Is the Natural World a valid source of guidance for our behavior, morals, ethics, and other more mundane areas of thought such as how to build an airplane and what to eat for breakfast?1 When it comes to airplanes, you’d better be a servant to the rules of nature (such as gravity) or the airplane will go splat. When it comes to breakfast, it has been shown that knowing about our evolutionary history can be a more efficacious guide to good nutrition than the research employed by the FDA, but you can live without this approach and following FDA guidelines will not do you in. A naturalistic approach can work when it comes to behavior too, but there are consequences. You or someone you love would probably not like the consequences.
Consider, for example, this question: Should society and the law give men and women fundamentally different rights? Would it be OK if men and women had different pay for the same job, or different access to jobs? Would it be OK if men and women were treated differently by the law in a way that accounted for the behavioral differences between them that arise from their biology? Should men and women have different status because of their gender? Similar questions can be extended to people that are biologically different in other ways, such as by age, gender orientation, physical handicap or, should it be proven a valid categorization, race. But for now, let’s stick with the basic adult male vs. female difference.
Let’s use the term “naturalistic” to mean the assumption that what we observe in nature is the optimal, correct, or “best” approach to doing something. That which we observe in nature is the best guide to how things should be. We can see that in mammals mothers nurse their young. Departures from this (bottle feeding, early weening, feeding young something other than mother’s milk, etc.) are risky and typically have negative consequences. Humans in a “state of nature” (such as hunter gatherers) get a moderate but regular amount of exercise in carrying out their day to day business compared to humans in a “state of suburbia” who can get their stuff done with almost no physical movement. Human foragers are trim and fit, human suburbanites tend towards heart disease. This suggests that regular moderate exercise is good, and both scientific research and experience seem to support this.
So far so good. A “naturalistic assumption” seems the way to go.
In the Western industrialized world, we have a widely held concept of what is “natural” and we tend to make a link between “natural” and “good.” We tend to ‘believe’ in a socially constructed balance between natural and non natural choices. However, we also possess other beliefs and priorities that sometimes conflict with the naturalistic assumption. For example, a child that is fatally allergic to mother’s milk would be left to die with a pure naturalistic philosophy. However, the life of such a child is typically valued more highly than one’s philosophical purity, and non-natural intervention (feeding the child soy milk from a bottle) is chosen as the ‘correct’ decision. In truth, day to day, we are utterly arbitrary in adherence to or ignorance (willful or otherwise) of the naturalistic premise. We do what is convenient, what feels good, what provides us some perceived good or benefit (money, status, etc.). Then later we explain our decision rhetorically as necessary, and sometimes the naturalistic premise is invoked.
Naturalistic perspectives are often invoked when considering political or economic decisions. Free market capitalism is natural. Competition is natural.
Let’s look more closely at one of the often cited examples of using a naturalistic premise to justify a social or economic reality which is rather controversial: The well documented fact that women get paid less than men in Western society.
There is plenty of room for clarification here … do women get paid less than men for the same exact job? Do women get paid the same but end up with a lower salary because they take unpaid leave to have babies? Do women get paid the same but end up with lower pay because they take unpaid leave which indirectly contributes to slower (in calendar time) advancement on the pay scale? Are women kept out of jobs, or even entire professions, that tend to be higher paid? Some or all of the above?
I’ve collected a list of phrases that are typical of the naturalistic assumption being applied to the question of salary, paraphrased from comments over a period of time made on my blog. The purpose of this list is to provide an evidence based description of what people are saying about women’s salary.
- Is every difference in how we treat males vs. females insulting? Why stop at lower salary for women? What about holding the door for the weaker sex? What about getting to improve one’s daily look with make-up being the exclusive right of women? Why should men, the stronger sex, always carry all the groceries?
- Is paying women and men the same salary really fair? The two sexes are different, having different strengths and advantages, and are limited in different ways. Those differences justify the fact that salaries are skewed.
- … from an evolutionary point of view it is more important for men than for women to earn money, as money is earned for status, and not for consumption.
