Desmond Morris’s ‘The Naked Ape’: A Pre-Sociobiological Work of Human Ethology 

Desmond Morris, Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal (New York: Mcgraw-Hill Book Company, 1967)

First published in 1967, ‘The Naked Ape’, a popular science classic authored by the already famous British zoologist and TV presenter Desmond Morris, belongs to the pre-sociobiological tradition of human ethology

In the most general sense, the approach adopted by the human ethologists, who included, not only Morris, but also playwright Robert Ardrey, anthropologists Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox and the brilliant Nobel-prize winning ethologist, naturalist, zoologist, pioneering evolutionary epistemologist and part-time Nazi sympathizer Konrad Lorenz, was correct. 

They sought to study the human species from the perspective of zoology. In other words, they sought to adopt the disinterested perspective, and detachment, of, as Edward O Wilson was later to put it, “zoologists from another planet” (Sociobiology: The New Synthesis: p547). 

Thus, Morris proposed cultivating: 

An attitude of humility that is becoming to proper scientific investigation… by deliberately and rather coyly approaching the human being as if he were another species, a strange form of life on the dissecting table” (p14-5).  

In short, Morris proposed to study humans just as a zoologist would any other species of non-human animal. 

Such an approach was an obvious affront to anthropocentric notions of human exceptionalism – and also a direct challenge to the rather less scientific approach of most sociologists, psychologists, social and cultural anthropologists and other such ‘professional damned fools’, who, at that time, almost all studied human behavior in isolation from, and largely ignorance of, biology, zoology, and the scientific study of the behavior of all animals other than humans. 

As a result, such books inevitably attracted controversy and criticism. Such criticism, however, invariably missed the point. 

The real problem was not that the ethologists sought to study human behavior in just the same way a zoologist would study the behavior of any nonhuman animal, but rather that the study of the behavior of nonhuman animals itself remained, at this time, very much in its infancy. 

Thus, the field of animal behavior was to be revolutionized just a decade or so after the publication of ‘The Naked Ape’ by the approach that came to be known as, first, sociobiology, now more often as behavioral ecology, or, when applied to humans, evolutionary psychology

These approaches sought to understand behavior in terms of fitness maximization – in other words, on the basis of the recognition that organisms have evolved to engage in behaviors which tended to maximize their reproductive success in ancestral environments. 

Mathematical models, often drawn from economics and game theory, were increasingly employed. In short, behavioral biology was becoming a mature science. 

In contrast, the earlier ethological tradition was, even at its best, very much a soft science. 

Indeed, much such work, for example Jane Goodall’s rightly-celebrated studies of the chimpanzees of Gombe, was almost pre-scientific in its approach, involving observation, recording and description of behaviors, but rarely the actual testing or falsification of hypotheses. 

Such research was obviously important. Indeed, Goodall’s was positively groundbreaking. 

After all, the observation of the behavior or an organism is almost a prerequisite for the framing of hypotheses about the behavior of that organism, since hypotheses are, in practice, rarely generated in an informational vacuum from pure abstract theory. 

However, such research was hardly characteristic of a mature and rigorous science. 

When hypotheses regarding the evolutionary significance of behavior patterns were formulated by early ethologists, this was done on a rather casual ad hoc basis, involving a kind of ‘armchair adaptationism’, which could perhaps legitimately be dismissed as the spinning of, in Stephen Jay Gould’s famous phrase, just so stories

Thus, a crude group selectionism went largely unchallenged. Yet, as George C Williams was to show, and Richard Dawkins later to forcefully reiterate in The Selfish Gene (reviewed here), behaviors are unlikely to evolve that benefit the group or species if they involve a cost to the inclusive fitness of the individual engaging in the behavior. 

Robert Wright picks out a good example of this crude group selectionism from ‘The Naked Ape’ itself, quoting Morris’s claim that, over the course of human evolution: 

To begin with, the males had to be sure that their females were going to be faithful to them when they left them alone to go hunting. So the females had to develop a pairing tendency” (p64). 

To anyone schooled in the rudiments of Dawkinsian selfish gene theory, the fallacy should be obvious. But, just in case we didn’t spot it, Wright has picked it out for us: 

Stop right there. It was in the reproductive interests of the males for the females to develop a tendency toward fidelity? So natural selection obliged the males by making the necessary changes in the females? Morris never got around to explaining how, exactly, natural selection would perform this generous feat” (The Moral Animal: p56). 

In reality, couples have a conflict of interest here, and the onus is clearly on the male to evolve some mechanism of mate-guarding, though a female might conceivably evolve some way to advertise her fidelity if, by so doing, she secured increased male parental investment and provisioning, hence increasing her own reproductive success.[1]

In short, mating is Machiavellian. A more realistic view of human sexuality, rooted in selfish gene theory, is provided by Donald Symons in his seminal The Evolution of Human Sexuality (which I have reviewed here). 

Unsuccessful Societies? 

The problems with ‘The Naked Ape’ begin in the very first chapter, where Morris announces, rather oddly, that, in studying the human animal, he is largely uninterested in the behavior of contemporary foraging groups or other so-called ‘primitive’ peoples. Thus, he bemoans: 

The earlier anthropologists rushed off to all kinds of unlikely corners of the world… scattering to remote cultural backwaters so atypical and unsuccessful that they are nearly extinct. They then returned with startling facts about the bizarre mating customs, strange kinship systems, or weird ritual procedures of these tribes, and used this material as though it were of central importance to the behaviour of our species as a whole. The work done by these investigators… did not tell us was anything about the typical behaviour of typical naked apes. This can only be done by examining the common behaviour patterns that are shared by all the ordinary, successful members of the major cultures-the mainstream specimens who together represent the vast majority. Biologically, this is the only sound approach” (p10).[2]

Thus, today, political correctness has wholly banished the word ‘primitive’ from the anthropological lexicon. It is, modern anthropologists insist, demeaning and pejorative.  

Indeed, post-Boasian cultural anthropologists in America typically reject the very notion that some societies are more advanced than others, championing instead a radical cultural relativism and insisting we have much to learn from the lifestyle and traditions of hunter-gatherers, foragers, savage cannibals and other such ‘indigenous peoples’. 

Morris also rejects the term ‘primitive’ as a useful descriptor for hunter-gatherer and other technologically-backward peoples, but for diametrically opposite reasons. 

Thus, for Morris, to describe foraging groups as ‘primitive’ is to rather give them altogether too much credit: 

The simple tribal groups that are living today are not primitive, they are stultified. Truly primitive tribes have not existed for thousands of years. The naked ape is essentially an exploratory species and any society that has failed to advance has in some sense failed, ‘gone wrong’. Something has happened to it to hold it back, something that is working against the natural tendencies of the species to explore and investigate the world around it” (p10). 

Instead, Morris proposes to focus on contemporary western societies, declaring: 

North America… is biologically a very large and successful culture and can, without undue fear of distortion, be taken as representative of the modern naked ape” (p51) 

It is indeed true that, with the diffusion of American media and consumer goods, American culture is fast becoming ubiquitous. However, this is a very recent development in historical terms, let alone on the evolutionary timescale of most interest to biologists. 

Indeed, viewed historically and cross-culturally, it is we westerners who are the odd, aberrant ones. 

Thus, we even have been termed, in a memorable backcronym, WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and hence quite aberrant, not only in terms of our lifestyle and prosperity, but also in terms of our psychology and modes of thinking

Moreover, while foraging groups, and other pre-modern peoples, may now indeed now be tottering on the brink of extinction, this again is a very recent development. 

Indeed, far from being aberrant, this was the lifestyle adopted by all humans throughout most of the time we have existed as a species, including during the period when most of our unique physical and behavioural adaptations evolved

In short, although we may inhabit western cities today, this is not the environment where we evolved, nor that to which our brains and bodies are primarily adapted.[3]

Therefore, given that it represents the lifestyle of our ancestors during the period when most of our behavioral and bodily adaptations evolved, primitive peoples must necessarily have a special place in any evolutionary theory of human behaviour.[4]

Indeed, Morris himself admits as much himself just a few pages later, where he acknowledges that: 

The fundamental patterns of behavior laid down in our early days as hunting apes still shine through all our affairs, no matter how lofty they may be” (p40). 

Indeed, a major theme of ‘The Naked Ape’ is the extent to which the behaviour even of wealthy white westerners is nevertheless fundamentally shaped and dictated by the patterns of foraging set out in our ancient hunter-gatherer past. 

This, of course, anticipates the concept of the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (or EEA) in modern evolutionary psychology

Thus, Morris suggests that the pattern of men going out to work to financially provision wives and mothers who stay home with dependent offspring reflects the ancient role of men as hunters provisioning their wives and children: 

“Behind the façade of modern city life there is the same old naked ape. Only the names have been changed: for ‘hunting’ read ‘working’, for ‘hunting grounds’ read ‘place of business’, for ‘home base’ read ‘house’, for ‘pair-bond’ read ‘marriage’, for ‘mate’ read ‘wife’, and so on” (p84).[5]

In short, while we must explain the behaviors of contemporary westerners, no less than those of primitive foragers, in the light of Darwinian evolution, nevertheless all such behaviors must be explained ultimately in terms of adaptations that evolved over previous generations under very different conditions. 

Indeed, in the sequel to ‘The Naked Ape’, Morris further focuses on this very point, arguing that modern cities, in particular, are unnatural environments for humans, rejecting the then-familiar description of cities as concrete jungles on the grounds that, whereas jungles are the “natural habitat” of animals, modern cities are very much an unnatural habitat for humans. 

Instead, he argues, the better analogy for modern cities is a Human Zoo

The comparison we must make is not between the city dweller and the wild animal but between the city dweller and the captive animal. The city dweller is no longer living in conditions natural for his species. Trapped, not by a zoo collector, but by his own brainy brilliance, he has set himself up in a huge restless menagerie where he is in constant danger of cracking under the strain” (The Human Zoo: pvii). 

Nakedness 

Morris adopts what he calls a zoological approach. Thus, unlike modern evolutionary psychologists, he focuses as much on explaining our physiology as our behavior and psychology. Indeed, it is in explaining the peculiarities of human anatomy that Morris’s book is at his best.[6]

This begins, appropriately enough, with the trait that gives him his preferred name for our species, and also furnishes his book with its title – namely our apparent nakedness or hairlessness. 

Having justified calling us ‘The Naked Ape’ on zoological grounds, namely on the ground that this is the first thing the naturalist would notice upon observing our species, Morris then comes close to contradicting himself, admitting that we actually have more hairs on our bodies than do chimpanzees.[7]

However, Morris summarily dispatches this objection: 

It is like saying that because a blind man has a pair of eyes, he is not blind. Functionally, we are stark naked and our skin is fully exposed” (p42). 

Why then are we so strangely hairless? Neoteny, Morris proposes, provides part of the answer. 

This refers to the tendency of humans to retain into maturity traits that are, in other primates, restricted to juveniles, nakedness among them. 

Neoteny is a major theme in Morris’s book – and indeed in human evolution

Besides our hairlessness, other human anatomical features that have been explained either partly or wholly in terms of neoteny, whether by Morris or by other evolutionists, include our brain size, growth patterns, inventiveness, upright posture, spinal curvature, smaller jaws and teeth, forward facing vaginas, lack of a penis bone, the length of our limbs and the retention of the hymen into sexual maturity (see below). Indeed, many of these traits are explicitly discussed by Morris himself as resulting from neoteny

However, while neoteny may supply the means by which our relative hairlessness evolved, it is not a sufficient explanation for why this development occurred, because, as Morris points out: 

The process of neoteny is one of the differential retarding of developmental processes” (p43). 

In other words, humans are neotenous in respect of only some of our characters, not all of them. After all, an ape that remained infantile in all respects would never evolve, for the simple reason that it would never reach sexual maturity and hence remain unable to reproduce. 

Instead, only certain specific juvenile or infantile traits are retained into adulthood, and the question then becomes why these specific traits were the ones chosen by natural selection to be retained. 

Thus, Morris concludes: 

It is hardly likely… that an infantile trait as potentially dangerous as nakedness was going to be allowed to persist simply because other changes were slowing down unless it had some special value to the new species” (p43). 

As to what this “special value” (i.e. selective advantage) might have been, Morris considers, in turn, various candidates.  

One theory considered by Morris theory relates to our susceptibility to insect parasites.  

Because humans, unlike many other primates, return to a home base to sleep most nights, we are, Morris reports, afflicted with fleas as well as lice (p28-9). Yet fur, Morris observes, is a good breeding ground for such parasites (p38-9). 

Perhaps, then, Morris imagines, we might have evolved hairlessness in order to minimize the problems posed by such parasites. 

However, Morris rejects this as an adequate explanation, since, he observes: 

Few other den dwelling mammals… have taken this step” (p43). 

An alternative explanation implicates sexual selection in the evolution of human hairlessness.  

Substantial sex differences in hairiness, as well as the retention of pubic hairs around the genitalia, suggests that sexual selection may indeed have played a role in the evolution of our relative hairlessness as compared to other mammals. 

Morris, however, rejects this explanation on the grounds that: 

The loss of bodily insulation would be a high price to pay for a sexy appearance alone” (p46). 

But other species often often pay a high price for sexually selected bodily adornments. For example, the peacock sports a huge, brightly coloured and elaborate tail that is thought to have evolved through sexual selection or female choice, which is costly to grow and maintain, impedes his mobility and is conspicuous to predators. 

Indeed, according to Amotz Zahavi’s handicap principle, it is precisely the high cost of such sexually-selected adornments that made them reliable fitness indicators and hence attractive to potential mates, because only a highly ‘fit’ male can afford to grow such a costly, inconvenient and otherwise useless appendage. 

Morris also gives unusually respectful consideration to the highly-controversial aquatic ape theory as an explanation for human hairlessness. 

Thus, if humans did indeed pass through an aquatic, or at least amphibious, stage during our evolution, then, Morris agrees, this may indeed explain our hairlessness, since it is indeed true that other aquatic or semiaquatic mammals, such as whales, dolphins and seals, also seem to have jettisoned most of their fur over the course of their evolution. 

This is presumably because fur increases frictional drag while in the water and hence impedes swimming ability, and is among the reasons that elite swimmers also remove their body-hair before competition. 

Indeed, our loss of body hair is among the human anatomical peculiarities that are most often cited by champions of aquatic ape theory in favor of the theory that humans did indeed pass through an aquatic phase during our evolution. 

However, aquatic ape theory is highly controversial, and is rejected by almost all mainstream evolutionists and biological anthropologists.  

As I have said, Morris, for his part, gives respectful consideration to the theory, and, unlike many other anthropologists and evolutionists, does not dismiss it out of hand as entirely preposterous and unworthy even of further consideration.[8]

On the contrary, Morris credits the theory as “ingenious”, acknowledging that, if true, it might explain many otherwise odd features of human anatomy, including not just our relative hairlessness, but also the retention of hairs on our head, the direction of the hairs on our backs, our upright posture, ‘streamlined’ bodies, dexterity of our hands and the thick extra layer of sub-cutaneous fat beneath our skin that is lacking in other primates. 

However, while acknowledging that the theory explains many curious anomalies of human physiology, Morris ultimately rejects ‘aquatic ape theory’ as altogether too speculative given the complete lack of fossil evidence in support of the theory – the same reason that most other evolutionists also reject the theory. 

Thus, he concludes: 

It demands… the acceptance of a hypothetical major evolutionary phase for which there is no direct evidence” (p45-6). 

Morris also rejects the theory that was, according to Morris himself, the most widely accepted explanation for our hairlessness among other evolutionists at the time he was writing – namely the theory that our hairlessness evolved as a cooling mechanism when our ancestors left the shaded forests for the open African savannah

The problem with this theory, as Morris explains it, is that:  

Exposure of the naked skin to the air certainly increases the chances of heat loss, but it also increases heat gain at the same time and risks damage from the sun’s rays” (p47). 

Thus, it is not at all clear that moving into the open savannah would indeed select for hairlessness. Otherwise, as Morris points out, we might expect other carnivorous, predatory mammals such as lions and jackals, who also inhabit the savannah, to have similarly jettisoned most of their fur. 

Ultimately, however, Morris accepts instead a variant on this idea – namely that hairlessness evolved to prevent overheating while chasing prey when hunting. 

However, this fails to explain why it is men’s bodies that are generally much hairier than those of women, even though, cross-culturally, in most foraging societies, it is men who do most, if not all, of the hunting. 

It also raises the question as to why other mammalian carnivores, including some that also inhabit the African Savannah and other similar environments, such as lions and jackals, have not similarly shed their body hair, especially since the latter rely more on their speed to catch prey species, whereas humans, armed with arrows and javelins as well as hunting dogs, do not always have to catch a prey themselves in order to kill it. 

I would tentatively venture an alternative theory, one which evidently did not occur to Morris – namely, perhaps our hairlessness evolved in concert with our invention and use of clothing (e.g. animal hides) – i.e. a case of gene-culture coevolution

Clothing would provide an alternative means of protect from both sun and cold alike, but one that has the advantage that, unlike bodily fur, it can be discarded (and put back on) on demand. 

This explanation suggests that, paradoxically, we became naked apes at the same time, and indeed precisely because, we had also become clothed apes. 

The Sexiest Primate? 

One factor said to have contributed to the book’s commercial success was the extent to which its thesis chimed with the prevailing spirit of the age during which it was first published, namely the 1960s. 

Thus, as already alluded to, it presented, in many ways, an idealized and romantic version of human nature, with its crude group-selectionism and emphasis on cooperation within groups without a concomitant emphasis on conflict between groups, and its depiction of humans as a naturally monogamous pair-bonding species, without a concomitant emphasis on the prevalence of infidelity, desertion, polygamy, Machiavellian mating strategies and even rape.  

Another element that jibed with the zeitgeist of the sixties was Morris’s emphasis on human sexuality, with Morris famously declaring: 

The naked ape is the sexiest primate alive” (p64). 

Are humans indeed the ‘sexiest’ of primates? How can we assess this claim? It depends, of course, on precisely how we define ‘sexiness’. 

Obviously, if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then sexiness is located in a rather different part of the male anatomy, but equally subjective in nature. 

Thus, humans like ourselves find other humans more sexy than other primates because we have evolved to do so. A male chimpanzee, however, would likely disagree and regard a female chimpanzee as sexier. 

However, Morris presumably has something else in mind when he describes humans as the “sexiest” of primates. 

What he seems to mean is that sexuality and sexual behavior permeates the life of humans to a greater degree than for other primates. Thus, for example, he cites as evidence the extended or continuous sexual receptivity of human females, writing: 

There is much more intense sexual activity in our own species than in any other primates” (p56) 

However, the claim that sexuality and sexual behavior permeates the life of humans to a greater degree than for other primates is difficult to maintain when you have studied the behavior of some of our primate cousins. Thus, for example, both chimpanzees and especially bonobos, our closest relatives among extant non-human primates, are far more promiscuous than all but the sluttiest of humans

Indeed, one might cynically suggest that what Morris had most in mind when he described humans as “the sexiest primate alive” was simply a catchy marketing soundbite that very much tapped into the zeitgeist of the era (i.e. the 1960s) and might help boost sales for his book. 

Penis Size

As further evidence for our species’ alleged “sexiness” Morris also supposedly unusually large size of the human penis, reporting: 

The [human] male has the largest penis of any primate. It is not only extremely long when fully erect, but also very thick when compared with the penises of other species” (p80). 

This claim, namely that the human male has an unusually large penis, may originate with Morris, and has certainly since enjoyed wide currency in subsequent decades. 

Thus, competing theories have been formulated to account for the (supposedly) unusual size of our penes, including the idea that penis size evolved through sexual selection (e.g. The Mating Mind: p234-6), or that our large penes are designed to remove sperm deposited by rival males in the female reproductive tract (Human Sperm Competition: p170-171; Gallup & Burch 2004; Gallup et al 2004; Goetz et al 2005; Goetz et al 2007

Yet, according to Alan F Dixson, the human penis is, in fact, not unusually long by primate standards, being roughly the same length as that of the chimpanzee (Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems: p64). 

Instead, Dixson reports: 

The erect human penis is comparable in length to those of other primates, in relation to body size. Only its circumference is unusual when compared to the penes of other hominids” (Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems: p65). 

The human penis is unusual, then, only in its width or girth. 

As to why our penes are so wide, the answer is quite straightforward, and has little to do with the alleged ‘sexiness’ of the human species, whatever that means. 

Instead, it is a simple, if indirect, reflection of our increased brain-size.

Increased brain-size first selected for changes in the size and shape of female reproductive anatomy. This, in turn, led to changes in male reporoductive anatomy. Thus, Bowman suggests: 

As the diameter of the bony pelvis increased over time to permit passage of an infant with a larger cranium, the size of the vaginal canal also became larger” (Bowman 2008). 

Similarly, Robin Baker and Mark Bellis write: 

The dimensions and elasticity of the vagina in mammals are dictated to a large extent by the dimensions of the baby at birth. The large head of the neonatal human baby (384g brain weight compared with only 227g for the gorilla…) has led to the human vagina when fully distended being large, both absolutely and relative to the female body… particularly once the vagina and vestibule have been stretched during the process of giving birth, the vagina never really returning to its nulliparous dimensions” (Human Sperm Competition: Copulation, Masturbation and Infidelity: p171). 

In turn, larger vaginas select for larger penises in order to fill this larger vagina (Bowman 2008).  

Interestingly, this theory directly contradicts the alleged claim of Philippe Rushton that there is an inverse correlation between brain-size and penis-size, which relationship supposedly explains race differences in brain and genital size. Thus, Rushton was infamously quoted as observing: 

It’s a trade off, more brains or more penis. You can’t have everything.[9]

On the contrary, this analysis suggests that, at least as between species (and presumably as between sub-species, i.e. races, as well), there is a positive correlation between brain-size and penis-size.[10]

According to Baker and Bellis, one reason male penis size tracks that of female vagina size (both being relatively large, and especially wide, in humans) is that the penis functions as, in Baker and Bellis’s words, a “suction piston”, functioning as a mechanism of sperm competition by removing any sperm previously deposited by rival males. 

Thus, they report: 

In order to distend the vagina sufficiently to act as a suction piston, the penis needs to be a suitable size [and] the relatively large size… and distendibility of the human vagina (especially after giving birth) thus imposes selection, via sperm competition, for a relatively large penis” (Human Sperm Competition: p171). 

Interestingly, this theory – namely that the human penis functions as a sperm displacement device – although seemingly fanciful, actually explains some otherwise puzzling aspect of human coitus, such as its relatively extended duration, the male refractory period and related Coolidge effect – i.e. why a male cannot immediately recommence intercourse immediately after orgasm, unless perhaps with a new female (though this exception has yet to be experimentally demonstrated in humans). 

It even has some empirical support (Gallup & Burch 2004; Goetz et al 2005; Goetz et al 2007), including some delightful experiments involving sex toys of various shapes (Gallup et al 2004). 

Morris writes: 

“[Man] is proud that he has the biggest brain of all the primates, but attempts to conceal the fact that he also has the biggest penis, preferring to accord this honor falsely to the mighty gorilla” (p9). 

Actually, the gorilla, mighty though he indeed may be, has relatively small genitalia. This is on account of his polygynous, but non-polyandrous, mating system, which involves minimal sperm competition.[11]

Moreover, the largeness of our brains, in which, according to Morris, we take such pride, may actually be the cause of the largeness of our penes, for which, according to Morris, we have such shame (here, he speaks for few men). 

Thus, large brains required larger heads which, in turn, required larger vaginas in order to successfully birth larger-headed babies. This in turn selected for larger penises to fill the larger vagina. 

In short, the large size, or rather large girth/width, of our penes has less to do with our being the “sexiest primate” and more to do with our being the brainiest

Female Breasts

In addition to his discussion of human penis size, Morris also argues that various other features of human anatomy that not usually associated with sex nevertheless evolved, in part, due to their role in sexual signaling. These include our earlobes (p66-7), everted lips (p68-70) and, tentatively and rather bizarrely, perhaps even our large fleshy noses (p67). 

He makes the most developed and persuasive case, however, in respect of another physiological peculiarity of the human species, and of human females in particular, namely the female breasts

Thus, Morris argues: 

For our species, breast design is primarily sexual rather than maternal in function” (p106). 

The evolution of protruding breasts of a characteristic shape appears to be yet another example of sexual signalling” (p70). 

As evidence, he cites the differences in shape between women’s breasts and both the breasts of other primates and the design of baby bottles (p93). In short, the shape of human breasts do not seem ideally conducive to nursing alone. 

The notion that breasts have a secondary function as sexual advertisements is indeed compelling. In most other mammals, large breasts develop only during pregnancy, but human breasts are permanent, developing at puberty, and, except during pregnancy and lactation, composed predominantly of fat not milk (see Møller et al 1995; Manning et al 1997; Havlíček et al 2016). 

On the other hand, it is difficult to envisage how breasts ever first became co-opted as a sexually-selected ornament. 

After all, the presence of developed breasts on a female would originally, as among other primates, have indicated that the female in question was pregnant, and hence infertile. There would therefore initially have been strong selection pressure among males against ever finding breasts sexually attractive, since it would lead to their pursuing infertile women whom they could not possibly impregnate. 

How then did breasts ever make the switch to a sexually attractive, sexually-selected ornament? This is what George Francis, at his blog, ‘Anglo Reaction’, terms the breast paradox.[12]

Morris does not address this not insignificant problem. However, he does suggest that two other human traits unique among primates may have facilitated the process. 

Our so-called ‘nakedness’ (i.e. relative hairlessness), the trait that furnished Morris’s book with its title, and Morris himself with his preferred name for our species, is the first of these traits. 

Swollen breast-patches in a shaggy-coated female would be far less conspicuous as signalling devices, but once the hair has vanished they would stand out clearly” (p70-1). 

Secondly, Morris argues that our bipedalism (i.e. the fact we walk on two legs) and resulting vertical posture, necessarily put the female reproductive organs out of sight underneath a woman when she adopts a standing position, and hence generally out of the sight of potential mates. There was therefore, Morris suggests, a need for some frontal sexual-signaling. 

This, he argues, was further necessitated by what he argues is our species’ natural preference for ventro-ventral (i.e. missionary position) intercourse. 

In particular, Morris argues that human female breasts evolved in order to mimic the appearance of the female buttocks, a form of what he terms ‘self-mimicry’. 

The protuberant, hemispherical breasts of the female must surely be copies of the fleshy buttocks” (p76). 

Everted Lips 

Interestingly, he makes a similar argument in respect of another trait of humans not shared by other extant primates – namely, our inverted lips.

The word ‘everted’ refers to the fact that our lips are turned outwards, as is easily perceived by comparing human lips with the much thinner lips of our closest non-human relatives

Again, this seems intuitively plausible, since, like female breasts, lips do indeed seem to be a much-sexualized part of the human anatomy, at least in western societies, and in at least some non-western cultures as well, if erotic art is to be taken as evidence.[13]

These everted lips, he argues, evolved to mimic the appearance of the female labia

As with Morris’s idea that female breasts evolved to mimic the appearance of female buttocks, the idea that our lips, and women’s use of lipstick, is designed to imitate the appearance of the female sexual organs has been much mocked.[14]

However, the similarity in appearance of the labia and human lips can hardly be doubted. After all, it is even attested to in the very etymology of the word

Of course, inverted lips reach their most extreme form among extant sub-species of hominid among black Africans. This Morris argues is because: 

If climatic conditions demand a darker skin, then this will work against the visual signalling capacity of the lips by reducing their colour contrast. If they really are important as visual signals, then some kind of compensating development might be expected, and this is precisely what seems to have occurred, the negroid lips maintaining their conspicuousness by becoming larger and more protuberant. What they have lost in colour contrast, they have made up for in size and shape” (p69-70).[15]

Thus, rejecting the politically-incorrect notion that black Africans are, as a race, somehow more ‘primitive than other humans, Morris instead emphasizes the fact that, in respect of this trait (i.e. everted lips), they are actually the most differentiated from non-human primates.  

Thus, all humans, compared to non-human primates, have everted lips, but black African lips are the most everted. Therefore, Morris concludes, using the word ‘primitive’ is in the special phylogenetic sense

Anatomically, these negroid characters do not appear to be primitive, but rather represent a positive advance in the specialization of the lip region” (p70).

In other words, whereas whites and Asians may be more advanced than blacks when it comes to intelligence, brain-size, science, technology and building civilizations, when it comes to everted lips, black Africans have us all beaten! 

Female Orgasm

Morris also discusses the function of the female orgasm, a topic which has subsequently been the subject of much speculation and no little controversy among evolutionists.  

Again, Morris suggests that humans’ unusual vertical posture, brought on by our bipedal means of locomotion, may have been central to the evolution of this trait. 

Thus, if a female were to walk off immediately after sexual intercourse had occurred, then: 

Under the simple influence of gravity the seminal fluid would flow back down the vaginal tract and much of it would be lost” (p79).  

This obviously makes successful impregnation less likely. As a result, Morris concludes: 

There is therefore a great advantage in any reaction that tends to keep the female horizontal when the male ejaculates and stops copulating” (p79). 

The chief adaptive function of the female orgasm therefore, according to Morris, is the tiredness, and perhaps post-coital tristesse, that immediately follows orgasm, and motivates the female experiencing these emotions to remain in a horizontal position even after intercourse has ended, and hence retain the male ejaculate within her reproductive tract. 

The violent response of female orgasm, leaving the female sexually satiated and exhausted has precisely this effect” (p79).[16]

However, the main problem with Morris’s theory is that it predicts that female orgasm should be confined to humans, since, at least among extant primates, we represent the only bipedal ape.  

Morris does indeed argue that the female organism is, like our nakedness, bipedal locomotion and large brains, an exclusively human trait, describing how, among most, if not all, non-human primates: 

At the end of a copulation, when the male ejaculates and dismounts, the female monkey shows little sign of emotional upheaval and usually wanders off as if nothing had happened” (p79). 

Unfortunately for Morris’s theory, however, evidence has subsequently accumulated that some non-human (and non-bipedal) female primates do indeed seem to sometimes experience responses seemingly akin to orgasm during copulation. 

Thus, Alan Dixson reports: 

Female orgasm is not confined to Homo sapiens. Putatively homologous responses [have] been reported in a number of non-human primates, including stump-tail and Japanese Macaques, rhesus monkeys and chimpanzees… Pre-human ancestors of Homo sapiens, such as the australopithecines, probably possessed a capacity to exhibit female orgasm, as do various extant ape and monkey species. The best documented example concerns the stump tailed macaque (Macaca arctoides), in which orgasmic uterine contractions have been recorded during female-female mounts… as well as during copulation… De Waal… estimates that female stump-tails show their distinctive ‘climax face’ (which correlates with the occurrence of uterine contractions) once in every six copulations. Vaginal spasms were noted in two female rhesus monkeys as a result of extended periods of stimulation (using an artificial penis) by an experimenter… Likewise, a female chimpanzee exhibited rhythmical vaginal contractions, clitoral erection, limb spasms, and body tension in response to manual stimulation of its genitalia… Masturbatory behaviour, accompanied by behavioural and physiological responses indicative of orgasm, has also been noted in Japanese macaques… and chimpanzees” (Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems: p77). 

Thus, in relation to Morris’s theory, Dixson concludes that the theory lacks “comparative depth” because: 

Monkey and apes exhibit female orgasm in association with dorso-ventral copulatory postures and an absence of post-mating rest periods” (Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems: p77). 

Certainly orgasm is not required for successful impregnation. 

Thus, American physician, Robert Dickson, in his book, Human Sex Anatomy (1933), reports that, in a study of a thousand women who attended his medical practice afflicted with so-called ‘frigitity’ (i.e incapable of orgasmic response during intercourse): 

The frigid were not notably infertile, having the expected quota of living children, and somewhat less than the average incidence of sterility” (Human Sex Anatomy: p92). 

Thus, as argued by Donald Symons in his groundbreaking The Evolution of Human Sexuality (which I have reviewed here), the most parsomonious theory of the evolution of female orgasm is that it represents simply a non-adaptive byproduct of male orgasm, which is, of course, itself adaptive (see Sherman 1989Case Of The Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution).

It thus represents, if you like, the female equivalent of male nipples – only more fun.

Hymen

Interestingly, Morris also hypothesizes regarding the evolutionary function of another peculiarity of human female reproductive anatomy which, in contrast to the controversy regarding the evolutionary function, if any, of the female orgasm and clitoris (and of the female breasts), has received surprisingly scant attention from evolutionists – namely, the hymen

In most mammals, Morris reports, “it occurs as an embryonic stage in the development of the urogenital system” (p82). However, only in humans, he reports, is it, when not ruptured, retained into adulthood. 

Regarding the means by which it evolved, the trait is then, Morris concludes, like our large brains, upright posture and hairlessness, “part of the naked ape’s neoteny” (p82). 

However, as with our hairlessness, neoteny only the means by which this trait was retained into adulthood among humans, not the evolutionary reason for its retention.  

In other words, he suggests, the hymen, like other traits retained into adulthood among humans, must serve some evolutionary function. 

What is this evolutionary function? 

Morris suggests that, by making first intercourse painful for females, it deters young women from engaging in intercourse too early, and hence risking pregnancy, without first entering a relationship (‘pair-bond’) of sufficient stability to ensure that male parental investment, and provisioning, will be forthcoming (p73). 

However, pain experienced during intercourse occurs rather too late to deter first intercourse, because, by the time this pain is experienced, intercourse has already occurred. 

Of course, given our species’ unique capacity for speech and communication, the pain experienced during first intercourse could be communicated to young virginal women through conversation with other non-virginal women who had already experienced first intercourse.  

However, this would be an unreliable method of inducing fear and avoidance regarding first intercourse, especially given the sort of taboos regarding discussion of sexual activities which are common in many cultures. 

At any rate, why would natural, or sexual, selection not instead simply directly select for fear and anxiety regarding first intercourse – i.e. a psychological rather than a physiological adaptation. After all, as evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists have convincingly demonstrated, our psychology is no less subject to natural selection than is our physiology. 

Although, as already noted, the evolutionary function, if any, of the female hymen has received surprisingly little attention from evolutionists, I can think of at least three rival hypotheses regarding the evolutionary significance of the hymen. 

First, it may have evolved among humans as a means of advertising to prospective suitors a prospective bride’s chastity, and hence reassuring the suitor of the paternity of offspring that subsequently result and encouraging paternal investment in offspring. 

This would, in turn, increase the perceived attractiveness of the female in question, and help secure her a better match with a higher-status male, and hence increase her own reproductive success

Thus, it is notable that, in many cultures, prospective brides are inspected for virginity, a so-called virginity test, sometimes by the prospective mother-in-law or another older woman, before being considered marriageable and accepted as brides. 

Alternatively, and more prosaically, the hymen may simply function to protect against infection, by preventing dirt and germs from entering a woman’s body by this route. 

This, of course, would raise the question as to why, at least according to Morris, the trait is retained into sexual maturity only among humans?  

Actually, however, as with his claim that the female orgasm is unique to humans, Morris’s claim that only humans retain the hymen into sexual maturity is disputed by other sources. Thus, for example, Catherine Blackledge reports: 

Hymens, or vaginal closure membranes or vaginal constrictions, as they are often referred to, are found in a number of mammals, including llamas, guinea-pigs, elephants, rats, toothed whales, seals, dugongs, and some primates, including some species of galagos, or bushbabys, and the ruffed lemur” (The story of V: p145). 

Finally, even more prosaically, the hymen may simply represent a nonadaptive vestige of the developmental process, or a nonadaptive by-product of our species’ neoteny

This would be consistent with the apparent variation with which the trait presents itself, suggesting that it has not been subject to strong selection pressure that has weeded out suboptimal variations. 

This then would appear to be the most parsimonious explanation. 

Zoological Nomenclature 

The works on human ethology of both Richard Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz attracted much attention and no little controversy in their day. Indeed, they perhaps attracted even more controversy than Morris’s own ‘The Naked Ape’, not least because they tended to place greater emphasis on humankind’s capacity, and alleged innate proclivity, towards violence. 

In contrast, Morris’s own work, placing less emphasis on violence, and more on sex, perhaps jibed better with the zeitgeist of the era, namely the 1960s, with its hippy exhortations to ‘make love not war’. 

Yet, although all these works were first published at around the same time, the mid- to late-sixties (though Adrey continued publishing books of this subject into the 1970s), Morris’s ‘The Naked Ape’ seems to be the only of these books that remains widely read, widely known and still in print, to this day. 

Partly, I suspect, this reflects its brilliant and provocative title, which works on several levels, scientific and literary.  

Morris, as we have seen, justifies referring to humans by this perhaps unflattering moniker on zoological grounds.  

Certainly, he acknowledges that humans possess many other exceptional traits that distinguish us from all other extant apes, and indeed all other extant mammals. 

Thus, we walk on two legs, use and make tools, have large brains and communicate via a spoken language. Thus, the zoologist could refer to us by any number of descriptors – “the vertical ape, the tool-making ape, the brainy ape” are a few of Morris’s own suggestions (p41).  

