Must dog eat dog?

After preaching that humans live by animal laws of aggression and selfishness, evolutionary psychologists are finding the animal kingdom is not as brutal as they imagined.


Susan McCarthy
May 21, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Face facts: Men are nothing but horn-dogs, and women only want men for their money. Equations prove: No one ever does anyone a favor unless there's something in it for them. Accept the data: People are just bloodthirsty apes with a flair for spin. We're deluded puppets of our genes, and our genes like us deluded. We have met the enemy and it is our DNA.

Evolutionary psychologists revel in telling Uncomfortable Truths.
So eager are many thinkers to face up to hard facts, that they may
even face up to hard, fact-like objects that turn out not to
be facts at all. But hey! We faced them bravely, and you
should too.

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Robert Ardrey and Desmond Morris, in books like "The Territorial
Imperative" (1966) and "The Naked Ape" (1967) prepared the ground
with their visions of killer apes with violent, lustful
origins. But evolutionary psychology (an offshoot of sociobiology)
really got rolling in the mid-1970s with E. O. Wilson's
"Sociobiology" and Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene." In no time
works of pop sociobiology made these already accessible works even
more accessible. Theorists divided into hostile camps -- like
killer apes, but not so naked. Attackers and supporters of Wilson,
of Dawkins, of Richard Lewontin, of Stephen Jay Gould formed up in
short order. Wilson announced that the social sciences would have
to knuckle under and become fiefdoms of imperial sociobiology.
Some social scientists, especially psychologists, leapt at the idea
of becoming Real Scientists; others drew back in outrage. Since
then, the controversies of evolutionary psychology have raged in
both the journals and the popular press.

People seldom enjoy thinking of their own motivations as anything
but impeccably reasoned and noble, so there are plenty of
uncomfortable truths for all of us to face. One of them is that we
are animals, which is awkward, considering the snide things we've
been saying about the other animals all this while.

But one of the uncomfortable truths that evolutionary psychologists
must face is that we are also humans, deeply enmeshed in cultures
of unprecedented complexity. Not only has culture created science,
but the worldviews of scientists as well. It will always be hard
to map the intertidal zone where our cultural attitudes end and our
genetic heritage takes over, but recognizing this, and
distinguishing between waterlines at high and low tide is an
intellectual effort worth making.

One of evolutionary psychology's weaknesses is the lack of human
data. Unable to experiment on this intriguing species, or observe
them in culturally uncontaminated environments, scientists fall
back on population analysis, surveys of dubious significance, and,
all too often, common sense intuition about The Way Folks Are. The
initial common sense intuition of the 1960s and 1970s seems to have
combined the gender sensibilities of 1950s clip art with the
paranoid Machiavellian worldview of an assistant professor
unfairly denied tenure.

Interestingly, much of the criticism of evolutionary psychology's
original vision has come from primatologists like Frans de Waal,
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Patricia Gowaty, Barbara
Smuts and Meredith Small, who have access to data about how some
primate populations really work. The widespread assumption that
dominant males sire all the infants in groups of social primates,
for example, has proven remarkably shaky. Recent studies of
primates from rhesus monkeys to chimpanzees have found females lusting
after nerdy low-status monkeys, sneaking off with low-status guys,
and even refusing to have anything to do with sand-kicking bullies.

Challenges to evolutionary psychology's earlier thinking about
gender were inevitable. A glance through "The Moral Animal," by
Robert Wright, an award-winning science writer, not only displays
widely annoying assumptions and pronouncements about how women are,
but a stream of complaints about feminism (and vague, dishonest,
disingenuous, intimidating feminists). Wright's gripes about
feminism are only slightly more explicit than those of many theorists.
He tops this with the ponderously playful suggestion that real
feminism should favor polygamy because if some women were second,
third (and so on) wives of tycoons, the remaining women would have
more men to choose among, and there would be no single mothers.
Curiously, America's women do not seem to have uttered a collective
sigh of relief at having real feminism explained.

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This socio-financial analysis is part of the gold-digger theory of
femininity. It starts reasonably enough by pointing out that
females put a larger physical investment into giving birth than
males do. (In fact, the definition of femaleness isn't two X
chromosomes: Biologists decide whether a bird or fish is
female by determining which one produces the egg.) Sociobiological theory
then explores the implications of that differing investment. At
some point, however, theory often jumps tracks, and heads into
downtown with whistles blowing. "You bitch!" screams the engineer.
"All you ever wanted was my money!"

The notion is that the ideal strategy for men is to have sex with as many women as possible, in order to get their genes into the next generation, while the ideal strategy for women is to commandeer a man's wealth to provide the resources to keep the kid alive, and this idea has been widely ballyhooed. In this view, monogamy is a perpetual tussle between these competing interests -- if only we would admit it to ourselves.

