Opposition in All Things and the Evolution of Love

817 - Wedding Rings

This piece is cross-posted at Junior Ganymede.

One of the most famous phrases in Mormon scriptures comes from Lehi’s farewell message to his son Jacob in the Second Book of Nephi: “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.” The entire verse reads:

For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

As I was compiling my notes from my read-through of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, I came across this really stunning echo of that concept. It’s a long quote, but definitely worth the read:

Donald Symons has argued that we have genetic conflicts to thank for the fact that we have feelings toward other people at all. Consciousness is a manifestation of the neural computations necessary to figure out how to get the rare and unpredictable things we need. We feel hunger, savor food, and have a pallet for countless fascinating tastes because food was hard to get during most of our evolutionary history. We don’t normally feel longing, delight, or fascination regarding oxygen, even though it is crucial for survival, because it was never hard to obtain. We just breathe.

The same may be true of conflicts over kin, mates, and friends. I mentioned that if a couple were guaranteed to be faithful, to favor each other over there kin, and to die at the same time, their genetic interest would be identical, wrapped up in their common children. One can even imagine a species in which every couple was marooned on an island for life and their offspring dispersed at maturity, never to return. Since the genetic interests of the two mates are identical, one might at first think that evolution would endow them with a blissful perfection of sexual, romantic, and companionate love.

But Symons argues, nothing of the sort would happen. The relationship between the mates would evolve to be like the relationship among the cells of a single body, whose genetic interests are also identical. Heart cells and lung cells don’t have to fall in love to get along in perfect harmony. Likewise, the couples in the species would have sex only for the purpose of procreation (why waste energy?), and sex would bring no more pleasure than the rest of reproductive physiology such as the release of hormones or the formation of the gametes:

There would be no falling in love, because there would be no alternative mates to choose among, and falling in love would be a huge waste. You would literally love your mate as yourself, but that’s the point: you don’t really love yourself, except metaphorically; you are yourself. The two of you would be as far as evolution is concerned, one flesh, and your relationship would be governed by mindless physiology… You might feel pain if you observed your mate cut herself, but all the feelings we have about our mates that make relationship so wonderful when it is working well (and so painful when it is not) would never evolve. Even if a species had them when they took up this way of life, they would be selected out as surely as the eyes of a cave-dwelling fish are selected out, because they would be all cost and no benefit.

The same is true for emotions towards family and friends: the richness and intensity of the feelings in our minds are proof of the preciousness and fragility of those bonds in life. In short, without the possibility of suffering, what we would have is not harmonious bliss, but rather, no consciousness at all.

The idea that our capacity to experience love is tied to the imperfections in our relationships, to their fragility and capacity to fail, is profound.

The Primordial Origins of Marriage

Michelangelo's Creation of Eve. Detail from the Sistine Chapel.
Michelangelo’s Creation of Eve. Detail from the Sistine Chapel.

You can find plenty of attacks on “traditional marriage” these days. These pieces generally take a historical approach, looking at how the institution of marriage has changed throughout history and how widely they differ from 1950s stereotypes. There is a legitimate point to this analysis, marriage has changed quite dramatically from time to time and from place to place, and there are certainly modern embellishments that are anachronistically applied to the tradition backwards throughout time.

Unfortunately, the political assumptions that frequently accompany such critiques distort the analysis. Closer inspection reveals that the same core aspects that defenders of traditional marriage emphasize are much, much older and more deeply embedded into the institution of marriage than critics and maybe even defenders of traditional marriage realize.

The proximate provocation for this post is a piece by Angela C. at By Common Consent: The Myth of Traditional Marriage. The core assumption that leads Angela astray is that marriage is an invention. As she writes:

Depending on whom you ask, marriage was either invented by men to protect or to oppress women.  And some men would argue that marriage was invented by women to domesticate men (a pouty version of the protection argument).

Of course, Angela is also employing the highly partisan assumption that the invention of marriage had to have been sexist: either the outright misogyny of exploitation or the insidious sexism of assuming women need protection. As objectionable as this assumption might be, it’s actually far less important than the subtle assumption that marriage is an invention. Which is to say that it is a social construct.

The explanation of why this idea of social constructivism is associated with socially liberal politics is an interesting one, but it is mostly also outside the scope of this post. I will just point out that it is associated with socially liberal politics. The most obvious example, of course, is the argument that gender is a social construct distinct from biological sex.

2014-09-17 Everything is ChemicalsImplicit in these theories is the peculiar notion that society is not biological. It is peculiar because it is most often embraced by those who either outright deny the role of a supernatural deity in creating humanity or at least downplay it in favor of scientific explanations. But it’s quite difficult to see how science can provide any metaphysical justification for treating humans and our society and its constructs as one class of beings and the natural world as another. It’s very much like the natural foods advocates who warn against eating anything “chemical” without realizing that everything is chemicals. Social constructivism—at least in its most extreme and naïve form—is a modern superstition.

So let us set aside the assumption that marriage is an invention, a deliberate construction willfully created by humans to accomplish a consciously desired end. I don’t mean to say let’s assume that marriage is not an invention. I’m merely saying: if we don’t make that assumption do we find any more likely candidate explanations? And, as it turns out, we do.

