Evolution and Human Behavior

I just happened upon this somewhat provocative opinion piece from the Economist arguing for the importance of looking to human evolution in crafting social policy that I recommend. (I was unable to discern the author; I think it might have been produced by the editorial board of the magazine, but please correct me if I am wrong.) I have some reservations about some of the details (for instance, they act as though evolutionary psychology is far more robust a science than it currently is), but I do agree on the general point.

Here's a passage that could provoke some controversy:

Although there is a strong argument for making working conditions more sympathetic to the needs of parents of both sexes, the underlying point is that many women—and certainly many women with children—do not care as much about striving ahead in their careers as men do. Men, the report found, are more motivated by pay and less by job satisfaction than women are. If managers, they are more likely to work long hours. They also take more risks—or, at least, are more frequently injured at work.

The consequence, as Len Shackleton, the IEA report’s main author, puts it, is that: “The widespread belief that the gender pay gap is a reflection of deep-rooted discrimination by employers is ill-informed and an unhelpful contribution to the debate. The pay gap is falling but is also a reflection of individuals’ lifestyle preferences. Government can’t regulate or legislate these away, and shouldn’t try to.” He failed to add, however, that these preferences are often the result of biological differences between the sexes.

What goes for pay probably goes for career choice as well. At one extreme, it is foolish, as Kingsley Browne of Wayne State University, in Michigan, suggests, to expect equal outcomes in organisations like the armed forces. Not only are men stronger and more aggressive but, Mr Browne suggests, the psychology of both sexes has evolved to trust men (and not trust women) in combat, precisely because of this aggression and strength. At the other end of the scale, it is probably an opposite mixture of evolved aptitudes and attitudes that causes the domination by females of professions such as nursing.

This is not to say there can be no good female soldiers or male nurses. Patently, there can. But it is not clear evidence of discrimination that they are rarer than their counterparts of the opposite sex. A Darwinian analysis of the matter cannot say where the equilibrium would lie in a world free from discrimination. But it can say with reasonable confidence that this equilibrium will often not be 50/50.

Many may harrumph at such a Darwinian interpretation of feminism, and say that it is a circuitous route to a traditional destination. It isn’t: not expecting an equal distribution of the sexes within every profession is not the same as saying that a woman’s place is in the home.

Now, before I disqualify myself from ever working in academia in the future (I'm kidding!--I hope...), let me say that I don't agree with or endorse everything that they're saying here. However, I know that I had the very same question about gender parity when the issue was raised in my department. I agree that there should be more women in philosophy (both students and faculty), but I'm not convinced that we should expect a "natural" equilibrium of 50% men and 50% women. Now of course academic philosophy already appeals to such a small minority of people. Might it not be the case that there are certain characteristics it has (for example, its argumentative, competitive, sometimes even combative character) that makes it especially unappealing to many women?

One might argue here that maybe the problem is that academic philosophy is too competitive and should change, but even if that's so, the point still stands. To the extent that there are systematic differences in preferences between genders (whether these are "biological" or "cultural" is beside the point), we should expect to see disproportionate numbers of men and women participating in certain professions (or hobbies or what-have-you) in a society in which individuals are encouraged to choose careers (etc.) based on their own desires.

In any case, it's nice to see the point raised and the question asked. The headaches that are often the result of trying to reconcile values of diversity and equality (in particular, the caution with which one must frame one's arguments to avoid accusations of some pernicious "ism") is usually deterrent enough for most. Perhaps this is why there's no author's name clearly visible on the page.

One other point worth noting: I see evolutionary analysis as only a first step in the creation of social policy. In my view, a good society is one in which a sound fit is found between human nature and social institutions. Most people are only willing to try to change the latter and assume that the former is fixed. I disagree. I think human nature has been and is changed by civilization. (And it should be, because some parts of it are worth encouraging and other parts worth suppressing.) Whether those changes are the products of enculturation or a pharmacological/genetic intervention is, I would argue, immaterial.

As I see it, I'm something of a pragmatist. Which is more feasible: tweaking society so that it's satisfying to all individuals, or tweaking individuals so that they are better able to find satisfaction in a given society? Putting it like that is of course overly simplistic--it's clearly not an either/or, all-or-nothing situation--but why is it that so few are willing even to consider changes of the second type? Why accept biological nature's constraints when there is no good reason for them and when we have the power to mitigate or eliminate them? (See also my earlier post on not trusting nature for more on this perspective.)

In any case, I'm not calling for large-scale, bureaucratic human engineering. Rather, I just want individuals to have the freedom to modify their own bodies and minds however they like. Let the individual experiment, find a way to fit into a crazy world. Individuals in relative isolation may not be able to create a just society, but they may just be able to make their own existence, and the lives of those around them, more worthwhile. This is far easier than what I see as the alternative: reaching consensus (or at least having a majority agree) and implementing some more substantive ideal of what a just society is.

(This is a start. I may decide to develop this idea further in my forthcoming dissertation.)

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