Games Primates Play: An Undercover Investigation of the Evolution and Economics of Human Relationships

Here are some highlights from this 2012 book:

* Even when we are alone, relationships play a central role in our lives. For instance, while traveling for business, working out at the gym, or lying in bed with insomnia in the middle of the night, our thoughts revolve around relationships: we remember and revisit past events involving ourselves and other people, plan social strategies, or worry about potential future social failures. And as if what goes on in our own relationships were not enough to keep us busy twenty-four hours a day, we also gossip about the relationships of other people we know and even enjoy following the relationships of people we don’t know on reality television or in People magazine. Relationships have a pervasive influence on all aspects of our lives and affect our thoughts, our emotions, and our health virtually from the cradle to the grave.

* One important difference, however, [between primates and other animals] is that success in survival and reproduction for primates depends to a much larger extent on the behavior of conspecifics than it does in most other animals.

* The disappearance or death of an individual is largely inconsequential for the rest of the group and may even go unnoticed. The life of a chimpanzee, in contrast, is intertwined with the lives of all the other chimpanzees in the group, forming a thick web of intricate connections. Every move a chimpanzee makes on the social chessboard has an effect on every other chimpanzee’s life, whether they like it or not. This has many implications for the behavior of individuals and for what it takes to be socially successful in a chimpanzee group. Chimpanzees and humans live in highly competitive societies. Instead of fighting all the time, individuals establish dominance hierarchies within their group. High-ranking individuals have preferred access to food, shelter, and attractive mating partners. In addition to the difficulties in finding food and mates and their exposure to more risks, low-ranking chimpanzees are also chronically stressed by aggression and intimidation from above. As a result, low-ranking individuals are more likely to be in poor health, to die younger, and to leave fewer descendants than their high-ranking brethren. To attain high social status, chimpanzees must form alliances with other individuals and receive their support. For example, chimpanzee males form alliances with their brothers and occasionally with unrelated but powerful adult males to win fights against other group members. Competition and cooperation with other group members are pervasive aspects of the social lives of chimpanzees, other apes, and Old World monkeys—and the social lives of humans—to an extent that, with a few exceptions, is not seen in other animals.

* An underlying theme of Games Primates Play is that human nature is manifested in our social interactions more than in any other aspect of our behavior or intellectual activity. This has two major implications. First, since our social behavior has been strongly shaped by evolutionary processes such as natural and sexual selection, we can explain it using cost-benefit analyses and other rational models of behavior (for example, game theory) developed by evolutionary biologists and behavioral economists. Second, the same selective pressures from the social environment that shaped our behavior and that of our primate ancestors may have shaped the behavior of other extant primate species and their ancestors. Therefore, there may be important similarities in social behavior between ourselves and other primate species because we have adapted to similar social environments.

* In Paleolithic days, murder was an acceptable way to get out of socially awkward situations (the way we use an early morning doctor’s appointment today as an excuse to leave a dinner party early).

* If the two monkeys have never met before, the risk of serious fighting rises even higher. Macaque monkeys don’t like strangers, so unless the other individual is a potential sexual partner, its presence could immediately elicit a hostile response.

* The times and places when fights take place, however, are rarely random. …Over the evolutionary history of our species and that of other primates, the individuals with genetic predispositions for resisting the impulse to fight in the wrong place have had longer lives and produced more offspring than their indiscriminately belligerent counterparts.

* When I ride in an elevator with an attractive woman, I’m generally treated with indifference, and I have a hard time believing that response stems from fear or intimidation. When my girlfriend rides in an elevator with a man, he will often strike up a conversation with her and end up asking for her phone number.

