Archive for the 'Evolution' Category

We are all monkeys now

A while back, I wrote a piece on the concept of social currency — the idea that all human interactions can be thought of as a form of bartering. For example, we never do someone a favor without expecting a favor of equal value in return. (You can come up with some exceptions: say, caring for a person on their deathbed. But I would argue we presume that, by caring for the dying, someone will do the same for us at our time. The person we do the favor for doesn’t necessarily need to be the person who returns the favor.)

Ultimately, I think we want to use this social currency to “buy” our way up the social ladder. If we can’t actually be the top dog, we want to get as close to the top as possible. What is the top? In human society, it’s the King, the president, the famous movie star, various celebrities etc. But there are also more localized versions of “the top.” In your neighborhood, it’s the neighbors that have the best party. In your circle of friends, it’s the person everyone always wants to hang out with.

I’ve been thinking about this subject, particularly trying to come up with the reasons why we want to get to the top. What do we get out of our associations with people at the top? It’s worth noting that people at the top are often fairly uninteresting, if not complete idiots. They don’t want to perform any action or express any opinion too controversial, lest it shake their hold on power. Yet many of us eagerly attempt to secure access to these people so that we may have mind numbingly bland conversations about meaningless topics.

I believe the answer to this question comes down to a fundamental truth: we are monkeys. We live by the same rules all primates do. We want to ensure our personal survival (natural selection) and the survival of our DNA (sexual selection.) If we “party with the stars” we get to advertise ourselves sexually to a large pool of potential partners. We also advertise ourselves to potential customers/employers etc. — people who can help ensure our physical survival by providing money for food and rent.

Now, these reasons make sense from a biological perspective — we are responding to the innate demands of our DNA. But they aren’t really logical reasons. I find myself wondering if it’s worth consciously overriding these demands, effectively saying “I won’t hang out with banal morons and waste my time on the social circuit.” It’s hard to do, since you’re effectively saying, “I will rarely get laid and remain under employed” but I’m teased by the amount of free time it would open up. (I should clarify here: since moving to San Diego I don’t do much socialization anyway, so I’m already living this way. I guess the question is whether I should continue to do so.)

Related to all this is the character archetype of the comedian or truth teller. I’m thinking about people like Truman Capote, perhaps Lenny Bruce though I think he’s overrated, George Carlin etc. These people seem to make their way to the top by not being bound to the social conventions of polite society. They also, however, tend to be alcoholics or drug addicts.

Why do gay men and straight women find Brad Pitt attractive?

I’ve often written about my support for the notion that the things we find attractive about a person — on the physical or other levels — are attributes evolution programmed us to find attractive. There’s plenty of reasonable sounding theories arguing that classic “good looks” (such as my features) signal genetic superiority (largely in the sense of not being retarded) to potential mates. People who are too thin or too fat seem unattractive because they couldn’t survive in the harsh environment where most of man’s evolution took place.

There is an obvious interesting rejoinder to this: what about homosexuals? Their nonreproductive behavior is intrinsically opposed to continuing their genetic material, so what would drive their notions of what’s attractive? (Notions which seem to correspond with what members of the opposite sex find attractive e.g. both straight women and gay men find Brad Pitt ravishing.)

Various answers can be considered. One is that homosexual behavior is fundamentally at odds with nature and all homosexuals should be rounded up and executed.

There is another, possibly less controversial, answer. Let’s remember that evolution and nature do not have “goals.” Mutations occur, and some of those mutations are rewarded by the environment. Homosexual behavior, when limited to a small segment of a species population, certainly wouldn’t threaten the species survival (indeed, I’ve heard theories that homosexual behavior sometimes increases in situations of overpopulation.) As a result, the homosexual “gene” is mostly neutral — it has a negligible effect on a species’ chance for survival. (It does deter the survival of the genetic material of the person possessing the gene (unless they ignore their programming and have awful, heterosexual sex).)

That might explain why homosexuality survives, but why would a homosexual man find attractive the same features a heterosexual woman finds attractive? The woman is seeking an ideal mate with whom to merge her genetic material and ensure its continuation. A gay man has no such interest. I’m guessing the answer lies somewhere in our notions of gender. A random mutation merged certain “male” traits with certain “female” traits (like finding Brad Pitt attractive even after he broke Jennifer Aniston’s heart) and since it’s a relatively harmless mutation, it continues to this day.

