Saturday, March 12, 2011

On Cavemen.

There is no such thing, in anthropology, as a "caveman." Some early human groups lived in caves, yes; others lived in tents or huts or plain old houses. I guess there's a bit less of the primitive-romance ring to "houseman."

But if by "cavemen" we mean hunter-gatherers without metal tools or formal government, here are some things you should know:

1. These groups exist today.
When metal tools and agriculture were invented, not everyone took them up. Or they took them up and abandoned them. These were not irrational decisions--being an HDTV-owning Westerner may be more comfortable than being a hunter-gatherer, but being a subsistence farmer (or factory worker, for that matter) isn't necessarily.

So "cavemen" aren't purely a matter of speculation and pottery shards. You can go out and talk to some. Ask them about their freewheeling matriarchal pansexual utopia or their animalistic primal male brutality.

...No, neither is the case. It's impossible to generalize about hunter-gatherers since I'm talking about completely separate groups in different parts of the world, but none of them are nearly as wacky sexually as "cavemen" have been made out to be. A lot of them even just have marriages.

2. Everything we know suggests that anatomically modern humans were also mentally and emotionally modern humans.
The jokes are about cavemen going "ugga ugga FIRE ug," but a better quote from the Paleolithic would probably be "Good morning! Let's go fishing; I just traded some pots my wife made to the guys across the river for some bone fishooks. Now I better bring back some big fish or she's going to be mad." (In caveman language, of course.) They were people, living people's lives.

Obviously not all of their cultural values were in common with modern Americans, but we're talking like foreign-country different, not like chimpanzee different. (And while I'm at it: even chimpanzee different is not irrational or pointlessly brutal. Chimps have structured societies and they only express agression under certain circumstances and there are tons of examples of them putting social cohesion over physical urges. Even animals aren't "animalistic.") You might not always have agreed with them, but you would have understood them. And not like "the male is providing for his mate to prove his genetic quality" understood. Like "yeah, I can see why he kinda owes his wife after selling her stuff" understood.

Here are some things we know Paleolithic people did: Care for the sick. Bury the dead. Make art. Wear jewelry. Keep dogs. Travel in boats. Trade with each other. Follow calendars. Play musical instruments.

Boats? Boats that could get to Australia. You take some trees and some rocks and sail to Australia. (And when you get there, ain't exactly a Foodmaster in the neighborhood, so you're going to have to pull some Bear Grylls shit. For your entire life. While raising children.) Then tell me about primitive cavemen following their animal instincts.

3. Human culture changes much faster than the human genome.
I mentioned above that hunter-gatherer groups are quite different from each other. Someone from the Pirahã people in the Amazon wouldn't have all that much to talk about with someone from the Sentinelese people in the Andaman Islands. But the genetic differences between them--and between either of them and you or me--are extremely slight. Their culture was shaped by their circumstances and their history, not by genetics.

So to call the process by which other hunter-gatherer groups started farming and specializing and forming civilizations and colonizing until they became you and me "evolution" is a gross misuse of the term. It's sure as hell not genetic evolution, at least. People who farm don't dominate the world because there's a "farm gene" that has become prevalent, but because farmers had more children and they taught those children to farm. Farmers having more kids is NOT "survival of the fittest" in the Darwinian sense; if you raise one of those kids in a hunter-gatherer society, they're not going to spontaneously plant a garden.

Things that are way, way too new to be codified in the human genome:
Farms
Money
Dating (arguably, my grandmother is older than modern dating)
Government
Law
Groups of people larger than your high school graduating class
Jobs
Written language
2011 standards of physical beauty (again, ask my grandmother)

Behaviors relating to these or other modern concepts are extremely, extremely unlikely to be directly "hardwired" into our genetics.

4. You are not a caveman, anyway.
Yeah. Don't sit there at your computer wearing your pants enjoying your central heating and tell me that sexuality is the one specific area of human behavior where people are helpless against their genetics.





