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Evolutionary Psychology Turns Dionysian
The time is ripe for more ambitious theories of human nature. Our species has never been richer, better educated, more numerous, or more aware of our common historical origin and common planetary fate. As our self-confidence has grown, our need for comforting myths has waned. Since the Darwinian revolution, we recognize that the cosmos was not made for our convenience.
But the Darwinian revolution has not yet captured nature's last citadel--human nature. In the 1 990s the new science of evolutionary psychology made valiant attempts. It views human nature as a set of biological adaptations, and tries to discover which problems of living and reproducing those adaptations evolved to solve. It grounds human behavior in evolutionary biology.
Some critics believe that evolutionary psychology goes too far and attempts to explain too much. I think it does not go far enough. It has not taken some of our most impressive and distinctive abilities as seriously as it should. For example, in his book How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker argued that human art, music, humor, fiction, religion, and philosophy are not real adaptations, but biological side-effects of other evolved abilities. As a cognitive scientist, Pinker was inclined to describe the human mind as a pragmatic problem-solver, not a magnificent sexual ornament: "The mind is a neural computer, fitted by natural selection with combinational algorithms for causal and probabilistic reasoning about plants, animals, objects and people."
Although he knows that reproductive success is evolution's bottom line, he overlooked the possible role of sexual selection in shaping conspicuous display behaviors such as art and music. He asked, for example, "If music confers no survival advantage, where does it come from and why does it work?" Lacking any manifest survival function, he concluded that art and music must be like cheesecake and pornography--cultural inventions that stimulate our tastes in evolutionarily novel ways, without improving our evolutionary success. His views that the arts are "biologically frivolous" has upset many performing artists sympathetic to evolutionary psychology. In a televised BBC debate following the publication of How the Mind Works, the theatrical director and intellectual polymath Jonathan Miller took Pinker to task for dismissing the arts as non-adaptations without considering all their possible functions. One of my goals in writing this book has been to see whether evolutionary psychology could prove as satisfying to a performing artist as to a cognitive scientist. It may be economically important to consider how the mind works, but it is also important to consider how the mind mates.
The view of the mind as a pragmatic, problem-solving survivalist has also inhibited research on the evolution of human creativity, morality, and language. Some primate researchers have suggested that human creative intelligence evolved as nothing more than a way to invent Machiavellian tricks to deceive and manipulate others. Human morality has been reduced to a tit-for-tat accountant that keeps track of who owes what to whom. Theories of language evolution have neglected human storytelling, poetry, wit, and song. You have probably read accounts of evolutionary psychology in the popular press, and felt the same unease that it is missing something important. Theories based on the survival of the fittest can nibble away at the edges of human nature, but they do not take us to the heart of the mind.
Moreover, the ritual celibacy of these survivalist doctrines seems artificial. Why omit sexual desire and sexual choice from the pantheon of evolutionary forces that could have shaped the human mind, when biologists routinely use sexual choice to explain behavioral abilities in other animals? Certainly, evolutionary psychology is concerned with sex. Researchers such as David Buss and Randy Thornhill have gathered impressive evidence that we have evolved sexual preferences that favor pretty faces, fertile bodies, and high social status. But evolutionary psychology in general still views sexual preferences more often as outcomes of evolution than as causes of evolution. Even where the sexual preferences of our ancestors have been credited with the power to shape mental evolution, their effects have been largely viewed as restricted to sexual and social emotions--to explain, for example, higher male motivations to take risks, attain social status, and demonstrate athletic prowess. Sexual choice has not been seen as reaching very deep into human cognition and communication, and sexuality is typically viewed as irrelevant to the serious business of evolving human intelligence and language.
In reaction to these limitations, I came to believe that the Darwinian revolution could capture the citadel of human nature only by becoming more of a sexual revolution--by giving more credit to sexual choice as a driving force in the mind's evolution. Evolutionary psychology must become less Puritan and more Dionysian. Where others thought about the survival problems our ancestors faced during the day, I wanted to think about the courtship problems they faced at night. In poetic terms, I wondered whether the mind evolved by moonlight. In scientific terms, sexual selection through mate choice seemed a neglected factor in human mental evolution. Through ten years of researching sexual selection and human evolution, since the beginning of my Ph.D., it became clear to me that sexual selection theory offered valuable intelligence about aspects of human nature that are important to us, and that cry out for evolutionary explanation, but that have been ignored, dismissed, or belittled in the past.
Trying a Different Tool
The human brain and its diverse capacities are so complex, and so costly to grow and maintain, that they must have arisen through direct selection for some important biological function. To date, it has proven very difficult to propose a biological function for human creative intelligence that fits the scientific evidence. We know that the human mind is a collection of astoundingly complex adaptations, but we do not know what biological functions many of them evolved to serve.
