Prehistoric Mind: Evolutionary Psychology for Meditators

Author: Jourdan Arenson
Publisher: The NEURAL SURFER
Publication date: January 1997

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c1996 Jourdan Arenson 
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   NOTE: Words bracketed with underscores (for
 example, _tablua rasa_) should print in italics.

              PREHISTORIC MIND
        Evolutionary psychology for meditators

"The simplicity of meditation means just experiencing
the ape instinct of ego." Chogyam Trungpa

How much of our mind is the product of biology--ape
instinct--and how much of it the product of culture? 
For the past century, most progressive thinkers have
assumed that culture, not biology, is the dominant
force in shaping human beings. Today it is taken for
granted that our minds are _tabula rasa_ at birth, a
blank slate, containing only a few animal instincts,
and beyond that, a vast unconditioned capacity to learn
and absorb culture.

The tabula rasa model of mind is dear to us because it
holds such hopeful possibilities for social change. If
our minds are blank at birth, then negative, repressive
values must be purely cultural constructs. The only
reason we have racism, sexism, aggression and
possessiveness is because these values are introduced
to us by our deluded culture. If only we can manage to
restructure our society around enlightened values, we
will be able to construct, from scratch, human beings
free of hatred and greed.

Tabula rasa mind is also an encouraging basis for
meditation practice. Because we like to believe that
our minds were pristine and unconditioned at birth, we
blame the environment--our parents, society, schooling--
for introducing the negative conditioning that
separates us from our pure nature. As adults, we
continue this negative conditioning by "choosing" to
feel jealousy, selfishness, anger and desire. We take
up meditation hoping to un-do the mistake and return to
our original unconditioned state. But as we practice,
the "unnatural" invaders inevitably return--concepts,
judgments, negative emotions that we feel should never
have been there in the first place. And then we blame
ourselves. After all, we create our own reality, don't

Perhaps we are being a bit hard on ourselves. A new
body of scientific evidence has shown that much of our
mental reality is not simply a matter of choice. As it
turns out, our "ape instinct" is much more complex and
pervasive that we ever thought.

According to the emerging science of evolutionary
psychology, our minds are far from unconditioned at
birth. We inherit a prehistoric mind, a mind
conditioned by two million years of human evolution.
The theory goes like this: During the time early humans
were evolving large brains (or "mental hardware"), they
also evolved a complex "mental software" that
introduced meaning and organization to their minds.
This mental software is not a generalized learning
program that simply absorbs information from culture.
It is rather a bundle of hundreds of content-specific
"mental mechanisms" which evolved around the problems
of survival faced by our hunter gather ancestors.

To be sure, a lot has changed since our hunter-gather
days. But a lot has not. We still need to recognize
faces, learn a language, find our place in groups, keep
up a reputation, earn praise and avoid blame, cooperate
with others, detect cheaters, deter aggression,  avoid
disease, find mates, raise children, and so on. While
evolutionary psychologists do not deny that culture and
environment shape these behaviors, they claim these
behaviors are guided by complex mental mechanisms which
_interact_ with the cultural environment. Cultural
input varies from society to society, but the mental
mechanisms themselves are biologically based, like
fingers and toes--natural and intractable parts of
ordinary human beings the world over.

Compared with the idealistic possibilities promised by
the tabula rasa model of mind, evolutionary psychology
brings some sobering implications. The science suggests
that our most harmful tendencies--competitiveness,
cruelty toward outsiders, social climbing, moral
condemnation, revenge--are not learned or imposed from
outside; they are latent in our genes. The fault is not
just in our culture, it is deep within our biological

The good new of Buddhism is that the process of
evolution has not reached an end. It continues in our
own lives, especially in our spiritual strivings. In
this article, I hope to show how the findings of
evolutionary psychology can help us in that spiritual
quest. Some of these findings are apt to burst a few
idealistic bubbles: we cannot return to a pristine
nature we never had. On the other hand, evolutionary
psychology can help us accept and understand our
biological nature, and thereby build the wisdom and
compassion necessary to transcend it.

