Archive for the 'Evolution' Category

The bigger question

One of the more important questions I feel science can tackle is whether women prefer bigger penises. (“The answer is an incontrovertible YES!” I recall an advertisement in an old Penthouse announcing. I tend to agree, but then I have reason to be biased in the matter.) It basically gets down to a matter of evolutionary psychology. Women are attracted to attributes that will help in their innate goal of replicating the genes for the next generation. For example, there was an interesting study noting that women are attracted to the smells of men who have a high immunity to diseases the woman herself is not immune to. Obviously mating with such a man would result in a child with a tendency to be immune to a lot of diseases, and thus have a greater likelihood of survival.

So what would the advantage of a large penis be? Well it’s take a look at your average hunter/gatherer female. She’s probably had sex with five or six guys today, and their spunk is currently swimming through her uterus. Along comes a guy with big schlong. He nails her, and because he’s bigger, ejaculates deeper in her vagina, thus his boys get to go to the front of the line, so to speak.

Okay, so we can totally see the advantage of a big penis from the guy’s point of view. But what’s the appeal to the woman? I argue that she sees a guy with a big penis, and realizes that any sons she has with him will have big penises, and therefore have a greater chance of giving her grandchildren e.g. replicating genes.

So, we should expect to see longer and longer penises on human males as they engage in a evolutionary game of one upmanship. Is it possible that within 100 years men will be dragging along 3 foot pythons which will have a tendency to get caught in nearby electrical sockets, waffle irons, staplers? I would argue that it is not only possible, but very probable.

Ape logic

I’ve been greatly enjoying an interesting video lecture series by Robert Sapolsky on the biological origins of behavior. (10 years ago, my nights were spent banging strippers and snorting crystal meth off their boobs, now I enjoy video lecture series.)

In a segment I watched recently, Sapolsky described some interesting behavior on the parts of gorillas (or baboons, or some other kind of ape.) These apes live in a kind of harem culture where there’s one boss ape and he gets to have sex with all the chicks, while the other apes have to go jerk off in the forest. However, every couple years or so, a younger, tougher ape, will dethrone the top ape, and then this new ape gets all the women. And what does he do then? He kills all the infants sired by the previous ape. Why? Because these infants are nursing, and as a result, their mothers can’t get pregnant. If this ape seeks to pass on his genes, he needs to make sure that the apes he rapes (hey — that’s poetry!) can be impregnated. Thus his behavior — infanticide — is programmed by the demands of natural selection (e.g. apes that kill the babies of nursing mothers and then have sex with them will pass on their genes, the ones that don’t, won’t.)

That kind of explains the genetic programming, but I’m curious what the ape is actually thinking. It seems unlikely he’s thinking, “nursing mothers can’t get pregnant, so I better kill off their babies.” (I’m not sure I was even aware that nursing mothers can’t get pregnant until watching the video, and I’m a pretty smart ape.) But I also doubt he’s just filled with some robotic urge like “must… kill… infants…” Natural selection may explain the behavior, but how does the ape experience the behavior?

And this raises the rather obvious question: To what degree are we humans subject to these biological urges? Let’s say you find that your wife is sleeping with you. You get pissed off, maybe you kill her (paging OJ Simpson.) You might say your anger is justified, but why? So she slept around… who cares? Are you merely sensing a biological directive and then confabulating a rationale for your behavior? And if humans do that, are apes essentially doing the same thing in their heads — coming up with an excuse to kill the kids? (“These babies are ugly!”)

Laws of attraction

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea — often expounded upon in evolutionary psychology — that our actions are subconsciously motivated by the interests of our genes. The idea is that individuals who engage in behaviors which promote survival and reproduction stand a better chance of passing their genes on than those that don’t.

You often see this talked about in discussions about attraction. Attraction is a mysterious force in the human psyche. We feel it intensely, but it’s hard to explain why we feel it, or what we’re even feeling. We know we’re attracted to Scarlett Johansson, but why her? And why not Margaret Thatcher?

The generally accepted idea is that features which indicate health — symmetry, youth, a healthy glow, wide birthing hips in women etc. — attract us, while unhealthy features do not. Thus, men are more attracted to supermodels than ugglos who look like they could drop off at any second.

