The shocking same-ness of human behavior

| May 8, 2007 | 16 Replies

As a general rule, simple questions, especially simple questions with purportedly obvious answers, are the most interesting questions.

While I attended a wedding this weekend, I noticed all of the sex partners seated together, you know . . . husbands and wives and boyfriends and girlfriends (and a few gay couples).

Why do sex partners sit together at public rituals, I wondered.   The obvious answer is that it’s because most sex partners live together, right?  Other people thus see sex partners as couples and feel that they should be invited to important rituals together, especially to important rites of passage, such as weddings.  But why do so many sex partners live together (and hence get invited to prominent social events as couplets)?  After all, instead of living with her sex partner, maybe a woman would rather live with (and then potentially be invited to go to weddings with) a non-sex partner friend or neighbor, or perhaps even her non-sex-partner plumber or accountant.  Or maybe she’d rather attend public gatherings by herself, so that she could freely mingle.  The norm, however, is obvious to anyone who bothers to scan the crowd at a wedding:  the great majority of people who attend such gatherings attend them as sexually-paired couples.

Someone who followed the SSSM model might say that this behavior (of attending prominent rituals with your spouse) is simply learned, or that it is “social convention” or that it “feels right.”   There is a compelling story that can be told about paternity certainty, however.

Most female mammals are not sexually receptive through the entire ovulatory cycle.  Most female mammals display vivid cues (like General swelling) and emit strong scents during estrus to attract mates.  Human females are not like most other mammals.  They undergo “concealed ovulation.”  They have no strong scent and they don’t have any genital swelling.  As David Buss writes in Evolutionary Psychology: the New Science of the Mind (1999), this lack of physical indication of estrus in female humans “dramatically changed the ground rules of human mating.”  Concealed ovulation decreased a man’s certainty of his paternity of the woman’s offspring.  He was not free to simply spend time around his female for the few days each month that his partner is in estrus, running off to attend to other things all the other days of the month. Here’s an excerpt written by David Buss:

Marriage potentially provided one solution.  Men who married would benefit reproductively relative to other men by substantially increasing their certainty of paternity.  Repeated sexual contact throughout the ovulation cycle raise the odds that a woman would bear a given man’s child.  The social traditions of marriage function as public ties about the couple, by providing a clear signal about who was naked with whom, and potentially reducing conflict within male coalitions.  Marriage also provides opportunities to learn intimately about one’s mate’s personality, making it difficult for her to hide signs of infidelity.  . . . . men who were indifferent to the potential sexual contact between their wives and other men are not our ancestors.

(Page 148 – note:  I have the First Edition of this book, which is about to be released in its 3rd edition).

Many of us would rather not consider what evolutionary psychology suggests to us: that couples so often appear in public as couples for reasons of paternity certainty.  Many of us would rather not consider that men might be feeling a deep need (but not a conscious deep need) to make sure their women are faithful.  Most men don’t consciously contemplate that their mate’s appearance at an important ritual without him might be perceived as a powerful display of availability, whether or not she’s wearing a wedding ring.  Many of us would thus dismiss paternity certainty out of hand.  Most people prefer to believe in “love” or, at least, social decorum. That’s why so many people live with their sexual partners, they say.  This conventional explanation frees us from having to think of ourselves as animals.

Such talk about “love” is not a real explanation.   It is hopelessly vague and therefore not testable.  “Love” is ignorance taking the form of a place-holder for an explanation.  “Love” is not an explanation.  On the other hand, paternity uncertainty and mate-guarding offer a testable framework and, therefore, a compelling story.   After all, just look at the number of important public events men attend with their wives and girlfriends where the men look bored out of their minds.  Weddings are a classic example, but there are many other public gatherings that, in effect, serve as leks.  If you want to see hundred of bored-looking husbands (and many bored wives too), you could also go to the symphony or live theater.   I’m not suggesting that all men are philistines (does saying this make me philistinist?).  Some of them are really into the arts.  Rather, I’m suggesting that many male members of heterosexual dyads aren’t enthused about the event itself, yet they feel compelled to attend, primarily because their mate is attending.  Nor am I suggesting that there aren’t other evolution-related reasons for attending, for instance for improving one’s social status.  Perhaps some of the guys go to prominent social events to be seen by others they deem social superiors.  You know . . . ladder climbing that begins with “Hey! Look at me!  I can afford tickets to this expensive event too and I can even wear expensive clothes!”

