Acquisition, Preservation against loss, and Perpetuation: The Basic Drives Underlying Biology & Evolution As Expressed in Human Psychology & Culture
Are there certain primal (core), universal traits or drives which act as a kind of behavioral template for our species? Which give rise to and are expressed in terms of our basic individual and collective behavior? A biological version of the Holy Grail of Physics – Grand Unification? (In a word, a small number of natural drives or instincts which undergird and give rise to much of human behavior?)
In concert with Darwin, William James, E. O. Wilson, and innumerable others, I would respond with a resounding “yes”. And like them, I believe that the origins of the “psychobiological template” were forged in the crucible of evolution.
In June of 1998, the notion of fundamental or primal drives was big news. Researchers at Ohio State University conducted an extensive study and concluded that there are 15 desires which underlie most human behavior. “Nearly everything important a human being wants can be reduced to one or more of these 15 core desires, most of which have a genetic basis,” said Steven Reiss, co-author of the study and a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Ohio State University. “These desires are what guide our actions. In a sense, we are studying the meaning of life.”
This body of research was published in the June 1998 issue of the Journal of Psychological Assessment.
These are the 15 basic or fundamental human desires and values revealed by the Reiss et al study:
Curiosity – desire to learn
Food – desire to eat
Honor – (morality) desire to behave in accordance with code of conduct
Rejection – fear of social rejection
Sex – desire for sexual behavior and fantasies
Physical exercise – desire for physical activity
Order – desired amount of organization in daily life .
Independence – desire to make own decisions
Vengeance – desire to retaliate when offended
Social Contact – desire to be in the company of others
Family – desire to spend time with own family
Social Prestige – desire for prestige and positive attention
Aversive Sensations – aversion to pain and anxiety
Citizenship – desire for public service and social justice
Power – desire to influence people
I, on the other hand, would argue that there are 3 basic or core drives which include and subsume Reiss’s fifteen. Briefly:
Life at its most fundamental level involves acquisition of resources to insure survival, prevention of loss or compromise of resources vital to life, and the perpetuation of the genome (Reproduction). Those traits and behaviors which help an individual satisfy these life-sustaining and preserving “essentials” are selected for; that is, they get the job done – are adaptive – and thus lend those who possess them to leave behind viable offspring (This is known as differential reproduction in biological parlance).
Acquisition, prevention of loss (defense), and perpetuation lie at the heart of biology and its explosive success on this planet. As such one would expect to see them conserved throughout the course of biological evolution with discernible expression in the individual and collective behavior of “higher” animals. This does indeed appear to be the case.
The acquisition of adequate food, water, shelter and warmth to sustain life is obviously a high priority. If not met, we die off. It is that simple. How we secure these necessities is the stuff of which everything from clans to tribal cultures to first world nation-states and economies are built on. In the long run it behooves a collection of social creatures (people) to cooperatively nail down the basics of life. If each person is left to their own devices – or selfishness or cheating is considered a virtue – human survival on the whole is adversely affected. In this sort of society a few survive and thrive at the expense of the less capable, but theirs is an existence which is given to conflict and xenophobia, if not downright paranoia. One-upmanship can be carried to the point of mutual extermination.
Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow rather brilliantly and succinctly captured this in his various works on human conduct and psychology. The first order of acquisition is the physiological basics. Once these are met, we are individually and collectively more at liberty to explore other wants, desires and needs (Internet keyword phrase: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs).
The man or woman who goes out to work in order to provide for self and family is satisfying the biologic imperative to acquire that which will help guarantee survival. It is universally recognized and in our culture elevated to the level of being a virtue (Protestant Work Ethic).
In most cases, mature humans concurrently seek to satisfy the physiological basics and reproduce. Both are expressions of resource acquisition. Procreation is fundamental to the preservation of the species. It also furnishes the parents with both an investment and a resource; that is, an investment in the sense that the necessities of life, love, nurturing, etc., are directed at producing healthy, viable progeny who will not only carry the family germ line into the future, but provide the parents with “dividends” (resources) in terms of psychological, (possibly) material support, comfort, grandchildren, etc.
