Woohoo! First it was a joke that was taken seriously only in the post-psychiatry movement. Now it’s a mainstream opinion. Soon the only discussion will be how anyone could ever have believed in the syndrome of schizophrenia.
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 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.
Every year I teach myself something. But this year is different. This year will account for only half the project. I have turned my attention to the fascinating subject of ‘evolutionary psychology’ and it will take more than a single year to get my head around this remarkable topic. I estimate that it’ll take at least two years (and possibly longer) to get even a basic grasp of this complex but fascinating topic. So….
I’ve been planning this for a while. Now I think I’ve got enough ‘down’ to begin. Undoubtedly this series will change a lot over time, it’s as much a way for me to aid my own study as anything else (I have no tutor to set assignments or mark my work here) so the chances of this outline being truly representative are slim. But, from my perspective today, 4 months in to my self-imposed studies, this is what I expect to cover.
Do feel free to comment and to criticise (constructively please) as that’s the next best thing to a tutor marking my work. This is very definitely my attempt to distil new information. I make no claims to expertise here – so please view each entry as a student’s essay trying to make sense of it all.
I plan to include…
Why evolution is true
Some things are hard-wired because they result from our evolution in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA)
What evolution by natural selection means
The big brain
The deceptively simple lure of determinism
Know thy enemy
Why Freud was nearly right
The unthinking mental module
The power of previous investment (can’t stop now)
Images and other unconscious cues
The power of a pair of eyes (even when drawn or photographed)
Stupid men – the power of printed pornography
Stupid women – the power of written pornography
Ease of remembering
Story-telling vs statistics
Percentages vs natural numbers
Risks – How easy is it to think of examples?
Gut versus reason
Emotion versus intellect
Group conformity and group identity
Reversion to the norm
Children believe easily
Deference to authority (strength)
Pride, saving face and an aversion to appearing weak
Tit for tat
The drive to punish (including punishing non-punishers)
Sexual priorities – men
Sexual priorities – women
The evolutionary necessity of fear
The modern (political and commercial) exploitation of fear
A small world brain with big world problems
Mens’ Rights Activists (MRA)
Science versus (human) nature
Faith healing GP Accusations have come forward that a Staffordshire Dr. told his patient God would heal her & to stop taking her psychiatric medication. The GP denies any wrongdoing and claims that the allegations represent an attack on his Christian faith.
Whether or not this particular GP is guilty of such serious misconduct is a question yet to be answered. However it wouldn’t be the first time such medieval recommendations have been made in UK. The last few years have seen UK psychiatrists like Rob Waller refer psychotic patients for exorcism, several deaths resulting from exorcism worldwide and an Archbishop calling for exorcism of ‘the mentally ill’ in the House of Lords.
It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.
I’m no stranger to driving. I cover around 1000 miles in my car on an average week and it’s not always in ideal conditions. In fact, over the years I’ve come to think of myself as pretty skilled behind the wheel – maybe that was the problem.
Last Friday night I found myself working in Poole, Dorset. For those that don’t know the geography of UK that’s a town on the South coast (the bit that looks out toward France). That’s about as far as you can get from my home in Cumbria without getting wet. I live in the North West of England, about 30 miles South of the Scottish border in a town on the edge of the English Lake District called Workington.
Normally it would take me around 7 hours to drive home from Poole. not such a big deal, even accounting for rush hour traffic. So I left work at a little after 4pm to travel back to Cumbria. I knew that there were bad weather warnings but I’d dealt with that stuff before. I’m a Cumbrian – we’re used to bad weather. Bring it on!
The snow hit when I was at about Warwick and it did slow the traffic down a bit. By the time I left the motorway (Jct 36 of the M6) it was midnight. That was a bit behind schedule but hey ho – no problem.
I had planned to follow the M6 motorway to Jct 40 and take the main road from Penrith. It’s a bit further to drive but it’s a better road. However the M6 was blocked at Shap summit according to the ‘matrix signs’ so I came off at Kendal instead. The plan was to stop at the Kendal travelodge because my good lady, Gill had already called to warn me about impassable lake district roads and I didn’t want to push my luck.
Alas – the road to the Travelodge was closed but there was a diversion into Kendal so I kept going. I could always double back to the travelodge from Kendal town centre. However the diversion took me to a dual carriageway with no way to double back. Oh bugger!
