Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Thursday, January 22, 2009
In a recent article in Evolutionary Psychology, Brown, Young, Sacco, Bernstein, and Claypool have presented their findings from two studies dealing with social inclusion and mating. I’m going to attempt to give you the layman’s version and contrast it with the scientific explanation to try to show you how we can think scientifically about our own behavior.
Being left out of social groups has always been recognized as detrimental to humans. There’s a very good reason why solitary confinement is recognized world wide as one of the worst kinds of punishments available. Humans are extremely social animals. We all know this intuitively, but let’s look at it rationally for a minute.
Imagine for a minute that you are a human living in the wild before the discovery of agriculture. You are constantly hungry, but there simply isn’t enough food lying around to keep you alive. There are predators all around that would love a human for dinner. You have no claws. Your teeth can’t possibly be used as weapons. There’s really nothing you can hope to do against a lion, or even a few hyenas. What can you possibly do to stay alive?
The only practical answer is that you can stick close to other humans and work together with them to overwhelm large animals for food and deter predators through sheer numbers. That’s it. If you’re going to live more than a few days, you literally need to be accepted by the group. * With this knowledge, we can say that natural selection would favor humans who tended to form strong durable social bonds, and would pretty much eliminate those who didn’t. We can also say that social acceptance would be very high on human’s list of instinctive priorities, right up there with eating and mating.
This is where the new studies come into the picture. All animals have built in “priority meters.” In the simplest animals, it’s little more than the imperative to find food whenever hungry and to mate whenever possible. As animals and societies become more complex, the number of things that need to be prioritized also becomes longer and more complex. Still, if we examine an animal’s behavior scientifically, we ought to be able to come close to describing the algorythm for arranging priorities. For instance, a particular animal’s priority list might go something like this: ”First, avoid predators at all costs. Second, find water. Third, find food. Fourth, when predators are avoided and hunger and thirst sated, explore new territory. Follow these rules unless females are in heat and there is a female present, in which case, attempt to mate as a second priority, even above finding water.”
Evolutionary theory predicts that humans will also have instinctive priority lists. This study was an attempt to identify and quantify two elements within our list — social acceptance and mating. The researchers predicted that social acceptance ought to be a higher priority than mating based on the evolutionary pressures I mentioned earlier. In other words, social acceptance literally equalled survival for early humans, and so we ought to instinctively be more concerned with that than mating, since it’s quite difficult (and a bit creepy) to try to mate while dead.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
It’s very easy for some of us to jump on the anti-consumerism bandwagon. We look at soccer moms driving their 1.7 kids 2.4 miles to school in their Ford Excessives, and we smugly note that there is not so much as even a deep pothole that would require off-road capability. We rail against the excesses of the rich and famous, and decry the salaries of professional athletes. Environmentalists warn that we are literally killing ourselves and our children. Dieticians inform us that we are eating ourselves into early graves and that “all you can eat” buffets are a scourge on the earth.
Yet, we still eat too much, and we still buy a new car every time we can afford it. We still want a bigger house even though the one we have is big enough. Is it a failing of human morality that we are greedy to our own detriment? Are we singular in the animal kingdom in our apparent insatiability? It turns out the answer to both questions is a resounding no. In fact, we are behaving exactly like every other animal. It is not a weakness of will or a “flaw” in our nature. We are behaving exactly as evolutionary theory predicts.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
There are two primary kinds of evolutionary “arms races” — symmetric and asymmetric. A symmetric arms race is one in which two or more competitors are trying to do essentially the same thing. If we imagine a forest full of various trees, vines, and other plants, we can easily see this kind of arms race in action. All of the trees, regardless of their particular species, are interested in the same thing, namely sunlight. To that end, many of them “discover” the same path to their goal.
Imagine a primordial forest in which (for simplicity’s sake) there is one kind of tree that grows to approximately ten feet in height. So long as all the trees grow to the same height, everything will be stable, but the fact is, natural selection produces variation, so sooner or later, one of the trees is going to grow to eleven feet. Let’s assume that this tree has an umbrella like spread of leaves at the top, so that ten foot trees will receive less sunlight if an eleven foot tree is next to them. In a very few generations, eleven foot trees will dominate the landscape.
Only… natural selection produces variation, so soon, there will be a twelve foot tree. This is the nature of symmetrical arms races, and individual species are one of the best examples. All members of a species are competing for the same thing, and so they tend to push each other towards new innovations. Once we understand this dynamic, it’s easy to see that different species also have the same effect on each other. Elms and oaks and pines all want the same thing, and so they tend to evolve in very similar ways. Though elms, pines and oaks don’t have precisely the same leaf shape or root structure, they are still in the same business — getting to the sunlight and absorbing it through leaves. They’re all part of the same arms race.
Monday, January 19, 2009
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Where Do Christians Get Their Morality?
Ask a random Christian where his morality comes from, and you are likely to get one answer out of a few that are commonly given. Many fundamentalists believe that God is the source of all morality. Without God, they say, humans would not know right from wrong, and we would be living in total moral chaos. More moderate Christians often offer a more deistic explanation. God created humans with an innate sense of right and wrong, and even without his direct intervention, we know what we ought to do because he has placed his moral laws in our hearts.
Some Christians believe that morality is absolute. There are things that are always wrong, and things that are always right. The ends do not justify the means in any case, and we ought to trust God to work things out when it appears that we are doing something harmful by “doing the right thing.” Even outside of Christianity, there is a prevalent belief that morality exists on some kind of higher philosophical plane, and that it is proof of humanity's separation from the animal world. We are different in kind from the animals because we have morality.
I'd like to examine these claims in light of both philosophy and science to see if any of them hold any water. In the end, I hope to convince you that not only do Christians not have any means to derive a system of morality from their faith, they have every justification in the world to act immorally with impunity based only on their personal goals.
Morality Comes From God
Let us suppose that God is the source of all morality. For now, we will take the most extreme Christian view – that morality is impossible to derive from human wisdom, and that we must rely solely on the word of God to know what is right and what is wrong. If this is true, then it must be true that there is no logical reason to do what is right other than fear of God's punishment or desire for God's reward. If this conclusion seems odd, just consider the alternative. If we can think of any reason to do the morally correct thing, then we are basing morality on something natural. If it is right for me to feed my infant child because otherwise the child will die and that would cause me grief, then there is a natural reason for me to feed my infant child.
