Find Satisfaction in Law: Darwin Among the Lawyers

"It's just not a good fit." How we like to soften our rejections and resignations in the job game with this New Age evasion of harsher judgments! However, many an employer manages to imply that an unhappy employee is an unfit employee, in the brutal meaning of "survival of the fittest." Social Darwinism always appeals to those holding the upper hand, but most of us resist their taunts of unfitness, unless it is to think of ourselves as held captive by Neanderthals.

Nevertheless, a careful reading of Darwin and modern theories of evolutionary psychology may enlarge your concept of job satisfaction. If you are trying to figure out whether your job is for you, the Darwinian concept of adaptation may be a more useful assessment tool, at least initially, than any Jeffersonian ideas you may harbor concerning the pursuit of happiness. Here's what I mean:

In law school, you may have discovered that bitter complaint is an unreliable indicator of dissatisfaction. If anything, complaint is a cultural norm in law school and the profession. So for some, law is the profession they love to hate, while others truly hate it. Still others are taciturn lovers. Clearly, some standard more subtle than self report is required for determining job satisfaction.

Does adaptation, as defined in the theory of natural selection, serve as that standard? "Multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die," is Darwin's ten word synopsis of the theory of natural selection, quoted in Robert Wright's The Moral Animal (Vintage, 1994). In this fine discussion of current theories of evolutionary psychology, Wright cautions that "here strongest, as [Darwin] well knew, means not just brawniest, but best adapted to the environment, whether through camouflage, cleverness, or anything else that aids survival and reproduction." "The word fittest," Wright warns, "is typically used in place of strongest, signifying this broader conception --- an organism's fitness to the task of transmitting its genes to the next generation, within its particular environment." Using this framework, most of us can identify individuals who seem supremely adapted to their environments (and well camouflaged, if not clever!) How far does this analogy take us toward a definition of job satisfaction?

Those who are really good at what they do seem to be obvious candidates for "those fit for the task imposed by their environment." Competent people are often so involved in their work, they seem to rise above mere "satisfaction." And yet, we're a little discomfited by people who are so unselfconsciously and thoroughly in the groove. The exercise of skills is pleasurable, even seductive, but like all pleasures, it can be exploited. Who benefits most from compulsive competence? Are we sometimes the rat in the maze who has the psychologists conditioned to reward him every time he solves the puzzle?

Competence is only part of successful adaptation. Remember that the only task which counts is advantage in reproducing and transmitting genes to the next generation. Perfect adaptation in this context means that the organism and the environment together create a system for the perpetuation of the genes for which the organism is the carrier. The organism, whether it knows it or not, is not striving for superiority per se, but for a "larger cause": that of its DNA. What, then, stands for the preservation and transmission of genes in adaptation at work?

Work is a social environment, not just a set of harsh weather conditions and predators. Wright reminds us that "the environment of human evolution has been human (or pre-human) beings." (We'll leave it to you who represents your workplace.) He goes on to say "the various members of Stone Age society were each other's rivals in the contest to fill the next generation with genes. What's more, they were each other's tools in that contest. Spreading their genes depended on dealing with their neighbors: sometimes helping them, sometimes ignoring them, sometimes exploiting them, sometimes liking them, sometimes hating them --- and having a sense for what people warrant which sort of treatment, and when they warrant it. The evolution of human beings has consisted largely of adaptation to each other." Note that this adaptation is as apt to be cooperative as competitive.

Well, let's decide that the "genes" to be preserved and transmitted in the work environment are values, and that like values, genes transcend the persons holding them. Values are part of what the evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins has called "memes,"--- units of cultural transmission which virtually have a life of their own. They are housed in our mind, actualized in our behavior, and outlive us, always searching for a receptive niche in the cultural environment. Memes can be very compelling, in the same way that genes compel certain behaviors. They can be persistent and long-lived. Values implanted through early socialization are very much a part of us, and we hope that a good choice of occupation is not only consistent with those values, but nourishes them and encourages them to propagate.

Viewed in this light, the perfectly adapted employee is in a reciprocal relationship with her work environment. Vocational adaptation is a kind of mating that enhances the survival of important values. The synergy created between employees and employers becomes the optimal medium in which their shared values can thrive. Consider the concept of social justice, an important meme that has survived tenaciously for some 2500 years, despite a few societal ice ages and other environmental hardships. Imagine an attorney from a Quaker family (one sub-environment in which the social justice meme has flourished), who works for the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace. Whatever her daily frustrations and complaints, she may well feel that she is an excellent conduit, in a well-chosen social setting, for the cultivation and expression of her deepest held values of non-violence. Her memes will feel like they are a little closer to entering the Peaceable Kingdom. And so they may, long after she has retired from work and this world.

There was time when many would have found these elaborate evolutionary musings unnecessary. "Thy will be done," would have been an adequate summary of what I have just been describing. The classical world might have invoked a private genius, and more recent ideologies or forms of historical necessity, such as dialectical materialism or the march of revolution. Today, we are forced to admit that these are all memes, most of them competing without any prophet's imprimatur. Just the same, everyone wants to be in step with his particular drummer. The legal profession harbors some fairly noble memes, along with some more questionable, and offers lawyers the opportunity to actualize them.

Good work involves nourishing the life of something inside you that is larger than yourself. So that's how Darwin ends in Justice Holmes, who saw the ennobling potential in lawyers' work when he said that "those who have not participated, however humbly, in the vital issues of their times, run the risk of feeling as if they have not lived at all." Now, there's a good definition of job satisfaction.

By Mark L. Byers, Ph.D.