Slightly off the caveman topic, but a thing I wanted to say:
5. Physical beauty does not indicate "quality genes" and sexual frequency does not indicate "fitness."
"Fitness" means the number of children you have who survive to reproduce themselves. To a lesser degree, the survival and reproduction of your other relatives and your tribe also increases your fitness. So being kind and responsible to your family isn't just ethical, it's adaptive. Considering the amount of work involved in raising a human child (particularly in preindustrial times), conceiving a bunch of embryos and running off doesn't necessarily get you a lot of grandchildren.

As for the "quality" of a hottie's genes, all you can really say is that the children are more likely to be hotties themselves. Doesn't make them more (or less) fertile, intelligent, healthy, aggressive, cooperative, or good at parenting. Mating with a square-jawed broad-shouldered dude who carries genes for asthma and has no malaria resistance is no way to ensure "quality" genes. That'll just get you a bunch of square-jawed broad-shouldered kids with asthma and malaria.

It may be super boring to suggest that being in a stable relationship with someone who's nice as well as healthy is the "fittest" thing for both sexes, but I think it's a hell of a lot better bet than a supermodel fucking an egomaniac.

31 comments:

  1. THIS
    great post, Holly!

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  2. I love this. Finally, a decent refutation of all that evo-psych "let's justify 1950s gender roles" bullshit.

    This article came out today, and it really related and I bet you'd dig it! http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/11/science/11kin.html?_r=1&src=recg

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  3. Awesome post, Holly! You would make an outstanding scientist!

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  4. Regarding your fifth point -- I don't necessarily disagree, but I think your point would be stronger if you separated genetic and social parenting. Women can get both egomaniac genes and the stable parenting for their kids.

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  5. Thank you! Good god, am I ever sick of hearing "hard-wired" tossed around as if there was a specific DNA sequence for buying fancy shoes.

    Also, on "fitness"... I'd like to see more people talking about cultural fitness instead of just genetic. In the world we live in, especially with the global economic and communication networks we have, your impact on the world has much more to do with your cultural position than with your genes' spreading. Someone who never passes on their genes, but writes two or three excellent books, arguably has a far stronger impact on the shape of the human race than someone who has a lot of children and grandchildren.

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  6. My roommate's an anthro major. I'm in sociology. We've collectively agreed that you get a INTERNET SOCIAL SCIENCE FISTBUMP OF CONSTRUCTIONISM.

    Also? The whole point of sex is genetic diversity. If everyone wants to mate with the same six supermodels, then what happens if a famine happens and super-skinny is suddenly super-bad? The guy who likes BBW suddenly becomes a lot more genetically fit.

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  7. Awesome, Holly.
    Yeah, virtual kick in the shin to the next blatherer about "hard-wiring." I wanted to pin that down on the last thread. Do tell what you mean by that, because I am quite certain that you don't mean "hard" "wired". Grr argh.

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  8. Best post ever. You win ten golden internets!

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  9. As a former anthropologist who has always looked at pop-evo-psychology with a big "WTF????" I am SO glad you wrote this. Yes, yes, yes

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  10. As a historian, I agree with your central premise that people talking about gender roles as hardwired is pretty bogus but from a slightly different angle: we don't and can't KNOW enough about cavemen to make those assertions.

    I specialise in early modern England (1500-1750). And in this age where the state and church kept masses of records and the ordinary people had an educational revolution that led to massive rises in literacy - there's an awful lot of shit we just don't know. History is based on written records, and even in 1750, relatively not all that long ago, either people didn't bother to write stuff down, they couldn't write stuff down or the stuff they wrote down has been destroyed.

    So that's 1750. I don't want to knock what anthropologists do, because they themselves often make numerous caveats that it's very difficult to know these things for sure, but I fail to see how anyone can make complex claims about gender roles of a societies which DID NOT WRITE ANYTHING DOWN.

    On a slightly more nit-picky note, I don't think that cavemen are like foreign countries. This idea does deny the notion of progress through history and the massive influence of demographic change. Also, to say they used boats to get to Australia is, to say the least, extremely charitable. 'Boat' conjures up images of...well...a boat. These were most likely rafts, and God knows how many died before the few people who survived got there.