- Psychologically, men are more aggressive, more ambitious, and more authoritative. They are more often psychopathic, and generally less caring of others …
- …being more aggressive and ambitious, more authoritative and psychopathic, less caring of others are “qualities” that are sought by corporations seeking high-end CEOs…
- …hiring a woman results in the risk that she will be unable to work if she gets pregnant. The “worth” of that employee is thus reduced.
- …in divorces it is the wife who gets the children. …. it is reasonable to consider the higher salary of men as a compensation for that.
- Clearly, the salary difference has a biological basis. Until it is thoroughly understood why this biological difference exists it is wrong to say that it should be abandoned.
Is there something to these comments? Is there a way to not just explain, but actually justify our social and cultural rules and behaviors from a naturalistic premise?
A naturalistic basis for determining what is proper or justified in human behavior may take into account the fact that we are mammals. Our mammalness, as part of our broader “animalness” encompasses many of the critically important facets of our lives. We have two sexes, a male (producing sperm) and a female (producing ova). Pregnancy lasts a long time relative to the overall life cycle of a given female, so baby-making is a big investment and any risks or costs associated with this endeavor are large. The females nurse the young, adding significant time and energy in the form of child care. In mammals, males typically fight or display for sexual access, and females are either herded or harassed by males or choose males with which to mate, and males provide virtually no offspring care in most species. In some species there is courting and female choice, in others, hormonally mediated sexual arousal and activity, in others, what we might call rape.
That is a pretty wide range of behaviors, but one must use this wide range to describe ‘typical’ mammals, as they do vary. There are key characteristics that do pertain to all mammals, however: Pregnancy and nursing being entirely female, longish period of offspring care, and internal fertilization which results in a certain amount of paternal uncertainty (unclear attribution of fatherhood) for all males.
Given this, we may expect human males to be less choosy (sexually) than females, we may expect males to be promiscuous, we may expect females to be more cautious, we may expect males to be show-offs and often more violent than females, and we may expect males to be bigger and stronger than females. Given this, perhaps we can begin to explain human males’ attention to sports, and shopping behaviors found among females. Perhaps we can even justify certain human behaviors. Violence, for instance. Indeed, there are historically documented legal systems that would punish a woman severely for the murder of her husband’s illicit lover, but punish the man much less severely for killing his wife’s illicit lover.
But wait, there’s more. We are mammals but we are also primates, which is a subset of mammals. Would it not be more appropriate to look to primates, rather than mammals more broadly, for our fundamental naturalistic natures?
Well, most primates are either solitary or monogamous, with males and females not differing very much in size. Mating happens as a matter of female choice more than male-male tournament competition in most primate species. In many primate species, especially the polyandrous ones (where a single female has two or more male mates) there is a certain amount of male care of offspring, while in others, not so much. There is almost no difference in the potential effectiveness of fighting anatomy (such as canines) in males vs. females in most primates.
So, our evolutionary heritage as primates actually looks quite different than if we look more broadly at mammals. We might expect male humans to track females very carefully, be more or less at their service with respect to child care, and we should see very little difference between the sexes in who gets to use force or coercion for personal gain. Males and females would roughly share the job of protecting home and hearth (proverbially or otherwise). Males in many cases would not know if they are the father of a particular female’s offspring, but they would remain devoted to the female and her young because the young are related in some way. The multiple males hooked up to individual females would typically be half brothers, for instance.
But really, while we are in fact primates, we are actually Old World Primates. If we remove the prosimians and the New World Primates from the mix, and look only at Old World ‘higher’ primates, we get a different picture. In this comparison, we actually drop all of the polyandry and most of the monogamy. We now get a pretty large difference, on average, in body size of males vs. females, but male coercion is rarely a means of sexual interaction … rather, females and males both engage in quite a bit of politics (these are smart animals) and these political interactions are mediated by quite a bit of biting and poking (within both males and females, but maybe more so in males). The result is often a parallel (male vs. female) set of hierarchies, and position in these hierarchies determines for males who gets to mate and for females who ends up most successfully raising offspring.
