Tuesday, August 01, 2006

human nature, sex and science

"Survival of the fittest" is often just an instance of invoking science to sanction hooliganism. How often have we heard blind violence and brute force being accepted in its name? Violence in sex is benevolently patted on the head and glamourised as an expression of virility. When we do shake our heads reprovingly, we sigh over how it's all "human nature".

Obviously, science hasn't figured us out completely, and we're not everything science cranks us out to be. If we were, we should also still be smelling the backsides of our prospective mates before mating - you know, the "Animal Instinct" that we assume out of the blue for sex alone. (of course, at other times we're more Evolved.)

Human nature is a funny thing. Especially when sex comes up, much has been casually attributed to it, from the vilest vices to the most inexplicable quirks. However, a good deal of our perceptions are basically ideas foisted on us by science (and a highly politicised one at that). Science can be as much a political tool as any movie or book. In fact, it's more manipulative and insidious because of its unquestioned neutrality.

So I'm going back to where it all started - evolution. In mainstream science, one aspect has hogged all the limelight: Darwin's survival of the fittest. It is a postulate which has out-shouted all other ideas (even others of Darwin’s!) . While the assumption certainly has its merits, obviously it isn't everything. (If nothing else, it sadly fails to explain the number of people in existence today, who still doggedly drink Coke and eat Cadburys!)

The importance of the theory of mate selection emerges. What drives the members of the species to be attracted to each other and to want to mate? A rather startling fact is that although Darwin himself suggested that this was a major determinant of evolutionary trends, it was carefully filtered out of mainstream evolutionary theory by generations of scientists.

Victorian prudery (assisted admirably by political agenda) helped maintain this silent censorship. At least where sex is concerned, scientists are quite remarkably like most of us general junta, preferring to handle it from an arm's distance with sterile gloves and throw it right to the back of the cupboard so they needn’t keep seeing it and feeling uncomfortable about not dealing with all its attendant issues.

But this is an old story of course - pretty much every radical scientific breakthrough has had to contend with religious and/or political concerns, and usually, science loses in the first round.

Anyway, popular evolutionary theory cannot explain the existence of so many of the features that humans are unique for – like the ability to evolve ideologies and religion, music and art, employ humour and wit, create ornate expressive languages – why, even to gossip! Especially since these “frivolous” adaptations of humans are not seen as having any survival value (because a persons irreverence, immorality or sombreness do not in any way impede his ability to survive, right?), why do they exist?

Why have we developed these qualities? Wouldn’t evolution have filtered ‘em off as a waste of time to instead encourage a more “survival” based set of adaptations? You know - apply the brain to Worthier Tasks than painting or punning. "Survival of the fittest" has no answer to that one.

Adaptations that have large survival benefits evolve many times in different lineages – for example, through convergent evolution. But there is no sign of this happening in human-style art, language, moral idealism, humour etc. The absence of even adaptive radiation rumbles the old theories some more.

Also, science is often marked by politicised reductionism. While reductionism is important and helps us filter elements so that we may form a grid of knowledge from which to understand the world, it also tends to prune huge chunks of reality and trash them as irrelevant. Hence evolutionary theory has maintained that sole driving force, more or less, is survival. The survival of the fittest. And by doing so, it has also reduced the scope of psychological evolution to merely the biological.

The chasm between theory and reality is not seen only in humans, but also in other species. Shouldn't peacocks have been wiped out or developed tails like pea hens? But there they are, flamboyant mockeries of our popular theories! If not for promoting sexual choice, what have these tails survived for?

Enter the more realistic theory of sexual selection. (predictably, it isnt accepted as mainstream science!) Sexual selection is a highly unpredictable, diversifying and complex process.

Why I like it, is because it goes beyond mere survival value, giving importance to individual qualities and traits. wit, humour, ideology and so on, while not directly contributing to survival, may have an indirect impact on it because these qualities make the person more desirable as a mate to another member of the species. makes sense doesn’t it, seeing how many of us are not supermodels, but are still in great relationships and attractive to so many people?

Another reason this theory’s interesting is because it busts that argument of “basic instinct” for unbridled sexual behaviour - many people who cheat or employ coercion in a sexual relationship simply blame their "instinct" for their sexual incontinence. Well, they’ll have to think again! integrity, loyalty and other such qualities have been carefully evolved because they too are attractions and critical in mate selection. So they're just as natural “basic” instincts.

