Thursday, September 3, 2009

Misplacing Evolution’s Role: A look at Seligman’s Authentic Happiness

I just finished reading Seligman’s Authentic Happiness, where he applies the principles of positive psychology to the pursuit of the good life. He makes several intriguing suggestions about the evolutionary basis of our emotional reactions; two that I want examine in some detail in what follows.

Positive psychology is a term that serves to highlight, by contrast, the activity of the vast majority of psychologists, historical and present. Psychology has long been a science focused on describing, understanding, and where possible, relieving psychological maladies. Seligman calls this negative psychology, because the focus is on negative human states. Positive psychology, in contrast, is a focus on understanding and encouraging positive human conditions, well-being, happiness, mental health.

Negative psychological states, such as anger, fear, depression, are in fact functional states from an evolutionary perspective. They serve as tools for orienting our behavior towards environmental circumstances. It is perhaps easiest to see the survival advantage of these states if we look at fear. It is difficult to imagine an organism of our complexity being able to navigate our social and physical landscape without fear as a potential guide. But this raises a question: why do we have positive emotional states? What survival role could they possible serve? Seligman borrows ideas from the book Non Zero to mold an explanation. Negative emotional states alert us to and help guide us through win-lose situations, situations with a zero-sum outcome: you or me, eat or be eaten. Our positive emotional states are designed to aid us in navigating win-win situations, situations that provide some mutual benefit to all parties involved. Thus our positive states play a role in group cohesiveness, friendship bonds, and cooperative activities that provide present or future benefit.

The book Non Zero, suggests that evolution has selected for organisms that could maximize the occurrence of win-win scenarios, thus leading to an increase in intellectual complexity, cultural complexity, and etc. Design without a designer, as the author calls it. It is an interesting hypothesis, and definitely warrants close consideration. But Seligman piggy-backs on this idea of design with out a designer and the evolutionary trend toward win-win, and suggests that the human race is headed toward greatness—even God-like omniscience and omnipotence as a result. That is, he sees a future end product of evolution in the bringing into existence the perfection of being, a.k.a., God.

In making this speculation, Seligman makes a very common error in thinking about natural selection. He neglects to consider the actual driver of natural selection: the environment. Win-win situations are always win-win with respect to a specific set of environmental conditions. They are always contingent conditions. A subtle change in environmental contingencies can yield a dramatic change in the requirements for a win-win outcome—or even in what counts as a “win.” Also, it is very likely that the human population is at or near the earth's carrying capacity, which means that win-win will only apply to some subset of the population, for the vast majority of the human inhabitants on an overpopulated planet, it will be win-lose. The earth is not big enough for all of us, so somebody has to go. This is win-lose all the way. Or perhaps, lose-lose. If we have already exceeded carrying capacity, then any win-win situation is really just a lose-lose situation in which the losses have been diluted, temporarily displaced, or concentrated in a marginalized or disregarded subset of the population.

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