Sunday, August 29, 2010


My cousin Sam is raising another man's child. His wife already had a young daughter when they met, and as Sam and his wife became closer and got married, the daughter gradually came under his care. Now she lives in his house and calls him Dad and pretty much adores him, and they're a happy little family. Sam is investing huge amounts of money and time into another man's daughter, giving up his chance to have any genetic children of his own, and he's happy about it.

My other cousin Lucy has a simpler story. She just doesn't have any children and never plans to have any.

So they're two out of millions of people who have voluntarily given up on evolutionary fitness. Sam and Lucy's genes are going nowhere because of the choices they've made. And they're what I think of when I read those "evolutionary psychology" articles about how everything humans do is all about maximizing our fitness and making sure our kids are ours and our seed is spread. (These articles, incidentally, and I'd provide links if I had a proper computer to type this on, have a charming tendency to think fitness consists of getting laid, rather than getting laid and conceiving a child and raising them to adulthood. Steps 2 and 3 there are actually pretty significant.) It seems ridiculous to me to suggest that Lucy is somehow subconciously attracted to men with good genes for her children, when she very consciously isn't using anyone's genes for anything. Or that Sam and his wife's relationship is based in ensuring the fatherhood of children, when they know damn well he's not the genetic father.

Obviously humans are evolved animals, and our history has selected for those who passed on their genes. But in our case selection has led us toward intelligence, and that complicates things. It means that human behavior really can't all be explained in terms of reproduction. It has to be seen in light of us being human.


  1. I'll add my 2 cents to your post by adding that from a hard science perspective, evolution is not prescriptive, it's can't tell you what is GOING to or SHOULD happen but it provides a very sound structure to examine and interpret what actually did occur after the fact.

    Additionally, evolution explains what happens to large populations in aggregate over the extended periods of time necessary for selection pressures and their outcomes to exert measurable and significant (not always the same thing, statistically) effects and cannot/does not address what happened to individual X within at time Y within a big group during a period of Z years.

    So using "evolution made/makes me do it" as an explanation/justification/rationalization for what approach you're going to take to hitting on (or being hit on), hooking up (or not), and whether or not this results in someone's genes getting passed on is like saying you can use forensic science techniques right now to describe and explain the crime you're going to commit some time in the near just doesn't work like that.

    Personally, I'm about to start going all Fred Phelps on people who take the name of science in makes my brain hurt.

  2. May I recommend the book Sex At Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha? It is evolutionary psychology as it should have been from the start, making a convincing argument that people are not necessarily the selfish, jealous battle-of-the-sexes machines that most of traditional evopsych has convinced us we must be. And men are not actually evolutionarily very invested on jealously ensuring that their monogamous female partner's children are surely theirs. In fact, in humans' past, everybody taking care of everyone's children in the group seems to have been the norm, and possibly nobody knew who is the father of which child (or even thought a child has one single father). This means that the fact that many people love children who are genetically not their offspring isn't at odds with evopsych. (Obviously the questions of adoption and voluntary childnessness etc. are more complicated than that, and are affected by societal conditions, too. But this doesn't mean our evolved biology doesn't give us a general framework within which we act and feel.)

    Anyhow, we can do or feel something because similar feelings or actions have served spreading our genes in the past, whether or not we consciously know doing these things won't spread our genes now. For example, one of the reasons why many people think kittens and puppies are cute is that with their big heads and big eyes, they resemble human babies, and we're evolutionarily programmed to want to take care of babies. I know my cats aren't related to me, but my finding them adorable might have something to do with this "overflow" of feelings. Evopsych only explains why, historically speaking, I might have these feelings.

  3. I'm going to add my 1 cent (my opinion on this matter isn't even worth the customary 1/50 of a dollar). Bear in mind that I took a freshman seminar on Evo Psych, so I'm clearly an expert on the subject.

    The drive to increase the proportion of your genetic material in the next generation was certainly a major aspect in the evolution of [not only] human behavior. It is at best only a part and at worst an oversimplification of the behavior of organisms, even when the organisms considered are bacteria. During the period of time when this behavior evolved, certain heuristics applied better than they do now, e.g. having sex with someone generally meant wanting to have children with them (but not necessarily take care of them). Thus, it could be reasonable to state that one of the components in human attraction is related to the perceived quality of potential offspring. Note that it is overzealous (to speak lightly) to say, "You fuck people that you want to have kids with," without a lot of qualifiers.

    tl;dr - Claiming something as true because "evolution supports it" is about as useful as the same claim with the justification that "phrenology supports it", unless there is _good_ evidence to back the claim.

