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What you think about evolution and human nature may be wrong

Were you really born to be selfish?

The media has picked up and disseminated as truth several of what some call "just so" stories from Evolutionary Psychology which may be influencing your morality and your behavior.

Before I name some of them, it is important to remember humanity's prehistory. The human genus spent 99% of its existence in foraging hunter-gatherer bands (small-band hunter-gatherer, or HGSB, documented well by anthropologists) with characteristics very distinctive from modern societies. Evolutionary Psychology seems to have forgotten this baseline.

Among prominent Evolutionary Psychologists (EP; a subset of evolutionary psychologists) one of the overarching misunderstandings regards the social environment of the HGSB. Instead, EP typically transposes us and our social environment to the past instead of understanding how different they and their social environment were.

Based on anthropological and other records of such simple societies (see references below) I will name several characteristics EP theorists ignore and make one suggestion as to why it might matter to you.

1. There was no hierarchy; there were no leaders. HGSB members were fiercely egalitarian. Even Christopher Boehm (Hierarchy in the Forest) concludes that political egalitarianism, universal among HGSB, is ancient. Yet EP assumes hierarchy and dominance are natural parts of our evolutionary nature.

Instead, political hierarchy (and violence) came about with societies that cultivated crops or settled down (see Fry, 2006, Human Potential for Peace), only in the last 1% of human existence.

Why it matters for your life: Here is one reason. If you think that hierarchy is a human heritage, you are more likely to put up with inequality (and wonder why you are stressed out--see the book, The Spirit Level). Our ancestors did not countenance inequality in resources or status.

2. There was deep collectivism and group identity. No one wanted to be alone. Yet EP assumes detached, territorial, possession-driven individuals much like us today. The individualism of today is a very strange, aberrant form of social relations that is a recent phenomenon.*

In contrast, in HGSB societies, pleasure does not come from possessions or status but from social pleasures of playing, dancing, singing, joking, laughing--the kinds of activities that keep you (your hormones) in a "moral mood."

Why it matters for your life: Your wellbeing is likely to improve when you stop focusing on possessions and money. Those high in materialism tend to be unhappy (see Tim Kasser, The High Price of Materialism). Happiness comes from social play and social activities where you can "lose yourself" in flow with others (see Stuart Brown's Play).

3. Individuals had great autonomy, even children. Children had the freedom to roam and do what they wanted, like adults. Children were considered free beings, reincarnations of relatives or gods, not to be coerced, yet EP assumes the type of family structure that we have today (nuclear family, mom and dad in charge), which is only about 100 years old (see Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were).

Why it matters for your life: Children need lots of close, non-intrusive care throughout their development, best had in a supportive extended family, but also lots of autonomy (see Free-range Kids for ideas). Coercion kills the spirit.

4. There was cooperation and general peaceableness, yet EP assumes competition and coalitionary violence. Who are they talking about? Groups were permeable and fluid. Relatives lived in nearby groups. The anthropological evidence suggests that cooperation was the norm.Yet EP assumes rivalry between groups instead of cooperation. There is no evidence for warring parties among HGSB (Fry, 2006, Human Potential for Peace). There was nothing to be competitive about since there were no possessions and it was a collective.# But what was key was the childrearing practices, practices that bring about happy, healthy people who are agreeable and cooperative (see here and here). Our culture has forced parents away from most of these practices, although children still have a natural tendency to help others (see Michael Tomasello, 2009, Why we Cooperate).

Why it matters for your life: Notice all the ways that you are cooperative, how you don't demand your way and act aggressively when you don' t get your way. If you find that you are not cooperative or peaceful, it means your brain gets defensive easily based on trauma or neglect during sensitive periods in your life. Noncooperation and aggression are not inherent in human nature (except under threat, which is true for all organisms). People can change. Psychotherapy can help re-work personality (see Schwartz & Begley, The Mind and the Brain). If you are a parent, how you raise your child matters for their personality and sociability.

5. There was generosity and sharing, a natural morality. HGSB didn't need a commandment to "love your neighbor" because one does so when one is raised with kindness and compassion, with needs fully met. Yet EP assumes that humans are naturally selfish.

