Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Humans and Darwin

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Dan Slater has an interesting op-ed in today’s NY Times about the evolutionary origins of human sexual behavior, but I think his approach is somewhat too simple. As Einstein reputedly said, one should make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.

For example, for a long time the notion that the microbial population on and inside the human body was somehow not relevant, really, to the human animal—they were extraneous and could be ignored or killed as needed—is now rapidly being rejected. The microbes that inhabit us are now seen to be essential to us and to our health: they are in fact part of us, just detachable, as it were: you can remove some to study, but if you take them away, we sicken and die. We ourselves consist of our body and our microbial population: the human-microbiome complex, one might call it: our bodies and about 100 trillion (100,000,000,000,000) bacteria contsitute ourselves. (More info.)

So looking at a human just as the physical body (ignoring the microbiome) is making things too simple. It’s not even good as a first approximation since without the microbiome the body dies.

In the op-ed, the author does point to studies that do make things simpler without making them too simple—for example, the “bogus pipeline” mechanism does seem to show actual behavior vs. the cover story people generally use. But to ignore cultural influence and internalized cultural values is very like ignoring the microbiome, it seems to me. Humans are in fact a combination of animal and culture: if all cultural trappings are removed, you have an animal but not a human: no language, no values, no humanity. Still a living animal, but not a human. Perhaps a potential human, but I suspect the window for acquiring many essential human attributes will have closed by the time the individual has moved past puberty. Indeed, cultural influence starts to shape the individual even in the womb, as sounds come through and the developing infant’s brain is shaped to grasp the particular sounds of language and the timbre and tone of the mother’s voice. Once emerged, the infant is constantly subject to—and receptive of—cultural influences of every sort, which affect the development of neural pathways in the brain. And then learning the various skills required in the culture further shape body and brain.

Just as the microbiome is essential to the human, so is the cultural biome, which affects everything about the developing person in a give and take with his or her intrinsic abilities and limitations.

This is not to say that Darwinian principles are wrong: as Richard Dawkins pointed out, with others furthering the investigation, cultural memes also are subject to the Darwinian process of inheriting characteristics with random variations subject to natural selection by a competition for limited resources: cultures thus change, evolve, become extinct in some cases, and so on. To trace one example, consider the descent of men’s neckwear in the Western world: the evolution and mutations, splitting into different species, cross-breeding with external examples, and so on to arrive at all the variety we have today (much like the variety of, say, ferns), with the evolution continuing nonstop, as evolution does.

So human sexual behavior, considered in evolutionary terms, will include the (evolutionary) influence of human culture as something inextricably interwoven into the mix. To talk about human behavior, sexual or otherwise, separately from culture is making things too simple. Or so it seems to me.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 January 2013 at 9:10 am

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