To understand the origins of marriage we first have to understand a little bit about the differences between human beings and other animals. The answer is that humans have evolved to make a very high-risk, high-reward tradeoff. The risk is that our offspring are basically helpless for an exceptionally prolonged period of time. This requires enormous resources to feed them and keep them safe. The reward is that, in exchange for that helplessness, our offspring are incredible learners (and then, later in life, incredible teachers). Learning and teaching are what humans do better than any other species. Human babies are useless at running or fighting or hiding, but they are tremendous geniuses at things like language acquisition. We have highly plastic brains that take a long time to learn anything, but that can eventually learn just about anything. That single difference pretty much explains the difference between chimps using sticks to forage for ants and humans launching the Space Shuttle.

The reason why this change has such huge dividends is that it separated human knowledge from human genetics. Other animals are capable of some pretty amazing behaviors (like migration), but these are often instinctual. That means the information is genetic. Advantage: no one has to teach it. Disadvantage: the animals can only learn and change as the speed of genetic evolution, which takes place across hundreds or thousands of generations. If the migration pattern needs to change in an abrupt way, monarch butterflies can’t just tell the next generation to take a different route next time.

Humans, on the other hand, initially used society as a repository for knowledge. Each generation could teach the skills (from language to tool use) to the next generation. This meant that exchange of knowledge (for example when a new tool was discovered) could be exceptionally rapid both across generations and across tribes. That was the basis for creating (eventually) written language, which only further increased the pace since now our knowledge can be transmitted and reproduced even more rapidly and cheaply and widely. In short: other animals learn at the speed of genetics. Humans learn at the speed of memetics which, in the Internet Age, is the speed of light.

This is pretty cutting-edge science because it relies on concepts like group selection that—although initially proposed by Darwin—have been considered more or less impossible until recently. No one could figure out how to make it work: why would one individual sacrifice altruistically in order to benefit his tribe? In short: how do you get trust? Advances in game theory and complexity science have for the first time made it possible to illustrate how these obstacles can be overcome, and therefore how it is possible for groups to compete against each other (and therefore to have group evolution) rather than just individual organisms.

So now we’ve learned two key things. The first is that the chief difference between humans and other organisms is that we have really, really expensive but also really, really high-performing offspring. The second is that this idea carries with it the notion that groups compete and evolve, which is to say that societies can compete and evolve. Most notably, these are intrinsic to what it means to be a human being. They predate any history and go back to the origins of our species.

Which means that marriage predates our history and goes back to the origin of our species, provided we define marriage as (1) monogamous sexual pairing of males and females who (2) cooperate to feed, protect, and teach their offspring. This behavior must be as old as humanity because humanity is impossible without it. Without cooperation, human children cannot be raised by subsistence cultures. They are too expensive. But without sexual monogamy, males and females are not equally vested in the offspring. These behaviors therefore co-evolved with humanity itself.

So we’ve just bypassed all the historical, cross-cultural analysis of formal marriage institutions by a couple hundred thousand years, at least. So much for an “invention.” What does the story look like from there?

Well, all of the individual cultural variations around the kernel of marriage (monogamy and cooperative child-rearing) end up only being possible because of the integral role that the kernel of marriage played in our society. The logic can’t work any other way. Why would someone use marriage as the basis for political alliance, for example, if monogamous, child-rearing relationships weren’t already fundamental to human society? No one would think to invent marriage from scratch for the purposes of political alliance and, if someone did think of it, it would never work because there would be no foundation to build upon.

So it is absolutely true that marriage comes in a wide variety of cultural and legal and historical instantiations, but it is only the variety that is in any sense invented or constructed or arbitrary. They inventions only exist because there was a stable foundation upon which to build them.

Oral language was not invented. It evolved. Written language was not invented. It evolved. Nation-states were not invented. They evolved. Markets were not invented. They evolved. And, like these other bedrock institutions, marriage was not invented. It evolved. Just as oral and written languages vary widely, just as forms of government run the gamut from tribal chiefs to Prime Ministers, and just as the laws for doing business vary from place to place: so do does the institution of marriage alter and change from time to time and from place to place.

But there are individual characteristics that languages, governments, and markets must have in order to exist at all, and similarly there are traits that marriage—despite its many variations—must exhibit in order to exist. Those are sexual monogamy between men and women raising their biological children. Which, not at all coincidentally, are the characteristics that are of utmost importance in the minds of social conservatives defending “traditional marriage.” Whether you believe that marriage was ordained of God by divine fiat in a literal Garden of Eden, was orchestrated by God through the process of natural selection and evolution, or simply evolved spontaneously without any help from a Creator of any kind: marriage remains the fundamental institution that made the human species possible.

The key lesson to learn here is not necessarily that marriage should never change. Marriage—the entire package including the biological kernel and the social embellishments on top of it—changes all the time. Some of those innovations are bad. When society codifies marriage in a way that treats women as property to be bought or sold or gives men a legal right to rape their wives, then society is leveraging the power of the biological kernel of marriage to do great evil. But when marriage is used as a model to care for those in need—like with fostering or with adopting children—then in that case we’re building something beautiful and worthy on top of the foundation that we’ve inherited to work with.