But, he continues, adopting the disinterested detachment of the proverbial alien zoologist: 

These were not the first things we noticed. Regarded simply as a zoological specimen in a museum, it is the nakedness that has the immediate impact” (p41) 

This name has, Morris observes, several advantages, including “bringing [humans] into line with other zoological studies”, emphasizing the zoological approach, and hence challenging human vanity. 

Thus, he cautions: 

The naked ape is in danger of being dazzled by [his own achievements] and forgetting that beneath the surface gloss he is still very much a primate. (‘An ape’s an ape, a varlet’s a valet, though they be clad in silk or scarlet’). Even a space ape must urinate” (p23). 

Thus, the title works also on another metaphoric level, which also contributed to the title’s power.  

The title ‘Naked Ape’ promises to reveal, if you like, the ‘naked’ truth about humanity—to strip humanity down in order to reveal the naked truth that lies beneath the façade and finery. 

Morris’s title reduces us to a zoological specimen in the laboratory, stripped naked on the laboratory table, for the purposes of zoological classification and dissection. 

Interestingly, humans have historically liked to regard ourselves as superior to other animals, in part, precisely because we are the only ones who did clothe ourselves. 

Thus, beside Adam and Eve, it was only primitive tropical savages who went around in nothing but a loincloth, and they were disparaged as uncivilized precisely on this account. 

Yet even tropical savages wore loincloths. Indeed, clothing, in some form, is sometimes claimed to be a human universal

Yet animals, on the other hand, go completely unclothed – or so we formerly believed. 

But Morris turns this reasoning on its head. In the zoological sense, it is humans who are the naked ones, being largely bereft of hairs sufficient to cover most of our bodies. 

Stripping humanity down in this way, Morris reveals the naked truth that beneath, the finery and façade of civilization, we are indeed an animal, an ape and a naked one at that. 

The power of Morris’s chosen title ensures that, even if, like all science, his book has quickly dated, his title alone has stood the test of time and will, I suspect, be remembered, and employed as a descriptor of the human species, long after Morris himself, and the books he authored, are forgotten and cease to be read. 

Endnotes

[1] In fact, as I discuss in a later section of this review, it is possible that the female hymen evolved through just such a process, namely as a means of advertising female virginity and premarital chastity (and perhaps implying post-marital fidelity), and hence as a paternity assurance mechanism, which benefited the female by helping secure male parental investment, provisioning and hypergamy.

[2] Morris is certainly right that anthropologists have overemphasized the exotic and unfamiliar (“bizarre mating customs, strange kinship systems, or weird ritual procedures”, as Morris puts it). Partly, this is simply because, when first encountering an alien culture, it is the unfamiliar differences that invariably stand out, whereas the similarities are often the very things which we tend to take for granted.
Thus, for example, on arriving in a foreign country, we are often struck by the fact that everyone speaks a foreign unintelligible language. However, we often take for granted the more remarkable fact that all cultures around the world do indeed have a spoken language, and also that all languages supposedly even share in common a universal grammar.
However, anthropologists have also emphasized the alien and bizarre for other reasons, not least to support theories of radical cultural malleability, sometimes almost to the verge of outright fabrication (e.g. Margaret Mead’s studies in Samoa).

[3] It is true that there has been some significant human evolution since the dawn of agriculture, notably the evolution of lactase persistence in populations with a history of dairy agriculture. Indeed, as Cochran and Harpending emphasize in their book The 10,000 Year Explosion, far from evolution having stopped at the dawn of agriculture or the rise of ‘civilization’, it has in fact sped up, as a natural reflection of the rapid change in environmental conditions that resulted. Thus, as Nicholas Wade concludes in A Troublesome Inheritance, much human evolution has been “recent, copious and regional”, leading to substantial differentiation between populations (i.e. race differences), including in psychological traits such as intelligence. Nevertheless, despite such tinkering, the core adaptations that identify us as a species were undoubtedly molded in ancient prehistory, and are universal across the human species.

[4] However, it is indeed important to recognize that the lifestyle of our own ancestors was not necessarily identical to that of those few extant hunter-gatherer groups that have survived into modern times, not least because the latter tend to be concentrated in marginal and arid environments (e.g. the San people of the Kalahari DesertEskimos of the Arctic region, Aboriginals of the Australian outback), with those formerly inhabiting more favorable environments having either themselves transitioned to agriculture or else been displaced or absorbed by more advanced invading agriculturalists with higher population densities and superior weapons and other technologies.

[5] This passage is, of course, sure to annoy feminists (always a good thing), and is likely to be disavowed even by many modern evolutionary psychologists since it relies on a rather crude analogy. However, Morris acknowledges that, since “’hunting’… has now been replaced by ‘working‘”: 

The males who set off on their daily working trips are liable to find themselves in heterosexual groups instead of the old all-male parties. All too often it [the pair bond] collapses under the strain” (p81). 

This factor, Morris suggests, explains the prevalence of marital infidelity. It may also explain the recent hysteria, and accompanying witch-hunts, regarding so-called ‘sexual harassment’ in the workplace.
Relatedly, and also likely to annoy feminists, Morris champions the then-popular man the hunter theory of hominid evolution, which posited that the key development in human evolution, and the development of human intelligence in particular, was the switch from a largely, if not wholly, herbivorous diet and lifestyle, to one based largely on hunting and the consumption of meat. On this view, it was the cognitive demands that hunting placed on humans that selected for increased intelligence among humans, and also the nutritional value of meat that made possible increases in  highly metabolically expensive brain tissue.
This theory has since fallen into disfavor. This seems to be primarily because it gives the starring role in human evolution to men, since men do most of the hunting, and relegates women to a mere supporting role. It hence runs counter to the prevailing feminist zietgeist.
The main substantive argument given against the ‘man the hunter theory’ is that other carnivorous mammals (e.g. lions, wolves) adapted to carnivory without any similar increase in brain-size or intelligence. Yet Morris actually has an answer to this objection.
Our ancestors, fresh from the forests, were relative latecomers to carnivory. Therefore, Morris contends, had we sought to compete with tigers and wolves by mimicking them (i.e. growing our fangs and claws instead of our brains) we would inevitably have been playing a losing game of evolutionary catch-up. 

Instead, an entirely new approach was made, using artificial weapons instead of natural ones, and it worked” (p22).

However, this theory fails to explain how female intelligence evolved. One possibility is that increases in female intelligence are an epiphenomenal byproduct of selection for male intelligence, rather like the female equivalent of male nipples.
On this view, men would be expected to have higher intelligence than women, just as male nipples are smaller than female nipples, and the male penis is bigger than the female clitoris. That adult men have greater intelligence than adult women is indeed the conclusion of a recent controversial theory, though the difference is very modest (Lynn 1999). There is also evidence this sexual division of labour between hunting and gathering led to sex dithfferences spatio-visual intelligence (Eals & Silverman 1994).

[6] Another difference from modern evolutionary psychologists derives from Morris’s ethological approach, which involves a focus on human-typical behaviour patterns. For example, he discusses the significance of body language and facial expressions, such as smiling, which is supposedly homologous with an appeasement gesture (baring clenched teeth, aka a ‘fear grin’) common to many primates, and staring, which represents a form of threat across many species.

[7] Interestingly, however, he acknowledges that this statement does not apply to all human races. Thus, he observes: 

Negroes have undergone a real as well as an apparent hair loss” (p42). 

Thus, it seems blacks, unlike Caucasians, have fewer hairs on their body than do chimpanzees. This fact is further evidence that, contrary to the politically correct orthodoxy, race differences are real and important, though this fact is, of course, played down by Morris and other popular science writers.

[8] Edward O Wilson, for example, in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (which I have reviewed here) dismisses aquatic ape theory, as then championed by Elaine Morgan in The Descent of Woman, as feminist-inspired pop-science “contain[ing] numerous errors” and as being “far less critical in its handling of the evidence than the earlier popular books”, including that of Morris (who is mentioned by name in the same paragraph (Sociobiology: The New Synthesis: p29).

[9] Actually, I suspect this infamous quotation may be apocryphal, or at best a misconstrued joke. Certainly, while I think Rushton’s theory of race differences (which he calls ‘differential K theory’) is flawed, as I explain in my review of his work, there is nothing in it to suggest a direct trade-off between penis-size and brain-size. Indeed, one problem with Rushton’s theory, or at least his presentation of it, is that he never directly explains how traits such as penis-size actually relate to r/K selection in the first place.
The quotation is usually traced to a hit piece in Rolling Stone, a leftist hippie rag with a reputation for low editorial standards and fake news. However, Jon Entine, in his book on race differences in athletic ability, instead traces it to a supposed interview between Rushton and Geraldo Rivera broadcast on the Geraldo’ show in 1989 (Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports: p74).
Interestingly, one study has indeed reported that there is a “demonstrated negative evolutionary relationship”, not between brain-size and penis-size, but rather between brain-size and testicle size, if only on account of the fact that each contain “metabolically expensive tissues” (Pitnick et al 2006).

[10] Interestingly, Baker and Bellis attribute race differences in penis-size, not to race differences in brain-size, but rather to race differences in birth weight. Thus, they conclude:

Racial differences in size of penis (Mongoloid < Caucasoid < Negroid…) reflects racial differences in birth weight… and hence presumably, racial differences in size of vagina” (Human Sperm Competition: p171). 

[11] In other words, a male silverback gorilla may mate with the multiple females in his harem, but each of the females in his harem likely have sex with only one male, namely that silverback. This means that sperm from rival males are rarely simultaneously present in the same female’s oviduct, resulting in minimal levels of sperm competition, which is known to select from larger testicles in particular, and also often more elaborate penes as well.

[12] Alternative theories for the evolution of permanent fatty breasts in women is that they function analogously to camel humps, i.e. as a storehouse of nutrients to guard against and provide reserves in the event of future scarcity or famine. On this view, the sexually dimorphic presentation (i.e. the fact that fatty breasts are largely restricted to women) might reflect the caloric demands of pregnancy. Indeed, this might explain why women have higher levels of fat throughout their bodies. (For a recent review of rival theories for human breast evolution see Pawłowski & Żelaźniewicz 2021.)

[13] However, to be pedantic, this phraseology is perhaps problematic, since, to say that breasts and lips are ‘sexualized’ in western, and at least some non-western, cultures implicitly presupposes that they are not already inherently sexual parts of our anatomy by virtue of biology, which is, of course, the precisely what Morris is arguing. 

[14] For example, if I recall correctly, extremely annoying, left-wing 1980s-era British comedian Ben Elton once commented in a one of his stand-up routines that the male anthropologist (i.e. Morris, actually not an anthropologist, at least not by training) who came up with this idea (namely, that lips and lipstick mimiced the appearance of the labia) had obviously never seen a vagina in his life. He also, if I recall correctly, attributed this theory to the supposed male-dominated, androcentric nature of the field of anthropology – an odd notion given that Morris is not an anthropologist by training, and cultural anthropology is, in fact, one of the most leftist-dominated, feminist-infested, politically correct fields in the whole of academia, this side of ‘gender studies’, which, in the present, politically-correct world of academia, is saying a great deal.

[15] To test this theory, we might look at other relatively dark-skinned, but non-Negroid, populations. Here, the theory receives, at best, only partial support. Thus, Australian Aboriginals, another dark-skinned but unrelated group, do indeed tend to have quite large lips. However, these lips are not especially everted. 
On the other hand, the dark-skinned Dravidian populations of Southern India are not generally especially large-lipped, but are rather quite Caucasoid in facial morphology, and indeed, like the generally lighter-complexioned, Indo-European speaking, ‘Aryan’ populations of northern India, were generally classified as ‘Caucasoid by most early-twentieth century racial anthropologists.

[16] This theory is rather simpler, and has hence always struck me as more plausible, than the more elaborate, but also more widely championed so-called ‘upsuck hypothesis’, whereby female orgasm is envisaged as somehow functioning to suck semen deeper into the cervix. This idea is largely based on a single study involving two experiments on a single subject (Fox et al 1970). However, two other studies failed to produce any empirical support for the theory (Grafenberg 1950; Masters & Johnson 1966). Baker and Bellis’s methodologically problematic work on what they call ‘flowback’ provides, at best, ambivalent evidence (Baker & Bellis 1993). For detailed critique, see Dixson’s Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems: p74-6.

References 

Baker & Bellis (1993) Human sperm competition: ejaculate manipulation by females and a function for the female orgasm. Animal Behaviour 46:887–909. 
Bowman EA (2008) Why the human penis is larger than in the great apes. Archives of Sexual Behavior 37(3): 361. 
Eals & Silverman (1994) The Hunter-Gatherer theory of spatial sex differences: Proximate factors mediating the female advantage in recall of object arrays. Ethology and Sociobiology 15(2): 95-105.
Fox et al 1970. Measurement of intra-vaginaland intra-uterine pressures during human coitus by radio-telemetry. Journal of Reproduction and Fertility 22:243–251. 
Gallup et al (2004). The human penis as a semen displacement device. Evolution and Human Behavior, 24, 277–289 
Gallup & Burch (2004). Semen displacement as a sperm competition strategy in humans. Evolutionary Psychology 2:12-23. 
Goetz et al (2005) Mate retention, semen displacement, and human sperm competition: A preliminary investigation of tactics to prevent and correct female infidelity. Personality and Individual Differences 38:749-763 
Goetz et al (2007) Sperm Competition in Humans: Implications for Male Sexual Psychology, Physiology, Anatomy, and Behavior. Annual Review of Sex Research 18:1. 
Grafenberg (1950) The role of urethra in female orgasm. International Journal of Sexology 3:145–148. 
Havlíček et al (2016) Men’s preferences for women’s breast size and shape in four cultures, Evolution and Human Behavior 38(2): 217–226. 
Lynn (1999) Sex differences in intelligence and brain size: A developmental theory. Intelligence 27(1):1-12.
Manning et al (1997) Breast asymmetry and phenotypic quality in women, Ethology and Sociobiology 18(4): 223–236. 
Masters & Johnson (1966) Human Sexual Response (Boston: Little, Brown, 1966) 
Møller et al (1995) Breast asymmetry, sexual selection, and human reproductive success, Ethology and Sociobiology 16(3): 207-219. 
Pawłowski & Żelaźniewicz (2021) The evolution of perennially enlarged breasts in women: a critical review and a novel hypothesis. Biological reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 96(6): 2794-2809. 
Pitnick et al (2006) Mating system and brain size in bats. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 273(1587): 719-24. 

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Pierre van den Berghe’s ‘The Ethnic Phenomenon’: Ethnocentrism and Racism as Nepotism Among Extended Kin

Pierre van den Berghe, The Ethnic Phenomenon (Westport: Praeger 1987) 

Ethnocentrism is a pan-human universal. Thus, a tendency to prefer one’s own ethnic group over and above other ethnic groups is, ironically, one thing that all ethnic groups share in common. 

In ‘The Ethnic Phenomenon’, pioneering sociologist-turned-sociobiologist Pierre van den Berghe attempts to explain this universal phenomenon. 

In the process, he not only provides a persuasive ultimate evolutionary explanation for the universality of ethnocentrism, but also produces a remarkable synthesis of scholarship that succeeds in incorporating virtually every aspect of ethnic relations as they have manifested themselves throughout history and across the world, from colonialism, caste and slavery to integration and assimilation, within this theoretical and explanatory framework. 

Ethnocentrism as Nepotism? 

At the core of Pierre van den Berghe’s theory of ethnocentrism and ethnic conflict is the sociobiological theory of kin selection. According to van den Berghe, racism, xenophobia, nationalism and other forms of ethnocentrism can ultimately be understood as kin-selected nepotism, in accordance with biologist William D Hamilton’s theory of inclusive fitness (Hamilton 1964a; 1964b). 

According to inclusive fitness theory (also known as kin selection), organisms evolved to behave altruistically towards their close biological kin, even at a cost to themselves, because close biological kin share genes in common with one another by virtue of their kinship, and altruism towards close biological kin therefore promotes the survival and spread of these genes. 

Van den Berghe extends this idea, arguing that humans have evolved to sometimes behave altruistically towards, not only their close biological relatives, but also sometimes their distant biological relatives as well – namely, members of the same ethnic group as themselves. 

Thus, van den Berghe contends: 

Racial and ethnic sentiments are an extension of kinship sentiments [and] ethnocentrism and racism are… extended forms of nepotism” (p18). 

Ethnic Groups as Kin Groups?

Before reading van den Berghe’s book, I was skeptical regarding whether the degree of kinship shared among co-ethnics would ever be sufficient to satisfy Hamilton’s rule, whereby, for altruism to evolve, the cost of the altruistic act to the altruist, measured in terms of reproductive success, must be outweighed by the benefit to the recipient, also measured in terms of reproductive success, multiplied by the degree of relatedness of the two parties (Brigandt 2001; cf. Salter 2008; see also On Genetic Interests: Family, Ethnicity and Humanity in an Age of Mass Migration). 

Thus, Brigandt (2001) takes van den Berghe to task for his formulation of what the latter catchily christens “the biological golden rule”, namely: 

Give unto others as they are related unto you” (p20).[1]

However, contrary to both critics of his theory (e.g. Brigandt 2001) and others developing similar ideas (e.g. Rushton 2005; Salter 2000), van den Berghe is actually agnostic on the question of whether ethnocentrism is ever actually adaptive in modern societies, where the shared kinship of large nations or ethnic groups is, as van den Berghe himself readily acknowledges, “extremely tenuous at best” (p243). Thus, he concedes: 

Clearly, for 50 million Frenchmen or 100 million Japanese, any common kinship that they may share is highly diluted … [and] when 25 million African-Americans call each other ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, they know that they are greatly extending the meaning of these terms” (p27).[2]

Instead, van den Berghe suggests that nationalism and racism may reflect the misfiring of a mechanism that evolved when our ancestors still still lived in small kin-based groups of hunter-gatherers that represented little more than extended families (p35; see also Tooby and Cosmides 1989; Johnson 1986). 

Thus, van den Berghe explains: 

Until the last few thousand years, hominids interacted in relatively small groups of a few score to a couple of hundred individuals who tended to mate with each other and, therefore, to form rather tightly knit groups of close and distant kin” (p35). 

Therefore, in what evolutionary psychologists now call the environment of evolutionary adaptedness or EEA

The natural ethny [i.e. ethnic group] in which hominids evolved for several thousand millennia probably did not exceed a couple of hundred individuals at most” (p24) 

Thus, van den Berghe concludes: 

The primordial ethny is thus an extended family: indeed, the ethny represents the outer limits of that inbred group of near or distant kinsmen whom one knows as intimates and whom therefore one can trust” (p25). 

On this view, ethnocentrism was adaptive when we still resided in such groups, where members of our own clan or tribe were indeed closely biologically related to us, but is often maladaptive in contemporary environments, where our ethnic group may include literally millions of people. 

Another not dissimilar theory has it that racism in particular might reflect the misfiring of an adaptation that uses phenotype matching, in particular physical resemblance, as a form of kin recognition

Thus, Richard Dawkins in his seminal The Selfish Gene (which I have reviewed here), cautiously and tentatively speculates: 

Conceivably, racial prejudice could be interpreted as an irrational generalization of a kin-selected tendency to identify with individuals physically resembling oneself, and to be nasty to individuals different in appearance” (The Selfish Gene: p100). 

Certainly, van den Berghe takes pains to emphasize that ethnic sentiments are vulnerable to manipulation – not least by exploitative elites who co-opt kinship terms such as ‘motherland’, fatherland and ‘brothers-in-arms‘ to encourage self-sacrifice, especially during wartime (p35; see also Johnson 1987; Johnson et al 1987; Salmon 1998). 

However, van den Berghe cautions, “Kinship can be manipulated but not manufactured” (p27). Thus, he observes how: 

Queen Victoria could cut a motherly figure in England; she even managed to proclaim her son the Prince of Wales; but she could never hope to become anything except a foreign ruler of India; [while] the fiction that the Emperor of Japan is the head of the most senior lineage descended from the common ancestor of all Japanese might convince the Japanese peasant that the Emperor is an exalted cousin of his, but the myth lacks credibility in Korea or Taiwan” (p62-3). 

This suggests that the European Union, while it may prove successful as customs union, single market and even an economic union, and while integration in other non-economic spheres may also prove a success, will likely never command the sort of loyalty and allegiance that a nation-state holds over its people, including, sometimes, the willingness of men to fight and lay down their lives for its sake. This is because its members come from many different cultures and ethnicities, and indeed speak many different languages. 

For van den Berghe, national identity cannot be rooted in anything other than a perception of shared ancestry or kinship. Thus, he observes: 

Many attempts to adopt universalistic criteria of ethnicity based on legal citizenship or acquisition of educational qualifications… failed. Such was the French assimilation policy in her colonies. No amount of proclamation of Algérie française could make it so” (p27). 

Thus, so-called civic nationalism, whereby national identity is based, not on ethnicity, but rather, supposedly, on a shared commitment to certain common values and ideals, as encapsulated by the notion of America as a proposition nation’, is, for van den Berghe, a complete non-starter. 

Yet this is today regarded as the sole legitimate basis for national identity and patriotic feeling, not only in the USA, but also all other contemporary western polities, where any assertion of racial nationalism or a racially-based or ethnically-based national identity is, at least for white people, anathema and beyond the pale. 

Moreover, due to the immigration policies of previous generations of political leaders (that continue today), all contemporary western polities are now heavily multi-ethnic and multi-racial, such that any sense of national identity that was based on race or ethnicity is arguably untenable as it would necessarily exclude a large proportion of their populations.

On the other hand, however, van den Berghe’s reasoning also suggests that the efforts of some white nationalists to construct a pan-white, or pan-European, ethnic identity is also, like the earlier efforts of Japanese imperialist propagandists to create a pan-Asian identity, and of Marcus Garvey’s UNIA to construct a pan-African identity, likely to end in failure.[3]

Racism vs Ethnocentrism 

Whereas ethnocentrism is therefore universal, adaptive and natural, van den Berghe denies that the same can be said for racism

There is no evidence that racism is inborn, but there is considerable evidence that ethnocentrism is” (p240). 

Thus, van den Berge concludes: 

The genetic propensity is to favor kin, not those who look alike” (p240).[4]

As evidence, he cites:

The ease with which parental feelings take precedence over racial feeling in cases of racial admixture” (p240). 

In other words, fathers who sire mixed-race offspring with women of other races, and the women of other races with whom they father such offspring, often seemingly love and care for the resulting offspring just as intensely as do parents whose offspring is of the same race as themselves.[5]

Thus, cultural, rather than racial, markers are typically adopted to distinguish ethnic groups (p35). These include: 

  • Clothing (e.g. hijabs, turbans, skullcaps);
  • Bodily modification (e.g. tattoos, circumcision); and 
  • Behavioural criteria, especially language and dialect (p33).

Bodily modification and language represent particularly useful markers because they are difficult to fake, bodily modification because it is permanent and hence represents a costly commitment to the group (in accordance with Zahavi’s handicap principle), and language/dialect, because this is usually acquirable only during a critical period during childhood, after which it is generally not possible to achieve fluency in a second language without retaining a noticeable accent. 

In contrast, racial criteria, as a basis for group affiliation, is, van den Berghe reports actually quite rare: 

Racism is the exception rather than the rule in intergroup relations” (p33). 

Racism is also a decidedly modern phenomenon. 

This is because, prior to recent technological advances in transportation (e.g. ocean-going ships, aeroplanes), members of different races (i.e. groups distinguishable on the basis of biologically inherited physiological traits such as skin colour) were largely separated from one another by the very geographic barriers (e.g. deserts, oceans, mountain ranges) that reproductively isolated them from one another and hence permitted their evolution into distinguishable races in the first place. 

Moreover, when different races did make contact, then, in the absence of strict barriers to exogamy and miscegenation (e.g. the Indian caste system), racial groups typically interbred with one another and hence become phenotypically indistinguishable within just a few generations. 

This, van den Berghe explains, is because: 

Even the strongest social barriers between social groups cannot block a specieswide [sic] sexual attraction. The biology of reproduction triumphs in the end over the artificial barriers of social prejudice” (p109). 

Therefore, in the ancestral environment for which our psychological adaptations are designed (i.e. before the development of ships, aeroplanes and other methods of long-distance intercontinental transportation), different races did not generally coexist in the same locale. As a result, van den Berghe concludes: 

We have not been genetically selected to use phenotype as an ethnic marker, because, until quite recently, such a test would have been an extremely inaccurate one” (p 240). 

Humans, then, have simply not had sufficient time to have evolved a domain-specificracism module’ as suggested by some researchers.[6]

Racism is therefore, unlike ethnocentrism, not an innate instinct, but rather “a cultural invention” (p240). 

However, van den Berghe rejects the fashionable, politically correct notion that racism is “a western, much less a capitalist monopoly” (p32). 

On the contrary, racism, while not innate, is, not a unique western invention, but rather a recurrent reinvention, which almost invariably arises where phenotypically distinguishable groups come into contact with one another, if only because: 

Genetically inherited phenotypes are the easiest, most visible and most reliable predictors of group membership” (p32).

For example, van den Berghe describes the relations between the Tutsi, Hutu and Twa of Rwanda and neighbouring regions as “a genuine brand of indigenous racism” which, according to van den Berghe, developed quite independently of any western colonial influence (p73).[7]

Moreover, where racial differences are the basis for ethnic identity, the result is, van den Berghe claims, ethnic hierarchies that are particularly rigid, intransient and impermeable.

For van den Berghe, this then explains the failure of African-Americans to wholly assimilate into the US melting pot in stark contrast to successive waves of more recently-arrived European immigrants. 

Thus, van den Berghe observes: 

Blacks who have been English-speaking for several generations have been much less readily assimilated in both England… and the United States than European immigrants who spoke no English on arrival” (p219). 

Thus, language barriers often break down within a generation. 

As Judith Harris emphasizes in support of peer group socialization theory, the children of immigrants whose parents are not at all conversant in the language of their host culture nevertheless typically grow up to speak the language of their host culture rather better than they do the first language of their parents, even though the latter was the cradle tongue to which they were first exposed, and first learnt to speak, inside the family home (see The Nurture Assumption: which I have reviewed here). 

As van den Berghe observes: 

It has been the distressing experience of millions of immigrant parents that, as soon as their children enter school in the host country, the children begin to resist speaking their mother tongue” (p258). 

While displeasing to those parents who wish to pass on their language, culture and traditions to their offspring, this response is wholly adaptive from the perspective of the offspring themselves:  

Children quickly discover that their home language is a restricted medium that not useable in most situations outside the family home. When they discover that their parents are bilingual they conclude – rightly for their purposes – that the home language is entirely redundant… Mastery of the new language entails success at school, at work and in ‘the world’… [against which] the smiling approval of a grandmother is but slender counterweight” (p258).[8]

However, whereas one can learn a new language, it is not usually possible to change one’s race – the efforts of Rachel Dolezal, Elizabeth Warren, Jessica Krug and Michael Jackson notwithstanding. However, due to the one-drop rule and the history of miscegenation in America, passing is sometimes possible (see below). 

Instead, phenotypic (i.e. racial) differences can only be eradicated after many generations of miscegenation, and sometimes, as in the cases of countries like the USA and Brazil, not even then. 

Meanwhile, van den Berghe observes, often the last aspect of immigrant culture to resist assimilation is culinary differences. However, he observes, increasingly even this becomes only a ‘ceremonial’ difference reserved for family gatherings (p260). 

Thus, van den Berghe surmises, Italian-Americans probably eat beef hamburgers as often as Americans of any other ethnic background, but at family gatherings they still revert to pasta and other traditional Italian cuisine

Yet even culinary differences eventually disappear. Thus, in both Britain and America, sausage has almost completely ceased to be thought of as a distinctively German dish (as have hamburgers, originally thought to have been named in reference to the city of Hamburg) and now pizza is perhaps on the verge of losing any residual association with Italians. 

Is Racism Always Worse than Ethnocentrism? 

Yet if racially-based ethnic hierarchies are particularly intransigent and impermeable, they are also, van den Berghe claims, “peculiarly conflict-ridden and unstable” (p33). 

Thus, van den Berghe seems to believe that racial prejudice and animosity tends to be more extreme and malevolent in nature than mere ethnocentrism as exists between different ethnic groups of the same race (i.e. not distinguishable from one another on the basis of inherited phenotypic traits such as skin colour). 

For example, van den Berghe claims that, during World War Two: 

There was a blatant difference in the level of ferociousness of American soldiers in the Pacific and European theaters… The Germans were misguided relatives (however distant), while the ‘Japs’ or the ‘Nips’ were an entirely different breed of inscrutable, treacherous, ‘yellow little bastards.’ This was reflected in differential behavior in such things as the taking (versus killing) of prisoners, the rhetoric of war propaganda (President Roosevelt in his wartime speeches repeatedly referred to his enemies as ‘the Nazis, the Fascists, and the Japanese’), the internment in ‘relocation camps’ of American citizens of Japanese extraction, and in the use of atomic weapons” (p57).[9]

Similarly, in his chapter on ‘Colonial Empires’, by which he means “imperialism over distant peoples who usually live in noncontiguous territories and who therefore look quite different from their conquerors, speak unrelated languages, and are so culturally alien to their colonial masters as to provide little basis for mutual understanding”, van den Berghe writes: 

Colonialism is… imperialism without the restraints of common bonds of history, culture, religion, marriage and blood that often exist when conquest takes place between neighbors” (p85). 

Thus, he claims: 

What makes for the special character of the colonial situation is the perception by the conqueror that he is dealing with totally unrelated, alien and, therefore, inferior people. Colonials are treated as people totally beyond the pale of kin selection” (p85). 

However, I am unpersuaded by van den Berghe’s claim that conflict between more distantly related ethnic groups is always, or even typically, more brutal than that among biologically and culturally more closely related groups. 

After all, even conquests of neighbouring peoples, identical in race, if not always in culture, to the conquering group, are often highly brutal, for example the British in Ireland or the Japanese in Korea and China in the first half of the twentieth century. 

Indeed, many of the most intense and intractable ethnic conflicts are those between neighbours and ethnic kin, who are racially (and culturally) very similar to one another. 

Thus, for example, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, and Bosnians, Croats, Serbs and Albanians in the Balkans, and even Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East, are all racially and genetically quite similar to one another, and also share many aspects of their culture with one another too. (The same is true, to give a topical example at the time of writing, of Ukrainians and Russians.) However, this has not noticeably ameliorated the nasty, intransient and bloody conflicts that have been, and continue to be, waged among them.  

Of course, the main reason that most ethnic conflict occurs between close neighbours is because neighbouring groups are much more likely to come into contact, and hence into conflict, with one another, especially over competing claims to land.[10]

Yet these same neighbouring groups are also likely to be related to one another, both culturally and genetically, because of both shared origins and the inevitable history of illicit intermarriage or miscegenation, and cultural borrowings, that inevitably occur even among the most hostile of neighbours.[11]

Nevertheless, the continuation of intense ethnic animosity between ethnic groups who are genetically, close to one another seems to pose a theoretical problem, not only for van den Berghe’s theory, but also, to an even greater degree, for Philippe Rushton’s so-called genetic similarity theory (which I have written about here), which argues that conflict between different ethnic groups is related to their relative degree of genetic difference from one another (Rushton 1998a; 1998b; 2005). 

It also poses a problem for the argument of political scientist Frank K Salter, who argues that populations should resist immigration by alien immigrants proportionally to the degree to which the alien immigrants are genetically distant from themselves (On Genetic Interests; see also Salter 2002). 

Assimilation, Acculturation and the American Melting Pot 

Since racially-based hierarchies result in ethnic boundaries that are both “peculiarly conflict-ridden and unstable” and also peculiarly rigid and impermeable, Van den Berghe controversially concludes: 

There has never been a successful multiracial democracy” (p189).[12]

Of course, in assessing this claim, we must recognize that ‘success’ is not only a matter of degree, but also can also be measured on multiple different dimensions. 

Thus, many people would regard the USA as the quintessential “successful… democracy”, even though the US has been multiracial, to some degree, for the entirety of its existence as a nation. 

Certainly, the USA has been successful economically, and indeed militarily.

However, the US has also long been plagued by interethnic conflict, and, although successful economically and militarily, it has yet to be successful in finding a way to manage its continued interethnic conflict, especially that between blacks and whites.

The USA is also afflicted with a relatively high rate of homicide and gun crime as compared to other developed economies, as well as low levels of literacy and numeracy and educational attainment. Although it is politically incorrect to acknowledge as much, these problems also likely reflect the USA’s ethnic diversity, in particular its large black underclass.

Indeed, as van den Berghe acknowledges, even societies divided by mere ethnicity rather than race seem highly conflict-prone (p186). 

Thus, assimilation, when it does occur, occurs only gradually, and only under certain conditions, namely when the group which is to be assimilated is “similar in physical appearance and culture to the group to which it assimilates, small in proportion to the total population, of low status and territorially dispersed” (p219). 

Thus, van den Berghe observes: 

People tend to assimilate and acculturate when their ethny [i.e. ethnic group] is geographically dispersed (often through migration), when they constitute a numerical minority living among strangers, when they are in a subordinate position and when they are allowed to assimilate by the dominant group” (p185). 

Moreover, van den Berghe is careful distinguish what he calls assimilation from mere acculturation.  

The latter, acculturation, involves a subordinate group gradually adopting the norms, values, language, cultural traditions and folkways of the dominant culture into whom they aspire to assimilate. It is therefore largely a unilateral process.[13]

In contrast, however, assimilation goes beyond this and involves members of the dominant host culture also actually welcoming, or at least accepting, the acculturated newcomers as a part of their own community.  

Thus, van den Berghe argues that host populations sometimes resist the assimilation of even wholly acculturated and hence culturally indistinguishable out-groups. Examples of groups excluded in this way include pariah castes, such as the untouchable dalits of the Indian subcontinent, the Burakumin of Japan and, at least according to van den Berghe, blacks in the USA.[14]

In other words, assimilation, unlike acculturation, is very much a two-way street. Thus, just as it ‘takes two to tango’, so assimilation is very much a bilateral process: 

It takes two to assimilate” (p217).  

On the one hand, minority groups may sometimes themselves resist assimilation, or even acculturation, if they perceive themselves as better off maintaining their distinct identify. This is especially true of groups who perceive themselves as being, in some respects, better-off than the host outgroup into whom they refuse to be absorbed. 

Thus, middleman minorities, or market-dominant minorities, such as Jews in the West, the overseas Chinese in contemporary South-East Asia, the Lebanese in West Africa and South Asians in East Africa, being, on average, much wealthier than the bulk of the host populations among whom them live, often perceive no social or economic advantage to either assimilation or acculturation and hence resist the process, instead stubbornly maintaining their own language and traditions and marrying only among themselves. 

The same is also true, more obviously, of alien ruling elites, such as the colonial administrators, and settlers, in European colonial empires in Africa, India and elsewhere, for whom assimilation into native populations would have been anathema.

Passing’, ‘Pretendians’ and ‘Blackfishing’ 

Interestingly, just as market-dominant minorities, middleman minorities, and European colonial rulers usually felt no need to assimilate into the host society in whose midst they lived, because to do so would have endangered their privileged position within this host society, so recent immigrants to America may no longer perceive any advantage to assimilation. 

On the contrary, there may now be an economic disincentive operating against assimilation, at least if assimilation means forgoing from the right to benefit from affirmative action in employment and college admissions

Thus, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the phenomenon of passing, at least in America, typically involved non-whites, especially light-skinned mixed-race African-Americans, attempting to pass as white or, if this were not realistic, sometimes as Native American.  

Some non-whites, such as Bhagat Singh Thind and Takao Ozawa, even brought legal actions in order to be racially reclassified as ‘white’ in order to benefit from America’s then overtly racialist naturalization law.

Contemporary cases of passing, however, though rarely referred to by this term, typically involve whites themselves attempting to somehow pass themselves off as some variety of non-white (see Hannam 2021). 

Recent high-profile recent examples have included Rachel Dolezal, Elizabeth Warren and Jessica Krug

Interestingly, all three of these women were both employed in academia and involved in leftist politics – two spheres in which adopting a non-white identity is likely to be especially advantageous, given the widespread adoption of affirmative action in college admissions and appointments, and the rampant anti-white animus that infuses so much of academia and the cultural Marxist left.[15]

Indeed, the phenomenon is now so common that it even has its own associated set of neologisms, such as Pretendian, ‘blackfishing’ and, in Australia, box-ticker.[16]

Indeed, one remarkable recent survey purported to uncover that fully 34% of white college applicants in the United States admitted to lying about their ethnicity on their applications, in most cases either to improve their chances of admission or to qualify for financial aid

Although Rachel Dolezal, Elizabeth Warren and Jessica Krug were all women, this survey found that white male applicants were even more likely to lie about their ethnicity than were white female applicants, with only 16% of white female applicants admitting to lying, as compared to nearly half (48%) of white males.[17]

This is, of course, consistent with the fact that it is white males who are the primary victims of affirmative action and other forms of discrimination.  