It doesn't take much thought to realize that morality doesn't derive solely from God. Virtually every day of our lives, we are faced with moral choices, and we reason out the best course of action. Our thought processes involve causes and effects, not calling to memory a set prescription from the Bible. It should be painfully obvious that if morality does indeed come from God, it is not solely dependent on arbitrary dicta. There are unmistakable real world consequences to our actions, and we can judge their relative value based on individual situations.
For emphasis, let's think of it another way. If God truly was the only source of morality in existence, then we should not be able to distinguish right from wrong except when it was specifically mentioned by God himself. When presented with a unique moral dilemma, we should be at a complete loss for any means of deriving the correct answer. This is obviously not so. As human civilization has advanced and technology has increased, we have created moral dilemmas that couldn't have been conceived when the Bible was written. In many cases, we have established very clear ideas of what is right and what is wrong.
There is only one thing we can do if we are to save the idea that God is the source of morality. We must admit that God has instilled in humans a conscience, and that man is able to reason out morality on his own without reference to an arbitrary set of rules. This is the position that most reasonably intelligent Christians take, for the simple reason that the exercise of a modicum of intelligence pretty much necessitates it.
Unfortunately, this position fails on several levels, although the failures are more subtle, and take a little more critical thinking. Straight out of the gate, we must ask a crucial question. If God has instilled in humans the ability to judge right from wrong, what is the Bible good for? This question isn't as flippant as it may appear. Pastors all over the world thump the Bible on their podiums while decrying Godless heathens who don't act as it dictates. In heated debates over moral hot button issues, the Bible is used as a final arbiter. God says it. I believe it. That settles it. Anytime the Bible disagrees with our innate sense of morality, we ought to believe the Bible over our own conscience.
We are forced now to ask the question. What is the final arbiter of human morality? Is it God's word or our conscience? If it is God's word, then we are headed back towards where we started, only now we are in a worse position. We've admitted that our conscience is a real, God-given tool for determining the morality of a given situation, but now we're also admitting that God's word trumps our conscience. This is another way of saying that when God wants us to do something, it is good, regardless of what our conscience says.
While many Christians would happily agree with this statement, it leaves us with a horrible dilemma. There are, at present, somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen thousand denominations of Christianity, worldwide. Each one of them has different views on morality, ranging from the insignificant to issues of global human existence. We have two choices. Either there is one correct version of Christianity or there are multiple correct versions. If there is only one correct version, how are we supposed to identify it? Every denomination claims that it is the correct one (or at the very least, that it is one of the correct ones!) so we can't rely on these claims to make our decisions. Each denomination interprets the Absolutely True Word of God Which Trumps Conscience in a way that makes sense to them.
Let me reiterate that last sentence, because it's really important. Every denomination that believes the Bible trumps our conscience interprets the Bible in a way that makes sense to them. Did you catch the trap in this sentence? They use their conscience to decide which interpretation of the Bible trumps the conscience! Again, we are faced with a nasty choice. Either there is a correct version of the Bible that doesn't rely on conscience or logic to find, or we are right back to conscience and logic being the ultimate guide for morality.
If we assume that there is, in fact, a perfect interpretation of the Bible, we are at something of an impasse. Since logic and conscience can't be our criteria for making the decision, we must rely on something else, but what? Divine revelation? Again, every denomination makes some claim of divine revelation, so which one is correct? How will we decide? What if none of them are correct? What if, after reading the Bible, you come to the conclusion that everybody's got it wrong, and that you have the perfect interpretation. God has spoken directly to you, and you are certain you are correct. This is fine for you, but how am I to judge whether or not I believe you? You are now in exactly the same situation as the other fifteen thousand denominations. You must ask people to use either logic, conscience, or divine revelation to decide to believe you.
The sad truth is that if there is a true interpretation of the Bible that does not rely on human logic or conscience, then it is unknowable beyond individual interpretation, which is the same as saying that it's entirely subjective.
Did you catch that last sentence? If the Christians are right, then morality is completely subjective. What is it that Christians always say about atheists? Aren't they the ones who accuse atheists of having no basis for morality? According to them, the world would be ruled by anarchy and there would be no way to know right from wrong. Civilization would descend into self serving madness. The irony is that their very own doctrine, if true, leads inevitably to the very state they attribute to naturalism!
Now, we must backtrack. We have reached an absurd conclusion when we followed one line of reasoning. The other line must now be scrutinized. Since it is not possible that there is one correct version of Christianity, perhaps there are multiple correct versions. Again, we're faced with choices. Perhaps there are some things that are universally right and wrong, and some that are malleable according to individual situations. The other option is that all things are malleable and based on specific circumstances.
If we accept the former option, we are immediately forced to address the question of which things are universals, and which are subjective. Unfortunately, this is no easier than the dilemma we faced earlier. Either logic and reason can tell us the answer, or it must be found in the Bible, or through divine revelation. If it is found in the Bible, then where is it? Having read the bible myself, I can recall no such clear cut explanations of morality. Instead, I remember reading contradictory edicts from God himself. Don't kill, unless God orders you to, or if it's lawful to kill. Then again, turn the other cheek and repay evil with kindness. Then again, Jesus came to uphold the law. Then again, Jesus came to repeal the law. Then again, it is better to kill yourself than to cause a child to stray. Then again, suicide is an unpardonable sin. Then again, and again, and again, and again.1
The latter option leaves us in a real pickle. If all things are malleable and based on specific circumstances, then the only conclusion is that there is nothing that is set in stone. There are no absolutes, and God's word is not the final arbiter over conscience. With no instance by instance definitive statement from God himself, there is no way to ascribe any absoluteness to any moral imperative, and we clearly have no such step by step guide.
If there are no absolutes, and God's word is not the final judge of what is moral and immoral, how is a Christian to judge right from wrong? At the risk of becoming pedantic, I'm afraid I must point out that there are two choices. Either the Christian can continue to use the Bible, or church doctrine, or some other source as a basis for morality, or they can admit that morality is ultimately judged by humans on a case to case basis, without any arbitrary intervention by God.
If some theist source is used, then the Christian is right back where we ended up earlier – arbitrary subjective morality. If it is admitted that morality is ultimately judged by humans, we have relegated God to irrelevance. Whether or not God created man with a conscience or the conscience evolved is a pointless distinction. If the conscience, or logic, or any other natural method is used to determine morality, then man can determine morality without God. The foundation of one of religion's most ardent claims collapses. Man does not need God to live morally.
