Family Values

The family as we know it is a social unit that goes back to a time before our remote ancestors became fully human. But does it go much farther back than that? Perhaps not, judging from the behavior of our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees.

Chimpanzees are genetically more similar to our ancestors of four or five million years ago than any other species, and studies of their behavior in their undisturbed, natural state probably give us as good a picture as we are likely to get of how our own forebears behaved at that time. Carl Sagan graphically describes chimp social behavior in various works, notably Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, which he coauthored with Ann Druyan. The picture we see is a troop of perhaps twenty-odd individuals loosely connected by blood ties. The males dominate, with an alpha male enjoying priority in the business of inseminating females, a business that engages almost everyone’s attention most of the time. Basically all males fornicate with all available females, with the big alpha male customarily getting first whack.

A somewhat different picture emerges from another study which describes how raiding parties of young males from one troop poach on the territory of another troop, and kill when they find an isolated individual.

Are we descended from a bunch of homicidal sex maniacs? If so, we’ve come a long way…haven’t we? How did the ethical constraints on our behavior evolve that enabled us to follow the evolutionary path we did?

All of us, humans and chimps and other primates, share the instinct to avoid incest. This must have evolved earlier, through biological selection, because inbreeding over generations will almost always produce less fit individuals. The incest taboo militates against the basic primate social unit being limited to a nuclear family that doesn’t breed outside, since there has to be at least some genetic diversity. The Biblical account that we are all descended from two individuals, Adam and Eve, is a biological impossibility. A kin-based group of, say, twenty or so individuals may have enough genetic diversity to get by, but just barely. In “Mother Nature,” Sarah Blaffer Hrdy cites a study based on DNA analysis of a band of chimps that lived in a tight little community whose boundaries were patrolled by males, dedicated among other things to “protecting” their females from outsiders. “Just over half the infants born in this community (seven out of thirteen births) were sired by outside males.” Evidently the females of this troop sometimes got bored with the readily available males and were willing to take very real risks to slip off and have a fling.

That’s enough about the chimps. Let’s turn to our own remote, proto-human ancestors. They lived in the African savannah several million years ago, and at first they were probably grouped, like the chimps, in small, kin-based bands. Was their social behavior more like ours, or more like modern chimps, or what? We’ll never know for sure, but research in recent decades has given us some clues.

The fossil evidence shows that early lines of the genus homo were slowly developing erect posture and a larger brain. These two features must have had a fairly direct impact on social behavior, because eventually females had more trouble in giving birth than before, because of the infant’s larger brain and changes in the configuration of the birth canal. The evolutionary answer to this problem was that the gestation period became reduced. It didn’t get shorter in a chronological sense, but in the sense that birth occurred sooner in the total period between conception and the child’s ability to fend for itself. A baby chimp matures much faster than a human; the period when it still needs parental care, feeding, and protection ends much earlier in its life cycle. But with humans, the infant requires many years of parental coddling, or its survival chances are sharply reduced. The mother cannot do the whole job unassisted without risking her own survival prospects, let alone her chances of reproducing again in a reasonable period. The first and most obvious source of help is the father. After all, his genes are implicated just as much as the mother’s are, so his biological interest also lies in ensuring that his offspring survive. Ergo, the principle known as Male Paternal Investment, which comes down to much the same thing as monogamy, was reinvented, replacing the sexual free-for-all of the chimps. (I say “reinvented” because other species, unlike the chimps, had already become monogamous in response to a variety of different environmental pressures).

For both males and females, male paternal investment changed the fitness equations governing biological evolution. The selfish genes in the female favored her developing an acute ability to determine which male suitor was most likely to settle down and devote the rest of his active years to helping raise the family. No deadbeat dads, if you please. If her kids are to survive, dad must be there to help shelter, feed, and protect them. Meanwhile, selfish genes propelled the egoistic male toward perfecting an equal and opposite adeptness at persuading his targeted female that he really did mean to stay the course, even if he didn’t mean it. In fact, the strategy that most favored his genetic fitness was the “love ‘em and leave ‘em” one where he ended up inseminating a lot of females, and leaving it to the losers among his sex to cope with the diapers. But wait, the little woman had an evolutionary trick up her sleeve as well: she not only wanted a male that would stay the course, she also wanted her offspring to have the best chance of success–and that might not happen if she limited herself to her intended hubby’s sperm. Hence her ideal strategy, from a purely egoistic point of view, involved picking a man who would be a good husband, while engaging in a certain amount of hanky-panky on the side, like the lady chimps we have just cited.