* Although our high-tech way of communicating might seem to preclude a strong influence of our evolutionary past on the way we act, the rules regulating primate relationships resurface even when we sit down at our keyboards to catch up with friends or reply to work memos. For example, the concern with social status that characterizes the relationships of other primates such as macaques, baboons, and chimpanzees has not disappeared in cyberspace, but is simply expressed in a new and different form. There are some clear patterns in the way we use email. First of all, email communication between people who know each other well occurs in “conversation” bouts in which several messages are exchanged back and forth over the course of minutes, hours, or a few days. Who starts and who ends the conversation, the time taken to reply, and the length of the transmissions are not random. Let me illustrate this point by taking as an example an email exchange with an imaginary graduate student in my research group whom I’ll call Jennifer. One day Jennifer—who has not seen me around for a while because I’ve been hiding in a coffee shop, trying to write a book without being interrupted—begins an email exchange by sending me a long message. It contains numerous questions and requests for information and for action (there is always something my students need from me). It’s quite clear that a response is needed with some urgency. Jennifer obviously put a lot of effort into writing this email—time, energy, and the cognitive resources expended in the production of grammatically correct sentences—but the cost of this initiative, so Jennifer hopes, will be offset by the great benefit that my reply will bring her. By hitting Send and beginning the conversation, Jennifer has made an investment that she hopes will bring a significant return. From my perspective, writing to Jennifer entails a cost—I am being distracted from my book!—and little to no benefit, if we forget for a moment that I get paid a decent salary for advising students. So I procrastinate in responding to her email, and when I do finally respond, I compose a brief missive in which I provide all the requested information while keeping the word count as low as possible. Jennifer finds my reply encouraging—the investment is beginning to produce a return—and within seconds of hitting the Reply button, I receive another message from her, as long as the first, with more questions and requests. My conversation with Jennifer continues along this pattern: her emails progressively get quicker and longer, while mine get slower and shorter. After responding five times, I let Jennifer’s email number six sit indefinitely in my inbox without a reply. According to the rules and etiquette of email communication, a lack of response ends the conversation.

What students and professors have in common with employees and their superiors is a clear dominance relationship—one individual is dominant, the other is subordinate. The costs and benefits of exchanging emails are different for the dominant and subordinate parties, and as a result a distinctive pattern of email exchange emerges.

A former student of mine who, like Jennifer, used to write me long unsolicited emails, has become a professor in a top-notch university. Now when we exchange emails, either one of us is equally likely to start or end the conversation, and he shoots off one-line responses he never would have sent me before. His style of email has changed gradually over time as his career has advanced and he’s caught up with me.

* Show me your emails and I will tell you whether you are on a fast track to become a leader of your company, or whether it’s unlikely that you will have secretaries answering your emails anytime soon.

* A problem that arises in all relationships is one of conflicting interests—individuals want to act in ways that benefit themselves at the expense of their partner. This is true for every human relationship, including those between parents and children, siblings, romantic partners, friends, and coworkers.

* Continuous fighting or negotiation also makes relationships unstable and stressful. Mother Nature—who shapes the minds and behavior of living organisms through natural selection—always tries to find cost-effective solutions to the problems these organisms encounter in their environments. Humans and many other primates live in complex societies in which even the closest and strongest social relationships feature strong competitive elements. Individuals with close social relationships interact regularly, and their interests clash multiple times a day. Yet I know of no primate species in which individuals fight or negotiate all the time. No, Mother Nature has found a better solution to the problem. It’s called dominance. Two individuals in a relationship establish dominance with each other so that every time a potential disagreement arises, there is no need for fighting or negotiation. The outcome is always known in advance because it’s always the same: the dominant individual gets what he or she wants and the subordinate doesn’t. There is no risk of injury, no waste of time or energy or cognitive or emotional resources. The relationship is stable and predictable, which is good for mental health. The resolution of disagreements through dominance has a cost, of course, but as we’ll see later, this cost is paid entirely by the subordinate. If the dominant individual in the relationship is smart, however, he or she will help reduce the cost of losing by making sure the subordinate gets something out of it—or by giving the appearance that this is the case.

* The struggle for dominance during adolescence doesn’t happen the same way in every parent-child relationship. Some parents make concessions to their children and become less authoritarian, but maintain their dominance over their children for the rest of their lives. Some children are successful in reverting the dominance relationship and start calling the shots; their parents acquiesce and accept their new subordinate role. Finally, in some cases, neither party wants to give in, dominance remains unresolved, and parents and children bicker for the rest of their lives—or simply stop speaking.

* The most stable and long-lasting sibling relationships are those in which dominance is clearly established from the beginning and is never challenged—for instance, when one sibling is significantly older than the other.

* Girls dominate a potential rival by spreading nasty rumors aimed at damaging her reputation; by excluding, ignoring, and socially isolating her, thus making her an unattractive social partner to other girls or boys; or by actively disrupting her attempts at alliance formation. Dominant children, both male and female, use both aggression and affiliation strategies to establish and maintain dominance: they simultaneously attack the child they want to dominate and befriend others who might help them in the process, forming alliances with them.