Morality By Plato
Having extracted God from the process of arbitrating morality, we must now address the question of morality as an absolute. Is there some kind of platonic model of morality that is universal to all humans? Are some things absolutely right and some absolutely wrong, or is morality subjective and arbitrary? Perhaps God created man and instilled in him an instinctive knowledge of the perfect good, much like Plato's perfect conceptualizations of imperfect reality. If this is true, perhaps humans are always striving towards perfection but always falling short. Maybe this is the true nature of the biblical “Fall of Man.” In fact, maybe this is the difference between Christians and non-Christians. Maybe God gives Christians an extra “morality boost” and allows them to see a clearer image of the cave wall.
As we did with all the previous claims, lets assume this to be true and see where it leads us. Let us suppose that for every human interaction conceivable, there is a “perfect” morally good action for every individual to take. The first question we must ask is what scale is being used to judge perfection. Is perfection based on the greatest good for the greatest number of people? What about reduction of suffering? Perhaps equality is the ultimate measure. (But, if it is equality, in what sense do we mean equal? Equality of opportunity, or resources, or happiness, or what?) To say that there is a perfect morality is to admit to a scale. Perfect must be judged in relation to something, or the word has no meaning.
Perhaps now is a good time to explore a hypothetical situation to see if we can gain some real world insight into the possibility that there is such a thing as perfect morality. Suppose that there is a man who has a wife and family. He has a good job, with enough time to spend with his children and his wife, enough free time to avoid getting overworked, and enough money to pay all the bills. (Talk about a hypothetical situation!) One day, this man discovers that his boss is involved in a large scale fraud that, if allowed to continue, will cheat hundreds of thousands of people out of large amounts of money. Unfortunately, the fraud is so pervasive throughout the company that if the whistle is blown, the company will surely fail, and all the employees will not only lose their jobs, but many of them will be pulled into years of lawsuits, whether they were knowingly involved or not.
If you are like most people, you have decided that despite the personal loss and the potential problems for other employees, the only moral thing for the man to do is blow the whistle on his company. There are other jobs, and it's selfish of him to hold onto his perfect little life knowing that it will cause great harm to so many people. Furthermore, “shit happens,” as the saying goes, and it's unfortunate that many of the employees will be caught in the mess, but it's just a case of bad luck. It can't be helped.
Does this situation tell us anything about the concept of perfect morality? Let's look at it from the perspective of the greater good. It is true that more people will be helped by blowing the whistle than not. In terms of financial success, the greater good will be served. However, in order to achieve the greater good, there must be lesser bad. Some people, including the whistle blower, will have to suffer financially. Where there is financial gain, there is also financial loss.
Mathematically, there is almost certainly an optimum financial solution to this problem. Perhaps there is a course of action that could minimize financial losses to employees as much as mathematically possible while maximizing the financial gain of those who will benefit from having the fraud exposed. We can say that in terms of financial good, there is a perfect solution to this problem. Maybe it involves a different employee blowing the whistle, or the boss having a fit of conscience and admitting his fraud. What the action is is irrelevant. The broader point is that there is a perfect solution.
Unfortunately, it's not as simple as that. When I began discussing the greater good, I assumed that good to be financial. If we use another measure, we might find completely different results from taking the “perfect” moral action. Supposing that the fraud comes to an end in the best possible way financially, what can we say about the solution based on equality? For instance, if the investors who were going to be defrauded were all upper class and wealthy, the huge financial losses they would take might lower their status to upper middle class, where they would still be quite comfortable. On the other hand, the employees of the company might all be in the lower middle class, and the setbacks from losing their jobs might throw them squarely into poverty, even though the financial losses were minimized as much as possible.
If this were the case, could we then say that a greater good had been achieved? What if there were a total of five hundred children of employees, and as a result of their parents losing their jobs, four hundred of them ended up having to go to lesser schools with poor standards? Knowing that these children will grow up and have children of their own, and knowing that poverty tends to breed more poverty, can we really say that blowing the whistle accomplished a greater good?
We haven't even begun to look at the measures of individual happiness or minimization of suffering. I'm sure there are at least a dozen other measures by which a moral action can be judged, and it's entirely likely that in this very situation, each measure comes out differently on the grand scale of moral correctness.
Even so, our idea of platonic morality is not dead. Perhaps there is a set number of measures by which morality can be judged, and in any given situation, there is an action which is the perfect balance of all of the measures, such that there is no way for a better outcome. To help you think of this concept more clearly, let's say that there are one hundred moral measures, and let us assign a value of zero to one hundred for each of them in any given situation. It's patently obvious that very few, if any, situations will allow an outcome of one hundred one hundreds. Every dilemma will have a number of solutions, each of which is better by some measures and worse by others.
If this is true, then we're left with a puzzle. How do we decide which way to weight the scale? In other words, do we always pick the solution that has the highest aggregate score – the highest total number when we add up the score from all hundred measures? If that's true, what if the solution to a particular problem includes a zero (meaning morally awful) in the category of “Preserving Human Life”? Do we weight “Preserving Human Life” more than “Promoting Individual Happiness”? If so, how do we determine the system by which we will achieve our perfect mathematical formula?
By now, it should be painfully obvious that there is a problem with the notion of Platonic moral perfection. The fact of the matter is that different people have different goals, and different needs, and when morality involves multiple people (as it almost always does) what's good for one person will be less good for another, and with no way to say definitively which person should take precedence, most moral decisions will be ambiguous in some sense.
The Danger of Christian Morality
Before we explore what science says about human morality, I want to take a slight detour and explore some of the consequences of morality as described by Christians. The main point I wish to hammer home is that not only is the Christian model of morality wrong, it is decidedly harmful as well. Imagine a discussion with a believer that goes something like this:
Skeptic: Is it wrong to kill your own child?
Skeptic: Is it always wrong?
Believer: Yes. God has told us that we shall not kill.
Skeptic: And this is absolute and universal. There is never any time when it is ok to kill your child?
Believer: (feeling a little twitchy... he suspects a trap.) Well, I suppose there are some instances. (Perhaps he remembers that God, in the Old Testament, demanded that disobedient children be stoned to death.) But except for really extraordinary circumstances, it's wrong.