Again, many of the believers in culture out there abhor such animal-talk.  For those strong believers in culture, that men and women are animals has nothing to do with the fact that a man and a woman who are sex partners typically live together or appear together in public.  Many of these people, including many social scientists, want to pretend that “culture” alone informs our “blank slates” and that biology has no application.

I thought of this obsession with nurture while re-reading part of Lee Cronk’s That Complex Whole (1999) in which Cronk discusses Donald Brown’s 1991 work, “Human Universals.”  Cronk is antagonized by the people who want to look to culture alone for explanations of widespread human behavior. He recounts how huge numbers of people seek explanations for social phenomena based on culture alone. Brown asked, “The world’s cultures may be diverse, but diverse compared to what?”

Pointing to Brown’s work, Cronk asks: “Why aren’t human cultures more diverse than they apparently are?”  To demonstrate that we humans aren’t really able to set up ever-new forms of culture willy-nilly, Cronk refers to Brown’s list of qualities of Universal People (UP) in detail.  Here’s a sampling of things all people have in common, according to Brown:

Value placed on articulateness. Gossip. Lying. Misleading. Verbal humor. Humorous insults. Poetic and rhetorical speech forms. Narrative and storytelling. Metaphor. Poetry with repetition of linguistic elements and three-second lines separated by pauses.

Words for days, months, seasons, years, past, present, future, body parts, inner states (emotions, sensations, thoughts), behavioral propensities, flora, fauna, weather, tools, space, motion, speed, location, spatial dimensions, physical properties, giving, lending, affecting things and people, numbers (at least one, two and more than two), proper names, possession. Distinctions between mother and father. Kinship categories, defined in terms of mother, father son, daughter, and age sequence. Binary distinctions, including male and female, black and white, natural and cultural, good and bad. Measures. Logical relations including “not”, “and”, “same”, “equivalent”, “opposite”, general versus particular, part versus whole. Conjectural reasoning (inferring the presence of absent and invisible entities from their perceptible traces). Non-linguistic vocal communication such as cries and squeals. Interpreting intention from behavior. Recognized facial expressions of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, and contempt. Use of smiles as a friendly greeting. Crying. Coy flirtation with the eyes. Masking, modifying, and mimicking facial expressions. Displays of affection.

Sense of self versus other, responsibility, voluntary versus involuntary behavior, intention, private inner life, normal versus abnormal mental states. Empathy. Sexual attraction. Powerful sexual jealousy. Childhood fears, especially of loud noises, and, at the end of the first year, strangers. Fear of snakes. “Oedipal” feelings (possessiveness of mother, coldness towards her consort). Face recognition. Adornment of bodies and arrangement of hair. Sexual attractiveness, based in signs of health, and in women, youth. Hygiene. Dance. Music. Play, including play fighting.

Manufacture of, and dependence upon, many kinds of tools, many of them permanent, made according to culturally transmitted motifs, including cutters, pounders, containers, string, leavers, spears. Use of fire to cook food and for other purposes. Drugs, both medical and recreational. Shelter. Decoration of artifacts.

A standard pattern for time and weaning. Living in groups, which claim a territory and have a sense of being a distinct people. Families built around mother and children, usually the biological mother, and one or more men. Institutionalized marriage, in the sense of publicly recognized right of sexual access to a woman eligible for childbearing. Socialization of children (including toilet training) by senior kin. Children copying their elders. Distinguishing of close kin from distant kin, and favoring close kin. Avoidance of incest between mothers and sons. Great interest in the topic of sex.