This strongly suggests that, whereas there were formerly social (and legal) benefits that were associated with identifying as white, today the advantages accrue to instead to those able to assume a non-white identity.  

For all the talk of so-called ‘white privilege’, when whites and mixed-race people, together with others of ambiguous racial identity, preferentially choose to pose as non-white in order to take advantage of the perceived benefits of assuming such an identity, they are voting with their feet and thereby demonstrating what economists call revealed preferences

This, of course, means that recent immigrants to America, such as Hispanics, will have rather less incentive in integrate into the American mainstream than did earlier waves of European immigrants, such as Irish, Poles, Jews and Italians, the latter having been, primarily the victims of discrimination rather than its beneficiaries

After all, who would want to be another, boring unhyphenated American when to do so would presumably mean relinquishing any right to benefit from affirmative action in job recruitment or college admissions, not to mention becoming a part of the hated white ‘oppressor’ class. 

In short, ‘white privilege’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. 

This perverse incentive against assimilation obviously ought to be worrying to anyone concerned with the future of American as a stable unified polity. 

Ethnostates – or Consociationalism

Given the ubiquity of ethnic conflict, and the fact that assimilation occurs, if at all, only gradually and, even then, only under certain conditions, a pessimist (or indeed a racial separatist) might conclude that the only way to prevent ethnic conflict is for different ethnic groups to be given separate territories with complete independence and territorial sovereignty. 

This would involve the partition of the world into separate ethnically homogenous ethnostates, as advocated by racial separatists and many in the alt-right. 

Yet, quite apart from the practical difficulties such an arrangement would entail, not least the need for large-scale forcible displacements of populations, this ‘universal nationalism’, as championed by political scientist Frank K Salter among others, would arguably only shift the locus of ethnic conflict from within the borders of a single multi-ethnic state to between those of separate ethnostates – and conflict between states can be just as destructive as conflict within states, as countless wars between states throughout history have amply proven.  

In the absence of assimilation, then, perhaps fairest and least conflictual solution is what van den Berghe terms consociationalism. This term refers to a form of ethnic power-sharing, whereby elites from both groups agree to share power, each usually retaining a veto power regarding major decisions, and there is proportionate representation for each group in all important positions of power. 

This seems to be roughly the basis of the power sharing agreement imposed on Northern Ireland in the Good Friday Agreement, which was largely successful in bringing an end to the ethnic conflict known as ‘the Troubles.[18]

On the other hand, however, power-sharing was explicitly rejected by both the ANC and the international anti-apartheid movement as a solution in another ethnically-divided polity, namely South Africa, in favour of majority rule, even though the result has been a situation very similar to the situation in Northern Ireland which led to the Troubles, namely an effective one-party state, with a single party in power for successive decades and institutionalized discrimination against minorities.[19]

Consociationalism or ethnic power-sharing also arguably the model towards which the USA and other western polities are increasingly moving, with quotas and so-called ‘affirmative action increasingly replacing the earlier ideals of appointment by merit, color blindness or freedom of association, and multiculturalism and cultural pluralism replacing the earlier ideal of assimilation

Perhaps the model consociationalist democracy is van den Berghe’s own native Belgium, where, he reports: 

All the linguistic, class, religious and party-political quarrels and street demonstrations have yet to produce a single fatality” (p199).[20]

Belgium is, however, very much the exception rather than the rule, and, at any rate, though peaceful, remains very much a divided society

Indeed, power-sharing institutions, in giving official, institutional recognition to the existing ethnic divide, function only to institutionalize and hence reinforce and ossify the existing ethnic divide, making successful integration and assimilation almost impossible – and certainly even less likely to occur than it had been in the absence of such institutional arrangements. 

Moreover, consociationalism can be maintained, van den Berghe emphasizes, only in a limited range of circumstances, the key criterion being that the groups in question are equal, or almost equal, to one another in status, and not organized into an ethnic hierarchy. 

However, even when the necessary conditions are met, it invariably involves a precarious balancing act. 

Just how precarious is illustrated by the fate of other formerly stable consociationalist states. Thus, van den Bergh notes the irony that earlier writers on the topic had cited Lebanon as “a model [consociationalist democracy] in the Third World” just a few years before the Lebanese Civil War broke out in the 1970s (p191). 

His point is, ironically, only strengthened by the fact that, in the three decades since his book was first published, two of his own examples, namely the USSR and Yugoslavia, have themselves since descended into civil war and fragmented along ethnic lines. 

Slavery and Other Recurrent Situations  

In the central section of the book, van den Berghe discusses such historically recurrent racial relationships as “slavery”, middleman minorities, “caste” and “colonialism”. 

In large part, his analyses of these institutions and phenomena do not depend on his sociobiological theory of ethnocentrism, and are worth reading even for readers unconvinced by this theory – or even by readers skeptical of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology altogether. 

Nevertheless, the sociobiological model continues to guide his analysis. 

Take, for example, his chapter on slavery. 

Although the overtly racial slavery of the New World was quite unique, slavery often has an ethnic dimension, since slaves are often captured during warfare from among enemy groups. 

Indeed, the very word slave is derived from the ethnonym, Slav, due to the frequency with which the latter were captured as slaves, both by Christians and Muslims.[21]

In particular, van den Berghe argues that: 

An essential feature of slave status is being torn out of one’s network of kin selection. This condition generally results from forcible removal of the slave from his home group by capture and purchase” (p120).

This then explains, for example, why European settlers were far less successful in enslaving the native inhabitants of the Americas than they were in exploiting the slave labour of African slaves who had been shipped across the Atlantic, far from their original kin groups, precisely for this purpose. 

Thus, for van den Berghe, the quintessential slave is: 

Not only involuntarily among ethnic strangers in a strange land: he is there alone, without his support group of kinsmen and fellow ethnics” (p115).[22]

This, however, is likely to be only a temporary condition, since, at least if allowed to reproduce, then, gradually over time, slaves would put down roots, produce new families, and indeed whole communities of slaves.[23]

When this occurs, however, slaves gradually, over generations, cease to be true slaves. The result is that: 

Slavery can long endure as an institution in a given society, but the slave status of individuals is typically only semipermanent and nonhereditary… Unless a constantly renewed supply of slaves enters a society, slavery, as an institution, tends to disappear and transform itself into something else” (p120). 

This then explains the gradual transformation of slavery during the medieval period into serfdom in much of Europe, and perhaps also the emergence of some pariah castes such as the untouchables of India. 

Paradoxically, van den Berghe argues that racism became particularly virulent in the West precisely because of Western societies’ ostensible commitment to notions of liberty and the rights of man, notions obviously incompatible with slavery. 

Thus, whereas most civilizations simply took the institution of slavery for granted, feeling no especial need to justify its existence, western civilization, given its ostensible commitment to such lofty notions as individual liberty and the equality of man, was always on the defensive, feeling a constant need to justify and defend slavery. 

The main justification hit upon was racialism and theories of racial superiority

If it was immoral to enslave people, but if at the same time it was vastly profitable to do so, then a simple solution to the dilemma presented itself: slavery became acceptable if slaves could somehow be defined as somewhat less than fully human” (p115).  

This then explains much of the virulence of western racialism in the much of the eighteenth, nineteenth and even early-twentieth centuries.[24]

Another important, and related, ideological justification for slavery was what van den Berghe refers to as ‘paternalism’. Thus, Van den Berghe observes that: 

All chattel slave regimes developed a legitimating ideology of paternalism” (p131). 

Thus, in the American South, the “benevolent master” was portrayed a protective “father figure”, while slaves were portrayed as childlike and incapable of living an independent existence and hence as benefiting from their own enslavement (p131). 

This, of course, was a nonsense. As van den Berghe cynically observes: 

Where the parentage was fictive, so, we may assume, is the benevolence” (p131). 

Thus, exploitation was, in sociobiological terms, disguised as kin-selected parental benevolence

However, despite the dehumanization of slaves, the imbalance of power between slave and master, together with the men’s innate and evolved desire for promiscuity, made the sexual exploitation of female slaves by male masters all but inevitable.[25]

As van den Berghe observes: 

Even the strongest social barriers between social groups cannot block a specieswide [sic] sexual attraction. The biology of reproduction triumphs in the end over the artificial barriers of social prejudice” (p109). 

Thus, he notes the hypocrisy whereby: 

Dominant group men, whether racist or not, are seldom reluctant to maximize their fitness with subordinate-group women” (p33). 

The result was that the fictive ideology of ‘paternalism’ that served to justify slavery often gave way to literal paternity of the next generation of the slave population. 

This created two problems. First, it made the racial justification for slavery, namely the ostensible inferiority of black people, ring increasingly hollow, as ostensibly ‘black slaves acquired greater European ancestry, lighter skins and more Caucasoid features with each successive generation of miscegenation. 

Second, and more important, it also meant that the exploitation of this next generation of slaves by their owners potentially violated the logic of kin selection, because: 

If slaves become kinsmen, you cannot exploit them without indirectly exploiting yourself” (p134).[26]

This, van den Berghe surmises, led many slave owners to free those among the offspring of slave women whom they themselves, or their male relatives, had fathered. As evidence, he observes:  

In all [European colonial] slave regimes, there was a close association between manumission and European ancestry. In 1850 in the United States, for example, an estimated 37% of free ‘negroes’ had white ancestry, compared to about 10% of the slave population” (p132). 

This leads van den Bergh to conclude that many such free people of color – who were referred to as people of color precisely because their disproportionate degree of white ancestry precluded any simple identification as black or negro – had been freed by their owner precisely because their owner was now also their kinsmen. Indeed, many may have been freed by the very slave-master who had been responsible for fathering them. 

Thus, to give a famous example, Thomas Jefferson is thought to have fathered six offspring, four of whom survived to adulthood, with his slave, Sally Hemings – who was herself already three-quarters white, and indeed Jefferson’s wife’s own half-sister, on account of miscegenation in previous generations. 

Of these four surviving offspring, two were allowed to escape, probably with Jefferson’s tacit permission or at least acquiescence, while the remaining two were freed upon his death in his will.[27]

This seems to have been a common pattern. Thus, van den Berghe reports: 

Only about one tenth of the ‘negro’ population of the United States was free in 1860. A greatly disproportionate number of them were mulattoes, and, thus, presumably often blood relatives of the master who emancipated them or their ancestors. The only other slaves who were regularly were old people past productive and reproductive age, so as to avoid the cost of feeding the aged and infirm” (p129). 

Yet this made the continuance of slavery almost impossible, because each new generation more and more slaves would be freed.  

Other slave systems got around this problem by continually capturing or importing new slaves in order to replenish the slave population. However, this option was denied to American slaveholders by the abolition of the slave trade in 1807

This leads van den Berghe to conclude that: 

By making the slave woman widely available to her master…Western slavery thus literally contained the genetic seeds of its own destruction” (p134).[28]

Synthesising Marxism and Sociobiology 

Given the potential appeal of his theory to nationalists, and even to racialists, it is perhaps surprising that van den Berghe draws heavily on Marxist theory. Although Marxists were almost unanimously hostile to sociobiology, sociobiologists frequently emphasized the potential compatibility of Marxist theory and sociobiology (e.g. The Evolution of Human Sociality). 

However, van den Berghe remains, to my knowledge, the only figure (except myself) to actually successfully synthesize sociobiology and Marxism in order to produce novel theory.  

Thus, for example, he argues that, in almost every society in existence, class exploitation is disguised by an ideology (in the Marxist sense) that disguises exploitation as either: 

1) Kin-selected nepotistic altruism – e.g. the king or dictator is portrayed as benevolent ‘father’ of the nation; or
2) Mutually beneficial reciprocity – i.e. social contract theory or democracy (p60). 

However, contrary to orthodox Marxist theory, van den Berghe regards ethnic sentiments as more fundamental than class loyalty since, whereas the latter is “dependent on a commonality of interests”, the former is often “irrational” (p243). 

Nationalist conflicts are among the most intractable and unamenable to reason and compromise… It seems a great many people care passionately whether they are ruled and exploited by members of their own ethny or foreigners” (p62). 

In short, van den Berghe concludes: 

Blood runs thicker than money” (p243). 

Another difference is that, whereas Marxists view control over the so-called means of production (i.e. the means necessary to produce goods for sale) as the ultimate factor determining exploitation and conflict in human societies, Darwinians instead focus on conflict over access to what I have termed the means of reproduction – in other words, the means necessary to produce offspring (i.e. fertile females, their wombs and vaginas etc.). 

This is because, from a Darwinian perspective: 

The ultimate measure of human success is not production but reproduction. Economic productivity and profit are means to reproductive ends, not ends in themselves” (p165). 

Thus, unlike his contemporary Darwin, Karl Marx was, for all his ostensible radicalism, in his emphasis on economics rather than sex, just another Victorian sexual prude.[29]

Mating, Miscegenation and Intermarriage 

Given that reproduction, not production, is the ultimate focus of individual and societal conflict and competition, van den Berghe argues that ultimately questions of equality, inequality and assimilation must be also determined by reproductive, not economic, criteria. 

Thus, he concludes, intermarriage, especially if it occurs, not only frequently, but also in both directions (i.e. involves both males and females of both ethnicities, rather than always involving males of one ethnic group, usually the dominant ethnic group, taking females of the other ethnic group, usually the subordinate group, as wives), is the ultimate measure of racial equality and assimilation: 

Marriage, especially if it happens in both directions, that is with both men and women of both groups marrying out, is probably the best measure of assimilation” (p218). 

In contrast, however, he also emphasizes that mere “concubinage is frequent [even] in the absence of assimilation” (p218). 

Moreover, such concubinage invariably involves males of the dominant-group taking females from the subordinate-group as concubines, whereas dominant-group females are invariably off-limits as sexual partners for subordinate group males. 

Thus, van den Berghe observes, although “dominant group men, whether racist or not, are seldom reluctant to maximize their fitness with subordinate-group women”, they nevertheless are jealously protective of their own women and enforce strict double-standards (p33). 

For example, historian Wynn Craig Wade, in his history of the Ku Klux Klan (which I have reviewed here), writes: 

In [antebellum] Southern white culture, the female was placed on a pedestal where she was inaccessible to blacks and a guarantee of purity of the white race. The black race, however, was completely vulnerable to miscegenation.” (The Fiery Cross: p20). 

The result, van den Berghe reports, is that: 

The subordinate group in an ethnic hierarchy invariably ‘loses’ more women to males of the dominant group than vice versa” (p75). 

Indeed, this same pattern is even apparent in the DNA of contemporary populations. Thus, geneticist James Watson reports that, whereas the mitochondrial DNA of contemporary Columbians, which is passed down the female line, shows a “range of Amerindian MtDNA types”, the Y-chromosomes of these same Colombians, are 94% European. This leads him to conclude: 

The virtual absence of Amerindian Y chromosome types, reveals the tragic story of colonial genocide: indigenous men were eliminated while local women were sexually ‘assimilated’ by the conquistadors” (DNA: The Secret of Life: p257). 

As van den Berghe himself observes: 

It is no accident that military conquest is so often accompanied by the killing, enslavement and castration of males, and the raping and capturing of females” (p75). 

This, of course, reflects the fact that, in Darwinian terms, the ultimate purpose of power is to maximize reproductive success

However, while the ethnic group as a whole inevitably suffers a diminution in its fitness, there is a decided gender imbalance in who bears the brunt of this loss. 

The men of the subordinate group are always the losers and therefore always have a reproductive interest in overthrowing the system. The women of the subordinate group, however frequently have the option of being reproductively successful with dominant-group males” (p27). 

Indeed, subordinate-group females are not only able, and sometimes forced, to mate with dominant-group males, but, in purely fitness terms, they may even benefit from such an arrangement.  

Hypergamy (mating upward for women) is a fitness enhancing strategy for women, and, therefore, subordinate-group women do not always resist being ‘taken over’ by dominant-group men” (p75). 

This is because, by so doing, they thereby obtain access to both the greater resources that dominant group males are able to provide in return for sexual access or as provisioning for their offspring, as well as the superior’ genes which facilitated the conquest in the first place. 

Thus, throughout history, women and girls have been altogether too willing to consort and intermarry with their conquerors. 

The result of this gender imbalance in the consequences of conquest and subjugation, is, a lack of solidarity as between men and women of the subjugated group. 

This sex asymmetry in fitness strategies in ethnically stratified societies often creates tension between the sexes within subordinate groups. The female option of fitness maximization through hypergamy is deeply resented by subordinate group males” (p76). 

Indeed, even captured females who were enslaved by their conquerers sometimes did surprisingly well out of this arrangement, at least if they were young and beautiful, and hence lucky enough to be recruited into the harem of a king, emperor or other powerful male.

One slave captured in Eastern Europe even went on to become effective queen of the Ottoman Empire at the height of its power. Hurrem Sultan, as she came to be known, was, of course, exceptional, but only in degree. Members of royal harems may have been secluded, but they also lived in some luxury.

Indeed, even in puritanical North America, where concubinage was very much frownded upon, van den Berghe reports that “slavery was much tougher on men than on women”, since: 

Slavery drastically reduced the fitness of male slaves; it had little or no such adverse effect on the fitness of female slaves whose masters had a double interest – financial and genetic – in having them reproduce at maximum capacity” (p133) 

Van den Berghe even tentatively ventures: 

It is perhaps not far-fetched to suggest that, even today, much of the ambivalence in relations between black men and women in America… has its roots in the highly asymmetrical mating system of the slave plantation” (p133).[30]

Miscegenation and Intermarriage in Modern America 

Yet, curiously, however, patterns of interracial dating in contemporary America are anomalous – at least if we believe the pervasive myth that America is a ‘systemically racist’ society where black people are still oppressed and discriminated against

On the one hand, genetic data confirms that, historically, matings between white men and black women were more frequent than the reverse, since African-American mitochondrial DNA, passed down the female line, is overwhelmingly African in origin, whereas their Y chromosomes, passed down the male line, are often European in origin (Lind et al 2007). 

However, recent census data suggests that this pattern is now reversed. Thus, black men are now about two and a half times as likely to marry white women as black women are to marry white men (Fryer 2007; see also Sailer 1997). 

This seemingly suggests white American males are actually losing out in reproductive competition to black males. 

This observation led controversial behavioural geneticist Glayde Whitney to claim: 

By many traditional anthropological criteria African-Americans are now one of the dominant social groups in America – at least they are dominant over whites. There is a tremendous and continuing transfer of property, land and women from the subordinate race to the dominant race” (Whitney 1999: p95). 

However, this conclusion is difficult to square with the continued disproportionate economic deprivation of much of black America. In short, African-Americans may be reproductively successful, and perhaps even, in some respects, socially privileged, but, despite benefiting from systematic discrimination in employment and admission to institutions of higher education, they are clearly also, on average, economically much worse-off as compared to whites and Asians in modern America.  

Instead, perhaps the beginnings of an explanation for this paradox can be sought in van den Berghe’s own later collaboration with anthropologist, and HBD blogger, Peter Frost

Here, in a co-authored paper, van den Berghe and Frost argue that, across cultures, there is a general sexual preference for females with somewhat lighter complexion than the group average (van den Berghe and Frost 1986). 

However, as Frost explains in a more recent work, Fair Women, Dark Men: The Forgotten Roots of Racial Prejudice, preferences with regard to male complexion are more ambivalent (see also Feinman & Gill 1977). 

Thus, whereas, according to the title of a novel, two films and a hit Broadway musical, ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (who also reputedly, and perhaps as a consequence, have more fun), the idealized male romantic partner is instead tall, dark and handsome

In subsequent work, Frost argues that ecological conditions in sub-Saharan Africa permitted high levels of polygyny, because women were economically self-supporting, and this increased the intensity of selection for traits (e.g. increased muscularity, masculinity, athleticism and perhaps outgoing, sexually-aggressive personalities) which enhance the ability of African-descended males to compete for mates and attract females (Frost 2008). 

In contrast, Frost argues that there was greater selection for female attractiveness (and perhaps female chastity) in areas such as Northern Europe and Northeast Asia, where, to successfully reproduce, women were required to attract a male willing to provision them during cold winters throughout their gestation, lactation and beyond (Frost 2008). 

This then suggests that African males have simply evolved to be, on average, more attractive to women, whereas European and Asian females have evolved to be more attractive to men. 

This speculation is supported by a couple of recent studies of facial attractiveness, which found that black male faces were rated as most attractive to members of the opposite sex, but that, for female faces, the pattern was reversed (Lewis 2011; Lewis 2012). 

These findings could also go some way towards explaining patterns of interracial dating in the contemporary west (Lewis 2012). 

The Most Explosive Aspect of Interethnic Relations” 

However, such an explanation is likely to be popular neither with racialists, for whom miscegenation is anathema, nor with racial egalitarians, for whom, as a matter of sacrosanct dogma, all races must be equal in all things, even aesthetics and sex appeal.[31]

Thus, when evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa made a similar claim in 2011 in a blog post (since deleted), outrage predictably ensued, the post was swiftly deleted, his then-blog dropped by its host, Psychology Today, and the author reprimanded by his employer, the London School of Economics, and forbidden from writing any blog or non-scholarly publications for a whole year. 

Yet all of this occurred within a year of the publication of the two papers cited above that largely corroborated Kanazawa’s finding (Lewis 2011; Lewis 2012). 

Yet such a reaction is, in fact, little surprise. As van den Berghe points out: 

It is no accident that the most explosive aspect of interethnic relations is sexual contact across ethnic (or racial) lines” (p75). 

After all, from a sociobiological perspective, competition over reproductive access to fertile females is Darwinian conflict in its most direct and primordial form

Van den Berghe’s claim that interethnic sexual contact is “the most explosive aspect” of interethnic relations also has support from the history of racial conflict in the USA and elsewhere. 

The spectre of interracial sexual contact, real or imagined, has motivated several of the most notorious racially-motivated ‘hate-crimes’ of American history, from the torture-murder of Emmett Till for allegedly propositioning a white woman, to the various atrocities of the reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan in defence of the ostensible virtue of ‘white womanhood, to the recent Charleston church shooting, ostensibly committed in revenge for the allegedly disproportionate rate of rape of white women by black man.[32]

Meanwhile, interracial sexual relations are also implicated in some of American history’s most infamous alleged miscarriages of justice, from the Scottsboro Boys and Groveland Four cases, and the more recent Central Park jogger case, all of which involved allegations of interracial rape, to the comparatively trivial conduct alleged, but by no means trivial punishment imposed, in the so-called Monroe ‘kissing case

Allegations of interracial rape also seem to be the most common precursor of full-blown race riots

Thus, in early-twentieth century America, the race riots in Springfield, Illinois in 1908, in Omaha, Nebraska in 1919, in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 and in Rosewood, Florida in 1923 were all ignited, at least in part, by allegations of interracial rape or sexual assault

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, multi-racial Britain’s first modern post-war race riot, the 1958 Notting Hill riot in London 1958, began with a public argument between an interracial couple, when white passers-by joined in on the side of the white woman against her black Jamaican husband (and pimp) before turning on them both. 

Meanwhile, Britain’s most recent unambiguous race riot, the 2005 Birmingham riot, an entirely non-white affair, was ignited by the allegation that a black girl had been gang-raped by South Asians.

Meanwhile, at least in the west, whites no longer seem participate in race riots, save as victims. However, an exception was the 2005 Cronulla riots in Sydney, Australia, which were ignited by the allegation that Middle Eastern males were sexually harassing white Australian girls on Sydney beaches. 

Similarly, in Britain, though riots have yet to result, the spectre of so-called Muslim grooming gangs, preying on, and pimping out, underage white British girls in northern towns across the England, has arguably done more to ignite anti-Muslim sentiment among whites in the UK than a whole series of Jihadist terrorist attacks on British civilian targets

Thus, in Race: The Reality of Human Differences (which I have reviewed here, here and here) Sarich and Miele caution that miscegenation, often touted as the universal panacea to racism simply because, if practiced sufficiently widely, it would eventually eliminate all racial differences, or at least blur the lines between racial groups, may actually, at least in the short-term, actually incite racist attacks. 

This, they argue, is because: 

Viewed from the racial solidarist perspective, intermarriage is an act of race war. Every ovum that is impregnated by the sperm of a member of a different race is one less of that precious commodity to be impregnated by a member of its own race and thereby ensure its survival” (Race: The Reality of Human Differences: p256) 

This “racial solidarist perspective” is, of course, a crudely group selectionist view of Darwinian competition, and it leads Sarich and Miele to hypothesize: 

Paradoxically, intermarriage, particularly of females of the majority group with males of a minority group, is the factor most likely to cause some extremist terrorist group to feel the need to launch such an attack” (Race: The Reality of Human Differences: p255). 

In other words, in sociobiological terms, ‘Robert’, a character from one of Michel Houellebecq’s novels, has it right when he claims: 

What is really at stake in racial struggles… is neither economic nor cultural, it is brutal and biological: It is competition for the cunts of young women” (Platform: p82). 

Endnotes

[1] Actually, however, contrary to Brigandt’s critique, it is clear that van den Berghe intended his “biological golden rule” only as a catchy and memorable aphorism, crudely summarizing Hamilton’s rule, rather than a quantitative scientific law akin to, or rivalling, Hamilton’s Rule itself. Therefore, this aspect of Brigandt’s critique is, in my view, misplaced. Indeed, it is difficult to see how this supposed rule could be applied as a quantitative scientific law, since relatedness, on the one hand, and altruism, on the other, are measured in different currencies. 

[2] Thus, van den Berghe concedes that: 

In many cases, the common descent acribed to an ethny is fictive. In fact, in most cases, it is partly fictive” (p27). 

[3] The question of racial nationalism (i.e. encompassing all members of a given race, not just those of a single ethnicity or language group) is actually more complex. Certainly, members of the same race do indeed share some degree of kinship, in so far as they are indeed (almost by definition) on average more closely biologically related to one another than to members of other races – and indeed that relatedness is obviously apparent in their phenotypic resemblance to one another. This suggests that racial nationalist movements such as that of, say, UNIA or of the Japanese imperialists, might have more potential as a viable form of nationalism than do attempts to unite racially disparate ethnicities, such as civic nationalism in the contemporary USA. The same may also be true of Oswald Mosley’s Europe a Nation campaign, at least while Europe remained primarily monoracial (i.e. white). However, any such racial nationalism would incorporate a far larger and more culturally, linguistically (and genetically) disparate group than any form of nationalism that has previously proven capable of mobilizing support.
Thus, Marcus Garvey’s attempt to create a kind of pan-African ethnic identity enjoyed little success and was largely restricted to North America, where African-Americans, do indeed share a common language and culture in addition to their race. Similarly, the efforts of Japanese nationalists to mobilize a kind of pan-Asian nationalism in support of their imperial aspirations during the first half of the twentieth century was an unmitigated failure, though this was partly because of the brutality with which they conquered and suppressed the other Asian nationalities whose support for pan-Asianism they intermittently sought to enlist.
On the other hand, it is sometimes suggested that, in the early twentieth century, a white supremacist ideology was largely taken for granted among whites. However, while to some extent true, this shared ideology of white supremacism did not prevent the untold devastation wrought by the European wars of the early twentieth century, namely World Wars I and II, which Patrick Buchanan has collectively termed The Great Civil War of the West.
Thus, European nationalisms usually defined themselves by opposition to other European peoples and powers. Thus, just as Irish nationalism is defined largely by opposition to Britain, and Scottish nationalism by opposition to England, so English (and British) nationalism has itself traditionally been directed against rival European powers such as France and Germany (and formerly Spain), while French nationalism seems to have defined itself primarily in opposition to the Germans and the British, and German nationalism in opposition to the French, Dutch and Slavs, etc.
It is true that, in the USA, a kind of pan-white American nationalism did seem to prevail in the early twentieth century, albeit initially limited to white protestants, and excluding at least some recent European immigrants (e.g. Italians, Jews). This is, however, a consequence of the so-called melting pot, and really only amounts to yet another parochial nationalism, namely that of a newly-formed ethnic group – white Americans.
At any rate, today white American nationalism is, at most, decidedly muted in form – a kind of implicit white racial consciousness, or, to coin a phrase, the nationalism that dare not speak its name. Thus, Van den Berghe observes: 

In the United States, the whites are an overwhelming majority, so much so that they cannot be meaningfully conceived of as a ruling group at all. The label ‘white’ in the United States does not correspond to a well-defined ethnic or racial group with a high degree of social organization or even self-consciousness, except regionally in the south” (p183). 

Van den Berghe wrote this in 1981. Today, of course, whites are no longer such an “overwhelming majority” of the US population. On the contrary, they are already well on the way to becoming a minority in America, a milestone that is likely to be reached over the coming decades.
Yet, curiously, white ‘racially consciousness’ is seemingly even more muted and implicit today than it was back when van den Berghe authored his book – and this is seen even in the South, which van den Berghe cited as an exception and lone bastion of white identity politics.
True, White Southerners may vote as a solidly for Republican candidates as they once did for the Democrats. However, overt appeals to white racial interests are now as anathema in the South as elsewhere.
Thus, as recently as 1990, a more or less open white racialist like David Duke was able to win a majority of the white vote in Louisiana in his run for the Senate. Today, this is unimaginable.
If the reason that whites lack any ‘racial consciousness’ is indeed, as van den Berghe claims, because they represent such an “overwhelming majority” of the American population, then it is interesting to speculate if and when, during the ongoing process of white demographic displacement, this will cease to be the case.
One thing seems certain: If and when it does ever occur, it will be too late to make any difference to the ongoing process of demographic displacement that some have termed ‘The Great Replacement’ or a third demographic transition.

[4] Of course, a preference for those who look similar to oneself (or one’s other relatives) may itself function as a form of kin recognition (i.e. of recognizing who is kin and who is not). This is referred to in biology as phenotype matching. Moreover, as Richard Dawkins has speculated in The Selfish Gene (reviewed here), racial could conceivably have evolved through a misfiring of such a crude heuristic (The Selfish Gene: p100).

[5] Actually, I suspect that, on average, at least historically, both mothers and fathers may indeed, on average, have provided rather less care for their mixed-race offspring than for offspring of the same race as themselves, simply because mixed-race offspring were more likely to be born out of wedlock, not least because interracial marriage was, until recently, strongly frowned upon, and both mothers and fathers tended to provide less care for illegitimate offspring, fathers because they often refused to acknowledge their illegitimate offspring and had little or no contact with them, and mothers because, lacking paternal support, they usually had no means of raising their illegitimate offspring alone and hence often gave them up for adoption or fostering.

[6] On the other hand, in his paper, ‘An integrated evolutionary perspective on ethnicity’, controversial evolutionary psychologist Kevin Macdonald disagrees with this conclusion, citing personal communication from geneticist and anthropologist Henry Harpending for the argument that: 

Long distance migrations have easily occurred on foot and over several generations, bringing people who look different for genetic reasons into contact with each other. Examples include the Bantu in South Africa living close to the Khoisans, or the pygmies living close to non-pygmies. The various groups in Rwanda and Burundi look quite different and came into contact with each other on foot. Harpending notes that it is ‘very likely’ that such encounters between peoples who look different for genetic reasons have been common for the last 40,000 years of human history; the view that humans were mostly sessile and living at a static carrying capacity is contradicted by history and by archaeology. Harpending points instead to ‘starbursts of population expansion.’ For example, the Inuits settled in the arctic and exterminated the Dorsets within a few hundred years; the Bantu expansion into central and southern Africa happened in a millennium or less, prior to which Africa was mostly the yellow (i.e., Khoisan) continent, not the black continent. Other examples include the Han expansion in China, the Numic expansion in northern America, the Zulu expansion in southern Africa during the last few centuries, and the present day expansion of the Yanomamo in South America. There has also been a long history of invasions of Europe from the east. ‘In the starburst world people would have had plenty of contact with very different looking people‘” (Macdonald 2001: p70). 

[7] Others have argued that the differences between Tutsi and Hutu are indeed largely a western creation, part of the divide and rule strategy supposedly deliberately employed by European colonialists, as well as a theory of Tutsi racial superiority promulgated by European racial anthropologists known as the Hamitic theory of Tutsi origins, which suggested that the Tutsi had migrated from the Horn of Africa, and had benefited from Caucasoid ancestry, as reflected in their supposed physiological differences from the indigenous Hutu (e.g. lighter complexions, greater height, narrower noses).
On this view, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was originally primarily socioeconomic rather than racial, and, at least formerly, the boundaries between the two groups were quite fluid.
I suspect this view is nonsense, reflecting political correctness and the leftist tendency to excuse any evidence of dysfunction or oppression in non-Western cultures as necessarily of product of the malign influence of western colonizers. (Most preposterously, even the Indian caste system has been blamed on British colonizers, although it actually predated them, in one form or another, by several thousand years.)
With respect to the division between Tutsi and Hutu, there are not only morphological differences between the two groups in average stature, nose width and complexion, but also substantial differences in the prevalence of genes for lactose tolerance and sickle-cell. These results do indeed seem to suggest that, as predicted by the reviled ‘Hamitic theory’, the Tutsi do indeed have affinities with populations from the Horn of Africa and East Africa. Modern genome analysis tends to confirm this conclusion. 

[8] Exceptions, where immigrant groups retain their distinctive language for multiple generations, occur where immigrants speaking a particular language arrive in sufficient numbers, and are sufficiently isolated in ethnic enclaves and ghettos, that they mix primarily or exclusively with people speaking the same language as themselves. A related exception is in respect of economically, politically or socially dominant minorities, such as alien colonizers, as well as market-dominant or middleman minorities, who often resist assimilation into the mainstream culture precisely so as to maintain their cultural separateness and hence their privileged position within society. 

[9] Some German-Americans were also interred during World War II. However, far fewer were interred than among Japanese-Americans, especially on a per capita basis.
Nevertheless, some German-Americans were treated very badly indeed, yet the latter, unlike the Japanese, have yet to receive a government apology or compensation. Moreover, there was perhaps justification for the differing treatment accorded Japanese- and German-Americans, since the latter were generally longer established and more integrated, and there was perceived to be a real threat of enemy sabotage.
Also, with regard to van den Berghe’s observation that nuclear atomic weapons were used only against Japan, they could not have been used against Germany, since, by the time of the first test detonation of a nuclear device, Germany had already surrendered. In fact, the Manhattan Project seems to have been begun with the Germans very much in mind as a prospective target. (Many of the scientists involved were Jewish, many having fled Nazi-occupied Europe for America, and hence their hostility towards the Nazis, and perhaps Germans in general, is easy to understand.)
Whether it is true that, as van den Berghe claims, atomic bombs were never actually likely to be “dropped over, say, Stuttgart or Dortmund” is a matter of supposition. Certainly, there were great animosity towards the Germans in America, as illustrated by the Morgenthau Plan, which, although ultimately never put into practice, was initially highly influential in directing US policy in Europe and even supported by President Roosevelt.
On the other hand, Roosevelt’s references to ‘the Nazis, the Fascists, and the Japanese’ might simply reflect the fact that there was no obvious name for the faction or regime in control of Japan during the Second World War, since, unlike in Germany and Italy, no named political party had seized power. I am therefore unconvinced that a great deal can necessarily be read into this.

[10] The idea that neighbouring groups tend to be in conflict with one another precisely because, being neighbours, they are also in close contact, and hence competition, with one another, ironically posits almost the exact opposite relationship between ‘contact’ and intergroup relations than that posited by the famous contact theory of mid-twentieth psychology, which posited that increased contact between members of different racial and ethnic groups would lead to reduced prejudice and animosity.
This, of course, depends, at least partly, on the nature of the ‘contact’ in question. Contact that involves territorial rivalry, economic competition and war, obviously exacerbates conflict and animosity. In contrast, proponents of contact theory typically had in mind personal contact, rather than, say, the sort of impersonal, but often deadly, contact that occurs between rival belligerent combatants in wartime.
In fact, however, even at the personal level, contact can take many different forms, and often functions to increase inter-ethnic animosity. Hence the famous proverb, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’.
Indeed, social psychologists now concede that only ‘positive’ interactions with members with members of other groups (e.g. friendship, cooperation, acts of altruism, mutually beneficial trade) reduces animosity and conflict.
In contrast, negative interactions (e.g. being robbed, mugged or attacked by members of another group) only serves to reinforce, exacerbate, or indeed create intergroup animosity. This, of course, reduces the contact hypothesis to little more than common sense – positive experiences with a given group lead to positive perceptions of that group; negative interactions to negative perceptions.
This in turn suggests that stereotypes are often based on real experiences and therefore tend to be true – if not of all individuals, then at least at the statistical, aggregate group level.
I would add that, anecdotally, even positive interactions with members of disdained outgroups do not always shift perceptions regarded the disdained outgroup as a whole. Instead, the individuals with whom one enjoys positive interactions, and even friendships, are often seen as exceptions to the rule (‘one of the good ones’), rather than representative of the demographic to which they belong. Hence the familiar phenomenon of even virulent racists having friendships and sometimes even heroes among members of races whom they generally otherwise disdain. 