But not every parent does a great job of child rearing and not every child comes out right. Acquisition is the drive, but its expression can be thwarted, perverted or nullified. Adaptive traits such as ambition, competitiveness, willingness to negotiate and compromise for mutual benefit, the quest for power over circumstances, etc., can become maladaptive if pushed to extremes, seriously thwarted or otherwise corrupted. The ambition/competitiveness which encourages a father and/or mother to secure employment and work hard can become unbridled and give way to negative manifestations of this: Workaholism, coworker envy, greed, etc. The flip side of emotional satisfaction and sexual gratification (Acquisition) can be obsession, sexual addiction, narcissism, and neurosis. If these defects do not destroy the family structure or sacrifice the ability of progeny to cope with the world and lead successful lives, the family unit limps on. If the degree of dysfunction is seriously pathological, the family unit disintegrates and the effects ripple through the ensuing generations. If transgenerational maladaptive behaviors are not altered and more healthy patterns established, the dysfunctional line may go extinct through various adverse means: Suicide, homicide, infertility, socioeconomic marginalization to the point of starvation, compromise of hygiene and health with resultant onset of acute and/or chronic disease, et cetera.
Maladaptive traits can, in a social context, bring about conditions and responses (both within and outside the family) which essentially select the dysfunctional family member or unit out of existence. Of course, a society can enact programs which blunt this selection or winnowing process. When looked at as an investment which may return dividends to a given society down the line, this species of altruism is probably a wise form of cultural, if not species ” insurance”.
As indicated (above), acquisition is derived from and informed by biology. We can see this very readily in human mating patterns: Men and women exhibit courtship/mating preferences and post-marital patterns which reflect differential parental investment in offspring. Women, who invest more biological and personal resources into bringing children (gestation) into the world, would tend to seek out a mate who will produce genetically healthy children and help sustain them (Bring home at least part of the bacon). And since it is often women who invest the most in terms of time and energy in rearing progeny, they would naturally be inclined to select a mate who will be both emotionally faithful and actively involved in the support and protection of the family unit. Men, on the other hand, who invest little in the reproductive process (“sperm donors” is an apt term) and are apparently hormonally driven to maximize reproductive opportunities, would be more inclined to get progeny into the world and on their way through life, and then seek out other mating opportunities. This is exactly what cross cultural statistics indicates. Most divorces occur during or following the fourth year of marriage, just after the first child or two has been born and reached a sufficient age to suggest that “smooth sailing” is ahead, i.e., the child(ren) are healthy and viable, and will most likely remain so. Of course, this isn’t fair from most religious and ethical perspectives. Indeed, our society has enacted legislation to penalize men who abandon their family and eschew material (and possibly some degree of emotional) support for the children they have sired. But it (divorce) is a fact which appears to reflect a pronounced biological tendency in males.
Societies have various solutions to keeping men committed to the marriage and family. In over 85% of human cultures, polygamy is the order of the day. This is obviously one way in which a man can “have his cake and eat it to”, i.e., stay true to his first mate and offspring – while maximizing his reproductive opportunities. (Of course, polygamous unions have their built in limits – namely, resources. If the resources necessary to sustain the family are seriously compromised, the intrafamily dynamic can be strained and even rupture). In some of the societies which have outlawed polygamy, women tolerate their men having mistresses and “one night stands”. This is not to say either approach is ethical in the classic Judeo-Christian sense, but it does bear testimony to what both men and women will do to accommodate biological propensities. Again, this “battle of the sexes” (or battle for sex) reflects the basic acquisition drive (mates, progeny, security, protection, etc.) informed by biology.
Once women and men fully comprehend the desire to acquire through a biological/Darwinian lens, certain behavioral traits and tendencies become not only explicable, but potentially amenable to intervention and modification.
