Re: Joel and Bryant /talk/ about Antlers and Culture

Joel and Lynn Gazis-Sax (
Mon, 19 Aug 1996 18:02:14 -0800

Bryant wrote:

> >Not everyone is afflicted by sexual jealousy. It is not accurate to
> >call it a human universal.
> Is there really a culture in which a nonreciprocating male can screw a
> guy's wife and not incur resentment? Is there a culture in which females
> are free to mate with whomever they wish after marriage, without the mate
> feeling jealousy?

Promiscuity is the norm for some cultures. The idea of "this is my
woman, so keep your hands off her" is a cultural concept that our
society (among others) happens to be afflicted with.

> >If culture were merely the product of human genetics and sexual
> >desires (which makes sociobiology just sound like Freudianism in an
> >evolutionist's new suit), then incest would be legal.
> Naw. Rape and murder of sexual competitors are illegal, as is
> infanticide, yet all these have good, adaptationist reasons to have been
> handed down from our ancestors as part of our evolutionary baggage as humans.

I think you are confusing the capacity to do something with an imperitive
to do it. I don't deny that we're capable of getting angry, but we're also
capable of not getting angry. Both violence and nonviolence have cultures.
Violent cultures tend to focus on getting people who aren't mad, mad and
nonviolent cultures tend to focus on getting everyone to avoid being angry.

> >As for Gould, you are simply wrong. Gould sees evolution as a process
> >with many possible results. He sees our being in the universe as cosmic
> >luckiness.
> That's my take, too. Note that most evolutionists attribute all
> evolution *ULTIMATELY* to genetic mutation, a chancy affair. But the
> genetic diversity thusly created is acted upon by nature--a given
> mutation (for whatever un-"intended" reason) may increase or decrease (or
> not affect) its owners' reproductive fitness. The stuff that's retained
> for their fitness advantages are said to be "selectively favored."
> If a trait is retained (and modified through time) in a population
> because of its positive fitness effects (in other words, if a trait's a
> "fitness enhancer"), then it constitutes an "adaptation," and is referred
> to in a 'functional' context by evolutionists.
> >> 1. Genome doesn't = gene. natural selection acts on individuals,
> >> and, indirectly, upon their genes. But not upon populations or
> >> genomes.
> >>
> >Starting from this understanding, I still disagree with the concept of
> >design implied in sociobiology. I don't see the genome as an entity,
> >but as a pattern, also with no mind of its own.
> I promise: sociobiologists agree. "Function" and "purpose" only mean
> that a given trait were retained by natural selection because of a given
> set of seletion pressures. Example: orgasm's "function" is to enhance
> reproductive success. :)
>The terms are subject to misinterpretation by the public
which will use them as it is accustomed to using them. Because of the
social implications of "function" and "purpose", we should avoid them
and use something else. Otherwise our lawmakers (who aren't terribly
scientifically literate like their constituents) are going to pass
legislation based on them.

> >Also, natural selection
> >acts /indirectly/ on populations. If you remove all the starfish with
> >red spots from a population, you are going to change the population
> >through natural selection.
> Yeah, this whole thing about group selectionism is largely a semantic
> tangle.

Part of the problem is that it has become mixed in with misleading
metaphors and that old problem of design. You may not believe in
design, but it's lurking there in the semantics (as I have pointed
out many times before) and can sneak into your thinking without your
even realizing it.

> Here's what I meant: *natural selection* acts on
> individuals--culls some, lets others produce a lot of kids. Indirectly,
> this may be selection on a given trait (Bob produced lots of kids because
> he has a large jaw that excites women, whereas Joe's puny jaw made him
> unattractive), and hence, on genes. As selection culls individuals in a
> population, the frequency with which a given allele (say, big-jaw allele)
> appears changes. This change in allele frequency is, by definition,
> *evolution*, and it occurs on a population level. But natural selection
> is only one way changes in allele frequency can occur. Mutation and
> drift are others.

And perhaps one or two things we haven't even spotted yet!

