Human beings exhibit many behaviors that seem to confer no obvious benefit to survival and reproduction. More perplexing still, humans are easily capable of self-destructive behaviors that seem to fly in the face of self-interest and evolution. How on earth could selective processes have given rise to suicide?
Most people approach the question at a superficial level because they limit themselves to apologetics for their respective ideologies rather than getting to the meat of the matter.
How does suicide fit the pattern? Obviously, it must be a manifestation of a selected trait or it wouldn’t exist.
Most people seem to fail to make a critical jump: A possible negative outcome of a trait hardly negates its overall beneficiality.
Every trait means sacrifice and drawbacks. Advantage in one area means a handicap in another.
Amongst human populations:
Sub-Saharan Africans have an unusually high occurrence of sickle cell anemia. This blood disease has proved over time to be a net benefit because it provides an extra defense against malaria.
So if we were to replace ‘blood disease’ with ‘suicide’, what is the net benefit?
My supposition: suicide is an ‘unintended’ offshoot of the human ability to consider the future and plan ahead. This is the ability that allows people to figure out how much food to store for the winter/dry season, to keep track of the seasons and figure out what foods will be available, to anticipate what a hunted animal(or a fellow human) will do next.
This ability confers enormous advantages, but it also includes handicaps. If people develop a general ability to reason, there is large potential for evolutionarily ‘unintended’ consequences.
The same processes of selection that enabled self-awareness and reason opened up the possibility that someone could malfunction in the evolutionary sense. It became perfectly possible to reason that if life was unbearably painful and without hope for future improvement: it isn’t so hard to make it all stop. The logical solution: end one’s own life.
Just as African resistance to malaria is inseparable from blood disease, so is the ability to plan out food storage inseparable from the potential for suicide. One begets the other.
There’s only so many things that could go wrong with sharp claws. I figure that the more complex a given survival strategy becomes, the more possible bugs there could be in the program.
As such, selective processes undoubtedly serve as a debugging team for humanity. Obviously people aren’t going to have as many children if they end up committing suicide early on.
So it makes sense that survivors felt little inclination to kill themselves. If I were to try to harm my own body today, my every impulse would rail against it. I am the product of millennia of ancestors who forwent suicide(at least long enough to have kids first).
Yet, nature’s debugging crew seems in many ways woefully inadequate, especially when it comes to modern societies that change radically multiple times within the space of a single generation.
But this is hardly anything new. Even when society’s rate of change was far less, people still exhibited all the traits that strike us to this day as extra-evolutionary.
In fact most of the human joys of life seem strangely distant from raw and basic survival behavior.
Why on earth are we able to take joy in life aside from eating, defecating, and having sex?
Surely the answer is the same as with suicide. Our capacity for survival pleasures has obviously overflowed into completely ‘unintended’ realms such as aesthetic appreciation of nature and of the arts.
Strangely and amusingly, most of what we deem to make life worthwhile is on some level a hack of the system that nature passed down to us. Even the basic ability to make logical connections seems to have many possibilities that the debugging team cannot account for without first crippling the original adaptation.
(i.e in C++ one cannot entirely remove the possibility of a dangling pointer without removing pointers)
On another level still are the mystics. For thousands of years, they have been the tax code lawyers of our evolutionary legacy. Truly, one of humanity’s ancient disciplines is the art of finding loopholes in the code of human potential and exploiting them to the fullest!