* Dominance in romantic or married couples is an important but underappreciated phenomenon. The most stable romantic relationships and marriages seem to be those in which dominance is clear from the beginning. The dominant partner makes all the decisions, from what show to watch on TV in the evening to where to go on vacation in the summer, and the subordinate partner acquiesces and takes a supporting role. If what people expect from marriage is not necessarily everlasting passionate love but a stable partnership that will allow joint ventures such as buying a home and raising children together, or an opportunity to concentrate on one’s career without worrying about house chores, then an asymmetrical relationship with uncontested dominance probably guarantees the best outcome.

* Dominance is so intrinsic to human social relationships that we don’t even notice it. However, I suspect that if I asked you to make a list of one hundred people you know, including family members, friends, and coworkers, and indicate whether you are dominant or subordinate in your relationship with each of these people, you could give a clear answer for at least ninety-five of them.

* Dominant individuals are better at interpreting others and persuading them to do what they want with all possible means, including deception. The ability to charm and befriend others and to form alliances with them through the exchange of favors is also crucial. Considering that autism spectrum disorders—which involve deficits in social intelligence skills—are highly heritable, it is likely that individuals at the other end of the continuum, who excel at these skills, may have their genes to thank for some of their talents.

* In married couples, the spouse who perceives himself or herself to be subordinate in the relationship shows a higher increase in blood pressure reactivity during marital disagreements. Just as an increase in testosterone following a victory may increase one’s self-confidence, ambition, and motivation to fight again, a decrease in testosterone and an increase in cortisol following repeated defeats or in association with chronic subordination can result in depression and shame, which can lead to submissive behavior: avoidance of eye contact, hunching body posture, social avoidance. These physiological and behavioral changes promote acceptance of and adjustment to subordination.13

* We have physiological, emotional, and learning mechanisms that allow us to constantly assess our own performance in agonistic confrontations, that tell us whether we are dominant or subordinate in a relationship, and that help us adjust to the situation. When we win a contest and become dominant, we feel good about it and we want more of the same. When we lose and become subordinate, we feel bad and either cut our losses and adjust to the situation or start preparing for a future rebellion.

* The experience of wins and losses with other individuals influences not just individuals’ perception of their own RHP [resource holding position] but also their assessment of other individuals’ RHP and their estimation of their probability of winning or losing.

* Dominance, however, is an integral component of all our social relationships and has a pervasive influence on all aspects of our everyday social lives. The sooner we recognize this, the better we will understand why our relationships work the way they do. Humans and some other primates are obsessed with dominance, although not necessarily at a conscious level. Dominance is so entrenched in human nature that thinking we can have social relationships without it is unrealistic.

* A few years ago, Ezio Capizzano, a sixty-six-year-old law professor at the University of Camerino, made the national headlines in Italy because it turned out that for years he had been having sex with his female students on a couch in his office and making videotapes with a camera hidden under the table.6 The students in his tapes always passed his course exam with flying colors. The professor even negotiated good grades for his young lovers with other baroni, when the students had to take courses with them. When he was caught, Professor Capizzano claimed in his defense that his sexual relations with the students were all fully consensual. Judging from the photos in the newspapers, I didn’t get the sense that he was particularly attractive, and it’s likely that his female students had sex with him for business purposes: they exchanged sex for good grades and raccomandazioni.

* Here are the golden rules of nepotism: First, don’t embarrass the patron. Since the protégé’s actions and conduct reflect on the patron, accept the nepotistic help but don’t make the patron look bad. Second, don’t embarrass yourself. If you are the beneficiary of nepotistic help at someone else’s expense, you must work hard to counteract the resentment of those who are fregati. If possible, you should give them a consolation prize. Third, pass it on. If you are the recipient of nepotistic help from your parents, express your gratitude to them in the form of nepotism toward your own children. It is okay to receive generous nepotistic help if you become, in turn, generous toward others (as long as you keep it within the family, of course).

* Even though most people who enter a new workplace have been hired, which means that they are wanted and welcomed by someone in the organization, they must contend there with an established power structure that is generally resistant to change. As discussed in Chapter 2, human workplaces—whether they are large corporations, military organizations, theater companies, or schools and colleges—have dominance hierarchies, just like monkey groups. People who have worked hard to climb the ladder—whether they are now all the way at the top or simply one step up from the bottom—are not happy to step aside and make room for a newcomer. In both macaque and human societies, the newcomer is seen as a competitor, and therefore his or her arrival into the group is likely to be met with indifference, resistance, or outright rejection. The newcomer, then, must cultivate relationships with these strangers and try to obtain their support through exchanges of favors or other means. When there are no relatives around to help, success depends not on nepotism but on politics.

