Before our ancestors developed a language capable of communicating a complex belief system, their actions were driven by instinct, as modified by self-generated beliefs. In this state, evolution was acting upon them at a purely genetic level, and it had them stuck in in a bit of a bind: it did not allow for male investment. The genetic strategy that worked for males was competing for status in the hierarchy, as only the top twenty-percent got to pass on their genes. Defending the tribe improved status, but caring for children did not.
Once we gained the ability to transmit our beliefs vertically (to our children) evolution began to act on them: as the beliefs that made our children more successful were selected for.
One way a belief can enhance our success is by encouraging us to act against our instincts. Generally speaking, this is a bad idea: there is a lot of evolved logic behind those instincts. A mutation in our beliefs is perhaps similar to one in our genes: most of time it will make little difference, an occasional one will be harmful, and only very rarely will one actually provide advantage. The harmful ones get weeded out of the meme pool (often taking the genes of their holder with them), while the advantageous ones are conserved.
The first big breakthrough of this new ability came when our beliefs evolved a way to turn male-investment into a viable genetic strategy. For this to work males needed to know who their children were, which meant they needed exclusive sexual access to their mates. Beliefs evolved to effect this…and genes started evolving to adapt to the new environment that those new beliefs created.
Once male-investment became viable, another big advantage came within reach: giving the eighty-percent of males who would previously have been ejected from the gene pool some skin in the game. Monogamy was the solution to this problem, but it was not something that our instincts allowed for. Beliefs evolved to force us past this hurdle. Monogamy came at a great cost (in a future post I will explore its pros and cons), but the male investment it enabled was such a big advantage that those who adopted it took over the world.
To gain these two advantages we needed to recognize some kind of property right in one’s mate (marriage), and forbid polygyny. We still need to do so: this is a competitive world, and as long as the evolutionary arms-race continues there is no going back. If we don’t maintain these advantages (or find ways to better them) we will simply be replaced by those who do.
There are an endless number of belief systems that could motivate the actions needed to secure these advantages: they don’t need to be religious ones, or counter-factual. It could all be compelled with a few simple laws (which are mostly on the books anyway, or used to be). However, before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, it is important to note that there are a lot more advantages coded in our belief-systems then merely those which dictate these actions. I have been listening to Jordan Peterson’s series on the Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories of late, and it is obvious that they also provided a lot of psychological support. Once Jordan has extracted that for us, we can use it in the design of a new system that provides the same (or better) support.