A review of Dr Lonnie W Aarssen's “Some Bold evolutionary predictions for mating in humans”
Quite often papers are published which get slated for being “politically incorrect” I recently witnessed a rather interesting example of that. However when reading papers that acquire this dubious title I find it useful to look at the paper on it’s own merits. Dr Lonnie W. Aarssen’s “Some Bold evolutionary predictions for mating in humans” is an interesting example. My initial impression of the paper is that it simply asserts that human beings are subject to the same mating rules as other primates, and that at some point in the future older social patterns in humans involving marriage and so on would re-assert themselves, because “it is in the genes” However Dr Aarssen’s conclusions are certainly worthy of further debate and have merit.
To begin with Dr. Aarssen asserts that divorce rates have plummeted, and that people are not reproducing to this Dr. Aarsen says:
“Several socio-cultural/economic factors have been proposed as explanations for these trends but the biologist cannot help but find obvious and profound
implications that derive from the fact that disinterest or failure in mating has a direct impact on evolutionary fitness.”
Well I can agree and not agree with that statement. I find the term “Evolutionary fitness” a bit drastic, whatever socially systems we have human beings will always reproduce, I suspect the biggest threats to “evolutionary fitness” (If that refers to the ability of the human race to survive) would range from ecological disasters to genocide and nuclear war. If however “evolutionary fitness” refers to genetic diversity there is a case for saying that people of a given gene pool not reproducing would start to limit the genetic diversity of the human gene pool as a whole.
However that goes counter to what many who discuss the sort of biology Dr. Aarssan is discussing. These “Darwininian” (Read Galtonesque) ideas of natural selection have often been applied to limit the genetic diversity in the human gene pool. OK this is where political correctness screams “Eugenics” but Dr Aarssen has only put the discussion in the “Darwinian” framework. The problem with this framework however is the somewhat vague understanding of genetics it presents. (This is why eugenics is a non viable practice).
My understanding of genetics is that when someone talks of “Genetic influences” (Especially in terms of sociobiology). I want to know which “genes” are involved, that is what region of DNA, what the structure of it is with regards things like coding regions, products of coding regions, base richness, promotor regions, mutational differences expressed in the sequence data. And how the product of that gene interacts with the rest of the genome, and also how the products of other genes interact with the gene itself. This level of detail may or may not shed light on complex human social trends, but simple Mendellian genetics with a Darwinian emphasis on natural selection do not cut it, it is that simple.
Dr. Aarssen says:
“Although many human behavioural domains are of course a product of sociocultural/economic context or ‘the environment’, many of them are also inevitably a product of genes/alleles inherited from ancestors
According to the central tenet of evolution theory, many of the traits that are common today within any species (human or otherwise) are the same traits that were also common in those predecessors that left the most descendants,
particularly with regard to traits that promote offspring production directly. The most obvious of these traits are associated in one way or another with attraction to sex, or ‘sex drive’, but equally important are traits associated in one way or another with
promoting the survival/well-being of the offspring that issue as a product of sex drive.”
Well what would these genes/alleles be? I could make an educated guess, sex hormones are often steroids, so you need a gene to code for peptides that make up the enzymes to convert cholesterol to these steroids, then you need the genes to code for the peptides that make up the receptors of these steroids, you then need peptide hormones you need the genes to code for them directly, then you need the genes to produce the peptides that make up the proteins to regulate the expressions of these genes via various mechanisms. Before you know it there are so many genes involved and so many variants of these genes, you cannot rely on Darwinian natural selection alone to explain all this. Mendellian genetics gives you clues as to which genes are most likely to express. But putting it bluntly. If Dr Aarssen is saying these genetic influences are involved, I would like to know in more precise detail how they are involved.
The model presented in the Darwinian framework gets further undermined when you consider that genes could often have multiple functions. A gene does not work in some cases and you could get 20 proteins that have in them a peptide chain from that gene.