Evolutionary biology works by one cardinal rule: to understand an adaptation, one has to understand its evolved function. The analysis of adaptations is more than a collection of just-so stories, because according to evolutionary theory there are only two fundamental kinds of functions that explain adaptations. Adaptations can arise through natural selection for survival advantage, or sexual selection for reproductive advantage. Basically, that's it.
If you have two tools and one doesn't work, why not try the other? Science has spent over a century trying to explain the mind's evolution through natural selection for survival benefits. It has explained many human abilities, such as food preferences and fear of snakes, but it consistently fails to explain other abilities for decorative art, moral virtue, and witty conversation. It seems reasonable to ask whether sexual selection for reproductive benefits might account for these leftovers. This suggestion makes sexual selection sound like an explanation of last resort. It should not be viewed that way, because sexual selection has some special features as an evolutionary process. As we shall see, sexual selection is unusually fast, powerful, intelligent, and unpredictable. This makes it a good candidate for explaining any adaptation that is highly developed in one species but not in other closely related species that share a similar environment.
What Makes Sexual Selection So Special?
In the 1930s, biologists redefined natural selection to include sexual selection, because they did not think sexual selection was very important. Following their precedent, modern biology textbooks define natural selection to include every process that leads some genes to out-compete other genes by virtue of their survival or reproductive benefits. When one biologist says "evolution through natural selection," other biologists hear "evolution for survival or reproductive advantage." But non-biologists, including many other scientists, still hear "survival of the fittest." Many evolutionary psychologists, who should know better, even ask what possible "survival value" could explain some trait under discussion. This causes enormous confusion, and ensures that sexual selection continues to be neglected in discussions of human evolution.
In this book I shall use the terms "natural selection" and "sexual selection" as Darwin did: natural selection arising through competition for survival, and sexual selection arising through competition for reproduction. I am perfectly aware that this is not the way professional biologists currently use these terms. But I think it is more important, especially for non-biologist readers, to appreciate that selection for survival and selection for attracting sexual partners are distinct processes that tend to produce quite different kinds of biological traits. Terms should be the servants of theories, not the masters. By reviving Darwin's distinction between natural selection for survival and sexual selection for reproduction, we can talk more easily about their differences.
One difference is that sexual selection through mate choice can be much more intelligent than natural selection. I mean this quite literally. Natural selection takes place as a result of challenges set by an animal's physical habitat and biological niche. The habitat includes the factors that matter to farmers: sunlight, wind, heat, rain, and land quality. The niche includes predators and prey, parasites and germs, and competitors from one's own species. Natural selection is just something that happens as a side-effect of these factors influencing an organism's survival chances. The habitat is inanimate and doesn't care about those it affects. Biological competitors just care about making their own livings. None of these selectors cares whether it imposes evolutionary selection pressures that are consistent, directional, efficient, or creative. The natural selection resulting from such selectors just happens, willy-nilly.
Sexual selection is quite different, because animals often have very strong interests in acting as efficient agents of sexual selection. The genetic quality of an animal's sexual partner determines, on average, half the genetic quality of their offspring. (Most animals inherit half their genes from mother and half from father.) As we shall see, one of the main reasons why mate choice evolves is to help animals choose sexual partners who carry good genes. Sexual selection is the professional at sifting between genes. By comparison, natural selection is a rank amateur. The evolutionary pressures that result from mate choice can therefore be much more consistent, accurate, efficient, and creative than natural selection pressures.
As a result of these incentives for sexual choice, many animals are sexually discriminating. They accept some suitors and reject others. They apply their faculties of perception, cognition, memory' and judgment to pick the best sexual partners they can. In particular, they go for any features of potential mates that signal their fitness and fertility.
In fact, sexual selection in our species is as bright as we are. Every time we choose one suitor over another, we act as an agent of sexual selection. Almost anything that we can notice about a person is something our ancestors might have noticed too, and might have favored in their sexual choices. For example, some of us fall in love with people for their quick wits and generous spirits, and we wonder how these traits could have evolved. Sexual choice theory suggests that the answer is right in front of us. These traits are sexually attractive, and perhaps simpler forms of them have been attractive for hundreds of thousands of years. Over many generations, those with quicker wits and more generous spirits may have attracted more sexual partners, or higher-quality partners. The result was that wits became
|3||The Runaway Brain||68|
|4||A Mind Fit for Mating||99|
|6||Courtship in the Pleistocene||177|
|7||Bodies of Evidence||224|
|8||Arts of Seduction||258|
|9||Virtues of Good Breeding||292|
|10||Cyrano and Scheherazade||341|
|11||The Wit to Woo||392|