Disclaimer: As I made clear at the beginning of this series I’m writing this blog because I want to learn. I don’t profess to be an expert in evolutionary psychology and I don’t pretend to have an absolute understanding of human nature either. So if you read something here that strikes you as really, really, silly, pretentious or just downright inaccurate – please tell me. And please tell me why you think I’m mistaken – that’s how I’ll learn.
Throughout my career I’ve met all sorts of people from many different ‘walks of life’, some with serious mental health problems and some who swore that their mental state was nothing short of perfection. I’ve met people with money and also those who struggle to find the next meal – actually I’ve met many more of the latter than the former.
But no matter what their circumstances, class or lifestyle many, and quite possibly ‘all’ of them, have a tendency to justify their ingrained behaviours by describing them as ‘human nature’. They spoke as though everyone behaves that way and there really isn’t any option. Interestingly the same argument about ‘universal’ behaviour is made by the ‘dog eat dog’ con artist who sells his second-hand car without declaring the fact that it’s good only for scrap and the sympathetic nurse who seems to live only to help others in need. Both would tell you with equal certainty that their behaviour is the result of universal human nature.
But if human nature means anything at all it must be consistent – it must hold true for all people. Otherwise it’s just a collection of preferences that people justify by claiming that they’re more widespread than they are.
One of the most important issues addressed by evolutionary psychology is this very question – what exactly is ‘human nature’? What are its components and why, if such a thing as human nature exists at all, do we see such widely differing behaviours from human beings ‘in the wild’, so to speak?
I confess that for many years this concept confused me. It seems that whatever aspect of ‘human nature’ I came across there was a contradiction waiting in the wings to knock it down again. It was as though human nature became nothing more than a myth – a widespread illusion that people use to justify whatever they like without so much as a grain of truth behind it. And then, just within the last few months, I read ‘The Moral Animal’ by Robert Wright (1994) – a fascinating book that suddenly helped me to make sense of the whole notion of human nature. You can get hold of the book here
Wright describes the way that human nature, far from being a collection of hard and fast, inflexible rules, is much more like a set of choices, alternatives that are turned on or off in response to opportunity and circumstance. To illustrate this I’ll take only one of these alternatives – the dichotomy between dominance and submission.
I know many very successful people who claim that the drive to dominate, to be in charge, to have authority over others is something that exists in all of us. They justify their behaviour, their often cruel and uncaring behaviour, by asserting that if they didn’t take charge of others, others would take charge of them. In the past I’ve dismissed this reasoning as just so much posturing intended to excuse their abuse of those around them. But now I’m not so sure.
To make sense of this I’ll begin with an assumption:
In evolutionary terms, dominance is preferable to submission!
This is because dominance is likely to result in more opportunities for procreation. Remember that the driving force of evolutionary adaptation is to get your genes into the next generation and the only way to do that, at least for primates like ourselves, is via sex.
Yes, of course, it’s possible in the modern world to produce offspring without sexual intercourse but that wasn’t the situation in the evolutionary environment. For most of our history (human and pre-human) sexual intercourse was vital to genetic survival.
So – the default is to strive for dominance. Our nearest relatives on the evolutionary family tree, chimpanzees and bonobos demonstrate this correlation remarkably well. The dominant males get most (if not all) of the sex. Their genes make it into the next generation. The submissive males are much less likely to procreate and so their genetic lineage dies out. Usually.
There is then, a great drive to dominate others, especially for males. But what of those who find themselves lower down in the ‘pecking order’ – the hierarchy of sexual opportunity? What choices do they have.
Well essentially they have only three choices….
1. They can risk injury or death (often amounting to the same thing) by challenging the dominant male;
2. They can support the dominant male in the hope that they will be allowed some limited access to females (this really happens);
3. They can accept submission and stay alive with the possibility of the odd sneaky liaison when the dominant male isn’t looking.
If the male in question has realistic designs on dominance (or supporting the dominant male) they are likely to bide their time and make their own ‘power play’ when they’re mature enough to do so.
If the male in question is weak they tend to accept submission and the occasional liaison because this affords their genes a greater chance to be transported into the next generation. After all – there’s no evolutionary prospects at all if you’re dead. Staying alive by submission at least gives your genes a slight chance of making it through.
We can see then that dominance isn’t an ‘all or nothing’ strategy. It’s a sliding scale that prompts individuals to assume more or less dominant roles depending upon the circumstances that they find themselves in. In short it’s a hard wired, genetically determined, psychological ‘module’ that helps us to ‘play the odds’. We’ll hear more about psychological ‘modules’ as the series progresses.
For now let’s compare this principle to human behaviour…..
We all play different roles depending upon our circumstances:
1. The bullying office manager is dominant when surrounded by underlings but assumes a submissive role when called to explain the accounts to the chairman of the board.
2. The pompous professor is less domineering when surrounded by more respected academics;
3. The violent criminal may be quite prepared to assault his (weaker) victims but assumes a much more submissive role when sent to a prison populated by real ‘hard men’.
Of course – in the modern world these choices about dominance don’t always relate directly to opportunities to procreate but that’s not the point. They did during the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) and so the tendency to be dominant when we can and to submit as a form of self-preservation when we must is hard wired. That’s why ‘human nature’ seems so variable. It depends upon complex social and circumstantial cues to fine tune behaviour.
As we go through this series the theme of circumstantial adaptation will be integral. Nothing about human nature is quite so ‘cut and dry’, so ‘black and white’ as many of us – myself included – used to believe.
Filed under: Hard wired, mental health | Tagged: Darwin, dominance, evolution, human nature, mental health, psychology, sex, submission | Leave a Comment »