Status and prestige, both assigned (by kinship, age, sex) and achieved. Some degree of economic inequality. Division of labor by sex and age. More child care by women. More aggression and violence by men. Acknowledgement of differences between male and female natures. Domination by men in the public political sphere. Exchange of labor, goods and services,. Reciprocity, including retaliation. Gifts. Social Reasoning. Coalitions. Government, in the sense of binding collective decisions about public affairs. Leaders, almost always non-dictatorial, perhaps ephemeral. Laws, rights, and obligations, including laws against violence, rape and murder. Punishment. Conflict, which is deplored. Rape. Seeking of redress for wrongs. Mediation. In-group/out-group conflicts. Property. Inheritance of property. Sense of right and wrong. Envy.

Etiquette. Hospitality. Feasting. Diurnally. Standards of sexual modesty. Sex generally in private. Fondness for sweets. Food taboos. Discreteness in elimination of body wastes. Supernatural beliefs. Magic to sustain and increase life, and to attract the opposite sex. Theories of fortune and misfortune. Explanations of disease and death. Medicine. Rituals, including rites of passage. Mourning the dead. Dreaming, interpreting dreams.

Here’s the full list. I’m not denying that we can sometimes base a terrific explanation on culture.  On the other hand, this list is overwhelmingly spookily autobiographical to me.  How did Brown know all of this stuff about me?  Oh, yeah, I’m a human animal.  I’m a mammal very much like other mammals.  I’m not a body-less God sitting on a cloud . . .

These are qualities of all people, everywhere, according to Cronk (assent to this list is not universal, of course. Consider this potential counterfactual).  Remember this list next time you hear someone smugly giving a “proximate” cultural explanation in the absence of any “ultimate” evolutionary explanation.

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Category: Cultural Evolution, Culture, Evolution, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Science, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (16)

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  1. Al says:

    Wow. And I always thought we sat together so we would each have someone to talk to.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Al: Of course you like to sit with her and talk with her! That's what guys do when they're engaged in mate-guarding.  We carry out many critical biological functions without being conscious of those functions.   We don't eat to provide nutrition to our cells; rather, we eat because we're hungry.   We breathe because it hurts when we try to stop;  not because we are consciously attempting to provide oxygen to our cells. 

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    After spending an entirely asocial youth, I eventually learned that having someone to talk to is easy in a preselected crowd (as in events, ceremonies, conventions, theme venues, etc).

    On the other hand, one of my best friends in guaranteed to cancel out my vote on any issue, and certainly would disagree with me on any post I put here. Having someone to talk to is just a matter of flapping your gums.

    Having someone to watch your back is a different matter, entirely. This is closer to what the coupled attendance at ceremonies is about.

  4. Vicki Baker says:

    Actually, if you had attended a wedding ceremony in any number of other cultures today and throughout human history, you would have sat with the men and your wife with the women. And your wife (or wives) would sleep with the children, and you would have your own bed or maybe spend some nights at the men's clubhouse, while your wife would socialize exclusively with other women. Romantic love and companionate marriage are Western inventions. In other cultures and times, you wouldn't be saddled with having to fulfill your wife's emotional needs. ( And she would have probably have supplied most of the food as well, not that your occasional contribution of roast beast would have been welcome.)

    I think the "SSSM model" you portray is a bit of a strawman, if you are talking about actual researchers and not a layperson's understanding. Social scientists took on board the idea of paternity anxiety long ago, and I don't think any linguist or anthropologist today would exclude insights from human evolution. On the other hand, I've seen some awfully smug and simplistic pop evolutionary psychology. The funniest was an article in Scientific American which purported to explain the Mutiny on the Bounty by basically saying that the sailors wanted to go back to the island where they had shore leave and make babies with the women. As if that didn't beg the question of why there weren't mutinies on every ship that ever had shore leave, but this basic question never seemed to occur to the author.

  5. Al says:

    Damned internets! Actually, I'm a chick. Partner is a dude, although we switch that "Venus & Mars" business fairly regularly. And I'm not disagreeing with your biological imperatives, but if I have to go to a wedding (Boring, except for free cake), then he has to go be bored too.