From this perhaps we can still understand such human behaviors as guys getting together to do sports and gals getting together to shop and compete over makeup and shoes, and we get to explain politicians and People Magazine as well! Gossip, politics, personal status, etc. are all expectable pastimes or passions from such an Old World Primate ancestry. When we look at a modern politician, we can often imagine a baboon. When we read a popular culture magazine, we may be reminded of that troop of Japanese macaques we saw last week at the zoo. Now, we’re really getting somewhere!
But wait, the Old World Primates split into diverse evolutionary branches a VERY long time ago. Maybe we should look at the subset of Old World Primates of which we are a part … the apes.
The majority of ape species are monomorphic in body size (the males and females are the same size) and practice life-long pair bonding. Both males and females are physically equipped (strong bodies, big canines) to defend the territory and the young, and both take similar roles in this regard, though the females nurse the young so there is some difference in male vs. female role in offspring care. A considerable effort is put into care of offspring overall, and with setting them up in new territories, etc., and this sort of care involves the males at least as much as the females.
So we might expect humans, as apes, to be highly monogamous and to put huge amounts of efforts into offspring … somewhat different in style but with similar levels of effort for males vs. females.
But hold on a second there… we are apes, yes, and this characterizes the average ape because gibbons and siamangs are all apes and most apes are gibbons or siamangs, if we just count the number of species. But they are so-called “lesser apes” and we are so-called “great apes!” The great apes constitutes a smaller taxonomic group. Maybe we should look at the great apes only and forget the gibbons and siamangs.
OK, when we do that, we are looking at orangs, gorillas, chimps, and bonobos. Orangs have a very high level of sexual dimorphism, are primarily vegetarian, and the most typical form of sexual interaction is either forced copulation (akin to rape) or females swooning over gigantic, and presumably very sexy, but rare, super males. All offspring care is provided by the female. In fact, the largest social group among these apes is the mother and offspring with a random male busy raping the female while the offspring hangs out on a nearby branch eating some wild figs. Gorillas also have a high level of dimorphism in body size, but live in large groups with the key group structure consisting of a silver back male and a harem of females who are totally devoted to and sexually monogamous with the male until a lone silver back shows up and starts to kill the female’s infant offspring now and then. When that happens, the females join the infanticidal male and abandon their devotion to the original silver back.
These two apes provide very different models, but are similar in that females are either raped or have their “children” killed (and they can stop that by joining the killer) and when push comes to shove, the enormously large males get to do all the pushing. This would suggest that humans get comfortable with a very male dominated society and that the females should just get in line. Fast.
But hold on, we are much much more closely related to the chimpanzees. We are equally related to each of the two chimpanzee species, common chimps and bonobos. So let’s look at their lifestyle.
Both groups have the unusual and interesting feature of multiple adult sexually mature males and females living in the same group. When a female is in a state of ovulation, she also enters a state of estrus … the visible display of ovulation. Some of the males may be forced to not mate with this female (forced by dominant males or coalitions of males) but for the most part every male mates with such a female at some point. Over time, all of the females go into estrus one or two at a time. So, over the course of several years, every single male will eventually have potentially baby-making sex with every single female. This is done in the form of giant orgies in which only one female participates.
That is true for common chimps, but it is also true for bonobos, with an added twist. All the chimps have lots of what I will call erotic interaction all the time, including auto erotic. But for bonobos, there is the added feature of almost every possible gender and age combination of non-baby making erotic interaction, and every combination of body part interaction. So a young female may provide oral sex to an older male. An older male may provide oral sex to a young male. Two adult females may engage in genital-genital rubbing. And so on and so forth. Over and over again. OMG.
Young males do not seem to have sex with their mothers. Otherwise, pretty much every combination of erotic interaction can and does happen.
So, given the chimp model, we should all be bisexual and disregard age or gender of our sexual partners. Almost all baby making sex should involve a gang bang lasting several days. We should have strong male hierarchies and female hierarchies that determine, ultimately, who gets to be the father of each child (more or less) not by who has sex with whom, but by regulating exactly when in the ovulatory cycle intromissive sex with male orgasm happens. If we lean towards the common chimp model, all males should be dominant over all females. If we lean towards the bonobo model, all females should be dominant over all males. And somehow, from this, we have to explain human female shopping behavior and sports.