Update: I just stumbled across this, “…biologist John Maynard Smith’s “sneaky f*cker” evolutionary hypothesis for male homosexuality, which posits that gay men in the ancestral past had unique access to the reproductive niche because females let their guards down around them and other males didn’t view them as sexual competitors.”

Doesn’t quite add up for me, but worth considering.

Where are the female virtuosos?

In a previous post I noted that when we watch someone perform music or dance, we are, on some level, judging them as a potential mate. Dancing requires heightened physical fitness which is attractive in a mate, and music composition and performance require intelligence and “quick thinking” which is also desirable. (I touched on this point about a year ago in this article on reality TV star Susan Boyle.)

In the area of music performance, I also noted that women seem to find male virtuosos more attractive than men find female virtuosos. Could this explain why there are fewer female virtuosos than male?

Well, first we need to unpack that question — is it even true? In terms of instrument playing, in the world of rock, jazz, R&B and “popular music”, I would say yes. Thinking of the guitar, I can create a list of male virtuosos — Jimi Hendrix, Yngwie Malmsteen, Eddie Van Halen* etc. — without even trying. Female guitar virtuosos? I have to think… maybe Lita Ford and the relatively unknown jazz guitarist Emily Remler come to mind. (Charo?) But there’s not a lot of them.

* I am admittedly defining “virtuoso” here as someone who is a master of the technical aspects of guitar playing. Nonetheless, I think with most accepted definitions of the term (Andy Summers or Albert King may not be technical masters of the instrument, but are still virtuosic), you will see far more men than women.

This may not be true in on the realm of classical music. There’s a fair number of female virtuoso violinists — Hillary Hahn, Midori. And this is probably true with other instruments as well.

Of course playing an instrument is not the only form of music performance. In terms of singing, my gut sense is that men and women are matched pretty evenly. I don’t have to think hard to come up with a list of female virtuoso singers — Billie Holiday, Beverly Sills, Mariah Carey.

Okay — so women seem underrepresented on instruments in nonclassical genres, and well represented in singing. I think one can make a credible argument that classical music is an exception because its entire culture is rooted in intellectualism and escaping the “urges” of the human animal. As is noted in “This Is Your Brain on Music” the whole idea of classical performance, where the audience sits quietly while the performers play, is entirely at odds with tribal music which was something of a group sport — there was much less delineation between audience and participant (in this sense, punk really was a return to man’s roots.)

Does this leave us with the statement that there’s something about singing that men find more attractive than playing an instrument? Possibly, but I’m not sure what that difference would be.

Biological Determinism

One of the more controversial ideas that has evolved out of the theory of evolution is biological determinism. According to some, it advocates that man is enslaved to his genes and his behaviors all arise out of genetic programming. Others argue man isn’t so much enslaved as influenced, and he can override his genetic commands by force of will.

I think it’s a complex topic, made even more complex when one considers the effect of environment, but I tend to side with the former opinion: Man is a computer programmed by his genes (and environment.) People often mock this view, claiming that it reduces people to robots who are spurred to acts by the demands of their unconscious. “Can’t resist… genes ordering me to eat chocolate…” But I think many of our genetic commands bubble up to our conscious self. When one considers biological determinism in the realm of mating and sexual negotiation, conventional wisdom argues that women prefer a mate rich with resources because he can take care of their children and thus ensure the continuation of her genetic material. And you hear women voice this viewpoint all the time, arguing that they want to meet a “rich doctor” or somesuch. It’s not a subconscious compulsion but something they are consciously aware of.

But there are other aspects of mate seeking that I would say do exist on a subconscious level. Why am I attracted to Megan Fox? Because she’s beautiful. But what does “beautiful” really mean. I can’t choose to find this or that person beautiful* — it’s an innate compass within me that I can’t ignore. It struck me today that our sense of attractiveness is a lot like our sense of taste. I don’t “choose” to like French fries, I just like them.

*This may not be entirely true. You probably can reprogram your sense of beauty to some degree. If I was forced to view pictures of Megan Fox while undergoing electroshock therapy I would probably develop an aversion to her features, and maybe other women who had similar features.

Now, scientists theorize there are evolutionary reasons dictating the laws of attraction and taste. The facial features we find attractive generally ascribed a fit, non-retarded person. The classic shapely female figure is ideal for childbearing. (There’s some controversy about this, but we basically don’t want them too fat or too thin.) The flavors we tend to crave — fats and sweets — were rare for most of our evolutionary history, and, when eaten in small quantities, good for us.

Of course, none of this explains why I’m so attracted to “Flo” the Progressive Insurance girl.