Several years ago, an article by Lance Morrow in "Time" asserted that insights from animal behavior show that "females organize their lives around the getting of resources (food, shelter, nice things) while males organize themselves around the getting of females." Oddly, it does not appear that Morrow himself roams the streets, hungry and homeless, looking for women.

In "Woman: An Intimate Geography," by Natalie Angier, several chapters grapple with received wisdoms of evolutionary psychology. Angier casts substantial doubt on the idea that women evolved to nab rich guys. She argues that in the hunter-gatherer societies in which our tastes are presumed to have evolved, there often are no rich guys. Everyone is equally poor. Nor do women rely on men to provision them -- everybody works. As for our earlier ape ancestors, again females were probably self-supporting. The idea that nobody eats until he brings home the bacon is a new one, evolutionarily speaking.

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In the hunt for data to support the idea that men only care about sex and women couldn't care less, there have been many idiot surveys, including the classic, endlessly reported one in which two charming experimenters, male and female, approached people of the opposite sex on a college campus and asked them to have sex. None of the women agreed to have sex with the male experimenter. Three quarters of the men said they would have sex with the female experimenter. Therefore, men are naturally sexually indiscriminate and women are naturally "coy." We have our proof!

The experimenters appear to have forgotten that people don't always tell inquisitive strangers what they're thinking, as pollsters have found to their regret. Experimenters can't know if people would really have had sex with them until they actually put down the clipboard and try, and that's apparently a test few researchers follow through on. Or if they do, they're not telling.

Angier also points out that random strangers requesting sex are apt to seem, and be, more physically dangerous to women than to men. So that even if a lady can think of no better study break than anonymous sex with Clipboard Boy, she may regretfully decline.

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As more and more researchers are pointing out flaws in the views of gender originally presented by evolutionary psychology, it's annoying to note that the revisionism is mostly coming from women. This is supposed to be science, tested with actual data. Why do the women have to be the ones to point this stuff out? Significantly, a lot depends on where you stand, and sex roles appear more inevitable to the male evolutionary psychologists who first propounded their genetic immutability.

The other big trend in evolutionary psychology, which also comes from studying non-human primates, is about peacemaking and cooperation. Aggression, while real, isn't the entire story. Nature is red in tooth and claw, but it turns out there are also plenty of hugs to go around.

When Frans de Waal first noticed how hard chimpanzees and other (captive) primates work to keep things from getting out of hand in their groups, he was astonished to find that he was in unknown territory. Much had been written about violence and aggression of all kinds, but very little about how social animals go about the vital task of getting along.

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De Waal, the author of "Peacemaking Among Primates," initially had difficulty getting other primatologists to pay attention. They didn't even like the words. "Reconciliation" seemed to de Waal like a good word for the friendly overtures made to each other by apes who had been fighting minutes before, often promoted by a third ape with an interest in group harmony. "Couldn't you call it 'first post-aggression contact'?" colleagues pleaded. Similarly, de Waal notes, Barbara Smuts was reproached for writing of "friendship" in baboons.

De Waal's latest book, "Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals," describes some interesting research into the mutability of monkey nature. He tells of an experiment with rhesus monkeys and stump-tailed monkeys, species with different calls, gestures and styles. Stump-tails are more peaceable than rhesus, less obsessed with hierarchy and who sits where, and, having apparently read de Waal, they are very into reconciliation. After fights they reconcile three times as often as rhesus, and they have a big repertoire of reassuring gestures.

"Why can't a rhesus be more like a stump-tail?" was de Waal's question, and he set up a mixed colony. The stump-tails he chose were six months older than the rhesus, and a little bigger. At first the rhesus tried threatening the stump-tails, but they didn't respond. The two monkey species played separately and slept separately, in two big huddles. They groomed each other, however, a process encouraged by the fact that the stump-tails were enchanted by the opportunity to examine long rhesus tails.

Soon the rhesus and the stump-tails were playing and sleeping together in one monkey heap. Although the rhesus did not adopt stump-tail calls and gestures, they did succumb to their touchy-feely culture and increase their rate of reconciliation until it was the same as the stump-tails. When de Waal removed the stump-tails, the rhesus kept on reconciling, like nice little stump-tailed ladies and gentlemen. It would be interesting to know what would have happened if the experiment had tried to impose rhesus mores on stump-tails. Would they be as quick to become morose grudge-holders, sabotaging one another's chances at tenure?

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Another glimpse of rhesus potential comes from an experiment in which male rhesus were left alone with strange infants. Although males usually ignore infants, these males were solicitous, picking the babies up. But if there was a female in the cage, she would take charge of the baby's care (Don't hold him like that! Support his head! My God, give him to me!), and the same male would revert to standard hands-off behavior, appearing uncaring and unhelpful.