Philandering husbands and cheating wives: it sounds like the material for a series of bad soap operas, and most likely this kind of scenario was already beginning to show up many hundreds of thousand years ago when our homo erectus ancestors were first beginning to become monogamous. If human nature was based exclusively on our selfish genes, we’d be in deep trouble, (even worse than we actually are). But group selection based on individual altruism, fortunately, stepped in and took the rough edges off what the evolutionary psychologists insist is our basic “human nature.” For no social group can survive very long if the games their genes incline them to play are not tempered and held in check by social pressures.

One of the first ethical principles ever invented, after the incest taboo, may well have involved some variant on not sleeping with your neighbor’s wife. After all, if you did, and if the husband caught you, there would be a row, and the group as a whole would suffer. A close reading of the applicable injunction in the Ten Commandments suggests that this taboo extended only to married women within the group, not to the wives of outsiders, usually enemies, or to unmarried women generally. Never mind, it was a beginning. The rules have been expanded in many ways and at many times since those early days, but the game’s intrinsic nature remains the same.

Let’s face it, men have had a major hangup throughout the ages about being cuckolded. This obsession has taken many forms, but it has always been a cause of conflict between men, and the basic factor underlying male oppression of women. Whether it’s a question of female genital mutilation in Africa, or eunuchs guarding harems in Baghdad, or the burka in Afghanistan, or denying women the vote in earlier days in America, our male preoccupation with “faithfulness” derives quite directly from the simple biological fact that everyone knows who the mother is, but the identity of the father can never be fixed with absolute assurance. So the poor beleaguered male, as long as his gender is dominant, imposes whatever cultural rules he can devise to keep the little woman in a closet and ensure that the child he cares for is really his.

The themes of philandering men and cheating women have been at the hard core of fables, poetry, and literature through the ages. Poor Othello, who was gulled into thinking his beloved Desdemona had been unfaithful, expressed the anguish men have felt forever and beyond when he uttered these words:

then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe..

But this raises another point: according to some theories, the eternal game between philandering men and conniving women has also been at least indirectly responsible for much of the cultural evolution that has marked our meteeoric rise as a species. I’m referring to a basic principle of evolution, running parallel to fitness selection, which Darwin himself noted but which has received relatively little attention until recently: sexual selection. Males and females may have different reproductive strategies but they are united in the instinctive desire that any children that bear their genes should be as fit as possible, and as likely as possible to transmit their own genes on to further generations. How does a male judge this kind of fitness in a female? Well, the psychologists have studied this issue ad nauseam, and determined that males go for youth plus certain secondary sex characteristics that can be explained as constituting indicators of fecundity–breasts, hip/waist ratio, and so forth. How does a female judge the males, though? If you are a lady chimp you presumably find the alpha male most attractive because he has the biggest biceps and roars loudest and has the biggest testicles. But human females must have developed more elaborate criteria early on. And this implicates the evolution of language.

Exactly how and when did language evolve? We cannot tell for sure, but we can be fairly certain that once it appeared on the scene it proved highly functional for the development and maintenance of group cooperation. A capacity for sweet talk and flattery and general persuasiveness took over from mere brawn as a general fitness indicator. Sexual selection favored it and we soon became distinguished as the animal chatterbox. It fitted right in with the male strategy of picking the right woman, and even better with the female strategy of finding a husband who would stay the course. This quintessentially state of uneasy equilibrium between the sexes has dominated the human scene forever, as far as our species is concerned.

But no longer. In our lifetimes, a new factor has come on stage that threatens to louse up the whole drama, the playhouse, and even the institution of the theater. The underlying sexual basis of male-female relations is threatened as never before. Why?

Contemporary moves for gender equality combined with scientific advances are changing the basic ground rules that have dominated family structures since the birth of our species. The liberated modern woman simply will not put up with the harrassment and confinement imposed on her grandmother by a passle of dominant, domineering males. Enough already! Trust me or get out! To which the male can now give a brand new and conclusive reply: I don’t have to trust you, my dear. I don’t have to confine you and supervise you to make sure you don’t run around with another man when my back is turned. All I have to do is take the baby down to the lab and run a DNA test!

We cannot say that male domination has always been the social pattern for all of our species at all times in the past, though it has been the majority route most cultures have followed as far as we know. We can, however, say with some confidence that never in the past history of our species has hubby been able to run a DNA test to get a definite answer to the question as to whether he really did father that child he is stuck with bringing up.

What next, said the tadpole? I for one don’t know how this eternal battle of the sexes is going to take this new factor. But pretty soon, the world will be a very different place. Count on it.

Carl Coon 2/20/02

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