The illusion of individualism helped us succeed as a species – but now the scales are tipping © Getty Images

The illusion of individualism helped us succeed as a species – but now the scales are tipping

Our sense of self helped us to learn from past experiences and teach others, but now, it has made us lonely and put the planet in crisis.

Have you ever looked in the mirror in a reflective mood and asked ‘Who really am I?’ or ‘Why I am here’? Unfortunately, science can’t answer these deep questions about the meaning of life, but it can reveal ‘how’ we got to be here. This understanding puts us on a surer footing to then answering those intriguing why questions.

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So, how are we here? In short, we evolved, both biologically and culturally. We evolved brains that through continual flashes of electricity around neural networks support minds; minds which can conceive of others and themselves as distinct entities.

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A number of other animals are intelligent enough to recognise themselves in a mirror: elephants, dolphins, magpies and even some fish, yet it is controversial as to whether other animals besides humans have a ‘Theory of Mind’– the ability to predict mental states, such as desires and beliefs. It’s likely that no other animals have quite the same sense of self-identity as humans, formed through interactions in our complex societies.

Our sense of self is an essential ingredient to our success as a species. Maintaining a self-identity means we can tie together a coherent set of memories, helping us to perform better based on past experiences. For example, it allowed our human ancestors to remember new techniques to find food and shelter. Recalling a memory of digging in the ground using a tool to find edible roots, for example, would allow us to repeat the new trick and show it to others.

A second benefit is the ability to track complex social interactions in human groups, allowing individuals to achieve higher social status, convince others to work to help them, and obtain mates. Recent neuroscientific studies find that during much of the ‘spare’ time of the brain, when not carrying out autonomous cognitive tasks, it is not resting but rather very active. When we are daydreaming or sleeping the brain is actually intensely active, and it turns out the activity is in the same areas of the brain that control social interactions.

On a slightly different tack, the German theoretical philosopher Thomas Metzinger suggests a sense of self is necessary for important functions like reward prediction, highlighting how it only makes sense to plan for future success when you have a strong feeling that it’s going to be the same entity that gets the reward in the future.

Metzinger speculates that the intense activity of the brain during daydreaming and sleep is to provide ‘autobiographical self-model maintenance’, meaning the brain works hard to maintain the sense of a persistent personal identity across time.

Although a discrete sense of self-identity evolved to improve our individual success, there would have been checks on the degree of self-serving behaviour we could exhibit within groups. Group members would closely monitor each other, and if one were to steal food or spoil the home camp, they would be punished through physical beating, losing access to food or mates or, worst of all, excluded from the group.

We see such punishment of cheating in monkeys and apes, where dominant individuals punish subordinates who break the norms of reciprocal cooperation. Being a cheat in a small group is very bad for the group and, as a consequence, there is strong incentive for cheats to be weeded out and punished. It is also easier to identify cheats in a small group, so they are less likely to remain undetected.

Scientific studies across species from howler monkeys, wild dogs, to lemurs and wolves, support this prediction and find that cheating is less feasible for individuals in smaller groups and, consequently profitable only for individuals in larger groups.

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Early human groups would have had numbered in the tens of individuals, but over the course of our human evolution, social group size has continually increased: from family bands, to tribes, to settlements, to countries and to international groups. This could mean the checks and balances on cheating behaviour are now weaker, driving humans further along the continuum from cooperative behaviour to selfish individualism.

In the modern world, through simple actions – what we choose to buy, how we travel – we can impact habitats, species and other people across the globe. Although our economies have become globalised, our moral and legal frameworks have yet to catch up to prevent harmful impacts for our wider human group.

The outcome is a series of severe and ever-deepening global environmental crises: biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, air pollution, climate change, along with associated social injustices, that threaten our future prosperity.

What’s more, there are worrying signs we are becoming less happy in our modern societies. Individualism has increased over the last fifty years in the majority of countries, while incidences of anxiety, depression and self-harm and are also rising. Perhaps this is just a coincidental correlation, but psychological research confirms a linking mechanism: when we feel more isolated as lone individuals we tend to be more prone to anxiety.

Reader Q&A: Am I living in a simulation where nothing is real?

Versions of this idea have been discussed all the way back to antiquity. The modern interpretation was popularised by Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom in 2003 and has since been expanded by many others, including MIT professor Rizwan Virk.