* Sarah had learned from experience that low-status coworkers could cause a lot of damage to the career of someone they didn’t like by spreading malicious gossip. And someone as socially savvy as Sarah could obtain everyone’s loyalty with a relatively small investment made at the beginning. Sarah wanted to rise to the top quickly, and she knew that given her personality and her skills with people, this could be best accomplished through politics: alliance formation and social manipulation.

* The ability to charm and lead others—what we call charisma—is an important skill in forming effective political alliances. And in any kind of human social organization, from academic departments to business companies to entire countries, strong political alliances are necessary for anyone to climb to the top of the ladder and stay there for a while.

* Essentially, a good reputation is an extension of our spending limit on our credit card. With no reputation, we get no credit from others. As we build a reputation with acts of cooperation, there is a corresponding increase in others’ willingness to give us credit for larger and larger amounts in future business transactions.

* Your boss at work can tell you that you are a valuable employee and praise your work constantly, but the best indicator of how valuable you are to your boss is the salary he or she is willing to pay you. Words are cheap, but money isn’t.

* when biologist E. O. Wilson became excited about the power of evolutionary explanations of behavior and announced in his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) that sociobiology was going to take over all the other behavioral disciplines, he did more harm than good to the field: sociobiology was criticized on multiple fronts and eventually evolutionary behavioral scientists stopped using this term so that they could work in peace.12 In academia there is a lot of territoriality, and threats of intellectual takeovers by new theories or disciplines inevitably elicit strong defensive reactions; some react with an outright rejection and dismissal of the new paradigm, while others are prompted to an extensive scrutiny of the new paradigm, which usually brings to light some of its weaknesses and limitations.

* a young capuchin monkey may walk up to his favorite social partner, stick a finger up his nose, and wait for a reaction. If their relationship is good, nothing will happen, but if the partner has lost some of the initial enthusiasm about the partnership, the annoying monkey will get smacked. Perry noticed that two capuchin monkeys who have a strong social bond sometimes simultaneously insert their fingers up each other’s nose and “sit in this pose for up to several minutes with trance-like expressions on their faces, sometimes swaying.”

* Lovers who exchange long and passionate kisses stick their tongues in each other’s mouth; that’s quite intrusive and even carries the risk of transmitting disease. Only people who are highly committed to a romantic relationship accept this type of imposition from their partner. According to Zahavi, bond-testing through costly or stressful love signals is frequent especially when the relationship is new and not yet well established, because this is the time when information is most needed. When partners in a long-term relationship stop exchanging French kisses, it may be that they are not as physically attracted to each other as they were at the beginning, but it also could be that their relationship is strong and bond-testing is no longer necessary. You will not be surprised to hear, at this point, that Zahavi thinks that sex is the ultimate mechanism for bond-testing. The intrusiveness of many forms of sexual behavior, according to him, makes sex an ideal handicap signal for conveying and receiving detailed information about each lover’s commitment to the relationship.

*    Commitments can change from day to day as a function of an individual’s financial situation, or reputation, or age, health, stress, or status. A woman who overestimates her lover’s commitment risks abandonment, damage to her reputation, and the hard work of raising a child alone. Overestimating commitment also leads to opportunity costs: the time spent with an undercommitted partner reduces the chance to attract a better mate. Underestimating the true level of a partner’s commitment can also be costly, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Miscalculating, for example, could cause you to reduce your own commitment, impelling your partner to do the same, thereby producing a downward spiral of mutual retreat and resentment. The bitter result could dissolve the relationship as both partners search their social world for deeper, more meaningful engagement.

* Walking on the streets of Bangkok a few years ago, I couldn’t help but notice the high number of heterosexual “mixed” couples made up of a white Caucasian man and a Thai woman. In virtually all cases, the man was older and rather unattractive (bald, with a potbelly and thick glasses), while the woman was young and good-looking. We see well-matched couples all the time: the young and the beautiful typically go with their own kind (like Brad and Angelina), and average-looking middle-aged people are typically married to other average-looking middle-aged people. Occasionally, we run into a very attractive young woman accompanied by an older man, but the man is typically well groomed, in good physical shape, and wearing an expensive Armani suit. In other words, he is wealthy and successful. In the United States or in Europe, you don’t typically see unattractive and socially awkward middle-class men in the company of beautiful young women.

