Sunday, September 24, 2017

Thoughts on Envy, Greed, and Evolution

Envy and greed. They are words with different meanings but they also both play varying roles in our perception of fairness and justice, particularly when it comes to things like finances.

Most people tend to feel that the super-rich have “too much” (material wealth, power, etc.) and that it’s unfair. Many think that those who have something to give are obliged to give it (this is even reflected in numerous religions). We are taught to share from a very early age and people who don’t share are typically shunned and attacked. These feelings seem to be rooted deep within and such moral outrage can pop up at just about time.

Envy is defined by Google as “a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else's possessions, qualities, or luck;” and “desire to have a quality, possession, or other desirable attribute belonging to (someone else).” The evolutionary advantage of envy is theorized to be that it aided in our efforts to achieve and gain more. It helped spur us on as a species.

Greed is defined as “intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food.” Greed is typically viewed as envy gone wrong, but it too played a role in our development and in that complex feeling of “unfairness” we so often experience.

My hypothesis (I say “my” but I doubt I’m the first to have the idea, however, it came to me recently during a 2 am internal dialogue) is that this unpleasant sensation, bordering on righteous anger, caused by the feeling of unfairness is an evolutionary throw back to when we lived more communally and depended on others more directly for our own survival.

While it’s true our modern world has never been more connected and interdependent, the distance between where your food comes from and your table has never been greater. Additionally, we rarely engage in trade or bartering without the same medium of exchange: cash (or some variation thereof). We can get food, shelter, entertainment, find mates, etc. from a vast number of places, but the labor we engage in to acquire those things is often completely unrelated to what it is we're tying to get. A plumber has little directly to do with growing food and a farmer has little to do with film making. This means that there are fewer direct and deep interrelationships on matters of survival than there had been in the past.

We experience “unfairness” whenever we see someone with too much (however subjective that may be). Be it too much money, power, land, food, too large a home, too much anything. Our higher reasoning and thinking skills seem to be placed on hold as we grumble to ourselves or amongst a group how that person doesn’t deserve what they have and why they should give much of it away. 
After all, there are certainly plenty of people in the world who have far less (often including ourselves). But I’m not so sure this feeling is a simple matter of immaturity or naked greed on our part; although, that is undoubtedly part of the puzzel.

I am starting to think that the fundamental reason why we feel that way, and feel it so reflexively at that, is because it is our brain telling us something doesn’t seem right (fair) with the situation. A part of our brain that evolved thousands of years ago when the world in which we lived was very different.

To help illustrate what I’m talking about, I will turn to the animal kingdom.

Scene from A Bug's Life, Disney, 1998.


Ants, as we all know, work and live communally. Despite being small, ants have a hierarchy and a fairly complicated system of communication and social structure. This structure only works when each member of an internal group (foragers, for example) does their job and shares their knowledge, gains, or other labors with the group. No one ant can amass a huge collection of leaves to eat. And even their “queen” dedicates her entire existence to the continuation of the colony.

Moving up the food chain, we encounter lions. Lions hunt together and then share their kill with the dominant male (who helps protect everyone but doesn't hunt), their cubs, and other members of the group (which may be subsets of the larger lion pride). As with ants, it's not really possible for individuals to get portions larger than most. The group structure and nature of their existence doesn't lend itself to that easily.

Finally, we come to primates. There are 16 families and around 200 individual species of primates around the world, all with different behaviors and social structures, so a simplistic and broad comparison to humans can be difficult. Instead of looking at all of them, I will mention a few that share behaviors most people associate with only humans, such as warfare (one was documented to last 4 years!). 

Even in primate species* that engage in more extreme behaviors like war, raids, and even murder - chimps, red-tail monkeys, apes, etc.- sharing the spoils of war with the group (even among those that didn't participate) still remains a core function that enables the group to survive. 

(*I'd like to point out that primates aren't the only group of animals that engage in killing.)

I am not trying to suggest that, absent humans, nature would exist as some perfectly balanced, Hippie love-fest. That concept is an entirely man-made fiction. "Natural life" is a never ending parade of horrors with brief moments of calm thrown in randomly. But I am trying to build the case (without writing an actual paper), that cooperation and sharing is fundamental to the development of any society (something that is well proven) and that our feelings of injustice towards those with far greater resources is at least partially rooted in our deep past. 

Abundance is rare in nature and it was rare for most of human history. Regular surpluses of food only became possible with the advent of agriculture. Modern humans have been around for 180,000 to 200,000 years. On the other hand,the ability to control food supplies via cultivation was only developed 11,000 years ago - meaning that for ~95% of our history, abundance wasn't really possible without someone stealing from others. 

It makes sense that we would still retain emotional echoes of that long history.

The moral of the story, if there is one here, isn't that we should all live communally and do away with private property. The essence of free markets and capitalism (despite not being formally a "thing" until a few centuries ago) has enabled us to go from subsistence farming and hunting and gathering, to a world that grows 2-3 times the needed amount of food to feed everyone. 

Plato said that many of the injustices we face were those imposed on our own souls by things like anger, fear, lust, and actual envy. We should overcome those and thus no longer be subjected to such injustices of our own creation.

That essence, the fundamental drive toward self preservation and improvement, gave us pretty much everything that wasn't already here when the world began. And I mean everything. The moral is that instead of lashing out and rioting in the streets, perhaps we should recognize that oftentimes this urge to indignation is an emotional relic. Greed, hoarding, theft, these things do exist. However, economics teaches us that the "pie" isn't limited; your not having an apple isn't because I have one.

Being the bigger brained, generally self-controlled primates that we are, perhaps we should stretch that self-control a little more to this arena. 

--Jacob Bogle, 9/23/2017

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