Chapter 1: Cruelty
Chapter 2: The Desire to Acquire

The Desire to Acquire

There is a really odd piece in our evolution when we moved from a desire to consume to a desire to acquire. We have evolved to defer enjoyment and to take pleasure in having something that we can consume later.
This is something that probably occurred in steps. On a hunting level pack animals will defer attacking prey until the situation is right for them. In most cases this involves a little bit of co-operation in cutting off exits and attacking from different angles. But once the situation is right the attack is on and the prey is devoured. For us there came a step when we didn't devour the prey - we captured it. There were two things necessary for this to happen - the first was that we captured the prey at a time when we didn't need to eat it there and then and the second is that we took pleasure in having the prey trapped and ready to eat if we wanted to. So the thrill of the kill moved upstream a step to the thrill of having captured something. But the first part of this was that we captured the prey when we could resist eating it - in other words when we didn't really need to capture it. We began to hunt and capture for the sake of hunting and capturing itself - not for eating.
This is not a difficult step behaviourally. Animals that bring food to their young can defer eating that food and instead bring it to their young. The hard-wiring to allow deferred gratification is not unique to us.
The motives, however, probably changed. We have evolved not just to bring food back to the young but also to other members of the group. The behaviour probably arose in the context of increasing complexity of social interactions. Bringing the food back would bring with it social approval. It allowed us to endear ourselves to the head of the group or to the group itself. On a neurological level it probably reduced levels of anxiety about our own exclusion from the group.
The ability to acquire now meant social status. All other appetites are satiable - apart from social status. Once the two became coupled - the desire to acquire itself lost its limits.


And the desire to acquire was not just fueled by a desire to please other group members. It also became a display of higher social status. It is based on the "you want it...but you can't have it....because I have it.....but if you're nice to me you may get it.....". For the person wanting the emotion is envy. For the person in possession it is of superiority.
Envy is unpleasant. It activated a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate gyrus. This part of your brain detects when things are wrong. It's the part that activates in children's tantrums. It is where what we anticipate should happen, doesn't happen. This may link back to mirroring. When we see something good happen to someone we can relate to we expect that it should happen to us too. When it doesn't it causes a problem.
For some people they can soothe their anterior cingulate gyrus with relative ease. We all know some kids that don't have that many tantrums and those that have a lot. Some people learn to accept
. The cognitive soothing of the anterior cingulate gyrus varies. If we try to dispel envy by saying that the other person has a great talent that sets them apart and that they are deserving of whatever they have it could be accepted provided there is a limit to the advantage they may gain and also provided that their may be some benefit in that talent to ourselves. For example kids in school rarely target the great footballer in bullying. They can relate to him. They enjoy his success because they can model on it. They are not generally disadvantaged when he wins and they can learn from his talent. At a very primitive level the footballer is good for the group. Envy is easily demoted in this.
The kid who is great at math is in more trouble. There is no inherent joy in emulating them. Their success will be at the expense of others. Although ultimately they will benefit the group it's not immediately apparent. It's much more difficult to dismiss envy in this situation.
For adults envy is lessened in a few different ways. It can be reduced where somebody is working hard for it. They may be seen to make sacrifices that makes their overall success seem less. There can also be a sense that their hard work may also benefit the group. There is a sense that they may be working hard "for" others as opposed to themselves.
Envy can also be lessened if the observer thinks - well I could have had that if I spent less time doing what's important for me. In that way the difference is chosen.
Envy can be quelled but unless there is some advantage in another person having more than us we never really accept it. Social structures such as the UK class structure tell those who have less that there is something in it for them. They tell them that without the particular system they would be worse off. They might lose the possessions they have. Or - someone they can relate to (or feel superior to) might end up better off than them. Racism results as all parties have an interest in quelling their acc and saying this is necessary - because without this things would be much worse. The more unequal a society becomes the more dangerous it's threats are made. It reduces cognitive dissonance. But ultimately the more dangerous it's threats actually become as a language of fear and exclusion takes hold
Envy is with us because it has got us to where we are today. It stops us from docilely accepting disadvantage. The animal that did not envy did not fight for what it perceived to be it's fair share. We cannot wish envy away. We have to try to understand it.

