Does mindfulness short-circuit our evolutionary success?

This is a question that can only be answered empirically, but I’ll pose it as theoretical food for thought anyway.

In Why Buddhism Is True, Robert Wright discusses the relationship between the direct experience of emptiness or formlessness and the dampening of perceptions’ and thoughts’ affective tug. As a meditator, this idea spooks me a bit—partly because when I think about it, it rings true. I remain as obsessive a thinker as almost ever, but emotional reactivity just ain’t what it used to be—for better or worse. (Wasn’t that what I was signing up for?)

Anyway, Wright anticipates this concern and comments:

Remember, for starters, that when I talk about our affect being dampened, our feelings being subdued, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Indeed, I’ve tried to show why certain feelings are a poor guide to reality. And I’ve suggested, more broadly, that the entire infrastructure of feelings should be viewed with a certain suspicion, given that it was built by natural selection, whose ultimate aim isn’t to foster clear perceptions and thoughts but rather to foster the kinds of perceptions and thoughts that have gotten genes spread in the past.

First, I should say, I buy and deeply appreciate Wright’s cognitive-evolutionary approach. Wright’s exploration of mindfulness and the mechanisms it works on gives no quarter to ideas that meditation will tune you up to Darwinian ubermensch-hood.

Rather, his gist is that mindfulness of the body, feelings, and thoughts can help to deprogram a brain that natural selection has wired for perseveration and misery. Again, still fully onboard.

But what’s interesting is that on close inspection, Wright is speaking about our cognitive-evolutionary misery on 2 different levels.

The first is virtually timeless: natural selection would never have produced clear-seeing, untroubled minds, because these kinds of minds would have done a bad job at advancing competitive and reproductive goals.

The second is much more bounded, and makes a claim about our culture outside of evolutionary paradigms: the minds we have were shock-tested by natural selection for Paleolithic conditions, and are causing us misery because of their mismatch to our contemporary situation.

In theory, which of these accounts of our misery turns out to be truer has big implications for what mindfulness meditation means, in practical, everyday terms.

If our minds are as chatty as they are, and our feelings as sticky as they are, because today’s stimuli are less “honest” signals of danger and reward than those encountered by our hunter-gatherer ancestors, then it’s hard to imagine a downside to mindfulness meditation—except that it might make you a bit culturally and morally weird. Which you knew when you signed up, I’d guess!

I’m a 100%, unrepentant fan of letting go of temporally-specific, culturally-specific attachments. Perhaps non-attachment and non-judgment really are the keys to deep happiness. If not, though, those keys lie in elements of the human experience that are universal, long-evolved, time-tested, and antifragile—like love, family, community, and ritual.

But what if the difference between Lascaux Cave and Los Angeles hardly makes a difference in the grand scheme? What if, as Wright more often suggests, natural selection boosted our most fundamental biological drives with a set of cognitive-affective modules designed to rouse us out of satisfaction, and torment us into status-jockeying, mate acquisition, mate-retention, and resource acquisition with no concern for inner peace?

I suspect that this is the major part of the picture—and assuming for a moment that I’m right, this complicates Wright’s argument as to Why Buddhism is true.

On one hand, it proves Buddhist mindfulness practice and folk-psychology to be Herculean in their success at deprogramming some very fundamental circuitry. With sufficient effort and focus, you can effectively tone down tens of millions, nay, hundreds of millions of years’ worth of accumulated system-maximizing, inner-peace-indifferent signals.

But on the other, are we sure we want to do that? Say you sincerely want inner peace, and the dampening or cessation of reactivity that Buddha says will bring it. I know I do. But are you willing to give up everything that makes you a human ape—a loving partner, children, status, material comfort—for it? I don’t think so.

Not that great Buddhist laymen and post-traditional teachers have had to, necessarily. But I’ll be damned if there isn’t some kind of zero-sum dynamic. Caring less and reacting less means grabbing at less, and over time, grabbing at less means getting less. This is true for both the dreck we know we don’t want, and the human experiences we know we need.

So what I mean to ask is: Does mindfulness short-circuit our evolutionary success?

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