But this doesn’t quite make sense. Sure, the odds are that a child you create with some bowser may not last long in this world, but that child has a greater chance of passing on your genes they had no child at all. As a man, you’re better off being motivated to nail what you can get, then declaring certain women off limits.

And, when you think about it, that is how a lot of men act. You hit on all the fine women until the clubs close, and, if at that point you’re empty-handed, you take home the nebbish librarian with acne.

Ha. We rule!

Caveman memories

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio makes an interesting comment in this interview (also found in the December 2010 issue of Discover magazine.)

We have past memories that we have inherited through a whole history of evolution before us that in fact have memories of things that our forerunners have been doing and I’m not just talking about the human forerunners, but forerunners that go all the way into reptiles and single cells.

Unfortunately, he drops an atom bomb of an idea without providing any further unpacking. I suspect what he’s referring to is situations where certain people have a fear of snakes even though they themselves have never seen a snake. But their primitive ancestors hundreds of generations back might’ve actually seen the damage that poisonous snakes can do and somehow “absorbed” that information into their biological memory (whatever that is.) I’ve also heard the idea that the reason dogs circle around three times before lying down is that their ancient ancestors would practice such behavior to mat down grass before going to sleep on it.

However, that’s really more about remembering behaviors than memories. It seems unlikely that we can remember specific memories of our predecessors.

Wait… it’s coming to me… I’m a caveman, gnawing on a delicious barbecue woolly mammoth rib. The sun is setting and a group of winged dinosaurs are flying across the horizon. Now I’m going inside my cave to rape my mate.

Good times…

What about repressed emotions?

Lately, I’ve been arguing, in my ever so erudite way, that emotions are fundamentally physical sensations. You’re about to take your bar exam — which could have significant impact on your future — and your brain sets off various chemical processes which release hormones and neurotransmitters which make you jittery, shaky and have stomach discomfort. Or, the girl you just proposed to accepts your offer of marriage, and the likelihood of your future flourishing increases, so you feel the physical sensations we often associate with joy e.g. a pleasurable warmth in your neck and cheeks etc.

Today, I ran into a bit of a problem with this theory. What about repressed emotions, emotions you don’t feel in any way?

Some people might argue that repressed emotions don’t even exist. But we’ve all heard of situations like someone running into the Catholic priest who molested them as a child and experiencing an onslaught of negative emotions. This makes me suspect that repressed emotions are real.

So let’s re-examine my definition for emotions and see if we can account for this. Part of my presumption is that our brain is like a computer. It’s constantly analyzing data about our environment and situation and calculating what our current odds for survival and even flourishing are. If your brain observes you walking into a lion’s den, it concludes that your odds are dropping, and sends “danger signals” (fear, anxiety etc.) If your brain observes that you just ate a filling meal, it concludes that your odds are rising and releases “pleasure signals” (that general sensation of being satiated.)

So the core of emotion is really the step before we experience the physical sensations; it’s the process during which our brain processes are odds for survival based on our current actions and environment.

So what’s happening with repressed emotions? I would argue it’s a situation where your brain makes a calculation that things are going pretty bad (I’ve never heard of people repressing feelings of joy) — so bad that the physical sensations corollary to the situation are themselves actually dangerous. For example, you get molested by your grandfather, to which the “appropriate” response is to curl up in the fetal position and sob for 20 hours. But to engage in such an activity would leave you a target for predators etc. (remember, throughout most of man’s evolution he was living as a hunter gatherer type) so your brain somehow allows you to sidestep the physical sensations. But the core of the emotion — the knowledge that your grandfather molested you, thus making you realize the world is a far more dangerous place and you might have assumed — is still there, and can still trigger the release of these physical sensations.

Morality without god?

The primatologist Frans De Waal (who is quoted extensively in the “Sex at Dawn” book, by the way) has a recent editorial in the New York Times investigating one of my favorite questions: can we have morality without God? He describes altruistic/moral behavior in animals (who presumably don’t believe in God) and provides some evidence for the notion that much of our moral sense is innate. He states…

Psychologists stress the intuitive way we arrive at moral judgments while activating emotional brain areas, and economists and anthropologists have shown humanity to be far more cooperative, altruistic, and fair than predicted by self-interest models. Similarly, the latest experiments in primatology reveal that our close relatives will do each other favors even if there’s nothing in it for themselves.

