Selfish Gene, Memes and Sexism

EvolutionFrom The Top Ten Daily Consequences of Having Evolved

As Richard Brodie points out in his book “Virus of the mind”, the psychological differences between males and females began when mammals evolved to put all their eggs in one basket, so to speak: inside the female. Actually, sexual differentiation started even earlier than that, practically at the origin of sex, when females evolved to produce big, relatively expensive ova and males evolved to produce small, cheap sperm. The splitting apart of the behaviour of males and females stems from the fact that female DNA has a big commitment to an investment in each fertilized egg, while male DNA has nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving its host the tendency to fertilize every female in sight, then prowl around looking for the ones that aren’t in sight…

We inherited many of our drives and tendencies from animals and prehistoric humans, before concepts such as marriage and monogamy arrived. The DNA of males who mated with only one female had a terrible disadvantage: the other males that are going around spreading their DNA as widely as possible were going to have a lot more children. Without considering any other factors, males evolved to reproduce as much as possible. Remember: it’s all about DNA.

Females, on the other hand, generally can’t produce more than 1 fetus a year and therefore have only a few chances per lifetime to pass on their DNA and many eager suitors. Therefore they evolved to be a bit more selective. How did they select? A number of factors were important. First, they wanted a male with ‘good’ DNA, whatever that means…. Second, they wanted a mate who would invest his time and resources in the children while they were immature and vulnerable, thus increasing their chance of survival.

Given the priorities of females, males evolved in one of two directions: either become stronger and more handsome, or become a convincing potential husband and father.

As the results, throughout history, males have been pushing culture in the direction of expansion, conquest, and increased power, as power provides access to more mates and helps to spread the ‘selfish gene’. Females however have been so-called civilizing force, striving for security and safety that would increase the chances of survival for their children.

It’s important to remember that this evolution of sex characteristics is not happening by plan or design. It is based on the interaction between the chaotic force of random variation and the organizing force of evolution. Neither males not females can voluntarily choose biological characteristics, predetermined by selfish gene.

When talking about human evolution, the following should be taken into consideration:

  • We are talking about general tendencies in evolution, not about specific individuals. Not everybody is like this!
  • All this happens unconsciously. This is not about thinking. Neither individual males nor females could voluntarily choose biological characteristics and drives they ended up with. The result of the unconscious calculation is that you have feelings of attraction for someone.
  • ‘Selfish gene’ does not care about the wellbeing of the society – it cares only about spreading the genes of an individual. If humans would not have learnt to tame this ‘selfish gene’, they would still be leaving in caves killing each other for mating opportunities. Different cultures have evolved different sets of sexual mores and memes, that were aimed at decreasing inter-personal conflicts around mating opportunities. Access to sex was the driving force behind many aspects of culture.
  • ‘Selfish gene’ does not act in favour of its carrier – it’s all about spreading the gene, not about the gene carrier achieving happiness in life. Therefore lots of males learned to consciously suppress ‘selfish gene’ to be able to concentrate on consciously-selected personal goals (e.g. building professional career, establishing a happy family, finding peace of mind, happiness, respect). It takes a lot of effort for modern civilized men to suppress their biological drives. For that reason some men report feeling much happier in life when they get older and their sexual drive gets weaker, allowing them to concentrate more easily on their consciously-selected goals in life.  For the same reason a large number of men hate ‘provocative’ women who are consciously or unconsciously trying to use male’s strong sexual drive for their own selfish purposes (e.g. teasing men, making fun of them, satisfying their own ego and self-esteem by gathering a crowd of admirers etc.) and believe women should be reported for sexual-harassment for their provocative dress. After all, if men are supposed to take full control of their biological drives in modern society, women surely should be able to do the same and stop sexually provoking men they are not planning to have sexual relationship with.
  • It may be true that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but that doesn’t mean we have to live there. People are completely capable of growing in any direction they choose. ‘Selfish gene’ and our biological wiring is neither a fatalistic preordainment of people’s future nor an excuse for behaving like an animal. Unlike most animals, humans have very well developed conscious mind, that can override their biological drives.
  • The millions of years of genetic evolution that produced these instincts did not count on us figuring out that you could have sex and not get pregnant. That might potentially turn the evolution in a different direction with only people, who are committed to their partners and children, being able to pass the gene, as in other cases females won’t be getting pregnant. Raising children requires a lot of time, effort and care that only compassionate, caring, kind and loving parents can provide. People, who do not possess these qualities, are highly likely to be more interested in using contraception to prevent pregnancies. As the result, empathy, compassion, care, kindness and love might win in a longer run in human evolution.

happy-familyFrom Are you in a happy family?