    On an unrelated note to my essay, I was wondering what your thoughts were on sexual orientation. Is it still as valid if sex is really only about reproductive organs? Or is sexual orientation a mainly cultural product?

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  11. Yeah, sort of. Except that people only achieve what is permitted by their genes, influenced by their culture. The ability to farm is a consequence of our genetic history and those useful skills we've picked up on the way. We have evolved the ability to farm. But it's also the ability to do so many other things; basic things that are "transferable skills" in the broadest sense. We have not evolved the instinct to farm - that is cultural, as you say.
    However, cultures are subject to their own memetic evolution, and the farming meme is a very successful one. As you point out, farmers have more children, and teach them to farm. Since the ability to foster and impart one's own culture to one's children is an evolved trait, genetic evolution has favoured those people capable of memetic evolution.

    Oh, and physical beauty is a sign of physical symmetry, which itself is a sign of athletic ability - particularly running speed and stamina. So you could say it was the marker for a few good genes.

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  12. Oh, and physical beauty is a sign of physical symmetry, which itself is a sign of athletic ability - particularly running speed and stamina. So you could say it was the marker for a few good genes.

    There are no "good genes".

    Or, rather, there are lots of good genes but everyone has almost all of them, because if you don't, you weren't born. You don't need some special mating instinct to know that your partner has the gene for RNA polymerase.

    Running speed and stamina are not signs of "good genes". They're advantageous in some environments, but being a white male is advantageous in some environments, too. It doesn't make sense to call that phenotype "better" because it looks like your idea of a healthy and successful human body.

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  13. And I apologize for the snotty italics in the last sentence of that.

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  14. No worries, I read it as emphasis.

    True nothing is ever universally good, but those traits that are mostly beneficial in most commonly-encountered environments, they are the ones that are the safest bet for a "good" genome in the uncertain future, and they are the ones that tend to be sexually selected for, particularly by partners who share your particular environment.

    My ideas about success don't come into it; the only true test is successful mating and child-rearing. Which all our ancestors passed.

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  15. Totally agree with your list, even though trade should be an important socioevolutional trait aswell

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  16. I really liked this. I think Evo Psych is really interesting, and is a fascinating subject, when in the right areas. Have you read any work by Sarah Hrdy? She's fascinating, and has some really interesting looks from a feminist perspective, and looks at things beyond male&female binary forever. Evolution's Rainbow is another good read, although at some points the author interprets a little too much, but it's really neat.
    I think my biggest pet peeve is the whole 'hardwiring' thing. My professor will say things like 'oh well in humans, there's paternal uncertainty, and as a result an adaptation we made is monogomy.' To me, that's bullshit. Biology lays the framework, it's the lay of the land. Biology says 'hey there's a pit in the land here, here's a lake, here's a mountain, here's a spot where there's a lot of erosion.' Society can build a shit ton around that, either say choosing to build a big bridge over the pit, or building something underground with the pit. Monogamy is one societal adaptation toward paternal uncertainty, but there are some tribes [whose name I forget, dammit] who go the opposite way--the mother can be promiscuous and there's not judgement, because each guy who has sex with her can be seen as a partial dad, with maybe one guy being 20% father, another guy being 20% father and another guy being 60% father.
    What we are hardwired to do, besides basic animal instincts, is to be able to adapt. I think it's way more interesting to look at society and culture from a lens of evolutionary psychology, thinking 'hey, hm, why are things like that? Why have as a culture we made it that virginity is a prized possession for females but not for males?' rather than 'omg men are hardwired to stick their dick in attractive ladies that will always be attractive [while it is true that several indicators of fertility are found attractive cross-culturally, shouldn't those be the ones we're looking at, rather than things like boobs which are important here, but not so much elsewhere, and even in the West/US massively varies by individual preference]?'
    Wow this is really long-winded and I'm very tired and hope it makes sense.