Skeptic: What if God told you to do it?
Believer: (Squirming noticeably in his seat.) God wouldn't do that.
Skeptic: How do you know? He ordered people in the Old Testament to do it. He ordered Abraham to do it. Can God do anything he wants to do?
Believer: Erm... well... yes, he can, but he wouldn't.
Skeptic: Well, you believe that he wouldn't, but by your own admission, and by the words of the Holy Scriptures themselves, God has done it, and could very well do it again if it pleases him to do so. Stop squirming around this, and just answer the question. If God told you to kill your child, and you knew with 100% certainty that it was God telling you, would it be a good thing to kill your child?
Believer: Um... well... I don't know if it would be good, exactly, but it would be God's will, so um...
Skeptic: Wait a minute. You're saying that God's will can be evil?
Believer: No, that's not what I said. I just said it wasn't good.
Skeptic: So, it's neutral? There are only three choices, right? Good, bad and neutral. Which is it?
Believer: Well, um... I don't know, exactly...
Skeptic: Ok. Let's get down to brass tacks. If you knew for certain that God wanted you to kill your own child, would you do it?
Believer: (scurries out of the room, making signs of the cross and genuflecting furiously)
From this little discussion, we can see that not only do Christians have nothing solid on which to hang their moral hats, they actually have a very dangerous excuse for doing vicious and horrible things and calling them good, or at worst, neutral. A brief look through history (some of it not particularly far in the past) we see many examples of people doing horrible things in the name of religion and calling them good. I'm not suggesting that every evil act ever committed by a Christian has been because of this kind of justification, but surely there have been many people who have used it.
Lest I be accused of creating a strawman, I want to be clear on one thing. I'm not suggesting that people would not do evil except for Christianity, or that non-Christians haven't done very horrible things. However, I want to make it perfectly clear that the Christian version of morality gives implicit and explicit permission for people to do evil and call it good. While it's true that removing this system of morality from the public consciousness wouldn't eradicate all evil in the world, it would most certainly eradicate some, and that, to me, seems a worthwhile endeavor.2 In the words of the Nobel Prize winning physicist (and descendant of a holocaust survivor) Steven Weinberg, "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion."
As I have hopefully made crystal clear, there simply is no basis for morality from God or scripture. At best we are left with a hopeless subjective conundrum and at worst, we have an excuse to do things that all sane people know to be wrong. Now that we have exposed Christian morality for what it really is, we can begin to delve into the questions from a more reasonable perspective. What does science say about morality? For that matter, what exactly is morality? If morality is not absolute, what is it? If it's not completely subjective, how do we decide what is right and what is wrong?
These questions do not always have easy answers, but they do have answers. Again, we're going to need to learn some real science and be prepared to face whatever answers we find, even if they don't line up with what we were taught as children.
1When faced with this fact, many Christians fall back to the assertion that careful reading of the Bible with an open and honest heart will reveal the “true” intent of the author. Of course, this fails for the same reason that all claims of revelation fail. They are necessarily subjective!
2I should mention the other side of the Christian morality argument. It is often suggested that despite the problems with Christians sometimes doing evil in the name of God, Christianity encourages people to do good that they would not ordinarily do. It's not within the scope of this entry, but evolutionary psychology explains quite parsimoniously that this notion is bunk. People of all religions (and non-religions) have always been inspired to acts of charity. It is just divisive and exclusionary thinking to suggest otherwise.
Friday, January 16, 2009
The Monogamy Puzzle
There are a lot of opinions roaming about the blogosphere regarding whether or not people are "supposed to be" monogamous. I'm going to try to take an in depth look at this topic from several points of view. Hopefully, by the time you're done with this article, you'll have some idea about what science says, and that will allow you to evaluate your own moral feelings and emotions against something a little more concrete. Before reading on, I do feel like I need to emphasize that descriptions are not instructions. I'm not in any way trying to tell you what you as an individual should do. Instead, I'm trying to give you something scientific on which to base your own decisions -- something more than gut feelings. Humans are widely varied in their desires, so I certainly do not presume to tell you what yours ought to be.
To begin, I'm going to tackle human sexuality from both sides, male and female. This may seem the obvious choice, but just to be sure, let's remember that sex is competition. Males and females have their own interests, evolutionarily speaking, and we have hopefully dispelled the myth that human intelligence puts us above other animals. Like chimps and dolphins and killer whales, we are very intelligent social animals, and examining our behavior is the same as examining that of any other creature. If we see a pattern of behavior, there is a reason for it. Anything that exists is a product of evolution, including our intelligence and our incredibly complex society. If we look well into our past, we will understand the mechanisms behind our behaviors. If we are lucky, we will be able to take the lesson of sugar consumption to heart, and we will be able to make some educated statements about what we should do if we want to achieve a particular result.
So, on to the question of monogamy. Before answering decisively, I must make a distinction about the word itself. There are two very different ways of asking the question – that of a social scientist and that of a sociobiologist. An anthropologist who speaks of monogamy is talking about marriage, or whatever cultural equivalent there might be. A species is monogamous if males and females have one official partner. This does not take adultery into account, nor does it account for serial monogamy, which is the practice of having one partner for a relatively short period, and then moving on to another partner. On the other hand, a sociobiologist who speaks of monogamy is speaking of the actual practice of mating. A species is only monogamous if it really has only one sexual partner. Any mating is considered part of the equation, and social institutions are not considered.
For the time being, I will be using the sociobiological application of the word. When I speak of polygamy, I am speaking of the practice of having multiple sexual partners, regardless of institutionalized or cultural norms. Similarly, monogamy will only apply when a species really does mate with only one partner. Just as in our mental exercise with sugar cravings, we must first understand how we behave, and then we must understand why. Only then can we begin to look at ourselves as individuals and begin to think about goals and how we should act if we wish to achieve them.
Finally, then, the answer to the question. Are humans monogamous? The short answer is no. We are mildly polygamous. The long answer requires addressing the question from various points of view. Culturally, we have always focused on a single marriage between a man and a woman, but there are two unavoidable facts that we must not overlook, even if they are incriminating or cause us personal discomfort. First, though marriage has virtually always been between one man and one woman, mating has not. Since the agricultural revolution, powerful men have virtually always kept harems. In fact, this practice has only fallen out of favor since industrialization. Contrary to the notion of the faithful middle class man, polygamy was not restricted to the very powerful. It was only institutionalized for them. Men have been cheating as long as they have been marrying, and not just a little bit. Cheating is almost as common as marriage, historically.