* Individuals who have low value and little bargaining power in one market can move into another, where their characteristics are more in demand.

* The biographies of famous artists, musicians, scientists, philosophers, spiritual leaders, and other remarkable individuals provide unique insights into human nature. The accomplishments of these individuals influenced the lives and work of millions of other people. Just think about how many human lives have been touched by Mozart and Picasso, Einstein and Darwin, Plato and Aristotle, or Gandhi and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Yet, if one examines the social lives of many of these intellectual and spiritual overachievers, they come across as far less virtuous and remarkable than their “professional” legacies would have us believe. Spanish painter Pablo Picasso took advantage of his fame and artistic talent to sleep with almost every woman he met in his adult life (including a seventeen-year-old model he met when he was forty-five and with whom he later had a child). According to biographer Patrick O’Brian, Picasso married twice and had four children by three different women, and regardless of his marital situation, he always kept several mistresses in the background. Picasso was a tremendously productive artist—his oeuvre comprises more than fifty thousand paintings, drawings, and sculptures—but work was clearly not the only thing he had on his mind. In that respect, he is in good company. Hundreds of thousands of men who have achieved fame through art, music, science, or other intellectual activities also cheated on their wives and used their fame to maintain harems of women to satiate their voracious sexual appetites. Just as some great minds are susceptible to the temptations of promiscuous sex, others are lured by the prospect of political power.

* [Konrad] Lorenz was not the first intellectual to strike a deal with a dictatorial regime—or more generally, to align himself with political power to advance his own career. He followed an illustrious tradition that originated in the ancient world and became well established in Europe during the Renaissance: scientists, artists, and musicians seeking patronage from emperors, kings, and popes and often not only obtaining employment, support, and protection in the process but also amassing a great deal of political power themselves. Finally, many spiritual and religious leaders who encouraged their followers to live a virtuous life simultaneously showed a keen interest in the material benefits of this world. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, an Albanian Roman Catholic nun who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and was declared a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2003, did not hesitate to support wealthy and corrupt individuals, including Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and former financial executive and white-collar criminal Charles Keating, to gain millions of tax-free dollars from them. In his 1997 book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, author and columnist Christopher Hitchens argues that Mother Teresa was less interested in helping the poor than in stashing away vast amounts of cash with which to fuel the expansion of her fundamentalist Roman Catholic beliefs.

Clearly, exceptional individuals—people with superior education, intelligence, artistic talents, or religious and moral principles—share many traits with the rest of the human race: social and political ambitions, greed for money, rivalries with contemporaries, unrestrained sexual appetites, and marital problems. In many cases, there seems to be a sharp disconnect between the intellectual or spiritual achievements of these famous individuals and the content and quality of their social lives. Why this disconnect? The answer, I think, is that human social behavior comes with a heavy load of evolutionary baggage—we all have strong biological predispositions to behave in certain ways and to pursue similar goals in our personal lives. In the end, we all want the same things: money, power, fame, sex, love, and children. In contrast, our intellectual potential is almost infinite and can be realized in a thousand different ways—or not realized at all.

…all it takes to fully understand the social lives of many Nobel laureates is some knowledge of primate social behavior. The social behavior of intellectual and spiritual leaders (as well as that of kings and emperors, politicians and army generals, and rock-and-roll, movie, and sports celebrities) is generally similar not only to the behavior of non-achievers but also to that of monkeys and apes and other animals as well.

* How is it possible that the product of free will ends up resembling what monkeys and apes in the jungle have been doing for millions of years?

* Free will and anthropocentrism go hand in hand. The seventeenth-century French philosopher Descartes, who came up with the brilliant phrase Cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), believed that humans are unique in possessing free will and that all other animals act like robots. Accordingly, Descartes placed humans right at the center of the universe. Many embraced Descartes’s view, including the psychologist William James, who wrote in 1890 that the whole “sting and excitement” of life comes from “our sense that in it things are really being decided from one moment to another, and that it is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged innumerable ages ago.” Well, for over two centuries people have had to disabuse themselves of the notion that humans are fundamentally different from other animals. Beliefs about the uniqueness of human behavior might well be the last bastion of our superiority complex, but even this redoubt may be crumbling. As for free will, experiments in psychology and neuroscience suggest that—to paraphrase The Princess Bride—“I don’t think it is what you think it is.”

