutated brain modules didn’t prefer sugar as much as those who did. They probably starved because they did not have the inclination to eat foods that were high in calories. They probably weren’t very healthy either because they weren’t ingesting high energy foods or didn’t live long enough to procreate enough children to spread the population with. In other words, our cave dwelling ancestors who liked sugars had more children than those who did not like sugars as much, and those of our ancestors who survived harsh environments to reproduce were the ones who liked sugar. And for this reason, all of us who are alive today enjoy fast foods and sugars because our ancestors who were equipped with a sweet tooth passed on their “sweet tooth gene” to all future generations, and so on.

One thing to keep in mind is that the “proximate” motivations is a product of memes – information transmitted to people through culture, and that “ultimate” motivations are evolved by natural selection and genetic and evolutionary basis. Culture evolves much faster (about a million times) than the evolution of genes and of biology. It takes a few breaths for information or ideas to be transmitted from one mind to the next, but the long and awkward sequence of random genetic variation sifted by natural selection takes generations. The discrepancy and mismatch between the way our world is and the way our brains and biology is structured is called the evolutionary lag. It takes tens of thousands of years for our genes to catch up with our culture and the way the world is.

Evolutionary gap is, I suspect, the root and source of most of our suffering and discontent in the modern age. For instance, many marriages fail because in the grand scope of things, marriage and the dating scene are still a recent cultural phenomenon (a meme, or the results of several memes combined). Our bodies and brains never really got used to the idea of marriage and the restrictions that come with it, as our sexual lust (something that had a Darwinian survival value), still has not diminished, so that we still fantasize and commit adultery when we are not supposed to do so. As humans (especially men) we still have the unconscious desire to spread our genes and have as many offspring as possible by having as many sexual partners as possible. But from a cultural perspective, this is not acceptable, and our urges are inevitably suppressed.

We became fat because of our sweet tooth – something that was well-adapted millions of years ago in the jungles where foods were scarce. But in today’s world where food is cheap and overly abundant, our “sweet tooth” is working against us and we are eating ourselves to obesity. We are just not “hard-wired” to resist these foods and it takes substantial mental power and effort to pry ourselves away from them because we are still living with brains and bodies that were equipped for the way lives were for our cave dwelling ancestors living 50 thousand years ago. Unfortunately (in a sense), our world today is totally different from the world that was suitable and adaptable for our ancestors. Maybe 50 thousand years from now we might evolve to resist sugars and fats, or that we might stop fantasizing about committing adultery, but who knows where our cultures might take us? Our bodies and our biology can never catch on to the speed of our culture’s progression. The environment we live in now is vastly and radically different from the one which we are naturally selected for 99 percent of our history. There will always be a mismatch between what our bodies want to do and how our cultures want us to behave. In other words, we will always be miserable because our natural urges will always be suppressed.

Why do we find babies cute?

It’s hard to find people who dislike babies. Girls especially enjoy the company of toddlers and small children. Why is this? “Proximately”, we like babies because they are cute. But we find babies cute not because they are objectively or intrinsically cute in and of themselves. Babies are cute because those early humans who had the evolved and mutated brain modules to find babies cute were those who were most likely to be successful at raising them. So “ultimately”, we think babies are cute because it is important for the continuation of our species. Mothers aren’t turned off by messy diapers and almost all of us find cuteness in babies because babies have evolved mechanisms (big eyes, fat cheeks, and etc) to attract the affection of adults in order to be protected, nurtured, and loved. And we in turn had evolved brain mechanisms and perceptions to find these features “attractive”. If human babies have 12 eyes and floppy asses that hangs to their ankles, then we would have had evolved perceptions and brain modules that find these features “cute”.

In other words, our ancestors who have the genetic mutation to acquire brain modules that find cuteness in babies are going to spend a lot more time with their babies, looking after them, nurturing them, and playing with them, than those of our ancestors who don’t find babies attractive and cute. Over millions of years of evolution, parents who find babies cute are more likely to have babies who turn out to be better adjusted, educated, and nurtured than parents who did not find their babies cute. These well nurtured babies are more likely to find better mates and produce babies on their own that are also well nurtured and adjusted and that they are more likely to live healthier and survive longer than the offspring of mothers who didn’t find their babies cute. Over time, the population of the nurtured babies (babies with mothers that find them cute) will outnumber the ones who were not well nurtured (offspring with mothers who did not find them cute).

Why do we find certain people attractive?

Again, there is nothing intrinsically beautiful about people who we find sexy. Like chocolate cakes and candies that are made out of glucose and molecules that are not so sweet, we are nothing but combinations and arrangements of atoms, molecules, cells, and tissues that are not so sexy. Again, our brains are wired up to find certain people attractive because our brains have a ‘beauty detector” that sought after beauty cues such as broad shoulders, muscles, high cheek bones, wide jaws on men, and big eyes, small jaws, big breasts and wide hips on women. These are beauty cues and signs for genetic fitness. Our ancestors who had preferences for sexy people had offspring who were probably healthier, more adjusted, and genetically “stronger” than our ancestors who mated with the people that didn’t have these traits. Those of our ancestors who didn’t enjoy looking at sexy people simply didn’t have enough sex to pass on their genes to the next generations!

This is how Darwinian evolution works. Natural selection programmed us to have brain modules to find certain things “attractive”, or be inclined to behave a certain way. We don’t think certain people are sexy, babies are cute, and that chocolates are sweet because they are objectively or intrinsically so. The process of natural selection over millions of years favored those of our ancestors and their children who found these things attractive and enjoyable, and these characteristics became widely distributed in the population.