So, that is the sum of our naturalistic models … where they come from and how we might use them … assuming that our evolutionary heritage, our phylogenetic framework, our Darwinian determinism, should provide us with the best naturalistic guidance for day to day behavior.
But hold on one more time: There is another thing we should think about in building our naturalistic model: Birds.
We might be mammals, but we act like birds. Like chimps, we exist in societies with multiple potentially sexually mature males and females. But we tend to pair bond (or nearly so) within this framework. In this sense, we are very different than our closest living mammal relatives (who, by the way, are relatively very distant in relationship compared to many other pairs of species!). We are not that closely related to birds, but if we look at a wide range of human societies known to live off the land (‘preagricultural’ groups, either in the present or ethnohistorically known), we see that human societies are often very close to bird societies. We have some kind of monogamy that occasionally develops into a bit of polyandry (like traditional Tibetan highland groups and the phalarope birds of the arctic) or a bit of polygyny (like many cattle keeping groups or the oft-studied oft-cited red winged blackbirds and many other birds). But even in societies that do allow polygyny, most families are based on monogamy, though it is serial monogamy (like the vast majority of bird species including almost all song birds).
Yet, when certain economic features … like land (nesting sites) and professional or social milieu (territories) are essential to status and wealth, we have very long term monogamous systems in humans such as the immutable Christian Victorian marriage (or in birds the life long bonding of raptors). In all birds, there is a LOT of care invested in offspring, and males and females deliver similar levels … and in some species very similar kinds … of this care. In humans, there is also considerable care in offspring but … alas … we are mammals so females don’t lay eggs (allowing for male investment at an early stage) and males can’t nurse the young. This starts a cascade of male-female differences. Perhaps females care for the young directly while the males busy themselves defending the territory.
Why, it is rather remarkable how birds map human variation in society in so many ways. But not all. Birds rarely live in tightly knit, spatially close groups of sexually active pairs. One example of this is nesting sea birds like gulls and terns. And for gulls and terns, the biggest survival risk in early life is that your neighbor eats you while your parents are distracted. There are certainly human analogs to this (infanticide is a real factor in shaping human society) but the parallel is weak.
Dear reader, if you are still with me (and I would understand if you’ve gotten bored or frustrated and gone away by now) then you can easily see this point: We have a rich supply of models from which we can draw naturalistic conclusions, and these models can be used to ‘justify’ or explain almost anything. This makes them lousy models, unless you are in the business of just making stuff up.
A better approach might be to ask: What is the premise we choose, as a society, to be the basis of our ethical and moral codes, our laws, etc.? For many people, this premise is mutualism. We agree to equality of all individuals (with special exceptions). This equality does not mean individuals are identical. Indeed, there may be categorical differences among groups. Females do have babies, males do not. But equal rights are to be preserved. Then on the basis of this equality, we agree to interact in positive, mutually beneficial ways. One hand washes the other. What goes around comes around. We watch, and occasionally scratch, each other’s backs. Friendship, camaraderie, and civility are valued practices.
This does not mean that the naturalistic consideration goes away. What it should mean is that naturalistic models can not be used to justify systematic social, cultural, legal, economic, philosophical, or political inequalities. But they can be used, if used properly (and that is an academic, not political issue), to explain some things. Even so, most of the explanations we encounter in the popular literature are selective, unjustified, inappropriate and poorly executed. In my opinion, we are very very far from being able to explain much with what we currently know, and certainly not at the pop psychology level seen in the comments cited above.
But I do want to make an attempt at a naturalistic consideration of modern human society with respect to two realities. One, females have the babies and males do not, and two, males tend to be more violent and aggressive than females.
