More on brave maidens

Julian O'Dea (jodea@MAILHOST.DPIE.GOV.AU)
Thu, 1 Aug 1996 13:38:48 +1000

I (Julian O'Dea) wrote:
>: Does anybody have any comments or thoughts? [on cases of altruistic
>bravery among unmarried women and girls]

Sturla Molden replied:

>My personal opinion is that the answers to the functional values of human
>behavioural patterns cannot be found in modern world societies; that is,
>Homo sapiens evolved under conditions fundamentally different from, say,
>Oslo, Sidney, Miami beach, whatever. Therefore, the answers to these
>questions cannot be found by measuring the adaptive value of the
>altruistic behaviours in these environments. (Because they are not fitted
>to these.)
>We need to consider the environment - and the cultures - under which Homo
>sapiens sapiens evolved. At the end of the last glaciation (in the
>Palaeolithic period), all humans were pre-agricultural living in
>hunting-gathering cultures. The population of Great Britain 9000 B.C. is
>estimated to have been some 400-500 individs, living in small family
>groups of 20-40 members. This is also what we see in current
>pre-agricultural tribes, e.g. on Papaua New-Guinea. If humans have an
>innate attempt to help others, even though it mean acting purely
>altruistic, it must probably have evolved under circumstances like this
>and thus be an adaptation to this environment. Several explanations might
>(1) Kin-selection: If the family-groups were living separately, any
>person encountered in distress were likely to be a close relative. A
>discrimination between relative and non-relative were not needed.
>(2) Reciprocity: Small groups living together for a long period of time,
>isolated from other groups, is an ideally environment for the evolution
>of reciprocal altruism.
>(3) Group selection (I know this will be like severing in church): There
>must have been some contact among the family groups to avoid inbreeding.
>Therefore the family groups can resemble trait groups in Wilsons model.
>This will allow altruistic alleles to spread by group selection; i.e. the
>alleles are selected against inside the family groups but will still
>increase in the whole population.
>The attempt to help others have not been exterminated yet - even though
>conditions have changed -, perhaps dedue to a low selection pressure
>acting on large and geographical disperse population. (Evolutionary lag.)
>Thus, there will still be cases were +true altruism; is reported. What I
>am saying is that although altruistic maidens (and the like) do not make
>sence in our current context, it might simply be that we are looking at
>the wrong place.
>Sturla Molden

Thanks to Sturla and everybody else who has commented on my original post
on "brave maidens", both on the ethology list and the anthropology list. I
have been away for a week and I hope to catch up on all the comments and
give a considered response, but this will have to do in the interim.

My point was that heroism in girls and women who have not bred would be
particularly hard to explain in terms of sociobiology, although one could
try to invoke "reciprocal altruism" I suppose. A second point I was making
was that it *does* nevertheless occur, as evidenced by heroism awards - my
"Grace Darling Effect". My overarching point was that it seems far easier
to explain this kind of altruism by way of culture than by way of genetic

I find it fascinating that people want to invoke genes rather than culture
in this regard. I am personally happy to consider that some human
behavioural traits (eg. sex differences in psychology) may have an innate
component. So I am not averse to such explanations. It is just that I
find such explanations (eg. Trivers') far-fetched in the case of human

There have been some comments about possible biases and lack of
representativeness in my sample based on recipients of bravery awards.
Nonetheless it is my impression that unmarried women and girls are quite
well represented in these awards. The cases involve individuals risking
their lives.

I am not motivated by a feminist agenda on this issue. (I am actually a
fairly conservative male.) I just want to see where the data take us. The
area of bravery in modern humans does not seem to have received a lot of
systematic study, by sociologists at least. There may be better ways of
getting objective data in this respect than the approach I have taken so
far. If so, I would be happy to think that someone might be motivated to
do something further and better along these lines. (Julian O'Dea)