Everything is hacking evolution

A good product or service has to do more than just deliver value to a customer, it has to appeal to some deeper underlying desire that was put into our human nature to ensure our long-term survival. In fact, all successful products and product categories are fundamentally hacking evolution in this way. Let me demonstrate.

The easiest place to start seeing this pattern is in simple consumer goods. The food industry makes us desire food of previously unheard-of caloric density. That’s hacking evolution. An average human from even a few hundred years ago would not have had the same ample access to calorie dense foods as a human today. They certainly would have been glad beyond belief to eat a cheeseburger or two in the lean winter months. So the food industry sprang up and gave us the ability to eat 2,000 calories for cheap, at any time of day or year. Each new success, from fast food, to free delivery, seeks to remove the frictions that normally regulate this process.

Consider what the pornography and dating industry have done to sex and relationships. Tindr and other apps turned real relationships which require hard work to build and maintain into a pool of anonymous sexual partners and optimized it with algorithms. And Tindr is not the only guilty party; at each technological step along the way, we humans have used our power to hack evolution. From newspaper personal ads, to phone-dating, to legacy online matchmaking services, we’ve always been optimizing for quicker and more immediate rewards. Even clicking a button in an app was too big of an obstacle for most people, so now we swipe.

Other product categories are less direct, but still hacking evolution. For example, the purchase of a new car can be to one person a direct evolutionary hack, giving them the feeling of freedom, of finding their own space, or a surrogate activity around repairing and maintaining it. For another, a car may be a simple tool that allows them other ways to hack evolution more efficiently, by getting a job let’s say. Just look at car ads, which sell a particular lifestyle to some customers, or a particular set of features to others.

It’s not just consumer products either. Imagine a company selling a new B2B software product. Early adopters come in, driven by the desire to make money, or to show off their ability to be ahead of the pack to their peers (an example of power). The next batch of customers follow in order not to be left behind, driven by FOMO and crowd dynamics. Finally, the last group of B2B customers come in, because not adopting some new technology would spell the end of their comfortable business, and the sustenance of their existing evolution-hacked lifestyle. Marketers know these drives, and optimize their campaigns accordingly. The common line is “you are not selling your product, you are selling the person you can be if you use the product”.

The music industry has hacked its own natural evolutionary drive, delivering gigantic catalogs of the world’s music to your wireless headphones, no purchase decision required. Phones and social media have hacked the evolutionary drive for friendships. And as technology improves, it is quickly used by entrepreneurs to bump up each existing product category to new heights of evolution hacking.

What can we do about this trend? Some industries focus directly on the single evolutionary drive after which they are named, ex. Food, relationships. Those seem to be the ones in which immunity to overstimulation can most easily be built up. Once fast food has been present in a society for a few generations, some people can see the hack for what it is and be careful around it.

Others are more insidious, and thus sit as the cause of much discord in our society. For example, what evolutionary drive does the mainstream media hack? I argue that it targets several drives at once.

The first is the drive for conversation. What purpose does conversation serve? Robin Hanson covers this in his book The Elephant in the Brain. In his model of conversation, both participants want to show their value to the other, by showing the size of their “toolbox” so to speak. So they bring out useful facts, trivia, and other interesting items to showcase their knowledge of current affairs. Listening to the news gives you the impression that you know what is going on in the world, that you are building up your toolbox, and thus can be a better conversationalist with your friends, or to participate in the wider discourse that’s being fed to you.

The second is of course the set of drives around tribalism and religion that today have segregated our society into left and right camps at war with one another. Where traditional religion has struggled to keep up with adopting the latest technology, the mainstream media has filled the gap, dividing us and fueling the culture wars.

The sad truth is that it will take time for us to build immunity to these more complicated forces. For the food industry, there isn’t perhaps too much more evolutionary hacking to be done. You might be able to drive down the cost of 1,000 tasty calories delivered to your face a bit more, but there is a physical bound on what sort of food molecules your body can process. Whereas the media industry is acting on a combination of purely social forces, that most people are barely even aware of.

Final prediction: We’ll see the “simple” industries drive growth in alternative ways, ex. Food is going to be less about hacking the evolutionary drive for calories, and more about group belonging [fake dietary restrictions], virtue signaling [veganism, low carbon eating], etc.

Thank you to my friend Paul for his ideas on this subject.