The fundamental reality of these propositions needs to be tested first. Do the females really have the babies, and what does this mean? Well, it is not so simple. For the most part, females do have the babies but with modern approaches it is possible and indeed quite common, and in some cases, necessary, for males to have much more input in offspring care in humans than one might otherwise predict from a purely naturalistic model. For example … and very few people know this about me, and learning this is your reward for sticking with me this far along in this essay … I personally fed my daughter for her entire nursing period. I held her, I gave her the milk, we stared into each other’s eyes and bonded lovingly, the whole nine yards. Not her mother. Me. So, while the female clearly has a major biological commitment to the process, it is not as absolute as one might assume.
With respect to male violence and aggression, remember what Margaret Mead said. Mead claimed that there were societies in which females were more aggressive or violent than males, and thus, the whole male aggression thing was a pure cultural construct. Well, Mead was a great person and a great anthropologist, but she was wrong about that. There are no such societies. On the other hand, and in anthropology there is always another hand, Mead was not totally wrong.
Yes, males are always, without exception, more violent and aggressive, on average (and bigger and stronger too) than the females within a given society. But the absolute level of aggression and violence among both males and females is highly variable. Therefore, there can be females in one society who are more violent and aggressive than the males in another society. Most importantly, the level of difference between males and females in a given society … and especially the level of male control over females … varies greatly. There are societies in which there is very little difference between males and females, and there are societies in which the difference is great. Americans: You live in a society where the difference is considerable, more than the average. That is not how it has to be.
So, with respect to our individual selfish Darwinian reproductive goals, our broader social (territorial, economic, etc.) goals, and our cultural fixations, babies and aggression are both important. Offspring are our Darwinian legacy; sons are guns; little girls grow up and give their parents more Darwins (a unit of fitness) by helping raise more children and by having babies of their own. Sexual access must be ensured and paternity managed. Territory must be held, resources protected. And so on.
The problem is that only the ladies can have the babies, and it mainly falls to the gents to be the tough guys. On top of this, when a woman has a child she may fall short in some other responsibilities such as carrying all the firewood and water and other physically demanding tasks (as occur in most societies where women do the vast majority of hard labor). For their part, this aggressiveness of males comes in handy for defending the group territory, but it often becomes a nuisance and becomes a very serious problem when this aggression turns to beating, raping, murdering, and threatening others, mainly women.
So how do we deal with this? Start out by admitting that we as a society owe women a great deal for being the baby bearers. It is hard, painful, and you can die doing it. But no. In our society, we take away a woman’s rights because she is the baby bearer. She is paid less, and as one of the comments cited above suggests, her value is diminished.
- “…hiring a woman results in the risk that she will be unable to work if she gets pregnant. The “worth” of that employee is thus reduced….”
We also deal with this by admitting that aggressive male approaches are not necessarily a good thing. Yes, it may be true that men earn money in part for status, and not for consumption, but that would be because men are being assholes. If it is true that being aggressive, ambitious, authoritative, less caring and even psychopathic are ‘qualities’ that are sought in CEOs, then we have to stop doing that. We have to stop seeking and rewarding those qualities.
Compensation works both ways. We must compensate, as a society, for the burden of our evolutionary past as manifest differentially by gender. Our behavior is flexible, and thus it is incumbent on our society to attenuate violent leanings. Childbearing is fundamental and essential but cannot be totally outsourced by the women who do it. Punishing women for having this responsibility is exactly the opposite of what we should do.
A review of our evolutionary context is interesting to me (it is what my professional research life is largely about) and this context is causative. But a realistic look at our evolutionary biology does not give any simple answers, and never, ever does it provide justification for unfairness or violence.
There is a reason they call it the Naturalistic Fallacy.
1The entire conversation related to the evolutionary context of modern human health and behavior can be researched by beginning with the work of Eaton, Konner and Shostack and working backwards and forwards from there. Here are two of the key references to get your started.
S Eaton (2003). An evolutionary perspective on human physical activity: implications for health Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology – Part A: Molecular & Integrative Physiology, 136 (1), 153-159 DOI: 10.1016/S1095-6433(03)00208-3
Eaton, S. Boyd, Konner, Melvin (1985). Paleolithic nutrition: A Consideration of its nature and current implications. New England Journal of Medicine, 312 (5), 283-289