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  17. Mr. Monster - You know what I never got about the whole "symmetry is beautiful!" thing? I really don't know anyone with a naturally asymmetric face. Even people considered "ugly" by whatever standard are generally ugly on both sides.

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  18. As a former archaeology student I am loving this post! Early humans get such bad press, I was pretty surprised to find out how culturally advanced they're considered to be in archaeology.

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  19. Re: Symmetry and beauty: Well, many illnesses can make one's body or face asymmetrical: curved back, spotted face, missing bodyparts, and so on. And those are things that are generally not considered attractive. And being ill means there's a lower probability that you have genes that make you more resistant to illness and injury. Which doesn't mean considerably asymmetry isn't quite rare, or that standards of beauty aren't mainly cultural.

    Just see how they vary from culture to culture. Actually, I think there should be a rule that every time someone claims we're evolved to think, want, or do something, they have to look at other cultures to determine whether all or most other cultures have that same pattern. If they don't, lo, it's cultural, not biologically evolved! I'm not an anthropologist, but I would guess that having two arms is a standard of beauty in most cultures, which would indicate it's biological. Wheras thinness is not a standard of beauty in anywhere near all cultures, which would indicate that it's a cultural thing to prefer either thinness or fatness.

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  20. Also, to say they used boats to get to Australia is, to say the least, extremely charitable. 'Boat' conjures up images of...well...a boat. These were most likely rafts, and God knows how many died before the few people who survived got there.

    Why shouldn't they have used boats? Do you imagine they set out for Australia on humanity's first ever attempt at a floating thing? There's no reason for people back then to have been suicidal. They probably had been doing successively longer boat trips for generations before they ventured to Australia.

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  21. Eli - One thing to keep in mind: with island-hopping from Indonesia and lower sea levels, you'd only be going at most 60-100 miles at a time to get to Australia. Which is still really impressive, but not what someone from most English-speaking areas thinks of when I say "sail to Australia."

    (Or then I read there might have been a land bridge in which case screw everything. But Paleolithic people weren't stupid, is really my only point and there's plenty of other evidence for that.)

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  22. AnonyHistorian - You're right about guessing too much either way about "cavemen." We know about the objects they made that were durable enough to still leave traces after 50k years, and we can extrapolate a little from the effects on later civilization and from societies that still live in similar ways, but there's no "The Autobiography of John Ugg" that we're reading from here.

    So, yeah, it's true, saying "cavemen just wanted to marry someone nice who would help with the kids" is ultimately just as speculative as "cavemen lived in a matriarchal utopia / patriarchal hellhole."

    I just think it's better speculation. :p

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  23. Thank you. This is easily printed out and stapled to people's foreheads.

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  24. Re sailing long distances with Stone Age technology, I cannot recommend the book East is a Big Bird (by Thomas Gladwin) highly enough. It's a detailed case study of the practices of Polynesian navigators, who routinely make ocean voyages of hundreds or thousands of miles out of sight of land. In small wooden boats, using nothing but naked-eye observation of the stars and the ocean itself (if they can get compasses they'll use them, but they don't need them). They've been doing this for thousands of years.

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  25. Hershele OstropolerMarch 14, 2011 at 12:50 PM

    Physical beauty does not indicate "quality genes" and sexual frequency does not indicate "fitness."

    Er. Number of partners doesn't indicate fitness, but insofar as nature doesn't know about contraception, I'd say sexual frequency is strongly correlated with fitness. Strictly speaking fitness is better measured by number of grandchildren, but sexual frequecy is a crude estimate, again, barring contraception.

    * * *

    On an unrelated note to my essay, I was wondering what your thoughts were on sexual orientation. Is it still as valid if sex is really only about reproductive organs? Or is sexual orientation a mainly cultural product?

    I'm not Holly, but it is a cultural product -- the idea of "sexual orientation," of identifying yourself by (among other things) whom you wanna bang, dates back only to the mid-19th century. CE.

