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Personality Research articles on personality

23Jan/112

Thoughts on The Selfish Gene, Bankers, Artists, and Evolution

The book the Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins has helped explain a lot of my cynicism to most human behavior.  The basic thesis is that individual genes* have one interest, survival, and this drives evolution (as well as all animal behavior). Humans are basically fancy packages which enable individual genes to survive from one generation to the next, gene donkeys if you will.

You will cease to exist but if you successfully reproduce, the genes you carry continue to exist.  Your child bears some resemblance to your unique gene mix, but every generation that dissipates (think 1/2*1/2*1/2...) till eventually your descendants are no more related to you than to anyone else.  Any individual genes that existed in you that survive however remain the same.  The idea of living on through reproduction only makes sense for individual genes, not people.  Current evolution benefits individual gene survival not individual human survival.

This idea that individual gene survival is the driver of evolution has a lot evidence behind it.  A certain species of spiders has a small percentage of females that decapitate males during copulation. Oddly, these killer females are more attractive to males.  Upon examining this oddity, researchers have found that decapitated males emit more semen, fertilizing more eggs, and thereby enabling more efficient reproduction.

This speaks to what scientists now understand about evolutionary biological mechanisms.   Whatever behavior increases reproductive fitness and efficiency is favored regardless of the interests of individual animals.  Worker bees are programmed to die to save the colony because as long as the colony survives, individual genes keep replicating, and thereby continue to survive.

Humans are not much different than suicidal worker bees.  People toil away their entire lives for what?  At best (for some people), to accumulate lots of resources so they can attract a mate, reproduce, invest in their offspring so they will be attractive and fit enough to reproduce again.  Individual genes reap the rewards of all this effort for they continue to survive, individual people don’t.  Human history provides a cultural immortality for a small number of individuals, but this is of no benefit for the majority of it’s entrants who have ceased to exist.

Humans are wired with reward systems that ensure most of us will do what it takes to continue to serve as reproduction machines for our resident individual genes.

These reward systems encourage behavior which will increase our reproductive fitness.   For the conventional male that means ideally being rich in physical attributes and material resources.  Conventional acquisition of material resources generally means being better/faster/smarter in the rat race.  Working in finance certainly is not the kind of job that anyone would want to do based on enjoyment of the work itself. But, it more effectively yields resources which makes it attractive.

Where do artists factor into this?

Whereas a conventional person expends effort to achieve whatever their society deems valuable (money, prestige, etc.).   An artist employs a more unique strategy. They, if successful, create things that people find attractive/valuable.  Whereas a banker may need to work eighty hours a week to afford the kind of car and watch that will increase their sexual lure, an artist may just have to work ten hours to create a song which will increase their sexual lure.

Let's make some music, make some money, find some models for wives

This is our decision to live fast and die young

Yeah it's overwhelming, but what else can we do?
Get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning commute?

The models will have children, we'll get a divorce
We'll find some more models, everything must run its course

The banker and the artist have the same goal (whether it’s conscious or unconscious), increasing their sexual lure and they both have neurochemical reward systems which encourage this behavior.

apes/treadmill/bananas : humans/rat race/neurochemicals

Artists, if successful, are possibly smarter about their choice of sexual lure.  But, even if they are not successful they may be smarter from an individual happiness standpoint. They are to varying degrees aware enough to begin to select what would make them happy regardless (to varying degrees) of social values/convention.  If biological evolution up to now has only served individual genes, living in one’s individual human self interest is novel behavior.

While even failed artists may be attractive to some potential mates, the lonely rest may enjoy happier lives than someone whose choices in life are entirely determined by their gene’s desire to replicate, i.e. those willing to toil in factories/offices every day of their lives to attract a mate, raise offspring, etc.. It's possible that the only thing artists have on bankers is that they are allowed to be more creative in their work. They still have to consider what others value, if they hope to have any success. Furthermore, if artists care more about external rewards than being creative, they are just as enslaved as bankers (i.e. Damien Hirst).

Dawkins also talks about survival memes which are infectious ideas which increase the survival rate of it’s adherents.  Religion is a prime example of a survival meme. The idea of an afterlife is a big motivator for a large percentage of the human race. Who doesn’t want to believe that there is meaning to all the work and suffering of life.

If you don’t buy into survival memes like religion, and have enough of a scientific understanding to grasp that reproduction doesn't enable you to live on what’s the point of living?

I think that’s a highly individual answer.  Dawkins probably would say living doesn’t have a point.   Having a point, i.e. meaning, is a philosophical construct, a survival meme.  The lack of a point is also a survival meme if you adhere to and/or find meaning in existentialism.

My individual answer - I think it’s important to be as self and externally aware as possible.   It’s better to be aware and unhappy than happily following some meme which is not true or instincts which don’t actually benefit you.  Further, unhappiness can motivate one to find solutions which may yield greater and/or actually sustainable happiness.

I think individual humans are a better driver of life than mindless individual genes. So, I’m particularly interested in individual survival.  If life is worth living, it’s worth living for as long as one chooses. Avoiding aging/physical deterioration/death, if possible, is the best game changer to  (among other things) an ever more likely ecological doom as it would finally leverage self interest in preserving the environment and social welfare.

