Origins Of Virtue
~ The Red Queen
THE ORIGINS OF VIRTUE
The conventional wisdom in the social sciences is that human nature is simply the imprint of an individual's background and experience. But our cultures are not random collections of arbitrary habits. They are canalized expressions of our instincts. That is why the same themes crop up in all cultures - themes such as family, ritual, bargain, love, hierarchy, friendships, jealousy, group loaylty, and superstition. That is why, for all their superficial differences of language and custom, foreign cultures are still immediately comprehensible at the deeper level of motives, emotions and social habits. Instincts, in a species like the human one, are not immutable genetic programs; they are pre-dispositions to learn. And to believe that human beings have instincts is no more determinist than to believe they are the products of their upbringing.
There was a revolution in biology in the mid 1960s, pioneered especially by two men, George Williams and William Hamilton. This revolution is best known by Richard Dawkins's phrase 'The Selfish Gene', and at its core lies the idea that individuals do not consistently do things for the good of their group, or their families, or even themselves. They consistently do things that benefit their genes, because they are all inevitably descended from those that did the same. None of your ancestors died celibate.
Always, without exception, living things are designed to do things that enhance the chances of their genes or copies of their genes surviving and replicating.
Our minds have been built by selfish genes, but they have been built to be social, trustworthy and cooperative.
In other words, the more you truly feel for people in distress, the more selfish you are being in alleviating that distress. ( wrt the writings of Amartya Sen)
Adam Smith's insight, translated into modern idiom, was that life is not a zero-sum game. A zero-sum game is one with a winner and a loser, like a tennis match. But not all games are zero-sum; sometimes because both sides win, or lose. In the case of trade, Smith saw that because of the division of labour, my selfish ambition to profit from trading with you, and yours to profit from trading with me, can both be satisfied. We each act in self-interest, but we only benefit each other and the world. So, although Hobbes is right that we are vicious, not virtuous, Rousseau is right that harmony and progress are possible without government. The invisible hand guides us forward.
Self-seeking can produce benevolence. 'We are not ready to suspect any person of being defective in selfishness,' observed Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Indeed, Smith pointed out that benevolence is inadequate for the task of building cooperation in a large society, because we are irredeemably biased in our benevolence to relatives and close friends; a society built on benevolence would be riddled with nepotism. Between strangers, the invisible hand of the market, distributing selfish ambitions, is fairer.
Throughout the two cleverest families of land-dwelling mammals, the primates and the carnivores, there is a tight correlation between brain size and social group. The bigger the society in which the individual lives, the bigger its neocortex relative to the rest of the brain. To thrive in a complex society, you need a big brain. To acquire a big brain, you need to live in a complex society. Whichever way the logic goes, the correlation is compelling.
Large cosmopolitan cities are characterized by ruder people and more casual insult and violence than small towns or rural areas. Nobody would dream of driving in their home suburb or village as they do in Manhattan or central Paris - shaking fists at other drivers, hooting the horn, generally making clear their impatience. It is also widely acknowledged why this is the case. Big cities are anonymous places. You can be as rude as you like to strangers in New York, Paris or London and run only a miniscule risk of meeting the same people again. What restrains you in your home suburb or village is the acute awareness of reciprocity. If you are rude to somebody, there is a good chance they will be in a position to be rude to you in turn.
Reciprocity can evolve in an entirely unconcious automaton, provided it interacts repeatedly with other automata in a situation that resembles a prisoner's dilemma - as the computer simulations prove. Working out the strategy is the job not of the fish itself, but of evolution, which can then program it into the fish.
My point is that while we universally admire and praise selflessness, we do not expect it to rule our lives or those of our close friends. We simply do not practise what we preach. This is perfectly rational, of course. The more other people practice altruism, the better for us, but the more we and our kin pursue self-interest, the better for us. That is the prisoner's dilemma. Also, the more we posture in favour of altruism, the better for us.
It is a rule of evolution to which we are far from immune that the more cooperative societies are, the more violent the battles between them. We may be among the most collaborative social creatures on the planet, but we are also the most belligerent.
Trade's invention represents one of the very few moments in evolution when Homo sapiens stumbled on some competitive advantage over other species that was truly unique. There simply is no other animal that exploits the law of comparitive advantage between groups.
