Theory of evolution explains behavior tendencies

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It’s 2010 and we’re living in the future.

Our scientific understanding of evolution and psychology has advanced to the point that researchers, using carefully documented methods, can determine that women don’t call their fathers while they’re ovulating as an inherent protection against inbreeding. Men and women shop differently because of sex roles from hunter-gatherer days, when women gathered plants and men hunted animals (which explains frustrating mall adventures the world over). And, yes, men are meant to be promiscuous because of evolution and genetic selection.

If you thought that was just a throwaway joke on “30 Rock,” you’re in for a treat: It’s what some evolutionary psychologists, notably including London School of Economics researcher Satoshi Kanazawa, actually endorse given their knowledge of the data.

These hypotheses, however, prove worrying — not because evolutionary biology is inadequate in explaining human behavior, although concerns about socialization are not misplaced; rather, there is a distressing tendency among scientists, students, and the general public to misinterpret descriptive findings as prescriptive.

While we’re still waiting on our hover cars and cloned organ donors, a thousand science-fiction writers got this right: Science and scientific processes are no more of a moral force than sledgehammers, despite the human tendency to apply facts in a normative fashion.

This is true for everything from evolution to nuclear physics to gravity. Anything dropped from a tall building will accelerate at a rate of 9.8 m/s2, but falling is not necessarily valuable.

“There is a misconception of directionality/improvement that isn’t supported by the science,” University of Iowa biology Assistant Professor Andrew Forbes wrote in an e-mail. Forbes is slated to teach Evolution & Ecology next semester. “I think it just stems from misinformation about what the actual definition of ‘biological evolution’ is.”

The actual definition, as one of my former professors at Bennington College drilled into me: There is variation in the population. By chance, certain organisms have a trait. There is differential reproduction between organisms with that trait and those without. If the trait is genetic, it becomes more prevalent.

To ascribe a moral value to the evolutionary process is to introduce a level of teleology — that is, to say it is directed toward a final cause. The truth is, “reproductive fitness” has no bearing on right or wrong or on the “improvement” of a species.

It is reproductively favorable for a female animal whose male mate dies to kill and eat the offspring of that male. This is biologically advantageous because she could then more easily attract a new mate, and her future children will be more likely to survive. That is not something, dare I say, that we would find acceptable in human populations.

The strict gender roles laid out by evolutionary psychologists such as Kanazawa are no more morally righteous. Women may be less likely to contact their fathers during ovulation, but that does not mean that they should consciously avoid it.

Simply put, we are not headed toward some ultimate evolutionary destiny. Selection pressures make a species more accustomed to dealing with that individual pressure, not an overall existence.

Evolutionary psychology has merit when it helps us understand some instinctive human actions. But we must take care not to interpret descriptive findings as normative; we must not cage ourselves within a prison of biological imperative. There is a difference between how the world was and how it should be.

Human consciousness demands that we emphasize the latter.