While there’s an obvious consensus about evolution as it applies to biology, there’s a lot of conflicting information out there about evolutionary psychology. The New York Times gave the field a beating in a recent Sunday review piece called “Darwin was Wrong about Dating,” and the Wall Street Journal rushed to its defense in “Grey Lady Dumps Darwin.” Who was right? Let’s let Higgs examine this issue from the perspective of a different species of mammal.
Higgs:Hi. Higgs here. I couldn’t help notice that humans get very agitated about the field of evolutionary psychology, especially when it starts to veer into the area of sex differences. I suspect the most extreme supporters and detractors may misunderstand the field, its promises and its findings.
Some humans think the goal of evolutionary psychology is to predict the behavior of individual human beings, and that such predictive power will prove useful in your sex lives. Others worry that evolutionary ideas about humans play into stereotypes that box in the range of acceptable behaviors for male humans and female humans.
Such arguments showed up in last Sunday’s New York Times piece on Darwin and “dating”. From my perspective, dating is an intriguing behavioral phenomenon. You’d never see me take another cat out to dinner. The piece didn’t address the fascinating question of cat/human differences, but stuck with perceived differences between male humans and female humans.
The writer of the story accused evolutionary psychologists of exaggerating or even making up human sex differences. But this misses the point that humans are too diverse a species for any scientist to predict the behavior of individuals based on sex.
A counter argument followed in the Wall Street Journal, rushing to the defense of evolutionary psychology, but for the wrong reason as well. In that story, the author tried to argue that human males and females do behave differently and that to deny this is as bad as being a creationist.
But some of these so-called differences apply only to averages across large populations. Men are taller than women on average but it doesn’t mean there are no tall women or that tall women look like men. Behavioral differences are even more subtle than physical ones, and science is not finding rules but patterns and tendencies. In commenting on the flap, Steven Pinker of Harvard pointed out that male humans pay for sex more often than do female humans. This is true but many male humans would never pay for sex. You can’t predict that a human will pay for sex simply because he’s a male.
Sex and the Single Cat
Some cat behavior is easier to predict and explain with Darwinian logic. Back before my contraceptive procedure, my mating strategy was pretty much the same as that of all other male cats. We fight each other for territory and mate with any female who smells fertile. You could predict pretty much exactly how I would respond to a fertile female cat. I wouldn’t take her on a date, and I wouldn’t hang around and cuddle with her or help her raise kittens.
And that’s perfectly healthy feline behavior. In our species, females don’t need male help in bringing up healthy kittens. But I digress. The point is that I was pretty predictable.
Humans are a different kind of animal. We chatted last week with psychologist Terri Fisher, who explained that human mating behavior is much more variable. When human males were asked how many women they wanted to mate with in a lifetime, some said one, some said several, and a few said a lot. (I would answer infinity, of course, as would nearly all male cats who hadn’t undergone a contraceptive procedure).
Humans do engage in monogamy and male humans in parental care – but not always. There may never be a simple explanation of human nature. You humans are complicated animals.
Cat behavior gets unpredictable and interesting once we cross into the human realm. When I became too old to fight and wanted to retire from my wild life, I found a human who invited me into her house. People said the relationship was doomed because I showed many signs of being a feral cat. I appeared to be “unsocialized”. They said it was not in my nature to be a house cat.
But they were wrong. I slowly transformed into a gentle, loving, affectionate creature. It took months, but eventually I discovered I had a natural talent for lap sitting.
Now there are evolutionary reasons for my behavior – cats co-evolved with humans and became successful partly because we are capable of living among you, even convincing you we are part of your families. And yet, many cats are cooler-tempered, less cuddly and more distant from their human families than I am. We cats are not so predictable after all.
News Humans Can Use:
It’s understandable that humans might be disappointed in evolutionary psychology. You like to predict and control your world and you love science because it helps you do that. Since l lived most of my life as virile male alley cat, I very much understand why some humans look to evolutionary psychology to help them find more success in the area of sex. You won’t find it there, but perhaps work in this field is coming up with useful information – just not the information you might have expected.
A number of scientists have reached the conclusion that humans are not a monogamous species, nor a promiscuous one, but are diverse and flexible and capable of many different mating strategies. You humans could make good use of that knowledge by learning to accept yourselves as unique individuals and not worrying so much about being “normal”. Even more importantly, you can use this knowledge to better accept and tolerate different types of behavior in others.Thank you for letting me express my thoughts – Higgs. Can I have a treat now?