Wherever you look, the reason for environmental troubles in the Third World turns out to be caused by the lack of clear property rights. Why do people mine the rain forest for logs when they can farm nuts and medicines? Because they can own the logs in a way that they cannot when they are trees. Why is Mexico exhausting its oil reserves more quickly, less efficiently and for less money than the US? Because property rights to oil are better secured in America. The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto argues that the poverty of the Third World is to be cured laregly by creating secure property rights without which people have no chance to build their own prosperity. Government is not the solution to tragedies of the commons. It is the prime cause of them.
For St Augustine the source of social order lay in the teachings of Christ. For Hobbes it lay in the sovereign. For Rousseau it lay in solitude. For Lenin it lay in the party. They were all wrong. The roots of social order are in our heads, where we possess the instinctive capacities for creating not a perfectly harmonious and virtuous society, but a better one than we have at present.
# EXTERNAL RESOURCES
Nice guys finish first - read this online chapter of the Origins of Virtue to discover why.
GENOME - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A SPECIES IN 23 CHAPTERS
We are, to a 98% approximation, chimpanzees, amd they are, with 98% confidence-limits, human beings. If that does not dent your self-esteem, consider that chimpanzees are only 97% gorillas; and humans are also 97% gorillas. In other words, we are more chimpanzee-like than gorillas are.
The differences between human beings and chimpanzees are genetic differences and virtually nothing else. Even those who would stress the cultural side of the human condition and deny or doubt the importance of genetic differences between human individuals and races, accept that the differences between us and other species are primarily genetic.
Genes are recipes for both anatomy and behaviour.
The cause is in the genes and nowhere else. Either you have the Huntington's mutation and will get the disease or not.This is determinism, predestination and fate on a scale of which Calvin never dreamed. The age at which the madness will appear depends strictly and implacably on the number of repititions of the 'word' CAG in one place on one gene.
No horoscope matches
this accuracy. No theory of human causality, Freudian, Marxist, Christian
or animist, has even been so precise. No prophet in the Old Testament,
no entrail-gazing oracle in ancient Greece, no crystal-ball gypsy clairvoyant
on the pier at Bognor Regis ever pretended to tell people exactly when
their lives would fall apart, let alone got it right.
We are dealing here with with a prophecy of terrifying, cruel and inflexible truth. There are a billion three-letter 'words' in your genome. Yet the length of just this one little motif is all that stands between each of us and mental illness.
Huntington's disease is at the far end of a spectrum of genetics. It is pure fatalism, undiluted by environmental variability. Good living, good medicine, healthy food, loving families or great riches can do nothing about. Your fate is in your genes.
There is no dose of hay fever that a good tapeworm cannot cure, but which would you rather have?
According to research by the American Lung Association, whearas ozone from pertrol-burning cars trigger asthma in men, particulates from diesel engines are more likely to trigger asthma in women.
General IQ remains surprisingly constant at different ages : between 6 and 18, your intelligence increases rapidly, of course, but your IQ relative to your peers changes very little. Indeed, the speed with which an infant habituates to a new stimulus correlates quite strongly with later IQ.
Percentage correlation of IQ tests :
Same person twice 87
Identical twins rearer together 86
Identical twins rearer apart 76
Fraternal twins reared together 55
Biological siblings 47
Parents and children living together 40
Parents and children living apart 31
Adopted children living together 0
Unrelated children living apart 0
The influence upon our intelligence of events that happened in the womb is three times as great as anything our parents did to us after birth.
Heritability will be greater in an egalitarian society than an unequal one. Indeed, the definition of the perfect meritocracy, ironically, is a society in which people's achievements depend on their genes because their environments are equal.
You inherit not your IQ but your ability to develop a high IQ under certain environmental circumstances. How does one parcel that one into nature and nurture? It is frankly impossible.
Human beings evolved their complex behaviour by adding instincts to those of their ancestors, not by replacing instincts with learning.
Modern evolutionary theorists, led by David Haig, now think of the placenta as more like a parasitic takeover of the mother's bod by paternal genes in the foetus. The placenta tries, against maternal resistance, to control her blood-sugar levels and blood pressure to the benefit of the foetus.