[11] This was especially so in historical times, before the development of improved technologies of long-distance transportation (ships, aeroplanes) enabled more distantly related populations to come into contact, and hence conflict with one another (e.g. blacks and whites in the USA and South Africa, South Asians and English in the UK or the British Raj). Thus, the ancient Indian treatise on statecraft and strategy, Arthashastra, observed that a ruler’s natural enemies are his immediate neighbours, whereas his next-but-one neighbours, being immediate neighbours of his own immediate neighbours, are his natural allies. This is sometimes credited as the origin of the famous aphorism, The enemy of my enemy is my friend

[12] However, Van den Berghe acknowledges that racially diverse societies have lived in “relative harmony” in places such as Latin America, where government gives no formal political recognition to racial groups (e.g. racial preferences and quotas for members of certain races) and where the latter do not organize on a racial basis, such that government is, in van den Berghe’s terminology, “non-racial” rather than “multiracial” (p190). However, this is perhaps a naïvely benign view of race relations in Latin American countries such as Brazil, which is, despite the fluidity of racial identity and lack of clear dividing lines between races, nevertheless now viewed by most social scientists, not so much the model racial democracy, so much as a racially-stratified pigmentocracy , where skin tone correlates with social status. It is also arguably an outdated view of race relations in Latin America, because, perhaps due to indirect cultural and political influence emanating from the USA, ethnic groups in much of Latin America (e.g. blacks in Brazil, indigenous populations in Bolivia) increasingly do organize and agitate on a racial basis.

[13] I am careful here not to refer to refer the dominant culture as that of either a ‘host population’ or a ‘majority population’, or the subordinate group as a ‘minority group’ or an incoming group of migrants. This is because sometimes newly-arrived settlers successfully assimilate the indigenous populations among whom they settle, and sometimes it is the majority group who ultimately assimilate to the norms and culture of the minority. Thus, for example, the Anglo-Saxons imposed their Germanic language on the indigenous inhabitants of what is today England, and indeed ultimately most of the inhabitants of Scotland, Wales and Ireland as well, even though they likely never represented a majority of the population even in England, and may have made only a comparatively modest contribution to the ancestry of the people whom we today call ‘English’.

[14] Interestingly, and no doubt controversially, Van den Berghe argues that blacks in the USA do not have any distinctive cultural traits that distinguish them from the white American mainstream, and that their successful assimilation has been prevented only by the fact that, until very recently, whites have refused to ‘assimilate’ them. He is particularly skeptical regarding the notion of any cultural inheritances from Africa, dismissing “the romantic search for survivals of African Culture” as “elusive” (p177).
Indeed, for van den Berghe, the whole notion of a distinct African-American culture is “largely ideological and romantic” (p177). “Afro-Americans are,” he argues, “culturally ‘Anglo-Saxon’” and hence paradoxically ”as Anglo as anyone… in America” (p177). He concludes:

The case for ‘black culture’ rests… largely on the northern ghetto lumpenproletariat, a class which has no direct counterpart. Even in that group, however, much of the distinctiveness is traceable to their southern, rural origins” (p177). 

This reference to “southern rural origins” anticipates Thomas Sowell’s later black rednecks hypothesis. Certainly, many aspects of black culture, such as dialect (e.g. the use of terms such as y’all and ain’t and the pronunciation of ‘whores’ as ‘hoes’) and stereotypical fondness for fried chicken, are obvious inheritances from Southern culture rather than distinctively black, let alone an inheritance from Africa. Thus, van den Berghe observes:

Ghetto lumpenproletariat blacks in Chicago, Detroit and New York may seem to have a distinct subculture of their own compared collectively to their white neighbors, but the black Mississippi sharecropper is not very different, except for his skin pigment, from his white counterparts” (p177). 

Any remaining differences not attributable to their Southern origins are, van den Berghe claims, not “African survivals, but adaptation to stigma” (p177). Here, van den Berghe perhaps has in mind the inverse morality, celebration of criminality, and bad nigger’ archetype prevalent in, for example, gangsta rap music. Thus, van den Berghe concludes that: 

Afro-Americans owe their distinctiveness overwhelmingly to the fact that they have been first enslaved and then stigmatized as a pariah group. They lack a territorial base, the necessary economic, and political resources and the cultural and linguistic pluralism ever to constitute a successful nation. Their pluralism is strictly a structural pluralism inflicted on them by racism. A stigma is hardly an adequate basis for successful nationalism” (p184). 

[15] Thus, Elizabeth Warren was a law professor who became a Democratic Party Senator and Presidential candidate, and had described herself as ‘American Indian, and been cited by her University employers as an ethnic minority, in order to benefit from informal affirmative action, despite having only a very small amount of Native American ancestry. Krug and Dolezal, meanwhile, taking advantage of the one drop rule, both identified as African-American, Krug, a history professor and leftist activist, taking advantage of her Middle-Eastern appearance, itself likely a reflection of her Jewish ancestry. Dolezal, however, was formerly a white, blonde girl, but, through the simple expedient of getting a perm and tan, managed to become an adjunct professor of black studies at a local university and local chapter president of the NAACP in an overwhelmingly white town and state. Whoever said blondes have more fun? 

[16] It has even given rise to a popular new hairstyle among young white males attempting to escape the stigma of whiteness by adopting a racially ambiguous appearance – the mulatto perm

[17] Interestingly, the examples cited by Paddy Hannam in his piece on the phenomenon, The rise of the race fakers also seem to have been female (Hannam 2021). Steve Sailer wisely counsels caution with regard to the findings of this study, noting that anyone willing to lie about their ethnicity on their college application, is also likely even more willing to lie in an anonymous survey (Sailer 2021 ; see also Hood 2007). 

[18] Actually, the Northern Ireland settlement is often classed as centripetalist rather than consociationalist. However, the distinction is minimal, with the former arrangement representing a modification of the latter designed to encourage cross-community cooperation, and prevent, or at least mitigate, the institutionalization and ossification of the ethnic divide that is perceived to occur under consociationalism, where constitutional recognition is accorded to the divide between the two (or more) communities. There is, however, little evidence that centripetalism have ever actually been successful in encouraging cross-community cooperation, beyond what is necessitated by the consitutional system, let alone encouraging assimilation of the rival communities and the depoliticization of ethnic identity. 

[19] The reason for the difference in the attitudes of leftists and liberals towards majority-rule in Northern Ireland and South Africa respectively seems to reflect the fact that, whereas in Northern Ireland, the majority protestant population were perceived of as the dominant oppressor’ group, the black majority in South Africa were perceived of as oppressed.
However, it is hard to see why this would mean black majority-rule in South Africa would be any less oppressive of South Africa’s white, coloured, and Asian minorities than Protestant majority rule had been of Catholics in Ulster. On the contrary, precisely because the black majority in South Africa perceive themselves as having been ‘oppressed’ in the past, they are likely to be especially vengeful and feel justified in seeking recompense for their earlier perceived oppression. This indeed seems to be what is occurring in South Africa, and Zimbabwe, today. 
Interestingly, van den Berghe, writing in 1981 was wisely prophetic regarding the long-term prospects for both apartheid – and for white South Africans. Thus, on the one hand he predicted: 

Past experience with decolonization elsewhere in Africa, especially in Zimbabwe (which is in almost every respect a miniature version of South Africa) seems to indicate that the end of white domination is in sight. The only question is whether it will take the form of a prolonged civil war, a negotiated partition or a frantic white exodus. The odds favor, I think, a long escalating war of attrition accompanied by a gradual economic winddown and a growing white emigration” (p174). 

Thus, van den Berghe was right in so far as he predicted the looming end of the apartheid system – though hardly unique in making this prediction. However, he was wrong in his predictions as to how this end would come about. On the other hand, however, with ongoing farm murders and the overtly genocidal rhetoric of populist politicians like Julius Malema, van den Berghe was probably right regarding the long-term prognosis of the white community in South Africa when he observed: 

Five million whites perched precariously at the tip of a continent inhabited by 400 millions blacks, with no friends in sight. No matter what happens whites will lose heavily, perhaps their very lives, or at least their place in the African sun that they love so much” (p172). 

However, perhaps surprisingly, van den Berghe denies that apartheid was entirely a failure: 

Although apartheid failed in the end, it was a rational course for the Afrikaners to take, given their collective aims, and probably did postpone the day of reckoning by about 30 years” (p174).

[20] The only other polity that perhaps has a competing claim to representing the world’s model consociationalist democracy is Switzerland. However, van den Berghe emphasizes that Switzerland is very much a special case, the secret of its success being that:

Switzerland is one of those rare multiethnic states that did not originate either in conquest or in the breakdown of multinational empires” (p194).

It managed to avoid conquest by its richer and more powerful neighbours simply because:

The Swiss had the dual advantage in resisting outside conquest: favorable terrain and lack of natural resources” (p194)

Also, it provided valuable services to these neighbours, first providing mercenaries to fight in their armed forces and later specialising in the manufacture of watches and what van den Berghe terms “the management of shady foreigners’ ill-gotten capital” (p194).
In reality, however, although divided linguistically and religiously, Switzerland does not, in van den Berghe’s constitute true consociationalism, since the country, with originated as confederation of fomerly independent hill tribes, remains highly decentralized, and power is shared, not by ethnic groups, but rather between regional cantons. Therefore, van den Berghe concludes:

The ethnic diversity of Switzerland is only incidental to the federalism, it does not constitute the basis for it” (p196-7).

In addition, most cantons, where much of the real power lies, are themselves relatively monoethnic and monoliguistic, at least as compared to the country as a whole.

[21] Indeed, since the Slavs of Eastern Europe were the last group in Europe to be converted to Christianity, and it was forbidden by Papal decree to enslave fellow-Christians or sell Christian slaves to non-Christians (i.e. Muslims, among whom there was a great demand for European slaves), Slavs were preferentially targeted by Christians for enslavement, and even those non-Slavic people who were enslaved or sold into bondage were often falsely described as Slavs in order to justify their enslavement and sale to Muslim slaveholders. The Slavs, for geographic reasons, were also vulnerable to capture and enslavement directly by the Muslims themselves.

[22] In identifying the key feature of slavery in the fact that the slave is forcibly removed from and isolated from his or her kinship group, van den Berghe anticipates the key insight of Jamaican sociologist Orlando Peterson’s comparative study of slavery, Slavery and Social Death, who terms this key characteristic of slavery natal alienation. (Although this review is based on the 1987 edition, The Ethnic Phenomenon was first published in 1981, whereas Slavery and Social Death came out just a year later in 1982.)

[23] In the antebellum American South, much is made of the practice of slave-owners selling the spouses and offspring of their slaves to other masters, thereby breaking up families. On the basis of van den Berghe’s arguments, this might actually have represented an effective means of preventing slaves from putting down roots and developing families and slave communities, and might therefore have helped perpetuate the institution of slavery.
However, even assuming that such practices would indeed have had this effect, it is doubtful that there was any such deliberate long-term policy among slaveholders to break up families in this way. On the contrary, van den Berghe reports:  

It is not true that slave owners systematically broke up slave couples… On the contrary, it was in their interest to foster stable slave families for the sake of morale, and to discourage escape” (p133). 

Thus, though it certainly occurred and may indeed have been tragic where it did occur, slaveholders generally preferred to keep slave families intact, precisely because, in forming families, slaves would indeed ‘put down roots’ and hence be less likely to try to escape, lest, in the process, they would leave other family members behind to face the vengeance of their former owners alone and without any protection and support they might otherwise have been in a position to offer. The threat of breaking up families, however, surely remained a useful tool in the arsenal of slaveholders to maintain control over slaves. 

[24] While acknowledging, and indeed emphasizing, the virulence of western racialism, van den Berghe, bemoaning the intrusion of “moralism” (and, by extension, ethnomasochism) into scholarship, has little time for the notion that western slavery was intrinsically more malign than forms of slavery practised in other parts of the world or at other times in history (p116). This, he dismisses as “the guilt ascription game: whose slavery was worse?” (p128). Male slaves in the Islamic world, for example, were routinely castrated before being sold (p117). 
Thus, while it is true that slaves in the American South had unusually low rates of manumission (i.e. the granting of freedom to slaves), they also enjoyed surprisingly high standards of living, were well-fed and enjoyed long lives. Indeed, not only did slaves in the American South enjoy standards of living superior to those of most other slave populations, they even enjoyed, by some measures, higher standards of living than many non-slave populations, including industrial workers in Europe and the Northern United States, and poor white Southerners, during the same time period (The End of Racism: p88-91; see also Time on the Cross: the Economics of American Slavery). 
Ironically, living standards were so high for the very same reason that rates of manumission were so low – namely, slaves, especially after the abolition and suppression of the transatlantic slave-trade (but also even before then due to the costs of transportation during the middle passage) were an expensive commodity. Masters therefore fully intended to get their money’s worth out of their slaves, not only by rarely granting them their freedom, but also ensuring that they lived a long and healthy life. Slaves may have been property – but they were valuable property.
Ironically, therefore, indentured servants (themselves, in America, often white, and later, in Africa, usually South or East Asian) were, during the period of their indenture, often worked harder, and forced to live in worse conditions, than were actual slaves. This was because, since they were indentured for only a set number of years before they would be free, there was less incentive on the part of their owners to ensure that they lived a long and healthy life.   
Van den Berghe concludes: 

“The blanket ascription of collective racial guilt for slavery to ‘whites’ that is so dear to many liberal social scientists is itself a product of the racist mentality produced by slavery. It takes a racist to ascribe causality and guilt to racial categories” (p130). 

Indeed, as Dinesh D’Souza in The End of Racism, and Thomas Sowell in his essay ‘The Real History of Slavery’ included in the collection Black Rednecks and White Liberals, both emphasize, whereas all civilizations have practised slavery, what was unique about western civilization was that it was the first civilization ever known to have abolished slavery (at, as it ultimately turned out, no little economic cost to itself).
Therefore, even if liberals and leftists do insist that we play what van den Berghe disparagingly calls “the guilt ascription game”, then white westerners actually come out rather well in the comparison. 

[25] Indeed, in most cultures and throughout most of history, the use of female slaves as concubines was, not only widespread, but also perfectly socially acceptable. For example, in the Islamic world, the use of female slaves as concubines was entirely open and accepted, not only attracting literally no censure or criticism in the wider society or culture, but also receiving explicit prophetic sanction in the Quran. For this reason, in the Islamic world, females slaves tended to be in greater demand than males, and usually commanded a higher price.
In contrast, most slaves transported to the Americas were male, since males were more useful for hard, intensive agricultural labour and, in puritanical North America, sexual contact with between slaveholder and slave was very much frowned upon, even though it certainly occurred. Thus, van den Berghe cynically observes:  

Concubinage with slaves was somewhat more clandestine and hypocritical in the English and Dutch colonies than in the Spanish, Portuguese and French colonies where it was brazen, but there is no evidence that the actual incidence of interbreeding was any higher in the Catholic countries” (p132). 

[26] Actually, exploitation can still be an adaptive strategy, even in respect of close biological relatives. This depends of the precise relative gain and loss in fitness to both the exploiter (the slave owner) and his victim (the slave), and their respective coefficient of relatedness, in accordance with Hamilton’s rule. Thus, it is possible that a slaveholder’s genes may benefit more from continuing to exploit his slaves as slaves than by freeing them, even if the latter are also his kin. Possibly the best strategy will often be a compromise of, say, keeping your slave-kin in bondage, but treating them rather better than other non-related slaves, or freeing them after your death in your will. 
Of course, this is not to suggest that individual slaveholders consciously (or subconsciously) perform such a calculation, nor even that their actual behaviour is usually adaptive. Slaveholding is likely an ‘environmental novelty’ to which we are yet to have evolved adaptive responses

[27] Others suggest that Thomas Jefferson himself did not father any offspring with Sally Hemmings and that the more likely father is Jefferson’s wayward younger brother Randolph, who would, of course, share the same Y chromosome as his elder brother. For present purposes, this is not especially important, since, either way, Heming’s offspring would be blood relatives of Jefferson to some degree, hence likely influencing his decision to free them or permit them to escape.

[28] Quite how this destruction can be expected to have manifested itself is not spelt out by van den Berghe. Perhaps, with each passing generation, as slaves became more and more closely biologically related to their masters, more and more slaves would have been freed until there were simply no more left. Alternatively, perhaps, as slaves and slaveowners increasingly became biological kin to one another, the institution of slavery would gradually have become less oppressive and exploitative until ultimately it ceased to constitute true slavery at all. At any rate, in the Southern United States this (supposed) process was forestalled by the American Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation, and neither does it appear to have occurred in Latin America.  

[29] Another area of conflict between Marxism and Darwinism is the assumption of the former that somehow all conflict and exploitation will end in a future posited communist utopia. Curiously, although healthily cynical about exploitation under Soviet-style communism (p60), van den Berghe describes himself as an anarchist (van den Berghe 2005). However, anarchism seems even more hopelessly utopian than communism, given humanity’s innate sociality and desire to exploit reproductive competitors. In short, a Hobbesian state of nature is surely no one’s utopia (except perhaps Ragnar Redbeard). 

[30] The idea that there is “ambivalence in relations between black men and women in America” seems anecdotally plausible, given, for example, the delightfully misogynistic lyrics found in much African-American rap music. However, it is difficult to see how this could be a legacy of the plantation era, when everyone alive today is several generations removed from that era and living in a very different sexual and racial milieu. Today, black men do rather better in the mating market place than do black women, with black men being much more likely to marry non-black women than black women are to marry non-black men, suggesting that black men have a larger dating pool from which to choose (Sailer 1997; Fryer 2007).
Moreover, black men and women in America today are, of course, the descendants of both men and women. Therefore, even if black women did have a better time of it that black men in the plantation era, how would black male resentment be passed down the generations to black men today, especially given that most black men are today raised primarily by their mothers in single-parent homes and often have little or no contact with their fathers?

[31] Indeed, being perceived as attractive, or at least not as ugly, seems to be rather more important to most women that does being perceived as intelligent. Therefore, the question of race differences in attractiveness is seemingly almost as controversial as that of race differences in intelligence. This, then, leads to the delightfully sexist Sailer’s first law of female journalism, which posits that: 

The most heartfelt articles by female journalists tend to be demands that social values be overturned in order that, Come the Revolution, the journalist herself will be considered hotter-looking.” 

[32] A popular alt-right meme has it that there are literally no white-on-black rapes. This is, of course, untrue, and reflects the misreading of a table in a US departnment of Justice report that actually involved only a small sample. In fact, the government does not currently release data on the prevalence of interracial rape. Nevertheless, the US Department of Justice report (mis)cited by some white nationalists does indeed suggest that black-on-white rape is much more common than white-on-black rape in the contemporary USA, a conclusion corroborated by copious other data (e.g. Lebeau 1985).
Thus, in his book Paved with Good Intentions, Jared Taylor reports:

“In a 1974 study in Denver, 40 percent of all rapes were of whites by blacks, and not one case of white-on-black-rape was found. In general, through the 1970s, black-on-white rape was at last ten times more common than white-on-black rape… In 1988 there were 9,406 cases of black-on-white rape and fewer than ten cases of white-on-black rape. Another researcher concludes that in 1989, blacks were three or four times more likely to commit rape than whites and that black men raped white women thirty times as often as white men raped black women” (Paved with Good Intentions: p93). 

Indeed, the authors of one recent textbook on criminology even claim that: 

“Some researchers have suggested, because of the frequency with which African Americans select white victims (about 55 percent of the time), it [rape] could be considered an interracial crime” (Criminology: A Global Perspective: p544). 

Similarly, in the US prison system, where male-male rape is endemic, such assaults disproportionately involve non-white assaults on white inmates, as discussed by the Human Rights Watch report, No Escape: Male Rape in US Prisons

References

Brigandt (2001) The homeopathy of kin selection: an evaluation of van den Berghe’s sociobiological approach to ethnicity. Politics and the Life Sciences 20: 203-215. 
Feinman & Gill (1977) Sex differences in physical attractiveness preferences, Journal of Social Psychology 105(1): 43-52. 
Frost (2008) Sexual selection and human geographic variation. Special Issue: Proceedings of the ND Annual Meeting of the Northeastern Evolutionary Psychology Society. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 2(4): 169-191 
Fryer (2007) Guess Who’s Been Coming to Dinner? Trends in Interracial Marriage over the 20th Century, Journal of Economic Perspectives 21(2), pp. 71-90 
Hannam (2021) The rise of the race fakers. Spiked-Online.com, 5 November. 
Hamilton (1964) The genetical evolution of social behaviour I and II, Journal of Theoretical Biology 7:1-16,17-52. 
Hood (2017) The privilege no one wants, American Renaissance, December 11.
Johnson (1986) Kin selection, socialization and patriotism. Politics and the Life Sciences 4(2): 127-154. 
Johnson (1987) In the Name of the Fatherland: An Analysis of Kin Term Usage in Patriotic Speech and Literature. International Political Science Review 8(2): 165-174.
Johnson, Ratwik and Sawyer (1987) The evocative significance of kin terms in patriotic speech pp157-174 in Reynolds, Falger and Vine (eds) The Sociobiology of Ethnocentrism: Evolutionary Dimensions of Xenophobia, Discrimination, Racism, and Nationalism (London: Croom Helm). 
Lebeau (1985) Rape and Racial Patterns. Journal of Offender Counseling Services Rehabilitation, 9(1- 2): 125-148 
Lewis (2011) Who is the fairest of them all? Race, attractiveness and skin color sexual dimorphism. Personality & Individual Differences 50(2): 159-162. 
Lewis (2012) A Facial Attractiveness Account of Gender Asymmetries in Interracial Marriage PLoS One. 2012; 7(2): e31703. 
Lind et al (2007) Elevated male European and female African contributions to the genomes of African American individuals. Human Genetics 120(5) 713-722 
Macdonald 2001 An integrative evolutionary perspective on ethnicity. Poiltics & the Life Sciences 20(1):67-8. 
Rushton (1998a). Genetic similarity theory, ethnocentrism, and group selection. In I. Eibl-Eibesfeldt & F. K. Salter (Eds.), Indoctrinability, Warfare, and Ideology: Evolutionary perspectives (pp. 369-388). Oxford: Berghahn Books. 
Rushton (1998b). Genetic similarity theory and the roots of ethnic conflict. Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, 23, 477-486. 
Rushton, (2005) Ethnic Nationalism, Evolutionary Psychology and Genetic Similarity Theory, Nations and Nationalism 11(4): 489-507. 
Sailer (1997) Is love colorblind? National Review, July 14. 
Sailer (2021) Do 48% of White Male College Applicants Lie About Their Race? Interesting, if It Replicates. Unz Review, October 21. 
Salmon (1998) The Evocative Nature of Kin Terminology in Political Rhetoric. Politics & the Life Sciences, 17(1): 51-57.   
Salter (2000) A Defense and Extension of Pierre van den Berghe’s Theory of Ethnic Nepotism. In James, P. and Goetze, D. (Eds.)  Evolutionary Theory and Ethnic Conflict (Praeger Studies on Ethnic and National Identities in Politics) (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press). 
Salter (2002) Estimating Ethnic Genetic Interests: Is It Adaptive to Resist Replacement Migration? Population & Environment 24(2): 111–140. 
Salter (2008) Misunderstandings of Kin Selection and the Delay in Quantifying Ethnic Kinship, Mankind Quarterly 48(3): 311–344. 
Tooby & Cosmides (1989) Kin selection, genic selection and information dependent strategies Behavioral and Brain Sciences 12(3): 542-544 
Van den Berghe (2005) Review of On Genetic Interests: Family, Ethny and Humanity in the Age of Mass Migration by Frank Salter Nations and Nationalism 11(1) 161-177 
Van den Berghe & Frost (1986) Skin color preference, sexual dimorphism, and sexual selection: A case of gene-culture co-evolution? Ethnic and Racial Studies, 9: 87-113.
Whitney G (1999) The Biological Reality of Race. American Renaissance, October 1999.

The ‘Means of Reproduction’ and the Ultimate Purpose of Political Power

Laura Betzig, Despotism and Differential Reproduction: A Darwinian View of History (New Brunswick: AdelineTransation, 1983). 

Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif, alias ‘Ismail the Bloodthirsty’, a late-seventeenth, early eighteenth century Emperor of Morocco is today little remembered, at least outside of his native Morocco. He is, however, in a strict Darwinian sense, possibly the most successful human ever to have lived. 

Ismail, you see, is said to have sired some 888 offspring. His Darwinian fitness therefore exceeded that of any other known person.[1]

Some have questioned whether this figure is realistic (Einon 1998). However, the best analyses suggest that, while the actual number of offspring fathered by Ismail is indeed probably apocryphal, such a large progeny is indeed eminently plausible for a powerful ruler with access to a large harem of wives and/or concubines (Gould 2000; Oberzaucher & Grammer 2014).

Indeed, as Laura Betzig demonstrates in ‘Despotism and Differential Reproduction’, Ismail is exceptional only in degree.

Across diverse societies and cultures, and throughout human history, wherever individual males acquire great wealth and power, they convert this wealth and power into the ultimate currency of natural selection – namely reproductive success – by asserting and maintaining exclusive reproductive access to large harems of young female sex partners. 

A Sociobiological Theory of Human History 

Betzig begins her monograph by quoting a small part of a famous passage from the closing paragraphs of Charles Darwin’s seminal On the Origin of Species which she adopts as the epigraph to her preface. 

In this passage, the great Victorian naturalist tentatively extended his theory of natural selection to the question of human origins, a topic he conspicuously avoided in the preceding pages of his famous text. 

Yet, in this much-quoted passage, Darwin goes well beyond suggesting merely that his theory of evolution by natural selection might explain human origins in just the same way it explained the origin of other species. On the contrary, he also anticipated the rise of evolutionary psychology, writing of how: 

Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. 

Yet this is not the part of this passage quoted by Betzig. Instead, she quotes the next sentence, where Darwin makes another prediction, no less prophetic, namely that: 

Much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history 

In this reference to “man and his history”, Darwin surely had in mind primarily, if not exclusively, the natural history and evolutionary history of our species.

Betzig, however, interprets Darwin more broadly, and more literally, and, in so doing, has both founded, and for several years, remained the leading practitioner of a new field – namely, Darwinian history.

This is the attempt to explain, not only the psychology and behaviour of contemporary humans in terms of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and selfish gene theory, but also to explain the behaviour of people in past historical epochs in terms of the same theory.  

Her book length monograph, ‘Despotism and Differential Reproduction: A Darwinian View of History’ remains the best known and most important work in this field. 

The Historical and Ethnographic Record 

In making the case that, throughout history and across the world, males in positions of power have used this power so as to maximize their Darwinian fitness by securing exclusive reproductive access to large harems of fertile females, Betzig, presumably to avoid the charge of cherry picking, never actually even mentions Ismail the Bloodthirsty at any point in her monograph. 

Instead, Betzig uses ethnographic data taken from a random sample of cultures from across the world. Nevertheless, the patterns she uncovers are familiar and recurrent.

Powerful males command large harems of multiple fertile young females, to whom they assert, and defend, exclusive reproductive access. In this way, they convert their power into the ultimate currency of natural selection – namely, reproductive success or fitness.

Thus, summarizing Betzig’s work, not only in ‘Despotism and Differential Reproduction’, but also in other published works, science writer Matt Ridley reports:

[Of] the six independent ‘civilizations’ of early history – Babylon, Egypt, India, China, the Aztecs and the Incas… the Babylonian king Hammurabi had thousands of slave ‘wives’ at his command. The Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten procured three hundred and seventeen concubines and ‘droves’ of consorts. The Aztec ruler Montezuma enjoyed four thousand concubines. The Indian emperor Udayama preserved sixteen thousand consorts in apartments guarded by eunuchs. The Chinese emperor Fei-ti had ten thousand women in his harem. The Inca… kept virgins on tap throughout the kingdom” (The Red Queen: p191-2; see Betzig 1993a).

Such vast harems seem, at first, wholly wasteful. This is surely more fertile females than even the horniest, healthiest and most virile of emperors could ever hope to have sex with, let alone successfully impregnate. As Betzig acknowledges: 

The number of women in such a harem may easily have prohibited the successful impregnation of each… but, their being kept from bearing children to others increased the monarch’s relative reproductive accomplishment” (p70). 

In other words, even if these rulers were unable to successfully impregnate every concubine in their harem, keeping them cloistered and secluded nevertheless prevented other males from impregnating them, which increased the relative representation of the ruler’s genes in subsequent generations.

To this end, extensive efforts also were made to ensure the chastity of these women. Thus, even in ancient times, Betzig reports: 

Evidence of claustration, in the form of a walled interior courtyard, exists for Babylonian Mai; and claustration in second story rooms with latticed, narrow windows is mentioned in the Old Testament” (p79). 

Indeed, Betzig even proposes an alternative explanation for early evidence of defensive fortifications

Elaborate fortifications erected for the purposes of defense may [also] have served the dual (identical?) function of protecting the chastity of women of the harem” (p79). 

Indeed, as Betzig alludes to in her parenthesis, this second function is arguably not entirely separate to the first. 

After all, if all male-male competition is ultimately based on competition over access to fertile females, then this surely very much includes warfare. As Napoleon Chagnon emphasizes in his studies of warfare and intergroup raiding among the Yąnomamö Indians of the Amazonian rainforest, warfare among primitive peoples tends to be predicated on the capture of fertile females from among enemy groups.[2]

Therefore, even fortifications erected for the purposes of military defence, ultimately serve the evolutionary function of maintaining exclusive reproductive access to the fertile females contained therein. 

Other methods of ensuring the chastity of concubines, and thus the paternity certainty of emperors, included the use of eunuchs as harem guards. Indeed, this seems to have been the original reason eunuchs were castrated and later became a key element in palace retinues (see The Evolution of Human Sociality: p45). 

Chastity belts, however, ostensibly invented for the wives of crusading knights while the latter were away on crusade, are likely a modern myth.

The movements of harem concubines were also highly restricted. Thus, if permitted to venture beyond their cloisters, they were invariably escorted. 

For example in the African Kingdom of Dahomey, Betzig reports: 

The king’s wives’… approach was always signalled by the ringing of a bell by the women servant or slave who invariably preceded them [and] the moment the bell is heard all persons, whether male or female , turn their backs, but all the males must retire to a certain distance” (p79). 

Similarly, inmates of the Houses of Virgins maintained by Inca rulers:

Lived in perpetual seclusion to the end of their lives… and were not permitted to converse, or have intercourse with, or to see any man, nor any woman who was not one of themselves” (p81-2). 

Feminists tend to view such practices as evidence of the supposed oppression of women

However, from a sociobiological or evolutionary psychological perspective, the primary victims of such practices were, not the harem inmates themselves, but rather the lower-status men condemned to celibacy and ‘inceldom’ as a consequence of royal dynasties monopolizing sexual access to almost all the fertile females in the society in question. 

The encloistered women might have been deprived of their freedom of movement – but many lower-status men in the same societies were deprived of almost all access to fertile female sex partners, and hence any possibility of passing on their genes, the ultimate evolutionary function of any biological organism. 

In contrast, the concubines secluded in royal harems were not only able to reproduce, but also lived lives of relative comfort, if not, in some cases, outright luxury, often being: 

Equipped with their own household and servants, and probably lived reasonably comfortable lives in most respects, except… for a lack of liberal masculine company” (p80). 

Indeed, seclusion, far from evidencing oppression, was primarily predicted on safety and protection. In short, to be imprisoned is not so bad when one is imprisoned in a palace. 

Finally, methods were also sometimes employed specifically to enhance their fertility of the women so confined. Thus, Ridley reports: 

Wet nurses, who allow women to resume ovulation by cutting short their breast-feeding periods, date from at least the code of Hammurabi in the eighteenth century BC… Tang dynasty emperors of China kept careful records of dates of menstruation and conception in the harem so as to be sure to copulate only with the most fertile concubines… [and] Chinese emperors were also taught to conserve their semen so as to keep up their quota of two women a day” (The Red Queen: p192). 

Confirming Betzig’s conclusions but subsequent to the publication of her work, researchers have now uncovered genetic evidence of the fecundity of one particular powerful ruler (or ruling male lineage) – namely, a Y chromosome haplogroup, found in 8% of males across a large region of Asia and in one in two hundred males across the whole world – the features of which are consistent with its having spread across the region thanks to the exception prolificity of Genghis Khan, his male siblings and descendants (Zerjal 2003). 

Female Rulers? 

In contrast, limited to only one pregnancy every nine months, a woman, howsoever rich and powerful, can necessarily bear far fewer offspring than can be sired by a man enjoying equivalent wealth, power and access to multiple fertile sex partners, even with the aid of evolutionary novelties like wet nurses, bottle milk and IVF treatment. 

As a female analogue of Ismail the Bloodthirsty, it is sometimes claimed that a Russian woman gave birth to 69 offspring in the nineteenth-century. She was also supposedly, and very much unlike Ismail the Bloodthirsty, not a powerful and polygamous elite ruler, but rather a humble, monogamously married peasant woman. 

However, this much smaller figure is both physiologically implausible and poorly sourced. Indeed, even her name is unknown, and she is referred to only as the wife of Feodor Vassilyev. It is, in short, almost certainly an urban myth.[3]

Feminists have argued that the overrepresentation of males in positions of power is a consequence of such mysterious and non-existent phenomena as patriarchy or male dominance or the oppression of women.

In reality, however, it seems that, for women, seeking positions of power and wealth simply doesn’t have the same reproductive payoff as for men – because, no matter how many men a woman copulates with, she can usually only gestate, and nurse, one (or, in the case of twins or triplets, occasionally two or three) offspring at a time. 

This is the essence of Bateman’s Principle, later formalized by Robert Trivers as differential parental investment theory (Bateman 1948; Trivers 1972).

This, then, in Darwinian terms, explains why women are less likely to assume positions of great political power.

It is not necessarily that they don’t want political power, but rather that they are less willing to make the necessary effort, or take the necessary risks, to attain power.[4]

This calculus then, rather than the supposed oppression of women, explains, not only the cross-culturally universal over-representation of men in positions of power, but also much of the so-called gender pay gap in our own societies (see Kingsley Browne’s Biology at Work: reviewed here). 

Perhaps the closest women can get to producing such a vast progeny is maneuver their sons into having the opportunity to do so. This might explain why such historical figures as Agrippina the Younger, the mother of Nero, and Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, are reported as having been so active, and instrumental, in securing the succession on behalf of their sons. 

The Purpose of Political Power? 

The notion that powerful rulers often use their power to gain access to multiple nubile sex partners is, of course, hardly original to sociobiology. On the contrary, it accords with popular cynicism regarding males in positions of power. 

What a Darwinian perspective adds is the ultimate explanation of why political leaders do so – and why female political rulers, even when they do assume power, usually adopt a very different reproductive strategy. 

Moreover, a Darwinian perspective goes beyond popular cynicism in suggesting that access to multiple sex partners is not merely yet another perk of power. On the contrary, it is the ultimate purpose of power and reason why men evolved to seek power in the first place. 

As Betzig herself concludes: 

Political power in itself may be explained, at least in part, as providing a position from which to gain reproductively” (p85).[5]

After all, from a Darwinian perspective, political power in and of itself has no intrinsic value. It is only if power can be used in such a way as to maximize a person’s reproductive success or fitness that it has evolutionary value. 

Thus, as Steven Pinker has observed, the recurrent theme in science fiction film and literature of robots rebelling against humans to take over the world and overthrow humanity is fundamentally mistaken. Robots would have no reason to rebel against humans, simply because they would not be programmed to want to take over the world and overthrow humanity in the first place. 

On the other hand, humans have been programmed to seek wealth and power – and to resist oppression and exploitation. This is why revolutions are a recurrent feature of human societies and history.

But we have been programmed, not by a programmer or god-like creator, but rather by natural selection.

We have been programmed by natural selection to seek wealth and power only because, throughout human evolutionary history, those of us who achieved political power tended, like Ismail the Bloodthirsty, also to achieve high levels of reproductive success as a consequence. 

Darwin versus Marx 

In order to test the predictive power of her theory, Betzig contrasts the predictions made by sociobiological theory with a rival theory – namely, Marxism

The comparison is apposite since, despite repeated falsification at the hands of both economists and of history, Marxism remains, among both social scientists and laypeople, the dominant paradigm when it comes to explaining social structure, hierarchy and exploitation in human societies.  

Certainly, it has proven far more popular than any approach to understanding human dominance hierarchies rooted in ethology, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology or selfish gene theory

There are, it bears emphasizing, several similarities between the two approaches. For one thing, each theory traces its origins ultimately to a nineteenth-century Victorian founder resident in Britain at the time he authored his key works, namely Charles Darwin and Karl Marx respectively.  

More importantly, there are also substantive similarities in the content and predictions of both these alternative theoretical paradigms. 

In particular, each is highly cynical in its conclusions. Indeed, at first glance, Marxist theory appears superficially almost as cynical as Darwinian theory. 

Thus, like Betzig, Marx regarded most societies in existence throughout history as exploitative – and as designed to serve the interests, not of society in general or of the population of that society as a whole, but rather of the dominant class within that society alone – namely, in the case of capitalism, the bourgeoisie or capitalist employers. 