Evolutionary psychologists seek to understand the human
mind by understanding the evolutionary process that
designed it. To do this, they engage in a kind of
reverse-engineering, trying to piece together how the
minds we have today evolved little by little through
the process of natural selection. They are not
interested in the competition between species, but
rather the competition between genes _within_ the human

Natural selection creates new traits and adaptations in
a species by putting genes through a process of trial
and error. New genes arise in an individual organism by
chance mutation. If a new gene produces a trait that 
_decreases_ the organism's chances of reproduction, that
gene, and the trait it produces, will not be passed on.
This is the fate of the vast majority of genetic

However, if a new gene produces a trait that makes the
host organism more effective in reproduction, this gene
will be "selected," that is, passed on to the next
generation. In this manner, highly successful genes and
traits spread throughout the species, gradually
overtaking "competing" genes and eventually becoming
"species-typical" traits.

Biologists have long studied how genetic design
produced the species-typical morphology of our bodies
--the physical organs, systems and chemistry common to
all humans. Evolutionary psychologists study the role
of genes in producing typical human _behaviors_. Now, a
gene cannot reach out and control behavior. Instead, it
creates mental mechanisms which generate: 1) thoughts,
emotions and psychological states, and 2) bodily
sensations associated with those states. And these
mind-body processes compel us toward certain behaviors.
What kind of behaviors? Behaviors that helped early
humans solve the adaptive problems they faced in the
Pleistocene savannas 2 million to 10,000 years ago. In
other words, mental mechanisms provide a sort of
automatic emotional or cognitive processing that helped
our ancestors overcome the challenges of survival and

Evolutionary psychologists often conduct a simple mind
experiment to explore how natural selection might have
shaped mental mechanisms. For example, assume that 1
million years ago there appeared (by chance mutation) a
gene that produced a "fear insects" mechanism in young
children. When a young child with this gene saw an
insect, the child's mind would automatically process
this stimulus and generate the mind-body sensations of
fear and revulsion. Would genes that created such a
cognitive mechanism be successful? Yes, children that
naturally avoided stinging insects would be more prone
to survive and reproduce than children who had no
aversion to insects. And this gene would certainly win
out over a competing gene that said "play with

After theorizing about a possible mental mechanism,
evolutionary psychologists then attempt to determine if
the trait is universal among humans, and therefore
presumably biologically based. They review the
anthropological record to see if the trait appears
across cultures. They also perform experiments to see
if  modern subjects elicit the trait in predictable
ways. The "fear insects" mechanism passes both of these
tests. Universally, most children naturally develop an
aversion toward insects at around ago two, an aversion
that often carries on to adulthood. Similar mechanisms
exist which produce fear of snakes, strangers and dark
unknown places.

One of the most important points to keep in mind in
thinking about evolutionary psychology is that all
mental mechanisms were evolved in and designed for a
specific social and environmental setting--small bands
of hunter-gatherer families who roamed the savanna
planes of the Pleistocene era, 2 million to 10,000
years ago. The mental mechanisms we inherit from our
ancestors are therefore not necessarily adaptive to
today's environment. The modern two-year-old who
recoils in fear from a moth will blindly run into on-
coming traffic. Fear of insects is automatic, but
parents have to work hard to teach their children to
avoid speeding cars because that threat didn't exist in
our evolutionary past.

Perhaps the most challenging and enduring problem of
our evolutionary past was learning to successfully
compete and cooperate with the most cunning of animals
--other people. To survive and reproduce, our ancestors
had to master a huge inventory of social skills
including: reading other peoples emotions and
motivations,  perceiving threats to one's position,
earning and maintaining status, recognizing and
deferring to high status people, defending oneself
without enraging others, punishing those who cheat,
judging the reliability of a partner, attracting a mate,
and keeping a mate from being attracted to others.

Because of the huge adaptive importance of negotiating
the social environment, evolutionary psychologists
believe that we evolved a host mental mechanisms that
guide us in the tasks of  mating and social interaction.
It is in these areas that the findings of evolutionary
psychology are most interesting and most controversial.
Here Rutgers University anthropologist Robin Fox
describes what might be the biological roots of
xenophobia and racial hatred:

  "We have a deeply built-in fear of the stranger. This is
  part of a Paleolithic spacing mechanism. Tribes were
  separated in space and there were some individuals that
  were like you and some that were not like you, who were
  by and large not well disposed to you. Therefore, we
  have a similarity detection mechanism built into us.
  From childhood, we tend to develop a picture of an
  ideal form or face from the observation of the people
  around us. We have a special part of the brain that
  sorts through faces looking for familiarity. Those that
  are least familiar are those that are going to be most
  frightening. And even if nature doesn't provide the
  cues, we provide them with things like costumes,
  haircuts, tattoos, headdresses, or anything that
  distinguishes who _we_ are and who _they_ are.... Skin
  color is merely one aid to this inborn xenophobia.
  Something deep down in  that Paleolithic brain,
  registers 'Different, Different, Different!'"