The human genome is littered, one might almost say clogged, with the equivalent of computer viruses, selfish, parasitic stretches of letters which exist for the pure and simple reason that they are good at getting themselves dupliacted. Approximately 35% of human DNA consists of various forms of selfish DNA.
People with blood-type AB are virtually immune to cholera.
In a sense the human genome is a written record of our pathological past, a medical scripture for each people and race.
It is the hardest thing
for human beings to get used to, but the world is full of intricate, cleverly
designed and interconnected systems that do not have control centres. The
economy is such a system. The illusion that economies run better if somebody
is put in charge of them - and decides what gets manufactured where and
by whom - has done devastating harm to the wealth and health of peoples
all over the world, not just in the former Soviet Union, but in the west
From the Roman Empire to the European Union's high definition television initiative, centralised decisions about what to invest in have been disastrously worse than the decentralized chaos of the market. Economies are not centralised systems; they are markets with decentralised, diffuse controls.
It is the same with the body.
Chronically unhappy nurses have more episodes of cold sores than others who also carry the virus. Those who lived near Three Mile Island nuclear plant at the time of its accident had more cancers than expected three years later, not because they were exposed to radiation (they weren't), but because their cortisol levels had risen, reducing the responsiveness of their immune system to cancer cells.
People are very like
monkeys. The discovery that monkeys low in the hierarchy get heart disease
came soon after the far more startling discovery that British civil servants
working in Whitehall also get heart disease in proportion to their lowliness
in the bureaucratic pecking order. In a massive, long-term study of 17,000
civil servants, an almost unbelievable conclusion emerged : the status
of a person's job was more able to predict their likelihood of a heart
attack than obesity, smoking, or high blood pressure.
Somebody in a low-grade job, such as a janitor, was nearly four time as likely to have a heart attack as a permanent secretary at the top of the heap. Indeed, even if the permanent secretary was fat, hypertensive or a smoker, he was still less likely to suffer a heart attack at a given age than a thin, non-smoking, low-blood-pressure janitor. Exactly the same result emerged from a similar study of a million employees of the Bell Telephone Company in the 1960s.
Think about this conclusion for a moment. It undermines almost everything you have ever been told about heart disease. It relegates cholesterol to the margins of the story (high cholesterol is a risk factor, but only in those with genetic predispositions to high cholesterol, and even in those people the beneficial effects of eating less fat are small. It relegates diet, smoking and blood pressure to secondary causes.
In 1786 Sir William
Jones announced that the archaic Indian language Sanskrit was a cousin
of Latin and Greek. Being a learned fellow he also thought he saw similarities
between these three languages and Celtic, Gothic and Persian.
Subsequent research has confirmed that Jones was absolutely right and that there was once a single people, speaking a single language in a single place and that descendants of those people brought the language to lands as far apart as Ireland and India, where it gradually diverged into modern tongues.
Remarkable as it seems, the languages spoken in Portugal and Korea are almost certainly descended from the same single tongue.
Before bottled water, the only supply of safe drinking water was in boiled or fermented form. As late as the 18th century in Europe, the rich drank nothing but wine, beer, coffee, and tea. They risked death otherwise. The habit dies hard.
More than 70% of western
Europeans by descent can drink milk as adults, compared with less than
30% of people from parts of Africa, eastern and south-eastern Asia and
Biologists have found evidence that the people with the highest frequency of milk-digestion ability were the ones with a history of pastoralism. The Tutsi of central Africa, the Bedouin of the desert, the Irish, Czech and Spanish people - this list of people has almost nothing in common except that they all have a history of herding sheep, goats or cattle. They are the champion milk digesters of the human race.
Each species, it seems, comes equipped with a program of planned obsolescence chosen to suit its expected life-span and the age at which it is likely to have finished breeding. Natural selection carefull weeds out all genes that might allow damage to the body before or during reproduction.
Our Stone Age ancestors began breeding at about 20, continued until about 35 and looked after their children for about 20 years, so by about 55 they could die without damaging their reproductive success. Little wonder that at some time between 55 & 75 most of us gradually start to go grey, stiff, weak, creaky and deaf. Natural selection has designed all parts of our bodies to last just long enough to see our children into independence, no more.
One gene, in nematode worms, has enabled scientists to breed a strain that lives to suvh an exceptional age that they would be 350 years old if they were human beings.
