Explore this conundrum with me…
Physically, evolution happens at a snaily pace, but according to evolutionary psychology, our behaviour can become adaptive to the environment we inhabit as an inter-generational gift. For instance, lower levels of Extroversion and Openness to experience have been observed in people residing in regions that have higher historical tendencies for transmittable diseases.* Your personality traits are somewhat learned, somewhat inherited, consistent qualities that you take with you throughout your frolicsome journey across the shiny Earth-ball. Whilst your learning never ceases these traits are thought to remain a fairly static construct.
Now, before any of you head down introspection street and wish for an overhaul of your mental motor, don’t. Every trait balance has its strengths and you’re perfect, yep, you are a snowflake, but you’re a fucking tough one! We’re all steel snowflakes that shoot out flames of passion and creation as we carve our paths through history, okay?
No negative self-talk today people.
But, as our physicality slowly morphs and our behaviour continues to adapt to our lifestyles, the travelator picks up the pace beneath our feet. Cultural evolution takes place at a much faster pace than our creaturely rate of change. The environment evolves as cultures emerge and slowly change over time through teaching, observation and imitation. The nature of our world can evolve and change within a lifetime, yet we as beasties take generations to effect change. Can our world leave us behind, rendered obsolete and bleeping for an overdue update?
Let’s summon a guy to walk this line for us, we’ll call him Tony.
Tony as a beast aims to produce as many offspring as possible across his lifespan. Already there is a bit of a disparity between biology and culture here. We’ve surpassed the roam-and-ravage days of high-turnover and little romance. Proponents of Freud would say that Tony still lives with this raging beast in his belly, but that Tony’s ego and super-ego have teamed up to dress up that womanising wolf to pass as a friend-zone-able lamb, so that Tony doesn’t get stoned in the town square. But, I’m not here to talk about Freud, or what may be lingering of the paleo libido.. hear me out.
A recent walk through evolutionary psychology as part of a personality psychology course brought me to this thought-provoking conundrum.
A personality profile that may have been socially desirable and predicted to precede success in the past can be passed down, only to become outdated. Let’s look back at Tony’s Dad in his prime. He’s a stereotypical (blockbuster movie-like) successful business Man. We’re talking baggy suit, slicked-back hair, red convertible, loudly barking orders to a subordinate on a massive cell phone. He uses dominance to overpower people and he kicks fluffy kittens in the street, you know the type.
Perhaps all the Papa figures before Tony lead their families and ran businesses with a heavy fist. They are all remembered as cigar toting, rambunctious tycoons of their times. Through an elegant waltz of inheritance and observation, Tony is now embodying their legacy upon his square shoulders.
But, Tony’s time is different to his father’s time.
It’s an age of tech-informed enlightenment where the little people’s voices can congregate and be heard. It’s a time when it’s increasingly not Okay to under-represent and under-appreciate the feminine, the meek, and the struggling marginalised. Tony’s built-in constructs are becoming an outdated framework. In the end, if Tony keeps rubbing life up the wrong way, chances are lower for this Man-animal to dazzle the ladies and make the babies, which lowers the number of dominating boof-heads to progress to the next-gen.
But hang on a sec..
If our traits are effectively a long-range genetic hone-in of what would make us most successful in our environment, why aren’t we all perfected by now? And, why aren’t we all the same? A guy called Robert Plomin has delved into the deep blue of the adaptive nature of personality. Plomin (’81) suggests there is a complex higher-order form of natural selection at play, whereby genetic variability is preferred. The idea is that individuals with intermediate values of traits (not extreme values) are preferred by natural selection, and as multiple genes are involved in such trait expressions. This results in variability between individuals being favoured and strengthened over time. Another way to word this is, that people extremely high in any one trait are usually harder to put up with and less likely to make stacks of babies. Apparently, everyone loves a bitzer!
Plus, we’ve all been fine tuned for a slightly different reality of course.
Evolutionary Psychology is just one perspective of personality, but if this all has some traction, your personality traits may be in part genetically coded to make you fine-tuned to cope with your environment. A mixed result of the beast that you are combined with a response to the daily reality that your parents endured and the one that you were born into. Have a ponder about that and comment below on what that means for you.
What are your thoughts on the disparity between a fast-moving cultural evolution vs the slower pace of biological evolution? For my Author friends, the concept would make a nice philosophical obstacle-dilemma within a story narrative or a great under-tow.
Read, write, share, repeat!
Thanks for reading! Happy writing!
Want to jump down the rabbit hole? Check out this lecture by Stanford University’s firecracker professor Robert Sapolsky. There are many more full lectures from Stanford just like that one to be found on YouTube.
* Download a copy of the study mentioned at the start of this post, about lower levels of Openness and Extroversion in regions with a history of transmittable diseases.
The disclaimer! While this post describes just one perspective of personality, I don’t believe any stand-alone theory can explain or predict our behaviour or tendencies, it’s a deeply complex process to create something as wonderful as you are. But, the effects of our biology on who we are is both undeniable and fascinating, and well worth the time to ponder. As for Tony, it doesn’t really need to be said, but not all guys are “Tonys”, not all “Tonys” are bad guys.. and even bad guys deserve hugs.
If anything in this post has triggered any concerns for you, please reach out to your doctor for guidance.