In order to be treated well, others in your community had to value you enough to protect you, share food with you, and help take care of your children. If they found out you were diseased, physically weak, stealing stuff, acting sexually out of the mainstream, etc., they might not deem you worthy of their help — they would “devalue” you.
As far as biologists can tell, organisms on this planet have one job: to make more of ourselves before we die. The behaviors that go along with that — finding food, selecting mates, figuring out how to not die today — are all just ways we all support this one biological imperative.
But from there, things get complicated. It’s pretty clear, for instance, why a cheetah would have evolved lightning speed. But why would a panda, who at one point evolved the gut of a carnivore, sit around eating bamboo all day? And it’s fairly obvious how living in cooperative social groups has helped humans claw their way to the top of the pile, but a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looks at why we evolved one human behavior — feeling shame — that, at first glance, seems to do us more harm than than good.
Shame doesn’t make intuitive sense. It causes pain — a feeling usually reserved for helping us avoid damaging our physical body tissue — and often makes us act against our own best interests. Shame is an emotion responsible for the lies we tell, the paranoia and depression we feel, and can sometimes lead to dramatically self-damaging behavior.
But researchers at University of California Santa Barbara claim to have discovered an evolutionary root of human shame, and argue that it’s necessary for the complex navigation required by living in a tight-knit community.
“Our human ancestors in the African savanna lived in a world without nation states, a police force, supermarkets, social security or savings accounts,” says study lead author Dr. Daniel Sznycer, of the UC Santa Barbara’s Center for Evolutionary Psychology. “Because of this, your reputation was even more important 100,000 years ago than it is today.”