I am intrigued by the interplay between the following:
1) People always want a little bit more than they have.
2) The economic and political systems built on this instinct are conquering the world.
3) Yet there is no correlation between owning a little bit more and happiness. Instead, the long-term effect of everyone seeking to own a little bit more could be calamitous.
Historically, religious figures have appealed to people to overrule their greed with a concern for some higher good. In our supposed scientific age, these arguments have lost their force. Instead our public affairs are governed by the idea that people should just be free as much as possible to choose what they want.
But what if people are programmed to make choices that are not in their own best long-term interest? Suppose we discovered that what we instinctively thought would bring us happiness is an illusion created by our human-gene-built brains to induce human-gene-spreading behavior?
Today's evolutionary psychologists provide compelling arguments why this picture might be accurate. A species programmed to acquire stuff might well spread itself successfully across the globe. But evolution is blind. It has no plan regarding what might happen to that species when the globe has been conquered. And in the meantime our genes don't give a damn about our happiness. For them it's just another propagation technology... perhaps made doubly efficient by ensuring the carrot is yanked away each time it comes within reach. To achieve true happiness we may need to be a great deal wiser than the loudest demons in our head would suggest.
Will the new model of "Why We Are The Way We Are" finally convince us that our political and economic systems, and the assumptions on which they are based, are dangerously flawed. (The"problem isn't just the economists' assumption that "greed is good", or the politicians' assumption of politics that "growth is good'. We've all been brought up to believe: "natural is good". As if it weren't the most natural thing in the world for a planet to self-destruct.)
And how long will it take for the new ideas to have any impact? (What if it were to take 50 years? In an era of exponential growth, and accelerating technological change, can we afford even 10?)
More generally, can memes that have evolved in a single generation countermand the influence of genes that evolved over millions of years?