It is important to note that Fox is not predicting that
humans cannot rise above this mechanism or that we are
doomed to hatred, war and strife. He is, however,
predicting that some part of everybody's mind is
naturally aroused at the sight of people who are
obviously racially or culturally different.

This is not to suggest that we are slaves to our
biology. The prehistoric mind contains varied, complex
structures that feed back to the environment, allowing
incredible variation. For example, a mental mechanism
that urges us to seek social status looks to the
culture for information about what constitutes social
status. The "social status seeking mechanism" is
universal; what is valued in a given culture is
variable. Depending on the group, status can come from
being a cold-hearted hit man, a shrewd politician, a
devoted employee, a loving parent, or a selfless monk.

Different mental mechanisms also provide vastly
different strategies depending on the environmental
circumstances. For example, evolutionary psychologists
theorize that a "take more risks" mechanism is
activated in poor, unmarried young men who commit
crimes. In effect, this mechanism says: "Look pal, you
got nothing to loose. You might as well steal, cheat
and even rape because that's the only way you're
getting your genes into the next generation." This same
mechanism is dormant in the mind of the yuppie family
man whose circumstances have activated another
mechanism that says: "Protect your children, save your
money, don't take risks and you'll see grandchildren
for sure."

While mental mechanisms produce great variability in
behavior, the mechanisms themselves were designed for a
single purpose: to make us survive and reproduce.
Biologists have a joke: "A chicken is an egg's way of
making another egg." From a biological perspective, the
same is true about us: human beings are how genes make
copies of genes. Natural selection has endowed us with
prehistoric minds which cast us into a drama of love,
lust, compassion, reverence, ambition, anger, fear,
guilt, obligation, and shame--all for the purpose of
making more genes.

Of course, from the human perspective, we have to
believe that there is a greater meaning behind all the
drama. And here we must note the crucial limitation to
evolutionary psychology--it can never reveal our
spiritual nature. As a result, there is the danger of
falling into a cynical interpretation of evolutionary
psychology: "Truth, art and beauty are tricks of our
genes to get us to reproduce; God is just a product of
the chemicals in our brains."

This is true as far as it goes. Our spiritual nature
can be described in biological terms. One researcher
has done so in a book called _Neuropsychological Bases
of God Beliefs_. But anybody who would explain away
spirituality by reducing it to biological processes is,
as the late Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah said,
"like a person who keeps chickens and collects the

We can avoid this mistake by recognizing a crucial
distinction. Our biological nature is revealed by an 
_objective_ inquiry into the mind. Our spiritual nature
is revealed by a _subjective_ inquiry into the mind.
Evolutionary psychology looks at the mind as "it," asks
"how does it work?", and discovers organic design and
functional purpose. The cynics are right: no spiritual
nature is revealed by objective inquiry. For such a
revelation, we must experience the mind as "I." Only
through subjective practices, such as meditation, do we
discover faith, values and insight into our spiritual
nature--the Buddha-nature that transcends our
biological nature but, at the same time, is not
separate from our biological nature.

Of course, there is a danger in subjective inquiry,
especially if we embrace the tabula rasa idea that we
can create our own reality from scratch. We can get
lost in the lofty fantasy of conquering all negative
urges and emotions and becoming perfect beings. Here,
evolutionary psychology can serve as a reality check by
reminding us of the simple object of meditation--the
mind-body process of ape instinct.

In meditation, we aim to experience the mind-body
process without being deluded or trapped by it. We slow
the mind's whirling in order to see the mind-body
process clearly. We see the mind-body process clearly
in order to experience its impermanent, insubstantial
quality, and thereby gain a measure of freedom. But
there is a paradox: if we want freedom we must first
find acceptance. Evolutionary psychology helps the
meditator by identifying particularly powerful patterns
in the mind-body process that he or she must accept.

Mental mechanisms act on us by producing 1) sensations
in our bodies and 2) psychological states in our minds
which together compel us toward certain "adaptive"
behaviors. Normally, these mind-body experiences seem
solid and oppressive. In meditation, however, we take
time to experience these physical sensations and
psychological states--the playing out of mental
mechanisms--in a clear and penetrating awareness. As
US-born monk Ajahn Sumedho says, "You're cutting to the
center, to the still point where you can see it for
what it is and not be frightened and deluded anymore...
And yet that still point is not in the mind, it's not
in the body. This is where it's ineffable."