Having established that to some extent the discussion with regards the actual biology is lacking. That is it would need further investigation to serve as viable evidence to support the conclusions. What is being said?
Dr Aarssen states:
“The drive to leave a legacy has presented a unique challenge for males throughout most of human history: men could never be completely certain of their paternity
Women have always known exactly how many offspring they produced, but
men could never know for sure. Hence, a man could never truly escape from the agony of doubt about whether the children that he was investing all of his
resources in, and leaving an inheritance for, were really his”
This passage is actually very interesting because what it describes is past evolution. In fact it is a very good description of the social structure of a troop of apes for example, Take Dr. Aarssens’ press statement
“In this way future generations of women will inherit a stronger genetic predisposition for mating and having children as a priority in their lives.”
It seems evident that Dr. Aarssen is asserting that the mating rituals of apes, (Let’s be truthful here) are going to re-assert themselves. Many of the press statements talk of the “mom gene” (Assertion a female behavior) but the paper talks more about male dominated social hierarchies. Of course the “politically correct” social commentator will point out that this is sexism, especially when reading the following.
“This was fairly obviously attainable through traits that promoted the subjugation of females, especially dominant control over their fertility and sexual activity, and through behaviours that promoted the acquisition of multiple sexual partners and the generation of dynasties, involving polygyny, concubines, mistresses, and rape including spousal rape The fitness benefit from these ‘legacy drive’ pursuits i.e. leaving many descendants would also, of course, have been promoted in males by a strong sex drive.”
But this all seems to miss the point, Dr Aarssen is in effect saying that we have the social structures of evolutionary written into our genes. To some extent I would agree, but humans in general have evolved different strategies, You see what Dr Aarssen is presenting is an evolutionary paradox. You see the territorialism, the aggressive assertion of breeding rights and so on do manifest in human, the result would probably well be things like warfare. And this is not a vague statement either, warfare has been developed into a strategic art. There have been many books written about it. Go back to the animal kingdom and you will find that meerkats of all things are experts at it. And the whole thing is driven as Dr. Aarssen would agree, by mating and breeding rights, and the control of genetic legacy (There is a well publicized project that has studied this, which ended up with TV shows and spin offs). The point is I have yet to see a meerkat, or an ape or any mammal besides human beings gain the ability to sequence their own genome.
The question is why would such biologically driven mating behaviors re-assert themselves in humans. This raises an interesting question, one behavior I have noticed in many who adhere to such socio-biological models has been the somewhat atavistic belief in a “natural order” if anything they adhere to it quite strongly. Almost as if they are trying to protect something. A sort of legacy perhaps? “Evolutionary fitness”. Is that not in itself a manifestation of such a mating behavior? And as such would it be regulated by some (As of yet uncertain) genetic entity in the human genome. The paradox lies in the fact that this fear of “change” could just as easily be read to describe a “legacy gene”. Which manifests as a fear of where evolution may be going next. As human beings have developed to the stage where they are the dominant species, and have the ability to read their own genome, then surely the expression of this “legacy gene” is an evolutionary liability, lying at the root of “Either we survive or die our genes will prevail the genes of the others must not”
The paradox is that it works for other mammals but it can be a disaster for human. Because humans have evolved a nervous system capable of handling self referring ideas such as self awareness, and abstractions which lead to things like the unique attributes of human thinking. The processes that Dr. Aarssen describes are the very components that make up the “darker side” of humanity. This is the problem evolutionary psychology asserts that humans are at the top of the tree but then advocates the very primitive things that could seriously damage humanity in terms of manifesting as negative eugenics and even war.
The thing is Dr Aarssen is aware of this. In concluding the paper we read:
“The above considerations, however, illustrate that the history of socio-cultural norms, as well as an optimistic future for these norms, can also be interpreted in terms of a fundamental role involving products of Darwinian natural selection. In other
words, Darwinian evolution provides a driver for cultural evolution, but new cultural norms in turn provide the ecological ‘theatre’ for the next evolutionary
‘play’. Products of natural selection, however, usually also generate challenges for any species. For example, from the past, we might ask: has the uncertainty of paternity and evolution of legacy drive in males played a role in their historical preoccupation with political conflict and warfare?”