At some point too we developed a fear of exclusion from the group. This is not unique to us. Most social animals have an innate anxiety about separation from the group. For us puny scrawny beings it must have been particularly so. Up to maybe 100 years ago - any human who got separated from a group would have simply died. While group exclusion might not be a fear of all of us and may not be to the same extent in us all it remains an extremely intense and powerful drive for us.
Much of what we try to achieve through networking is an attempt to fend off exclusion. We feel better when we are part of a collective - even if that collective is acting contrary to how we would act because the greatest anxiety for most of us is of not belonging. That anxiety trumps everything else.
It is not clear whether fear of group exclusion has been selected through passive effects - e.g. inability to access adequate amounts of food or to active effects - i.e. being killed by the group. It is probable that it included both. Not belonging meant lack of access to sufficient food and lack of access to reproductive opportunities. In societies that evolved into "pairing off" both of these became important.

The brain problem

Humans are very heavily invested in a giant ganglion at the top of their spinal cord that allows for more associations of information and more planning. It is an energy intensive approach with the brain using 20% of all our calories. It is unlikely that one person would be able to secure adequate calories themselves to nourish the brain. Therefore social skills and awareness had to run very closely in tandem with the brain...** Can you imagine the evolutionary advantage of deferred gratification and being driven to hunt not by a desire to eat but by a desire to acquire! Imagine it. Two groups. Group 1 only hunts when hungry and eats whatever it captures. Group 2 begins to enjoy hunting and does it even when not hungry and doesn't have to eat what it captures - it can store it and hoard it. You can see who is going to win.
But there's a cost to gathering and storing - you have to guard what you store.
And in those steps human beings moved from being nomads following resources to storing and securing resources and coveting the resources of others.

Hunter Gatherers

We often just accept that we moved from foraging to hunting and gathering in a few small steps. But it's a major change in behaviour really. Gathering involves deferring consumption but it also involves transport and storage. And the gathering wasn't just confined to fruit or berries. Humans also evolved to things that had been hunted. Meat could also be stored.
There is a cost in gathering. Deferring consumption meant that the berries or meat could rot while waiting to be eaten. It meant that arrangements had to be put in place to secure what was stored. All of this costs energy and opportunity. Imagine at the start in an environment of abundance - one group consumed as it killed and the other group stored what it killed. The group that consumed as it killed would, at any point in time, have more calories and more bulk. They would simply kill or rob from those who, rather than bulking up, had stored their spoils. In order for saving for a rainy day to pay off there has to actually be a rainy day.
The advantage conferred by storing food is increased in times of shortage. Therefore, over time, with repeated shortages due to seasonal or other factors storing behaviour would have taken over from instant consumption behaviour.
There is another aspect to consider too. The usual way to deal with shortage is migration. In environments where migration wasn't possible the advantage of storing type behaviour became even more important.
Once humans began to master storage they began to settle down in territories. And a huge part of the work of that territory would have been securing what had been stored.
Once humans began to settle in specific territories all kinds of things happened in terms of power and social structures. Fixed territories lead to the rise of kings. And the test of each territory related to how it could save and secure and use the resources available to it.
This would have lead to the rise of standing armies and militarism
And the birth of terrorism. The cradle of civilisation is also unfortunately the birth place of terrorism.

It gets even more complicated.....

Storing money is driven by the same mechanism as storing food. It is saving for a rainy day. It is wise. It is useful.
But acquisition of goods to protect against potential shortages can very easily transform into something else. It can become acquisition for the sake of enhancing status. And that is where the problem lies.
Saving money and storing wealth is only virtuous up to a point. Making the decision to store rather than to consume something at a particular point in time carries with it the risk that it will waste away or that somebody else will take it. It is not inherently right. It is a decision that can work either way. There is additional energy required to guard whatever it is that is being stored. There is also the risk of leaving others at a disadvantage through storing rather than consuming. So - saving and storing money or wealth is not inherently virtuous. There is a point at which it ceases to make sense.
The ability to acquire and store wealth brings status. It also brings about a certain amount of reproductive advantage. But it also causes a lot of problems. The wealth must be protected. And there comes a mismatch. Most people don't actually need vast amounts of money to live decent lives. The only way that the effort to acquire all that money makes sense is if it is seen to confer some real advantages onto people.