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11 thoughts on “Selfish Gene, Memes and Sexism

  1. yerpirate says:

    Very interesting work – thank you.

  2. I have nominated you for the “Blog Of The Year 2012” award.
    http://rhubblog.com/2012/12/14/blog-of-the-year-2012-award-five-stars/

    Congratulations,

    Ronnie.

  3. Steve Morris says:

    A thought occurred to me reading your post. If men have evolved to have certain characteristic tendencies, it is presumably because women have tended to prefer those kinds of men. It’s a case of be careful what you wish for!

    On a different tack, as a father, I have personally found that taking my young children to do the supermarket shopping with me is guaranteed to attract a lot of admiring female attention!

  4. Dane Dormio says:

    Thanks for writing your blog, I find most of the content of this blog that I have perused to be thought-filled and -provoking. A couple of weak points in this post stand out to me as having been called into question by research such as that presented in “Sperm Wars” by Robin Baker and “Sex At Dawn” by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha (both highly recommended books for those interested in these topics):

    “Females, on the other hand, generally can’t produce more than 1 fetus a year and therefore have only a few chances per lifetime to pass on their DNA and many eager suitors. Therefore they evolved to be a bit more selective.”

    — This notion of men being evolutionarily motivated to be promiscuous and women being evolutionarily motivated to be selective has been around long enough to be firmly established as conventional wisdom. However, it ignores sperm competition and also projects modern values and family structures into the past. Regarding sperm competition: *it is every bit as evolutionary advantageous, if not more so, for a female to have multiple partners as it is for a male.* The fact that a woman can only produce one fetus per year does not mean that she needs to be “more selective” about who she has sex with, because she will never expend more than a handful of eggs to produce one fetus, meaning her energy budget per conception is low relative to that of a male. What female genes prefer is to have their carrier mate with *as many men as possible in a short amount of time*, specifically right around ovulation, and let their sperm compete internally. This guarantees that the woman will be impregnated by the highest quality sperm. As far as a woman’s genes are concerned, the more the merrier; more sexual partners only heightens the stakes, in her favor, and costs her virtually nothing in terms of biological resources. In fact, while the biological cost for a woman to have sex with another man is negligible, the biological cost for a man to have sex with another woman is significant; if he expells his sperm into a less-fit female, he will have fewer with which to fertilize a more promising candidate. While males’ sperm supplies are necessarily plentiful, they are not limitless, and it takes *trillions* of them to fertilize just *one* egg.
    Sperm spent in one place means less spent in another. These facts turn the conventional reasoning about men’s promiscuity and women’s selectivity on its head, which may partly explain men’s penchant for physical attractiveness (if a man is going to attempt to impregnate a woman, his genes want him to be very discriminating about screening for fertility beforehand) and women’s relative indifference (it costs a woman relatively little to let a man enter the competition, and she doesn’t have to be as discriminating on the front end because she can let the sperm sort itself out — the fittest sperm will, by definition, be most likely to win). To use a set of analogies, for a man, attempting to impregnate a woman is like investing scarce capital in a risky start-up venture, whereas for a woman, becoming pregnant is like being a spectator at American Gladiator.

    “How did they select? A number of factors were important. First, they wanted a male with ‘good’ DNA, whatever that means…. Second, they wanted a mate who would invest his time and resources in the children while they were immature and vulnerable, thus increasing their chance of survival.

    Given the priorities of females, males evolved in one of two directions: either become stronger and more handsome, or become a convincing potential husband and father.”

