This book has explored only a few of the human mind's unusual abilities, and only a few of the possible ways of applying sexual selection theory to account for them. I have not pretended to offer a complete account of human evolution, the human mind, or human sexual choice. My theory is quite limited in scope, and my presentation of it even more so. Like art, music may be an evolutionary product of sexual choice, but analyzing it would have required repeating too many arguments and analogies from the chapter on art, and introducing too many new ideas—it is a scientifically challenging and emotionally charged topic, and one I hope to address elsewhere. Likewise for the relationship between sexual selection, human intelligence, learning, and cultural dynamics. I have hardly mentioned some of the central topics in cognitive science, such as perception, categorization, attention, memory, reasoning, and the control of bodily movement, which may have evolved under some influence from sexual choice—or they may not have. My sexual choice theory also hopped over that treacherous patch of philosophical quicksand known as "consciousness." I have stressed repeatedly that the sexual choice theory aims to account for just some of the distinctly human aspects of our minds, not the huge number of psychological adaptations that we share with other animals, including, for example, all the intricacies of great ape social intelligence, primate vision, and mammalian spatial memory. Finally, the sexual choice theory is descriptive, not prescriptive—it is a partial theory of human origins and a partial description of human nature, not a theory of human potential or a description of human limits.
Setting boundaries on human behavior is the job of law, custom, and etiquette, not evolutionary psychology.
Despite these limitations, the sexual choice theory is ambitious in trying to offer some new theoretical foundations for understanding human culture. I agree with E. O. Wilson's book Consilience that all areas of human knowledge should strive for mutual consistency through a biologically grounded view of human nature. The social sciences and humanities would benefit, I think, from turning to evolutionary psychology as their conceptual basis, rather than Marxism, psychoanalysis, and French philosophy. However, evolutionary psychology will not replace art history or linguistics, any more than physics could replace organic chemistry or paleontology. These sciences all describe phenomena at different levels, demanding the use of different concepts, models, and research methods. To argue that sexual choice has powerfully shaped human nature is not, for example, to suggest that economics should focus on human sexual behavior instead of markets, prices, and strategies. However, it may suggest that more attention to unconscious sexual strategies might help economists understand patterns of earning and spending.
Understanding the origins of human morality, art, and language is unlikely to diminish our appreciation of ethical leadership, aesthetic beauty, or witty conversation. On the contrary, if these human capacities evolved through sexual choice, then our appreciation of them, depending on a relatively hardwired set of sexual preferences, should be immune to any of the alleged wonder-reducing effects of scientific explanation. In any case, I trust that the enjoyment of worldly delights is better accompanied by true understanding than by romantic obscurantism.
One's understanding of human sexuality and human behavior depends, to some extent, on one's sex. Throughout this book, I have tried to write first as a scientist, second as a human, and only third as a male. Yet some of my ideas have probably been too influenced by my sex, my experiences, and my intuitions. The trouble is, I don't know which ideas are the biased ones, or I would have fixed them already. Perhaps others will be kind enough to identify them. A woman might have written a book about mental evolution through sexual selection with different emphases and insights. Indeed, I hope that women will write such books, so we can triangulate on the truth about human evolution from our distinctive viewpoints. Evolutionary psychology has made rapid progress in part because it includes a nearly equal sex ratio of researchers, with both men and women drawing upon their experiences to develop new ideas and experiments. Personal experience is not very useful in testing scientific theories, but it can be invaluable in formulating and refining them. I hope that each sex will continue to correct the other's biases and oversights within the scientific arena, without any pretense that either knows everything about a two-sexed species.
Scientific theories never dictate human values, but they can often cast new light on ethical issues. From a sexual selection viewpoint, moral philosophy and political theory have mostly been attempts to shift male human sexual competitiveness from physical violence to the peaceful accumulation of wealth and status. The rights to life, liberty, and property are cultural inventions that function, in part, to keep males from killing and stealing from one another while they compete to attract sexual partners. Feminist legal scholars have been right to point out this male bias in moral and political theory. The bias has been exacerbated by trying to ground ethical debates in survival rights rather than reproduction rights. Since most homicides and wars are perpetrated by adult males, and males kill mostly other males, a survival rights viewpoint tends to marginalize women and children.