If we compare anatomy and biology, we find this conclusion to be valid. There is a clear and virtually indisputable link between the size of the testicles and the fidelity of the species. Ours are not large enough for a thoroughly promiscuous lifestyle, like the chimpanzee's, nor are they as small as the most monogamous apes. Human males are not large enough, compared to females, to command harems in the same way as a gorilla. We are not antisocial enough to be as monogamous as gibbons. In all biological areas, we fall above the threshold of monogamy, and below that of outright polygamy.
If this conclusion leaves you feeling uncomfortable, try to keep that feeling at bay for a while. I promise this will make a lot more sense once we've examined the evolutionary developments that led us to this perilous double standard of demanding monogamy and practicing polygamy. If it helps you to understand the point, think about yourself for a minute, and your partner, if you are attached. If you are over the age of thirty, you've probably had between three and ten sexual partners, and most of them have been monogamous partners, though there's somewhere around a thirty or forty percent chance that you've cheated at least once in your life. Now, your partner has probably had around the same experience, and if you think about it, most of your friends have, too. Humans do not have sex monogamously today, and as we will see, they never have.
Game Theory and Mating Standards
Why would a species evolve into a particular mating pattern? Why aren't all species either polygamous or monogamous? In order to understand the answer to this question, we can think of evolution as a game of strategy, with each side using whatever advantage it has, and trying to minimize its weaknesses. This is where game theory comes in.
Imagine a species that is polygamous. This means that the most powerful males have many females in a harem. If you are a male, you have two choices. You can either be one of the most powerful males in the group, or risk celibacy. No matter how dominance is chosen, the losing males find themselves without mates. This is not just conjecture. It has been thoroughly documented in nature. The more polygamous a species, the more the average male suffers. Only the most powerful get to pass on their genes. The rest literally die for eternity.
While this brutal male selection is going on, the females pretty much have everything they could ask, right? All of them get to mate, and they all get one of the crème de la crème as a husband. Well, in a sense, this is true, but there are disadvantages. For one thing, as the degree of polygamy increases, the amount of attention the male can devote to each female decreases. Though the offspring will be the children of royalty, they will have been raised essentially by a single parent. Furthermore, as the old adage goes, if everyone is special, nobody is. In other words, being the child of the king isn't particularly advantageous if everybody is a child of the king! In the next generation, each male will be on equal footing when competing for females. Since all the genetic material comes from the king, it's basically a matter of luck and the female's genes.
Eventually, this kind of system will reach a point of diminishing returns, where the females do not receive a significant benefit from mating with the most desirable male. When this happens, the most clever of the celibate males might figure out that he has an advantage. (Again, I am speaking very liberally about conscious decisions. This is for ease of understanding, and does not imply that evolution is intentionally doing anything.) If he devotes himself entirely to one female, and dotes constantly over the children, the female is actually gaining something by marrying down on the social ladder. As more and more females realize this advantage, monogamy creeps up on polygamy. It may eventually surpass it as the primary mating arrangement.
This works in reverse, of course. In a completely monogamous population, females are stuck with who they get. If only twenty out of one hundred males are attractive and strong, that means that eighty females are forced to mate with a dud. If strength correlates to resources, as it often does, clever females will eventually figure out that a half of a rich male is better than all of a poor male. Even with half of the parental attention, the benefit in resources is more than enough to make up the difference. If there is a mechanism by which males can accumulate vast resources, such as a large territory, or a particularly rich food source, polygamy will overtake monogamy.
As we might expect, complete monogamy is pretty rare in nature. Most animals fall somewhere in between strict monogamy and rampant polygamy, which is consistent with the theory that ecology and internal competition create a fluid and self-correcting system. Either system creates an inherent advantage for one gender or another, based on resources, population density, and many other factors.
So What About Humans?
Homo erectus was the most carnivorous monkey or ape ever. He represented a sharp divergence from the now extinct Australopithecus robustus, who lived almost exclusively on leaves, seeds, and fruits. Though it may pain some vegans to hear this, our entire society is very likely the result of our ancestors' love of raw meat. You see, in order to hunt meat, humans had to roam far from home. Unlike plants, prey animals do their best to get away – and stay away – from their predators. Not only that, but our pre-human ancestors were not nearly as fast as most of their prey. We gained much by standing on two legs, but we also lost much. For Homo erectus, the hunt required allies. Groups of men had to form social bonds, and then set out on the hunt, perhaps for days or even weeks at a time, until they were able to secure a large enough prize to bring home. Not only did man need social bonds, but he needed spears, for he lacked the claws and teeth of the other top predators. Both of these things require a big brain. As it turns out, this is the major difference between our extinct ancestors and ourselves. We were the only ones who figured out how to make tools, form groups, and kill big animals.
For over a million years, humans didn't evolve much. Our environment was stable, and we had achieved a stalemate with natural selection. We lived in small groups, formed pair bonds, experienced jealousy, lust, and emotional hurt. We were busy just trying to stay alive, and we hadn't discovered how to farm, so there was no way to build up enough resources to become highly polygamous. By all estimates, only the most elite males could be openly polygamous, and then, only with a small number of females. As for cheating, the jury is still out to some degree, but there is very strong circumstantial evidence suggesting that it was at least relatively common for all of our history.
Within the animal kingdom, there is a remarkably consistent tendency. The smarter the animal, the more flexible are its mating habits. We can see this very clearly in chimps and coyotes, two species that are very similar to humans in many societal ways. The degree of polygamy in both of these species changes slightly based on the availability of resources. With humans, we would expect that this tendency would apply, and as we progress in history, we will see that not only is this true, it is spectacularly true.
In a hunter-gatherer society, there is very little skill involved in staying alive. Either the food is there to pick, or it isn't. Either the herd is nearby, or it isn't. For this reason, there was no way for males to build up reserves, or to guarantee food in the future. The conclusion is clear. With no particularly powerful males, polygamy would never become the dominant mating model. However, things changed with the agricultural revolution. Once we figured out how to grow our own crops, our big brains kicked in at an astonishing rate.