The increasing focus on peacemaking and cooperation bears on one of the most perennially vexing areas of evolutionary psychology, that of selfishness and altruism, especially as expounded in Richard Dawkins' 1976 book, "The Selfish Gene." Unending confusion has been caused by Dawkins' use of the word "selfish," which switches between applying to individuals and meaning just what you think it means, you egotistical greed-head, and a very specific and different meaning invented by Dawkins and applying to genes -- being an entity subject to natural selection.

Similarly "altruism" sometimes has an everyday meaning that includes giving to charity and snatching strangers out of the path of the runaway train, and sometimes means "self-destructive behavior performed for the benefit of others."

Partly as a result of this confusion, and partly because of the old fondness for uncomfortable truths, it has been widely announced that there is no such thing as altruism: The thing is genetically impossible. If you donate a kidney to a relative, you're only doing it because you share genes with them; if you give money to charity, you're only doing it to show off, so people will admire you and further your genes; and, worst of all, if you give money anonymously, you're only doing it to feel good about yourself, so you will more effectively be able to convince others that you are a decent creature, you big hypocrite. (See Robert Wright, "The Moral Animal," for more on what self-deluded phonies we are, except maybe him.)

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This confusion about altruism and selfishness is odd, considering that Dawkins can write with marvelous clarity. Why use metaphorical language that is so confusing and makes so many people upset? Well, it's certainly catchy. Perhaps there's also amusement in confronting people with the Uncomfortable Truth that everything they do is selfish. Andrew Brown, in "The Darwin Wars: How Stupid Genes Became Selfish Gods" (published in the UK, but not yet in the U.S.), suggests that when Dawkins was born "The good fairy gave him good looks, intelligence, charm and a chair at Oxford ... The bad fairy studied him for a while, and said 'Give him a gift for metaphor.'"

In the realm of altruism, another recent optimist is Lee Dugatkin, with "Cheating Monkeys and Citizen Bees: The Nature of Cooperation in Animals and Humans." The bulk of the book analyzes "selfish" reasons for cooperating with relatives, partners (you brush flies off my face and I'll brush flies off yours), teams (lions hunting large prey together), and larger groups such as tribes and nations. It also touches lightly on Dugatkin's own work with guppies. (Don't scoff -- these are wild guppies.)

Dugatkin is candid about his intellectual journey and how his views changed when he met his wife and when their son was born. Once, he says, "I was what I now refer to as a 'for the love of science' scientist ... I actually held those scientists who directed their work toward helping people in contempt. I viewed them as intellectual prostitutes ..." (He doesn't say he dashed about challenging people to face Uncomfortable Truths, but I bet he did.)

However, Dugatkin's marriage and fatherhood changed his perspective, and he is now determined to use his work for the benefit of all, and someday to share with his son "my thoughts on how ideas emerging from the study of animal cooperation might facilitate human sociality." (Why isn't this man roaming the streets hungry and homeless, hitting on women?)

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Dugatkin charts evolutionary psychology along a political axis, arguing that liberals believe in the fundamental goodness of humans, and conservatives believe that humans are only good if taught to be so. This is nothing new -- the social sciences and biological sciences, insofar as they describe humans, are perennially politicized. Natural selection has a history of popularity with some who equate their own success with Darwinian fitness. (De Waal gives the example of how this "convenient justification of disproportionate wealth in the hands of a happy few ... led John D. Rockefeller to portray the expansion of a large business as 'merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God.'")

This formulation makes Dugatkin a conservative, and he is urgent that people be taught to be good. In his final chapter, he describes himself as deeply religious. While humans are "God's crowning creation," animals have instructive worth. "If animals are here to help us, why should it not be the case that they can help us understand how to be more cooperative? ... The beauty in this is that the animals need not even be cooperative themselves."

This pattern is common in works of evolutionary psychology: Hundreds of pages are devoted to the inescapability of "selfish" genetic mandates are followed by a quick upward leap, appealing to the unique human intellect, unique human morality, or in this case, the unique love of God, to get us out of this deterministic hole.

Throughout recorded history people have denigrated animals as other and inferior, soulless, mindless instinct machines. Evolutionary psychology alarms people by putting us in the same despised category as animals -- with the exception of those who go with the program, who understand and accept the uncomfortable truths of evolutionary psychology and thereby make an intellectual leap that places us above the genetic battleground. If we didn't place animals down so far, it wouldn't take such a vast leap to distinguish ourselves from them.

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As befits a field that can't resist telling you what you're really doing when you think you're doing something else, the controversies of evolutionary psychology involve the motivations of scientists to a remarkable extent. Of course you think that, you're a liberal! Of course you think that, you're a man! Of course you think that, you want to drive me crazy! (Of course you think that, you're a human!) It's a bad sign for objectivity when knowing someone's political party, age or sex is likely to tell you where they stand on the issue of stump-tailed monkey destiny.


Susan McCarthy

Susan McCarthy is a San Francisco freelance writer and the author, with Jeffrey Masson, of "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals."

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