Sexual selection offers a different perspective, in which human rights to mate choice and courtship can be better appreciated. For rape to be viewed as a serious crime from a survival rights viewpoint, for example, it must be characterized as "a crime of violence, not sex"—a description that raises many difficulties in cases of date rape. By contrast, a sexual choice viewpoint leads naturally to the view that even non-violent rape is a serious crime, because it violates human rights to exercise sexual choice. A sexual selection framework might also clarify the ethical arguments against sexual harassment, sexual stalking, incest, pedophilia, and female genital mutilation. Such a framework might also lead some to question the medical prioritization of "essential" therapies (e.g. expensive treatments that prolong the survival of the very old by a couple of years) over "cosmetic" therapies (e.g. cheap treatments that dramatically improve the courtship prospects of the young). It might also lead some to challenge educational policies that prioritize "academic fundamentals" (e.g. skills that increase worker productivity on behalf of corporate shareholders and tax-collectors) over "extracurricular activities" (e.g. sports, drama, dance, music, and art skills that increase individual sexual attractiveness).
This book has stressed that there are many possible ways for individuals to advertise their fitness when trying to attract a mate. Each animal species has evolved its own set of fitness indicators. Likewise, each human culture has developed its own set of learned fitness indicators, such as distinct ways of acquiring and displaying social status. Humans are in the unique position of being able to argue about what kinds of indicators we should encourage in our societies. Evolutionary psychology should not pretend that the male display of monetary wealth and the female display of physical beauty are the only fitness indicators available to our species. This book has argued that both human sexes have evolved many ways of displaying creative intelligence and other aspects of fitness through storytelling, poetry, art, music, sports, dance, humor, kindness, leadership, philosophical theorizing, and so forth. Marxists, feminists, artists, and saints have long understood that human intelligence, creativity, kindness, and leadership can be displayed in many ways other than by climbing economic status hierarchies to acquire material luxuries. I agree, and this book has focused on the traditional hominid and hippie modes of display: body ornamentation, rhythmic dance, irreverent humor, protean creativity, generosity, ideological ardor, good sex, memorable storytelling, and shared consciousness. I hope that the sexual choice theory increases your confidence that people can appreciate your mind's charms directly, in ordinary conversation, unmediated by your ability to work, save, shop, and spend.
Our modern quality of life depends on our ability to benefit from millions of acts of courtship, in which we are neither the producer nor the intended receiver. One's life may be saved by a side-impact airbag designed by an engineer in Stockholm, striving for local status in a Volvo design team. Or one may be uplifted by a novel written by the long-dead Balzac trying to impress his aristocratic Russian mistresses. The signal difference between modern life and Pleistocene life is that we have the social institutions and technologies for benefiting from the courtship efforts of distant strangers.
It is our responsibility to design social institutions that reap maximum social benefits from individual instincts for sexual competitiveness. In the terminology of game theory, we may not be able to keep individuals from playing as selfish competitors in the mating game, but we may choose, to some extent, which mating game our society plays. We cannot keep people from playing equilibrium strategies, but we can recognize that there are many possible equilibria available, and debates over social values can be viewed as equilibrium selection methods. One society, for example, may organize human sexual competition so that individuals become alienated workaholics competing to acquire consumerist indicators of their spending ability. In another possible society, individuals could compete to display their effectiveness in saving poor villages from economic stagnation and saving endangered habitats from destruction. In my view, conspicuous charity is at least as natural as conspicuous consumption, and we are free to decide which should be more respected in our society. In other words, discovering better ways of managing human sexual competitiveness should be the explicit core of social policy.
