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Courtship, Cooperation & Negotiation: What Darwin Got Wrong about Human Emotions

Many social critics in the Peak Oil community are fond of saying “Men do what they do driven by the desire to please women.” But what if that notion is just plain wrong? Is there power in the narrative that redirects our energies away from helpful pursuits believing that such strivings are “against the laws of nature?”

In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed. Charles Darwin

Most of us in the Western world have accepted a story about sexual selection, and by extension ‘human nature,’ that goes something like this: Men are aggressive, and fight each other in order to win the chance to mate with desirable females. For the love of hot babes and Babettes, they burn a lot of fossil fuel, build a lot of corporations, rape and pillage other nations and destroy the planet in order to be powerful and desirable to us gals.

This, as the story goes, is for very specific biological reasons: They have small sperm, and lots of them, (making them “cheap”) so they can throw them around with very little “invested” in an attempt to impregnate females. From an evolutionary standpoint, this horn-dog behavior promotes their own gene pool, beating out some other guy’s gene pool. Men (and all males in general, to use Darwin’s terms) are “passionate” and women are less eager or “coy.”

Women are “coy,” because they have large eggs, and a whole lot fewer of them, and becoming pregnant requires a large investment of energy and time dealing with pregnancy and caring for the offspring that result. Their eggs are “expensive” to them, in evolutionary terms. Therefore, evolution demands that they carefully look over their choice of males and choose the “fittest” one for mating. Women do the choosing. So, as the theory goes, men compete with each other for females’ attention, and women have innate preferences about which males they choose to mate with…and may the best man win.

The female is less eager than the male,” Darwin wrote, “She is coy,” and when she takes part in choosing a mate, she chooses “not the male which is most attractive to her, but the one which is least distasteful.” (1)

Darwin’s World

Charles Darwin was a man who once lamented that his own fragile physical state would clearly prevent him from producing great works. He had multiple psychosomatic ailments that kept him from socializing without great cost to his health. “Darwin worked alone at home, leading the life of an independent scientist.”

His decision to marry was an intellectual one, as he weighed the pros and cons:

After drawing up lists of the benefits and drawbacks of marriage, he proposed to his first cousin Emma Wedgwood, whom he married on Jan. 29, 1839. She brought fortune, devotion, and considerable housewifely skills that enabled him to work in peace for the next 40 years.

Together they had 10 children.

He needed quiet during the day in order to work. She dutifully brought him meals and tea in his office, at which time she might request to borrow the key to the drawer where he kept all of the keys to the rest of the household pantries.

Although he considered all young people immature like adult females, at 39 years old, he considered his own wife “always the mother, never the child, Darwin always the child, never the father.” Darwin gave his wife the nickname “mammy”, writing, “My dearest old Mammy … Without you, when sick I feel most desolate .. Oh Mammy, I do long to be with you and under your protection for then I feel safe.” (2)

While Darwin began to write down his theories of evolution in the early 1840’s he was reluctant to make them public. “He was a beneficiary of this conservative English society, and his fear of ostracism was one of the forces that prevented him from publishing his theory sooner.“(3) The world was evolving and the political climate was welcoming to evolutionary notions. While still reluctant, on June 18, 1858, he received a paper that summarized his own twenty years of work, written by Alfred Russel Wallace. He shortly afterward presented a paper jointly with Wallace.

In 1871, Darwin elaborated upon the theory of sexual selection. Darwin observed that in some species males battle other males for access to certain females (“aggression”). But in other species, such as peacocks, there is a social system in which the females select males according to such qualities as strength or beauty, like a fabulous tail.

Beyond “He” and “She”

Darwin lived in a binary world of males and females, but today’s science tells us that these represent a minority of the Earth’s living things. We live in a complicated world of uni-gendered, bi-gendered, and even cross-gendered living species. You’ve got remarkable creatures like Clownfish (4) that are born male and turn female (called sequential hermaphrodites); you’ve got hermaphroditic fish. The world is full of homosexual, asexual or autosexual creatures, and gender behavior of all descriptions.

These aren’t just the exceptions to the rule, this IS the rule.

