The Model: the origins of your emotions and emotional system

September 16, 2011 by Joshua
in Blog, Evolutionary Psychology, Nature

[This post is part of a series on The Model — my model for the human emotional system designed for use in leadership, self-awareness, and general purpose professional and personal development — which I find the most effective and valuable foundation for understanding yourself and others and improving your life. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Know thyself.

As with every system to improve your life I know, I consider knowing yourself fundamental. Today’s post shows how recent science — evolutionary psychology — lets us know ourselves better than any humans could before. Evolution tells us our roots beyond our childhood another billion years. Learning about our ancestors and relatives lets us understand why and how our bodies and all our emotions came to exist.

As great as ancient thinkers and philosophers like, say, Aristotle, Buddha, and Lao Tzu were, they didn’t have the perspective that only came about after Darwin. And even Darwin didn’t know about genetics, game theory, and other twentieth and twenty-first century discoveries that show how life on earth interrelates and evolves.

I don’t think I’m being melodramatic to say we live in one of the first times we can meaningfully advance our understanding of ourselves in the past few thousand years. Those ancients covered so much, few could advance past them. To advance past what they wrote you need information they didn’t have, which science brought.

The point of this blog is to apply those advances to improve our lives.

Why do we have emotions? Insects seem successful scurrying around apparently without emotions, just reflex. The question sounds simple. The answer helps you understand yourself more than you’d expect. If you know why you have them, you can manage them better, to bring about more of what you want, like happiness and other rewarding emotions.

Consider an ancestor of ours back when our emotional system was evolving into place. When, precisely? It’s hard to say, since dogs and cats seem to have some sort of emotions and our lines diverged from theirs hundreds of millions of years ago. So let’s consider when our emotions started diverging from our closest relatives, a few million years ago.

Now think of that ancestor in his environment (arbitrarily choosing a male ancestor). He needs to eat and protect himself. Compared to his predators and prey, though he has some physical advantages, like thumbs that can grasp tools, he has more significant physical disadvantages. He has no claws or sharp teeth. He can’t run as fast as many. He has no venom or camouflage. He isn’t big like lions and hippopotamuses, who can beat him in a fight, nor small like mice, who can hide. He has nowhere near the strength of a bear. He doesn’t even have fur to keep warm.

In short, he is physically vulnerable.

Yet in the last few tens of thousands of years — incredibly fast in evolutionary time scales — current evidence says our ancestors went from a group of a few thousand — an endangered species! — to populating every part of the planet that can support them.

How do we reconcile such incredible evolutionary success (so far… who knows what the future will bring?) with an ancestor so physically incapable?

Our ancestors’ behavior gave our ancestors their advantage. Their behavior meant they lived in social groups, so they didn’t face predators and prey alone. They also mastered complex behavior and could outwit their better-armed opponents.

While behavior gave the advantage, behavior depends on the environment. Evolution selects what we inherit and we inherited the emotions motivating the behavior. Our genes encode the wiring that gives our emotions. Complex and social behavior comes from complex and social emotions.

That emotions functioned critically imply the first property of our emotional system — that it will be consistent and reliable. Evolution makes functional traits consistent, weeding out what doesn’t work. Non-functional things like, say, eye color, which, as far as I know, doesn’t play an evolutionary role, vary widely. Irises can be blue, brown, green, black… But something functional, like the shape of an eye or an eardrum, evolution finds ways to make very consistent. Even bad eyesight comes from very small deviations from ideal, implying our genes get eyes right consistently. Eardrums are incredibly precise and nature gets them right almost every time.

Next: characteristics of emotions


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1 response to “The Model: the origins of your emotions and emotional system

  1. Pingback: Joshua Spodek » The Model: behavior in more depth

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