Because this isn’t an argument that marriage should never change, this post cannot function as a direct argument against same-sex marriage, open marriages, or other currently controversial topics. It is possible to believe that the kernel of marriage has filled its evolutionary purpose. Now that we have enormously greater economic prosperity, perhaps the old rationales no longer apply.

This may be so, but at least those who advocate changes to marriage at a fundamental level ought to admit that they are tinkering with the evolutionary foundations of human society. To use a computer analogy: debates about marriage that get to its essential characteristics are not like swapping out one app for another. They are about making changes to the kernel of the operating system. It would be best to know what one is doing before one undertakes such an endeavor. Those propounding the “myth of traditional marriage” manifestly fail to apprehend its true nature and significance. Therefore, they are the last folks I want involved in the process.

Evolution, Scientific Literacy, and Culture (Again)

2014-06-09 Evolution

Every so often there’s a poll that comes out showing that only 50% of Americans believe in evolution (give or take) and the hand-wringing and demagoguery commences. Not too long ago, I wrote about the particularly Mormon aspect of this boring, repetitive, non-issue in a post for Times And Seasons called Beware Instrumental Beliefs. It turned out that Mormons were especially unlikely to agree with the statement “evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth” and some among the Mormon intellectual classes started hyperventilating again.

My argument was that the only signal that survey really picks up is a cultural one. Americans see the issue of evolution as fundamentally one of cultural identity, not science, and they answer accordingly. So the common assumption that religious people are so mentally hamstrung by superstitious mumbo-jumbo that they can’t grasp enlightened science is really just an expression of prejudice and not a valid reflection of survey data. That was my theory, in any case. I felt it was a pretty strong one, given that plenty of the most vociferous critics of those who expressed doubt in Darwinian evolution were humanities majors rather than biologists, but still: it’s nice to be vindicated.

That’s Dan Kahan at the Yale Cultural Cognition Project who cites new research to draw three conclusions:

First, there is zero correlation between saying one “believes” in evolution & understanding the rudiments of modern evolutionary science.

Second, “disbelief” in evolution poses absolutely no barrier to comprehension of basic evolutionary science.

Third — and here we are getting to the point where the new data come in! — profession of “belief” in evolution is simply not a valid measure of science comprehension.

The last point might seem redundant, but it isn’t. It’s a separate point, and it’s an important one because it shows a clear path forward for those who believe that teaching the ideas of human evolution is important and don’t want to get hung up with an irrelevant culture war. As Kahan reports, the NSF tried to get the question “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” removed from a test of scientific literacy not to assuage conservatives, but for the simple fact that:

the answer people give to this question doesn’t measure their comprehension of science. People who score at or near the top on the remaining portions of the test aren’t any more likely to get this item “correct” than those who do poorly on the remaining portions.

The NSF faced a backlash, however, “from those who either couldn’t get or didn’t care about the distinction between measuring science comprehension and administering a cultural orthodoxy test.” Kahan goes on:

But those of us who don’t have to worry about whether taking a stance will affect our research budgets, who genuinely care about science, and who recognize the challenge of propagating widespread comprehension and simple enjoyment of science in a culturally pluralistic society (which is, ironically, the type of political regime most conducive to the advance of scientific discovery!) shouldn’t equivocate.

We should insist that science comprehension be measured scientifically and point out the mistakes — myriads of them — being made by those who continue to insist that professions of “belief” in evolution are any sort of indicator of that.

Definitely read the entire article for more insights and the very interesting data analysis Kahan did to arrive at his conclusions.


How Women Perceive Men With Beards

In the interests of science, researchers asked this question. Then wrote a paper in the Journal of Evolution and Human Behavior. But you don’t need to read the paper because, thanks to the Visual Communication Guy, the results have been distilled into this handy-dandy infographic.

2014-03-12 Beard Inforgraphic

As a man with heavy stubble (based on these classifications), these results do not look too bad. Still, I wish I could grow mine out just a bit fuller…

Every Sport Except Long-Distance Running Is Absurd

2013-08-31 Marathon

Inflammatory headline? Of course. But David Stipp makes a compelling case at Slate:

There’s no denying it—our kind started substituting brains for brawn long ago, and it shows: We can’t begin to compete with animals when it comes to the raw ingredients of athletic prowess. Yet being the absurdly self-enthralled species we are, we crowd into arenas and stadiums to marvel at our pathetic physical abilities as if they were something special. But there is one exception to our general paltriness: We’re the right honorable kings and queens of the planet when it comes to long-distance running.

Stipp cites a couple of man-vs-horse marathons where humans actually win. There’s one in Wales and another in Arizona. He also gets into the biophysical mechanics of human long-distance running (everything from counter-rotating torsos to advanced heat dissipation) that enable us to maintain much higher speeds over long distances (especially in warm and temperate climates) than the closest competitors.

This whole idea that humans are evolved runners really resonates with me, and it’s actually reinforced my own desire to run longer and longer. I’m not very good yet (10 miles is my longest run), but the longer I go the more I feel like “Yeah, this is how it’s supposed to be.” It just feels right.