Evolution: The Sad End Of "Happily Ever After"

Uncovering our unconscious desire for the "perma-win"

Posted Feb 16, 2016

Evolution-deniers have long objected to the theory because it ignores God’s role and suggests that we descended from apes.

I don’t bet that’s what bothers them most.

Evolutionary theory delivers a far more disturbing cosmic wedgie than that. It undermines a dream we hold very dear even if we don’t realize it: the fantasy of happily ever after – winning once and for all.

Evolutionary theory demonstrates that losing is as much a part of life as winning and that winning is temporary and context dependent. The winning strategy here and now is never the universal winning strategy. There are no eternal winning formulas, no paths to the “perma-win.”

The dream of perma-winning lives in all of us. “Happily ever after” is the most pleasing end to all stories. Perma-winning is the goal and claim of most religions and political ideologies.

Though we dismiss panaceas as unrealistic, they’re teased all around us, in lotteries, ads, mega-church teachings, articles offering the key to success and in the mesmerizing appeal of leaders who treat winners and losers as two distinct species, the winners guaranteed to win forever; the losers doomed to fail forever.

Such promises of panacea wouldn’t be supplied if there were no demand.

According to Pew Research Center, three quarters of Americans believe in heaven, the ultimate perma-win attainable by some sure-fire spiritual formula. Life, by such accounts is like a crossword puzzle. The answer already exists waiting for you to discover it. Once you do, it’s yours forever with all its security and rewards.

Our yearning for a perma-win lurks unconsciously. To get a sense of it, think about some very rough patch in your life. Or imagine an extreme case like trying to scramble to safety in one of the twin towers on 9/11.

You don’t know which paths, if any, can lead to safety. You see people guessing wrong all around you, losing, failing, dying. You desperately want to avoid their fate, but how?

Wouldn’t you dream of an escape from such ultimate-stakes uncertainty? If you got out alive, wouldn’t you crave some guarantee that you never have to be in such situation again? Wouldn’t you scramble to find some high, safe plateau from which you could never fall?

Darwin’s non-fiction reveals that there is no plateau. The ground is forever shaky. The terror played out in hours on 9/11, in evolutionary theory plays out over geological time. In evolution’s mercurial trial and error process, no one is ever really safe. There is no universal key to success in evolutionary history. The closest to a universal key is “whatever works...for now, subject to change.”

Evolutionary theory is the end of the determinism we crave. And yes, we crave a kind of determinism, not total determinism, but the kind that secures a stable, elevated floor beneath us. We don’t want the freedom to fail, just the freedom to succeed. On freedom vs. determinism we want a ratchet, deterministic, locked-in advantage and freedom to climb to higher advantage.

Ideologues who crave a perma-win have long found support for their ideologies from evolutionary theory’s argument that there would always be winners and losers. When Darwin first introduced his theory, three ideologies leapt on it as evidence that they owned the perma-winning strategies. Social Darwinists declared that the theory proved that the rich were the perma-winners, Marxists declared that it proved that laborers were the perma-winners, and Nazi’s declared that it proved that Arians were the perma-winners.

I’m guessing that a lot of Trump’s appeal – and the appeal of wealth, fame and success in general, is the appeal of the ‘happily ever after dream.” Trump talks about winners and losers as though context doesn’t matter at all. By his account, he’s a perma-winner. He has what it takes – not what it takes today but what it takes always and forever.

I’m guessing also that the more of our lives we spend in desperate uncertainty the more the dream of perma-winning burns in us. Who buys lottery tickets? Mostly the poor and desperate.

Who buys Trump? They claim to be the brave and brazen but I suspect that their desperate craving for a perma-win drives a lot of their support for Trump.