I use Facebook primarily to learn and secondarily to socialize. I learn by testing the framework of my assumptions against what I’m told, whether the topic is language, science, or politics. I’ve made painful adjustments to my worldview thanks to Facebook interactions, but my essential philosophy has remained unchanged. Though the scientific process can be slow, it’s the only mechanism for creating a better politics and economics, and the practical failings of the left and right stem from their valuing intuition over a scientific process.
My reading and observation have reinforced my impression that biology is stronger than culture. When human behavior shifts on a grand scale — for instance, when societies reject slavery and promote women’s rights — it’s not simply because we’ve reprogrammed human minds with new ideas but because an environmental shift has given play to the suppressed potentials of our evolution. Not to discount activism, but the hard-won gains in women’s rights, for one, have more to do with the advent of birth control, childbirth medicine, and infant-saving technologies than any academic or political program.
We have enormously flexible minds, but they are subject to the basic imperatives of evolution expressed through our ancestral environments. Much as simple binary logic makes computer systems possible, the simple goal to survive and reproduce has created our neural system, whose hardwired components alone have a scope that far outstrips the ignorant assumptions of Social Darwinism. Both left and right are very leery of evolutionary psychology because it smacks of Social Darwinism, but unlike evolutionary psychology, Social Darwinism discounts the critical, albeit complex, role of love and cooperation to our success as a species.
The basic tragedy of our politics is that both the left and right implement policies based on unscientific assumptions about human psychology. Both sides cling to truisms. “If people aren’t financially insecure they won’t work, and American democracy will fall if the lazy poor vote themselves government handouts.” What’s the evidence? Or: “It is the indoctrination of patriarchal rape culture rather than permissiveness that leads to sexual assault.” Really? Is that categorically true? What’s the evidence? Some of my friends appear to think that science can’t be used to test these statements. I don’t believe that. I don’t like the word “believe,” but here I have to use it, because I do have faith that science can promote the best aspects of human nature, and if they’re right and our only recourse is to unfounded “theories” about culture, then we are doomed. Humans are not blank slates upon which any script can be written. We can’t be programmed out of our basic drives; we can only learn to deal with them.
Certainly logic can help us resist the pressures of instinct, but unless we articulate what those pressures are, trying to suppress their negative effects will result in unintended consequences. While I’m in complete agreement with the stated goal of feminism to promote sexual equality, I disagree with a subset of feminists who posit that there is no meaningful difference between male and female psychology that can’t be erased with conditioning. The evidence does not support them.
Evolutionary psychology identifies two strategies for men to pass on their genes: a promiscuous one and a family-centric one. They’re not mutually exclusive, but one can be favored over the other, and men are variously predisposed to them. Why did men evolve these two strategies (and I use the word “strategy” loosely, because they are not conscious)? Because in a harsh environment those males who did not bond with their mates and care for their offspring were at a selective disadvantage; their children did not survive. On the other hand, if even a relatively small number of offspring survive from casual sexual encounters, their genes may be passed on just as well. Women, on the other hand, run a huge risk with casual sex; they have to bear the offspring.
So how is it that women can be promiscuous too? Doesn’t this explode the logic? Actually, both men and women seek mates according to complex criteria, which include signs of good genetics, that is, health, beauty, intelligence, and loyalty. Unless a woman’s primary mate is perfect in all departments — a statistical improbability, even if you could define “perfect” – that woman’s best genetic bet would seem to be to cheat occasionally with a man who is exceptional in some way that her partner isn’t. However, this puts her into genetic competition with her partner. He may unwittingly raise children that aren’t his instead of his own.
Evolutionary psychology predicts that men will unconsciously favor whatever strategy the environment permits. Where men have a lot of women willing to sleep with them and no societal pressure to behave otherwise, the promiscuous strategy will dominate. Not every man is sought after, of course, and those men shut out of the mating game become desperate and, frankly, dangerous. Monogamy is normalized for one main reason according to evolutionary psychology: to pair up as many women with men as possible in the interest of social cohesion. Polygamist societies, when their population stabilizes, have a very big problem: young men become desperately antisocial when they have no mating prospects. That may be an increasing issue in our own society, which is de facto polygamist, because affluent men divorce aging spouses and marry young women, thereby monopolizing the reproductive years of several women. The relative dearth of young wives is exacerbated by increasing wealth inequality. Even depriving a few young men of the opportunity to have a wife can create chaos. Social status has always translated into mating prospects. If we adopt social policies that deprive men of status and dignity, we turn them into criminals. We know this intuitively, but do we really know why? I think evolutionary psychology helps us answer that question.
Human reproductive strategies may even operate on an epigenetic level and thereby get cemented for generations. What’s epigenetics? The molecular biology is complex, but basically epigenetics is the study of how genes can be switched on or off by very subtle environmental cues, even generations past the initial trigger. One well-worn example in animals is so-called transvestitism among sunfish. A male sunfish creates a nest and defends it from other males and when a female approaches, he moves aside so that she can lay her eggs. When she’s done, he fertilizes them. However, some males develop with female markings, and when a nest-builder moves aside for a female, they follow her and fertilize her eggs with their own sperm. What’s surprising is that the coloration of the fish is not hardwired but triggered by the relative proportion of transvestite fish in the population. The fish did not merely evolve a trait, they evolved a trait that could be switched on in early development.
Likewise, human development, including psychological development, may have environmental triggers. It’s not impossible that homosexuality and autism might have an epigenetic cause. Both can be adaptive. In the case of homosexuality, it’s not always a good strategy to have all your offspring competing to have children. It can be useful to have a few who will lend support to their siblings or the children of their siblings, what’s called “indirect fitness support.” Hive insects take this to an extreme.
Whether epigenetics also governs male reproductive strategies is highly speculative but worth exploring, because it has deep implications for how societies will evolve and what effects our social policies might have.
Many people find this logic hopelessly complex and even distasteful. How can this be scientific? How do we know what evolutionary pressures from the ancestral human environment are merely speculative? We know because of the tracks left in our psyches that can be illuminated through careful experiment. Men and women both get jealous about the prospect of infidelity, but for different reasons and with different intensity. For women, emotional infidelity is shown to be generally more provocative than sexual infidelity; for men, the reverse. This follows the logic. Historically, the man who didn’t care intensely about his wife’s sexual fidelity raised the kids of other men, and his genes did not survive. Women stood to lose more from having their families broken than having their men fool around; presumably they and their children tended not to survive. For a much better overview and study citations, read Robert Wright’s book The Moral Animal. Here I have covered a very small piece of one topic within this discipline.
Evolutionary psychology does not supplant depth psychology pioneered by Jung, Freud, Adler, and others, but it does reinforce it at some points and challenge it at others and offers fresh new perspectives. I don’t regret the time I spent studying Jung and Freud in view of the new disciplines. Their work is still very relevant. However, the most vigorous debate and most interesting psychological discoveries are going on right now in the fields of neurology and evolutionary psychology. My friend Jonathan has opined that among a set of competing disciplines, the one that generates the most debate and makes the most new discoveries is usually, if not always, the correct one. I think he’s right. Ensuring women’s rights and promoting the mental health and potential of all our citizens are critical endeavors, and need the best foundation possible, that is, a scientific one.
Whether right-wing or left-wing politics is generally more correct in view of evolutionary psychology is the topic for a later essay.
update: You’ll find a lot of very misinformed articles about evolutionary psychology claiming it has a right-wing and anti-feminist agenda. Here’s an article debunking common misconceptions: http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/apd.html