If an animal needs something, it craves it. If its environment changes such that it craves what it no longer needs, it suffers for it. It’s not as survivable as it once was, wasting energy and resources gorging on sustenance that no longer provides what it needs. Its descendants dwindle. A million years of slow time crawl by, and a random change or three in a few base pairs, and some scatterings of its family tree develop different cravings. And if those particular desires happen to match up right to feed a need in whatever new world has arisen around them, then those descendants explode, suddenly fitted perfectly into a niche.
Humans work the same way, with impulses buried under a veneer of civilization. Our cravings push us in proportion to how difficult their objects were to find in the environment in which we evolved. But as that environment has changed, largely through our own doings, what we crave no longer matches the difficulty of what we need. And so we evolved to crave salt since it was so terribly difficult to find in nature, and with our clever little brains built a space age civilization with infinite access to a salt lick of cuisine.
Natural selection winnows populations so that cravings match needs in the long run. Not due to any agency or guiding hand, but simply through as an emergent mechanism: organisms that don’t meet that criterion tend to die at a higher rate than those who do. You don’t by and large have to tell animals to eat their vegetables. If it’s vegetables they need, it’s vegetables that they want.
But once you have the ability to fulfill any need, your species has an enormous problem: wants and needs no longer exist in a tension that keeps both honest. It’s a game that has governed every species on Earth up until the moment when our damned oversized brains realized that with a sharpened stick we could descend onto the plains and take whatever we wanted. A four billion year game of roulette ended when we broke the bank in the casino and started playing with house money.
So we gorge on salts and sugars and fats, all the old paleolithic rarities. We spend vast amounts of resources, both mental and physical, trying to bend our biology away from its hardwiring. We try to make ourselves eat broccoli and all manner of other horrors that we need but don’t crave, because we could find piles of nutritious vegetation all around when we were just jumped up bald monkeys.
The same thing applies to entertainment. We know rationally that certain books and shows are better, that we shouldn’t just watched whatever crap promises tits and explosions, but we run into the same mental problem that we do when faced with steamed broccoli: our needs run counter to our wants.
For thousands of years, a sort of balance existed, in the same way it does with food and genetics for animals. Art of all sorts was relatively rare, something practiced by the fraction of the fraction of the population with the resources to indulge. And because it was rare, it was dedicated to need more than to want. When your culture can afford to throw up one great artist, one great scientist, one great thinker in a century, you make damn sure she’s a physicist or philosopher and not a scatologician. When you can only read one book in a lifetime, you make it the most important book in your culture, not a handbook of knock-knock jokes.
But craving follows rarity. So we push back, we try to make more art so that some of it can be stupid, vulgar, and fun. And like our diet of food, our diet of entertainment faces a crisis once our civilization has cobbled together the ability to make more entertainment than any person could ever consume, and acquired enough wealth so that everyone can consume constantly at all times with ubiquitous earbuds and flatscreens.
It’s something hardwired into all of us to a degree, and even though our readership in particular might get defensive about that and insist that they hold to a higher standard, look at what we love. I don’t mean guilty pleasures, but those shows and stories that are considered in the pantheon of great art: Shakespeare, Breaking Bad, and a thousand in between. They surround all of the great ideas, all the nuance, with violence and lust and danger. Not in a cynical way to draw viewers, but because entertainment is required to be entertaining, else it’s just a philosophy lecture.
I think the slow decline of organized religion in the developed world has less to do with scientific secularism and more to do with the rise of a thousand cable channels. And I think that it goes hand in hand with the decline in reading. We might need those serious things, but we as a society don’t want them any more than we want our broccoli. And once it was possible to have all of our wants and ignore our needs, well, we were done with our entertainment vegetables unless they were metaphorically deep-fried.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.