Existing political philosophies all developed before evolutionary game theory, so they do not take equilibrium selection into account. Socialism pretends that individuals are not selfish sexual competitors, so it ignores equilibria altogether. Conservatism pretends that there is only one possible equilibrium—a nostalgic version of the status quo—that society could play. Libertarianism ignores the possibility of equilibrium selection at the level of rational social discourse, and assumes that decentralized market dynamics will magically lead to equilibria that yield the highest aggregate social benefits. Far from being a scientific front for a particular set of political views, modern evolutionary psychology makes most standard views look simplistic and unimaginative.
Likewise for standard views on "bioethics." The possibilities of genetic screening and genetic engineering seem to raise new ethical challenges for our species. Some bioethicists warn that parents should have no right to "play God" by giving their offspring unfair genetic advantages over others. They worry that new reproductive technologies may lead to runaway fashions for certain physical or mental traits. They even imagine that capricious divergence in such fashions may lead our species to split apart into distinct subspecies with different bodies, minds, and lifestyles. However, sexual selection theory suggests that such warnings have come about 500 million years too late. Animals have been playing God ever since they first evolved powers of sexual choice. Finding mates with good genes is one of the major functions of mate choice. Every female insect, bird, or mammal that selects a male based on fitness indicators is engaging in a form of genetic screening. Sometimes their choices are based on sensory appeal or novelty, leading to runaway fashions for bodily ornaments and courtship behaviors. Divergence in sexual preferences has been splitting species apart for millions of years, generating most of the biodiversity on our planet. We could outlaw genetic screening for heritable traits, but I imagine that our jails would have difficulty housing all of the sexually reproducing animals in the world that exercise mate choice—the female humpback whales alone would require prohibitively costly, high-security aquariums. Our current debates about reproductive technologies might benefit from recognizing the antiquity of sexual choice mechanisms that evolved specifically to give one's offspring unfair genetic advantages over others.
A sexual selection framework suggests one final point about human values. Mate choice is intrinsically discriminatory and judgmental, built to rank potential mates by reducing their rich subjectivity to a crass list of physical, mental, and social features. It scrutinizes individuals for infinitesimally harmful mutations and trivial biological errors, anxiously anticipating any heritable weakness that natural selection would have spurned in the Pleistocene. It discounts everything that humans have in common, focusing only on differences. And it pays the most attention to the fitness indicators that amplify those differences to the greatest extent. When we are actually choosing long-term sexual partners, there may be good reasons to listen to our mate choice circuits. But for the rest of the time we do not have to view people through the lens of mate choice. The better we understand our mate choice instincts, the easier they may be to override when they are socially inappropriate. There is much more to modern human social life than courtship, and much more to people than their fitness indicators.
When our automatic sexual judgments assert themselves, tempting us to discriminate and objectify when we should be sympathizing, we might try remembering the following. First, all living humans are evolutionary success stories whose 80,000 or so genes have already managed to prosper through thousands or millions of generations. Second, all normal humans are incredibly intelligent, creative, articulate, artistic, and kind, compared with other apes and with our hominid ancestors. Third, through the contingencies of human romance and genetic inheritance, almost everyone you meet will produce at least one great-grandchild who will be brighter, kinder, and more beautiful than most of your great-grandchildren. Such lessons in humility, transience, and empathy come naturally from an evolutionary perspective on human nature.
Over the long term, our species, like every other, has just two possible evolutionary fates over the long term: extinction, or further splitting apart into a number of daughter species—each of which will either go extinct or split again. If we avoid extinction, each of our daughter species will probably develop distinctive styles of courtship display, and different ways to channel their sexual competitiveness into various forms of physical, artistic linguistic, intellectual, moral, and economic display. Some may continue to live on our home planet, and some may move elsewhere. Some may shape their own evolution naturally through sexual selection, while others may shape their evolution consciously through genetic technologies. We cannot imagine the minds that our far-future descendants might evolve, any more than our ape-like ancestors could have imagined ours. That does not matter. Our responsibility is not to speculate endlessly about the possible futures of our daughter species, but to become, with as much panache as we can afford, their ancestors.
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