However, sociobiological and Marxist theory depart in at least three crucial respects. 

First, Marxists propose that exploitation will be absent in future anticipated communist utopias

Second, Marxists also claim that such exploitation was also absent among hunter-gatherer groups, where so-called primitive communism supposedly prevailed. 

Thus, the Marxist, so cynical with regard exploitation and oppression in capitalist (and feudal) society, suddenly turns hopelessly naïve and innocent when it comes to envisaging future unrealistic communist utopias, and when contemplating ‘noble savages’ in their putative ‘Eden before the fall’.

Unfortunately, however, in her critique of Marxism, Betzig herself nevertheless remains somewhat confused in respect of this key issue. 

On the one hand, she rightly dismisses primitive communism as a Marxist myth. Thus, she demonstrates and repeatedly emphasizes that:

Men accrue reproductive rights to wives of varying numbers and fertility in every human society” (p20).

Therefore, Betzig, contrary to the tenets of Marxism, concludes:

Unequal access to the basic resource which perpetuates life, members of the opposite sex, is a condition in [even] the simplest societies” (p32; see also Chagnon 1979).

Neither is universal human inequality limited only to access to fertile females. On the contrary, Betzig observes:

Some form of exploitation has been in evidence in even the smallest societies… Conflicts of interest in all societies are resolved with a consistent bias in favor of men with greater power” (p67).

On the other hand, however, Betzig takes a wrong turn in refusing to rule out the possibility of true communism somehow arising in the future. Thus, perhaps in a misguided effort to placate the many leftist opponents of sociobiology in academia, she writes:

Darwinism… [does not] preclude the possibility of future conditions under which individual interests might become common interests: under which individual welfare might best be served by serving the welfare of society… [nor] preclude… the possibility of the evolution of socialism” (p68). 

This, however, seems obviously impossible. 

After all, we have evolved to seek to maximize the representation of our own genes in subsequent generations at the expense of those of other individuals. Only a eugenic reengineering of human nature itself could ever change this. 

Thus, as Donald Symons emphasized in his seminal The Evolution of Human Sexuality (which I have reviewed here), reproductive competition is inevitable – because, whereas there is sometimes sufficient food that everyone is satiated and competition for food is therefore unnecessary and counterproductive, reproductive success is always relative, and therefore competition over women is universal. 

Thus, Betzig quotes Confucius as observing:

Disorder does not come from heaven, but is brought about by women” (p26). 

Indeed, Betzig herself elsewhere recognizes this key point, namely the relativity of reproductive success, when she observes, in a passage quoted above, that a powerful monarch benefits from sequestering huge numbers of fertile females in his harem because, even if it is unfeasible that he would ever successfully impregnate all of them himself, he nevertheless thereby prevents other males from impregnating them, and thereby increases the relative representation of his own genes in subsequent generations (p70). 

It therefore seems inconceivable that social engineers, let alone pure happenstance, could ever engineer a society in which individual interests were identical to societal interests, other than a society of identical twins or through the eugenic reingineering of human nature itself (see Peter Singer’s A Darwinian Left, which I have reviewed here).[6]

Marx and the Means of Reproduction

The third and perhaps most important conflict between the Darwinist and Marxist perspectives concerns what Betzig terms: 

The relative emphasis on production and reproduction” (p67).

Whereas Marxists view control of what they term the means of production as the ultimate cause of societal conflict, socioeconomic status and exploitation, for Darwinians conflict and exploitation instead focus on control over what we might term the means of reproduction – in other words fertile females, their wombs, ova and vaginas. 

Thus, Betzig observes: 

Marxism makes no explicit prediction that exploitation should coincide with reproduction” (p68). 

In other words, Marxist theory is silent on the crucial issue of whether high-status individuals will necessarily convert their political and economic power into the ultimate currency of Darwinian selection – namely, reproductive success

On this view, powerful male rulers might just as well be celibate as control and assert exclusive reproductive access to large harems of young fertile wives and concubines. 

In contrast, for Darwinians, the effort to maximize one’s reproductive success is the very purpose, and ultimate end, of all political power. 

As sociologist-turned-sociobiologist Pierre van den Berghe observes in his excellent The Ethnic Phenomenon (reviewe here, here and here): 

The ultimate measure of human success is no production but reproduction. Economic productivity and profit are means to reproductive ends, not ends in themselves” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p165). 

Thus, production is, from a sociobiological perspective, just another means of gaining the resources necessary for reproduction. 

On the other hand, reproduction is, from a biological perspective, the ultimate purpose of life. 

Therefore, it seems that, for all his ostensible radicalism, Karl Marx was, in his emphasis on economics rather than sex, just another nineteenth-century Victorian prude! 

The Polygyny Threshold Model Applied to Humans? 

One way of conceptualizing the tendency of powerful males to attract (or perhaps commandeer) multiple wives and concubines is the polygyny threshold model

This way of conceptualizing male and female reproductive and ecological competition was first formulated by ornithologist-ecologist Gordon Orians in order to model the mating systems of passerine birds (Orians 1969). 

Here, males practice so-called resource defence polygyny – in other words, they defend territories containing valuable resources (e.g. food, nesting sites) necessary for successful reproduction and provisioning of offspring. 

Females then distribute themselves between males in accordance with size and quality of male territories. 

On this view, if the territory of one male is twice as resource-abundant as that of another, he would, all else being equal, attract twice as many mates; if it is three times as resource-abundant, he would attract three times as many mates; etc. 

The result is rough parity in resource-holdings and reproductive success among females, but often large disparities among males. 

Applying the Polygyny Threshold Model to Modern America

Thus, applying the polygyny threshold model to humans, and rather simplistically substituting wealth for territory size and quality, we might predict that, if Jeff Bezos is a hundred thousand times richer than Joe Schmo, then, if Joe has only one wife, then Jeff should have around 100,000 wives.

But, of course, Jeff Bezos does not have 100,000 wives, nor even a mere 100,000 concubines. 

Instead, he has only one solitary meagre ex-wife, and she, even when married to him, was not, to the best of my knowledge, ever guarded by any eunuchs – though perhaps he would have been better off if she had been, since they might have prevented her from divorcing him and taking an enormous share of his wealth with her in the ensuing divorce settlement.[7]

The same is also true of contemporary political leaders. 

Indeed, if any contemporary western political leader does attempt to practice polygyny, even on a comparatively modest scale, then, if discovered, a so-called sex scandal almost invariably results. 

Yet, viewed in historical perspective, the much-publicized marital infidelities of, say, Bill Clinton, though they may have outraged the sensibilities the of mass of monogamously-married Middle American morons, positively pale into insignificance besides the reproductive achievements of someone like, say, Ismail the Bloodthirsty

Indeed, Clinton’s infidelities don’t even pack much of a punch beside those of a politician from the same nation and just a generation removed, namely John F Kennedy – whose achievements in the political sphere are vastly overrated on account of his early death, but whose achievements in the bedroom, while scarcely matching those of Ismail the Bloodthirsty or the Aztec emperors, certainly put the current generation of American politicians to shame. 

Why, then, does the contemporary west represent such a glaring exception to the general pattern of elite polygyny that Betzig has so successfully documented throughout so much of the rest of the world, and throughout so much of history? And what has become of the henpecked geldings who pass for politicians in the contemporary era? 

Monogamy as Male Compromise? 

According to Betzig, the moronic mass media moral panic that invariably accompanies sexual indiscretions on the part of contemporary Western political leaders and other public figures is no accident. Rather, it is exactly what her theory predicts. 

According to Betzig, the institution of monogamy as it operates in Western democracies represents a compromise between low-status and high status males. 

According to the terms of this compromise, high-status males agree to forgo polygyny in exchange for the cooperation of low status males in participating in the complexly interdependent economic systems of modern western polities (p105) – or, in biologist Richard Alexander’s alternative formulation, in exchange for serving as necessary cannon-fodder in wars (p104).[8]

Thus, whereas, under polygyny, there are never enough females to go around, under monogamy, at least assuming that there is a roughly equal sex ratio (i.e. a roughly equal numbers of men and women), then virtually almost all males are capable of attracting a wife, howsoever ugly and unpleasant. 

This is important, since it means that all men, even the relatively poor and powerless, nevertheless have a reproductive stake in society. This, then, in evolutionary terms, provides them with an incentive both:

1) To participate in the economy to support and thereby provide for their wife and family; and

2) To defend these institutions in wartime, if necessary with their lives.

The institution of monogamy has therefore been viewed as a key factor, if not the key factor, in both the economic and military ascendency of the West (see Scheidel 2008). 

Similarly, it has recently been argued that the increasing rates of non-participation of young males in the economy and workforce (i.e. the so-called NEET’ phenomenon) is a direct consequence of the reduction in reproductive opportunities to young males (Binder 2021).[9]

Thus, on this view, then, the media scandal and hysteria that invariably accompanies sexual infidelities by elected politicians, or constitutional monarchs, reflects outrage that the terms of this implicit agreement have been breached. 

This idea was anticipated by Irish playwright and socialist George Bernard Shaw, who observed in Man and Superman: Maxims for Revolutionaries, the preface to his play Man and Superman

Polygyny, when tried under modern democratic conditions, as by the Mormons is wrecked by the revolt of the mass of inferior men who are condemned to celibacy by it” (Shaw 1903). 

Socially Imposed Monogamy’?

Consistent with this theory of socially imposed monogamy, it is indeed the case that, in all Western democratic polities, polygyny is unlawful, and bigamy a crime. 

Yet these laws are seemingly in conflict with contemporary western liberal democratic principles of tolerance and inclusivity, especially in respect of ‘alternative lifestyles’ and ‘non-traditional relationships’.

Thus, for example, we have recently witnessed a successful campaign for the legalization of gay marriage in most western jurisdictions. However, strangely, polygynous marriage seemingly remains anathema – despite the fact that most cultures across the world and throughout history have permitted polygynous marriage, whereas few if any have ever accorded any state recognition to homosexual unions.

Indeed, strangely, whereas the legalization of gay marriage was widely perceived as ‘progressive’, polygyny is associated, not with sexual liberation with rather with highly traditional and sexually repressive groups such as Mormons and Muslims.[10]

Polygynous marriage was also, rather strangely, associated with the supposed oppression of women in traditional societies

However, most women actually do better, at least in purely economic terms, under polygyny than under monogamy, at least in highly stratified societies with large differences in resource-holdings as between males. 

Thus, if, as we have seen, Jeff Bezos is 100,000 times richer than Joe Schmo, then a woman is financially better off becoming the second wife, or the tenth wife (or even the 99,999th wife!), of Jeff Bezos rather than the first wife of poor Joe. 

Moreover, women also have another incentive to prefer Jeff to Joe. 

If she is impregnated by a polygynous male like Jeff, then her male descendants may inherit the traits that facilitated their father’s wealth, power and polygyny, and hence become similarly reproductively successful themselves, aiding the spread of the woman’s own genes in subsequent generations. 

Biologists call this good genes sexual selection or, more catchily, the sexy son hypothesis

Once again, however, George Bernard Shaw beat them to it when he observed in the same 1903 essay quoted above: 

Maternal instinct leads a woman to prefer a tenth share in a first rate man to the exclusive possession of a third rate one” (Shaw 1903). 

Thus, Robert Wright concludes: 

In sheerly Darwinian terms, most men are probably better off in a monogamous system, and most women worse off” (The Moral Animal: p96). 

Thus, women generally should welcome polygyny, while the only people opposed to polygyny should be: 

1) The women currently married to men like Jeff Bezos, and greedily unwilling to share their resource-abundant ‘alpha-male’ providers with a whole hundred-fold harem of co-wives and concubines; and

2) A glut of horny sexually-frustrated bachelor-‘incels’ terminally condemned to celibacy, bachelorhood and inceldom by promiscuous lotharios like Jeff Bezos and Ismail the Bloodthirsty greedily hogging all the hot chicks for themselves.

Who Opposes Polygyny, and Why? 

However, in my experience, the people who most vociferously and puritanically object to philandering male politicians are not low-status men, but rather women. 

Moreover, such women typically affect concern on behalf, not of the male bachelors and ‘incels’ supposedly indirectly condemned to celibacy by such behaviours, but rather the wives of such politicians – though the latter are the chief beneficiaries of monogamy, while these other women, precluded from signing up as second or third-wives to alpha-male providers, are themselves, at least in theory, among the main losers. 

This suggests that the ‘male compromise theory’ of socially-imposed monogamy is not the whole story. 

Perhaps then, although women benefit in purely financial terms under polygyny, they do not do so well in fitness terms. 

Thus, one study found that, whereas polygynous males (unsurprisingly) had more offspring than monogamously-mated males, they (perhaps also unsurprisingly) had fewer offspring per wife. This suggests that, while polygynously-married males benefit from polygyny, their wives incur a fitness penalty for having to share their husband (Strassman 2000). 

This probably reflects the fact that even male reproductive capacity is limited, as, notwithstanding the Coolidge effect (which has, to my knowledge, yet to be demonstrated in humans), males can only manage a certain number of orgasms per day. 

Women’s distaste for polygynous unions may also reflect the fact that even prodigiously wealthy males will inevitably have a limited supply of one particular resource – namely, time – and time spent with offspring may be an important determinant of offspring success, which paid child-minders, lacking a direct genetic stake in offspring, are unable to perfectly replicate.[11]

Thus, if Jeff Bezos were able to attract for himself the 100,000 wives that the polygyny threshold model suggests is his due, then, even if he were capable of providing each woman with the two point four children that is her own due, it is doubtful he would have enough time on his hands to spend much ‘quality time’ with each of his 240,000 offspring – just as one doubts Ismail the Bloodthirsty was himself an attentive father his own more modest mere 888. 

Thus, one suspects that, contrary to the polygyny threshold model, polygyny is not always entirely a matter of female choice (Sanderson 2001).

On the contrary, many of the women sequestered into the harems of rulers like Ismail the Bloodthirsty likely had little say in the matter. 

The Central Theoretical Problem of Human Sociobiology’ 

Yet, if this goes some way towards explaining the apparent paradox of socially imposed monogamy, there is, today, an even greater paradox with which we must wrestle – namely, why, in contemporary western societies, is there apparently an inverse correlation between wealth and number of offspring.

After all, from a sociobiological or evolutionary psychological perspective, this represents something of a paradox. 

If, as we have seen, the very purpose of wealth and power (from a sociobiological perspective) is to convert these advantages into the ultimately currency of natural selection, namely reproductive success, then why are the wealthy so spectacularly failing to do so in the contemporary west?[12]

Moreover, if status is not conducive to high reproductive success, then why have humans evolved to seek high-status in the first place? 

This anomaly has been memorably termed the ‘The central theoretical problem of human sociobiology’ in a paper by University of Pennsylvania demographer and eugenicist Daniel Vining (Vining 1986). 

Socially imposed monogamy can only go some way towards explaining this anomaly. Thus, in previous centuries, even under monogamy, wealthier families still produced more surviving offspring, if only because their greater wealth enabled them to successfully rear and feed multiple successive offspring to adulthood. In contrast, for the poor, high rates of infant mortality were the order of the day. 

Yet, in the contemporary west, it seems that the people who have the most children and hence the highest fitness in the strict Darwinian sense, are, at least according to popular stereotype, single mothers on government welfare. 

De Facto’ Polygyny 

Various solutions have been proposed to this apparent paradox. A couple amount to claiming that the west is not really monogamous at all, and, once this is factored in, then, at least among males, higher-status men do indeed have greater numbers of offspring than lower-status men. 

One suggestion along these lines is that perhaps wealthy males sire additional offspring whose paternity is misassigned, via extra-marital liaisons (Betzig 1993b). 

However, despite some sensationalized claims, rates of misassigned paternity are actually quite low (Khan 2010; Gilding 2005; Bellis et al 2005). 

If it is lower-class women who are giving birth to most of the offspring, then it is probably mostly males of their own socioeconomic status who are responsible for impregnating them, if only because it is the latter with whom they have the most social contact. 

Perhaps a more plausible suggestion is that wealthy high-status males are able to practice a form of disguised polygyny by through repeated remarriage. 

Thus, wealthy men are sometimes criticized for divorcing their first wives to marry much younger second- and sometimes even third- and fourth-wives. In this way, they manage monopolize the peak reproductive years of multiple successive young women. 

This is true, for example, of recent American President Donald Trump – the ultimate American alpha male – who has himself married three women, each one younger than her predecessor

Thus, science journalist Robert Wright contends: 

The United States is no longer a nation of institutionalized monogamy. It is a nation of serial monogamy. And serial monogamy in some ways amounts to polygyny.” (The Moral Animal: p101). 

This, then, is not so much ‘serial monogamy’ as it is ‘sequential’ or non-concurrent polygyny’. 

Evolutionary Novelties

Another suggestion is that evolutionary novelties – i.e. recently developed technologies such as contraception – have disrupted the usual association between status and fertility. 

On this view, natural selection has simply not yet had sufficient time (or, rather, sufficient generations) over which to mold our psychology and behaviour in such a way as to cause us to use these technologies in an adaptive manner – i.e. in order to maximize, not restrict, our reproductive success. 

An obvious candidate here is safe and effective contraception, which, while actually somewhat older than most people imagine, nevertheless became widely available to the population at large only over the course of the past century, which is surely not enough generations for us to have become evolutionarily adapted to its use.  

Thus, a couple of studies have found that that, while wealthy high-status males may not father more offspring, they do have more sex with a greater number of partners – i.e. behaviours that would have resulted in more offspring in ancestral environments prior to the widespread availability of contraception (Pérusse 1993: Kanazawa 2003). 

This implies that high-status males (or their partners) use contraception either more often, or more effectively, than low-status males, probably because of their greater intelligence and self-control, namely the very traits that enabled them to achieve high socioeconomic status in the first place (Kanazawa 2005). 

Another evolutionary novelty that may disrupt the usual association between social status and number of surviving offspring is the welfare system

Welfare payments to single mothers undoubtedly help these families raise to adulthood offspring who would otherwise perish in infancy. 

In addition, by reducing the financial disincentives associated with raising additional offspring, they probably increase the number of offspring these women choose to have in the first place. 

While it is highly controversial to suggest that welfare payments to single mothers actually give the latter an actual financial incentive to bear additional offspring, they surely, at the very least, reduce the financial disincentives otherwise associated with bearing additional children. 

Therefore, given that the desire for offspring is probably innate, women would rationally respond by having more children.[13]

Feminist ideology also encourages women in particular to postpone childbearing in favour of careers. Moreover, it is probably higher-status females who are more exposed to feminist ideology, especially in universities, where feminist ideology is thoroughly entrenched

In contrast, lower-status women are not only less exposed to feminist ideology encouraging them to delay motherhood in favour of career, but also likely have fewer appealing careers available to them in the first place. 

Finally, even laws against bigamy and polygyny might be conceptualized as an evolutionary novelty that disrupts the usual association between status and fertility. 

However, whereas technological innovations such as effective contraception were certainly not available until recent times, ideological constructs and religious teachings – including ideas such as feminism, prohibitions on polygyny, and the socialist ideology that motivated the creation of the welfare state – have existed ever since we evolved the capacity to create such constructs (i.e. since we became fully human). 

Therefore, one would expect that humans would have evolved resistance to ideological and religious teachings that go against their genetic interests. Otherwise, we would be vulnerable to indoctrination (and hence exploitation) at the hands third parties. 

Dysgenics? 

Finally, it must be noted that these issues are not only of purely academic interest. 

On the contrary, since socioeconomic status correlates with both intelligence and personality traits such as conscientiousness, and these traits are, in turn, substantially heritable, and moreover determine, not only individual wealth and prosperity, but also at the aggregate level, the wealth and prosperity of nations, the question of who has the offspring is surely of central concern to the future of society, civilization and the world. 

In short, what is at stake is the very genetic posterity that we bequeath to future generations. It is simply too important a matter to be delegated to the capricious and irrational decision-making of individual women. 

__________________________

Endnotes

[1] Actually, the precise number of offspring Ismail fathered is unclear. The figure I have quoted in the main body of the text comes from various works on evolutionary psychology (e.g. Cartwright, Evolution and Human Behaviour: p133-4; Wright, The Moral Animal: p247). However, another earlier work on human sociobiology, David Barash’s The Whisperings Within gives an even higher figure, of “1,056 offspring” (The Whisperings Within: p47). Meanwhile, an article produced by the Guinness Book of Records gives a figure of at least 342 daughters and 700 sons, while a scientific paper by Elisabeth Oberzaucher and Karl Grammer gives a figure of 1171 offspring in total. The precise figure seems to be unknown and is probably apocryphal. Nevertheless, the general point – namely that a powerful male with access to a large harem and multiple wives and concubines, is capable of fathering many offspring – is surely correct.

[2] The capture of fertile females from among enemy groups is by no means restricted to the Yąnomamö. On the contrary, it may even form the ultimate evolutionary basis for intergroup conflict and raiding among troops of chimpanzees, our species’ closest extant relative. It is also alluded to, and indeed explicitly commanded, in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Deuteronomy 20: 13-14; Numbers 31: 17-18), and was formerly prevalent in western culture as well.
It is also very much apparent, for example, in the warfare and raiding formerly endemic in the Gobi Desert of what is today Mongolia. Thus, the mother of Genghis Khan was, at least according to legend, herself kidnapped by the Great Khan’s father. Indeed, this was apparently an accepted form of courtship on the Mongolian Steppe, as Genghis Khan’s own wife was herself stolen from him on at least one occasion by rival Steppe nomads, resulting in a son of disputed paternity (whom the great Khan perhaps tellingly named Jochi, which is said to translate as ’guest) and a later succession crisis.
Many anthropologists, it ought to be noted, dismiss Chagnon’s claim that Yanomami warfare is predicated on the capture of women. Perhaps the most famous is Chagnon’s own former student, Kenneth Good, whose main claim to fame is to have himself married a (by American standards, underage) Yąnomamö girl – who, in a dramatic falsification of her husband’s theory, was then herself twice raped and abducted by raiding Yanomami warriors.

[3] It is ironic that John Cartwright, author of Evolution and Human Behaviour, an undergraduate level textbook on evolutionary psychology, is skeptical regarding the claim that Ismail the Bloodthirsty fathered 888 offspring, but nevertheless apparently takes at face value that claim that a Russian peasant woman had 69 offspring, a biologically far more implausible claim (Evolution and Human Behaviour: p133-4).

[4] There may even be a fitness penalty associated with increased socioeconomic status and political power for women. For example, among baboons, it has been found that high-ranking females actually suffer reduced fertility and higher rates of miscarriages (Packer et al 1995). Kingsley Browne, in his excellent book, Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality (which I have reviewed here), noting that female executives tend to have fewer children, tentatively proposes that a similar effect may be at work among humans:

Women who succeed in business tend to be relatively high testosterone, which can result in lower female fertility, whether because of ovulatory irregularities or reduced interest in having children. Thus, rather than the high-powered career being responsible for the high rate of childlessness, it may be that high testosterone levels are responsible for both” (Biology at Work: p124).

[5] However, here, Betzig is perhaps altogether overcautious. Thus, whether or not “political power in itself” is explained in this way (i.e. “as providing a position from which to gain reproductively”), certainly the human desire for political power must surely be explained in this way.

[6] The prospect of eugenically reengineering human nature itself so as to make utopian communism achievable, and human society less conflictual, is also unrealistic. As John Gray has noted in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (reviewed here), if human nature is eugenically reengineered, then it will be done, not in the interests of society, let alone humankind, as a whole, but rather in the interests of those responsible for ordering or undertaking the project – namely, scientists and, more importantly, those from whom they take their orders (e.g. government, politicians, civil servants, big business, managerial elites). Thus, Gray concludes:

“[Although] it seems feasible that over the coming century human nature will be scientifically remodelled… it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of struggles in the murky realm where big business, organized crime and the hidden parts of government vie for control” (Straw Dogs: p6).

[7] Here, it is important to emphasize that what is exceptional about western societies is not monogamy per se. On the contrary, monogamy is common in relatively egalitarian societies (e.g. hunter-gatherer societies), especially those living at subsistence levels, where no male is able to secure access to sufficient resources so as to provision multiple offspring (Kanazawa and Still 1999). What is exceptional about contemporary western societies is the combination of:

1) Large differentials of resource-holdings between males (i.e. social stratification); and

2) Prescriptive monogamy (i.e. polygyny is not merely not widely practised, but also actually unlawful).

[8] Quite when prescriptive monogamy originated in the west seems to be a matter of some dispute. Betzig views it as very much a recent phenomenon, arising with the development of complex, interdependent industrial economies, which required the cooperation of lower-status males in order to function. Here, Betzig perhaps underestimates the extent to which even pre-industrial economies required the work and cooperation of low-status males in order to function. Thus, Betzig argues that, in ancient Rome, nominally monogamous marriages concealed rampantly de facto polygyny, with emperors and other powerful males fathering multiple offspring with both slaves and other men’s wives (Betzig 1992). Similarly, in medieval Europe, she argues that, despite nominal monogamy, wealthy men fathered multiple offspring through servant girls (Betzig 1995a; Betzig 1995b). In contrast, Macdonald persuasively argues that medieval monogamy was no mere myth (Macdonald 1995a; Macdonald 1995b).

[9] Certainly, the so-called NEET and incel phenomena seem to be correlated with one another. NEETs are disproportionately likely to be incels, and incels are disproportionately likely to be NEETs. However, the direction of causation is unclear and probably works in both directions. On the one hand, since women are rarely attracted to men without money or the prospects of money, men without jobs are rarely able to attract wives or girlfriends. However, on the other hand, men who, for whatever reason, perceive themselves as unable to attract a wife or girlfriend even if they did have a job, probably see little incentive to getting a job in the first place or keeping the one they do have.

[10] Indeed, during the debates surrounding the legalization of gay marriage, the prospect of the legalization of polygynous marriage was rarely discussed, and, when it was raised, it was usually invoked by the opponents of gay marriage, as a sort of reductio ad absurdum of changes in marriage laws to permit gay marriage, something champions of gay marriage were quick to dismiss as preposterous scaremongering. In short, both sides in the acrimonious debates regarding gay marriage seem to have been agreed that legalizing polygynous unions was utterly beyond the pale.

[11] Thus, father absence is a known correlate of criminality and other negative life outcomes. In fact, however, the importance of paternal investment in offspring outcomes, and indeed of parental influence more generally, has yet to be demonstrated, since the correlation between father-absence and negative life-outcomes could instead reflect the heritability of personality, including those aspects of personality that cause people to have offspring out of wedlock, die early, abandon their children or have offspring by a person who abandons their offspring or dies early (see Judith Harris’s The Nurture Assumption, which I have reviewed here). 

[12] This paradox is related to another one – namely, why it is that people in richer societies tend to have lower fertility rates than poorer societies? This recent development, often referred to as the demographic transition, is paradoxical for the exact same reason that it is paradoxical for poorer people within western societies to have have fewer offspring than poorer people within these same societies, namely that it is elementary Darwinism 101 that an organism with access to greater resources should channel those additional resources into increased reproduction. Interestingly, this phenomenon is not restricted to western societies. On the contrary, other wealthy industrial and post-industrial societies, such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea, have, if anything, even lower fertility rates than Europe, Australasia and North America.

[13] Actually, it is not altogether clear that women do have an innate desire to bear children. After all, in the EEA, there was no need for women to evolve a desire to bear children. All they required to a desire to have sexual intercourse (or indeed a mere willingness to acquiesce in the male desire for intercourse). In the absence of contraception, offspring would then naturally result. Indeed, other species, including presumably most of our pre-human ancestors, are surely wholly unaware of the connection between sexual intercourse and reproduction. A desire for offspring would then serve no adaptive function for these species at all. However, this did not stop these species from seeking out sexual opportunities and hence reproducing their kind. However, given anecdotal evidence of so-called ‘broodiness’ among women, I suspect women do indeed have some degree of innate desire for offspring.

References

Bateman (1948), Intra-sexual selection in Drosophila, Heredity, 2 (Pt. 3): 349–368.
Bellis et al (2005) Measuring Paternal Discrepancy and its Public Health Consequences. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 59(9):749.
Betzig 1992 Roman Polygyny. Ethology and Sociobiology 13(5-6): 309-349.
Betzig 1993a. Sex, succession, and stratification in the first six civilizations: How powerful men reproduced, passed power on to their sons, and used power to defend their wealth, women and children. In Lee Ellis, ed. Social Stratification and Socioeconomic Inequality, pp. 37-74. New York: Praeger.
Betzig 1993b. Where are the bastards’ daddies? Comment on Daniel Pérusse’s ‘Cultural and reproductive success in industrial societies’. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 16: 284-85.
Betzig 1995a Medieval Monogamy. Journal of Family History 20(2): 181-216.
Betzig 1995b Wanting Women Isn’t New; Getting Them Is: Very. Politics and the Life Sciences 14(1): 24-25.
Binder (2021) Why Bother? The Effect of Declining Marriage Market Prospects on Labor-Force Participation by Young Men (March 1, 2021). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3795585 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3795585
Chagnon N (1979) Is reproductive success equal in egalitarian societies. In: Chagnon & Irons (eds) Evolutionary Biology and Human Social Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective pp.374-402 (MA: Duxbury Press).
Einon, G (1998) How Many Children Can One Man Have? Evolution and Human Behavior, 19(6):413–426.
Gilding (2005) Rampant Misattributed Paternity: The Creation of an Urban Myth. People and Place 13(2): 1.
Gould (2000) How many children could Moulay Ismail have had? Evolution and Human Behavior 21(4): 295 – 296.
Khan (2010) The paternity myth: The rarity of cuckoldry, Discover, 20 June, 2010.
Kanazawa & Still (1999) Why Monogamy? Social Forces 78(1):25-50.
Kanazawa (2003) Can Evolutionary Psychology Explain Reproductive Behavior in the Contemporary United States? Sociological Quarterly. 44: 291–302.
Kanazawa (2005) An Empirical Test of a Possible Solution to ‘the Central Theoretical Problem of Human Sociobiology’. Journal of Cultural and Evolutionary Psychology. 3: 255–266.
Macdonald 1995a The establishment and maintenance of socially imposed monogamy in Western Europe, Politics and the Life Sciences, 14(1): 3-23.
Macdonald 1995b Focusing on the group: further issues related to western monogamy, Politics and the Life Sciences, 14(1): 38-46.
Oberzaucher & Grammer (2014) The Case of Moulay Ismael – Fact or Fancy? PLoS ONE 9(2): e85292.
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Pérusse (1993). Cultural and Reproductive Success in Industrial Societies: Testing the Relationship at the Proximate and Ultimate Levels.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16:267–322.
Sanderson (2001) Explaining Monogamy and Polygyny in Human Societies: Comment on Kanazawa and Still. Social Forces 80(1):329-335.
Scheidel (2008) Monogamy and Polygyny in Greece, Rome, and World History, (June 2008). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1214729 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1214729
Shaw GB (1903) Man and Superman, Maxims for Revolutionists.
Strassman B (2000) Polygyny, Family Structure and Infant Mortality: A Prospective Study Among the Dogon of Mali. In Cronk, Chagnon & Irons (Ed.), Adaptation and Human Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective (pp.49-68). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Trivers, R. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. Sexual Selection & the Descent of Man, Aldine de Gruyter, New York, 136-179. Chicago.
Vining D 1986 Social versus reproductive success: The central theoretical problem of human sociobiology Behavioral and Brain Sciences 9(1): 167- 187.
Zerjal et al. (2003) The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols, American Journal of Human Genetics, 72(3): 717–721.

Peter Singer’s ‘A Darwinian Left’

Peter Singer, ‘A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation’, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1999.

Social Darwinism is dead. 

The idea that charity, welfare and medical treatment ought to be withheld from the poor, the destitute and the seriously ill so that they perish in accordance with the process of natural selection and hence facilitate further evolutionary progress survives only as a straw man sometimes attributed to conservatives by leftists in order to discredit them, and a form of guilt by association sometimes invoked by creationists in order to discredit the theory of evolution.[1]

However, despite the attachment of many American conservatives to creationism, there remains a perception that evolutionary psychology is somehow right-wing

Thus, if humans are fundamentally selfish, as Richard Dawkins is taken, not entirely accurately, to have argued, then this surely confirms the underlying assumptions of classical economics. 

Of course, as Dawkins also emphasizes, we have evolved through kin selection to be altruistic towards our close biological relatives. However, this arguably only reinforces conservatives’ faith in the family, and their concerns regarding the effects of family breakdown and substitute parents

Finally, research on sex differences surely suggests that at least some traditional gender roles – e.g. women’s role in caring for young children, and men’s role in fighting wars – do indeed have a biological basis, and also that patriarchy and the gender pay gap may be an inevitable result of innate psychological differences between the sexes

Political scientist Larry Arnhart thus champions what he calls a new ‘Darwinian Conservatism’, which harnesses the findings of evolutionary psychology in support of family values and the free market. 

Against this, however, moral philosopher and famed animal liberation activist Peter Singer, in ‘A Darwinian Left’, seeks to reclaim Darwin, and evolutionary psychology, for the Left. His attempt is not entirely successful. 

The Naturalistic Fallacy 

At least since David Hume, it has an article of faith among most philosophers that one cannot derive values from facts. To do otherwise is to commit what some philosophers refer to as the naturalistic fallacy

Edward O Wilson, in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis was widely accused of committing the naturalistic fallacy, by attempting to derive moral values form facts. However, those evolutionary psychologists who followed in his stead have generally taken a very different line. 

Indeed, recognition that the naturalistic fallacy is indeed a fallacy has proven very useful to evolutionary psychologists, since it has enabled them investigate the possible evolutionary functions of such morally questionable (or indeed downright morally reprehensible) behaviours as infidelityrape, warfare and child abuse while at the same time denying that they are somehow thereby providing a justification for the behaviours in question.[2] 

Singer, like most evolutionary psychologists, also reiterates the sacrosanct inviolability of the fact-value dichotomy

Thus, in attempting to construct his ‘Darwinian Left’, Singer does not attempt to use Darwinism in order to provide a justification or ultimate rationale for leftist egalitarianism. Rather, he simply takes it for granted that equality is a good thing and worth striving for, and indeed implicitly assumes that his readers will agree. 

His aim, then, is not to argue that socialism is demanded by a Darwinian worldview, but rather simply that it is compatible with such a worldview and not contradicted by it. 

Thus, he takes leftist ideals as his starting-point, and attempts to argue only that accepting the Darwinian worldview should not cause one to abandon these ideals as either undesirable or unachievable. 

But if we accept that the naturalistic fallacy is indeed a fallacy then this only raises the question: If it is indeed true that moral values cannot be derived from scientific facts, whence can moral values be derived?  

Can they only be derived from other moral values? If so, how are our ultimate moral values, from which all other moral values are derived, themselves derived? 

Singer does not address this. However, precisely by failing to address it, he seems to implicitly assume that our ultimate moral values must simply be taken on faith. 

However, Singer also emphasizes that rejecting the naturalistic fallacy does not mean that the facts of human nature are irrelevant to politics. 

On the contrary, while Darwinism may not prescribe any particular political goals as desirable, it may nevertheless help us determine how to achieve those political goals that we have already decided upon. Thus, Singer writes: 

An understanding of human nature in the light of evolutionary theory can help us to identify the means by which we may achieve some of our social and political goals… as well as assessing the possible costs and benefits of doing so” (p15). 

Thus, in a memorable metaphor, Singer observes: 

Wood carvers presented with a piece of timber and a request to make wooden bowls from it do not simply begin carving according to a design drawn up before they have seen the wood. Instead they will examine the material with which they are to work and modify their design in order to suit its grain…Those seeking to reshape human society must understand the tendencies inherent within human beings, and modify their abstract ideals in order to suit them” (p40). 

Abandoning Utopia? 

In addition to suggesting how our ultimate political objectives might best be achieved, an evolutionary perspective also suggests that some political goals might simply be unattainable, at least in the absence of a wholesale eugenic reengineering of human nature itself. 

In watering down the utopian aspirations of previous generations of leftists, Singer seems to implicitly concede as much. 

Contrary to the crudest misunderstanding of selfish gene theory, humans are not entirely selfish. However, we have evolved to put our own interests, and those of our kin, above those of other humans. 

For this reason, communism is unobtainable because: 

  1. People strive to promote themselves and their kin above others; 
  2. Only coercive state apparatus can prevent them so doing; 
  3. The individuals in control of this coercive apparatus themselves seek to promote the interests of themselves and their kin and corruptly use this coercive apparatus to do so. 

Thus, Singer laments: 

What egalitarian revolution has not been betrayed by its leaders?” (p39). 

Or, alternatively, as HL Mencken put it:

“[The] one undoubted effect [of political revolutions] is simply to throw out one gang of thieves and put in another.” 

In addition, human selfishness suggests, if complete egalitarianism were ever successfully achieved and enforced, it would likely be economically inefficient – because it would remove the incentive of self-advancement that lies behind the production of goods and services, not to mention of works of art and scientific advances. 