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  26. Er. Number of partners doesn't indicate fitness, but insofar as nature doesn't know about contraception, I'd say sexual frequency is strongly correlated with fitness. Strictly speaking fitness is better measured by number of grandchildren, but sexual frequecy is a crude estimate, again, barring contraception.

    The problem comes in when it's used as a strong correlate outside any consideration of other variables affecting number of grandchildren. That's not something you really have to consider when you're talking about, say, squid, but it really, really is if you're talking about species with concealed ovulation in which most matings are done when the female is actually not even fertile, and the child care requirements are stupid high to the point that no young survive to reproductive age without very serious effort.

    Ornithologists don't use frequency of matings as an interchangeable correlate with fitness for this reason, and anyone considering hominids shouldn't either.

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  27. The big problem I always had with the symmetry argument was the fact that many people have uneven boob size, or slightly off shoe sizes. If you have a dominant hand, one side will be slightly more developed. If you play a sport or do something else physical, one part of your body might be more developed than the others. So almost everyone is a little "off".

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  28. So, yeah, it's true, saying "cavemen just wanted to marry someone nice who would help with the kids" is ultimately just as speculative as "cavemen lived in a matriarchal utopia / patriarchal hellhole."

    I just think it's better speculation. :p


    Pshaw to your better speculation. All the dinosaur saddles found thus far ( http://www.flickr.com/photos/williac/1036693826 ) have been CLEARLY designed for males, thus PROVING that men were in charge from Day One. Which makes them cavemen. And in charge and there hereunto, theretofore, indubitously better. It's in a museum and THAT MAKES IT SCIENCE.

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  29. Er. Number of partners doesn't indicate fitness, but insofar as nature doesn't know about contraception, I'd say sexual frequency is strongly correlated with fitness. Strictly speaking fitness is better measured by number of grandchildren, but sexual frequecy is a crude estimate, again, barring contraception.

    Number of matings and fitness are tightly correlated enough to treat them as more or less the same when you're talking about, say, squid.

    When you're dealing with a species in which most matings do not result in offspring (in hominids, due to concealed ovulation), or in which child care requirements are stupid high and requires a lot of investment beyond sperm and egg, it's much less so.

    Ornithologists typically use number of young fledged rather than number of matings for this reason, at lest when they can keep track of the parent birds. Those whose business is hominids shouldn't be going by number of matings either.

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  30. I just discovered your blog from a link in a fetlife group.

    Your writing about rape culture is awesome. Thank you so much for looking at it from a kink point of view.

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  31. Mostly agree, though I think Point 4 is more ambiguous than likely intended. Highly complicated behaviours are NOT genetically determined, and certainly that so-called[*] evolutionary psychology bullshit about rape being evolutionary is utter crap, but the homosexual/bisexual/heterosexual axis likely has at least moderate-to-strong genetic or epigenetic influences, and the big five psychological traits seem to be genetically influenced.

    There are few things that are 100% genetically determined, but a blanket "genes do not influence sexuality" is almost certainly wrong, albeit not *as* wrong as "men are genetically programmed to rape women, because caveman". Which, on more time for emphasis - is utter bullshit. Even early palaeolithic Homo hablis and Homo erectus was making complicated stone tools using flint knapping, a highly skilled task, which only got more complicated over time. Neolithic man (H. neandertalis and modern H. sapiens is believed to have partially domesticated some of the animals they hunted, notably deer in Britain.) and engaged in art.

    Quite simply, rape is incompatible with society. You need to have reasonably stable relationships where culture and skilled tasks can be passed down to the children. And... well, probably preaching to the choir, so I'll leave it at that.

    ----
    [*] While almost all widely-reported examples of evolutionary psychology are utter bullshit, that doesn't mean the field is inherently impossible to do actual good work in. It's like parapsychology. Some people do excellent work exploring the origins of anomalous beliefs. Darryl Bem attempts to prove that men can psychically predict which button will reveal porn. (Yes, really.) One of these is good science, the other is not, but the bad science is the one that got thousands of news reports.

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