Humans Are Perfect
We hear, read, and think all the time that we humans are deeply flawed. What with our self-deception, selfishness, greed, innumerable biases, etc., how could it be otherwise?
Yet sometimes I like to think that we’re perfect. We’re animals, after all, so why would we be any less perfect than a lion, a swan, or a dolphin? Perhaps animals are not “perfect”, but we don’t typically consider them inherently defective, so why would Homo sapiens be, and uniquely so in all of nature?
I know this doesn’t make sense from the perspective of how we experience life, and if we internalized it maybe we wouldn’t improve ourselves nor achieve much of anything. Still, sometimes I find the idea enticing.
Our supposed imperfections are often features, not bugs
When we manage to see humans for what we really are — another species superbly “designed” by evolution to be well adapted to its environment (at least to its ancestral environment) so that its members survive and reproduce — we begin to realize that many of our puzzling propensities and “irrational” biases are in fact highly effective mental heuristics (rule-of-thumb tactics) instilled in us by evolution. Their logic may often escape us, but thanks to them our ancestors became, well, our ancestors. Our biases and intuitions are adaptations that conferred an advantage in Darwinian-fitness terms, and thus spread and became part of our species’ cognitive toolbox.
Consider the following two examples.
The smoke-detector principle: Coined by American physician Randolph Nesse, it refers to the recurrence of false alarms in response to minimal or no danger. Such alarms may be perceived as causing unnecessary anxiety and distress, yet that’s a low cost to pay to avoid the few instances in which the danger is real and potentially fatal. So what may at first appear excessive or irrational is a sound mechanism optimally designed by evolution.
Deceit and self-deception: Two human traits we’re never too proud of. Yet the ability to deceive can certainly be advantageous from a purely Darwinian perspective, and can of course be morally justified too, as when used to prevent some harm. And people are much more persuasive deceivers when they deceive themselves. Hence evolution has instilled in us this “faculty” of self-deception.
The role of consciousness
We can thank (or blame, rather) our acute self-awareness for our perception of ourselves as flawed. We often have conflicting impulses that we can’t quite resolve, and our being conscious of them makes us feel inadequate and imperfect. Other animals surely have them too, but they’re blessed by their lack of awareness. In their case, ignorance is bliss — or at least a barrier against self-flagellation for their “failings and imperfections”.
Nevertheless, our consciousness provides, on balance, a Darwinian advantage. Among other things, it goes hand in hand with our capacity to reason deliberately and logically, thanks to which we can, when the situation calls for it, override our instinctual biases and thus be more successful in accomplishing our goals.
Finally, and perhaps principally, we may feel deficient because of evolutionary mismatches. Evolutionary mismatch refers to the idea that physiological and psychological traits have become maladaptive because our current environment differs considerably from the one in which they evolved. A salient example is our food preferences. Our craving for junk food was advantageous when the ingredients typically found in it were scarce, but it’s become maladaptive now that they’re abundant.
As the late biologist E. O. Wilson once remarked, “The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology.” Or we could just say that we have a Paleolithic psychology that is not well adapted to modern life. Probably no other species is in such a predicament — barely muddling through in an entirely new environment to which it is just starting to adapt — so from this standpoint we may be a uniquely challenged species, after all.