  6. Angie says:

    Erich–

    I have watched with interest this and similar posts, where you extol evolutionary psychology and decry those clueless social scientists for denying our animal natures and asserting that cultural forces are the primary determinants of behavior.

    As a social scientist myself, I feel some need to pitch in my thoughts here. I will not (cannot) deny the explanatory value of the work of Buss and others. But there are a couple of reasons not yet discussed for why social scientists often do not jump on the evolutionary bandwagon, at least not wholeheartedly.

    First, evolutionary psychology can be invoked to explain not only relatively benign phenomena (like women wearing stiletto heels, or the fact that many more men are the Decembers in May-December romances), but also behaviors that are clearly, and immediately, harmful: rape, wife abuse, etc. To the extent that these behaviors are “explained” by evolutionary psychology, they may be viewed as more or less inevitable. How could any public policy be expected to change behavioral tendencies that have been etched into our very genes? Boys will be boys, after all.

    Another reason why some social scientists may be averse to endorsing the evolutionary view is that this view accentuates the differences between the sexes, rather than the similarities. (As if people need a reason to attend more to reports of such differences!) YES, yes, there are some differences between the sexes. And perhaps some of these have arisen as a result of evolutionary forces. But when you look at the normal curves of men and women on mathematical ability, or you read studies of men who have been placed, without notice, into the role of sole caregiver for their children, you can see that the respective differences are exaggerated. Unfortunately, these exaggerations hinder social views and policies that would allow people of either sex to pursue a full range of life trajectories.

    In other words, this may be a case where the (evolutionary) message is underplayed due to concerns about its effects–not unlike like parents telling their kids that Grandpa has died, but glossing over the fact that it was suicide. And the fact is, conditioning and social learning are powerful forces in shaping behavior. Be careful that you don’t understate their influence in shaping society at large—even behaviors that may have some evolutionary basis.

  7. Erika Price says:

    I like evolutionary psychology as a theoretical perspective, but since it looks back on a time we cannot see or recreate, it becomes dangerously easy to come up with any throwaway explanation for human behavior, as Vicki mentions. Really oversimplified evolutionary psychology even sounds downright Freudian- can we really trace everything back to some kind of primal, id-like desire that still resides in all of us? Does everything just stem from our desire to pass on genetic code?

    That seems highly unlikely. Just like we don't have a desire to fill our cells with oxygen, and instead have an urge to simply breathe, we don't have a desire to pass on genetic code. Instead we have urges that promote that end- a desire for sex, a tendency to find our young cute and worthy of our care, and so on. Culture can obliterate what our primal, evolutionary urges supposedly tell us. For the sake of preserving our DNA, we should always take devoted care of our young. Yet culture can make countless Chinese parents leave their offspring in dumpsters because of their sex. A culture that places extreme value can encourage girls to starve themselves, even though this runs agains all evolutionary sense.

    But social psychology and evolutionary psychology needn't throw up arms against each other. Culture has its powerful influence for a reason rooted in evolutionary psychology: the need to fit in with a powerful social group. To preserve ourselves and gain group support, we jump through cultural hoops, perhaps letting other evolutionary drives fall from the forefront. So, we also go to boring weddings with our spouses so that people see us as normal and like us.

  8. Ben says:

    "In sum, the developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United States with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and of evolutionary biology. These clash with intuitive beliefs about the immaterial nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and other animals — and, in the United States, these intuitive beliefs are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities. Hence these are among the domains where Americans' resistance to science is the strongest."

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/05/why_pe

  9. Dan Klarmann says:

    Ben: Great link about resistance to science in the U.S.

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    Here’s Donald Brown’s complete list:

    Value placed on articulateness. Gossip. Lying. Misleading. Verbal humour. Humorous insults. Poetic and rhetorical speech forms. Narrative and storytelling. Metaphor. Poetry with repetition of linguistic elements and three-second lines separated by pauses.