> >> Fair enough. Dawkins meant by "selfish genes" that the well being of the
> >> individual is less important in the process of evolution than the
> >> transmission of genes.
> >>
> >To the individual, the well-being is very important. [...]
> Yep, but not to evolution. If I get myself shot up trying to mate with
> another fellow's gal, I've just committed genetic as well as literal
> suicide.

Then there are no bastards in the world? :) No one lives to do it
twice? :)

> But taking that risk, if my mating instincts are genetically
> rooted, may have paid off *on average* during human evolution, such that
> risk takers more often reproduced than chickens. These examples are all
> admittedly crude, by the way.

The two examples are contradictory, incidentally. If it is genetic suicide
for me to do it, then reproduction is impossible.

[snip some mutual agreement on Spencerism]

> >>You mean that there /aren't/ people out there who try to determine the
> >function of male nipples and female orgasm?!!!
> Nobody's published a paper on male nipples. The female orgasm, on the
> other hand, does something. And that something affects the chances that
> her offspring will survive, so it's a fair target for adaptationist
> explanation.

I am not going to around with you on this. But such studies have been

> I was thinking specifically of Gould & Lewontin's 1979 paper, in which
> they assert that adaptationists see "function in all." That's simply not
> the position of any adaptationist I've ever read or heard of or heard
> speak, and counts, I think, as a straw-man created by Gould & Lewontin.

This is 1996. The situation in 1979 was maddeningly different. What I see
in many of your comments is that Gould's observations have been taken to
heart in the further development of the theory.

> >> There is a school of biology (not just sociobiology) that emphasizes
> >> optimality as a test of adaptedness. So, an optimality-school Darwinian
> >> Anthropologist might look at Wai Wai foraging and see if the calories
> >> expended per search hour are balanced optimally with the calories
> >> secured. Most evolutionary psychologists reject this because it implies
> >> that either evolution occurs very quickly or that folks are consciously
> >> fitness-striving. We can discuss the differences later, if you want.
> >
> >In some cultures, people /do/ consciously strive for fitness. (And some
> >individuals certainly do -- witness the rise of health clubs.) :)
> :) I meant evolutionary "fitness" (=maximized number of offspring
> surviving to reproductive maturity).

Whether the methodology is truly effective or not is another question, but
genetic fitness /has/ been a subject for manipulation by Western societies.
Here's a list of some examples which come right off the top of my head,
ranging from the innocent to the truly perverse:

* Eugenics clubs.
* Royal and noble marriages: only those of your class are worth mating
with. (Of course, this also creates a homogenous gene pool. If the
wrong trait creeps in, you're in big trouble!)
* Sperm banks which seek to store sperm from the best donors.
* Sterilization of mental defectives.
* The Nazi Lebensborn Program
* The Holocaust

Whether these were able to truly accomplish their objectives is irrelevant.
Most of them, I note, tend towards homogenous gene pools which we know are not
good in the long run.)

What is relevant is that all of these sought to create "bloodlines" (a cultural
term) which were in some way more fit from a standpoint of breeding. (another
cultural term which sometimes denote how one is reared and sometimes what one's
pedigree is -- probably a survival from a Lamarckian understanding).

> Indeed, some folks seek the status
> afforded in some places by having a lot of kids.

The status in raising many kids is often nothing more than more hands
on a farm mean higher production and greater comfort for the /individuals/.
Rich people get to hire servants and eat the best foods, after all. In
agrarian societies, you can farm out your kids so that the surplus gets to
get a decent education and find a well-paying job upon which you can
happilly retire. This is one reason why birth control programs get
resisted in some parts of the world.

>It's really late, so if
> I try to explain how this desire is probably an outgrowth of the desire
> for status, which is fitness enhancing, coupled with a paticular
> culture's respect for fertility, but not an evolved desire per se, I'll
> undoubtedly flub it. G'night.
> Bryant

I know the feeling!


___ ___
/\ _|_ /\ Joel and Lynn GAzis-SAx
/ /\_|_/\ \
/ / /\|/\ \ \
\ \ \/|\/ / / "If we try to flee from our human condition into
\ \/_|_\/ / the computer, we only meet ourselves there."
\/__|__\/ William Barrett