My Old Enemy, Natural Selection

I’m beginning to hate natural selection.

I’m not talking about the theory of evolution as a scientific concept, I mean I am having some strong feelings about what a pain in the ass natural selection is to me, right now.

If you’re new to my writing, let me just give you a quick status report: my sense of self is kind of garbage. I’m not currently experiencing existential anguish, per se (but, you know, catch me on a different day and see what you get), but I am wrestling with a crisis about who I am and why I bother existing.

And a lot of that hinges on a deep, aggravating need for validation. I need other people to justify my existence for me. It’s a big reason why I was a professional actor, why I write, why I make music, and why I do pretty much anything else not directly related to my own survival or the well-being of those I love. I need to be told by The World that I belong.

For the last few years, I’ve been able to pin some of the blame for this on my autism, having been diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 39. As you might imagine, someone with my particular neurological quirks might grow up developing a sense of alienation. That’s what happens when you 1) feel like you’re not the same as everyone else, and 2) are constantly told you are not the same as everyone else, often in very painful terms.

So of course I seek validation now! I’ve been conditioned over several decades to expect to be an outcast, to believe that any sense of belonging I do manage to experience is temporary and tenuous at best, and that I am not capable of judging for myself whether or not I possess sufficient value as a person to continue existing.

Damn you, autism!

The thing is, the need to feel belonging with a tribe is not particular to the neurodivergent. It’s hard-wired into humanity as a whole at the deepest levels. Many humans achieve this belonging rather easily (or so it seems to me). They provide value to their families and communities, they receive the benefits of being a part of those families and communities, and they are validated for playing their part in those social systems. They don’t have to think about it.

But threaten that belonging, cause someone to feel like their place in the tribe could be reduced or taken away, and see what atavistic shit comes up.

For someone like me, that sense of threat is ever-present, and I feel it on every level: I feel like humanity on Earth doesn’t want me, and I also assume I am perpetually on the edge of being rejected by the people Iove. Any minute now, they’re going to decide they’ve had it.

So maybe I feel this kind of alienation and anxiety more often or more severely than most, but all of us have it in us. We’re supposed to! It’s how early humans survived through our time as nomadic hunter-gatherers.

It was Robert Wright, in Why Buddhism is True, who clarified this point for me, that this anxiety over other’s opinions of us is all natural selection’s fault:

Why would natural selection design organisms to feel discomfort that seems so pointless? Maybe because in the environment of our ancestors it wouldn’t have been pointless; in a hunter-gatherer society, you’re pretty much always performing in front of people you’ll see again and whose opinions therefore matter. My mother used to say, “We wouldn’t spend so much time worrying about what other people think of us if we realized how seldom they do.” She was right; our assumption that people give much thought to us one way or the other is often an illusion, as is our unspoken sense that it matters what pretty much everyone we see thinks of us. But these intuitions were less often illusory in the environment of our evolution, and that’s one reason they’re so persistent today.

That’s right, natural selection wants us to be insecure.

There’s so much else that natural selection “wants” us to do that is ultimately harmful to us now. And it seems to me that so much of what we think of as human civilization and progress is really a big species-wide struggle against natural selection and all the things it pushes us to do against our own interests, from the desire to eat too much sugar to the urge to decimate nearby tribes and take their resources. Self-doubt is just one more thing.

I think natural selection and I need to have a talk. I need to thank it for getting us all this far, what with the conscious brains, the opposable thumbs, and whatnot. And then I need to tell it, honestly, that its time with me is over, because it’s holding me back from, well, evolving.

I need to remember that my ache for belonging, while exacerbated by my autism and other quirks, ultimately stems from an instinct that no longer serves its purpose, and that I am free to let it go. To be at peace with who I am and where I am, I think I to kick natural selection out of the tribe.


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