Evolutionary Ambition and its Contemporary Effects
Updated: Mar 11
Most human systems, biological or social, develop in specific conditions that produce these systems and in some cases, the systems tend to exist, flourish and influence the human world even after the original conditions disappear. While biological systems may go obsolete under such conditions, many social systems prevalent today may be tracked to original causes that no longer exist. These outdated, yet flourishing systems, may prove detrimental or even devastating in the contemporary conditions. The collective human inadequacy to consciously modify these systems can result into undesirable consequences.
Ambition, by definition, is a strong desire to grow or achieve something and is considered a very natural human feature, arguably even a human instinct. This need to grow feels like a very natural way of being and may be said to be a key driver of the current order in which humankind prevails. The human order drives its individuals to be ambitious, to aspire towards deriving the most growth and achievement out of their lives, and thus rewards them with status and appreciation. Conversely, the order looks down upon those who do not achieve as much accordingly to fixed standards of judgement, thereby confusing a lack of ambition with a lack of capability. Such condescension in turn forces individuals to acquire an externally motivated ambition, thereby further strengthening the societal norms based upon a thoughtless self-sustaining movement. This psychological condition is now an inherent part of human society to an extent that ‘ambition’ is considered a virtue rather than a trait.
An inherent part of human society to an extent that ‘ambition’ is considered a virtue rather than a trait.
Needless to say, an individual’s need to grow and achieve is not entirely externally driven, nor ignorant. This need allows an individual to ensure survival, health and comfort for oneself and those cared for. It allows for a continued deliverance of life’s activities. However, it is strongly evident that ambition is more than a need to survive comfortably. It is more than maintaining a reputable social standard. It is more than being able to provide for those you care about. It seems to have become a thing in itself. While for the thinking minds, the purpose of life becomes an ambition; ambition becomes the purpose of life for the more programmed ones. This article is intended to discuss ambition only in its extravagant form, as a purpose in itself and that which keeps looking for more endlessly. It contemplates over the conditions that may have led to development of ambition in early apes and humans, how these conditions have changed over time and what effects ambition is delivering under these changed conditions.
While for the thinking minds, the purpose of life becomes an ambition; ambition becomes the purpose of life for the more programmed ones.
Ambition, in various forms can be seen in many lifeforms and not just humans. Mainly in pact animals where the being an alpha can be rewarding. Apes exhibit this behavior and are known to exist in complex hierarchical social systems within their pacts. Thus it makes sense to look for possible sources of ambition in the early periods of human development as our ancestors began making social groups.
These groups performed various activities that contributed to the overall sustenance of the group. Although not every member of the group could adequately perform all these activities, every member benefited from all these in some way or the other. Our hunter gatherer ancestors, for instance, had hunters who brought in the food, scouts who tracked animal movements and possible threats, craftsmen who developed adequate tools and so on. For any individual to survive in these conditions, which is to get necessary food and mate, it was critical that the individual is essential or at least important to the sustenance of group. With limited resources, the group could only afford to spend these on the ones deemed important. The irrelevant members, in most probabilities, were the last ones to receive their share of resources. Violence could no longer be considered the sole factor of domination in these complex groups. Hence, to prove one’s worth for the group was essential for survival in these early social structures. The irrelevant ones may starve, may fall prey to a predator without support from the group or may be killed without any hindrance to the group’s activities.
It can be posited that this need to prove oneself capable by achieving more than others in order to survive developed into ambition. Over the relatively longer span of human development where such was the case, this need to stand out became a part of human society and perhaps got ingrained in human psyche. This individual ambition became the foundation of countless developments, good and bad, in the recorded human history and has had a distinct role in shaping the world.
As development changed the social structure from small independent groups to bigger civilizations to a global interdependent community, the need to remain relevant has prevailed — as this, like older times, allows an individual to survive comfortably. However, the conditions are not at all the same, as technology has greatly influenced the world we today live in. With the extent of abundance of resources, control and predictability that technology has allowed us, availability of food, mate and comfortable living for all has become a possibility. The society — with its educational systems, industries, welfare bodies and human rights has developed into a machinery that is designed to provide livelihood to its members. This machinery, however, is not a very efficient one. Its members still starve, fall prey to modern predators and are killed. Thus in some senses, the current social structure may be considered to be an enlarged form of the older one — where individuals must outperform others to remain relevant and earn resources for one’s survival whereas the irrelevant ones may fade out. But unlike the olden times, the inefficiency of the current social structure is not based upon a scarcity of resources where the irrelevant had to starve so that the relevant ones do not. Instead, the effective functioning of this machinery is precluded by the very ambition that had once developed in human social structures for survival of the group.
It is certain that human ambition has supported the development of technology that has changed its parent conditions. However it has also led to immensely selfish acts against the planet, against animals and even against other human beings. It remains as one of the core factors of the huge wealth gap that exists across humankind today. This ever widening gap of resource availability, that arises from the endless ambition of the already affluent, leads not only to scarcity of resources for masses but also to a range of social disorders. During the present times, a leash over human ambition can narrow this resource gap and thus contribute to improvement in the survival conditions of a large fraction of mankind.
Thus, it can be asserted that ambition developed during a time where an abundance of it was productive to the then societal structure, whereas its unrestrained form is proving to be counterproductive for the current structure. As humankind, with a lot of pride, has taken charge of the world it lives in, it is critical that it also takes charge of its own weakness and consciously molds itself in alignment with the world it designs. A failure to do the same may be expected to result into an inevitable imbalance thus violating the fundamental essence of sustainability.