We can’t put labels like “coy” or “passionate” on these things. It doesn’t fit the vast majority of living things.

Beyond the Dating Game

Darwin’s analysis appeared to stop at mate selection. However, mating is the start, not the end of the genetic path to reproductive success. The “passionate” (later labeled “promiscuous”) male isn’t an example of evolutionary success, if most of those offspring die before they, too, get the chance to reproduce. The male who can raise the larges number of children successfully and brings them effectively into the next generation is the real genetic winner.

The male, to be maximally successful, is proactive in assuring that his offspring grow up and make it into the next generation.

The Peacock Boy’s Club

Even the species that were suppose to be perfect examples of sexual selections, like peacocks, aren’t, according to evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden. They are “failed poster-child species.” Take pea hens. They are supposed to prefer the highly ornamented tail of males, the larger the better, which, supposedly, indicated “good genes.” However, in a 2008 study that actually looked at this in the wild; (a) there wasn’t much difference between tails and (b) the females showed no real preference. They ignored the tails, when selecting mates.

What researchers found, instead, was that the tails were sort of a ‘ticket into the boy’s club’ of other male peacocks. In fact, it turned out that a lot of stuff Darwin thought was for the benefit of the female was actually a show for other males of the same species.

Mommy Dearest

What about the notion that can be summarized as “females almost always invest more energy into producing offspring than males, and therefore in most species, females are a limiting resource over which the males will compete”? This theory, called the “Bateman Principle” was the work of British geneticist Angus John Bateman – and it turns out to be wrong. His research was fraudulent in all sorts of ways, even down to basic arithmetic mistakes.

Roughgarden (4) asks: if females keep choosing males who are the fittest, why do bad genes still exist in nature? Aren’t females supposed to be eliminating them through partner choice? After twenty generations, the choice for bad genes should disappear. Why isn’t that happening? Darwin says, “Nature needs to keep renewing bad genes all the time.” Why is that? So females can continue to choose the best mate? What are the best genes in an ever-changing environment? “Most theorists don’t appreciate how great this problem is for the theory of sexual selection.” according to Roughgarden.


Family of Tarzan


Cooperation and Negotiation

Through courtship (perhaps too strong a word for some species), the male and female, negotiate the cooperative relationship through which to raise children. Their cooperation allows them to act as a unit, in a ‘two heads are better than one’ sort of arrangement. The fitness is assessed in terms of a “couple team” who are able to place a large number of offspring into the next generation. The mating couples have a common evolutionary bank account and an overlap of interest. This model suggests that cooperation, not competition is the cornerstone of reproductive success. Conflict happens when they don’t strike an effective bargain with each other or they have different opinions about “what’s good.”

“A family like a ‘firm’ Roughgarden says ‘and the produce of the “firm” is offspring.’ The paradigm is “family as cooperative system” rather than “family as a cauldron of conflict.”

Joy in Your Company

But it’s not all ‘love and happiness,” as a quick glance at the front pages of newspapers or time spent at a family holiday dinner will tell you. Nevertheless, we aren’t living in a world of competitive stand-offs, like John Nash’s (“A Beautiful Mind”) theory of Competitive Equilibrium – but more like his notion of “Cooperative Game theory.” Here the sexes “negotiate from a position of strength,” and establishes a “threat point.”

Taking his lead from labor negotiation, a crucial aspect of effective negotiation is that each has to believe that the other is willing to suffer and see the other suffer, before they are willing to hash out a deal. They also, however, have to see the other has having “utility,” and a “position of strength.” They have to believe that each of them has something the other person wants, and is willing to give up something else to get it, and they have to realize the point beyond which the other person is unwilling to bargain.

If either player increases their demand beyond this limit, both players receive nothing. If either reduces their demands too greatly, they will receive less than if they had demanded more.

What is the “position of strength” in reproductive politics? It is the mechanism where the animals can experience pleasure in each other’s company-friendship and physical intimacy (including sex).

Contextualizing an Idea

Survival of the Fittest” were not Darwin’s terms, but those of Herbert Spenser. It first appeared in 1864, in which he drew parallels between his own economic theories and Darwin’s biological ones.

