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Interactions between species — a fundamental consequence of biodiversity — may help to generate more biodiversity.
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"Deseo" (Desire) by Jose Camilo Palacio Constain, via Flickr.

In Part 1 of this series on the origin of human sexuality, I borrowed a phrase from the biologist Robert Sapolsky, who once referred to humans as “tragically confused” in terms of the way we mate. As he put it, we’re not quite a classically monogamous species, but neither are we a winner-take-all polygamous species either. Instead, we seem to be a little from column A and a little from column B (and maybe something from columns C and D too). I’ve been trying to think of a way to explain why I think this is an apt description, where some of that confusion originates, and what are some of the potential pitfalls when thinking of human mating patterns. Analogies are imperfect, as some information is always lost in the transfer between concepts, so forgive me if this falls short. And it’s a sports analogy too, but bear with me; I’ll keep it brief. During the first year I played Little League baseball as a kid, one of the coaches told us that when we played defense we should be ready to field the ball at all times (or at least, be ready to get out of the way or knock the ball down to defend yourself). A hard-hit baseball can really hurt, especially for a young kid who has stopped paying attention because they became distracted by the flock of geese flying overhead (true story). Anyway, he taught us that the best defensive position was to have your glove ready and stand crouched while facing the batter, with our toes pointed slightly inward, or “pigeon-toed.” That may not be textbook coaching, but he explained that by having both feet pointed inward we could quickly pivot and “push off” to our left or right, reacting to where the ball was hit. For whatever reason, I’ve remembered that for more than thirty years. The lesson stuck. I think “pigeon-toed” is a decent metaphor for much of human behavior, including our sexuality. We are a highly adaptable species, capable of moving in a range of directions by reacting to, and in turn modifying, the world around us. That flexibility is one of our species’ greatest assets – along with other genetic and physiological adaptations – in that it allows us to live on every continent and adjust to a range of social and ecological conditions. Of course, behavioral flexibility is not unique to humans. The very essence of behavior is that it allows organisms to respond to circumstances, whether it be plants growing towards sunlight or water, anemones swimming away from predators, enormous herds of wildebeest migrating in search of land to graze, or chimpanzees sizing up the complex political situation within their troop. This is pretty basic stuff. However, when thinking about sexual behavior, it may help to stop and remind ourselves that evolution did not design organisms to be static things, or genetically determined automatons. One of the potential pitfalls when describing a species’ behavior, particularly for a general audience, is the temptation to use single-word descriptions. For example, among our hominoid relatives, gorillas are said to be polygynous, gibbons are monogamous, and chimpanzees are polygynandrous (or multimale/multifemale). Certainly, behavioral patterns exist, and these are very reasonable assessments of these species’ mating patterns, but one word cannot be all-encompassing. This matters because, although we like to think categorically, behaviors are complex, variable, and dynamic. Rigid definitions usually mean that some complexity must be shaved off in order to fit into a discrete category more cleanly. The problem is not that the above labels have no merit; it’s that they have a tendency to overshadow the variation that exists within a species. It's also true that our vocabulary helps shape the way we think about a given species, especially for ourselves. Several respected researchers have suggested that human mating patterns do not fit into a single category, and that the best fit for our species is a combination of monogamy/ polygyny (Dixson 2009; Gray and Garcia, 2013; Opie et al 2013). That is, some aspects of our evolved biology and behavior are more consistent with monogamous species (ex. the neurobiology of romantic love and pair-bonding), while other traits hint at polygyny (ex. slight sexual dimorphism, the fact that many cultures allow men to have more than one wife). Peter Gray and Justin Garcia specified this categorization a bit further, arguing that our biology is “consistent with slight polygyny/ mostly monogamy” (p. 142, emphases not in original), adding that “slight polygyny has been stamped into our human form” (p. 38). Elsewhere, in another paper about casual sex and so-called sexual “hookups,” Garcia et al. (2012) referred to “the biological centrality of the pair-bond” to describe human mating behavior, indicating how important this type of relationship is for our species. Our ability to fall in love and form strong pair-bonds does not negate that casual sex and other types of sexual relationships exist. Instead, it is merely a reminder that where there is a core, there is also a periphery. Others have suggested that the framing of the evolution of human sexuality has traditionally been somewhat male-centric, and that a fuller appreciation of the wide array of human mating practices is needed. For example, Katherine Starkweather and Raymond Hames (2012) found 53 societies in the ethnographic record that allowed a woman to take more than one husband (i.e., polyandry), indicating that this practice was not as rare as once believed. This raises the question: how common does polyandry have to be in order to consider it a part of the human mating repertoire? On that note, Sarah Hrdy (2000) questioned how “natural” single-male mating systems (monogamy, polygyny) were for female primates on the whole, asking where polyandrous mating might fit into things:
“The existence of one-male mating systems does not prove that females “naturally” gravitate to them. Typically monandrous (copulating with just one partner) mating systems are maintained by one male excluding rivals or by other circumstances that distort female options. As with many other animals, primate females (including women) can benefit reproductively from polyandrous matings. Understanding this takes us beyond narrow research programs intent on demonstrating “universal” differences between the sexes, and allows us to study females as flexible and opportunistic individuals who confront recurring reproductive dilemmas and tradeoffs within a world of shifting options.” (2000: 75)