As soon as one male accumulated more food than he and his mate and children could eat, he discovered the power of money. Obviously, he had no concept of the abstract currency we use today, but it was clear that he could use his excess food to buy the loyalty of his fellows. As labor goes, farming two fields is not significantly more difficult than farming one, especially with a little help. Soon, what was a slight excess of food became a large excess, which allowed the purchase of more loyalty. Man had discovered how to become rich. With this discovery, he changed the dynamic of mating by allowing females the option of choosing a portion of a very rich man over all of a very poor man. Polygamy was here, and it was not going anywhere for a long time.
In all of human history, pastoral societies have been polygamous, almost without exception. At the dawn of human 'civilization,' when we learned to build cities, kings and emperors and local rulers generally had thousands of women in harems. Kings had ultimate authority, and ultimate access to mates. In some South American nations, it was rare to find a child who was not royalty. Until as late as the 20th century, many parts of the world were still operating within this model. Though it's not always pleasant for us to think about, the reality is that for virtually all of our history as agriculturalists, women have been monopolized by powerful men, leaving large swaths of the male population celibate.
Perhaps now is a good time to take a step back and try to look objectively at what we've learned. Please bear in mind that I am not suggesting how people ought to act, or how many wives a man should have. Also, please remember that, just like our taste for sugar, our drive to compete and our tendency to stratify our society is completely natural. Men are evolutionarily programmed to behave the way they do. It is incorrect to say that man became polygamous because of deficiency of morality, or because of a fault in his character. Simply put, the strategy that man discovered has been extraordinarily efficient. A population of a few million has become a population of six billion. This is no small feat, and as far as evolution is concerned, for a species as big as humans, it's nothing short of a roaring success. We're going to leave this topic for a while, but I promise you that later on, we will return to polygamy and discuss exactly what's wrong with it. In the meantime, we need to look at males and females separately.
Why Men are Lying Cheaters
In any species, sex is a competition. The females, with so much at stake, must choose their mates with great care, selecting the best male for genes, post-natal protection and childrearing duties. The males, on the other hand, have very little at stake genetically, and virtually nothing in time expended. (Women, feel free to make your 'minute-man' jokes at this point.) They literally have no compelling reason, in and of themselves, not to try to impregnate as many females as possible. With this notion as a starting point, let's examine human males, and see if we can discover just what it means to be a man.
The first thing we must know about males is that they tend to produce more children than females. This seems counterintuitive at first, but it's true. Men who marry twice are more likely to have children by both wives, and women are less likely to have children with their second husband. Add to this the fact that one particularly promiscuous male could have perhaps four or five wives in the course of a lifetime, all the while availing himself of the services of prostitutes and mistresses, and you will see the truth in it. Men produce more children than women.
If there's something twitching the back of your head about this, it's probably the question of how to work out the math if men produce more children than women. Obviously, there's a real number of children in the world, and it takes one man and one woman to make a child, so that can't be the way it is, can it? Yet, the numbers are astonishingly clear. Across all cultures, men who are fathers have more children than women who are mothers. It is undeniable. The only question is how we can interpret this information. What is the answer to this apparent paradox?
The answer is obvious, if painful. The only way for this to be possible is if virtually all females produce children, and many men do not. This is, as it turns out, completely true historically. There has always been a significant number of celibate men, usually the least powerful, or the poorest, or the ugliest. Furthermore, the ratio of men to women has always been essentially one to one. If for no other reason than this, we can say with certainty that humans are polygamous. (As we will see later, cuckoldry also plays a part in this odd equation, but not enough to explain the discrepancy completely.)
The next thing to know about men is that they must seduce women. Despite libraries full of feminist literature extolling the virtues of confident women asking men out, it remains the very rare exception to the rule. For all of human history, men have seduced women. This, too, lines up very neatly with other creatures who share similar mating patterns. In nature, the gender which spends the least amount of time in reproduction does the seducing. In the few species where males tend the young, or even more rare, carry them in their bodies, females do the courting, and males do the selecting.
Men are not entirely ignorant in their pursuit of sex. Overwhelmingly, we see a historical trend that is at least somewhat promising. Most men, having achieved a monogamous marriage, try very hard not to lose it. This doesn't mean that they don't cheat. It does mean that they usually go to great lengths to hide their indiscretions if they don't have the power to enforce polygamy. Most men, it seems, have a vested interest in maintaining something close to a monogamous relationship.
One of the most obvious traits males exhibit is their tendency to compete. Sport is ubiquitous, and until quite recently in our history, was virtually monopolized by men. Testosterone is clearly linked to aggression. Men compete for jobs, for money, for land, for possessions, for women, and pretty much anything else of value. This drive to compete is a direct result of female selection. That is to say, because females choose the best males (whatever the criteria might be), the males must compete so that the female can choose properly. It's a cruel twist of fate that the 'right to choose' inherent in females is what led to the complete domination of females by men after the agricultural revolution. Once men learned how to become rich, they learned how to become kings. It was only a short jump in logic to realize that kings (the winners) could have as many mates as they wanted. In all six of the early civilizations – Babylon, Egypt, India, China, Aztec, and Inca, one man ruled with complete authority, and had rights to virtually any females he wanted. There are records of some rulers complaining of their regimens, as many kings were literally obliged to perform sexually at least two times a day every day with different concubines. In all of these civilizations, there were elaborate records noting exactly when each concubine would be the most fertile. Clearly, to males, sex is something to be fought for and won.
What is more notable than the behavior of kings is the observation that kings were not special in kind – only degree. Across all of these cultures, men with power had harems of proportionate size. As wealth diminished, so too did the quality and exclusivity of the harem, but the desires and goals of men are clear. Even among the lowest level of landowners, there was rampant polygamy. The Roman Empire is a perfect example of this. Though marriage was between one man and one woman, we can learn a lot from the slave trade. Most of the actual labor was done by male slaves, for obvious reasons, yet young female slaves brought the highest price on the open market. Not only that, relatively small houses were often filled with an inordinately high number of female domestic servants, who were, by and large, all young. More convincingly, Roman nobles freed many of their slaves at remarkably young ages, leaving them large inheritances. The common thread? All of them appear to have been children of slaves. Why else would they be freed, except that they were illegitimate offspring?
Though we think of Christian Europe as a monogamous place, it's just not true. Polygamous mating was kept more secret, but it was no less prevalent. The countryside was male dominated, leaving many men celibate, primarily because castles and monasteries employed huge numbers of serving maids. In some cases, contemporary historians explicitly mention “gynoeciums,” where the secret harems of castle owners lived. Add to this the fact that among men with one wife and no servants, there is no indication whatsoever that cheating was any less common when there was an opportunity for it.