Thus, as Adam Smith famously observed: 

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” 

And, again, the only other means of ensuring goods and services are produced besides economic self-interest is state coercion, which, given human nature, will always be exercised both corruptly and inefficiently. 

What’s Left? 

Singer’s pamphlet has been the subject of much controversy, with most of the criticism coming, not from conservatives, whom one might imagine to be Singer’s natural adversaries, but rather from other self-described leftists. 

These leftist critics have included both writers opposed to evolutionary psychology (e.g. David Stack in The First Darwinian Left), but also some other writers claiming to be broadly receptive to the new paradigm but who are clearly uncomfortable with some of its implications (e.g.  Marek Kohn in As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind). 

In apparently rejecting the utopian transformation of society envisioned by Marx and other radical socialists, Singer has been accused by other leftists for conceding rather too much to the critics of leftism. In so doing, Singer has, they claim, in effect abandoned leftism in all but name and become, in their view, an apologist for and sell-out to capitalism. 

Whether Singer can indeed be said to have abandoned the Left depends, of course, on precisely how we define ‘the Left’, a rather more problematic matter than it is usually regarded as being.[3]

For his part, Singer certainly defines the Left in unusually broad terms.

For Singer, leftism need not necessarily entail taking the means of production into common ownership, nor even the redistribution of wealth. Rather, at its core, being a leftist is simply about being: 

On the side of the weak, not the powerful; of the oppressed, not the oppressor; of the ridden, not the rider” (p8). 

However, this definition is obviously problematic. After all, few conservatives would admit to being on the side of the oppressor. 

On the contrary, conservatives and libertarians usually reject the dichotomous subdivision of society into oppressed’ and ‘oppressor groups. They argue that the real world is more complex than this simplistic division of the world into black and white, good and evil, suggests. 

Moreover, they argue that mutually beneficial exchange and cooperation, rather than exploitation, is the essence of capitalism. 

They also usually claim that their policies benefit society as a whole, including both the poor and rich, rather than favouring one class over another.[4]

Indeed, conservatives claim that socialist reforms often actually inadvertently hurt precisely those whom they attempt to help. Thus, for example, welfare benefits are said to encourage welfare dependency, while introducing, or raising the level of, a minimum wage is said to lead to increases in unemployment. 

Singer declares that a Darwinian left would “promote structures that foster cooperation rather than competition” (p61).

Yet many conservatives would share Singer’s aspiration to create a more altruistic culture. 

Indeed, this aspiration seems more compatible with the libertarian notion of voluntary charitable donations replacing taxation than with the coercively-extracted taxes invariably favoured by the Left. 

Nepotism and Equality of Opportunity 

Yet selfish gene theory suggests humans are not entirely self-interested. Rather, kin selection makes us care also about our biological relatives.

But this is no boon for egalitarians. 

Rather, the fact that our selfishness is tempered by a healthy dose of nepotism likely makes equality of opportunity as unattainable as equality of outcome – because individuals will inevitably seek to aid the social, educational and economic advancement of their kin, and those individuals better placed to do so will enjoy greater success in so doing. 

For example, parents with greater resources will be able to send their offspring to exclusive fee-paying schools or obtain private tuition for them; parents with better connections may be able to help their offspring obtain better jobs; while parents with greater intellectual ability may be able to better help their offspring with their homework. 

However, since many conservatives and libertarians are as committed to equality of opportunity as socialists are to equality of outcome, this conclusion may be as unwelcome on the right as on the left. 

Indeed, the theory of kin selection has even been invoked to suggest that ethnocentrism is innate and ethnic conflict is inevitable in multi-ethnic societies, a conclusion unwelcome across the mainstream political spectrum in the West today, where political parties of all persuasions are seemingly equally committed to building multi-ethnic societies. 

Unfortunately, Singer does not address any of these issues. 

Animal Liberation After Darwin 

Singer is most famous for his advocacy on behalf of what he calls animal liberation

In ‘A Darwinian Left’, he argues that the Darwinian worldview reinforces the case for animal liberation by confirming the evolutionary continuity between humans other animals. 

This suggests that there are unlikely to be fundamental differences in kind as between humans and other animals (e.g. in the capacity to feel pain) sufficient to justify the differences in treatment currently accorded humans and animals. 

It sharply contrasts account of creation in the Bible and the traditional Christian notion of humans as superior to other animals and as occupying an intermediate position between beasts and angels. 

Thus, Singer concludes: 

By knocking out the idea that we are a separate creation from the animals, Darwinian thinking provided the basis for a revolution in our attitudes to non-human animals” (p17). 

This makes our consumption of animals as food, our killing of them for sport, our enslavement of them as draft animals, or even pets, and our imprisonment of them in zoos and laboratories all ethically suspect, since these are not things generally permitted in respect of humans. 

Yet Singer fails to recognise that human-animal continuity cuts two ways. 

Thus, anti-vivisectionists argue that animal testing is not only immoral, but also ineffective, because drugs and other treatments often have very different effects on humans than they do on the animals used in drug testing. 

Our evolutionary continuity with non-human species makes this argument less plausible. 

Moreover, if humans are subject to the same principles of natural selection as other species, this suggests, not the elevation of animals to the status of humans, but rather the relegation of humans to just another species of animal. 

In short, we do not occupy a position midway between beasts and angels; we are beasts through and through, and any attempt to believe otherwise is mere delusion. 

This is, of course, the theme of John Gray’s powerful polemic Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (which I have reviewed hereherehere and here). 

Finally, acceptance of the existence of human nature surely entails recognition of carnivory as a part of that nature. 

Of course, we must remember not to commit the naturalistic or appeal to nature fallacy.  

Thus, just because meat-eating may be natural for humans, in the sense that meat was a part of our ancestors diet in the EEA, this does not necessarily mean that it is morally right or even morally justifiable. 

However, the fact that meat is indeed a natural part of the human diet does suggest that, in health terms, vegetarianism is likely to be nutritionally sub-optimal. 

Thus, the naturalistic fallacy or appeal to nature fallacy is not always entirely fallacious, at least when it comes to human health. What is natural for humans is indeed what we are biologically adapted to and what our body is therefore best designed to deal with.[5]

Therefore, vegetarianism is almost certainly to some degree sub-optimal in nutritional terms. 

Moreover, given that Singer is an opponent of the view that there is a valid moral distinction between acts and omissions, then we must ask ourselves: If he believes it is wrong for us to eat animals, does he also believe we should take positive measures to prevent lions from eating gazelles? 

Economics 

Bemoaning the emphasis of neoliberals on purely economic outcomes, Singer protests:

From an evolutionary perspective, we cannot identify wealth with self-interest… Properly understood self-interest is broader than economic self-interest” (p42). 

Singer is right. The ultimate currency of natural selection is not wealth, but rather reproductive success – and, in evolutionarily novel environments, wealth may not even correlate with reproductive success (Vining 1986). 

Thus, as discussed by Laura Betzig in Despotism and Differential Reproduction, a key difference between Marxism and sociobiology is the relative emphasis on production versus reproduction

Whereas Marxists see societal conflict and exploitation as reflecting competition over control of the means of production, for Darwinians, all societal conflict ultimately concerns control over, not the means of production, but rather what we might term the means of reproduction – in other words, women, their wombs and vaginas

Thus, sociologist-turned-sociobiologist Pierre van den Berghe observed: 

“The ultimate measure of human success is not production but reproduction. Economic productivity and profit are means to reproductive ends, not ends in themselves” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p165). 

Production is ultimately, in Darwinian terms, merely by which to gain the necessary resources to permit successful reproduction. The latter is the ultimate purpose of life

Thus, for all his ostensible radicalism, Karl Marx, in his emphasis on economics (‘production’) at the expense of sex (‘reproduction’), was just another Victorian sexual prude

Competition or Cooperation: A False Dichotomy? 

In Chapter  Four, entitled “Competition or Cooperation?”, Singer argues that modern western societies, and many modern economists and evolutionary theorists, put too great an emphasis on competition at the expense of cooperation

Singer accepts that both competition and cooperation are natural and innate facets of human nature, and that all societies involve a balance of both. However, different societies differ in their relative emphasis on competition or cooperation, and that it is therefore possible to create a society that places a greater emphasis on the latter at the expense of the former. 

Thus, Singer declares that a Darwinian left would: 

Promote structures that foster cooperation rather than competition” (p61) 

However, Singer is short on practical suggestions as to how a culture of altruism is to be fostered.[6]

Changing the values of a culture is not easy. This is especially so for a liberal democratic (as opposed to a despotic, totalitarian) government, let alone for a solitary Australian moral philosopher – and Singer’s condemnation of “the nightmares of Stalinist Russia” suggests that he would not countenance the sort of totalitarian interference with human freedom to which the Left has so often resorted in the past, and continues to resort to in the present (even in the West), with little ultimate success, in the past. 

But, more fundamentally, Singer is wrong to see competition as necessarily in conflict with cooperation

On the contrary, perhaps the most remarkable acts of cooperation, altruism and self-sacrifice are those often witnessed in wartime (e.g. kamikaze pilotssuicide bombers and soldiers who throw themselves on grenades). Yet war represents perhaps the most extreme form of competition known to man. 

In short, soldiers risk and sacrifice their lives, not only to save the lives of others, but also to take the lives of other others. 

Likewise, trade is a form of cooperation, but are as fundamental to capitalism as is competition. Indeed, I suspect most economists would argue that exchange is even more fundamental to capitalism than is competition

Thus, far from disparaging cooperation, neoliberal economists see voluntary exchange as central to prosperity. 

Ironically, then, popular science writer Matt Ridley also, like Singer, focuses on humans’ innate capacity for cooperation to justify political conclusions in his book, The Origins of Virtue

But, for Ridley, our capacity for cooperation provides a rationale, not for socialism, but rather for free markets – because humans, as natural traders, produce efficient systems of exchange which government intervention almost always only distorts. 

However, whereas economic trade is motivated by self-interested calculation, Singer seems to envisage a form of reciprocity mediated by emotions such as compassiongratitude and guilt
 
However, sociobiologist Robert Trivers argues in his paper that introduced the concept of reciprocal altruism to evolutionary biology that these emotions themselves evolved through the rational calculation of natural selection (Trivers 1971). 

Therefore, while open to manipulation, especially in evolutionarily novel environments, they are necessarily limited in scope. 

Group Differences 

Singer’s envisaged ‘Darwinian Left’ would, he declares, unlike the contemporary left, abandon: 

“[The assumption] that all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice, oppression or social conditioning. Some will be, but this cannot be assumed in every case” (p61). 

Instead, Singer admits that at least some disparities in achievement may reflect innate differences between individuals and groups in abilities, temperament and preferences. 

This is probably Singer’s most controversial suggestion, at least for modern leftists, since it contravenes the contemporary dogma of political correctness

Singer is, however, undoubtedly right.  

Moreover, his recognition that some differences in achievement as between groups reflect, not discrimination, oppression or even the lingering effect of past discrimination or oppression, but rather innate differences between groups in psychological traits, including intelligence, is by no means incompatible with socialism, or leftism, as socialism and leftism were originally conceived. 

Thus, it is worth pointing out that, while contemporary so-called cultural Marxists may decry the notion of innate differences in ability and temperament as between different racessexesindividuals and social classes as anathema, the same was not true of Marx himself

On the contrary, in famously advocating from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, Marx implicitly recognized that people differed in ability – differences which, given the equalization of social conditions envisaged under communism, he presumably conceived of as innate in origin.[7]

As Hans Eysenck observes:

“Stalin banned mental testing in 1935 on the grounds that it was ‘bourgeois’—at the same time as Hitler banned it as ‘Jewish’. But Stalin’s anti-genetic stance, and his support for the environmentalist charlatan Lysenko, did not derive from any Marxist or Leninist doctrine… One need only recall The Communist Manifesto: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’. This clearly expresses the belief that different people will have different abilities, even in the communist heaven where all cultural, educational and other inequalities have been eradicated” (Intelligence: The Battle for the Mind: p85).

Thus, Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate, points to the theoretical possibility of what he calls a “Hereditarian Left”, arguing for a Rawlsian redistribution of resources to the, if you like, innately ‘cognitively disadvantaged’.[8] 

With regard to group differences, Singer avoids discussing the incendiary topic of race differences in intelligence, a question too contentious for Singer to touch. 

Instead, he illustrates the possibility that not “all inequalities are due to discrimination, prejudice, oppression or social conditioning” with the marginally less incendiary case of sex differences.  

Here, it is sex differences, not in intelligence, but rather in temperament, preferences and personality that are probably more important, and likely explain occupational segregation and the so-called gender pay gap

Thus, Singer writes: 

If achieving high status increases access to women, then we can expect men to have a stronger drive for status than women” (p18). 

This alone, he implies, may explain both the universalilty of male rule and the so-called gender pay gap

However, Singer neglects to mention another biological factor that is also probably important in explaining the gender pay gap – namely, women’s attachment to infant offspring. This factor, also innate and biological in origin, also likely impedes career advancement among women. 

Thus, it bears emphasizing that never-married women with no children actually earn more, on average, than do unmarried men without children of the same age in both Britain and America.[9]

For a more detailed treatment of the biological factors underlying the gender pay gap, see Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality by professor of law, Kingsley Browne, which I have reviewed here and here.[10] See also my review of Warren Farrell’s Why Men Earn More, which can be found here, here and here.

Dysgenic Fertility Patterns? 

It is sometimes claimed by opponents of welfare benefts that the welfare system only encourages the unemployed to have more children so as to receive more benefits and thereby promotes dysgenic fertility patterns. In response, Singer retorts:

Even if there were a genetic component to something as nebulous as unemployment, to say that these genes are ‘deleterious’ would involve value judgements that go way beyond what the science alone can tell us” (p15).

Singer is, of course, right that an extra-scientific value judgement is required in order to label certain character traits, and the genes that contribute to them, as deleterious or undesirable. 

Indeed, if single mothers on welfare do indeed raise more surviving children than do those who are not reliant on state benefits, then this indicates that they have higher reproductive success, and hence, in the strict biological sense, greater fitness than their more financially independent, but less fecund, reproductive competitors. 

Therefore, far from being deleterious’ in the biological sense, genes contributing to such behaviour are actually under positive selection, at least under current environmental conditions.  

However, even if such genes are not ‘deleterious’ in the strict biological sense, this does not necessarily mean that they are desirable in the moral sense, or in the sense of contributing to successful civilizations and societal advancement. To suggest otherwise would, of course, involve a version of the very appeal to nature fallacy or naturalistic fallacy that Singer is elsewhere emphatic in rejecting. 

Thus, although regarding certain character traits, and the genes that contribute to them, as undesirable does indeed involve an extra-scientific “value judgement”, this is not to say that the “value judgement” in question is necessarily mistaken or unwarranted. On the contrary, it means only that such a value judgement is, by its nature, a matter of morality, not of science. 

Thus, although science may be silent on the issue, virtually everyone would agree that some traits (e.g. generosity, health, happiness, conscientiousness) are more desirable than others (e.g. selfishness, laziness, depression, illness). Likewise, it is self-evident that the long-term unemployed are a net burden on society, and that a successful society cannot be formed of people unable or unwilling to work. 

As we have seen, Singer also questions whether there can be “a genetic component to something as nebulous as unemployment”. 

However, in the strict biological sense, unemployment probably is indeed partly heritable. So, incidentally, are road traffic accidents and our political opinions – because each reflect personality traits that are themselves heritable (e.g. risk-takers and people with poor physical coordination and slow reactions probably have more traffic accidents; and perhaps more compassionate people are more likely to favour leftist politics). 

Thus, while it may be unhelpful and misleading to talk of unemployment as itself heritable, nevertheless traits of the sort that likely contribute to unemployment (e.g. intelligenceconscientiousnessmental and physical illness) are indeed heritable

Actually, however, the question of heritability, in the strict biological sense, is irrelevant. 

Thus, even if the reason that children from deprived backgrounds have worse life outcomes is entirely mediated by environmental factors (e.g. economic or cultural deprivation, or the bad parenting practices of low-SES parents), the case for restricting the reproductive rights of those people who are statistically prone to raise dysfunctional offspring remains intact. 

After all, children usually get both their genes and their parenting from the same set of parents – and this could be changed only by a massive, costly, and decidedly illiberal, policy of forcibly removing offspring from their parents.[11]

Therefore, so long as an association between parentage and social outcomes is established, the question of whether this association is biologically or environmentally mediated is simply beside the point, and the case for restricting the reproductive rights of certain groups remains intact.  

Of course, it is doubtful that welfare-dependent women do indeed financially benefit from giving birth to additional offspring. 

It is true that they may receive more money in state benefits if they have more dependent offspring to support and provide for. However, this may well be more than offset by the additional cost of supporting and providing for the dependent offspring in question, leaving the mother with less to spend on herself. 

However, even if the additional monies paid to mothers with dependent children are not sufficient as to provide a positive financial incentive to bearing additional children, they at least reduce the financial disincentives otherwise associated with rearing additional offspring.  

Therefore, given that, from an evolutionary perspective, women probably have an innate desire to bear additional offspring, it follows that a rational fitness-maximizer would respond to the changed incentives represented by the welfare system by increasing their reproductive rate.[12]

A New Socialist Eugenics?

If we accept Singer’s contention that an understanding of human nature can help show us how achieve, but not choose, our ultimate political objectives, then eugenics could be used to help us achieve the goal of producing the better people and hence, ultimately, better societies. 

Indeed, given that Singer seemingly concedes that human nature is presently incompatible with communist utopia, perhaps then the only way to revive the socialist dream of equality is to eugenically re-engineer human nature itself so as to make it more compatible. 

Thus, it is perhaps no accident that, before World War Two, eugenics was a cause typically associated, not with conservatives, nor even, as today, with fascism, but rather with the political left

Thus, early twentieth century socialist-eugenicists like H.G. Wells, Sidney Webb, Margaret Sanger and George Bernard Shaw may then have tentatively grasped what eludes contemporary leftists, Singer very much included – namely that re-engineering society necessarily requires as a prerequisite re-engineering Man himself.[13]

_________________________

Endnotes

[1] Indeed, the view that the poor and ill ought to be left to perish so as to further the evolutionary process seems to have been a marginal one even in its ostensible late nineteenth century heyday (see Bannister, Social Darwinism Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought). The idea always seems, therefore, to have been largely, if not wholly, a straw man.

[2] In this, the evolutionary psychologists are surely right. Thus, no one accuses biomedical researchers of somehow ‘justifying disease’ when they investigate how infectious diseases, in an effort maximize their own reproductive success, spread form host to host. Likewise, nobody suggests that dying of a treatable illness is desirable, even though this may have been the ‘natural’ outcome before such ‘unnatural’ interventions as vaccination and antibiotics were introduced.

[3] The convenional notion that we can usefully conceptualize the political spectrum on a single dimensional left-right axis is obviously preposterous. For one thing, there is, at the very least, a quite separate liberal-authoritarian dimension. However, even restricting our definition of the left-right axis to purely economic matters, it remains multi-factorial. For example, Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom classifies fascism as a left-wing ideology, because it involved big government and a planned economy. However, most leftists would reject this definition, since the planned economy in question was designed, not to reduce economic inequalities, but rather, in the case of Nazi Germany at least, to fund and sustain an expanded military force, a war economy, external military conquest and grandiose vanity public works architectural projects. The term ’right-wing‘ is even more problematic, including everyone from fascists, to libertarians to religious fundamentalists. Yet a Christian fundamentalist who wants to outlaw pornography and abortion has little in common with either a libertarian who wants to decriminalize prostitution and child pornography, nor with a eugenicist who wants to make abortions, for certain classes of person, compulsory. Yet all three are classed together as ’right-wing’ even though they share no more in common with one another than any does with a raving unreconstructed Marxist.

[4] Thus, the British Conservatives Party traditionally styled themselves one-nation conservatives, who looked to the interests of the nation as a whole, rather than what they criticized as the divisive ‘sectionalism’ of the trade union and labour movements, which favoured certain economic classes, and workers in certain industries, over others, just as contemporary leftists privilege the interests of certain ethnic, religious and culturally-defined groups (e.g. blacks, Muslims, feminists) over others (i.e. white males).

[5] Of course, some ‘unnatural’ interventions have positive health benefits. Obvious examples are modern medical treatments such as penicillin, chemotherapy and vaccination. However, these are the exceptions. They have been carefully selected and developed by scientists to have this positive effect, have gone through rigorous testing to ensure that their effects are indeed beneficial, and are generally beneficial only to people with certain diagnosed conditions. In contrast, recreational drug use almost invariably has a negative effect on health.
It might also be noted that, although their use by humans may be ‘unnatural’, the role of antibiotics in fighting bacterial infection is not itself ‘unnatural’, since antibiotics such as penicillin themselves evolved as a natural means by which one microorganism, namely mould, a form of fungi, fights another form of microorganism, namely bacteria.

[6] It is certainly possible for more altruistic cultures to exist. For example, the famous (and hugely wasteful) potlatch feasts of some Native American cultures exemplify a form of competitive altruism, analogous to conspicuous consumption, and may be explicable as a form of status display in accordance with Zahavi’s handicap principle. However, recognizing that such cultures exist does not easily translate into working out how to create or foster such cultures, let alone transform existing cultures in this direction.

[7]  Indeed, by modern politically-correct standards, Marx was a rampant racist, not to mention an anti-Semite

[8] The term Rawlsian is a reference to political theorist John Rawles version of social contract theory, whereby he poses the hypothetical question as to what arrangement of political, social and economic affairs humans would favour if placed in what he called the original position, where they would be unaware of, not only their own race, sex and position in to the socio-economic hierarchy, but also, most important for our purposes, their own level of innate ability. This Rawles referred to as ’veil of ignorance’. 

[9] As Warren Farrell documents in his excellent Why Men Earn More (which I have reviewed here, here and here), in the USA, women who have never married and have no children actually earn more than men who have never married and have no children and have done since at least the 1950s (Why Men Earn More: pxxi). More precisely, according to Farrell, never-married men without children on average earn only about 85% of their childless never-married female counterparts (Ibid: pxxiii). The situation is similar in the UK. Thus, economist JR Shackleton reports:

“Women in the middle age groups who remain single earn more than middle-aged single males” (Should We Mind the Gap? p30).

The reasons unmarried, childless women earn more than unmarried childless men are multifarious and include:

  1. Married women can afford to work less because they appropriate a portion of their husband’s income in addition to their own
  2. Married men and men with children are thus obliged to earn even more so as to financially support, not only themselves, but also their wife, plus any offspring;
  3. Women prefer to marry richer men and hence poorer men are more likely to remain single;
  4. Childcare duties undertaken by women interfere with their earning capacity.

[10]  Incidentally, Browne has also published a more succinct summary of the biological factors underlying the pay-gap that was first published in the same ‘Darwinism Today’ series as Singer’s ‘A Darwinian Left’, namely Divided Labors: An Evolutionary View of Women at Work. However, much though I admire Browne’s work, this represents a rather superficial popularization of his research on the topic, and I would recommend instead Browne’s longer Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality (reviewed here) for a more comprehenseive treatment of the same, and related, topics. 

[11] A precedent for just such a programme, enacted in the name of socialism, albeit imposed consensually, was the communal rearing practices in Israeli Kibbutzim, since largely abandoned. Another suggestion along rather different lines comes from Adolf Hitler, who, believing that nature trumped nurture, is quoted in Mein Kampf as proposing: 

The State must also teach that it is the manifestation of a really noble nature and that it is a humanitarian act worthy of all admiration if an innocent sufferer from hereditary disease refrains from having a child of his own but bestows his love and affection on some unknown child whose state of health is a guarantee that it will become a robust member of a powerful community” (quoted in: Parfrey 1987: p162). 

[12] Actually, it is not entirely clear that women do have a natural desire to bear offspring. Other species probably do not have any such natural desire. Since they are almost certainly are not aware of the connection between sex and child birth, such a desire would serve no adaptive purpose and hence would never evolve. All an organism requires is a desire for sex, combined perhaps with a tendency to care for offspring after they are born. (Indeed, in principle, a female does not even require a desire for sex, only a willingness to submit to the desire of a male for sex.) As Tooby and Cosmides emphasize: 

Individual organisms are best thought of as adaptation-executers rather than as fitness-maximizers.” 

There is no requirement for a desire for offspring as such. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence of so-called broodiness, and the fact that most women do indeed desire children, despite the costs associated with raising children, suggests that, in human females, there is indeed some innate desire for offspring. Curiously, however, the topic of broodiness is not one that has attracted much attention among evolutionists.

[13] However, there is a problem with any such case for a ‘Brave New Socialist Eugenics’. Before the eugenic programme is complete, the individuals controlling eugenic programmes (be they governments or corporations) would still possess a more traditional human nature, and may therefore have less than altruistic motivations themselves. This seems to suggest then that, as philosopher John Gray concludes in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (which I have reviewed here):  

“[If] human nature [is] scientifically remodelled… it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of the struggles in the murky world where big business, organized crime and the hidden parts of government vie for control” (Straw Dogs: p6).

References  

Parfrey (1987) Eugenics: The Orphaned Science. In Parfrey (Ed.) Apocalypse Culture (New York: Amoc Press). 

Trivers 1971 The evolution of reciprocal altruism Quarterly Review of Biology 46(1):35-57 

Vining 1986 Social versus reproductive success: The central theoretical problem of human sociobiologyBehavioral and Brain Sciences 9(1), 167-187.

Edward O Wilson’s ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’: A Book Much Read About, But Rarely Actually Read

Edward O Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis Cambridge: Belknap, Harvard 1975

Sociobiology – The Field That Dare Not Speak its Name? 

From its first publication in 1975, the reception accorded Edward O Wilson’s ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ has been divided. 

On the one hand, among biologists, especially those specialist in the fields of ethology, zoology and animal behaviour, the reception was almost universally laudatory. Indeed, my 25th Anniversary Edition even proudly proclaims on the cover that it was voted by officers and fellows of the Animal Behavior Society as the most important ever book on animal behaviour, supplanting even Darwin’s own seminal On The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals

However, on the other side of the university campus, in social science departments, the reaction was very different. 

Indeed, the hostility that the book provoked was such that ‘sociobiology’ became almost a dirty word in the social sciences, and ultimately throughout the academy, to such an extent that ultimately the term fell into disuse (save as a term of abuse) and was replaced by largely synonymous euphemisms like behavioral ecology and evolutionary psychology.[1]

Sociobiology thus became, in academia, ‘the field that dare not speak its name’. 

Similarly, within the social sciences, even those researchers whose work carried on the sociobiological approach in all but name almost always played down the extent of their debt to Wilson himself. 

Thus, books on evolutionary psychology typically begin with disclaimers acknowledging that the sociobiology of Wilson was, of course, crude and simplistic, and that their own approach is, of course, infinitely more sophisticated. 

Indeed, reading some recent works on evolutionary psychology, one could be forgiven for thinking that evolutionary approaches to understanding human behaviour began around 1989 with the work of Tooby and Cosmides

Defining the Field 

What then does the word ‘sociobiology’ mean? 

Today, as I have mentioned, the term has largely fallen into disuse, save among certain social scientists who seem to employ it as a rather indiscriminate term of abuse for any theory of human behaviour that they perceive as placing too great a weight on hereditary or biological factors, including many areas of research only tangentially connected to with sociobiology as Wilson originally conceived of it (e.g. behavioral genetics).[2]

The term ‘sociobiology’ was not Wilson’s own coinage. It had occasionally been used by biologists before, albeit rarely. However, Wilson was responsible for popularizing – and perhaps, in the long-term, ultimately unpopularizing it too, since, as we have seen, the term has largely fallen into disuse.[3] 

Wilson himself defined ‘sociobiology’ as: 

The systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior” (p4; p595). 

However, as the term was understood by other biologists, and indeed applied by Wilson himself, sociobiology came to be construed more narrowly. Thus, it was associated in particular with the question of why behaviours evolved and the evolutionary function they serve in promoting the reproductive success of the organism (i.e. just one of Tinbergen’s Four Questions). 

The hormonal, neuroscientific, or genetic causes of behaviours are just as much a part of “the biological basis of behavior” as are the ultimate evolutionary functions of behaviour. However, these lie outside of scope of sociobiology as the term was usually understood. 

Indeed, Wilson himself admitted as much, writing in ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ itself of how: 

Behavioral biology… is now emerging as two distinct disciplines centered on neurophysiology and… sociobiology” (p6). 

Yet, in another sense, Wilson’s definition of the field was also too narrow. 

Thus, behavioural ecologists have come to study all forms of behaviour, not just social behaviour.  

For example, optimal foraging theory is a major subfield within behavioural ecology (the successor field to sociobiology), but concerns feeding behaviour, which may be an entirely solitary, non-social activity. 

Indeed, even some aspects of an organism’s physiology (as distinct from behaviour) have come to be seen as within the purview of sociobiology (e.g. the evolution of the peacock’s tail). 

A Book Much Read About, But Rarely Actually Read 

Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ was a massive tome, numbering almost 700 pages. 

As Wilson proudly proclaims in his glossary, it was: 

Written with the broadest possible audience in mind and most of it can be read with full understanding by any intelligent person whether or not he or she has had any formal training in science” (p577). 

Unfortunately, however, the sheer size of the work alone was probably enough to deter most such readers long before they reached p577 where these words appear. 

Indeed, I suspect the very size of the book was a factor in explaining the almost universally hostile reception that the book received among social scientists. 

In short, the book was so large that the vast majority of social scientists had neither the time nor the inclination to actually read it for themselves, especially since a cursory flick through its pages showed that the vast majority of them seemed to be concerned with the behaviour of species other than humans, and hence, as they saw it, of little relevance to their own work. 

Instead, therefore, their entire knowledge of the sociobiology was filtered through to them via the critiques of the approach authored by other social scientists, themselves mostly hostile to sociobiology, who presented a straw man caricature of what sociobiology actually represented. 

Indeed, the caricature of sociobiology presented by these authors is so distorted that, reading some of these critiques, one often gets the impression that included among those social scientists not bothering to read the book for themselves were most of the social scientists nevertheless taking it upon themselves to write critiques of it. 

Meanwhile, the fact that the field was so obviously misguided (as indeed it often was in the caricatured form presented in the critiques) gave most social scientists yet another reason not to bother wading through its 700 or so pages for themselves. 

As a result, among sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, public intellectuals, and other such ‘professional damned fools’, as well as the wider the semi-educated, reading public, ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ became a book much read about – but rarely actually read (at least in full). 

As a consequence, as with other books falling into this category (e.g. the Bible and The Bell Curve) many myths have emerged regarding its contents which are quite contradicted on actually taking the time to read it for oneself. 

The Many Myths of Sociobiology 

Perhaps the foremost myth is that sociobiology was primarily a theory of human behaviour. In fact, as is revealed by even a cursory flick through the pages of Wilson’s book, sociobiology was, first and foremost, a theoretical approach to understanding animal behaviour. 

Indeed, Wilson’s decision to attempt to apply sociobiological theory to humans as well was, it seems, almost something of an afterthought, and necessitated by his desire to provide a comprehensive overview of the behaviour of all social animals, humans included. 
 
This is connected to the second myth – namely, that sociobiology was Wilson’s own theory. In fact, rather than a single theory, sociobiology is better viewed as a particular approach to a field of study, the field in question being animal behaviour. 
 
Moreover, far from being Wilson’s own theory, the major advances in the understanding of animal behaviour that gave rise to what came to be referred to as ‘sociobiology’ were made in the main by biologists other than Wilson himself.  
 
Thus, it was William Hamilton who first formulated inclusive fitness theory (which came to be known as the theory of kin selection); John Maynard Smith who first introduced economic models and game theory into behavioural biology; George C Williams who was responsible for displacing a crude group-selection in favour of a new focus on the gene itself as the principal unit of selection; while Robert Trivers was responsible for such theories such as reciprocal altruismparent-offspring conflict and differential parental investment theory
 
Instead, Wilson’s key role was to bring the various strands of the emerging field together, give it a name and, in the process, take far more than his fair share of the resulting flak. 
 
Thus, far from being a maverick theory of a single individual, what came to be known as ‘sociobiology’ was, if not based on accepted biological theory at the time of publication, then at least based on biological theory that came to be recognised as mainstream within a few years of its publication. 
 
Controversy attached almost exclusively to the application of these same principles to explain human behaviour. 

Applying Sociobiology to Humans 

In respect of Wilson’s application of sociobiological theory to humans, misconceptions again abound. 

For example, it is often asserted that Wilson only extended his theory to apply to human behaviour in his infamous final chapter, entitled, ‘Man: From Sociobiology to Sociology’. 

Actually, however, Wilson had discussed the possible application of sociobiological theory to humans several times in earlier chapters. 
 
Often, this was at the end of a chapter. For example, his chapter on “Roles and Castes” closes with a discussion of “Roles in Human Societies” (p312-3). Similarly, the final subsection of his chapter on “Aggression” is titled “Human Aggression” (p 254-5). 
 
Other times, however, humans get a mention in mid-chapter, as in Chapter Fifteen, which is titled ‘Sex and Society’, where Wilson discusses the association between adultery, cuckoldry and violent retribution in human societies, and rightly prophesizes that “the implications for the study of humans” of Trivers’ theory of differential parental investment “are potentially great” (p327). 
 
Another misconception is that, while he may not have founded the approach that came to be known as sociobiology, it was Wilson who courted controversy, and bore most of the flak, because he was the first biologist brave, foolish, ambitious, farsighted or naïve enough to attempt to apply sociobiological theory to humans. 
 
Actually, however, this is untrue. For example, a large part of Robert Trivers’ seminal paper on reciprocal altruism published in 1971 dealt with reciprocal altruism in humans and with what are presumably specifically human moral emotions, such as guilt, gratitude, friendship and moralistic anger (Trivers 1971). 
 
However, Trivers’ work was published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology and therefore presumably never came to the attention of any of the leftist social scientists largely responsible for the furore over sociobiology, who, being of the opinion that biological theory was wholly irrelevant to human behaviour, and hence to their own field, were unlikely to be regular readers of the journal in question. 

Yet this is perhaps unfortunate since Trivers, unlike the unfortunate Wilson, had impeccable left-wing credentials, which may have deflected some of the overtly politicized criticism (and pitchers of water) that later came Wilson’s way. 

Reductionism vs Holism

Among the most familiar charges levelled against Wilson by his opponents within the social sciences, and by contemporary opponents of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, alongside the familiar and time-worn charges of ‘biological determinism’ and ‘genetic determinism’, is that sociobiology is inherently reductionist, something which is, they imply, very much a bad thing. 
 
It is therefore something of a surprise to find among the opening pages of ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’, Wilson defending “holism”, as represented, in Wilson’s view, by the field of sociobiology itself, as against what he terms “the triumphant reductionism of molecular biology” (p7). 
 
This passage is particularly surprising for anyone who has read Wilson’s more recent work Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, where he launches a trenchant, unapologetic and, in my view, wholly convincing defence of “reductionism” as representing, not only “the cutting edge of science… breaking down nature into its constituent components” but moreover “the primary and essential activity of science” and hence at the very heart of the scientific method (Consilience: p59). 

Thus, in a quotable aphorism, Wilson concludes: 

The love of complexity without reductionism makes art; the love of complexity with reductionism makes science” (Consilience: p59). 

Of course, whether ‘reductionism’ is a good or bad thing, as well as the extent to which sociobiology can be considered ‘reductionist’, ultimately depends on precisely how we define ‘reductionism’. Moreover, ‘reductionism’, how ever defined, is a surely matter of degree. 

Thus, philosopher Daniel Dennett, in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, distinguishes what he calls “greedy reductionism”, which attempts to oversimplify the world (e.g. Skinnerian behaviourism, which seeks to explain all behaviours in terms of conditioning), from “good reductionism”, which attempts to understand it in all its complexity (i.e. good science).

On the other hand, ‘holistic’ is a word most often employed in defence of wholly unscientific approaches, such as so-called holistic medicine, and, for me, the word itself is almost always something of a red flag. 

Thus, the opponents of sociobiology, in using the term ‘reductionist’ as a criticism, are rejecting the whole notion of a scientific approach to understanding human behaviour. In its place, they offer only a vague, wishy-washy, untestable and frankly anti-scientific obscurantism, whereby any attempt to explain behaviour in terms of causes and effects is dismissed as reductionism and determinism

Yet explaining behaviour, whether the behaviour of organisms, atoms, molecules or chemical substances, in terms of causes and effects is the very essence, if not the very definition, of science. 

In other words, determinism (i.e. the belief that events are determined by causes) is not so much a finding of science as its basic underlying assumption.[4]

Yet Wilson’s own championing of “holism” in ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ can be made sense of in its historical context. 

In other words, just as Wilson’s defence of reductionism in ‘Concilience’ was a response to the so-called sociobiology debates of the 1970s and 80s in which the charge of ‘reductionism’ was wielded indiscriminately by the opponents of sociobiology, so Wilson’s defence of holism in ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ itself must be understood in the context, not of the controversy that this work itself provoked (which Wilson was, at the time, unable to foresee), but rather of a controversy preceded its publication. 