    Words for days, months, seasons, years, past, present, future, body parts, inner states (emotions, sensations, thoughts), behavioural propensities, flora, fauna, weather, tools, space, motion, speed, location, spatial dimensions, physical properties, giving, lending, affecting things and people, numbers (at least one, two and more than two), proper names, possession.

    Distinctions between mother and father. Kinship categories, defined in terms of mother, father son, daughter, and age sequence. Binary distinctions, including male and female, black and white, natural and cultural, good and bad. Measures. Logical relations including “not”, “and”, “same”, “equivalent”, “opposite”, general versus particular, part versus whole. Conjectural reasoning (inferring the presence of absent and invisible entities from their perceptible traces).

    Non-linguistic vocal communication such as cries and squeals. Interpreting intention from behaviour. Recognised facial expressions of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, and contempt. Use of smiles as a friendly greeting. Crying. Coy flirtation with the eyes. Masking, modifying, and mimicking facial expressions. Displays of affection.

    Sense of self versus other, responsibility, voluntary versus involuntary behaviour, intention, private inner life, normal versus abnormal mental states. Empathy. Sexual attraction. Powerful sexual jealousy. Childhood fears, especially of loud noises, and, at the end of the first year, strangers. Fear of snakes. “Oedipal” feelings (possessiveness of mother, coldness towards her consort). Face recognition. Adornment of bodies and arrangement of hair. Sexual attractiveness, based in signs of health, and in women, youth. Hygiene. Dance. Music. Play, including play fighting.

    Manufacture of, and dependence upon, many kinds of tools, many of them permanent, made according to culturally transmitted motifs, including cutters, pounders, containers, string, leavers, spears. Use of fire to cook food and for other purposes. Drugs, both medical and recreational. Shelter. Decoration of artefacts.

    A standard pattern for time and weaning. Living in groups, which claim a territory and have a sense of being a distinct people. Families built around mother and children, usually the biological mother, and one or more men. Institutionalised marriage, in the sense of publicly recognised right of sexual access to a woman eligible for childbearing. Socialisation of children (including toilet training) by senior kin. Children copying their elders. Distinguishing of close kin from distant kin, and favouring close kin. Avoidance of incest between mothers and sons. Great interest in the topic of sex.

    Status and prestige, both assigned (by kinship, age, sex) and achieved. Some degree of economic inequality. Division of labor by sex and age. More child care by women. More aggression and violence by men. Acknowledgement of differences between male and female natures. Domination by men in the public political sphere. Exchange of labor, goods and services. Reciprocity, including retaliation. Gifts. Social Reasoning. Coalitions. Government, in the sense of binding collective decisions about public affairs. Leaders, almost always non-dictatorial, perhaps ephemeral. Laws, rights, and obligations, including laws against violence, rape and murder. Punishment. Conflict, which is deplored. Rape. Seeking of redress for wrongs. Mediation. In-group/out-group conflicts. Property. Inheritance of property. Sense of right and wrong. Envy.

    Etiquette. Hospitality. Feasting. Diurnality. Standards of sexual modesty. Sex generally in private. Fondness for sweets. Food taboos. Discreteness in elimination of body wastes. Supernatural beliefs. Magic to sustain and increase life, and to attract the opposite sex. Theories of fortune and misfortune. Explanations of disease and death. Medicine. Rituals, including rites of passage. Mourning the dead. Dreaming, interpreting dreams.

    Obviously, this is not a list of instincts or innate psychological propensities; it is a list of complex interactions between a universal human nature and the conditions of living in a human body on this planet.

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    I’m fascinated by this list http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jonmc/resources/notes/universalPeople.html- it’s so incredibly autobiographical regarding virtually everyone I haven’t yet met:

    Universal People
    [August 19, 2004 4:08 PM ]

    One of the most oft-quoted references in Evolutionary Psychology (EP) is the study made by anthropologist, Donald E. Brown that tries to locate ethnographic patterns and tendencies underlying the behaviour of all documented human cultures.

