In my sophomore year of university I recall hanging out at the uni’s radio club for lunch one time. The topic of evolutionary psychology came up and I found myself defending evopsych against a couple of people who had beef with it. One girl, a biomed student, got quite flustered and said something to the effect of ‘if all humans really want to do is reproduce, why aren’t you out trying to get laid right now?!’. I didn’t really have a good answer to the question: humans arguably don’t have sex that much for a species that supposedly evolved over millions of years to get their genes into the future by having kids. But looking back, it really wouldn’t have been hard to run the thought experiment: what would happen if a random uni student went around campus soliciting sex from strangers? He would probably end up kicked out of the uni and charged with something. The reality is that reproduction is so core to human life that very sophisticated systems and games have emerged around it, such that participating in a community and working on one’s self over time might be a better strategy than asking strangers for sex every day. Besides, evolution probably doesn’t want you having sex with the kind of people who would say yes to a proposition in broad daylight on a uni campus.
Another student stepped in to take a different angle. ‘All this evopsych stuff may be correct’ he said, ‘but it can be used to justify behaviour that’s not acceptable in modern society’. This struck me as a particularly dangerous argument: there’s no theory innocuous enough that it couldn’t be misinterpreted or cynically misapplied in a way that causes harm. This line of reasoning is why we can’t talk about the prevalence of alcohol in domestic abuse statistics because it lets men ‘off the hook’. Instead we’ll play it safe by saying domestic abuse is entirely due to sexism, despite rates of domestic abuse being roughly equal (or greater) in same-sex couples.
I can’t think of a single time in history when lying to a populace about something has proven to be a good idea. The story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf is read to children for a reason: when people lie, for whatever reason, people stop listening.
A third student chimed in, accepting my premise that human behaviour is mostly rooted in ignoble and petty mental pathways (e.g. altruism is actually selfishness in disguise etc) but stating that whatever hardware human psychology runs on, it’s irrelevant given that we have a software layer that can be moulded by society. Maybe at the hardware level men just want to go and have sex with random strangers but at the software level they know that’s not going to work so they need to instead become the kinds of people who would actually attract the opposite sex, which unfortunately necessitates being a better person. I conceded the point, but insisted that the hardware still matters, and that in the same way that a video game company needs to intimately understand a console’s hardware in order to write the software which optimises performance, a society should intimately understand the evolved human brain in order to construct a society which optimises wellbeing.
I think it would be a mistake to treat all the bigotry we see today as an unfortunate result of social conditioning. Whenever a cultural problem exists in most cultures, in a way where it’s unlikely to have arbitrarily been spread from a single original culture, we should ask whether there is an evolutionary explanation.
For example, why is it that guys who sleep around are legends, but when a woman does it, she’s called a ‘slut’ (whether by men or fellow women)? Why the asymmetry? Bizarre cultural anomaly? I’m not so sure. Women are the ones who give birth, so they never have to doubt whether they are their children’s mother. Men have no such guarantee, and the men who didn’t care about their partner’s sexual fidelity would have been gradually selected out of the gene pool due to raising other men’s children and leaving no children of their own. So men evolved to care very much about the sexual fidelity of women. On the other hand, women care very much about their partners’ emotional fidelity. If their partner has a one-night stand with another woman that’s bad, but not nearly as bad as their partner falling for another woman. When that happens, the children can be left without a father, or without adequate commitment from their father. Of course, this affects survival rates of the children and means that women who don’t care about their partners emotional fidelity are slowly removed from the gene pool. Of course, emotional fidelity and sexual fidelity are highly correlated, but the distinction between the two and how they asymmetrically affect the sexes has led to some cultural norms that disproportionately harm women.
If that wasn’t controversial enough, what about homophobia? Why on earth is that so common, across so many cultures? Bizarre cultural anomaly? Again, I’m not so sure. Some evolutionary theorists have suggested a ‘gay gene’ which increases fitness indirectly: the idea is that kids who have a childless gay uncle have a better chance of surviving due to their uncle helping raise the kids. Though the uncle does not directly pass on his genes, the gay gene itself is prevalent within the whole family (though mostly dormant) and that gene proliferates through those kids. I’m suspicious of this theory: it seems to me that you’re better off just having kids of your own and doubling the chances that your family lives on. I came up with another theory that like most things somebody else already came up with: homosexuality is not adaptive and is a glitch in evolutionary wiring, but evolution couldn’t find a way to get rid of it (perhaps the genes for homosexuality activated some other behaviours that were adaptive so that the gene never died off). Instead, a homophobia gene(s) evolved that made parents force heteronormative behaviour onto their children to ensure they had grandchildren. Meaning, if a parent finds out his kid is gay, the parent freaks out, and tells the kid to get with the program and focus on mating with the opposite sex. Does that sound familiar?
There are even more controversial places we could go here but suffice it to say that evolution provides a framework through which we can plausibly explain cultural phenomena which are otherwise only explained by ‘this is a social construct coincidentally appearing in various cultures across time and space!’. Of course, any hypothesis one makes on the basis of evolution, by thinking about what life was like in cavemen times, is unfalsifiable, and should be treated with caution. But scientists speculate on the past all the time: very few scientifically literate people today doubt there was a Big Bang, despite being unable to go back in a time machine and see it for themselves.
At any rate, the interesting question to ask is: if we could prove some of these evolutionary theories about why we have such strange cultural attitudes across various cultures, should it change the discourse? I believe it should: just because some belief is genetically constructed does not mean it can’t still be socially deconstructed. The Slut Walk protests have moved the needle in the direction of greater equality between the sexes when it comes to sexual behaviour. Depictions of homosexuals in films have helped bridge the gap by appealing to our empathy. The better angels of our nature are slowly gaining the upper hand.
But I think it’s important to acknowledge, if my above hypotheses prove correct, that with each new generation, those genetic biases and intuitions will still be there, ready to manifest in the same ugly ways that they have for millennia. And if we don’t explain to people the evolutionary reasons behind bigotry, they’ll just assume that the rest of society is drinking the Kool-Aid and go find friends who share their beliefs. Yes, if we go teaching evopsych about controversial issues, there will be some percentage of people tempted by the Naturalistic Fallacy to use the explanation as a justification for bad behaviour, but I believe people are smarter than that and it’s possible to communicate the full picture without resorting to politically convenient half-truths. Even if some people still fall through the cracks and now feel that bigotry is naturally justified, I contend that is a far lesser threat than if people are walking around with feelings of bigotry with no satisfying explanation as to why other than ‘society’. Because in experience, that’s just not enough reason for somebody to truly challenge their own beliefs.