Cancer is the quintessential disease of aging. Cancer rates rise steadily with age, more rapidlyin some species than in others, but they will still rise : there is no creature on earth that is less likely to get cancer in old age than in young. The prime risk factor for cancer is age. Environmental risk factors, such as cigarette smoking, work in part because they accelerate the ageing process.
The brain is created by genes. It is only as good as the innate design. The very fact that it is a machine designed to be modified by experience is written in the genes. The mystery of how is one of the great challenges of modern biology. But that the human brain is the finest monument to the capacities of genes there is no doubt. It is the mark of a great leader that he knows when to delegate. The genome knew when to delegate.
In 1992, Pioneer, the world's biggest seed company, introduced a gene from brazil nuts into soya beans. The purpose was to make soya beans more healthy for those for whom they are a staple food by correcting soya beans' natural deficiency in a chemical called methionine. However, it soon emerged that a very few people in the world develop an allergy to brazil nuts, so Pioneer tested its transgenic soya beans and they proved allergenic too, to such people. At this point, Pioneer alerted the authorities, published the results and abandoned the project. This was despite the fact that calculations showed that the new soya-bean allergy would probably kill no more than two Americans a year and could save hundreds of thousands worldwide from malnutrition. Yet instead of becoming an example of extreme corporate caution, the story was repackaged by environmentalists and told as a tale of the dangers of genetic engineering and reckless corporate greed.
When human cloning is possible, will it be ethical? Cloning may well happen not because the majority approves, but because the minority acts. That, after all, was roughly what happened in the case of test-tube babies. Society never decided to allow them; it just got used to the idea that those who desperately wanted such babies were able to have them.
The improvement of any medical technology confronts our species with a moral dilemma. If the technology can save lives, then not to develop it and use it is morally culpable, even if there are attendant risks.
Heart disease is a
preventable and treatable condition. Those with the E2 gene in particular
are acutely sensitive to fatty and cholesterol-rich diets, or to put it
another way, they are easily treated by being warned off such diets.
Instead of warning us all to steer clear of fatty foods, the medical profession must soon learn to seek out which of us could profit from such a warning and which of us can relax and hit the ice cream.
The fuel on which science runs is ignorance. Science is like a hungry furnace that must be fed logs from the forests of ignorance that surrounds us. In the process, the clearing we call knowledge expands, but the more it expands, the longer its perimeter and the more ignorance comes into view. A true scientist is bored by knowledge - it is the assault on ignorance that motivates him.
I am keen not to share my genetic code with my insurer, I am keen that my doctor should know and use it, but I am adamant to the point of fanaticism that it is my decision. My genome is my property and not the state's. It is not for the government to decide with whom I may share the contents of my genes.
Although there are still a few fringe scientists worried about the genetic deterioration of races and populations, most scientists now recognise that the well-being of individuals should take priority over that of groups. There is a world of difference between genetic screening and what the eugenists wanted in their heyday - and it lies in this: genetic screening is about giving private individuals private choices on private criteria. Eugenics was about nationalizing that decision to make people breed not for themselves but for the state.
Many modern accounts of the history of eugenics present it as an example of the dangers of letting science, genetics especailly, get out of control. It is much more an example of the danger of letting government out of control.
The opposite of freedom is coercion, not determinism. We cherish political freedom because it allows us freedom of personal self-determination, not the other way around.
Freedom lies in expressing your own determinism, not somebody else's. It is not the determinism that makes a difference, but the ownership.
Full responsibility for one's actions is a necessary fiction without which the law would flounder, but it is a fiction all the same. To the extent that you act in character you are responsible for your actions; yet acting in character is merely expressing the many determinisms that caused your character. David Hume found himself impaled on this dilemma, subsequently named Hume's fork. Either our actions are determined, in which case we are not responsible for them, or they are random, in which case we are not responsible for them.
The interaction of genetic and external influences makes my behaviour unpredictable, but not undetermined. In the gap between those words lies freedom.
THE RED QUEEN : SEX AND THE EVOLUTION OF HUMAN NATURE
It is the assumption of this book that there is a typical human nature. It is the aim of this book to seek it. Just like a surgeon, a psychiatrist can make all sorts of basic assumptions when a patient lies down upon the couch. He can assume that the patient knows what it means to love, to envy, to trust, to think, to speak, to fear, to smile, to bargain, to covet, to dream, to remember, to sing, to quarrel, to lie. The 'smile' of a baboon is a threat; the smile of a man is a sign of pleasure: it is human nature, the world over.