I think this is another place we can get tripped up when describing human mating patterns. It’s another reminder how important it is to acknowledge the range of behaviors that exist, while resisting overly simplistic categorizations. There are many acknowledgements of this mating plurality in the cultural ether, in addition to Sapolsky’s description of humans as being “tragically confused.” Perhaps the most famous example comes from the advice columnist and author Dan Savage, who coined the term “monogamish” to describe his own married life, but also people generally.  In an interview with “Big Think,” the primatologist and psychologist Laurie Santos called humans “a funny puzzle,” sort of pair-bonded, but sometimes with a tendency to seek out multiple partners (for both men and women). Wednesday Martin, author of the book “Primates of Park Avenue,” recently wrote an essay about “female flexuality,” adding that “we have yet to wrap our minds around how much female sexuality has to do with context.” Similarly, anthropologist Greg Downey described human sexuality as “flexible, even contradictory.” Chris Ryan, one of the authors of the book “Sex at Dawn,” referred to humans as “sexual omnivores,” given the range of sexual practices in cultures around the world. And so on, and so on. These thinkers all come from slightly different perspectives. What they have in common is that they suggest that our species is not so easy to pin down, or at least not with a single label. We are complex. Ryan’s phrase “sexual omnivores” provides us with yet another useful analogy (uh-oh, not another one). Perhaps asking what “the” human mating pattern is, is something like asking what “the” human diet is. As true omnivores (in the dietary sense), humans can eat organisms from nearly every branch of life – plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, algae, etc. We have species-wide nutritional requirements that are built into our biology (amino acids, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, etc.), but the ways that we construct our diets will vary by time, ecology, and culture. A strength of this diet-versus-mating analogy is that we do not always have our nutritional requirements or our sexual desires at a fully conscious level. Nor did we ever need to be professional dietitians to consume a healthy diet. Instead, we learned what to eat from the generations who came before us. Those diets did not have to be perfect; they just had to be good enough to get the job done. Upon moving to a new area, our ancestors would have made due with whatever foods were available, and by trial and error put together a functional diet that provided a range of nutrients. Again, flexibility is one of our best assets. Likewise, we may have requirements or desires related to our social and sexual relationships – love, companionship, sex, pleasure, self-esteem , etc. – and here too, we may not always have an explanation for our desires at our fingertips. Humans are undoubtedly evolved organisms, and in that way we are just like every other organism. In terms of our sexual behaviors, evolution has given us biological impulses including sexual desire and romantic love, and these have genetic roots. In turn, individuals learn cultural norms as to the ways those impulses might be appropriately expressed. After all, as the anthropologist Agustin Fuentes wrote, human behavior is not strictly the product of genes or culture, but instead is “naturenurtural” (2012:16). Of course, there is one more step. Individuals do not just passively receive cultural norms; they also construct them. And different cultures, at different times, have come up with various prescriptions to balancing our erotic desires and needs. Finally, one of the obvious benefits of being a flexible, or “pigeon-toed,” species is the ability to pivot and adjust to diverse diets, or diverse relationship structures: monogamy, polyandry, polygyny, sexual hookups, serial monogamy, non-monogamy, etc. But one of the potential problems with this is that if one foot is pointed at too exaggerated of an angle – to continue with the metaphor – then it can become difficult to walk straight. We may even trip ourselves. This brings us full circle, back to Sapolsky’s portrayal of humans as tragically confused. Our adaptability prepares us to go in a number of directions. But there is also the potential for conflict and confusion if parts of ourselves are going in different directions simultaneously.   Series: "On the Origin of Human Sexuality" Part 1. The Tragically Confused Species Part 2. Is the Human Species Sexually Omnivorous? Part 3. Coming soon...   References Dixson A. 2009. Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems. Oxford. Link Fuentes A. 2012. Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature. University of California Press. Link Garcia JR, Reiber C, Massey SG, Merriwether AM. 2012. Sexual hookup culture: A review. Review of General Psychology. 16(2):161-176. Link Gray PB, Garcia JR. 2013. Evolution and Human Sexual Behavior. Harvard.  Link Hrdy SB. 2000. The optimal number of fathers: Evolution, demography, and history in the shaping of female mate preferences. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 907: 75–96.Link Opie C, Atkinson QD, Dunbar RIM, Shultz S. 2013. Male infanticide leads to social monogamy in primates. PNAS 110 (33): 13229-13230. Link Starkweather, KE Hames R. 2012.  A survey of non-classical polyandry. Human Nature 23(2): 149-72. Link [post_title] => Is the Human Species Sexually Omnivorous? [post_excerpt] => Asking what “the” human mating pattern is, is like asking what “the” human diet is. As true omnivores, humans can eat organisms from nearly every branch of life. Our sexuality is much the same. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => is-the-human-species-sexually-omnivorous [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-06-15 16:46:56 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-06-15 20:46:56 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120004936 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 2 [filter] => raw ) [1] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120004951 [post_author] => 41 [post_date] => 2016-06-14 11:00:23 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-06-14 15:00:23 [post_content] =>
The author gazing with her son (left); a rhesus monkey mother gazing with her infant. Photo credits: Sarah Burns-Spielvogel (left) and Peggy O'Neill-Wagner (right).