Until then, for most people, instincts (tailored to the interests of individual gene replication/survival) will continue to drive behavior.  That means overpopulation, resource over-exploitation, competition for those dwindling resources, societal collapse, and a higher likelihood of human extinction.  When mindless genes are pulling the strings of behavior, mindless results are the likely outcome.  What kind of society has an economic system that even experts don’t understand (as the recent economic collapse revealed)?  A mindless instinct driven one.

In the absence of the aforementioned ever being viable in this lifetime, classical hedonism (maximizing pleasure in the long term) while this ship is sinking, will have to do.  I’d rather go out as a self aware dilettante than an instinct controlled subhuman worker bee.  Maybe the chances of the ship sinking would be reduced if others followed suit.

What does all this have to do with personality?

I would imagine that personality preferences are highly influenced by individual neurochemical reward systems and instincts as well as, possibly, more conscious willful choices which might sometimes go against what’s in one’s reproductive interest.  Even if latter did not survive biologically/genetically, it could survive as a meme, passed on culturally.

Let’s look at some personality items and see how they correlate to different personality traits on the Global Advanced Personality test.

If the only job I liked paid very poorly, I would still choose that job.

Artistic
men .216
women .185

Humanitarian
men .128
women .168

Accommodating
men .134
women .150

Intellectual
men   .124
women .087

Individualistic
men .118
women .107

Materialistic
men -.343
women -.362

Vanity
men -.146
women -.192

Extravagance
men -.137
women -.145

These results suggest that people who score highest on the Artistic trait, are the most willing to forgo money.  I guess that makes them the least shallow, most idealistic.  Maybe artists are self aware and not the standard issue gene driven zombie human.  But wait...

I plan on being very famous.

Artistic
men .283
women .251

Based on the above, artists don’t seem so non-superficial.    In fact, they are among the worst of the fame whores compared to the other traits I measure.

Need to Dominate .339
Actor .314
Histrionic .266
Vanity .254
Individualism .243
Extravagance .202
Adventurous .199
Inventive .192
Materialistic .158
Humanitarian .150
Self Image .148

(*all stats above based on a sample of 900 men, 900 women; all correlations significant >.043, level of signifigance alpha = .050)

Just like most other types are influenced by their instincts to do things that will make them attractive to others, artists appear to be no different. The successful banker has money. The successful artist has fame.  Both will get you laid (and ideally from the standpoint of individual genes, result in their replication).

The unsuccessful artist however is just as foolish as the unsuccessful materialist. Fame, like money, is limited.  Any artist who actually values fame subscribes to a system where only a few will win.  Again, suddenly they are not so different from a money chasing banker.

But what about gay artists or artists that don’t want to have kids? They still have neurochemical reward systems and instincts just like everyone else which favor/reward certain behaviors.

Isn't it likely most behavior is motivated by a desire for some reward that will, by nature, be limited and unequally shared?  (So, to be anything but selfish to some degree, is foolish.)

There are many rewarding traits/motivations that are not limited to zero sum game winner/loser outcomes like many of the traits above which correlated highly to a desire for money and fame.  Everyone can be self aware.  Everyone can be knowledgeable.  Everyone can be hard working. Everyone can be considerate of others (even those they don’t like). Everyone can be physically fit.  etc.. I'm just starting to explore this topic so expect related articles in the future and possibly a new personality system based on some mix of A. level of awareness (self and external) B. primitive competitive drives which benefit reproductive fitness.

Afterword

There are merits to gene driven multi-generational evolution. The desire of each gene to survive results in a lot of collective pressure on the host to choose a mate with the highest reproductive fitness potential and to invest in that offspring sufficiently to keep that system moving forward. Gene-driven multi-generational evolution has only one card trick in it's repertoire but it's one that works pretty well at one particular goal given an endless amount of time.

Multi-generational evolution could result someday in a more fit biological entity which doesn't deteriorate and possesses many other advanced abilities. However, the same drive that results in most people picking the best mate they can has a lot of side effects which endanger current civilization namely selfishness. Selfishness increases one's sexual lure, reproductive fitness, and ability to invest in your offspring. Unfortunately, the cost of unchecked selfishness are things like poverty (extreme income and resource inequality), war (the potential for nuclear war), environmental exploitation (the potential for for environmental ruin), etc..

The only way to check selfishness from a multi-generational perspective is to introduce memes which become part of the culture and protect against the side effects of our primitive gene drives. But, that means they have to be relearned every generation which is not terribly efficient.

A conscious human can within one generation play as many cards as they choose to until they die. On a more macro level, a more thoughtful research and development driven culture provides, I think, far better odds for the survival of the world than natural selection alone. However, from the perspective of a dead individual why does future survival and happiness matter. Rationally, it does not. I would argue that a selfish desire to preserve individual life, if it were the norm, would increase the progress of reaching that goal, it it were ever reachable. If it isn't, well it's no more of a waste of time than anything else.

In any case, the kind of things we now know best extend life (exercise, healthy diet, smog free environment, tolerable/enjoyable vocations, etc.), are also the kind of things that make life more enjoyable. So I think affiliating oneself with a desire to avoid degeneration (and any behavior that enables that) is at worst a win lose scenario.

*For a really good accessible primer on what genes are, read this.

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