This theory also admits the fact that (where humans are concerned) the female sex drive is not only on par with male sex drive, but often stronger. I'm yet to hear of a native remedy in any culture to boost a woman's sexual desire. they're mostly just to boost only the man's sex drive. (in other words, read: sometimes men need the additional help to keep up with the woman's naturally stronger sexual drive.)

Additionally, it also describes how clitoral responses have shaped evolution, a refreshing perspective, considering our phallic culture and the myth of penile power. In virtually every species, the females of the species choose while the males strive to be chosen. The males acquire whatever traits the females deem attractive. So when we speak of evolution of traits – its driven primarily by the females.

When we look at the things that make human life so delightful – art, music, literature, wit, humour - we have to thank womenkind for having the good taste to make them an evolutionary priority.

feminist issues



Blogger Falstaff said...


1) There is another explanation for the evolution of music / art etc. you know - it's the notion of optimal stimulation - to the extent that our 'survival' is predicated on mental ability, human beings need constant mental stimulation to keep our intellectual and creative faculties from atrophying. Music, fiction, punning, etc. may simply be a means to keep mental skills that we need to survive in a crisis alive and active. Part of that survival would be sexual selection, of course, but the purpose of the activity would be to create capability, not to attract mates per se. (Incidentally, if the development of art and culture is an adaptive response to the male need to woo females, a sort of evolutionary peacock's tail, wouldn't that imply that women should have underdeveloped creative faculties? After all, peahens don't grow tails - if men are writing poetry only to woo women, then surely women should never have developed the ability to write poetry. Surely you're not suggesting that.)

2) I don't think evolution per se is the primary or only way for people to justify violence / misbehaviour. People have been blaming forces outside themselves for their own actions (or trying to) long before Darwin. First it was God. Then it was genetics. Then it was upbringing. We don't really need to revisit evolution to debunk that notion (people will always find other things to blame their own faults on), we simply need to reiterate the principle that people are responsible for their own actions, that determinism is not a principle we as a society subscribe to.

3) Finally, I think it's interesting how we tend to confuse justification with acceptance. Even if you're a strict determinist and believe that it's unfair to blame you for your actions because they're conditioned by genetic instinct, it's important to remember that this also implies that you can't expect other people to change their responses to you to make allowances for your choices - because they're just as genetically conditioned as you are. You don't need to judge someone to avoid them / leave them - the next time someone says he can't help being violent in a relationship because it's his human nature, you should point out to him that you understand that and don't have anything against him personally, you just can't help throwing him out of the house / having him arrested because it's your human nature. There may be some truth to the assertion that some people have an innate disposition towards violence. But evolution would imply that these are precisely the people who should be denied the opportunity to mate so that their traits can be weeded out of the species. Very few people who justify their sins based on human nature would be willing to take it to that logical conclusion, I suspect

4:34 am  
Anonymous Hiren said...

Very interesting. I think the basic theme of violence in sex can be explained by" Women need a reason to have sex, men just need a place"

Man has only advanced technologically, psychologically he is an animal whether in sex or other matters. Read J.krishnamurthy if you don't agree

4:53 am  
Blogger Krish said...

I think even the things that you clasfiy as Art had to necessarily go through the Survival of Fittest concept at some point of their evolution and growth..this can be explained by the Meme concept...

If you read "The Meme Machine" by Susan Blackmore, you might understand how the ideas, themes, art, language and many more stuff that we consider predominantly psychological can be explained to being biologically similar.

The purpose of science and human inquiry is more to open up than to restrict thoughts in departmental silos....I more than agree that Science is and had mostly been used as a political tool..nice thought process.

A nice write up- though heavily loaded with a scientific indifference ;) if i can call it that way!!

I find this post to wander a lot than be a focused thought..may be a bit more focus on what you want to drive..can make me enlightened!