Human nature is a product
of culture, but culture is also a product of human nature, and both are
products of evolution. Our 'culture' does not have to be the way it is.
Human culture could be much more varied and surprising than it is. Our
closest relatives, the chimpanzees, live in promiscuous societies in which
females seek as many sexual partners as possible and in which a male will
kill infants of strange females he has not mated with. There is no human
society that remotely resembles this particular pattern. Why not? Because
human nature is different from chimp nature.
Yet I have have gradually come to realize that all of social science proceeds as if 1859, the year of the publication of 'The Origin of Species', had never happened; it does so quite deliberately, fot it insists that man's culture is a product of his own free will and invention. Society is not the product of human psychology, it asserts, but vice versa.
That sounds reasonable enough, and it would be splendid for those who believe in social engineering if it were true, but it is simply not true. Humanity is, of course, morally free to make remake itself infinitely, but we do not do so. We stick to the same monotonously human pattern of organizing our affairs. If we were more adventurous, there would be societies without love, without ambition, without sexual desire, without marriage, without grammar, without art, without music, without smiles - and with as many unimaginable novelties as are in that list.
There would be societies in which women killed each other more than often than men, in which old people were considered more beautiful than twenty-year olds, in which wealth did not purchase power over others, in which people did not discriminate in favour of their own friends and against strangers, in which parents did not love their own children.
A man does not experience lust because he learnt it at his father's knee, or feel hunger or anger because he was thought them. They are human nature. He was born with the potential to develop lust, hunger and anger. He learnt to direct hunger at hamburgers, anger at delayed trains and lust at women - when appropriate. Every behaviour is the product of an instinct trained by experience.
Laws have an effect, because one of the more appealing aspects of human nature is that people calculate the consequences of their actions.
Just as human nature is the same everywhere, so it is recognizably the same as it was in the past. A Shakespeare play is about motives, predicaments, feelings and personalities that are instantly familiar. Shakespeare was writing about the same human nature that we know today. When I watch 'Antony and Cleopatra', I am seeing a 400 year old interpretation of a 2000 year old history. Yet it never even occurs to me that love was any different then from what it is now. It is not necessary to explain to me why Antony falls under the spell of a beatiful woman. Across time just as much as across space, the fundamentals of our nature are universally and idiosyncratically human.
The average genetic difference between one Peruvian farmer and his neighbour, or one Swiss villager and his neighbour, is 12 times greater than the difference between the "average genotype" of the Swiss population and the "average genotype" of the Peruvian population.
The psychologist William James argued a century ago that man had both more learning capacity and more instincts, rather than more learning and fewer instincts. He was ridiculed for this, but he was right.
Virtually all novels and plays are about the same subject, even when disguised as history or adventure. If you want to understand human motives read Proust, or Trollope, or Tom Wolfe, not Freud or Piaget or Skinner. We are obsessed with others' minds. Our intuitive commonsense psychology far surpasses any scientific psychology in scope and accuracy. Great literary minds are, almost by definition, great mind-reading minds. Shakespeare was a far better psychologist than Freud, and Jane Austen a far better sociologist than Durkheim. We are clever because we are - and to the extent that we are - natural psychologists.
What is the purpose
of sex? At first glance, the answer seems obvious to the point of banality.
But a second glance brings a different thought. Why must a baby be a product
of two people? Why not three, or one? Need there be a reason at all?
Microscopic animals split in two. Willow trees grow from cuttings. Dandelions produce seeds that are clones of themselves. Virgin greenfly give birth to virgin young that are already pregnant with other virgins.
A human baby is not identical to its mother. That is the first consequence of sex. Indeed, according to most ecologists, it is the purpose of sex.
Reproduction is the sole goal for which human beings are designed; everything else is a means to that end.
