Darwin’s Curse and another fine mess …

Posted on: Sunday, 23 June 2013
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SB wonders at how we got ourselves in this mess.

As the smoke clears on a troubled economic landscape and we test out the extent of our newly-forged shackles of mortgage and debt, amongst the blame and the recrimination we might wonder: “How did we get ourselves into this mess”.  How did we, as the historian Theodore Zeldin might put it, become “voluntary slaves” surrendering liberty for the main chance.

Voluntary Slavery

Well, according to Zeldin, there is a long and established tradition of choosing slavery as a means of getting on. It was a feature of many great civilisations – the Ottoman Empire was practically run by an army of voluntary slaves many of whom became very powerful and are, as he wryly notes, the ancestors of today’s modern executives.

Voluntary slavery differs from traditional slavery in that we make the choice to be enslaved We might have discovered the extent of our slavery only recently but we sold our freedom long ago, encircling ourselves with debt and deference to seek power and status, when things seemed so positive and exciting,

Darwin’s Curse

Yet it is not as if we have an overwhelming predisposition to seek slavery. There is a potent drive in the opposite disposition in virtually all of us, a kind of audacity “gene” prompting us to break free and respond to the possibility to do or to be something else.  OK it sometimes well hidden, a little more than an existential itch, but it’s there all the same: a streak of adventurous and rebellious restlessness.

So many of us get caught snared by “Darwin’s Curse” –an  evolutionary dilemma in that we are not one thing or another, we are one thing and another.  We contain what someone once called ‘interdependent opposites’ This is our evolutionary heritage that has made us the most adaptable of the Great Apes. On the one hand we are called to settle down, belong to a community for we are, as evolutionary psychologists point out ‘tribal’ in nature. We are hard wired to want to belong in some way. On the other hand we also seek to respond to the possibility, potential and difference in world around us, a sense we have of an alternative, next-to-world running alongside us whispering of the potential for something more exciting, more compelling. It is this that makes us curious for the sea, the mountain and open road.

Might this be a particular ‘human thing’ something that distinguishes us from other animals, this need to embrace the status quo and to reject it? It is the source of that allows us to change and adapt whilst maintaining as ourselves in coherent social groups.  But opposites seem to mean you have to choose one and give up on the pleasures and rewards of the other.

False solutions

And the boom years seem to offer a solution that by joining in with the status quo, following others, doing what the neighbours were doing, we could have our paradoxical cake and eat it. The wealth those years seemed to promise that it would enable us to be more adventurous, to change, to gain new experiences. But more than this, in themselves, the solutions on offer were exciting, there was the taste of competition the thrill of defying expectations. We even managed to make banking and building sexy! So if that meant we surrendered a bit more of our freedom, became voluntary slaves, wore the corporate suit, took on the mega-mortgage, so be it! Was it our need for adventure and change that paradoxically bound us in chains?

But as Carl Jung once said “The greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble, they can never be solved only outgrown.” And being a voluntary slave with its emphasis on fitting in, dancing to another man’s tune could never deliver us freedom and make us fulfilled. You can’t manage a paradox by focusing only on one aspect of it and if you try perhaps you inevitably get the worst of it.

Breaking Free

So where do we go from here? How do we respond to Darwin’s Curse? The implicit challenge is to embrace our inconsistency and perhaps our foolishness and move on. It is not for most of us to give up wanting seek achievement and change and other such worldly things.  But perhaps the experience of the last few years can teach us to be mindful of the trade-offs that we make; to avoid signing up to things that on consideration make us feel less strong, more dependent upon the whim of others, to embrace the rich of the world we already we have more fully.


Steve Bonham is the author of A Little Nostalgia For Freedom. Pub 2013 by Matador. Available in good bookshops, On Amazon and at

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