  4. Excellent post, Holly.

    Evolutionary psychology is a load of fucken crappe. When someone tells you that "evolution" explains that gender norms of the American 1950s are "programmed in our genes", be very very skeptical.

  5. Observational studies of wild chimpanzees show that males sometimes adopt orphaned children, especially male children. Chimpanzees are not monogamous, so it is unlikely that the male doing the adopting could know the child was his. They are also not enormously paternal, so it's unlikely this is just frustrated paternal drive.

    One possibility raised by researchers is that the child might grow up to be a valuable male ally later on.

    Having an additional member in your family could be valuable to humans even if that member is not related. We are, after all, highly social animals and we live in groups because it enhances our survival. In traditional societies a major reason to have children is their later economic value.

    Why do we focus obsessively on whether a male believes the children are his, and not whether the children believe he is their father? Having partly or completely grown children who believe you are their father, and therefore support you, could easily promote your own survival. Human males (like chimpanzee males) are fertile late into life, so that survival can lead to additional offspring, as well as to enhanced survival of previous offspring.

  6. Kaija - Yes. The worst is when people argue that the death of someone stupid or unhealthy is "natural selection," as if that person living somehow wouldn't be. If a thing happens it is natural, you know?

    Emmie - I think Sex At Dawn is just telling a different fairytale. I have no more respect for "Science Says big polyamorous puddles are Natural" than I do for "Science Says 1950s gender roles are Natural." I believe that choice, diversity, and the development and internalization of culture define human sexuality much more than any one "this is how cavemen did it" model.

  7. Science says: touch your toes.
    Now sit down.
    Anyone who sat down is out; I didn't say "Science says."

  8. I came in to point out that the EvPsych people would say the adoptive parents are benefitting their community by taking care of offspring of the community . . . . I see they've already been here. :)

  9. Sam and Lucy may not behave optimally in a strict Darwinian sense, but that doesn't mean they aren't a benefit to their communities. In particular, Sam's partner's genes benefit from his choice to raise her child.

    I fully expect to be a genetic dead end, too, and I'm pretty ok with that.

    @Kaija -- Studies have shown that natural selection can take place over staggeringly brief time periods.

  10. I also recommend Sex at Dawn - it really whacks that shit right out of the water and justifies orgies on the side.

  11. Crayonbeam - Orgies aren't "justified." They're just fun.

    I have as much interest in a different brand of prescriptive just-so ev-psych as an atheist does when someone says "so you're not a Christian... have you tried Islam?"

  12. Fun fact: Sam also has a cat. That's not even perpetuating the right species, much less the "community." In strict ev-psych thinking, Sam has been cuckolded by a tomcat.

  13. For those looking for a rigorous alternative to both brands of just-so storytelling, try Roughgarden, who is an evolutionary biologist of long and distinguished credit rather than a psychologist. Genial Genes is a structured and extremely effective takedown of some of the worst pitfalls infecting working scientists and sexual selection- including the serious mistake of using number of matings as a fitness proxy rather than number of children reared to reproductive age. It also makes a very good case for a much stronger role for cooperation in sexual evolution than usually assumed. She has an agenda, but she lays it out bullet point by bullet point and builds her arguments like a mason builds a wall.

    It is also extremely dense and most rewarding to those who already have a solid knowledge of the science. It was meant as an argument to other professionals rather than popular knowledge, so.

  14. lxr said, Anyone who sat down is out; I didn't say "Science says."

    That was great.

  15. I keep meaning to read The Robot's Rebellion, which discusses the idea that even if we ARE saddled with evolutionary baggage that influences behavior, that's not the end of the story, and we should rebel against paths that serve our genes but not ourselves. See here:
    Seems like you'd enjoy it, or yelling at it, at least.

  16. Holly - Luckily, the authors of Sex At Dawn point out that they don't know and therefore don't want to even speculate at what should be done with the information they present. They just suggest a really credible model of how human sexuality has evolved during most of our prehistory, and their model explains both past evidence and present human behaviour pretty nicely. I'm not saying, and they are not saying, that culture isn't a big player in the manifestation of human sexuality. Actually, they're saying that it is.

    "Natural" is a big word and easily misunderstood, and I think most biologists would agree with me that all human behaviour is euqally natural (or unnatural) and therefore it's not even worth it to discuss what is natural for humans. I mean, flying without the aid of any technology is unnatural for human beings, but I don't really have to tell people not to do it, do I?

  17. Viewing evolution in terms of 'spreading the seed' is exceedingly abridged, it's much more about 'propagating the species' and reproduction doesn't always amount to propagating the species; if the species is overpopulated, for example.

    There are many more things that do amount to propagating the species; adopting a child, giving to organisations to help people live better lives,generally making yourself useful.