As I’ve noted before, innate morality makes sense. A society where everyone does favors for each other is likely to thrive, whereas one where everyone seeks to screw each other over will likely fail. However, it should be noted that this altruism is going to be strongest within the society. You will do a favor for your neighbor, you’re less likely to do a favor for the strange man who lives two valleys away.

One might think De Waal is headed in the direction of many of the “new atheists,” arguing that society can remove God and still be moral. But at the end, he surprises you.

… what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good.

His argument here is fundamentally mine (so much so that I must presume he’s been reading my writing for years and basing much of his lucrative career on my intellectual efforts.) I don’t think we can simply look at our moral behavior, understand that it is wired into us by evolution and think no further. Moral philosophy matters. We need to be able to explain our actions in a rational manner.

Consider this: when we say humans are “wired” to be altruistic, what we are really saying is that a certain range of behaviors related to how humans interact with each other has been rewarded by the evolutionary process. However, there are behaviors that exist toward the fringes of this range. These are behaviors exhibited by people who don’t really give a damn about others; in extreme instances we call them called psychopaths. Society currently punishes psychopaths when they violate our laws. But without moral philosophy, who are we to do so? Psychopaths are simply responding to their innate “programming” in the same manner as are we. By what right can we punish them?

De Waal has a paragraph collecting similar arguments.

Echoing this view, Reverend Al Sharpton opined in a recent videotaped debate: “If there is no order to the universe, and therefore some being, some force that ordered it, then who determines what is right or wrong? There is nothing immoral if there’s nothing in charge.” Similarly, I have heard people echo Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, exclaiming that “If there is no God, I am free to rape my neighbor!”

Now, I don’t believe in God, so I’m left searching for a moral philosophy to explain why I shouldn’t rape my neighbor. I’ve yet to find one. However, I do understand that evolution has wired myself (and most people) to find the act repugnant. If I were to spy an attractive woman around the neighborhood and break into her house and threaten her with a knife, and then hear her pleas for mercy and see the tears streaming down her face I would likely feel…

Hmmmm, actually, that’s kind of turning me on.

Finally, De Waal notes a very human type of behavior in primates.

A few years ago Sarah Brosnan and I demonstrated that primates will happily perform a task for cucumber slices until they see others getting grapes, which taste so much better. The cucumber-eaters become agitated, throw down their measly veggies and go on strike. A perfectly fine food has become unpalatable as a result of seeing a companion with something better.

Humans are primates, but I presume De Waal is referring to nonhuman primates, unless he has cages of people and is feeding them grapes and cucumbers. However, the described behavior is the kind of thing we see people doing every day. They’re perfectly happy with what they’ve got, until they read about some millionaire with a goldplated swimming pool and suddenly they become miserable with their lot in life. (Though, as readers of this blog know, money doesn’t equal happiness.)

Magnet therapy

Here’s interesting passage about magnets interacting with the brain from the National Geographic Brain book.

The brain creates its own tiny magnetic fields. A new, noninvasive process called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, subtly alters the brain’s magnetic processes without resorting to drugs or surgery.

When applied to the prefrontal lobes, TMS has been shown to enhance the speed and agility of cognitive processing.

In the past, I’ve commented to friends that my generation is probably the last generation right before the era in which technology and bioengineering enable humans to live vastly longer and more powerful lives. I’ll be 85, in some hospital room hooked up to dialysis, and the nurse will come in and say, “Boy, if you’d only been born 20 years later we could have used nanobots and magnetic therapy to clean up your blocked arteries and enhance your mental function as well as making you look 50 years younger. As it is, you’re just a dejected, degenerate old man with a flaccid penis that everyone laughs about back at the nursing station.”


One interesting science nugget I think we’ve all heard is the idea that certain phobias are programmed into our DNA. For example, we’re supposed to have a revulsion of snakes and spiders since they are notorious carriers of venom. Personally, I don’t have any real issues with spiders, but I can speak to an interesting experience I recently had with snakes: I was walking up a mountain near my dad’s house and came across a large rattlesnake laying out in the sun, a recent meal making a noticeable bulge in his belly. It did give me a little bit of the heebie-jeebies. I could feel a jolt run up and down my spine, and a slight turning in my stomach. It’s weird, because I think this is specific to rattlesnakes. I spent a lot of my summers as a kid in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, and I used to catch snakes all the time with no ill effects. But this was the first time I’d seen a rattlesnake.

