How Our Primitive Human Desires Cause Social Problems

I wrote earlier this week (and also here) on how technology can negatively affect our lives. In truth, the cause of these problems isn’t technology, but our inability to utilize it effectively. This is due to technology advancing exponentially while the human organism has remained virtually the same for tens of thousands of years.

The same is true of human society. Civilization has covered the earth and organized itself into hundreds of nations, managed by complex systems of government and international bodies, while the human mental makeup remains best suited to tribal society.

Imagine human life during these primitive times. Man would spend his day hunting, stalking animals with primitive tools, hoping to catch his dinner, and at the end of the day would sling the carcass over his shoulder and drag it back to his cave. When he arrived, completely exhausted, his wife would dress and cook the meat while he collapsed in complete contentment. In this lifestyle there was no need for excitement or entertainment.

But once man began to practice agriculture, he attained leisure and became susceptible to boredom. This trend continues to this day. As the degree of physical exertion in human life has decreased, the amount of boredom, and the craving for excitement to alleviate boredom, has continuously increased.

This desire for excitement causes social problems because it has so many destructive outlets. Alcohol and drug abuse are the result of the craving for stimulation. The same is true of gambling addiction and mob violence.

But what about those who shun these vices? Many people condemn excitement in recreational forms. It is Sin, and should avoided at all costs. Those who succumb to their desires will surely pay for it.

But isn’t this condemnation another form of excitement? The Devil has many forms, some designed to deceive the young, and some designed to deceived the old and serious (Bertrand Russell). Fervent condemnation is even more destructive than alcohol or gambling when it leads to war. Would the Iraq war have been possible if not for the national condemnation of Muslims following the September 11th attacks?

The love of excitement causes many social problems but is far less destructive than two other primitive instincts: fear and hate. The primitive man, as a matter of survival, feared and hated everything he did not know. And rightly so. Within his herd all were friends, but other herds of people were enemies. If one strayed from the group and encountered another herd he would be killed, while other herds were avoided or fought depending on circumstances.

These primitive instincts guide our reaction to foreign nations and ideologies. When we are given cause, either by the attacks of radicals or the sensationalism of the media, we enthusiastically release our primitive hate. This leads to war, which in modern times greatly impoverishes all nations involved. The historical hatred between rival nations, Christians and Muslims, Capitalists and Communists, is not the clash of ideologies but the primitive fear of the unknown.

I think it can be accepted that the love of excitement, fear, and hate, are undesirable when they lead to pain, suffering, and economic loss. But with this knowledge, is there any way to improve society by controlling these instincts?

The key is enlightened self interest, an elevated form of selfishness that understands that what’s good for humanity is also good for the individual. Fortunately, this understanding can be developed by education.

Educated people are more likely to pursue constructive forms of excitement. The joy of making a dramatic discovery or understanding a difficult concept is far more exhilarating than the hollow stimulation of substances. Education also promotes the study of foreign cultures and ideas that can debase our fear and hatred of other peoples.

By education I don’t mean instruction at prestigious universities. If this were the case, it would be unattainable to many people. What I mean is the cultivation of intelligence, largely on an individual basis.

If you would do your share to improve society, seek to understand the world through open-mindedness and investigation. By understanding our instincts, we can mitigate the destruction they cause and create a more civilized civilization.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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