There is a political danger in who takes control of the narrative. It turns out that this narrative of a nasty, competitive selfish world is based on partial recollections of the data. It doesn’t tell the whole story. But it presents a political (power) explanation for oppression using biology to justify it. “Nature is selfish so I can be selfish.” It is a narrative of genetic classism. It is also a narrative of domination and imperialism.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Charles Darwin

It is time the world abandoned that narrative and launch a new one. Our very survival may well depend on it. A high fitness requires working together in teams. It requires us to choose to invest our collective energies carefully and cooperatively, and that includes our reproductive decision-making in an age of overpopulation.

What we are learning about emotions is helping us to see that selfish and destructive tendencies in humans, so lauded as “natural” and “normal,” are the extreme subset of sociopathic individuals who lack a capacity for several basic emotions that are intrinsic in humans as social animals. And we’ve modeled corporate institutions, in this image, with disastrous ends.

The theory of sexual selection put forth by Darwin fit well with a culture that told us that the “best man” was white, Western, upper-class, and, so obvious a fact as to be overlooked, “male.” The theory of sexual selection fit that current dominant paradigm of the 1860’s. At a time when the industrial revolution was wiping out the entrepreneur, the independent farmer, the home craft producer, it became “natural” for men to aggressively eliminate one another’s livelihoods, push them off their native lands, and participate in genocide in order to push forward their aspirations for genetic empire-building. The ‘losers’ lost the chance to mate and reproduce offspring because, after all, they weren’t the ‘fittest.’ It was all quite “natural.” It wasn’t “evil” or “good” in any moral sense. It was simply “how things are.”

Gone were notions of cooperative and collaboration as “natural” to humans and animals alike. Even actions that could be viewed as “altruistic” had to be framed as “deviant” or discussed away as ultimately benefiting selfish ends.

People made all sorts of extrapolations from this, including the notion that being blind to suffering was also “natural.”

Genial Gene vs. Selfish Gene

So, Roughgarden (5) proposes, the metaphor of the “selfish gene” isn’t accurate anymore. The theory worked in the early 70’s, but now we know more. Notions of “survival of the fittest” and “savage competition” is replaced by the empirical argument of cooperation in nature.

Less than the Ape

While Darwin argued that human ancestry descended from the ape, others argued that human evolution caused our social behavior to depart from that of other primates. Edgar Rice Burroughs was fond of using the phrase, “the thin veneer of civilization” to describe mankind’s condition in relation to his more fundamental savage makeup. The phrase was repeated in The Return of Tarzan, which he wrote in 1912.

However, in his book “Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved” Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal used the term “Veneer Theory” to argue that the view that human morality as “a cultural overlay, a thin veneer hiding an otherwise selfish and brutish nature” is outdated, and that our morality and social relationships are also embedded deeply into our genetic make-up. We cannot live alone, and we, therefore, have within us the basic stuff it takes to figure out how to work together.

The last of Darwin’s sequels to the Origin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), was an attempt to erase this last barrier presumed to exist between human and nonhuman animals–the idea that the expression of such feelings as suffering, anxiety, grief, despair, joy, love, devotion, hatred, and anger is unique to human beings.

Darwin connected studies of facial muscles and the emission of sounds with the corresponding emotional states in man and then argued that the same facial movements and sounds in nonhuman animals express similar emotional states. This book laid the groundwork for the study of ethology, neurobiology, and communication theory in psychology.

Paradoxically, it took neuroscientists beginning actively during a conference in 1995 to start focusing on a variety of these emotions we call ‘social emotions’ like embarrassment, shame, contempt, passion, admiration, pride, and guilt. These researchers suggest that in contrast to the notion that culture is a thin veneer, we are learning that what look strictly like ‘cultural’ features such as our rules of law are in fact, based upon the origins of these early pro-social emotions.

I’ll take that discussion up in greater detail in my next post.

1. In Descent: http://www.crystalinks.com/darwin.html

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin%27s_health

3. In Descent: http://www.crystalinks.com/darwin.html

4. http://www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/2004/mayjun/features/roughga...

5. http://fora.tv/2009/06/22/The_Genial_Gene_Joan_Roughgarden

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