Another likely example of a pre-programmed phobia? Our revulsion towards dead, rotting, decaying corpses. This works to our benefit because corpses often contain infectious agents — that’s why we bury or burn our dead.

Incest is another example of something we seem to have an innate revulsion for. Consider the following thought experiment:

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that, was it OK for them to make love? — A thought experiment devised by Jonathan Heidt

Some might argue that there are rational (not innate) reasons to oppose such an act. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker disagrees.

Most people immediately declare that these acts are wrong and then grope to justify why they are wrong. It’s not so easy. In the case of Julie and Mark, people raise the possibility of children with birth defects, but they are reminded that the couple were diligent about contraception. They suggest that the siblings will be emotionally hurt, but the story makes it clear that they weren’t. They submit that the act would offend the community, but then recall that it was kept a secret. Eventually many people admit, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.” — Steven Pinker

“I can’t explain it,” would seem to be an indicator of some innate revulsion, either built into our DNA, or planted early in our conscious existence.

I’ve long thought the same might be true for homophobia. Certainly, from the point of view of a species looking to continue its existence, homosexuality would be a detriment. It might not be a problem if homosexuals are a small percentage of the species population, but, obviously, the more homosexuals a species has, the less likely its odds of long-term survival. (There are a number of interesting, theoretical caveats to this statement, but I think the gist of it stands.) As such, it’s possible that a revulsion to homosexual acts could be built into our DNA.

Here’s the interesting thing: I find I don’t really feel these revulsions (aside from the rattlesnake thing.) Rotting, decaying corpses? Boring. The incestuous relationship described in the experiment above? Doesn’t really bug me. General homosexual behavior? Eh.

Here’s an interesting thought experiment to test your own level of revulsion. Imagine you are performing oral sex on a person of your gender. I mean really imagine this — contemplate the groans the person is making, the taste and texture of their sex in or around your mouth. Then, look up at them and realize that they are a long dead, rotting zombie. And as you watch, hundreds of snakes and spiders crawl out of their eye and nose holes.

You can let me know your results in the comments.

More Sex at Dawn

I continue reading “Sex at Dawn – the Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality.” I just finished several chapters which document the relatively peaceful and stress-free existence of the hunter/foragers who populated the earth before the transition to agriculture. Food was plentiful, the social hierarchy was flat and for the most part these people just lay around all day. It sounds pretty nice, and you find yourself thinking, “Why don’t I live this way?” (Ignoring the fact that it would be near impossible in the modern age with property ownership and rule of law etc.)

But then I think of the benefits of the modern era: culture, music, film, art, science, great literature like The Three Investigators detective novels. And not just the consumption of these things, but the creation of them. I like playing guitar, I like recording music, and such activities are near unheard of in primitive cultures. (Yes, they have music, but it’s… primitive.) On balance, are the stresses of modern life worth the pleasures?

Of course, I have to consider that playing guitar was one of the activities that earned me repetitive strain in my arms, a predicament that has massively fucked me, to say the least. I’m reminded of a comment Moshe Feldenkrais, the philosopher of physical movement, made. He looked at a hypothetical ballet dancer, stretching and straining to achieve the flexibility necessary for her art, and he asked, “Why would you even want to do that? Why would you mutate your body so?” He found the idea of pushing or twisting your body for the demands of an art form ridiculous. Such a comment strikes at the very heart of my personal beliefs — I’m pro-suffering for art — but it’s also so shockingly contrarian I have to suppress a chuckle.

I then ask, “Why play the guitar?” I’ve grappled with that endlessly, many times in this blog, and while I think part of it is a genuine love of music, there’s no doubt it also grants me a certain status in the various social groups I come into contact with. (“You play guitar?” nubile teenage nymphs often ask me before absconding with their clothing.) So, if I’m playing for status, and primitive cultures are relatively status free, it would follow I would have no need of playing guitar if I lived in such a culture.

I dunno… it’s all very confusing.

Hot monkey love

While reading Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’s “Sex at Dawn” — a reinterpretation of the origins of human sexuality — I come across the following passage describing observed primate behavior.

Ovulating female chimps eluded their male protectors/captors long enough to wander over to the other groups, mate with unfamiliar males, and then saunter back to their home group.

Sounds like my ex-girlfriend (whore!)