Why has that man fallen in love with that woman? Because she's pretty. Why does pretty matter? Because human beings are a mainly monogamous species and so males are choosy about their mates (as male chimpanzees are not); perttiness is an indication of youth and fertility. Why does that man care about fertility in his mate? Because if he did not, his genes would be eclipsed by those of men who did. Why does he care about that? He does not, but his genes act as if they do. Those who choose infertile mates leave no descendants. Therefore, everybody is descended from men who preferred fertile women and every person inherits from those ancestors that same preference.
When the fittest are
struggling to survive, with whom are they competing? With other members
of their species, or with members of other species?
A gazelle on the African savannah is trying not to be eaten by cheetahs, but it is also trying to outrun other gazelles when a cheetah attacks. What matters to the gazelle is being faster than other gazelles, not being faster than cheetahs.
In the same way, psychologists sometimes wonder why people are endowed with the ability to learn the part of Hamlet, or understand calculus, when neither skill was of much use to mankind in the primitive conditions where his intellect was shaped. Einstein would probably have been as hopeless as anybody in working out how to catch a woolly rhinoceros.
We use out intellects not to solve practial problems, but to outwit each other. Deceiving people, detecting deceit, understanding people's motives, manipulating people - these are what the intellect is used for.
Selection within the species is always going to be more important than selection between the species.
In 1966, irrated by
exponents of group selection, George Williams spent a summer holiday writing
a book about how he thought evolution worked. Called 'Adaption and Natural
Selection', that book still towers over biology like a Himalayan peak.
It did for biology what Adam Smith had done for economics; it explained
how collective effects could flow from the actions of self-interested individuals.
Within a few years of William's book almost all biologists had agreed that no creature could ever evolve the ability to help its species at the expense of itself. Only when the two interests coincided would it act selflessly.
Society is not all co-operation. A measure of competitive free enterprise is inevitable. A gigantic experiment called communism in a laboratory called Russia proved that.
Animal altruism is a myth; even in the most spectacular cases of selflessness, it turns out that animals are serving the selfish interests of their own genes - if sometimes being careless with their bodies.
Because bodies do not replicate themselves, whereas genes do replicate themselves, it inevitably follows that the body is merely an evolutionary vehicle for the gene.
Many fungi are sexual, but they do not have males. They have tens of thousands of sexes, all physically identical, all capable of mating on equal terms, but all incapable of mating with themselves.
Evolution works by natural selection and natural selection means the enhanced selection of genes that enhance their own survival.
It is a curious statistical fact that between them all fort-two presidents of the United States have had ninety sons and only sixty-one daughters. A sex ratio of sixty percent male in such a large sample is markedly different from the population at large, though how it came about nobody can guess - probably by pure chance. Yet presidents are not alone. Royalty, aristocrats and even well-off American settlers have all consistently produced more sons than daughters. So do well-fed opossums, hamsters and high-ranking spider monkeys.
Many cultures bias
their legacies, parental care, sustenance and favouritism to sons at the
expense of daughters. But anthropologists have now begun to notice that
male favouritism is far from universal and that female favouritism occurs
exactly where you would most expect it.
There is a close relationship between social status and the degree to which sons are preferred. In feudal times, lords favoured their sons, but peasants were more likely to leave possessions to daughters. Wherever you look in the historical record, the elites favoured sons more than other classes.
In some poor social classes, daughters are preferred even today. A poor son is often forced to remain single. But a poor daughter can marry a rich man.
In many ways modern people probably live in social systems that are much closer to those of their hunter-gatherer ancestors than they are to the conditions of early history.
In an astonishing study
recently undertaken in western Europe, the following facts emerged : married
females choose to have affairs with males who are dominant, older, more
physically attractive, more symmetrical in appearance and married; females
are much more likely to have an affair if their mates are subordinate,
younger, physically unattractive or have asymmetrical features; cosmetic
surgery to improve male's looks doubles his chance of having an adulterous
affair; the more attractive a male is the less attentive he is as a father;
roughly one in three of the babies born in western Europe is the product
of an adulterous affair.
If you find these facts disturbing or hard to believe, worry not. The study was not done on human beings at all. It refers entirely to swallows, the innocent, twittering, fork-tailed birds that pirouette prettily around barns and fields in the summer months. Human beings are entirely different from swallows. Or are they?
If we were chimpanzees we would live in families, be very social, hierarchial, group-territorial and aggressive towards groups other than those we belonged to. In other words, we would be family-based, urban, class-conscious, nationalist and belligerent, which we are.
