Up from gorilla land: the hidden logic of love and lust – excerpt from Robert Wright’s book ‘The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are’

Robert Wright

If you want to understand the emotional spigots that turn on the attractions, passions, and infatuations that course through you, it helps to think of yourself as a gene machine with a single-minded evolutionary past. But this common goal implies different tendencies for men and women. Men, at heart, are quantity creatures; women go for quality. By Robert Wright

In recent years a small but growing group of scholars has taken the work of Darwin and his successors and carried it into the social sciences with the aim of overhauling them. These evolutionary psychologists are trying, a sense, to discern human nature, a deep unity within members of out species. In culture, we see a thirst for social approval, a capacity for guilt. You might call these, and many other human universals, “the knobs of human nature.” The exact tunings of these knobs differ from person to person; one person’s guilt knob is set low and another person’s is painfully high.

How do these knobs get set? Genetic differences among individuals sure play a role, but perhaps a larger role is played by a species-wide developmental program that absorbs information from the social environment and adjusts the maturing mind accordingly. Oddly, future progress in grasping the importance of the environment will probably come from thinking about genes.

The questions addressed by evolutionary psychologists range from the mundane to the spiritual and touch on just about everything that matters: racism, friendship, neurosis, sibling rivalry, war, altruism, guilt, the unconscious mind, even social climbing. No human behavior, however, affects the transmission of genes more obviously than sex. So no parts of human psychology are clearer candidates for evolutionary explanation than the states of mind that lead to sex: raw lust, dreamy infatuation, sturdy love, and so on – the basic forces amid which people all over the world have come of age.

The recently popular premise that men and women are basically identical in nature seems to have fewer and fewer defenders. A whole school of feminists – the “difference feminists” – now accept that men and women are deeply different.

The first step toward understanding the basic imbalance of the sexes is to assume hypothetically the role natural selection plays in designing a species. Suppose you’re in charge of instilling, in the minds of human beings, rules of behavior that will guide them through life, the object of the game being to make each person behave in such a way that he or she is likely to have lots of offspring – offspring, moreover, who themselves have lots of offspring.

When playing the Administrator of Evolution, and trying to maximize genetic legacy, you may quickly discover that this goal implies different tendencies for men and women. Men can reproduce hundreds of times a year, assuming they can persuade enough women to cooperate, and assuming there aren’t any laws against polygamy – which there assuredly weren’t in the ancestral environment where much of our evolution took place.

Women, on the other hand, can’t reproduce more than once a year. The asymmetry lies partly in the high price of eggs; in all species they’re bigger and rarer than minuscule, mass-produced sperm. But the asymmetry is exaggerated by the details of mammalian reproduction: the egg’s lengthy conversion into an organism happens inside the female, and she can’t handle many projects at once.

So while there are various reasons why it could make Darwinian sense for a woman to mate with more than one man, there comes a time when having more sex just isn’t worth the trouble. Better to get some rest and grab a bite to eat. For a man, unless he’s really on the brink of collapse or starvation, that time never comes. Each new partner offers a very real chance to get more genes into the next generation – a much more valuable prospect, in the Darwinian calculus, than a nap or a meal. As the evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson have put it, for males “there is always the possibility of doing better.”

There’s a sense in which a female can do better, too, but it has to do with quality, not quantity. Giving birth involves a huge commitment of time and energy, and nature has put a low ceiling on how many such enterprises she can undertake. So each child, from her (genetic) point of view, is an extremely precious gene machine. Its ability to survive is of mammoth importance. It makes Darwinian sense, then, for a woman to be selective about the man who is going to help her build each gene machine. She should size up an aspiring partner before letting him in on the investment, asking herself what he’ll bring to the project.

The reason: At some point, extensive male parental investment entered our evolutionary lineage. Fathers everywhere help feed, teach, support, and defend their children. Throw this into the equation, and suddenly the female is concerned not only with the male’s genetic investment, but with what resources he’ll bring to the offspring after it materializes.

In 1989, psychologist David Buss published a pioneering study of mate preferences in 37 cultures around the world. He found that in every culture, females placed more emphasis than males on a potential mate’s financial prospects. Actually, women may not be attuned so much to a man’s wealth as to his social status; among hunter-gatherers, status often translates into influence over the divvying up of resources, such as meat after a big kill. In modern societies, in any event, wealth and status often go hand in hand, and seem to make an attractive package in the eyes of the average woman. It’s no surprise that flowers and other tokens of affection are more prized by women than by men.

One might imagine that this analysis is steadily losing its relevance. After all, as more women enter the work force, they can better afford to premise their marital decisions on something other than the man’s income. But though a modern women can reflect on her wealth and her independently earned status, and try to gauge marital decisions accordingly, that doesn’t mean she can easily override the deep aesthetic impulses that had such value in the ancestral environment. In fact, modern women do not override them. Psychologists have shown that the tendency of women to place greater emphasis than men on a mate’s financial prospects persists regardless of the income of the woman in question.

In judging potential partners, women needn’t literally ask about these issues, or even be aware of them. Much of our species’ history took place before our ancestors were smart enough to ask much of anything.

In the case of sexual attraction, everyday experience suggests that natural selection has wielded its influence largely via emotional spigots that turn on and off such feelings as tentative attraction, fierce passion, and swoon-inducing infatuation. A woman doesn’t size up a man and say, “He seems like a worthy contributor to my genetic legacy.” She just sizes him up and feels attracted to him – or doesn’t. All the “thinking” has been done – unconsciously, metaphorically – by natural selection. Genes leading to attractions that wound up being good for her ancestors’ genetic legacies have flourished. Understanding the often unconscious nature of genetic control is the first step toward understanding that – in many realms, not just sex – we’re all puppets, and our best hope for even partial liberation is to try to decipher the logic of the puppeteer.