With this I could agree, however I am somewhat cautious about the identification of male “legacy drives” or “Legacy genes” as the sole cause of potential problems. Especially when it comes to zoological models. (Which is what we are really talking about, not genetics). Meerkats are interesting, they can be rather matriarchal and are still experts at warfare.
“Has attraction to leisure played a role in our history of mindless natural resource depletion, and rampant disregard for environmental degradation”
Well let’s look at the “Persuit of lesuire” What were the Ancient Olympics if they were not rutting season as manifested in humans?. But a managed “rutting season”
The “Warfare” was contained.
“For the future, can we anticipate that strong parenting drive might reverse the current de-population trend resulting from belowreplacement fertility, hence possibly making a stable future world population size more difficult to attain than what recent projections have suggested? Will this in turn re-ignite a world population explosion and elevate our motivation for conflict between nations over limited resources and sources of energy? Or will future technology, or future socio-cultural evolution rescue us from these dire fates? The future will undoubtedly be more difficult to predict than the past and present are to interpret”
I would argue that what makes humanity unique is the ability to override these fatalistic “drives” these drives are not tied solely to sex, I would argue that the “legacy drive” is separate. I suspect that there is a “Fatalism Drive” in humans, whether it is genetic in origin again remains to be seen. That fatalism drive fears the different, leading to other motivations behind things like Eugenics (Eugenics is an interesting example because here it is the direct human intervention trying to ensure only one genetic legacy survives, it doesn’t work on the real life gene pool, that is the point).
The fatalism takes the form of the statement “It is in the genes accept it” but in practice (As illustrated by the ancient Olympics) Humans have evolved some rather interesting ways to keep “rutting season” under control.
But some actually seem to relish the fatalism. There are some who adhere to evolutionary psychology who make little or no sense, defining everything in terms of rutting season. What they seldom mention is that “Pass on your genes and only your genes” results in negative eugenics. To the human gene pool that is a liablility. The problem really lies in determining where the liability lies. There is nothing wrong with trying to protect the human gene pool (Which seems to be Dr Aarssen’s motivation). It is recognizing that a lot of the ideas of “natural selection” talk of “Survival of the fittest” as opposed to “Survival of the most adaptive”. The devil is in the detail. “Fittest” means “Most adapted to a given environment and survival is driven by social ideals as dictated by the fatalism drive” where “Adaptive” means “The ability to adapt to anything with the social and biological resources to do so remaining intact”.
So what of evolutionary psychology?
Evolutionary psychology in particular fails to spot the liability, as does the whole idea of “natural selection” because the fatalism is written into it.
The truth of the matter is I am not convinced by much of it because it is too self contradicting and also it reads a little like people who like to view themselves as no more than biological machines with immutable genetic traits, somehow trying to convince everyone else that they are the same. And this would appear to be the antithesis of how evolution actually seems to work. I need to clarify that I am not asserting that the human condition is not subject biological processes, that would be absurd. My skepticism lies in the fatalistic streak that seem to assert itself so often in this area of discussion. It is so contrary to the obvious, we human beings, as a species are characterized by our ability to take self awareness, and ability to handle abstract concepts to a point where we can develop the technology to read our own genome for example. This is the evolutionary advantage that has made the human being the dominant species. Evolutionary psychology somehow tries to deny this ever happened. By asserting hierarchies that existed in the jungle. In evolutionary terms that makes little sense.
The truth is human beings are in control of their own destiny and being in control of our own destiny is what makes human being unique as the dominant species. Is that evolution, well it looks that way, we are more than DNA nowadays and no end of wanting to have it as it was is going to change that.