What Sexual Selections Exile Costs the Human Sciences

Sexual selection's century of exile from biology had substantial costs for other sciences. Anthropologists paid little attention to human mate choice in the tribal peoples they studied for most of this century. By the time mate choice was accepted as an important evolutionary factor, most of those tribal peoples had been exterminated or assimilated. Psychologists had little evolutionary insight into human sexuality and their discipline was dominated for decades by Freudianism. Almost all of 20th-century psychology developed without considering the possibility that sexual selection through mate choice might have played a role in the evolution of human behavior, the human mind, human culture, or human society Following Marx, the social sciences saw a culture's mode of production as more important than its mode of reproduction. Economists had no explanation for the importance of "positional goods" that advertise one's wealth and rank in comparison to sexual rivals. In the other human sciences as well—archeology, political science, sociology, linguistics, cognitive science, neuroscience, education, and social policy—there was a blind spot where the theory of sexual selection should have been.

When these sciences did try to trace the evolutionary roots of human behavior, they have usually come up with theories based on "survival of the fittest" and "the goods of the species." Mate choice was simply not on the intellectual map as an evolutionary force. Darwin's broader vision, in which most of nature's ornamentation arises through sexual courtship, was never used to explain the ornamental aspects of human behavior and culture.

For example, without sexual selection theory, 20th-century science had great difficulty in explaining the aspects of human nature most concerned with display status, and image. Economists could not explain our thirst for luxury goods and conspicuous consumption. Sociologists could not explain why men seek wealth and power more avidly than women. Educational psychologists could not explain why students became so rebellious and fashion-conscious after puberty Cognitive scientists could not fathom why human creativity evolved. In each case, apparent lack of "survival value" made human behavior appear irrational and maladaptive.

More generally, the sciences concerned with human nature have often lamented their incompleteness, fragmentation, and isolation. People are certainly complicated entities to study, but other sciences such as organic chemistry climate modeling, and computer science have coped with high degrees of complexity. The limited success of the human sciences may not have resulted from the complexity of human behavior, but from overlooking Darwin's crucial insight about the importance of sexual competition, courtship, and mate choice in human affairs.

Today, evolutionary biology is proclaiming that the old map of evolution was wrong. It put too much weight on the survival of the fittest and, until the 1980s, virtually ignored sexual selection through mate choice. Yet in the human sciences we are still using the old map, and we still do not know where we came from, or where we are going. The next few chapters offer a new map of evolution to help us find our way.

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