Ajahn Chah captured this approach when he asked his
male disciples to contemplate lust: "Look at a
beautiful woman. What does that do to you? As soon as
you see the face, you see everything else. Do you see
it? Just look within your mind. What is it like to see
a woman? As soon as the eyes see just a little bit, the
mind sees all the rest. Why is it so fast?"

It is so fast because a mental mechanism is at work.
Most men know this mechanism well. We glimpse a young
woman and, in a flash of mental processing, we see--and
desire--all the rest. Women are not so sensitive to
visual arousal for adaptive reasons (different
reproductive hardware required different mental
software surrounding courtship, mating and child
rearing). But everybody experiences similarly
instantaneous reactions in other situations. We are all
immediately excited when we see people fighting. We are
irresistibly fascinated by gossip about people
important to us. We tend to become nervous in the
presence of powerful authority figures. These
tendencies all provided some adaptive benefit in our
evolutionary past. Nowadays, they are more often than
not triggered by movies, television and magazines.

In meditation, we attempt to calm the mind so these
instantaneous reactions are not quite so instantaneous.
Once we have a little mental space to reflect on our
compulsions, we may see that there is only fleeting
satisfaction in chasing after them. This is not just a
spiritual cliche; it is biological fact. Natural
selection, the process that filled our prehistoric
minds with compulsions, has no concern for our inner
peace and happiness. Just the opposite. As Robert
Wright puts it in _The Moral Animal_, "We are designed
[by natural selection] to feel the next goal will bring
bliss, and the bliss is designed to evaporate shortly
after getting there."

It is not that all our goals are unworthy. There are
mental mechanisms that urge us to love and protect our
family, to fight for a worthy cause, to become useful
and responsible members of society. But evolutionary
psychology lays bare the "twist of ego" in our higher
callings. From a biological perspective, a mother loves
her child fiercely because her child contains copies of
her genes. As cynical as that sounds, consider this: it
is naturally easy to love our own children, parents and
siblings. Extending that love to people outside one's
family, tribe, country and race has always been a
problem for us.

The same twist of ego is at work in friendship and
cooperation. The biological basis of social cooperation
is a "reciprocity mechanism" common to social primates,
such as monkeys, apes and humans. Basically, the
mechanism encourages us seek out win-win relationships
and avoid lose-win relationships. We both win if you
pick my lice and I pick yours. But what if I pick your
lice and you refuse to pick mine?

Since favor-trading is vulnerable to cheating, we are
also equipped with the cognitive apparatus to monitor
the fairness of social exchange. This is the part of
our mind that watches like a six-year-old to see that
nobody gets a bigger slice of the birthday cake. And
when we do catch a cheater, alarms of anger immediately
go off. Watch the mechanism the next time somebody cuts
you off on the freeway: "Cheater! Unfair! Somebody get
that guy!" In the evolutionary past, when we lived
together in small groups, it made adaptive sense to
react this way to cheaters. Nowadays, we sit in traffic
and fume over cheaters whom we will never see again.

Another important task in all social intercourse is to
convince others that our actions are morally and
logically justified. And so our cognitive apparatus is
geared to make it effortlessly easy to see all the
evidence supporting our position; seeing the other side
is much more difficult. As Wright explains: "[The]
human brain is, in large part, a machine for winning
arguments, a machine for convincing others that its
owner is in the right--and thus a machine for
convincing its owner the same thing."

The ape instinct of ego may well be behind our most
sincerely felt moral impulses. Evolutionary psychology
thus reminds meditators to be circumspect when self-
righteousness and spiritual pride arise in the mind.
"Natural selection has worked its will to make some
things seem 'obvious' and 'right' and 'desirable' and
others 'absurd' and 'wrong' and 'abhorrent.'" says
Wright. "What we take as an untouchable moral intuition
may be no more that a relic of our evolutionary

And what of our evolutionary future? While we can not
afford to wait for natural selection to change our
biological nature, all attempts to get rid of that
nature are doomed to failure. Instead, we must
surrender to the powerful push and pull of our
prehistoric minds. But we need not be deluded. Marpa,
the 11th century Tibetan saint, embraced this paradox
as he wept over his dead son. A disciple asked him:
"You tell us that everything is an illusion. How about
the death of your son? Isn't it an illusion?" And Marpa
said, "True, but my son's death is a super-illusion."


E-mail The Neural Surfer directly at

I want to go back to the home base now.