    Inspired by Chomsky’s Universal Grammar (UG), Brown tries to characterise the Universal People (UP). As Steven Pinker says (in The Language Instinct), according to Brown, Universal People exhibit the following traits:

    Value placed on articulateness. Gossip. Lying. Misleading. Verbal humour. Humorous insults. Poetic and rhetorical speech forms. Narrative and storytelling. Metaphor. Poetry with repetition of linguistic elements and three-second lines separated by pauses.

    Words for days, months, seasons, years, past, present, future, body parts, inner states (emotions, sensations, thoughts), behavioural propensities, flora, fauna, weather, tools, space, motion, speed, location, spatial dimensions, physical properties, giving, lending, affecting things and people, numbers (at least one, two and more than two), proper names, possession.

    Distinctions between mother and father. Kinship categories, defined in terms of mother, father son, daughter, and age sequence. Binary distinctions, including male and female, black and white, natural and cultural, good and bad. Measures. Logical relations including “not”, “and”, “same”, “equivalent”, “opposite”, general versus particular, part versus whole. Conjectural reasoning (inferring the presence of absent and invisible entities from their perceptible traces).

    Non-linguistic vocal communication such as cries and squeals. Interpreting intention from behaviour. Recognised facial expressions of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, and contempt. Use of smiles as a friendly greeting. Crying. Coy flirtation with the eyes. Masking, modifying, and mimicking facial expressions. Displays of affection.

    Sense of self versus other, responsibility, voluntary versus involuntary behaviour, intention, private inner life, normal versus abnormal mental states. Empathy. Sexual attraction. Powerful sexual jealousy. Childhood fears, especially of loud noises, and, at the end of the first year, strangers. Fear of snakes. “Oedipal” feelings (possessiveness of mother, coldness towards her consort). Face recognition. Adornment of bodies and arrangement of hair. Sexual attractiveness, based in signs of health, and in women, youth. Hygiene. Dance. Music. Play, including play fighting.

    Manufacture of, and dependence upon, many kinds of tools, many of them permanent, made according to culturally transmitted motifs, including cutters, pounders, containers, string, leavers, spears. Use of fire to cook food and for other purposes. Drugs, both medical and recreational. Shelter. Decoration of artefacts.

    A standard pattern for time and weaning. Living in groups, which claim a territory and have a sense of being a distinct people. Families built around mother and children, usually the biological mother, and one or more men. Institutionalised marriage, in the sense of publicly recognised right of sexual access to a woman eligible for childbearing. Socialisation of children (including toilet training) by senior kin. Children copying their elders. Distinguishing of close kin from distant kin, and favouring close kin. Avoidance of incest between mothers and sons. Great interest in the topic of sex.

    Status and prestige, both assigned (by kinship, age, sex) and achieved. Some degree of economic inequality. Division of labor by sex and age. More child care by women. More aggression and violence by men. Acknowledgement of differences between male and female natures. Domination by men in the public political sphere. Exchange of labor, goods and services. Reciprocity, including retaliation. Gifts. Social Reasoning. Coalitions. Government, in the sense of binding collective decisions about public affairs. Leaders, almost always non-dictatorial, perhaps ephemeral. Laws, rights, and obligations, including laws against violence, rape and murder. Punishment. Conflict, which is deplored. Rape. Seeking of redress for wrongs. Mediation. In-group/out-group conflicts. Property. Inheritance of property. Sense of right and wrong. Envy.

    Etiquette. Hospitality. Feasting. Diurnality. Standards of sexual modesty. Sex generally in private. Fondness for sweets. Food taboos. Discreteness in elimination of body wastes. Supernatural beliefs. Magic to sustain and increase life, and to attract the opposite sex. Theories of fortune and misfortune. Explanations of disease and death. Medicine. Rituals, including rites of passage. Mourning the dead. Dreaming, interpreting dreams.

    Obviously, this is not a list of instincts or innate psychological propensities; it is a list of complex interactions between a universal human nature and the conditions of living in a human body on this planet.

    References:

    Brown, D.E.: Human Universals. New York, McGraw-Hill (1991)

    Pinker, S.: The Language Instinct. London, Penguin Books (1994)

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