    — And now, to address the second fallacy, the projection of modern values and family structures into the past: the nuclear family is an invention of the previous century. In evolutionary history, humans have spent most of their time living in tribal extended family groups. Individuals remained part of the same group throughout their entire lives, and every member of the group depended upon every other member of the group for their survival, and likewise invested their time and resources in the maintenance of the collective livelihood. Our evolutionary ancestors did not segment themselves off from the tribe so they could live in pair-bonded matrimony, to thrive or perish by their own fortunes. Individual survival was simply inconceivable. The very concept, and requisite context, of a deadbeat dad had to wait several millennia to be invented.

    Supposing, however, that male sexual strategies did diverge in the directions that you suggest (let’s call them “bad boys” and “good guys”) a female’s best evolutionary strategy would be to attempt to become impregnated by one of the “bad boys” while convincing one of the “good guys” that the offspring was his. This gives her the best of both worlds, allowing her to receive the support of a dedicated provider, while ensuring that her male offspring and further descendants will inherit the more fecund genetics and behavioral tendencies of the “bad boy”. This reproductive strategy is in fact indicated theoretically in humans by the masking of the ovulation cycle, and experimentally in humans and other species by the incidence of extra-pair copulation (“your daddy ain’t your daddy and your daddy don’t know”), as revealed by random paternity testing.

    “As the results, throughout history, males have been pushing culture in the direction of expansion, conquest, and increased power, as power provides access to more mates and helps to spread the ‘selfish gene’. Females however have been so-called civilizing force, striving for security and safety that would increase the chances of survival for their children.”

    –This statement deserves to be critically examined on the basis of its copious cultural baggage alone.

    “If humans would not have learnt to tame this ‘selfish gene’, they would still be leaving in caves killing each other for mating opportunities.”

    — It’s not at all clear that humans ever lived this way. The mating strategies of social primates (as well as other species) tend to fall on a continuum between the extremes of free love on one end and harem-keeping on the other. In free-loving species (bonobos being the most prominent example), sex fulfills the role of providing social cohesiveness, much like grooming. There is little to no male rivalry, and conflicts are settled through mating. There is relatively little physical differentiation between sexes (sexual dimorphism) on the basis of size and strength, and the males have large penises and testicles, relative to the size of their bodies. This indicates that reproductive competition between males takes place largely on the level of sperm. In harem-keeping species (prominently exemplified by gorillas), social groups tend to consist of one dominant male and many females, with most non-dominant males being marginalized or expelled completely, living solitary lives in the wilderness. Disputes are settled by physical altercations, and males are substantially bigger and stronger than females, while their genital size is small, relative to their body size. This indicates that competition between males takes place largely on the physical level, with dominant males preventing subordinate males from having sexual access to females.

    On the sexual dimorphism/genital-to-body-size ratio scale, humans fall somewhere in between gorillas and bonobos, which indeed indicates a blending of mating strategies, though plenty of evidence places us genetically closer to the bonobo end of the spectrum.

    “The millions of years of genetic evolution that produced these instincts did not count on us figuring out that you could have sex and not get pregnant. That might potentially turn the evolution in a different direction with only people, who are committed to their partners and children, being able to pass the gene, as in other cases females won’t be getting pregnant. Raising children requires a lot of time, effort and care that only compassionate, caring, kind and loving parents can provide.

    People, who do not possess these qualities, are highly likely to be more interested in using contraception to prevent pregnancies. As the result, empathy, compassion, care, kindness and love might win in a longer run in human evolution.”

    — For all of human history, *most* sex has not led to pregnancy. Even in the absence of birth control, the incidence of copulation relative to the incidence of pregnancy is quite high. As with bonobos and other species that mate throughout the ovulation cycle, rather than only during estrus, human sexuality is not “just for reproduction” but also serves, perhaps even more primarily, as a social adhesive. Most modern couples use sex as a way of experiencing closeness and intimacy on a physical and emotional level much more frequently than they use it for making babies.

    And it seems to me that more thoughtful, compassionate, and loving individuals are *more likely* to use birth control, at least for most of their lives, not less, and that the evolutionary spoils of fecundity are more likely to go to those who are more thoughtless, brash, shortsighted, and self-serving, at least when they are young. Population grows faster when individuals reproduce earlier in life rather than later, owing to a shorter generation time.

  5. […] am fascinated with memetics, so I was drawn in by a post on this blog, as it both discusses memetics and is an example of memes in action. My comments on some of the […]

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