The last thing that we must realize about men is that they are violent, and that their violence has a lot to do with sex. It has been convincingly demonstrated that war among humans did not originate over resources, but mates. All studies of preliterate societies reveal very high levels of violence between men, with the inevitable result being the capture and sexual conquest of the females. In earlier historical periods, rape was one of the most attractive incentives used to recruit soldiers. Even today, rape is not uncommon in war, and shore leave is at best a thinly veiled excuse for soldiers to buy the services of prostitutes.
To quote Matt Ridley, to whom this essay is unquestionably indebted, “The nature of the human male, then, is to take opportunities, if they are granted him, for polygamous mating and to use wealth, power, and violence as means to sexual ends in the competition with other men – though usually not at the expense of sacrificing a secure monogamous relationship.” (The Red Queen, 206) As we will see in a moment, human sexual competition is not one sided. Females have their own games to play, and their own motivations. Clearly, the domination of rampant polygamy is at an end, for when we look around the world today, we see that even the most powerful men must now at least make a good show of discretion with their mistresses. Although cheating is still very common, and multiple marriages are the norm, there has obviously been some dynamic that has caused a shift in the balance of power. Men don't get everything they want, no matter how powerful. We must explore the nature of females to discover what has caused this.
Why Don't Women Bear Their Husband's Children?
We've pretty firmly established that men are scum, right? All they want to do is have sex with as many women as they can, and the only thing stopping them is their own level of power, right? Well, not exactly. This picture is entirely one-sided, and doesn't account for the fact that through most of human history, women have been able to enforce near-monogamy on men. How did they do that, exactly? Moreover, is it fair to say that women have been nothing but the pawns of men for all of history? Are they little more than incubators for male genes to be passed through?
It's easy to understand why women often describe history as an entirely male dominated story. It's also easy to understand that women are often frustrated by the apparent paradox. If women have so much power as the selectors, why do they always end up on the short end of the bargain? When the men leave, women are the ones left holding the baby and all the responsibility, and the men get to go out and make more babies, with little or no consequence to themselves. For all the power women are supposed to have, they still can't seem to get paid as much as men, and they've had to fight tooth and nail for everything they've ever gotten. You never hear about men being left at the altar, do you? Women just want a man who will be faithful, and then they'll be happy, right? If only men would be faithful, everything would be perfect.
As it turns out, there really is a paradox that explains how women impose monogamy on men, and it fits perfectly with the ever-growing body of evidence that suggests that nearly everything we think of as being “above nature” about humans is actually evidence that we are unavoidably tied to our animal roots. Here, then, is the answer to why men marry, and why they prefer long term relationships with one woman. Women cheat. Often.
One of the most dramatic advantages, genetically, of being female is that there is never any doubt of parentage. In other words, a mother knows with 100% certainty that her child is her own. (This, of course, doesn't take into account modern medical procedures, but you get the point.) Since evolution is not concerned with ethics, only successful reproduction, it stands to reason that females would have learned to take advantage of this fact. They clearly have. Though the numbers vary slightly depending on the particular culture, one thing has been proven rather conclusively. In cultures that are primarily or strictly monogamous, cuckoldry is common. In the landmark study, conducted in Liverpool in the 1980s, it was discovered that less than 80% of children were actually related to the man who believed himself to be the father.
If it is true that human nature is the cause of this phenomenon, we ought to see biological evidence. It so happens that the evidence is striking. Recent investigations of the female orgasm have given us a rather shocking dose of reality. It has long been known that there are some female orgasms that cause more sperm to be retained after sex. These are called high-retention orgasms. Obviously, high retention orgasms have a higher probability of inducing pregnancy. What was shocking to researchers was when they examined orgasms alongside fidelity. In faithful wives, approximately 55 percent of their orgasms were high-retention. However, among unfaithful wives, only 40 percent of their orgasms with their husbands were. Even more shocking, though, was the fact that over 70 percent of the orgasms with their adulterous lovers were high-retention. There is more. Without consciously being aware of their most fertile period, women tend to have sex with their lovers on their most fertile days.
The combination of these numbers is shocking. Though women tended to have sex with their husbands twice as much as their lovers, they were slightly more likely to conceive with their lover than with their husband. It appears that women have a biological drive to keep their husband while bearing the child of another man. Again, if this is true, we should be able to make predictions based on other animals who behave similarly. Again, we can.
In a previous essay, I noted that human females are rare in comparison to the rest of the animal kingdom. Rather than having a small window of sexual availability and interest, they are sexually active essentially all the time, but only fertile a small percentage of that time. Another aspect of this system is that fertility is concealed. Except in very recent years, there has never been an accurate measure of peak fertility. One immediately apparent advantage to the female is that this system allows her to choose her mates much more selectively. If, like other animals, human females displayed fertility with a clear physical sign, and were only receptive to sex during this period, men would only be interested during these few days, and culture would be much, much different. As it is, women have as many days as they want to choose between as many potential suitors as they desire.
There is an odd side effect of concealed ovulation. Since ovulation is concealed, adultery becomes easier, for on any given day, the woman can leave in secret to have sex with her lover, and her husband, ignorant of her fertility, is none the wiser. As we have seen, whether they know it or not, women are instinctively aware of this fact, and use it to their advantage when they do have affairs.
Why would female cheating have such a profound effect on men? After all, men are supposed to be interested in having sex with as many women as possible. Why would female cheating be such a threat? Like other polygamous animals, humans produce 'smart sperm.' Some sperm avoids trying to get to the egg, instead forming a kind of blockage that prevents other sperm from getting in. Other sperm are literally attack sperm, actively trying to destroy sperm from competing males. All of this is a testament to the fact that even on a cellular level, men really don't want other men having sex with their women. The math is clear. If many men have sex with a woman, the chance of any one man being the father is dependent on how many men there were. On the other hand, if a man can keep his woman faithful only to him, there is a 100 percent chance that he is the father. It almost goes without saying that virtually all the laws in history regarding adultery have been geared towards punishing women for having more than one man. Our biology predicts this.