The simulation argument supposes that computer power will continue to increase to the point where it is possible to model enough of reality to mimic everything that we are currently able to perceive and measure. This needn’t be as complex as a complete model of the Universe. The stars in the sky could be simulated just as points of light, with no other features until we point a telescope at one.

If we assume such simulations are possible, then it seems inevitable that there will be more than one; and thus, statistically, we are more likely to be in one of the simulations than the single ‘true’ reality.

Even if we one day manage to build such a simulation, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that we are nevertheless in a simulation of our own. In fact, we could be in a simulation within a simulation, within a simulation that extends endlessly above us. But all any of us will ever know is limited to what we can directly perceive, and whether our ‘reality’ is more or less real than some other version we can imagine is ultimately a fairly meaningless question.

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Where does this leave the narrative on the human evolution of self-identity? Evolved, biological traits become ‘maladaptive’ when conditions change and they are no longer useful but detrimental in the new environment. An example is our innate tendency to crave sugary and fatty foods.

This behaviour made sense in prehistoric environments where these food sources were scarce and valuable. In modern societies, however, these foods are superabundant, made more apparent and accessible through marketing. So, the biological trait in the modern world has become maladaptive.

In my book The Self Delusion, I argue that our sense of self-identity has become maladaptive by shifting too far along the cooperative-selfish continuum, towards a view of ourselves as isolated and entitled individuals.

This has occurred not only through economic globalisation (meaning our actions have hidden and widespread negative consequences that are hard to monitor and prevent), it has also been exacerbated by our modern culture: our education systems, encouraging you to build self-esteem or even to sell yourself as a personal ‘brand’; our advertising, constantly telling you ‘you’re worth it’; even our government, Margaret Thatcher famously telling us there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families.

All these cultural factors combine to push our sense of self ever further towards selfish individualism. Biological and cultural evolution are linked in a moving waltz that is growingly increasing out of control, harming both our personal health and that of the planet.

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What is the endgame of this evolution of human self-identity? If the pendulum of individualism has swung too far, perhaps it can be brought back in line before too much more suffering occurs?

Consider again the example of our evolved craving for sugary and fatty foods. It has led to an obesity epidemic (one quarter of the world’s population overweight or obese), yet if warnings such as the threat of developing diabetes, heart disease or any number of obesity-related ailments are well communicated, they can spur rationally minded people to change their behaviour and override the maladaptive cravings for junk food their genes impose upon them. Although still a huge global problem, there are some signs that obesity may have peaked in the UK and rates have slowed, even if not yet reversing.

If people are presented with evidence that excessive individualism is damaging, perhaps this information will help them to overcome this damaging affliction. New research in environmental psychology shows that when people feel more connected to others they are likely to be happier and less anxious. When they feel more connected to nature they are also happier and more likely to show pro-environmental behaviours, like reducing their carbon footprint.

What’s more, science from a wide range of disciplines, from biology to neuroscience to the study of social networks, is now dispelling the illusion that we exist as discrete independent entities. Our bodies are built from temporary materials scavenged from the environment, directed by DNA instructions that are simply borrowed from our ancestors and shared across web of life. Ask any psychologist and they will confirm that our minds are not independent but highly porous, connected to outside influences and changing all the time depending on our context.

Science now confirms with certainty that our sense of isolated individuality is a subjective illusion, a projection maintained through the evolved architecture of the brain. It seems, increasingly, however, to be a harmful one in the modern globalised context, at least when pushed to excess in combination with our modern culture.

So perhaps it is time to use our rational mind to overcome this illusion of isolated selfhood, to develop a more rebalanced communal and cooperative sense of self identity that is fit for purpose in the modern world? Perhaps it is time for the ‘unselfish meme’ to conquer the selfish gene?

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Of course, the arguments for why we should do this become moral and philosophical ones – questions of why we should help others and whether we deserve to be happy in ourselves. These ‘why’ questions are not for science, but hopefully understanding how our self-identify has arisen though a combination of biology and culture, and how it could evolve yet still, we are in a better position to look in the mirror again and work on those tricky questions.

The Self Delusion by Tom Oliver is out now (£20, Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

The Self Delusion by Tom Oliver is out now (£20, Weidenfeld & Nicolson).