Just-so stories?

Surely one of the most pressing social questions of our time is why kids wear their baseball caps the wrong way around. Dr Kipling has the following explanation:

…First, you need to ask yourself what signals a male needs to transmit to a potential mate in order to advertise his suitability as a source of strong genetic material, more likely to survive than that of his competitor males. One answer is brute physical strength. Now, consider the baseball cap. Worn in the traditional style it offers protection against the sun and also the gaze of aggressive competitors. By turning the cap around, the male is signalling that he doesn’t need this protection: he is tough enough to face elements and the gaze of any who might threaten him. Second, inverting the cap is the gesture of non-conformity. Primates live in highly ordered social structures. Playing by the rules is considered essential. Turning the cap around shows that the male is above the rules that constrain his competitors and again signals that he has superior strength. I hope you will have guessed that this was a parody – it comes from Julian Baggini’s book The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten. Dr Kipling is an allusion to Rudyard Kipling’s Just-so stories and Baggini is taking aim at evolutionary psychology, which applies Darwin’s theories to gain an insight into human behaviour. For its critics EP is retrofitting an explanation with the benefit of hindsight. Chomsky put it like this:

“You find that people cooperate, you say, ‘Yeah, that contributes to their genes’ perpetuating.’ You find that they fight, you say, ‘Sure, that’s obvious, because it means that their genes perpetuate and not somebody else’s. In fact, just about anything you find, you can make up some story for it.

I can see the point but I feel that EP is a powerful tool. Maybe I’m just seeking a justification for my political opinions – I have a pragmatic view of human nature. I remember when I was at university I didn’t really buy into a lot of the theories that I heard.  It just seems obvious to me that we have to be heavily influenced by our evolutionary background. This has proved unpopular with many academics who had their vision of human beings challenged; there have been heated debates about the claims of EP. Evolutionary psychology posits that the majority of human psychological mechanisms are adaptations to reproductive problems frequently encountered in Pleistocene environments. (The Pleistocene goes from two million to 11 thousand years ago, the vast majority of our existence.) It is not controversial to assert that animal behaviour is influenced by their genes but when it comes to humans it becomes very divisive. Let’s take mating as an example. In the Pleistocene environment men wanted to spread their genes as widely as possible, whereas for women it was important to be fussier when choosing a partner. This still has an influence on our behaviour. Obviously a lot of other factors interact but I feel it is impossible to ignore our biological heritage.

One especially contentious area is rape. The traditional academic view was that rape had nothing to do with sex – it was a question of violence and that our culture socialised men into it. I find the argument that rape has nothing to with sex rather unconvincing. It is clear that rape takes place in the animal kingdom, including chimpanzees. Evolutionary psychologist Randy Thornhill has argued that in humans it could be the vestige of a reproductive strategy, with the violence employed to get what you want. This is not a defence or a justification of rape. Medical scientists who study who study cancer do not favour cancer. The genes can never be an excuse-; if there is no consent, it is a crime. But it is always helpful to gain insights into what the causes are.

Evolutionary Psychology opens up that whole nature v nature debate. Obviously these questions are complex and it is incredibly difficult to tease out the different factors. Perhaps the best example to illustrate this came from the popular science writer Matt Ridley: In every culture in the world men are more violent than men; But American women are more homicidal than Japanese men. We need to know about to what predispositions nature has given us. What motivates us to act the way we do is always going to invite controversy.  Some of these explanations will turn out to be wrong but we should not eliminate avenues of enquiry because they offend sensibilities.

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