Evolution and Emotions

The prospect of evolution is that a new trait will be more adaptable for the species.  For example, imagination helps you survive because imagination helps you think of certain possibilities.  If you don’t have an imagination, then you have to go through a trial and error basis and that can literally kill you.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about emotions and how they have an evolutionary advantage.  So why do emotions help us survive?

Happiness seems to be easy.  Happiness releases endorphins and that provides pleasure.  We all seek pleasure and pleasure is something that makes us survive, or at least, it makes us not want to die.

Anger.  This seems tricky.  Why does anger help us survive?  Well, imagine if we never became angry.  It seems that in some cases, we are justified in being angry.  If we never became angry, people would walk all over us and that wouldn’t help us survive.  That’s one example.  But anger seems to have a survival mechanism.

What about love?  Love is an extremely complex emotion, but it seems that it’s nature’s aphrodisiac in order for us to propagate the species.  In other words, love may not help the individual survive, but it does help the species overall survive.

There are a few emotions that I’ve been trying to figure out how they help us survive but I can’t think of why.  Maybe through our imaginations, we can discover the purpose of these emotions.  Why is sadness a helpful evolutionary strategy?  I’ve been thinking about it, and the only thing I can think of is that the way to break through sadness is by some creative process.  Notice that many people are creative when they’re sad.  They seem to break that sadness by being creative.  But this seems to be a lot of energy.  Why couldn’t we just evolve with a simple creative process without being sad?  It seems that it’s expanding too much energy just by simply being creative.  So what’s the point of being sad?

What about jealousy?  What’s the survival process of being jealous?  I guess when we see someone trying to steal our significant other, we see that as a threat to spreading our genes.  Ehh, maybe.  That seems like a weird explanation.  So what’s the point of jealousy?

What about disappointment?  Anxiety?  Hope?  Despair?  Or being nervous?  I can’t explain the evolutionary purposes to these.  Can you?

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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7 Responses to Evolution and Emotions

  1. Kevin says:

    Sadness: An emotion like empathy, or feeling sad for somebody else can lead us to help others, helping the species overall. Sadness for ourselves drives us to better our evolutionary standing and overcome the cause of our sadness, establishing an adaptation to avoid that cause of detriment.

    Jealousy works as an identifier. Because we’re jealous, it means we’re lacking something that would make our life better. We would have never realized our life could be better unless we had seen somebody else who had it better to make us realize that we wanted that too.

    I really see anxiety more as an evolutionary flaw rather than a tool. Each of these emotions really could be written about for days though, so there’s a small two cents from me. Plenty of flaws in my logic though.

  2. thekillerj says:

    I like what Kevin said. Anxiety is important though, as it is also an indicator emotion. Anxiety tells us something about our current situation is undesireable, therefore, we change.

  3. shaunmiller says:

    If anxiety was an evolutionary flaw, that seems to suggest a lot of people have this flaw. Maybe anxiety is like hope: it’s an indicator about some future action that we choose which we’re not sure what will happen, but we’re willing to take the risk because of the possible (huge) benefit that will come from it.

    I’m still having a hard time explaining despair.

  4. thekillerj says:

    Maybe the function of despair is it generates avoidance of the event that triggers despair. Also, maybe for adaptive emotions like happiness to be realized, they must have an opposite. Up/down, left/right, happy/sad.

    • thekillerj says:

      Shaun, what do you think of my answer to despair?

      • shaunmiller says:

        Honestly I couldn’t follow it. Why would you despair something that would already trigger despair? That seems to put the cart before the horse.

        As for opposites, I’m not a big fan of some emotions needing opposites in order for them to exist. I mean, what’s the opposite of anger? Is it non-anger? Well, that could be about anything.

  5. Pingback: Why do we like horror? « Shaun Miller’s Weblog

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