On a larger scale, acquisition finds expression in the activities of nation-states. Many of history’s most successful conquerors were expressly bent on expanding the economic and other resources available to the nation or confederation of nations they led. Other members of this fraternity apparently had in mind their own glorification, if not deification. However, the people who followed these megalomaniacs on wars of conquest did (and still do so) so for reasons more often practical or “down to Earth” then not: The major player being patriotism/nationalism, which boils down to protecting existing resources from real or perceived enemies and/or acquiring more resources (In the past, war and voyages of exploration/conquest and commercial gain brought a welcomed human resource to many nations: Namely, slaves). The justification for bloody conquest can be as straightforward as the desire for booty – xenophobic clashes born of differences in culture, language, etc. – or as esoteric as assumed racial or ethnic superiority packaged as a mandate to conquer and even exterminate the untermenschen [The race(s) and/or ethnic group(s) deemed inferior]. The manifestations are many and varied, but the underlying drive is biological (Acquisition).
Consider the embrace of virulent racism and dictatorship by technologically advanced, seemingly “civilized” cultures in the early to middle part of this century:
The rise of fascism in Europe and the Far East in the 1920s and 1930s was the stepchild of economic depression and resultant privation (Loss and compromise of resources). Whether men such as Adolf Hitler truly cared for the people they led is both doubtful and irrelevant; that he possessed the insight to artfully exploit the human desire to protect resources and acquire new ones (to flourish) is born out by the slogans and propaganda he and his cronies employed to garner popular support for the Nazi Party (NSDAP). One example: Fur freiheit und brot! (Translated: For freedom and bread). The fact the Nazis passed out free bread to hungry, unemployed Germans – thus linking Nazism with the acquisition and distribution of resources – was not lost on the common people. The interplay of post-WWI political unrest, loss of resources and national pride, scapegoating fueled by long-standing xenophobia and prejudice, and a national tendency towards fervent militarism set the stage for the ascent of the Nazis. The almost idolatrous homage paid the Fuhrer (Hitler) by a nation-state grateful to have its glory (Resources) restored and expanded becomes perfectly explicable when viewed as a manifestation of human evolved nature. The Nazis, of course, took adaptive traits to unhealthy, maladaptive extremes. This flip side of acquisition – blatant evil – was proximally successfully, but ultimately catastrophic [And thus Nazi Germany decisively armed the history-based observation/axiom that oppressive dictatorships, especially those predicated on elitism and calculated violence, actually exploits (in the name of liberation) and then stifles the basic human drive to acquire, retain and protect resources. What begins as a successful shortcut to gain for the masses and its leaders succumbs to the maladaptive extremes it was both born of and generates. e.g., sadism, conflict, and perversion].
The democratic approach to generating opportunities for resource acquisition and distribution exemplified by the American sociopolitical and economic system would appear, despite all its pitfalls and failings, to offer the most benign and yet productive framework for expressing the basic human drive to acquire. That is, adaptive traits are actually accommodated if not nurtured by the law of the land, i.e., freedom is granted to the citizenry to pursue material gain, a mate of one’s choice, sire progeny, etc., while the law concomitantly penalizes those who attempt to usurp or monopolize resources, blatantly steal them or employ them in such a way as to bring greater harm than good. This is not to say there are not inequities, injustices, and the marginalization of many citizens. However, the sociopolitical means exist to redress these, up to and including completely voting in a new form of government. It is conceivable that one day Americans may elect to marry political democracy to economic democracy, so as to more equitably distribute resources and thus insure that the existing poverty-stricken, marginalized underclass does not grow or become a permanent sociopolitical feature. Many European nations have been and are experimenting with various permutations of social democracy or democratic socialism to achieve this very end. Whether Americans will find wisdom in this trend and thus adapt some form of it as national policy remains to be seen. At any rate, the American political experiment would appear to both free and restrict the drive to acquire in such a way as to favor the common good.
l Protection from Loss
What we acquire (develop or inherit), e.g., good health, resources (tangible and intangible), progeny, esteem, etc., we naturally seek to protect from loss or compromise. This is a basic, fundamental human activity, akin to if not derived from the survival instinct. What we as individuals and as social collectives (even nation-states) carve out we seek to insure against loss; to preserve, if not expand.
At the family unit level, men and women employ posturing, strength, the law or what-have-you to protect their mate, children, possessions, and possibly kin from inflicted loss or compromise (Whether on the part of others or nature). The rifle over the fireplace mantle and the insurance policy in the family strongbox are both tools for protecting the family against grievous loss. If one’s progeny, in particular, succumb to violent acts inflicted by others, the genetic imperative to produce and leave behind viable progeny is compromised (In essence one’s representation in the gene pool – the continuity of the family germ line – is threatened).
