Our egalitarian feelings were forged in the Stone Age. But the cave man ethos is not always appropriate in the context of the modern world.
Thus, the feelings that go along with that tribal interdependency—including envy—are “hardwired.” And we’ve not had enough time in civilization to rewire them. “Natural selection, the process that designed our brain,” write Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, “takes a long time to design a circuit of any complexity. The time it takes to build circuits that are suited to a given environment is so slow it is hard to even imagine—it’s like a stone being sculpted by wind-blown sand. Even relatively simple changes can take tens of thousands of years.”
There are three primary egalitarian emotions—envy, guilt, and indignation. I call these the “Stone Age Trinity.” These three are connected as facets of the same socio-biological function. To get a better sense of this connection, let’s break them down as follows:
- If in comparing myself to you I find you have more, I may feel envy.
- If in comparing myself to you I find you have less, I may feel guilt.
- If in comparing someone to you I find you have more, I may feel indignation.
For Paleolithic Man, this was not just some errant feeling. It provided the basis for survival logic in a mostly zero-sum world.
As a commune grows, free-rider problems infect the labor pool.
.. the rules, mores, and dispositions ideal for living in civilizations could be very different from the rules, mores, and dispositions for surviving in Paleolithic clans.
Any human emotion can become destructive by degree. Economist Young Back Choi thinks that envy is particularly destructive because it “is man’s desire to eliminate others’ relative gains even if he would become absolutely worse off in the process.” We see this in the original Ultimatum game. And we see it in the brutal consequences of Stalin and Mao ..
Understood this way, envy, despite its evolutionary rationale, does not seem very sane .. “’Only those societies that have been able to develop sufficient means to mitigate the destructive forces of envy have been able to build civilizations and prosper. Anthropologists have documented that two of the most distinguishing features of poor societies are the relative free expression of envy and the universal fear of envy on the part of those who come to have above-average gains.”
Envy can creep into both our politics and our personal lives. So also can envy’s sister emotions, guilt and indignation. All three are facets of a brain that was sculpted by millennia in a mostly zero-sum environment. But now we can live in a positive-sum world.