12:21 am  
Blogger chantabbai said...

you do really blabber a lot. Why doesn't it make sense??? I can think of evolutionary explanations for all the things you have said. Let me take gossip. You see each man is different and hence perceives only his equal as intelligent. The 99% can go to dumps for him, which means according to him they are useless. Under that pretext for his survival against the majority, he gossips, along with other stupid things. Well, painting isnt exactly anti evolutionary or anything. Because you assume that survival of the fittest ascribes to the ability of a man to physically survive with food and water. But no, he has artistic needs too. Perhaps he is being self indulgent. There again, he bows to the stupid majority by making concessions. So I dont think evolutionary theory doesn't explain these things. May be it doesn't explain why man still hasn't learned not to pollute environment.

6:51 pm  
Anonymous Harsha said...

mere semantics... wouldn't "science loses the first round" be slightly more realistic than "science loses in the first round"? Or am I being a romantic when I insist that science will find a way of winning the bout?

2:29 am  
Anonymous Icarus said...

Very well, we thanks you!

On a lighter (and unrelated!) note, do you suppose 'psychological evolution' and 'biological evolution' are forces that pull in opposite, or at least different directions?

I recently read Hesse's Siddhartha in which there's repeated mention of the idea of "flight from the Self, of escape from the torment of the Self." Suppose one were to assume that this "Self" refers to the part of us that we are conscious of... would it not imply that any psychological evolution (if I may call it that - any increase in our awareness of ourselves?) is deleterious?


P.S. Most of your sentences in this post begin with Capital letters... another instance of evolution? :P

12:02 pm  
Blogger Krish said...

@Icarus: Umm...a nice cyclical thought there..my take there(both frm the book and frm my own thoughts) is that, "Self" as concept is an irony. When you think of getting out of self, the thinking itself is done by "Self"..So at the end of the day, you merely change "Self" and never loose it. There is nothing to loose in self. And evolution I think start mostly as a psychological process and I might attribute fear(frm enemies- be it mortal or natural forces) is the single most important cause for the change. I cant substantiate this...this is just my gut feeling and I hadnt done enuf study in this.

7:58 pm  
Blogger m. said...

hello all. sorry...been travelling. bombay. need i say more?! :)

falstaff: 2& 3... i hear you. 1 - LOL... trust you to pick on that angle. brilliant! but the thing is, the traits are only chosen for the species. if the females find a trait like humour more attractive, then the males and the offspring would also gradually acquire it. plus, evolution also means that the females are changing too, not remaining static. so both sexes hone that ability and refine it. (so yeah, im surely not suggesting that the women stay gawking in awe in the wings while men's capabilities soar! :D)

hiren: er, its exactly that kind of sweeping stereotype based on pseud science that ive strong objections to!

krish: hullo! hmm. more than trying to expound on evolutionary theory, i was simply trying to bring out the political angle :)

chantabbai: you just stated that theres nothing to explain how or why humans evolved artistic ability and then suddenly concluded that therefore "survival of the fittest" makes tremendous sense?! :|

harsha: yes!! :))

icarus: you know, i wouldnt ever shove fleeing from the Self (which in non-fancy terms we'd call "escapism") under the heading of psychological evolution! :) so the rest of that argument goes as OHT.
as for the caps... lol, does it make you itch too?! sheesh, he'd be so proud of you :P
btw, neither of us knows how to reach you. it changed its phone number. again.

9:49 pm  
Anonymous Harsha said...

m.: Science will find a way! but i digress.

hiren: It has been my observation that anything that can be put in a nutshell deserves to be there.

to all in general: The problem seems to be that "fitness" is being defined as physical prowess. Replace that term with 'appropriateness' and the theory becomes a self evident truth. The species that survive are the ones that were the most likely to have.

Like all self evident truths the theory is at best a piece of trivia and at worst a waste of time(like the historian who, given a thing that happened, can prove that it was inevitable).

The one thing that the theory does not state is that the spiecies that survive are the strongest or the fastest. Any theory that DID propound this sort of an idea would have to slightly apologise to the snail, methinks.

The problem isnt with Darwin, of course. He merely said that the species that survives are the ones that are best adapted or suited to survive. The fault would be with the people who do not see any meaning for the word "fit" that goes beyond muscle power.

'tis ironic that most people go to a fitness centre to lose flab or to put on muscle until either one's trousers or one's shirt does not FIT properly.

10:59 pm  
Anonymous witnwisdumb said...

"Human nature is a funny thing."

... You don't say?!

10:14 pm  
Blogger m. said...

no, i mostly write here.

10:31 pm  

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