In certain tribal communities this propensity to protect may take the form of ruling counsels and military chieftains. Field commanders essentially lead villagers to fend off attacks aimed at compromising the village’s integrity (Both its existence & established resource base). In larger collectives such as the nation-states, we have professional armies and navies whose sole task is to defend the populace against aggression from other nations bent on conquest (Acquisition of resources).
The adaptive role of protection is so self-evident, most peoples have written it into their religious and national codes of law. For example: If a man or woman kills an intruder who is perceived to threaten life or limb, that person is held blameless.
Of course, the basic drive to protect can be pushed to or assume maladaptive extremes. People can and do twist “protecting what’s mine” into a pretext for smothering possessiveness, greed, envy and even the pathological control of others. Fear of loss or a desire to limit the possibility of it occurring – say, a mate taking a lover or running off (Read: Resource compromise or loss) – can turn a protective stance into a “fortress mentality”. Authoritarian-prone leaders of nations sometimes fall prey to a similar mindset – played out on a grander scale. The end result of both is predictably bleak.
To seek to perpetuate one’s germline line and resources (material gains/immaterial contributions & legacy) into the future is a natural partner and outgrowth of both acquisition and protection. One acquires resources, a mate, and has children, all the while engaged in trying to protect this accumulated treasure-trove in order to perpetuate biological (and personal) presence in the world of today and far beyond. In most other animals, the drive to acquire and protect biological and material resources is instinctive and perpetuation the reward for success. In humans, perpetuation is all this and more: It is distinguished by being simultaneously a natural drive and a conscious objective. This is, I contend, an outgrowth of our unique cognizance of our own mortality (Something no other extant animal species shares).
Consider: While religious faith comforts and reassures believers concerning a transcendent postmortem reality (Afterlife)* – which is adaptive in terms of reducing anxiety surrounding death, dissolution of self, etc. – it seldom totally liberates individuals from the deep-seated notion that the only certain immortality is found in progeny (and/or kin – especially for those sterile or not given to reproduce for whatever reason) and in acquiring those resources which nurture the familial line and thus better insure it’s continuity. This unconscious element no doubt finds expression in conscious planning with regard to perpetuation of self in various guises: Offspring (being primary); ideas and memories passed down through kin, friends, and others; businesses or other enterprises which bear one’s name as both legacy and “physical presence” in the world that lies beyond our demise; et cetera. No doubt the modern cryogenic preservation of the dead in hopes of future reanimation reflects this very human drive to both perpetuate and be perpetual.
Given this human tendency rooted in biology, it should come as no surprise that “To die to self’ is no easier to achieve in our day than when first articulated by Rabbi Yehoshua (“Jesus of Nazareth”) nearly two thousand years ago. Yes, we do have many examples of people who die for strangers. St. Maximilian Kolbe took the place of a married man condemned to be starved to death at Auschwitz death camp during World War II. Newspapers routinely contain accounts of people of all ages sacrificing their own lives to spare others certain death. Are these acts consonant with our nature or do they transcend them? Perhaps both. Kolbe laid down his human life in order to acquire what he counted a greater reward: A place in God’s realm. He compromised the drive to “preserve” in order to “acquire” something of far greater value. Many who sacrifice themselves no doubt have internalized (and act out of) similar religious beliefs and convictions. While on the other hand, the sacrificial and heroic acts of at least some are born on the heels of a deep seated desire to gain more tangible rewards, such as recognition, honor, and material compensation. Some folks probably blend the two. At any rate, self-sacrifice would appear to both harmonize with and transcend the basic or primal drives.
As perpetuation is an adaptive trait, it follows that it has a dark side. We need look no further than individuals who build business empires and continue seeking to acquire more, even when this actually uproots and destroys other business and their employees. The reasons given include “it is challenging”, “the quest for more is an end in itself*, “it benefits the economy and thus society at large” etc. Are these the underlying motivations or mere rationalizations offered for a much deeper desire? That is, are we not witnessing the conscious desire to perpetuate oneself turned full throttle? Is the flip side of perpetuation an insatiable appetite for a species of influence and malignant self-aggrandizement which “immortalizes”? Do we see in history’s supreme narcissist, Adolf Hitler, the quest to perpetuate pushed to a lethally pathological level?