Sahlins (The Western Illusion of Human Nature, p. 51) notes: "Natural self interest? For the greater part of humanity, self interest as we know it is unnatural in the normative sense; it is considered madness, witchcraft or some such grounds for ostracism, execution or at least therapy. Rather than expressing a pre-social human nature, such avarice is generally taken for a loss of humanity."

Of course, every organism strives to survive and has built-in mechanisms for that. But is this selfishness? Attempts to survive under threat are characteristic of all of life, so calling that behavior selfish is not saying anything useful. It's like saying every organism grows.

But how did we bring about so much truly self-centered behavior that we see in USA society in all ages and nearly all walks of life? I've been blogging about this for a while: it has to do with cultural expectations of (and encouragement of) selfishness, cultural practices that put people "under threat" most of the time, and also childrearing practices (stressing children out by not meeting their needs makes for a self-centered brain, which gets worse with subsequent generations).

Why it matters for your life: Your genes do not make you "selfish." That comes from childrearing practices, social situations and cultural narratives. Change your surrounds, your narratives and let your generosity out. What you immerse yourself in is what you become.

6. There was virtue and good citizenship, a natural morality, yet EP assumes that humans are natural cheaters. In the HGSB context, everyone would have to be reliable or the group might perish from predation. HGSB members don't trust anything but eyewitness testimony. There would not have been intentional lying about resources and if there was the individual would be shunned or expelled.

Why it matters for your life: Yes, we have a nation of "mis-raised" people, some of whom do cheat. But it does NOT have to be this way. If we raise children well and make sure workplaces, homes are places of support, if we lessen competition, we will have less cheating.

7. There was more sexual freedom and mating behavior for all ages, yet EP assumes a scenario like today's of restriction and competition, and an emphasis on the timing of first sexual behavior. There was cooperative breeding and childrearing, yet EP assumes mate competition and male desire to control female reproduction to ensure genetic dominance.

In HGSB, sexual relations seemed to be widespread with experimentation at all ages. As with our bonobo cousins, individuals did not wait for the right fertile mate. Sexual relations were more about pleasure. There is no evidence to show that males were concerned about whose child was theirs, but evidence to the contrary. From the hypotheses that are tested in EP, it is clear that they are missing an understanding of this baseline. Otherwise, for example, why would they hypothesize male preference for virginity? It's because they are using the wrong baseline, one based on more recent social structures. Our ancestors lived in kin-based communities and were not concerned with controlling women's reproduction. Women controlled it themselves--they were responsible for killing a newborn who was defective or unable to be cared for by the community's resources.

Why it matters: Males who are neglected in early life seem to be much more detrimentally affected than females leading to brain decrements and potential fixations (e.g., on sex; see Martin Teicher's work). Even the breast fetish of USA males may be due to the poor rates and length of breastfeeding which are perhaps especially detrimental for male development. So don't attribute the characteristics of USA males today to be reflective of typical male nature.

See here for response to critics of this post.


To immerse yourself in the culture of Small-Band Hunter-Gatherers:

Dan Everett, Don't Sleep there are Snakes.
Colin Turnbull, The Forest People
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, The Harmless People
Ashely Montagu, Learning Non-Aggression

Perspectives on HGSB and related areas:

Douglas Fry, The Human Potential For Peace
Douglas Fry, Beyond War
Ashely Montagu, On Aggression
Marshall Sahlins, The Western Illusion of Human Nature

Major Theorists in Evolutionary Psychology (the subset)

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, Steven Pinker, Robert Wright

Critiques of Evolutionary Psychology

David Buller. (2005) Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature. MIT Press.

Richard Lewontin. (2002) The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism and Enviroment. Harvard University Press.

Robert Richardson (2007). Evolutionary psychology as maladapted psychology. MIT Press.


* I think this is due in part to the way we raise children in capitalist societies, free-market capitalism and the focus on money above all else that pervades the culture, and a left brain emphasis that is not oriented to living things, see McGilchrist, 2009, The Master and His Emissary.

# Yes, once in a while there were fits of jealousy and perhaps retaliation by individuals but this goes back to what happens under personal threat when people "lose their heads."