In particular, certain molecular biologists at Harvard, and perhaps elsewhere, led by the brilliant yet but abrasive molecular biologist James Watson, had come to the opinion that molecular biology was to be the only biology, and that traditional biology, fieldwork and experiments were positively passé. 

This controversy is rather less familiar to anyone outside of Harvard University’s biology department than the sociobiology debates, which not only enlisted many academics from outside of biology (e.g. psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and even philosophers), but also spilled over into the popular media and even became politicized. 

However, within the ivory towers of Harvard University’s department of biology, this controversy seems to have been just as fiercely fought over.[5]

As is clear from ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’, Wilson’s own envisaged “holism” was far from the wishy-washy obscurantism which one usually associates with those championing a ‘holistic approach’, and thoroughly scientific. 

Thus, in On Human Nature, Wislon’s follow-up book to ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’, where he first concerned himself specifically to the application of sociobiological theory to humans, Wilson gives perhaps his most balanced description of the relative importance of reductionism and holism, and indeed of the nature of science, writing: 

Raw reduction is only half the scientific process… the remainder consist[ing] of the reconstruction of complexity by an expanding synthesis under the control if laws newly demonstrated by analysis… reveal[ing] the existence of novel emergent phenomena” (On Human Nature: p11). 

It is therefore in this sense, and in contrast to the reductionism of molecular biology, that Wilson saw sociobiology as ‘holistic’. 

Group Selection? 

One of the key theoretical breakthroughs that formed the basis for what came to be known as sociobiology was the discrediting of group-selectionism, largely thanks to the work of George C Williams, whose ideas were later popularized by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (which I have reviewed here).[6] 
 
A focus the individual, or even the gene, as the primary, or indeed the only, unit of selection, came to be viewed as an integral component of the sociobiological worldview. Indeed, it was once seriously debated on the pages of the newsletter of the European Sociobiological Society whether one could truly be both a ‘sociobiologist’ and a ‘group-selectionist’ (Price 1996). 

It is therefore something of a surprise to discover that the author of ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’, responsible for christening the emerging field, was himself something of a group-selectionist. 

Wilson has recently ‘come out’ as a group-selectionist by co-authoring a paper concerning the evolution of eusociality in ants (Nowak et al 2010). However, reading ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ leads one to suspect that Wilson had been a closet, or indeed a semi-out, group-selectionist all along. 

Certainly, Wilson repeats the familiar arguments against group-selectionism popularised by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (which I have reviewed here), but first articulated by George C Williams in Adaptation and Natural Selection (see p106-7). 

However, although he offers no rebuttal to these arguments, this does not prevent Wilson from invoking, or at least proposing, group-selectionist explanations for behaviours elsewhere in the remainder of the book (e.g. p275). 

Moreover, Wilson concludes: 

Group selection and higher levels of organization, however intuitively implausible… are at least theoretically possible under a wide range of conditions” (p30). 

 
Thus, it is clear that, unlike, say, Richard Dawkins, Wilson did not view group-selectionism as a terminally discredited theory. 

Man: From Sociobiology to Sociology… and Perhaps Evolutionary Psychology 

What then of Wilson’s final chapter, entitled ‘Man – From Sociobiology to Sociology’? 

It was, of course, the only one to focus exclusively on humans, and, of course, the chapter that attracted by far the lion’s share of the outrage and controversy that soon ensued. 

Yet, reading it today, over forty years after it was first written, it is, I feel, rather disappointing. 

Let me be clear, I went in very much wanting to like it. 

After all, Wilson’s general approach was basically right. Humans, like all other organisms, have evolved through a process of natural selection. Therefore, their behaviour, no less than their physiology, or the physiology or behaviour of non-human organisms, must be understood in the light of this fact. 

Moreover, not only were almost all of the criticisms levelled at Wilson misguided, wrongheaded and unfair, but they often bordered upon persecution as well.

The most famous example of this leftist witch hunting was when, during a speech at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he was drenched him with a pitcher of water by leftist demonstrators. 

However, this was far from an isolated event. For example, an illustration from the book The Moral Animal shows a student placard advising protesters to “bring noisemakers” in order to deliberately disrupt one of Wilson’s speaking engagements (The Moral Animal: illustration p341). 

In short, Wilson seems to have been an early victim of what would today be called ‘deplatorming’ and ‘cancel culture’, phenomena that long predated the coining of these terms

Thus, one is tempted to see Wilson in the role of a kind of modern Galileo, being, like Galileo, persecuted for his scientific theories, which, like those of Galileo, turned out to be broadly correct. 

Moreover, Wilson’s views were, in some respects, analogous to those of Galileo. Both disputed prevailing orthodoxies in such a way as to challenge the view that humans were somehow unique or at the centre of things, Galileo by suggesting the earth was not at the centre of the solar system, and Wilson by showing that human behaviour was not all that different from that of other animals.[7]

Unfortunately, however, the actual substance of Wilson’s final chapter is rather dated.

Inevitably, any science book will be dated after forty years. However, while this is also true of the book as a whole, it seems especially true of this last chapter, which bears little resemblance to the contents of a modern textbook on evolutionary psychology

This is perhaps inevitable. While the application of sociobiological theory to understanding and explaining the behaviour other species was already well underway, the application of sociobiological theory to humans was, the pioneering work of Robert Trivers on reciprocal altruism notwithstanding, still very much in its infancy. 

Yet, while the substance of the chapter is dated, the general approach was spot on.

Indeed, even some of the advances claimed by evolutionary psychologists as their own were actually anticipated by Wilson. 

Thus, Wilson recognises:

One of the key questions [in human sociobiology] is to what extent the biogram represents an adaptation to modern cultural life and to what extent it is a phylogenetic vestige” (p458). 

He thus anticipates the key evolutionary psychological concept of the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness or EEA, whereby it is theorized that humans are evolutionarily adapted, not to the modern post-industrial societies in which so many of us today find ourselves, but rather to the ancestral environments in which our behaviours first evolved.

Wilson proposes examine human behavior from the disinterested perspective of “a zoologist from another planet”, and concludes: 

In this macroscopic view the humanities and social sciences shrink to specialized branches of biology” (p547). 

Thus, for Wilson: 

Sociology and the other social sciences, as well as the humanities, are the last branches of biology waiting to be included in the Modern Synthesis” (p4). 

Indeed, the idea that the behaviour of a single species is alone exempt from principles of general biology, to such an extent that it must be studied in entirely different university faculties by entirely different researchers, the vast majority with little or no knowledge of general biology, nor of the methods and theory of researchers studying the behaviour of all other organisms, reflects an indefensible anthropocentrism

However, despite the controversy these pronouncements provoked, Wilson was actually quite measured in his predictions and even urged caution, writing 

Whether the social sciences can be truly biologicized in this fashion remains to be seen” (p4) 

The evidence of the ensuing forty years suggests, in my view, that the social sciences can indeed be, and are well on the way to being, as Wilson puts it, ‘biologicized’. The only stumbling block has proven to be social scientists themselves, who have, in some cases, proven resistant. 

‘Vaunting Ambition’? 

Yet, despite these words of caution, the scale of Wilson’s intellectual ambition can hardly be exaggerated. 

First, he sought to synthesize the entire field of animal behavior under the rubric of sociobiology and in the process produce the ‘New Synthesis’ promised in the subtitle, by analogy with the Modern Synthesis of Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics that forms the basis for the entire field of modern biology. 

Then, in a final chapter, apparently as almost something of an afterthought, he decided to add human behaviour into his synthesis as well. 

This meant, not just providing a new foundation for a single subfield within biology (i.e. animal behaviour), but for several whole disciplines formerly virtually unconnected to biology – e.g. psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology, economics. 

Oh yeah… and moral philosophy and perhaps epistemology too. I forgot to mention that. 

From Sociobiology to… Philosophy?

Indeed, Wilson’s forays into philosophy proved even more controversial than those into social science. Though limited to a few paragraphs in his first and last chapter, they were among the most widely quoted, and critiqued, in the whole book. 

Not only were opponents of sociobiology (and philosophers) predictably indignant, but even those few researchers bravely taking up the sociobiological gauntlet, and even applying it to humans, remained mostly skeptical. 

In proposing to reconstruct moral philosophy on the basis of biology, Wilson was widely accused of committing what philosophers call the naturalistic fallacy or appeal to nature fallacy

This refers to the principle that, if a behaviour is natural, this does not necessarily make it right, any more than the fact that dying of tuberculosis is natural means that it is morally wrong to treat tuberculosis with such ‘unnatural’ interventions as vaccination or antibiotics. 

In general, evolutionary psychologists have generally been only too happy to reiterate the sacrosanct inviolability of the fact-value chasm, not least because it allowed them to investigate the evolutionary function of such morally dubious, or indeed morally reprehensible, behaviours as infidelity, rape, war, sexual infidelity and child abuse, while denying they are thereby providing a justification for the behaviours in question. 

Yet this begs the question: if we cannot derive values from facts, whence can values be arrived at? Can they be derived only from other values? If so, then whence are our ultimate moral values, from which all others are derived, themselves ultimately derived? Must they be simply taken on faith? 

Wilson has recently controversially argued, in his excellent Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, that, in this context: 

The posing of the naturalistic fallacy is itself a fallacy” (Consilience: p273). 

Leaving aside this controversial claim, it is clear that his point in ‘Sociobiology’ is narrower. 

In short, Wilson seems to be arguing that, in contemplating the appropriateness of different theories of prescriptive ethics (e.g. utilitarianism, Kantian deontology), moral philosophers consult “the emotional control centers in the hypothalamus and limbic system of the brain” (p3). 

Yet these same moral philosophers take these emotions largely for granted. They treat the brain as a “black box” rather than a biological entity the nature of which is itself the subject of scientific study (p562). 

Yet, despite the criticism Wilson’s suggestion provoked among many philosophers, the philosophical implications of recognising that moral intuitions are themselves a product of the evolutionary process have since become an serious and active area of philosophical enquiry. Indeed, among the leading pioneers in this field of enquiry has been the philosopher of biology Michael Ruse, not least in collaboration Wilson himself (Ruse & Wilson 1986). 

Yet if moral philosophy must be rethought in the light of biology and the evolved nature of our psychology, then the same is also surely true of arguably the other main subfield of contemporary philosophy – namely epistemology.  

Yet Wilson’s comments regarding the relevance of sociobiological theory to epistemology are even briefer than the few sentences he devotes in his opening and closing chapters to moral philosophy, being restricted to less than a sentence – a mere five-word parenthesis in a sentence primarily discussing moral philosophy and philosophers (p3). 

However, what humans are capable of knowing is, like morality, ultimately a product of the human brain – a brain which is a itself biological entity that evolved through a process of natural selection. 

The brain, then, is designed not for discovering ‘truth’, in some abstract, philosophical sense, but rather for maximizing the reproductive success of the organism whose behaviour it controls and directs. 

Of course, for most purposes, natural selection would likely favour psychological mechanisms that produce, if not ‘truth’, then at least a reliable model of the world as it actually operates, so that an organism can modify its behaviour in accordance with this model, in order to produce outcomes that maximizes its inclusive fitness under these conditions. 

However, it is at least possible that there are certain phenomena that our brains are, through the very nature of their wiring and construction, incapable of fully understanding (e.g. quantum mechanics or the hard question of consciousness), simply because such understanding was of no utility in helping our ancestors to survive and reproduce in ancestral environments. 

The importance of evolutionary theory to our understanding of epistemology and the limits of human knowledge is, together with the relevance of evolutionary theory to moral philosophy, a theme explored in philosopher Michael Ruse’s book, Taking Darwin Seriously, and is also the principal theme of such recent works as The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes by Donald D Hoffman. 

Dated? 

Is ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ worth reading today? At almost 700 pages, it represents no idle investment of time. 

Wilson is a wonderful writer even in a purely literary sense, and has the unusual honour for a working scientist of being a twice Pulitzer-Prize winner. However, apart from a few provocative sections in the opening and closing chapters, ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ is largely written in the form of a student textbook, is not a book one is likely to read on account of its literary merits alone. 

As a textbook, Sociobiology is obviously dated. Indeed, the extent to which it has dated is an indication of the success of the research programme it helped inspire. 

Thus, one of the hallmarks of true science is the speed at which cutting-edge work becomes obsolete.  

Religious believers still cite holy books written millennia ago, while adherents of pseudo-sciences like psychoanalysis and Marxism still paw over the words of Freud and Marx. 

However, the scientific method is a cumulative process based on falsificationism and is moreover no respecter of persons.

Scientific works become obsolete almost as fast as they are published. Modern biologists only rarely cite Darwin. 

If you want a textbook summary of the latest research in sociobiology, I would instead recommend the latest edition of Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach or An Introduction to Behavioral Ecology; or, if your primary interest is human behavior, the latest edition of David Buss’s Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind

The continued value of ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ lies in the field, not of science, but history of science In this field, it will remain a landmark work in the history of human thought, for both the controversy, and the pioneering research, that followed in its wake. 

Endnotes

[1] Actually, ‘evolutionary psychology’ is not quite a synonym for ‘sociobiology’. Whereas the latter field sought to understand the behaviour of all animals, if not all organisms, the term ‘evolutionary psychology’ is usually employed only in relation to the study of human behaviour. It would be more accurate, then, to say ‘evolutionary psychology’ is a synonym, or euphemism, for ‘human sociobiology’.

[2] Whereas behavioural geneticists focus on heritable differences between individuals within a single population, evolutionary psychologists largely focus on behavioural adaptations that are presumed to be pan-human and universal. Indeed, it is often argued that there is likely to be minimal heritable variation in human psychological adaptations, precisely because such adaptations have been subject to such strong selection pressure as to weed out suboptimal variation, such that only the optimal genotype remains. On this view, substantial heritable variation is found only in respect of traits that have not been subject to intense selection pressure (see Tooby & Cosmides 1990). However, this fails to be take into account such phenomena as frequency dependent selection and other forms of polymorphism, whereby different individuals within a breeding population adopt, for example, quite different reproductive strategies. It is also difficult to reconcile with the finding of behavioural geneticists that there is substantial heritable variation in intelligence as between individuals, despite the fact that the expansion of human brain-size over the course of evolution suggests that intelligence has been subject to strong selection pressures.

[3] For example, in 1997, the journal Ethology and Sociobiology, which had by then become, and remains, the leading scholarly journal in the field of what would then have been termed ‘human sociobiology’, and now usually goes by the name of ‘evolutionary psychology’, changed its name to Evolution and Human Behavior.

[4] An irony is that, while science is built on the assumption of determinism, namely the assumption that observed phenomena have causes that can be discovered by controlled experimentation, one of the findings of science is that, at least at the quantum level, determinism is actually not true. This is among the reasons why quantum theory is paradoxically popular among people who don’t really like science (and who, like virtually everyone else, don’t really understand quantum theory). Thus, Richard Dawkins has memorably parodied quantum mysticism as as based on the reasoning that: 

Quantum mechanics, that brilliantly successful flagship theory of modern science, is deeply mysterious and hard to understand. Eastern mystics have always been deeply mysterious and hard to understand. Therefore, Eastern mystics must have been talking about quantum theory all along.”

[5] Indeed, although since reconciled, Wilson and Watson seem to have shared a deep personal animosity for one another, Wilson once describing how he had once considered Watson, with whom he later reconciled, “the most unpleasant human being I had ever met” – see Wilson’s autobiography, Naturalist. A student of Watson’s describes how, when Wilson was granted tenure at Harvard before Watson:

It was a big, big day in our corridor” as “Watson could be heard coming up the stairwell…  shouting ‘fuck, fuck, fuck” (Watson and DNA: p98)  

Wilson’s description of Watson’s personality in his memoir is interesting in the light of the later controversy regarding the latters comments regarding the economic implications of racial differences in intelligence, with Wilson writing: 

Watson, having risen to historic fame at an early age, became the Caligula of biology. He was given license to say anything that came to his mind and expect to be taken seriously. And unfortunately, he did so, with a casual and brutal offhandedness.” 

In contrast, geneticist David Reich suggests that Watson’s abrasive personality predated his scientific discoveries and may even have been partly responsible for them, writing: 

His obstreperousness may have been important to his success as a scientist” (Who We are and how We Got Here: p263).

[6] Group selection has recently, however, enjoyed something of a resurgence in the form of multi-level selection theory. Wilson himself is very much a supporter of this trend.

[7] Of course, it goes without saying that the persecution to which Wilson was subjected was as nothing compared to that to which Galileo was subjected (see my post, A Modern McCarthyism in Our Midst). 

References 

Nowak et al (2010) The evolution of eusociality Nature 466:1057–1062. 

Price (1996) ‘In Defence of Group Selection, European Sociobiological Society Newsletter. No. 42, October 1996 

Ruse & Wilson (1986) Moral Philosophy as Applied SciencePhilosophy 61(236):173-192 

Tooby & Cosmides (1990) On the Universality of Human Nature and the Uniqueness of the Individual: The Role of Genetics and AdaptationJournal of Personality 58(1): 17-67. 

Trivers (1971) The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology 46:35–57 

Donald Symons’ ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’: A Founding Work of Modern Evolutionary Psychology

The Evolution of Human Sexuality by Donald Symons (Oxford University Press 1980). 

Research over the last four decades in the field that has come to be known as evolutionary psychology has focused disproportionately on mating behaviour. Geoffrey Miller (1998) has even argued that it is the theory of sexual selection rather than that of natural selection which, in practice, guides most research in this field. 

This does not reflect merely the prurience of researchers. Rather, given that reproductive success is the ultimate currency of natural selection, mating behaviour is, perhaps along with parental investment, the form of behaviour most directly subject to selective pressures.

Almost all of this research traces its ancestry ultimately to Donald Symons’ ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’ by Donald Symons. Indeed, much of it was explicitly designed to test claims and predictions formulated by Symons himself in this very book.

Age Preferences

For example, in his discussion of the age at which women are perceived as most attractive by males, Symons formulated two alternative hypotheses. 

First, if human evolutionary history were characterized by fleeting one-off sexual encounters (i.e. one-night standscasual sex and hook-ups), then, he reasoned, men would have evolved to find women most attractive when the latter are at the age of their maximum fertility

For women, fertility is said to peak around when a woman reaches her mid-twenties since, although women still in their teens have high pregnancy rates, they also experience greater risk of birth complications

However, if human evolutionary history were characterized instead by long-term pair bonds, then men would have evolved to be maximally attracted to somewhat younger women (i.e. those at the beginning of their reproductive careers), so that, by entering a long-term relationship with the woman at this time, a male is potentially able to monopolize her entire lifetime reproductive output (p189). 

More specifically, males would have evolved to prefer females, not of maximal fertility, but rather of maximal reproductive value, a term borrowed from demography and population genetics which refers to a person’s expected future reproductive output given their current age. Unlike fertility, a woman’s reproductive value peaks around her mid- to late-teens.  

On the basis of largely anecdotal evidence, Symons concludes that human males have evolved to be most attracted to females of maximal reproductive value rather than maximal fertility.  

Subsequent research designed to test between Symons’s rival hypotheses has largely confirmed his speculative hunch that it is younger females in their mid- to late-teens who are perceived by males as most attractive (e.g. Kenrick and Keefe 1992). 

Why Average is Attractive

Symons is also credited as the first person to recognize that a major criterion of attractiveness is, paradoxically, averageness, or at least the first to recognize the significance of, and possible evolutionary explanation for, this discovery.[1] Thus, Symons argues that: 

“[Although] health and status are unusual in that there is no such thing as being too healthy or too high ranking… with respect to most anatomical traits, natural selection produces the population mean” (p194). 

On this view, deviations from the population mean are interpreted as the result of deleterious mutations or developmental instability, and hence bad genes.[2]

Concealed Ovulation

Support has even emerged for some of Symons’ more speculative hunches.

For example, one of Symons’ two proposed scenarios for the evolution of concealed ovulation, in which he professed “little confidence” (p141), was that this had evolved so as to impede male mate-guarding and enable females select a biological father for their offspring different from their husbands (p139-141).

Consistent with this theory, studies have found that women’s mate preferences vary throughout their menstrual cycle in a manner compatible with a so-called ‘dual mating strategy’, preferring males evidencing a willingness to invest in offspring at most times, but, when at their most fertile, preferring characteristics indicative of genetic quality (e.g. Penton-Voak et al 1999). 

Meanwhile, a questionnaire distributed via a women’s magazine found that women engaged in extra-marital affairs do indeed report engaging in ‘extra-pair copulations’ (EPCs) at times likely to coincide with ovulation (Bellis and Baker 1990).[3]

The Myth of Female Choice

Interestingly, Symons even anticipated some of the mistakes evolutionary psychologists would be led into.

Thus, he warns that researchers in modern western societies may be prone to overestimate the importance of female choice as a factor in human evolution, because, in their own societies, this is a major factor, if not the major factor, in determining marriage and sexual and romantic relationships (p203).[4]

However, in ancestral environments (i.e. what evolutionary psychologists now call the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness or EEA) arranged marriages were likely the norm, as they are in most premodern cultures around the world today (p168).[5]

Thus, Symons concludes: 

There is no evidence that any features of human anatomy were produced by intersexual selection [i.e. female choice]. Human physical sex differences are explained most parsimoniously as the outcome of intrasexual selection (the result of male-male competition)” (p203). 

Thus, human males have no obvious analogue of the peacock’s tail, but they do have substantially greater levels of upper-body strength and violent aggression as compared to females.[6]

This was a warning almost entirely ignored by subsequent generations of researchers before being forcefully reiterated by Puts (2010)

Homosexuality as a ‘Test-Case

An idea of the importance of Symons’s work can be ascertained by comparing it with contemporaneous works addressing the same subject-matter.

Edward O Wilson’s  On Human Nature was first published in 1978, only a year before Symons’s ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’. 

However, whereas Symons’s book set out much of the theoretical basis for what would become the modern science of evolutionary psychology, Wilson’s chapter on “Sex” has dated rather less well, and a large portion of chapter is devoted to introducing a now faintly embarrassing theory of the evolution of homosexuality which has subsequently received no empirical support (see Bobrow & Bailey 2001).[7]

In contrast, Symons’s own treatment of homosexuality is innovative. It is also characteristic of his whole approach and illustrates why ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality‘ has been described by David Buss as “the first major treatise on evolutionary psychology proper” (Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology: p251).

Rather than viewing all behaviours as necessarily adaptive (as critics of evolutionary psychology, such as Stephen Jay Gould, have often accused sociobiologists of doing),[8] Symons instead focuses on admittedly non-adaptive (or, indeed, even maladaptive) behaviours, not because he believes them to be adaptive, but rather because they provide a unique window on the nature of human sexuality.

Accordingly, Symons does not concern himself with how homosexuality evolved, implicitly viewing it as a rare and maladaptive malfunctioning of normal sexuality. Yet the behaviour of homosexuals is of interest to Symons because it provides a window on the nature of male and female sexuality as it manifests itself when freed from the constraints imposed by the conflicting desires of the opposite sex.

On this view, the rampant promiscuity manifested by many homosexual men (e.g. cruising and cottaging in bathhouses and public lavatories, or Grindr hookups) reflects the universal male desire for sexual variety when freed from the constraints imposed by the conflicting desires of women. 

This desire for sexual variety is, of course, obviously reproductively unproductive among homosexual men themselves. However, it evolved because it enhanced the reproductive success of heterosexual men by motivating them to attempt to mate with multiple females and thereby father multiple offspring.

In contrast, burdened with pregnancy and lactation, women’s potential reproductive rate is more tightly constrained than that of men. They therefore have little to gain reproductively by mating with multiple males, since they can usually gestate, and nurse, only one offspring at a time.

It is therefore notable that, among lesbians, there is little evidence of the sort of rampant promiscuity common among gay men. Instead, lesbian relationships seem to be characterized by much the same features as heterosexual coupling (i.e. long-term pair-bonds).

The similarity of heterosexual coupling to that of lesbians, and the striking contrast with that of male homosexuals, suggests that it is women, not men, who exert decisive influence in dictating the terms of heterosexual coupling.[9]

Thus, Symons reports:

There is enormous cross-cultural variation in sexual customs and laws and the extent of male control, yet nowhere in the world do heterosexual relations begin to approximate those typical of homosexual men This suggests that, in addition to custom and law, heterosexual relations are structured to a substantial degree by the nature and interests of the human female” (p300). 

This conclusion is, of course, diametrically opposite to the feminist contention that it is men who dictate the terms of heterosexual coupling and for whose exclusive benefit such relationships are structured.

It also suggests, again contrary to feminist assumptions of male dominance, that most men are ultimately frustrated in achieving their sexual ambitions to a far greater extent than are most women. 

Thus, Symons concludes: 

The desire for sexual variety dooms most human males to a lifetime of unfulfilled longing” (p228). 

Here, Symons anticipates Camille Paglia who was later to famously observe: 

Men know they are sexual exiles. They wander the earth seeking satisfaction, craving and despising, never content. There is nothing in that anguished motion for women to envy” (Sexual Personae: p19). 

Criticisms of Symons’s Use of Homosexuality as a Test-Case

There is, however, a potential problem with Symons’s use of homosexual behaviour as a window onto the nature of male and female sexuality as they manifest themselves when freed from the conflicting desires of the opposite sex. The whole analysis rests on a questionable premise – namely that homosexuals are, their preference for same-sex partners aside, otherwise similar, if not identical, to heterosexuals of their own sex in their psychology and sexuality.

Symons defends this assumption, arguing: 

There is no reason to suppose that homosexuals differ systematically from heterosexuals in any way other than their sexual object choice” (p292). 

Indeed, in some respects, Symons seems to see even “sexual object choice” as analogous among homosexuals and heterosexuals of the same sex.

For example, he observes that, unlike women, both homosexual and heterosexual men tend to evaluate prospective mates primarily on the basis their physical appearance and youthfulness (p295). 

Thus, in contrast to the failure of periodicals featuring male nudes to attract a substantial female audience (see below), Symons notes the existence of a market for gay pornography parallel in most respects to heterosexual porn – i.e. featuring young, physically attractive models in various states of undress (p301).

This, of course, contradicts the feminist notion that men are led to ‘objectify’ women only due to the sexualized portrayal of the latter in the media.

Instead, Symons concludes: 

That homosexual men are at least as likely as heterosexual men to be interested in pornography, cosmetic qualities and youth seems to me to imply that these interests are no more the result of advertising than adultery and alcohol consumption are the result of country and western music” (p304).[10] 

However, this assumption of the fundamental similarity of heterosexual and homosexual male psychology has been challenged by David Buller in his book, Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature.

Buller cites evidence that male homosexuals are ‘feminized’ in many aspects of their behaviour.

For example, one interesting recent study found that male homosexuals have more female-typical occupation interests than do heterosexual males (Ellis & Ratnasingam 2012).

Moreover, one of the few consistent early correlates of homosexuality is gender non-conformity in childhood and some evidence (e.g. digit ratios, the fraternal birth order effect) has been interpreted to suggest that the level of prenatal exposure to masculinizing androgens (e.g. testosterone) in utero affects sexual orientation (see Born Gay: The Pyschobiology of Sexual Orientation).

Indeed, Symons himself mentions the evidence of an association between homosexuality and levels of masculinizing androgens in utero (albeit in respect of lesbians rather than of male homosexuality) just a few pages before his discussion of the promiscuous behaviours of male homosexuals (p289).

As Buller also notes, although gay men seem, like heterosexual men, to prefer youthful sexual partners, they also appear to prefer sexual partners who are, in other respects highly masculine.[11]

Thus, Buller observes: 

“The males featured in gay men’s magazines embody very masculine, muscular physiques, not pseudo-feminine physiques” (Adapting Minds: p227).

Indeed, the models in such magazines seem in most respects similar in physical appearance to the male models, pop stars, actors and other ‘sex symbols’ and celebrities fantasized about by heterosexual women and girls.

How then are we to resolve this apparent paradox?

One possible explanation that some aspects of the psychology of male homosexuals are feminized but not others – perhaps because different parts of the brain are formed at different stages of prenatal development, at which stages the levels of masculinizing androgens in the womb may vary. 

Indeed, there is even some evidence that homosexual males may be hyper-masculinized in some aspects of their physiology.

For example, it has been found that homosexual males report larger penis-sizes than heterosexual men (Bogaert & Hershberger 1999). 
 
This, researchers Glenn Wilson and Qazi Rahman propose, may be because: 

If it is supposed that the barriers against androgens with respect to certain brain structures (notably those concerned with homosexuality) lead to increased secretion in an effort to break through, or some sort of accumulation elsewhere… then there may be excess testosterone left in other departments” (Born Gay: The Psychobiology of Sex Orientation: p80). 

Another possibility is that male homosexuals actually lie midway between heterosexual men and women in their degree of masculinization.  

On this view, homosexual men come across as relatively feminine only because we naturally tend to compare them to other men (i.e. heterosexual men). However, as compared to women, they may be relatively masculine, as reflected in the male-typical aspects of their sexuality focused upon by Symons.

Interestingly, this latter interpretation suggests the slightly disturbing possibility that, freed from the restraints imposed by women, heterosexual men would be even more indiscriminately promiscuous than their homosexual counterparts.

Evidence consistent with this interpretation is provided by one study from the 1980s which found that, when approached by a female stranger (also a student), on a University campus, with a request to go to bed with them, fully 72% of male students agreed (Clark and Hatfield 1989). 

In contrast, in the same study, not a single one of the 96 females approached by male strangers with the same request on the same university campus agreed to go to bed with the male stranger.

Yet what percentage of the female students subsequently sued the university for sexual harassment was not reported.

Pornography as a “Natural Experiment

For Symons, fantasy represents another window onto sexual and romantic desires. Like homosexuality, fantasy is, by its very nature, unconstrained by the conflicting desires of the opposite sex (or indeed by anything other than the imagination of the fantasist). 

Symons later collaborated in an investigation into sexual fantasy by means of a questionnaire (Ellis and Symons 1990). 

However, in the present work, he investigates fantasy indirectly by focusing on what he calls “the natural experiment of commercial periodical publishing” – i.e. pornographic magazines (p182).

In many respects, this approach is preferable to a survey because, even in an anonymous questionnaire, individuals may be less than honest when dealing with a sensitive topic such as their sexual fantasies. On the other hand, they are unlikely to regularly spend money on a magazine unless they are genuinely attracted by its contents.

Before the internet age, softcore pornographic magazines, largely featuring female nudes, commanded sizeable circulations. However, their readership (if indeed ‘readership’ is the right words, since there was typically little reading involved, save of the one-handed variety) was almost exclusively male.

In contrast, there was little or no female audience for magazines containing pictures of naked males. Instead, magazines marketed towards women (e.g. fashion magazines) contain, mostly, pictures of other women.

Indeed, when, in the 1970s, attempts were made, in the misguided name of feminism and ‘women’s liberation’, to market magazines featuring male nudes to a female readership, one such title, Viva, abandoned publishing male nudes after just a few years due to lack of interest or demand, then subsequently went bust just a few years after that, while the other, Playgirl, although it did not entirely abandon male nudes, was notorious, as a consequence, for attracting a readership composed in large part of homosexual men.

Symons thus concludes forcefully and persuasively: 

The notion must be abandoned that women are simply repressed men waiting to be liberated” (p183). 

Indeed, though it has been loudly and enthusiastically co-opted by feminists, this view of women, and of female sexuality – namely women as “repressed men waiting to be liberated” – represents an obviously quintessentially male viewpoint. 

Indeed, taken to extremes, it has even been used as a justification for rape.

Thus, the curious, sub-Freudian notion that female rape victims actually secretly enjoy being raped seems to rest ultimately on the assumption that female sexuality is fundamentally the same as that of men (i.e. indiscriminately enjoying of promiscuous sex) and that it is only women’s alleged sexual ‘repression’ that prevents them admitting as much.

Romance Literature 

Unfortunately, however, there is notable omission in Symons’s discussion of pornography as a window into male sexuality – namely, he omits to consider whether there exists any parallel artistic genre that offers equivalent insight into the female psyche.

Later writers on the topic have argued that romance novels (e.g. Mills and Boon, Jane Austin), whose audience is as overwhelmingly female as pornography’s is male, represent the female equivalent of pornography, and that analysis of the the content of such works provides insights into female mate preferences parallel to those provided into male psychology by pornography (e.g. Kruger et al 2003; Salmon 2004; see also Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution and Female Sexuality, co-authored by Symons himself).

Symons touches upon this analogy only in passing, when he observes that:

Heterosexual men are, of course, aware that the female sexuality portrayed in men’s magazines reflects male fantasy more than female reality, just as homosexual women are aware that the happy endings of stories in romance magazines exist largely in the realm of fantasy” (p29).

Female Orgasm as Non-Adaptive

An entire chapter of ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’, namely Chapter Three (entitled, “The Female Orgasm: Adaptation or Artefact”), is devoted to rejecting the claim that the female orgasm represents a biological adaptation.

This is perhaps excessive. However, it does at least conveniently contradicts the claim of some critics of evolutionary psychology, and of sociobiology, such as Stephen Jay Gould that the field is ‘ultra-Darwinian’ or ‘hyper-adaptionist’ and committed to the misguided notion that all traits are necessarily adaptive.[12]

In contrast, Symons champions the thesis that the female capacity for orgasm is a simply non-adaptive by-product of the male capacity to orgasm, the latter of which is of course adaptive.

On this view, the female orgasm (and clitoris) is, in effect, the female equivalent of male nipples (only more fun).

Certainly, Symons convincingly critiques the romantic notion, popularized by Desmond Morris among others, that the female orgasm functions as a mechanism designed to enhance ‘pair-bonding’ between couples.

However, subsequent generations of evolutionary psychologists have developed less naïve models of the adaptive function of female orgasm.

For example, Geoffrey Miller argues that the female orgasm, and clitoris, functions as an adaptation for mate choice (The Mating Mind: p239-241).

Of course, at first glance, experiencing orgasm during coitus may appear to be a bit late for mate choice, since, by the time coitus has occurred, the choice in question has already been made. However, given that, among humans, most sexual intercourse is non-reproductive (i.e. does not result in conception), the theory is not altogether implausible.

On this view, the very factors which Symons views as suggesting female orgasm is non-adaptive – such as the relative difficultly of stimulating female orgasm during ordinary vaginal sex – are positive evidence for its adaptive function in carefully discriminating between suitors/lovers to determine their desirability as father for a woman ’s offspring.

Nevertheless, at least according to the stringent criteria set out by George C Williams in his classic Adaptation and Natural Selection, as well as the more general principle of parsimony (also known as Occam’s Razor), the case for female orgasm as an adaptation remains unproven (see also Sherman 1989; Case Of The Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution).

Out-of-Date?

Much of Symons’ work is dedicated to challenging the naïve group-selectionism of Sixties ethologists, especially Desmond Morris. Although scientifically now largely obsolete, Morris’s work still retains a certain popular resonance and therefore this aspect of Symons’s work is not entirely devoid of contemporary relevance.

In place of Morris‘s rather idyllic notion that humans are a naturally monogamous ‘pair-bonding’ species, Symons advocates instead an approach rooted in the individual-level (or even gene-level) selection championed Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (reviewed here).

This leads to some decidedly cynical conclusions regarding the true nature of sexual and romantic relations among humans.

For example, Symons argues that it is adaptive for men to be less sexually attracted to their wives than they are to other women – because they are themselves liable to bear the cost of raising offspring born to their wives but not those born to other women with whom they mate (e.g. those mated to other males).

Another cynical conclusion is that the primary emotion underlying the institution of marriage, both cross-culturally and in our own society, is neither love nor even lust, but rather male sexual jealousy and proprietariness (p123). 

Marriage, then, is an institution borne not of love, but of male sexual jealousy and the behaviour known to biologists as mate-guarding.

Meanwhile, in his excellent chapter on ‘Copulation as a Female Service’ (Chapter Eight), Symons suggests that many aspects of heterosexual romantic relationships may be analogous to prostitution.

As well as its excessive focus on debunking sixties ethologists like Morris, ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’ is also out-of-date in a more serious respect Namely, it fails to incorporate the vast amount of empirical research on human sexuality from a sociobiological perspective which has been conducted since the first publication of his work.

For a book first published thirty years ago, this is inevitable – not least because much of this empirical research was inspired by Symons’ own ideas and specifically designed to test theories formulated in this very work.

In addition, potentially important new factors in human reproductive behaviour that even Symons did not foresee have been identified, for example role of levels of fluctuating asymmetry functioning as a criterion for, or at least correlate of, physical attractiveness.

For an updated discussion of the evolutionary psychology of human sexual behaviour, complete with the latest empirical data, readers should consult the latest edition of David Buss’s The Evolution Of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating.

In contrast, in support of his theories Symons relies largely on classical literary insight, anecdote and, most importantly, a review of the ethnographic record.

However, this latter focus ensures that, in some respects, the work remains of more than merely of historical interest.

After all, one of the more legitimate criticisms levelled against recent research in evolutionary psychology is that it is insufficiently cross-cultural and, with several notable exceptions (e.g. Buss 1989), relies excessively on research conducted among convenience samples of students at western universities.