* For some evolutionary biologists, evolution stays confined within the walls of their laboratory. For others, it stops at their doorstep: it can happen in the jungle, but they don’t want it in their house. They don’t want to hear about how evolution affects their own behavior. They are like those Catholics who go to Mass every Sunday but, forgetting all about religion once they’re outside the church, spend the rest of the week going about their business as usual. Surprisingly, among the skeptics are also some evolutionary psychologists who believe that natural selection shaped the human mind, yet maintain that what we do with our behavior has little to do with evolution. I for one have a hard time accepting the notion that natural selection has left its mark on human mental processes but not on contemporary human behavior.

* Evolutionary psychologists don’t believe that the human mind is a tabula rasa—an empty container we fill with all kinds of information that we acquire from the environment with our amazing learning skills. Rather, they believe that the mind has some biological predispositions to produce specific emotions over others in response to particular situations, to learn certain things better than others, to solve problems in a certain way, and even to make certain mistakes in the perception and processing of information from the surrounding environment. For example, children are biologically predisposed to learn languages until they reach puberty; after that, changes in their brain make it very difficult to learn a new language—as people who have learned a second language later in life know all too well. Studies by social psychologists have shown that people generally have a better view of themselves than others have of them. We see ourselves as being nicer, more intelligent, and more successful than others do. The human mind is the device that drives our bodies in the race for survival and reproduction, so it makes sense that it gives us the impression that we are at the center of the universe—anthropocentrism is a psychological adaptation—and that it has many mechanisms to protect us from the challenges, not only physical but also psychological, that come from the outside world.

Called algorithms by evolutionary psychologists, the human mind’s predispositions are akin to computer programs in that they were designed to solve particular problems or tasks. They have a significant genetic basis and evolved by natural selection, so that individuals with the genes for particular algorithms were more successful in survival and reproduction than the individuals without these genes. Algorithms represent solutions to the recurring problems that early humans and their ancestors were constantly confronted with in their environment, including: how to navigate and orient oneself; how to find food and discriminate between edible/nutritional substances and toxic/non-nutritional ones; how to detect predators and escape predator attacks (as well as avoiding dangerous animals such as venomous snakes and spiders); how to avoid a potentially deadly aggression from a member of another group or harmful and coercive behavior from a member of one’s own group; how to learn to communicate with members of one’s own community; how to discriminate family members from nonkin; how to make friends and practice important social skills with them; how to establish cooperative relationships with others based on reciprocation and how to identify and punish cheaters; how to make effective political alliances that allow one to outcompete other individuals and gain status; how to find and choose appropriate and willing mates for short-term sexual relationships; how to establish a long-term relationship with an opposite-sex individual that will lead to successful reproduction and child-rearing; how to support and shape children’s development so that they will become successful adults; and how to obtain assistance and support from caregivers early or late in life, periods when individuals cannot make it on their own.

* anger motivates assertive and threatening behavior, and sometimes acting self-confident or threatening is all that’s needed to settle a contest to your advantage. An angry dog will growl and bark loudly to another one he meets in the park; if this display is effective, he becomes dominant over the other without any need for physical aggression.

* Clearly, there are strong differences among breeds: some dogs can easily be trained to retrieve or to help a shepherd keep his flock of sheep together. There are also differences in how aggressive or friendly different breeds of dogs are toward other dogs and toward people, how docile and cuddly they are, and how excitable or laid back. These differences are largely genetic and the result of selective breeding. To produce highly aggressive Dobermans, a dog breeder picks the most aggressive males and females he can find and allows them to breed, while not breeding the docile Dobermans. After generations of this selective breeding, Dobermans, on average, tend to be aggressive. Darwin used this example of behavior-based selective breeding of domestic animals extensively in On the Origin of Species to prove the point that behavior is heritable and that natural selection favors certain traits over others, the way an animal breeder does.

* Science produces knowledge and explanations, not philosophical, moral, or religious justifications. Evolutionary biology is a scientific discipline; its job is to help us understand what life is and how it works. Evolutionary biology has no business telling us whether or not life is worth living and why.

* Instead of realizing that the only way to become happier is to improve the quality of one’s life, many people need reassurance that all stories have a happy ending, that humans are fundamentally good, that bad things don’t happen to good people, or that there is a supernatural being who takes care of us and makes sure everything is okay. If a scientist attempts to explain nature or human nature but doesn’t provide a positive message that makes people feel better about themselves, some of them will simply shoot the messenger.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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