To assume that the male and female sexes are mentally identical in the face of evidence that they are not is just as unfair as to assume sexual difference in the face of evidence that they are the same.
The degree to which
an animal of either sex is choosy correlates exactly with the degree to
which it invests in parental care. A black grouse, investing no more than
sperm, is prepared to mate with anything that even resembles a female:
a stuffed bird or a model will do. A male albatross, who will put all his
best efforts into raising one female's young, is elaborately suspicious
and selective, striving for the best female on offer.
The overwhelming fascination of men with female youth argues that pair bonds have lasted lifetimes. Chimpanzees find old females just as attractive as young ones. The fact that men do prefer twenty-year olds adds one piece of evidence to the theory that Pleistocene man, like a modern man, married for life.
It is impossible to name a time when women of ten or forty were considered more attractive than women of 20. It is inconceivable that tall men were ever thought uglier than short ones. If beauty is a matter of fashion, how is it that wrinkled skin, grey hair and hairy backs have never been 'in fashion'? The more things change, the more they stay the same.
However much the weight
of Playboy centrefolds changes, one feature does not: the ratio of their
waist width to their hip width. Within reason, a man will find almost any
weight of woman attractive as long as her waist is much thinner than her
It was always wise for a man to choose the biggest-hipped woman he could find (more able to give birth to big-brained babies), generation after generation, for millions of years. At a certain point hips could get no bigger, but men still had the preference, so women with slender waists, who appeared to have larger hips by contrast, were preferred instead.
In the Pleistocene, when miscarriage and child mortality were common, adult women must have spent a high proportion of their lives pregnant or nursing young, and so were temporarily infertile. They must have become pregnant again soon after becoming fertile - a fertile woman was a rarity. To avoid rearing stepchildren unwittingly, men must have developed an aversion to even a slight thickening of the waist, lest it indicate the early stages of pregnancy.
One of the peculiar
features of history is that time always erodes advantage. Every invention
sooner or later leads to a counter-invention. Every success contains the
seeds of its own overthrow. Every hegemony comes to an end. Evolutionary
history is no different. Progress and success are always relative.
...This concept, that all progress is relative, has come to be known in biology by the name of the Red Queen.
"A slow sort of country!" said the Red Queen. "Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run as least twice as fast as that."
Sex, according to the
Red Queen theory, has nothing to do with adapting to the inanimate world
- becoming bigger, or better camouflaged, or more tolerant of cold, or
better at flying - but is all about combating the enemy that fights back.
Biologists have persistently over-estimated the importance of physical causes of premature causes of premature death rather than biological ones. In virtually any account of evolution, drought, frost, wind, or starvation loom large as enemies of life. The great struggle, we are told, is to adapt to these conditions.
The things that kill animals or prevent them from reproducing are only rarely physical factors. Far more often they are other creatures - parasites, predators and competitors.
Because they are so short-lived compared with their hosts, parasites can be quicker to evolve and adapt. In about ten years, the genes of the AIDS virus change as much as human genes change in ten million years. For bacteria, thirty minutes can be a lifetime. Human beings, whose generations are an eternal thirty years long, are evolutionary tortoises.
Disease might almost put a sort of limit on longevity; there is little point in living much longer than it takes your parasites to adapt to you.
Sex is about disease. It is used to combat the threat from parasites. Organisms need sex to keep their genes one step ahead of their parasites. Men are not redundant after all; they are woman's insurance policy against her children being wiped out by influenza and smallpox.
It is a disquieting
thought that our heads contain a neurological version of a peacock's tail
- an ornament designed for sexual display, whose virtuosity at everything
from calculus to sculpture is perhaps just a side-effect of the ability
I end with one of the strangest consequences of sex -that the choosiness of human beings in picking their mates has driven the human mind into a history of frenzied expression for no reason except that wit, virtuosity, inventiveness and individuality turn other people on.
# EXTERNAL RESOURCES
Even more detailed extracts can be found here.
# IN OTHER'S WORDS
"If my 'The Selfish Gene' were to have a Volume Two devoted to humans. The 'Origins of Virtue' is pretty much what I think it ought to look like."
- Professor Richard Dawkins in The Times Literary Supplement, Books of the Year.
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