By now there was so much snow on the road that I couldn’t stop the car – I’d never have got it moving again. I was committed. I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t turn around. I just had to drive on. To stop would have meant a night in a freezing car with drifting snow and no telling how long I’d be there. Not a sensible option.
Of course a wise man would’ve stopped in Kendal but I’m no wise man.
So with 55 miles still to travel I soldiered on through the A591 – The ‘Lakes Road’. The Lakes Road is normally a beautiful, scenic route that takes in lakes, meres, quaint little towns and villages and, of course, stunning mountain passes. Stunning so long as you can see the bloody road!
With nobody but myself (and my own stupidity) to blame I soldiered on. I drove through Ings and Ambleside without incident. Admittedly I averaged around 15 miles per hour (and slowed down for the corners) but I got through. I even passed a deer on the road. I was going so bloody slowly it didn’t even run – it just stood there and watched me drive past. I passed the mini roundabout at Grasmere easily enough (yes even a mini roundabout feels like an obstacle in those conditions) and then I began to climb. I was driving up Dunmail Raise – the largest and steepest mountain pass on the Lakes road. And I still couldn’t see the road for the thick carpet of fresh snow that obscured my path.
Of course a wise man would’ve stopped in Grasmere but I’m no wise man.
Going up Dunmail wasn’t so bad. It was going back down toward Thirlmere that was the problem. The picture below shows you the view from Dunmail top to Thirlmere (the lake in the distance) but it doesn’t give you any hint of what it was like in the early hours of Saturday morning as I drove down the steep, narrow, winding road into the valley below.
Then came the long road past Thirlmere – a terrifying combination of sliding tyres, sharp corners and dry stone walls. Not fun at all but nothing to the delights of Thirlspot hill to come. Another short climb out of the Thirlmere valley and the car literally slid down the next hill to Thirlspot. I had already decided to pull into the car park of the Kings Head Hotel at Thirlspot and wait until morning but there was so much snow I couldn’t see the bloody entrance. So on I went.
Next came Castlerigg – a beast of a climb that took every ounce of my driving ability. If I’d lost traction only once I’d have slid right back to the right angle bend at the bottom of the hill and a really memorable ‘prang’. Not a good plan.
But I made it to the top and started the descent into Keswick. Guess what I’d forgotten…. the right angle bend half way down the snow covered hill with the sheer drop to the lake below. Oh bugger!
‘Gingerly’ doesn’t describe the tentative way that I applied the brake until by the time I reached the corner I was doing a full 5 miles per hour and still sliding. Now that really was scary! As a young man I’d worked behind a hotel bar not far from that particular corner and I still remember the story of a tourist who took the bend too fast and effectively ‘flew’ into the fields below – hundreds of feet below. He died, of course – torn and twisted (as Meat Loaf would’ve put it) at the end of his undoubtedly spectacular ‘flight’. That memory was vivid in my mind as I wrestled the car around the tight corner and continued down the hill toward Keswick. Only another 25 miles to go.
I won’t bore you with the rest of the drive but it wasn’t pleasant (although the solway plain does have a somewhat more temperate climate once you leave Keswick). Suffice to say that I was glad to get home after 55 miles (and two and a half hours) of the scariest drive of my life.
The next day was Saturday and I slept until early afternoon before spending the day more than a little preoccupied. I had to do it all again on Sunday. Fortunately though about half an hour before I was due to leave for another 200 mile trip my boss Emailed – the meeting had been cancelled. To say that was a relief really doesn’t describe the sense of reprieve I felt. but that left me with another problem. I didn’t want to get back in the car at all. That’s how phobias start but there it was – I was really scared.
Then Monday came – today – and another 170 miles to South Yorkshire. I checked the weather (and the traffic reports) and all seemed OK so reluctantly I set off. And here I am in Rotherham – 4 hours from home and happy to have driven over the Pennines to get here. I’m not scared any more but by ‘eck – perhaps I should be.
Filed under: Cumbria, mental health, Uncategorized | Tagged: a591, castlerigg, cumbria, driving, Dunmail, dunmail Raise, fear, lake district, m6, phobia, snow, thirlmere, Thirlspot, weather | 4 Comments »