The 15 basic Desires/Values of Dr. Reiss et al as Expressions of the 3 Primal Drives
NOTE: Actually there is a great deal of overlap possible here. Power over others, for example, can help one acquire, preserve against loss, and perpetuate one’s legacy. The main point is: All 15 are expressions of the three fundamental or core drives.
l Concluding Polemic & Summation
Our brains were shaped over many millions of years in an environmental context few humans experience today (Gatherer-hunter). Our neurological wiring, so to speak, gives rise to the complex faculties we call “mind”. Given the survival advantages conferred on life by acquisition, prevention against loss (defense), and perpetuation – it follows that primate behavior should to some reflect a brain “wired” with these core or primal (adaptive) drives. And indeed, various primatological, ethnological, and anthropological field studies tend to validate this prediction. Our evolutionary siblings, the Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), form communities whose members engage in the sort of social interaction, competition, aggression, peacemaking, food gathering activities, hunting, play, and so forth which would be expected to have arisen (at least in part) from the underlying primal principles or drives outlined in this essay. The same can be said of the Bonobo (Pan paniscus) chimpanzee “culture”, which is characterized by an incredible degree of egalitarianism (though favoring matriarchy), sexual activity that is somewhat casual, and the defusing of aggression via sexual overtures and play. The nature and scope of acquisition, protection from loss, and perpetuation may be more subdued than is true of Pan troglodytes, but it is expressed nonetheless. That the primal drives are varied in terms of expression within and between primate communities (as well as human cultures) no doubt reflects biologic and environmental influences. Consider: Anger is a universal emotion in primates – an adaptive feature of our brains – which varies considerably in terms of expression. Biology and context both influence the degree of anger elicited and its discharge.
Human cultures vary too in terms of the influence and expression of the primal drives. In the Kung! San tribal culture (Kalahari), the community is essentially peaceful, there is a division of labor, e.g., men hunt, women gather plant foods, and disagreements are basically resolved via discussion. Families share possessions to a great degree with ownership per se being a “non-issue”. However, it should be noted that the Kung! have few material resources and live in a setting where natural resources are available, but do not readily facilitate the accumulation of “wealth” (They are also highly mobile – moving in order to more readily harvest seasonal plants and animals. As such, the Kung! peoples must literally pack up and carry their world about from one geographic locale to another. This discourages accumulating material goods not essential to survival). Historically, as various cultures situated in resource rich areas began to cultivate and exploit same, e.g., plant crops, create novel labor-saving implements, exploit minerals and gems to fashion tools, jewelry, etc., and thereby benefit in terms of material enrichment (intra- and extra-community trade), population growth, etc., conflicts were more likely to ensue. Thieves sought to steal food and goods. Armies sought to capture regions rich in material and human resources. Defensive strategies and technologies had to be created to protect people and assets. In short, acquisition, protection against loss, and perpetuation found more overt expression in step with resource growth (Material and human). This is true both of individuals, families, communities, and nation-states.
So there you have it. Acquisition (resource), protection from loss (defense), and perpetuation – the primal drives. A two edged sword, being both blessing and curse to us all. It is what lends most of us to work, build, have families, buy fire alarm systems and insurance policies, serve in civic organizations and the armed forces, etc., and in so doing create a valuable and enduring legacy. And for some that which builds gives way to the opposite – workaholism which robs children of one or both parents, material greed, envy, strife, power plays, manipulation, conflict and a whole host of other evils.
In a world awash in sophisticated weaponry, ancient hostilities, xenophobia and intolerance, we must not only recognize the primal drives and their expression, but identify (and employ) the best means to resist veering too far into the dark side of our evolved nature.
*Matters such as an afterlife rest on faith – which lies outside the purview of science.
Original copyright 1998, revised version copyright 2002 and 2018 by Dr. Anthony G. Payne. All rights reserved.