Function’s Lust

I’ll be taking my USMLE exam in less than a month, so I’ve been studying nonstop. Surprisingly, though—far from being a grueling grind towards the finish—the last few weeks actually been pretty nice.

I wake up at the same time every day. I eat the same breakfast every day: a single egg. My goals are the same every day: to complete three practice blocks, and to analyze the questions thereafter. Some days, I only complete two or two and a half. But my pace is steady.

Night falls, predictably, between my second and third daily blocks. I turn on my desk lamp, which fills the kitchen with a warm light. While I cook dinner, country music sounds from my radio. The next day, I repeat.

My routine calls to mind a concept I encountered in Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals.

The old German term funktionslust refers to pleasure taken in what one can do best—the pleasure a cat takes in climbing trees, or monkeys take in swinging from branch to branch.

Studying for the USMLE exam, at least at this phase in my life, is what I do best. There’s a distinct pleasure in doing that and only that.

Some might meet such a notion with resistance. Pleasure…in function? Trust the Germans to put forth a concept so mercenary. What about play? What about leisure?

Masson feels similar skepticism. Evolutionary biologists, in fact, have used funktionslust as a means by which they might look past emotions in animals. If two parrots preen each other to ensure the health of their plumage, and thereby their survival, then we can ignore any ulterior motives they might possess–such as a shared bond.

Masson goes on to push back against funktionslust. Certainly not all actions carried out by animals are in the direct interest of their survival. Grief, for example, has been well documented in animals. Masson describes the account of Maria and Misha, two huskies who had formed a pair bond, before Misha’s owners gave him away:

Both he and Maria knew that something was terribly wrong when his owners came for him the last time, so that Maria struggled to follow him out the door. When she was prevented, she rushed to the window seat and, with her back to the room, watched Misha get into the car. She stayed in the window for weeks thereafter, sitting backward on the seat with her face to the window and her tail to the room, watching and waiting for Misha. At last she must have realized that he wasn’t going to come. Something happened to her at that point. She lost her radiance and became depressed. She moved more slowly, was less responsive, and got angry rather easily at things that before she would have overlooked. . . . Maria never recovered from her loss, and although she never forfeited her place as alpha female, she showed no interest in forming a permanent bond with another male. . . .

Clearly, animals, and humans too, don’t just act out of necessity. Not all behaviors are in line with some explicit function.

Of course, funktionslust isn’t dead. Reports like this one simply show that the behaviors which have been selected for are larger ones, such as lovingness, as opposed to smaller ones, such as seeking the fittest mate and raising the healthiest young. Lovingness doesn’t always engender these particular behaviors, but it does so more often than not, so that, despite the occasional bout of grief, the net result is the greater survival of the species.

Masson has made his point, which is that the presence of behaviors that further survival doesn’t preclude, and rather stands as evidence for, the presence of emotion in animals.

But this doesn’t answer our original question: ought we to be concerned that everything we do is shaped by evolution’s invisible hand? If we take delight in something, we’re simply being pushed around by our DNA. Likewise if we grieve. It seems like there’s no escaping it.

Well, the message might not be that we can escape, but rather that we shouldn’t want to. Primatologist Frans de Waal is quoted as saying:

When I see a pair of parrots tenderly and patiently preening each other, my first thought is not that they are doing this to help the survival of their genes. This is a misleading manner of speaking, as it employs the present tense, whereas evolutionary explanations can deal only with the past.

Evolution may have selected for the pleasure of swinging branch to branch. It may have selected for the pleasure of broader traits, like lovingness. Regardless, evolution’s work is done. Today, we’re left with its result: pleasure in this, and displeasure in that. We have no control over the fact that there’s pleasure in function, and so we should embrace it.

The best tack might simply be to look hard for that function, and to aim to fulfill it. Because, for better or worse, it feels good to work hard.

I once asked the late Dr. John A. Jane Sr. whether the demands of the neurosurgery residency ought to discourage me from pursuing the field. He replied, “Think back to a time when you worked really, really hard. Weren’t those some of the best moments of your life?”

  1. Masson, J M, and Susan McCarthy. When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals. New York: Dell, 1996. Print.
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This entry was posted in Culture.

2 comments on “Function’s Lust

  1. Ben says:

    Your argument, though somewhat complicated, could perhaps be summarized in the following way. The concept of funktionslust is apparently narrow and lifeless, as it attributes even ostensibly emotional behavior to evolutionary conditioning. Yet by widening the class of those behaviors we understand to be evolutionarily prescribed, funktionslust can be made compatible with the presence of emotional and meaningful behaviors.

    The above discussion, or intellectual “process”, might be reframed — and perhaps even clarified — as one about the philosophy of mind. Funktionslust perhaps seems cold because it could be taken, in offering an evolutionary account for behavior, to stand in for, or replace, the conscious or free thoughts and emotions which were taken to underly the behavior. The step taken by this post, or by the authors of When Elephants Weep and other evolutionary biologists, is to assert that this is not so, by distinguishing an evolutionary account of behavior from the internal mental processes which underly the behavior. We may argue that these can exist simultaneously. More precisely, we could argue that evolution causes, or leads to a disposition for, certain mental states which then themselves induce behavior. The mind is rediscovered.

    This is all well and good, but you also seem also to make additional claims about fulfillment, or the good life. These, again, might run as follows. Funktionslust, in apparently disregarding or ignoring the mind in favor of evolutionary accounts, also seems to cut short prospects for freedom, purpose, and meaning. Yet this again is not the case. Mental states do exist, and give us pleasure, and further still they’re connected with productive activities; we should embrace these pleasures, even if they arise from mental dispositions that are evolutionarily conditioned.

    Yet it’s not clear in virtue of what you feel that this so-called hard work brings meaning. Is it because it’s evolutionarily conditioned, because it’s productive, or because of some combination of both? Evolutionary precedent is surely neither necessary nor sufficient for a meaningful life. As counter-examples, we can take, respectively, an enlightened artist who finds meaning doing something that evolution never witnessed, and a meaning-bereft criminal jailed for the modern equivalent of a deer’s evolution-aided destruction of a rival (meaning without evolution and evolution without meaning, respectively). Likewise, productivity is neither necessary nor sufficient for meaning: again, as counter-examples, take a saintly ascetic (meaning without productivity) or a soulless wall-street banker (productivity without meaning).

    Indeed, it’s not immediate that funktionslust — even its expanded form — readily leads to meaning. What do you tell someone who finds something he’s good at (e.g. math), does it all day, and yet feels little meaning at all (e.g. me)? This article comes across rather as a boastful account of how lucky you are to find meaning readily by doing something which is both productive and enjoyable.

    Others don’t have this luxury. A feeling of meaning might be harder to come by. For the rest of us, we have to start looking.

    • Josh says:

      My argument is simply that hard work, and more generally, that which is evolutionarily prescribed, feels good. Not necessarily that it brings meaning.

      You mentioned that a man who destroys his rival finds no meaning. He may not, but it still probably felt good, or at least felt rewarding in some sense, for him to do what he did. I guess the goal might be for us to engage in activities which are evolutionarily prescribed, but which don’t leave us in jail, or hungry on the streets, or reviled by our peers, etc. Hard work towards one’s career is a good candidate behavior.

      Of course, you mention that you work hard, but without satisfaction. My answer, then, might be that your work is aligning poorly with the type of work which is evolutionarily conditioned. The remedy might be to modify your behaviors, or your attitudes, so as to change this. Our ancestors’ work was highly goal-directed. They slaughtered an animal, or built a new shelter, and then felt rewarded. Without immediate goals, you’re denied the reward that comes with attaining them. Try keeping better track of your continued progress.

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