There is a clear pattern in nature. In species that have rampant adultery, particularly birds, interest in frequent sex is almost always observed. Birds turn out to be the closest analog to humans, sexually. Like many species of birds, humans live in colonies. Swallows, in fact, are very close to humans in their sexual practice. Consider this. In swallows, 'married' females often have affairs with dominant older males, but they do it in secret. When a male has been cosmetically altered by researchers to be more attractive, his chances of having an adulterous affair doubles. The more attractive the male is, the more chance he has of being a deadbeat dad. Husbands are very jealous of their wives and often follow them around anytime they leave the nest. Anytime the female leaves for an extended period, the male becomes adamant about having numerous sexual encounters with her. One of the most disturbing things that we've seen in swallows has only been discovered recently. Until genetic tests verified that cheating is rampant, scientists thought swallows were pretty much completely monogamous. The reason they thought this? Swallows are very good at keeping their adultery secret!
Is any of that making you twitch a little? There's more. The research on swallows, unhindered by the objections of the church or feminists, has proven rather conclusively what the female's reproductive strategy is. Marry the male who will remain faithful, and reproduce with the one who will produce the best children. Does this sound like a cynical view of human marriage? If the facts line up, why would we use the word 'cynical'? It turns out that when we examine human society, across cultures, women have a propensity for carrying on secret affairs with one man who is usually an 'upgrade' from her husband. Depressing? Perhaps, but it is true.
Males have adapted to combat this tendency. Men whose wives have been gone all day produce much more sperm than those who have been with their wives all day. Consider the adage, 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder.' As it turns out, it also makes the testicles more fecund. The same thing happens in rats, incidentally. Once again, human behavior lines up with animal behavior. What we think of as intellectual, or cultural constructs, are actually deep rooted instinctual behaviors. We cannot control them on a biological level. They simply exist. It would be foolish of us to deny this fact.
Jealousy is one of those mythologized concepts that we seem to have a very hard time understanding. Despite voluminous research indicating that lack of jealousy is a near-perfect indicator of impending divorce, we insist that jealousy is something to be suppressed or avoided. It is seen as an aberrant behavior. In reality, it is one of the mechanisms that keep both men and women relatively monogamous. Without jealousy, we can imagine that both men and women, with their innate tendency to cheat, would eventually throw off the yoke of monogamy and live in openly polygamous communes. They do not, and every attempt at creating such a commune has utterly failed.
Once we take the labels “good” and “bad” off of human behavior, we can begin to see a cause and effect chain. Once we recognize why we are the way we are, we can begin to evaluate our own feelings based on our own goals. If we try to do it the other way around, we are dooming ourselves to failure. Human nature is neither good nor bad. It just is. Individual goals, on the other hand, can be good or bad, based on what outcome is desired. For a man who has had a vasectomy, the reproductive goal is clearly gone, but the motivations and desires still exist. Only by a clear understanding of why he feels the way he does can a man begin to decide with rationality what his behavior ought to be.
In short, here's how it works. Men would like to have as many women as possible, but in egalitarian systems, this is rarely possible. Women would like one man because of his contribution to childrearing. Women are also restricted by outside realities. They seldom get to marry the best man available, not to mention the fact that the most reproductively viable man is seldom the best potential husband. To this end, women often engage in extramarital affairs with one man, usually an older, richer man, and more often than not, married. Men, aware of this propensity in women, become jealous of their women and guard them relentlessly. They also attempt to reduce the chance of being cuckolded by having sex with their wives as often as possible after being separated. Married men are also, ironically, pursued as potential lovers by women with lesser husbands.
The bare truth is perhaps not as rosy as we'd like, but it's also extremely parsimonious in explaining why we act the way we do. Men and women both cheat, and always have. Marriage in humans is a tenuous balance between drives. Women instinctively want to keep their men for financial and childrearing advantages, but they have a natural drive to trade up in secret if they get the chance. Men, likewise, have a natural drive to be the one selected for an upgrade, which conveniently allows them to engage in their biological drive to be polygamous. It is not a pretty system, but if you think about the reality of the marriages you've seen, or your own experience, it is a very elegant explanation for what seems to be contradictory desires in our own nature.
What Does It All Mean?
Finally, we must put all of this in perspective. This is perhaps the most crucial element of this essay. All of these facts about human nature are trends and averages. They do not speak to any one person's desires or tendencies. You may want to object that you have had a vastly different experience, but this cannot be an objection, since none of these trends can be used to accurately predict an individual's behavior. As I have said many times before, humans are incredibly diverse, and deviance is something that is part of our nature.
However, it is also impossible to deny these trends as inherent, innate, instinctual realities. Though our own lives may have been shaped by our experiences, and we may not fall under these broad generalizations, they are nonetheless valid. Regardless of what you have become as an adult, you were shaped by your inherent sexual nature.
Now, we must recall the lesson of sugar cravings from a previous essay. We learned why we crave sugar, and we learned that immoderate consumption of raw sugar can lead to dire consequences – not least of which the lessening of our own sexual attractiveness, which does matter. We learned that it is quite possible to begin to put together a system of ethics about sugar consumption, based on the scientific evidence of what consequences follow from different consumption patterns. If we wish to be sexually attractive, healthy, and long-lived, we can certainly eat sugar, but we must be careful of processed sugar, and we must engage in enough exercise to burn off any excess calories we might consume.
Can we apply the same mentality to sexuality? I hope you're beginning to see that we can. We're not quite ready to make any broad statements, because there are aspects of sexuality that we have not covered, such as sexually transmitted diseases, emotional consequences of various sexual activities, and the physical consequences of various types, or levels of sexual activity. Nevertheless, we ought to be able to form some rather firm objective statements about ourselves and our culture. For instance, marriage is something that reflects human nature, but it does not reflect all of it. Both men and women desire and engage in extramarital affairs. Many couples successfully practice 'open marriages.' Pockets of polygamy persist. Very rich men move to South America and buy the services of young housemaids. The tendency to get tired of a mate after childbearing is natural. The male desire for young women is natural.
In short, what we have learned so far is that much of what we consider immoral or unnatural in humans is not only natural, but essential in building the mating system that we have now. There is no particular indication that humans are supposed to mate for life, especially since life has been extended to over seventy years. Like sugar consumption, we can look at marriage and mating as the results of natural instincts, which will, with any luck, allow us to judge cause and effect more objectively, without the baggage from religion and myth which tell us that our sexuality is evil or depraved or out of control.