It would be misleading to say that men are selective about mates, but in theory they are at least selectively selective. They will, on the one hand, have sex with just about anything that moves, given an easy chance. In one experiment, three-fourths of the men approached by an unknown woman on a college campus agreed to have sex with her, whereas none of the women approached by an unknown man were willing to do so.

On the other hand, when it comes to finding a female for a long-term joint venture, discretion makes sense. Males can undertake only so many ventures over the course of a lifetime, so the genes that the partner brings to the project – genes for robustness, brains, whatever – are worth scrutinizing.

The distinction was nicely drawn by a study in which both men and women were asked about the minimal level of intelligence they would accept in a person they were “dating.” The average response, for both males and females, was: average intelligence. They were also asked how smart a person would have to be before they would consent to sex. The women said: Oh, in that case, markedly above average. The men said: Oh, in that case, markedly below average.

In the psychology laboratory, David Buss has found further evidence that men do dichotomize between short-term and long-term partners. Cues suggesting promiscuity (a low-cut dress, perhaps, or aggressive body language) make a woman more attractive as a short-term mate and less attractive as a long-term mate. Cues suggesting a lack of sexual experiences work the other way around.

Psychologist Donald Symons believes that the lifestyle of the modern philandering bachelor – seducing and abandoning available women year after year, without making any of them targets for ongoing investment – is not a distinct, evolved sexual strategy. It is just what happens when you take the male mind, with its preference for varied sex partners, and set it down in a big city replete with contraceptive technology.

Still, even if the ancestral environment wasn’t full of single women sitting alone after one-night stands muttering, “Men are scum,” there were reasons to guard against males who exaggerate commitment, only to leave after fathering a child. Divorce happens even among modern-day hunter-gatherers (whose lifestyle mirrors that of our ancestors), and polygyny is often an option. Given such prospects, a women’s genes would be well served by her early and careful scrutiny of a man’s likely devotion. Gauging of a man’s commitment does seem to be a part of human female psychology; and male psychology does seem inclined to sometimes encourage a false reading. One study found that males, markedly more than females, report depicting themselves as more kind, sincere, and trustworthy than they actually are.

Though both men and women seek general genetic quality, tastes may in other ways diverge. Just as women have special reason to focus on a man’s ability to provide resources, men have special reason to focus on the ability to produce babies. That means, among other things, caring greatly about the age of a potential mate, since fertility declines until menopause, when it falls off abruptly. The last thing evolutionary psychologists would expect to find is that a plainly postmenopausal woman is sexually attractive to the average man. They don’t find it: In every one of Buss’s 37 cultures, males preferred younger mates (and females preferred older mates). The importance of youth in a female mate may help explain the extreme male concern with physical attractiveness. Women can afford to be more open-minded about looks: an oldish man, unlike an oldish woman, is probably fertile.

When it comes to assessing character – to figuring out if you can trust a mate – a male’s discernment may again differ from a female’s, because the kind of treachery that threatens his genes is different from the kind that threatens hers. Whereas the woman’s natural fear is the withdrawal of his investment, his natural fear is that the investment is misplaced. Not long for this world are the genes of a man who spends his time rearing children who aren’t his.

All of this sounds highly theoretical – and of course it is. But this theory is readily tested. David Buss placed electrodes on men and women and had them envision their mates doing various disturbing things. When men imagined their partner committing sexual infidelity, their heart rates took leaps of a magnitude typically induced by three successive cups of coffee. They sweated. Their brows wrinkled. When they imagined a budding emotional attachment, they calmed down, though not quite to their normal level. For women things were reversed: envisioning emotional infidelity – redirected love, not supplementary sex – brought the deeper physiological distress.

The logic behind male jealousy isn’t what it used to be. These days some adulterous women use contraception and thus don’t dupe their husbands into spending two decades shepherding another man’s genes. But the weakening of the logic hasn’t weakened the jealousy. For the average husband, the fact that his wife inserted a diaphragm before copulating with her tennis instructor will not be a major source of consolation.

The classic example of an adaptation that has outlived its logic is the sweet tooth. Our fondness for sweetness was designed for an ancestral environment in which fruit existed but candy didn’t. Now that a sweet tooth can bring obesity, people try to control their cravings, and sometimes they succeed. But few people find it easy. Similarly, the basic impulse toward jealousy is very hard to erase. Still, people can muster some control over the impulse, and, moreover, can muster some control over some forms of its expression, such as violence, given a sufficiently powerful reason. Prison, for example.

This raises two final points. First, to say something is a product of natural selection is not to say that it is unchangeable. Just about any manifestation of human nature can be changed, given an apt alteration of the environment – though the required alteration will in some cases be prohibitively drastic.

Contrary to expectations, evolutionary psychologists subscribe to a cardinal doctrine of twentieth-century psychology: the potency of early social environment in shaping the adult mind. But if we want to know, say, how levels of ambition or insecurity get adjusted by early experience, we must first ask why natural selection made them adjustable. A guiding assumption of many evolutionary psychologists is that the most radical differences among people are the ones most likely to be traceable to environment.

Second, to say that something is “natural” is not to say that it is good. Nature isn’t a moral authority, and we needn’t adopt any “values” that seem implicit in its workings – natural selection’s indifference to the suffering of the weak, for example, is not something we need emulate. But if we want to pursue values that are at odds with natural selection’s, we need to know what we’re up against. If we want to change some disconcertingly stubborn parts of our moral code, it would help to know where they come from. And where they ultimately come from is human nature, however complexly that nature is refracted by the many layers of circumstance and cultural inheritance through which it passes.

Excerpted from The Moral Animal: Why We Are The Way We Are (Pantheon) by Robert Wright. Copyright [C] 1994 by Robert Wright.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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