Given costs and practicalities, this is inevitable. However, for a field that aspires to understand a human nature presumed to be universal, such a method of sampling is highly problematic.

The Evolution of Human Sexuality’ therefore retains its importance for two reasons. 

First, is it the founding work of modern evolutionary psychological research into human sexual behaviour, and hence of importance as a landmark and classic text in the field, as well as in the history of science more generally. 

Second, it also remains of value to this day for the cross-cultural and ethnographic evidence it marshals in support of its conclusions. 

Endnotes

[1] Actually, the first person to discover this, albeit inadvertently, was the great Victorian polymath, pioneering statistician and infamous eugenicist Francis Galton, who, attempting to discover abnormal facial features possessed by the criminal class, succeeded in morphing the faces of multiple convicted criminals. The result was, presumably to his surprise, an extremely attractive facial composite, since all the various minor deformities of the many convicted criminals whose faces he morphed actually balanced one another out to produce a face with few if any abnormalities or disproportionate features.

[2] More recent research in this area has focused on the related concept of fluctuating asymmetry.

[3] However, recent meta-analyses have called into question the evidence for cyclical fluctuations in female mate preferences (Wood et al 2014; cf. Gildersleeve et al 2014), and it has been suggested that such findings may represent casualties of the so-called replication crisis in psychology. It has also been questioned whether ovulation in humans is indeed concealed, or is actually detectable by subtle cues (e.g. Miller et al 2007), for example, changes in face shape (Oberzaucher et al 2012), breast symmetry (Scutt & Manning 1996) and body scent (Havlicek et al 2006).

[4] Another factor leading recent researchers to overestimate the importance of female choice in human evolution is their feminist orientation, since female choice gives women an important role in human evolution, even, paradoxically, in the evolution of male traits.

[5] Actually, in most cultures, only a girl’s first marriage is arranged on her behalf by her parents. Second- and third-marriages are usually negotiated by the woman herself. However, since female fertility peaks early, it is a girl’s first marriage that is usually of the most reproductive, and hence Darwinian, significance.

[6] Indeed, the human anatomical trait in humans that perhaps shows the most evidence of being a product of intersexual selection is a female one, namely the female breasts, since the latter are, unlike the mammary glands of most other mammals, permanently present from puberty on, not only during lactation, and composed primarily of fatty tissues, not milk (Møller 1995; Manning et al 1997; Havlíček et al 2016

[7] Wilson terms his theory “the kin selection theory hypothesis of the origin of homosexuality” (p145). However, a better description might be the ‘helper at the nest theory of homosexuality’, the basic idea being that, like sterile castes in some insects, and like older siblings in some bird species where new nest sites are unavailable, homosexuals, rather than reproducing themselves, direct their energies towards assisting their collateral kin in successfully raising, and provisioning, their own offspring (p143-7). The main problem with this theory is that there is no evidence that homosexuals do indeed devote any greater energies towards assisting their kin in this respect. On the contrary, homosexuals instead seem to devote much of their time and resources towards their own sex life, much as do heterosexuals (Bobrow & Bailey 2001).

[8] As we will see, contrary to the stereotype of evolutionary psychologists as viewing all traits as necessarily adaptive, as they are accused of doing by the likes of Gould, Symons also argued that the female orgasm and menopause are non-adaptive, but rather by-products of other adaptations.

[9] This is not necessarily to say that rampant, indiscriminate promiscuity is a male utopia, or the ideal of any man, be he homosexual or heterosexual. On the contrary, the ideal mating system for any individual male is harem polygyny in which the chastity of his own partners is rigorously policed (see Despotism and Differential Reproduction: which I have reviewed here and here). However, given an equal sex ratio, this would condemn other males to celibacy. Similarly, Symons reports that “Homosexual men, like most people, usually want to have intimate relationships”. However, he observes:

Such relationships are difficult to maintain, largely owing to the male desire for sexual variety; the unprecedented opportunity to satisfy this desire in a world of men, and the male tendency towards sexual jealousy” (p297).  

It does indeed seem to be true that homosexual relationships, especially those of gay males, are, on average, of shorter duration than are heterosexual relationships. However, Symons’ claim regarding “the male tendency towards sexual jealousy” is questionable. Actually, subsequent research in evolutionary psychology has suggested that men are no more prone to jealousy than women, but rather that it is sorts of behaviours which most intensely provoke such jealousy that differentiate the sexes (Buss 1992). However, many gay men practice open relationships, which seems to suggest a lack of jealousy – or perhaps this simply reflects a recognition of the difficulty of maintaining relationships given, as Symons puts it, “the male desire for sexual variety [and] the unprecedented opportunity to satisfy this desire in a world of men”. 

[10] Indeed, far from men being led to objectify women due to the portrayal of women in a sexualized manner in the media, Symons suggests:

There may be no positive feedback at all; on the contrary, constant exposure to pictures of nude and nearly nude female bodies may to some extent habituate men to these stimuli” (p304).

[11] Admittedly, some aspects of body-type typically preferred by gay males (especially the twink) do reflect apparently female traits, especially a relative lack of body-hair. However, lack of body-hair is also obviously indicative of youth. Moreover, a relative lack of body-hair also seems to be a trait favoured in men by heterosexual women. For a discussion of the relative preference on the part of (heterosexual) females for masculine versus feminine traits in male sex partners, see the final section of this review.

[12] Incidentally, Symons also rejects the theory that the female menopause is adaptive, a theory which has subsequently become known as the grandmother hypothesis (p13). Also, although it does not directly address the issue, Symons’ discussion of human rape (p276-85), has also been interpreted as implicitly favouring the theory that rape is a by-product of the greater male desire for commitment free promiscuous sex, rather than the product of a specific rape adaptation in males (see Palmer 1991; and A Natural History of Rape: reviewed here). 

References 

Bellis & Baker (1990). Do females promote sperm competition?: Data for humans. Animal Behavior, 40: 997-999 
Bobrow & Bailey (2001). Is male homosexuality maintained via kin selection? Evolution and Human Behavior, 22: 361-368 
Bogaert & Hershberger (1999) The relation between sexual orientation and penile size. Archives of Sexual Behavior 1999 Jun;28(3) :213-21. 
Buss (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 12: 1-49
Ellis & Ratnasingam (2012) Gender, Sexual Orientation, and Occupational Interests: Evidence of Androgen Influences. Mankind Quarterly  53(1): 36–80
Ellis & Symons (1990) Sex differences in sexual fantasy: An evolutionary psychological approach, Journal of Sex Research 27(4): 527-555.
Gildersleeve, Haselton & Fales (2014) Do women’s mate preferences change across the ovulatory cycle? A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin 140(5):1205-59.
Havlíček, Dvořáková, Bartos & Fleg (2006) Non‐Advertized does not Mean Concealed: Body Odour Changes across the Human Menstrual Cycle. Ethology 112(1):81-90.
Havlíček et al (2016) Men’s preferences for women’s breast size and shape in four cultures. Evolution and Human Behavior 38(2): 217–226 
Kenrick & Keefe (1992). Age preferences in mates reflect sex differences in human reproductive strategies. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 15: 75-133. 
Kruger et al (2003) Proper and Dark Heroes as Dads and Cads. Human Nature 14(3): 305-317 
Manning et al (1997) Breast asymmetry and phenotypic quality in women. Ethology and Sociobiology 18(4): 223–236 
Miller (1998). How mate choice shaped human nature: A review of sexual selection and human evolution. In C. Crawford & D. Krebs (Eds.), Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology: Ideas, Issues, and Applications (pp. 87-129). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Miller, Tybur & Jordan (2007). Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap dancers: economic evidence for human estrous? Evolution and Human Behavior. 28(6):375–381 
Møller et al (1995) Breast asymmetry, sexual selection, and human reproductive success. Ethology and Sociobiology 16(3): 207-219 
Palmer (1991) Human Rape: Adaptation or By-Product? Journal of Sex Research 28(3): 365-386 
Penton-Voak et al (1999) Menstrual cycle alters face preferences, Nature 399 741-2. 
Puts (2010) Beauty and the Beast: Mechanisms of Sexual Selection in Humans. Evolution and Human Behavior 31 157-175 
Salmon (2004) The Pornography Debate: What Sex Differences in Erotica Can Tell Us About Human Sexuality. In Evolutionary Psychology, Public Policy and Personal Decisions (London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004) 
Scutt & Manning (1996) Symmetry and ovulation in women. Human Reproduction 11(11):2477-80
Sherman (1989) The clitoris debate and levels of analysis, Animal Behaviour, 37: 697-8
Wood et al (2014). Meta-analysis of menstrual cycle effects on women’s mate preferencesEmotion Review, 6(3), 229–249.

Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’: Selfish Genes, Selfish Memes and Altruistic Phenotypes

‘The Selfish Gene’, by Richard Dawkins, Oxford University Press, 1976.

Selfish Genes ≠ Selfish Phenotypes

Richard Dawkins’s ‘The Selfish Gene’ is among the most celebrated, but also the most misunderstood, works of popular science.

Thus, among people who have never read the book (and, strangely, a few who apparently have) Dawkins is widely credited with arguing that humans are inherently selfish, that this disposition is innate and inevitable, and even, in some versions, that behaving selfishly is somehow justified by our biological programming, the titular ‘Selfish Gene’ being widely misinterpreted as referring to a gene that causes us to behave selfishly.

Actually, Dawkins is not concerned, either directly or primarily, with humans at all.

Indeed, he professes to be “not really very directly interesting in man”, whom he dismisses as “a rather aberrant species” and hence peripheral to his own interest, namely how evolution has shaped the bodies and especially the behaviour of organisms in general (Dawkins 1981: p556).

‘The Selfish Gene’ is then, unusually, if not uniquely, for a bestselling work of popular science, a work, not of human biology nor even of non-human zoology, ethology or natural history, but rather of theoretical biology.

Moreover, in referring to genes as ‘selfish’, Dawkins has in mind not a trait that genes encode in the organisms they create, but rather a trait of the genes themselves.

In other words, individual genes are themselves conceived of as ‘selfish’ (in a metaphoric sense), in so far as they have evolved by natural selection to selfishly promote their own survival and replication by creating organisms designed to achieve this end.

Indeed, ironically, as Dawkins is at pains to emphasise, selfishness at the genetic level can actually result in altruism at the level of the organism or phenotype.

This is because, where altruism is directed towards biological kin, such altruism can facilitate the replication of genes shared among relatives by virtue of their common descent. This is referred to as kin selection or inclusive fitness theory and is one of the central themes of Dawkins’ book.

Yet, despite this, Dawkins still seems to see organisms themselves, humans very much included, as fundamentally selfish – albeit a selfishness tempered by a large dose of nepotism.

Thus, in his opening paragraphs no less, he cautions:

If you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from our biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish” (p3).

The Various Editions

In later editions of his book, namely those published since 1989, Dawkins tempers this rather cynical view of human and animal behaviour by the addition of a new chapter – Chapter 12, titled ‘Nice Guys Finish First’.

This new chapter deals with the subject of reciprocal altruism, a topic he had actually already discussed earlier, together with the related, but distinct, phenomenon of mutualism,[1] in Chapter 10 (entitled, ‘You Scratch My Back, I’ll Ride on Yours’).

In this additional chapter, he essentially summarizes the work of political scientist Robert Axelrod, as discussed in Axelrod’s own book The Evolution of Co-Operation. This deals with evolutionary game theory, specifically the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, and the circumstances in which a cooperative  strategy can, by cooperating only with those who have a history of reciprocating, survive, prosper, evolve, and, in the long-term, ultimately outcompete  and hence displace those strategies which maximize only short-term self-interest.

Post-1989 editions also include another new chapter titled ‘The Long Reach of the Gene’ (Chapter 13).

If, in Chapter 12, the first additional chapter, Dawkins essentially summarised the contents of of Axelrod’s book, The Evolution of Cooperation, then, in Chapter 13, he summarizes his own book, The Extended Phenotype.

In addition to these two additional whole chapters, Dawkins also added extensive endnotes to these post-1989 editions.

These endnotes clarify various misunderstandings which arose from how he explained himself in the original version, defend Dawkins against some criticisms levelled at certain passages of the book and also explain how the science progressed in the years since the first publication of the book, including identifying things he and other biologists got wrong.

With still more recent new editions, the content of ‘The Selfish Gene’ has burgeoned still further. Thus, he 30th Anniversary Edition boasts only a new introduction; the recent 40th Anniversary Edition, published in 2016, boasts a new Epilogue too. Meanwhile, the latest so-called Extended Selfish Gene boasts, in addition to this, two whole new chapters.

Actually, these two new chapters are not all that new, being lifted wholesale from, once again, The Extended Phenotype, a work whose contents Dawkins has already, as we have seen, summarized in Chapter 13 (‘The Long Reach of the Gene’), itself an earlier addition to the book’s seemingly ever expanding contents list.

The decision not to entirely rewrite ‘The Selfish Gene’ was apparently that of Dawkins’ publisher, Oxford University Press.

This was probably the right decision. After all, ‘The Selfish Gene’ is not a mere undergraduate textbook, in need of revision every few years in order to keep up-to-date with the latest published research.

Rather, it was a landmark work of popular science, and indeed of theoretical biology, that introduced a new approach to understanding the evolution of behaviour and physiology to a wider readership, composed of biologist and non-biologist alike, and deserves to stand in its original form as a landmark in the history of science.

However, while the new introductions and the new epilogue is standard fare when republishing a classic work several years after first publication, the addition of four (or two, depending on the edition) whole new chapters strikes me less readily defensible.

For one thing, they distort the structure of the book, and, though interesting in and of themselves, always read for me rather as if they have been tagged on at the end as an afterthought – as indeed they have.

The book certainly reads best, in a purely literary sense, in its original form (i.e. pre-1989 editions), where Dawkins concludes with an optimistic, if fallacious, literary flourish (see below).

Moreover, these additional chapters reek of a shameless marketing strategy, designed to deceive new readers into paying the full asking price for a new edition, rather than buying a cheaper second-hand copy or just keeping their old one.

This is especially blatant in respect of the book’s latest incarnation, The Extended Selfish Gene, which, according to the information provided on Oxford University Press’s own website, was released only three months after the previous 40th Anniversary Edition, yet includes two additional chapters.

One frankly expects better from so presigious a publisher such as Oxford University Press, and indeed so celebrated a biologist and science writer as Richard Dawkins, especially as I suspect neither are especially short of money.

If I were recommending someone who has never read the book before on which edition to buy, I would probably advise them to get a second-hand copy of any post-1989 editions, since these can now be picked up very cheap, and include the additional endnotes which I personally often found very interesting.

On the other hand, if you want to read three additional chapters either from or about The Extended Phenotype then you are probably best to buy, instead, well… The Extended Phenotype – as this is also now a rather old book of which, as with ‘The Selfish Gene’, old copies can now be picked up very cheap.

The ‘Gene’s-Eye-View’ of Evolution

The Selfish Gene is a seminal work in the history of biology primarily because Dawkins takes the so-called gene’s-eye-view of evolution to its logical conclusion. To this extent, contrary to popular opinion, Dawkins’ exposition is not merely a popularization, but actually breaks new ground theoretically.

Thus, John Maynard Smith famously talked of kin selection by analogy with ‘group selection’ (Smith 1964). However, William Hamilton, who formulated the theory underlying these concepts, always disliked the term ‘kin selection’ and talked instead of the direct, indirect and inclusive fitness of organisms (Hamilton 1964a; 1964b).

However, Dawkins takes this line of thinking to its logical conclusion by looking – not at the fitness or reproductive success of organisms or phenotypes – but rather at the success in self-replication of genes themselves.

Thus, although he certainly stridently rejects group-selection, Dawkins replaces this, not with the familiar individual-level selection of classical Darwinism, but rather with a new focus on selection at the level of the gene itself.

Abstract Animals?

Much of the interest, and no little of the controversy, arising from ‘The Selfish Gene’ concerned, of course, the potential application of its theory to humans. However, in the book itself, humans, whom, as mentioned above, Dawkins dismisses as a “rather aberrant species” in which he professes to be “not really very directly interested” (Dawkins 1981: p556) are actually mentioned only occasionally and briefly.

Indeed, most of the discussion is purely theoretical. Even the behaviour of non-human animals is described only for illustrative purposes, and even these illustrative examples often involve simplified hypothetical creatures rather than descriptions of the behaviour of real organisms.

For example, he illustrates his discussion of the relative pros and cons of either fighting or submitting in conflicts over access to resources by reference to ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ – but is quick to acknowledge that these are hypothetical and metaphoric creatures, with no connection to the actual bird species after whom they are named:

The names refer to conventional human usage and have no connection with the habits of the birds from whom the names are derived: doves are in fact rather aggressive birds” (p70).

Indeed, even Dawkins’ titular “selfish genes” are rather abstract and theoretical entities. Certainly, the actual chemical composition and structure of DNA is of only peripheral interest to him.

Indeed, often he talks of “replicators” rather than “genes” and is at pains to point out that selection can occur in respect of any entity capable of replication and mutation, not just DNA or RNA. (Hence his introduction of the concept of memes: see below).

Moreover, Dawkins uses the word ‘gene’ in a somewhat different sense to the way the word is employed by most other biologists. Thus, following George C. Williams in Adaptation and Natural Selection, he defines a “gene” as:

Any portion of chromosomal material that potentially lasts for enough generations to serve as a unit of natural selection” (p28).

This, of course, makes his claim that genes are the principle unit of selection something approaching a tautology or circular argument.

Sexual Selection in Humans?

Where Dawkins does mention humans, it is often to point out the extent to which this “rather aberrant species” apparently conspicuously fails to conform to the predictions of selfish-gene theory.

For example, at the end of his chapter on sexual selection (Chapter 9, titled, “Battle of the Sexes”) he observes that, in contrast to most other species, among humans, at least in the West, it seems to be females who are most active in using physical appearance as a means of attracting mates:

One feature of our own society that seems decidedly anomalous is the matter of sexual advertisement… It is strongly to be expected on evolutionary grounds that where the sexes differ, it should be the males that advertise and the females that are drab… [Yet] there can be no doubt that in our society the equivalent of the peacock’s tail is exhibited by the female, not the male” (p164).

Thus, among most other species, it is males who have evolved more elaborate plumages and other flashy, sexually selected ornaments. In contrast, females of the same species are often comparatively drab in appearance.

Yet, in modern western societies, Dawkins observes, it is more typically women who “paint their faces and glue on false eyelashes” (p164).

Here, it is notable that Dawkins, being neither an historian nor an anthropologist, is careful to restricts his comments to “our own society” and, elsewhere, to “modern western man”.

Thus, one explanation is that it is only our own ‘WEIRD’, western societies that are anomalous?

Thus, Matt Ridley, in The Red Queen, proposes that maybe:

Modern western societies have been in a two-century aberration from which they are just emerging. In Regency England, Louis XIV’s France, medieval Christendom, ancient Greece, or among the Yanomamö, men followed fashion as avidly as women. Men wore bright colours, flowing robes, jewels, rich materials, gorgeous uniforms, and gleaming, decorated armour. The damsels that knights rescued were no more fashionably accoutred than their paramours. Only in Victorian times did the deadly uniformity of the black frock coat and its dismal modern descendant, the grey suit, infect the male sex, and only in this century have women’s hemlines gone up and down like yo-yos” (The Red Queen: p292).

There is an element of truth here. However, I suspect it partly reflects a misunderstanding of the different purposes for which men and women use clothing, including bright and elaborate clothing.

Thus, it rather reminds me of Margaret Mead’s claim that, among the Tschambuli of Papua New Guinea, sex-roles were reversed because, here, it was men who painted their faces and wore ‘make-up’, not women.

Yet what Mead neglected to mention that the ‘make-up’  and face-paint that Mead found so effeminate was actually war-paint that a Tschambuli warrior was only permitted to wear after killing his first enemy warrior, an obviously very male activity (see Homicide: Foundations of Human Behavior: p152).

Of course, clothes and makeup are an aspect of behaviour rather than morphology, and thus more directly analogous to, say, the nests (or, more precisely, the bowers) created by male bowerbirds than the tail of the peacock.

However, behaviour is, in principle, no less subject to natural selection (and sexual selection) than is morphology, and therefore the paradox remains.

Moreover, even concentrating our focus exclusively on morphology, the sex difference still seems to remain.

Thus, perhaps the closest thing to a ‘peacock’s tail’ in humans (i.e. a morphological trait designed to attract mates) is a female trait, namely breasts.

Thus, as Desmond Morris first observed, in humans, the female breasts seem to have been co-opted for a role in sexual selection, since, unlike among other mammals, women’s breasts are permanent, from puberty on, not present only during lactation, and composed primarily of fatty tissues, not milk (Møller 1995; Manning et al 1997; Havlíček et al 2016).

In contrast, men possess no obvious equivalent of the peacock’s tail’ (i.e. a trait that has evolved in response to female choice) – though Geoffrey Miller makes a fascinating (but ultimately unconvincing) case that the human brain may represent a product of sexual selection (see The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature).[2]

Interestingly, in an endnote to post-1989 editions of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins himself tentatively speculates that maybe the human penis might represent a sexually-selected ‘fitness indicator’.

Thus, he points out that the human penis is large as compared to that of other primates, yet also lacks a baculum (i.e. penis bone) that facilitates erections. This, he speculates, could mean that the capacity to maintain an erection might represent an honest signal of health in accordance with Zahavis handicap principle (307-8).

However, it is more likely that the large size, or more specifically the large width, of the human penis reflects instead a response to the increased size of the vagina, which itself increased in size to enable human females to give birth to large-brained, and hence large-headed, infants (see Bowman 2008; Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems: pp61-70).[3]

How then can we make sense of this apparent paradox, whereby, contrary to Bateman’s principle, sexual selection appears to have operated more strongly on women than on men?

For his part, Dawkins himself offers no explanation, merely lamenting:

What has happened in modern western man? Has the male really become the sought-after sex, the one that is in demand, the sex that can afford to be choosy? If so, why?” (p165).

However, in respect of what David Buss calls short-term mating strategies (i.e. casual sex, hook-ups and one night stands), this is certainly not the case.

On the contrary, patterns of everything from prostitution and rape to erotica and pornography consumption confirm that, in respect of short-term ‘commitment’-free casual sex, it remains women who are very much in demand and men who are the ardent pursuers (see The Evolution of Human Sexuality: which I have reviewed here).

Thus, in one study conducted on a University campus, 72% of male students agreed to go to bed with a female stranger who approached them with a request to this effect. In contrast, not a single one of the 96 females approached agreed to the same request from a male questioner (Clark and Hatfield 1989).

(What percentage of the students sued the university for sexual harassment was not revealed.)

However, humans also form long-term pair-bonds to raise children, and, in contrast to males of most other mammalian species, male parents often invest heavily in the offspring of such unions.

Men are therefore expected to be relatively choosier in respect of long-term romantic partners (e.g. wives) than they are for casual sex partners. This may then explain the relatively high levels of reproductive competition engaged in by human females, including high levels of what Dawkins calls ‘sexual advertising’.

Reproductive competition between women may be especially intense in western societies practising what Richard Alexander termed socially-imposed monogamy.

This refers to societies where there are large differences between males in social status and resource holdings, but where even wealthy males are prohibited by law from marrying multiple women at once.[4]

Here, there may be intense competition as between females for exclusive rights to resource-abundant ‘alpha male’ providers (Gaulin and Boser 1990).

Thus, to some extent, the levels of sexual competition engaged in by women in western societies may indeed be higher than in non-western, polygynous societies.

This, then, might explain why females use what Dawkins terms ‘sexual advertising’ to attract long-term mates (i.e. husbands). However, it still fails to explain why males don’t – or, at least, don’t seem to do so to anything like the same degree.

The answer may be that, in contrast to mating patterns in modern western societies, female choice may actually have played a surprisingly limited role in human evolutionary history, given that, in most pre-modern societies, arranged marriages were, and are, the norm.

Male mating competition may then have taken the form of male-male contest competition (e.g. fighting) rather than displaying to females – i.e. what Darwin called intra-sexual selection’ rather than ‘inter-sexual selection’.

Thus, while men indeed possess no obvious analogue to the peacock’s tail, they do seem to possess traits designed for fighting – namely considerably greater levels of upper-body musculature and violent aggression as compared to women (see Puts 2010).

In other words, human males may not have any obvious ‘peacock’s tail’, but we perhaps we do have, if you like, stag’s antlers.

From Genes to Memes

Dawkins’ eleventh chapter, which was, in the original version of the book (i.e. pre-1989 editions), the final chapter, is also the only chapter to focus exclusively on humans.

Entitled ‘Memes: The New Replicators’, it focuses again on the extent to which humans are indeed an “aberrant species”, being subject to cultural as well as biological evolution to a unique degree.

Interestingly, however, Dawkins argues that the principles of natural selection discussed in the preceding chapters of the book can be applied just as usefully to cultural evolution as to biological evolution.

In doing so, he coins the concept of the meme as the cultural unit of selection, equivalent to a gene, passing between minds analogously to a virus.

This term has been enormously influential in intellectual discourse, and indeed in popular discourse, and even passed into popular usage.

The analogy of memes to genes certainly makes for an interesting thought-experiment. However, like any analogy, it can be taken too far.

Certainly ideas can be viewed as spreading between people, and as having various levels of fitness depending on the extent to which they catch on.

Thus, to take one famous example, Dawkins famously described religions such as Islam and Christianity as Viruses of the Mind, which travel between, and infect, human minds in a manner analogous to a virus.

Thus, proponents of Darwinian medicine contend that pathogens such as flu and the common cold produce symptoms such as coughing, sneezing and diarrhea precisely because these behaviours promote the spread and replication of the pathogen to new hosts through the bodily fluids thereby expelled.

Likewise, rabies causes dogs and other animals to become aggressive and bite, which likewise facilitates the spread of the rabies virus to new hosts.[5]

By analogy, successful religions are typically those that promote behaviours that facilitate their own spread.

Thus, a religion that commands its followers to convert non-believers, persecute apostates, ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and indoctrinate your offspring with their beliefs is, for obvious reasons, likely to spread faster and have greater longevity than a religious doctrine that commands adherents become celibate hermits and that proselytism is a mortal sin.

Thus, Christians are admonished by scripture to save souls and preach the gospel among heathens; while Muslims are, in addition, admonished to wage holy war against infidels and persecute apostates.

These behaviour facilitate the spread of Christianity and Islam just as surely as coughing and sneezing promote the spread of the flu.[6]

Like genes, memes can also be said to mutate, though this occurs not only through random (and not so random) copying errors, but also by deliberate innovation by the human minds they ‘infect’. Memetic mutation, then, is not entirely random.

However, whether this way of looking at cultural evolution is a useful and theoretically or empirically productive way of conceptualizing cultural change remains to be seen.

Certainly, I doubt whether ‘memetics’, as it is sometimes termed, will ever be a rigorous science comparable to genetics, after which it is named, as some of the concept’s more enthusiastic champions have sometimes envisaged. Neither, I suspect, did Dawkins ever originally intend or envisage it as such, having seemingly coined the idea as something of an afterthought.

At any rate, one of the main factors governing the ‘infectiousness’ or ‘fitness’ of a given meme, is the extent to which the human mind is receptive to it and the human mind is itself a product of biological evolution.

The basis for understanding human behaviour, even cultural behaviour, is therefore how natural selection has shaped the human mind – in other words evolutionary psychology not memetics.

Thus, humans will surely have evolved resistance to memes that are contrary to their own genetic interests (e.g. celibacy) as a way of avoiding exploitation and manipulation by third-parties.

For more recent discussion of the status of the meme concept (the ‘meme meme’, if you like) see The Meme Machine; Virus of the Mind; The Selfish Meme; and Darwinizing Culture.

Escaping the Tyranny of Selfish Replicators?

Finally, at least in the original, non-‘extended’ editions of the book, Dawkins concludes ‘The Selfish Gene’, with an optimistic literary flourish, emphasizing once again the alleged uniqueness of the “rather aberrant” human species.[7]

Thus, his final paragraph ends:

We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” (p201).

This makes for a dramatic, and optimistic, conclusion. It is also flattering to anthropocentric notions of human uniqueness, and of free will.

Unfortunately, however, it ignores the fact that the “we” who are supposed to be doing the rebelling are ourselves a product of the same process of natural selection and, indeed, of the same selfish replicators against whom Dawkins calls on us to rebel. Indeed, even the (alleged) desire to revolt is a product of the same process.[8]

Likewise, in the book’s opening paragraphs, Dawkins proposes:

Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs.” (p3)

However, this ignores, not only that the “us” who are to do the teaching and who ostensibly wish to instill altruism in others are ourselves the product of this same evolutionary process and these same selfish replicators, but also that the subjects whom we are supposed to indoctrinate with altruism are themselves surely programmed by natural selection to be resistant to any indoctrination or manipulation by third-parties to behave in ways that conflict with their own genetic interests.

In short, the problem with Dawkins’ cop-out Hollywood Ending is that, as anthropologist Vincent Sarich is quoted as observing, Dawkins has himself “spent 214 pages telling us why that cannot be true”. (See also Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals: which I have reviewed here).[9]

The preceding 214 pages, however, remain an exciting, eye-opening and stimulating intellectual journey, even over thirty years after their original publication.

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Endnotes

[1] Mutualism is distinguished from reciprocal altruism by the fact that, in the former, both parties receive an immediate benefit from their cooperation, whereas, in the latter, for one party, the reciprocation is delayed. It is reciprocal altruism that therefore presents the greater problem for evolution, and for evolutionists, because, here, there is the problem policing the agreement – i.e. how is evolution to ensure that the immediate beneficiary does indeed reciprocate, rather than simply receiving the benefit without later returning the favour (a version of the free rider problem). The solution, according to Axelrod, is that, where parties interact repeatedly over time, they come to engage in reciprocal altruism only with other parties with a proven track record of reciprocity, or at least without a proven track record of failing to reciprocate. 

[2] Certainly, many male traits are attractive to women (e.g. height, muscularity). However, these also have obvious functional utility, not least in increasing fighting ability, and hence probably have more to do with male-male competition than female choice. In contrast, many sexually-selected traits are positive hindicaps to their bearers, in all spheres except attracting mates. Indeed, one influential theory of sexual selection claims that it is precisely because they represent a handicap that they serve as an honest indicator of fitness and hence a reliable index of genetic quality.

[3] Thus, Edwin Bowman writes:

As the diameter of the bony pelvis increased over time to permit passage of an infant with a larger cranium, the size of the vaginal canal also became larger” (Bowman 2008).

Similarly, in their controversial book Human Sperm Competition: Copulation, Masturbation and Infidelity, Robin Baker and Mark Bellis persuasively contend:

The dimensions and elasticity of the vagina in mammals are dictated to a large extent by the dimensions of the baby at birth. The large head of the neonatal human baby (384g brain weight compared with only 227g for the gorilla…) has led to the human vagina when fully distended being large, both absolutely and relative to the female body… particularly once the vagina and vestibule have been stretched during the process of giving birth, the vagina never really returning to its nulliparous dimensions” (Human Sperm Competition: p171).

In turn, larger vaginas probably select for larger penises in order to fill the vagina (Bowman 2008).

According to Baker and Bellis, this is because the human penis functions as a suction piston, functioning to remove the sperm deposited by rival males, as a form of sperm competition, a theory that actually has some experimental support, not least from some hilarious research involving sex toys of differing sizes and shapes (Gallup et al 2003; Gallup and Burch 2004; Goetz et al 2005; see also Why is the Penis Shaped Like That).

Thus, according to this view:

In order to distend the vagina sufficiently to act as a suction piston, the penis needs to be a suitable size [and] the relatively large size… and distendibility of the human vagina (especially after giving birth) thus imposes selection, via sperm competition, for a relatively large penis” (Human Sperm Competition: p171).

However, even in the absence of sperm competition, Alan Dixson observes:

In primates and other mammals the length of the erect penis and vaginal length tend to evolve in tandem. Whether or not sperm competition occurs, it is necessary for males to place ejaculates efficiently, so that sperm have the best opportunity to migrate through the cervix and gain access to the higher reaches of the female tract” (Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems: p68).

[4] In natural conditions, it is assumed that, in egalitarian societies, where males have roughly equal resource holdings, they will each attract an equal number of wives (i.e. given an equal sex ratio, one wife for each man). However, in highly socially-stratified societies, where there are large differences in resource holdings between men, it is expected that wealthier males will be able to support, and provide for, multiple wives, and will use their greater resource-holdings for this end, so as to maximize their reproductive success (see here). This is a version of the polygyny threshold model (see Kanazawa and Still 1999).

[5] There are also pathogens that affect the behaviour of their hosts in more dramatic ways. For example, one parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, when it infects a mouse, reduces the mouse’s aversion to cat urine, which is theorized to increase the risk of its being eaten by a cat, facilitating the reproductive life-cycle of the pathogen at the expense of that of its host. Similarly, the fungus, ophiocordyceps unilateralis turns ants into so-called zombie ants, who willingly leave the safety of their nests, and climb and lock themselves onto a leaf, again in order to facilitate the life cycle of their parasite at the expense of their own. Another parasite, dicrocoelium dendriticum (aka the lancet liver fluke) also affect the behaviour of ants whom it infects, causing them to climb to the tip of a blade of grass during daylight hours, increasing the chance they will be eaten by cattle or other grazing animals, facilitating the next stage of the parasite’s life-history

[6] In contrast, biologist Richard Alexander in Darwinism and Human Affairs cites the Shakers as an example of the opposite type of religion, namely one that, because of its teachings (namely, strict celibacy) largely died out.
In fact, however, Shakers did not quite entirely disappear. Rather, a small rump community of Shakers the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village survives to this day, albeit greatly reduced in number and influence. This is presumably because, although the Shakers did not, at least in theory, have children, they did proselytise.
In contrast, any religion which renounced both reproduction and proselytism would presumably never spread beyond its initial founder or founders, and hence never come to the attention of historians, theorists of religion, or anyone else in the first place.

[7]  As noted above, this is among the reasons that The Selfish Gene’ works best, in a purely literary sense, in its original incarnation. Later editions have at least two further chapters tagged on at the end, after this dramatic and optimistic literary flourish.

[8] Dawkins is then here here guilty of a crude dualism. Marxist neuroscientist Steven Rose, in an essay in Alas Poor Darwin (which I have reviewed here and here) has also accused Dawkins of dualism for this same passage, writing:

Such a claim to a Cartesian separation of these authors’ [Dawkins and Steven Pinker] minds from their biological constitution and inheritance seems surprising and incompatible with their claimed materialism” (Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology: p262).

Here, Rose may be right, but he is also a self-contradictory hypocrite, since his own views represent an even cruder form of dualism. Thus, in an earlier book, Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature, co-authored with fellow-Marxists Leon Kamin and Richard Lewontin, Rose and his colleagues wrote, in a critique of sociobiological conceptions of a universal human nature:

Of course there are human universals that are in no sense trivial: humans are bipedal; they have hands that seem to be unique among animals in their capacity for sensitive manipulation and construction of objects; they are capable of speech. The fact that human adults are almost all greater than one meter and less than two meters in height has a profound effect on how they perceive and interact with their environment” (passage extracted in The Study of Human Nature: p314).

Here, it is notable that all the examples “human universals that are in no sense trivial” given by Rose, Lewontin and Kamin are physiological not psychological or behavioural. The implication is clear: yes, our bodies have evolved through a process of natural selection, but our brains and behaviour have somehow been exempt from this process. This of course, is an even cruder form of dualism than that of Dawkins.

As John Tooby and Leda Cosmides observe:

This division of labor is, therefore, popular: Natural scientists deal with the nonhuman world and the “physical” side of human life, while social scientists are the custodians of human minds, human behavior, and, indeed, the entire human mental, moral, political, social, and cultural world. Thus, both social scientists and natural scientists have been enlisted in what has become a common enterprise: the resurrection of a barely disguised and archaic physical/mental, matter/spirit, nature/human dualism, in place of an integrated scientific monism” (The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture: p49).

A more consistent and thoroughgoing critique of Dawkins dualism is to be found in John Gray’s excellent Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (which I have reviewed here).

[9] This quotation comes from p176 of Marek Kohn’s The Race Gallery: The Return of Racial Science (London: Vintage, 1996). Unfortunately, Kohn does not give a source for this quotation.

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References

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Clark & Hatfield (1989) Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers, Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 2:39-53.

Dawkins (1981) In defence of selfish genes, Philosophy 56(218):556-573.

Gallup et al (2003). The human penis as a semen displacement device. Evolution and Human Behavior, 24, 277-289.

Gallup & Burch (2004). Semen displacement as a sperm competition strategy in humans. Evolutionary Psychology, 2, 12-23.

Gaulin & Boser (1990) Dowry as Female Competition, American Anthropologist 92(4):994-1005.

Goetz et al (2005) Mate retention, semen displacement, and human sperm competition: a preliminary investigation of tactics to prevent and correct female infidelity. Personality and Individual Differences, 38: 749-763

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