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Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you The Übermensch – part 4

In the last post I claimed that maximising happiness was the essential dynamic of life. This dynamic is driven by a physiological mechanism, something in your body, a biochemical exchange in your brain. When you have certain experiences, your brain secretes little hits of chemicals that make you feel good.

You like to feel good, right? Sure you do. So you do whatever it was you did before to bring about that experience so you can feel good again. Thereby, the brain reinforces certain behaviours, encouraging you to repeat them again and again. The affective states created by the feel-good chemicals we call pleasure, euphoria, contentment, confidence, optimism, pride, a feeling of wellbeing, in short, happiness.

Consider some of your basic needs that must be met in order for you to be happy: eating well, some level of exercise, rest, sex, personal hygiene, prevailing in some endeavour or other, winning the esteem of your peers and so on. These things make you happy because they generate that feel-good hit from your brain and the reason your brain doles out the good stuff in these cases is because the satisfaction of these needs has been conducive to reproductive success in your evolutionary lineage for millions upon millions of years. Think about it, humans do not tend to go for reproductive partners who are malnourished, unfit, exhausted, lacking a libido, at risk of disease, incompetent and of low social status. Well, no more so than they themselves are. We all have to make concessions in the absence of our own perfection. Attraction is subject to its own economics and everybody is looking for the best deal they can get. You too.

So beggars can’t be choosers but the average human is impelled to seek the strongest, fittest, healthiest, most vivacious and successful partners it can possibly attract because those are the kinds of genes it instinctively wants its own progeny to possess. That is the case even if, as an individual, it doesn’t want kids and even if it has been sterilised or had a vasectomy. We will explore why later.

Securing a partner with maximally optimal genes (or more precisely, one who we judge to have maximally optimal genes) gives you one of the biggest hits of the feel-good brain chemicals you will ever get in life and that’s because the introduction of new high-quality genes into your lineage has been hugely conducive to the reproductive success of your lineage over its countless generations. You might call this type of chemically-induced happiness falling in love. So let’s add falling in love, or ‘pair-bonding’ to use a more scientific expression, to that list of basic needs.

These needs that are stimulated by the biochemical reward system, making us engage in certain behaviours, we call our instincts. Instincts are the innate or inborn drivers of all animal behaviour, not excluding humans. They are inconceivably ancient. So old, in fact, that your instincts are pre-human! They are the most basic behavioural programmes written into all animal DNA over a truly mind-boggling span of time. They were already well-formed long before human language or tools or culture, before hominids took to two legs, before the great dinosaurs roamed the earth and were snuffed out in a global cataclysm, before mammals evolved and even before the first primitive creatures slithered out of the foam onto the barren beaches of a treeless and toxic world. In the murky depths of the primordial seas, half a billion years ago, the first animals, our ancestors, the ancestors of all animals, rehearsed these most basic instinctual behaviours - they chased, they devoured, they fled, they hid, they fought and they reproduced.

So the satisfaction of these instinctual needs is crucial to the happiness dynamic and we are rewarded by our brains when we do well. But it ain’t all gravy. There is a flipside. Pain and fear. You put your hand in the fire and your brain will let you know about it, pronto, because damaging the body has definitely not been conducive to reproductive success in your evolutionary lineage. Pain is almost always a sign that you are going wrong as far as the brain reward centre is concerned.

Likewise, humans have instinctive fears, for example, heights, confined spaces, deep water, spiders and snakes. It’s pretty obvious that a healthy fear of heights can reduce the risks of extinction for your lineage and snakes can fuck you up. You get a glimpse of that uncanny slithering in the periphery of your vision and your brain instantly floods your body with cortisol and adrenaline. Your central nervous system lights up in response to an intense spike of neurochemicals. This is why you can be pretty sure that plants do not feel fear or pain. They cannot run away and they cannot lash out at a ruminant that is munching at their young shoots. Fear and pain in plants would serve no practical function in evolutionary terms. But you – you can avoid the crumbing precipice on the cliff-tops, you can run from the sabre-toothed tiger, and you can fight it if you have no alternative, so pain and fear have evolved in organisms that are mobile (that have ‘locomotion’ to use a term from biology) as practical signals conducive to evolutionary success. Fear and pain are essential if you are to live at all, unfortunately.

Of course, you don’t just move around to avoid hazards, you move around to get the things you want too. Food and sex seem to be the most basic desirables. You can imagine a more primitive form of life, a gelatinous splodge with appendages, rooted, immobile at the bottom of the ocean. It filter-feeds on any organic particles that happen to drift by, once in a while releasing its sperm or eggs into the currents in the hope that they might drift over the reproductive appendages of another sexually active splodge. This is a strategy that the military call ‘spray and pray’, though with them it aims at a different result.

Our splodge lives a simple, passive existence. Evolving the ability to move so the splodge can chase its dinner and its potential suitors, as well as escaping from local perils, is a move to an active existence. And that’s you. You have to get off your backside and go get dinner (or the means to pay for dinner) and you have to go and charm another sexually viable splodge if you are to procreate. It’s harder work than sitting rooted to the ocean floor and you need more sophisticated tools for this more complicated existence: heighted senses, greater intelligence, keen spatial and temporal awareness. But this more demanding, active existence means you have a chance to get bigger, more tasty, more nourishing dinners. And instead of just opportunistically broadcasting your eggs or sperm and hoping something, somewhere sticks, you can pursue your splodge of choice (as well as avoiding amorous splodges that you don’t care to muddle your genes with). Then, when you get out there and grab the things that you want, be it fancy dinners or sex with attractive splodges, you get to enjoy that greatest of all things, the happiness buzz.

We must end here, but there is yet more dissection to be undertaken if we are to understand the true anatomy of happiness. This work will continue in the next post where you will find out why we are all just degenerate junkies enslaved to a dealer who is a cold, emotionless, nihilistic robot. Additionally, I stated above that food and sex ‘seem’ to be the most basic desirables. Nietzsche thinks there is something even more fundamental than these. Perhaps you can already guess what that is?

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