Thursday, August 05, 2010

Evolutionary Psychology

I make reference to this, and my fondness for the general idea that many human behaviors have a foundation in the experiences of the last 50,000 generations of our ancestors. I don't want to oversell the idea as controlling our behavior - I am simply aware that individuals in discussion generally overlook this factor.

The mating questions usually dominate the discussion - it is one more place to talk about sex right out in public, after all - but I usually focus on the ingroup/outgroup questions, and methods of social control handed down. Much of our nonverbal communication, and even some of the verbal components such as volume and tone, likely predate language. The evolutionary combination is to maintain sufficient acceptance in the tribe to obtain resources, and the tribe to continue, long enough to bring sufficient progeny to the age of reproduction. There's a lot of that still going around. But even that has never been a pure situation. There are alternative ways to create a legacy in other humans without having them yourself - teaching is one - and as our technology has advanced, these alternative methods have become more common.

Even in mating, the drives installed on the hard drive that we make so much of - men attracted to women whose appearance just happens to signal fertility, women attracted to men who seem likely to provide for them and for children - are quite malleable. They always were, even when we lived in tribes of 100 in East Africa. Of course attraction is not entirely hard-wired. 14-year-old boys are not sexually attracted to 60-year-old women. 60 year-old men are. You can't wire that in, it's gradually learned. There's no chromosome that makes us fond of garter belts with ribbons. It's learned by association, a sexual signal we (optionally) learn. Even without getting into free will and complex choosing, the behaviorist had partial explanations for such things long before the evolutionary psychologists were even heard of. Rewards influence us, and orgasm and providing sustenance are enormously powerful rewards. So powerful, in fact, that they create much of the ongoing confusion and pain of sexually traumatised children. Pleasure is associated with horror - what is a even an adult mind, let alone a child's, to make of that?

Digression: The disproportionate number of adult homosexuals, and especially bisexuals, who were sexually molested by members of the same sex between ages 10-14, well-known to any human services professional who takes social histories, has led some to leap to the conclusion that it is the molestation that causes homosexuality. You can see how the idea would fit the narrative of some people. But that doesn't hold either, for there are molested children who grow up to be straight, and homosexual adults for whom there is no evidence of molestation. It may be a contributing factor in some individuals, but we can't say more than that.

What then can we say? We can say that it is all quite complicated, and people who pretend it isn't usually have an axe to grind. /digression.

Similarly with group behavior. People sometimes leave the tribes they were born into, most often because they perceive a better chance, but sometimes when there is no such hope. We can make up evolutionary explanations about genetic sharing or social signals gone awry, but we don't know that. It's all about tendencies and increased probabilities. I'm sorry if I make it appear otherwise sometimes.

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