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Welcome to the Contemplative Primate

Updated: Jan 18, 2022

When I was in my early 20s, I read Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape. Morris was a trained zoologist, and in the book, he applied the zoologist’s lens to human behavior, comparing it to the behavior of other primates. For most of my life, I had struggled to understand why humans did what they did. At some point, someone had taught that one of the things that set humans apart from animals was that we had the ability to reason. Yet so much of what I saw people do seemed patently irrational. Moreover, I struggled to understand my own inner life. Why did I have such strong emotions? They seemed so irrational too. What did they mean? Why did so many of my thoughts conflict with one another? Why was it so hard to follow through on what I had set my mind up to do?

The Naked Ape was a revelation for me. For the first time, human behavior began to make sense. As humans, we’re far closer to other primates than we liked to think, and our behavior follows suit. The nail in the coffin came when I read Robert Wrights’ The Moral Animal. The book was a primer on evolutionary psychology, a burgeoning field that analyzed human psychology in the context of evolution by natural selection. In short, human psychology, like human physiology, evolved to solve problems in our ancestral environment. Behaviors that were adaptive to our survival tended to propagate. Those that weren’t tended to die out.

For millions of years, our ancestors had lived in small tribes of about 100 to 150 people and had obtained food by hunting and gathering. Evolution had fine-tuned our physiology and psychology to solve the problems that such a lifestyle presented. Around 10,000 years ago, with the advent of agriculture, humans began to live in permanent settlements, and the rest is (literally) history. Human civilization and culture began to evolve at an exponentially increasing rate, and biological evolution did not keep pace. Our brains and bodies evolved to solve stone age problems, but we’re now living in a world that would be virtually unrecognizable to our ancestors.

Prior to reading The Moral Animal, psychology had seemed arbitrary to me, like a collection of facts without a unifying theme. Finally, it had begun to make sense, and along with it, my inner life. My emotions and thoughts were merely signals from a brain designed to do very different things than what I was trying to do. I wondered why I hadn’t learned any of this in school. What could be more important than understanding what I am (a primate) and why my mind worked the way it did (because it evolved to solve problems that we faced in our ancestral environment)?

I felt liberated, and the path forward now seemed so clear: When someone acts irrationally, simply recognize that they are a primate acting on their primate instincts. When I experience a difficult emotion, simply recognize it as the inner workings of a primate mind and let it go. Easy, right? Unfortunately not. Although human behavior had begun to make sense to me intellectually, applying this new knowledge to make my life easier proved more difficult than expected. For starters, I still hadn’t learned to communicate effectively. Telling someone in the midst of a disagreement that they’re acting like a primate doesn’t usually turn out too well. Furthermore, it really doesn’t make dealing with difficult emotions any easier. No matter how well I understood the origins of my emotions, they nevertheless kept arising and impelled me to act in what I deemed to be irrational ways.

Fortunately, I soon stumbled on a free online course entitled Buddhism and Modern Psychology taught by Robert Wright, the author of The Moral Animal. Once again, I felt like I had been struck by lightning. In the course, Wright explained how many of the insights about the mind from Buddhist psychology were borne out by findings from evolutionary psychology and modern neuroscience. Moreover, the Buddhists had developed a technique for learning to cope with difficult thoughts, feelings, and sensations. That technique was called meditation.

Prior to the course, I had tried meditating, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. Like many novice meditators, I thought that the goal of meditation was to clear my mind of thoughts, so I would sit on my bed and try really hard to have no thoughts. As anyone who has tried this before can attest, I was mentally exhausted after about five minutes. In Wright’s course, I learned that the essence of meditation wasn’t to have no thoughts but instead to train our concentration and awareness and to recognize the impermanence of our thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. In doing so, we can learn to find relief from psychological suffering.

In meditation, I had found a perfect complement to what I had learned about the primate origins of human behavior. If the mismatch between our evolved psychology and the imperatives of modern civilization was the diagnosis for much of the unhappiness I observed in the world, then meditation was the prescription. Inspired by Wright’s course, I began a daily meditation practice through which I steadily gained more insight into the workings of my own mind. Not only has meditation helped me to understand myself better, it has also helped me to take myself a little less seriously as I’ve observed the incessant and often ridiculous storytelling that goes on in my head.

Perhaps my greatest joy in life comes from understanding how the world works, both intellectually and experientially. For years, evolutionary psychology and Buddhist philosophy formed the foundation of my understanding. They were the lenses through which I analyzed every new idea and served me well as I navigated environments that were as seemingly different as they come: Almost seven years in the Army Special Forces, graduate school in physics and engineering, internships in finance and technology, and an MBA at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Although the costumes and jargon changed, at every step, I observed what I’ve started to call people doing people stuff.

For most of my life, I’ve kept my philosophical musings to myself. Recently, however, I’ve begun to share them with others, and I’ve found that helping someone to change their worldview is as satisfying to me as changing my own. So I decided to start the Contemplative Primate. The name reflects the two sources of knowledge that started the journey and that I continue to draw upon: Buddhism and evolutionary psychology. I still believe that we as humans in many ways behave much more similarly to primates than we’d like to think. Yet we also have the ability to reflect, contemplate our existence, and change our behavior.

When I first discovered Buddhism and evolutionary psychology, I was in my mid-20s, and like many 20-somethings, I thought I’d mostly figured things out. Since then, however, I’ve lost track of the number of times a new perspective has forced me to reexamine and rebuild my worldview. I’ve had the good fortune of an unusually broad education that has allowed me to draw connections between fields, and in addition to Buddhism and evolutionary psychology, I draw on insights from economics, physics, computer science, philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and various religious and contemplative traditions. Increasingly, the theme that unites these fields for me is a desire to integrate science and spirituality.

At this point, the only thing I am sure of is that eventually, some new insight will radically reorient the way I look at the world. To quote Socrates, the only thing I know now is that I know nothing. Nevertheless, I plan to continue exploring our place in the universe and how to live more fully as a human on Earth. The journey to understand has been the most thrilling part of my life, and I invite you to come along for the ride.

Welcome to the Contemplative Primate.

1 Comment

José Ramos
José Ramos
Jan 20, 2022

Well written Ian. I'd recommend the book The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward Wilson. I've had a similar journey to yours and a key element that I had been missing was understanding that we are a social species. Some of his work has been disputed regarding eusociality but it was very insightful. One of my meditation mentors has also encouraged me to think of meditation as a technology which has helped my practice.


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