Thursday, January 22, 2009

Learn Science. Get Laid

Evolutionary Psychology in Action

In a recent article in Evolutionary PsychologyBrown, 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.


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