I did it with my daughter. I did it with my son (as depicted above). Mothers the world over do it. We gaze, almost reflexively, at our infants’ faces. And not just for brief moments, but for long, uninterrupted spells. It turns out, we’re not alone: nonhuman primate mothers gaze at their infants, too. Chimpanzees, geladas, and macaques have all been documented engaging these face-to-face interactions, and there are unpublished reports of other species (such as bonobos) engaging in them, too. Why does this behavior persist across primate taxa? (And why is it seemingly absent in other mammals?) A unique study published today by our laboratory may begin to answer this question. In a combined observational and experimental study of rhesus monkeys, we explored how variations in early face-to-face interactions between mothers and infants influence infants’ later social development. In our observational study, we found that monkey infants whose mothers engaged in a particular type of face-to-face interaction – mutual gazing – more frequently with them in the first month of life, were more sociable later in infancy and into monkey toddlerhood: they spent more time in social contact with other monkeys, and they initiated more social interactions like grooming and play. These findings are important, as they are the first to demonstrate that variability in neonatal mother-infant interactions shape the later expression of social development. At a proximate level, it’s possible that monkey moms who engage in mutual gazing with their infants are also in physical contact with them more frequently, and this physical contact is what drives the infants’ later sociality. At an ultimate level, it is possible that these two traits – mutual gazing and enhanced sociality – are pleiotropic, meaning they independently resulted from influences of the same gene. Our experimental study addressed these hypotheses. In a group of infant monkeys reared in a nursery by human caregivers, without the typically-occurring interactions from their mothers (but, importantly, still given typical interactions with same-aged peers), we randomly assigned 1/3 of the infants to receive standard care, 1/3 to receive extra physical handling only, and 1/3 to receive extra handling and face-to-face interactions in the first month of life. Intriguingly, only the infants in the handling-plus-face-to-face group were more social later: at 2 months (monkey infancy), eyetracking assessments revealed that they looked longer at pictures of (unrelated and unknown) monkeys in a social setting as compared to abstract photos. The other groups showed no difference in looking times between the two stimuli. At this age, the handling-plus-face-to-face infants also spent more time in social interactions with their peers than infants in the other two groups – and the other two groups did not differ from each other. Thus, it appears that the experience of neonatal face-to-face interactions in particular is promoting the greater sociality we observed later in development. Importantly, these effects are not driven by increased physical contact. Our findings suggest that neonatal face-to-face interactions such as mutual gazing exist in both human and nonhuman primates because they evolved in gregarious species exhibiting enhanced sociality. Of particular note is that all the primates – including humans – that have been documented engaging in mother-infant mutual gazing are highly social species that live in multi-male, multi-female groups. All of them use social tactics to secure resources required for survival and reproduction. As human and nonhuman primates alike rely on subtle and complex facial gestures for communication, it makes sense that we moms would begin to expose our infants to these intricate expressions from the get-go. Primates living in large, stable social groups rely on advanced social skills to both coordinate their behaviors with others in the group and to solve conflicts arising from resource competition. Thus, by imparting advanced social skills in infancy via face-to-face interactions, primate caregivers may be promoting social competence that is critical for survival in complex societies.   References

Bard, K. A. et al. Group differences in the mutual gaze of chimpanzees(Pan troglodytes). Dev. Psychol. 41, 616–624 (2005).

de Waal, F. Chimpanzee Politics: Sex and Power Among Apes (Jonathan Cape, 1982).

Dettmer, A. M. et al. First-time rhesus monkey mothers, and mothers of sons, preferentially engage in face-to-face interactions with their infants. Am. J. Primatol. 78, 238–246 (2016).

Ferrari, P. F., Paukner, A., Ionica, C. & Suomi, S. J. Reciprocal face-to-face communication between rhesus macaque mothers and their newborn infants. Curr. Biol. 19, 1768–1772 (2009).

Mancini, G., Ferrari, P. F. & Palagi, E. Rapid facial mimicry in geladas. Sci. Rep. 3, 1527 (2013).

Richman, A. L. et al. Maternal behavior to infants in five cultures. New Dir. Child Dev. 40, 81–97 (1988).

Silk, J. B., Alberts, S. C. & Altmann, J. Social bonds of female baboons enhance infant survival. Science 302, 1231–1234 (2003).

[post_title] => Why Gazing At Babies May Be So Irresistible [post_excerpt] => A new study finds that monkey mothers who engaged in mutual gazing with infants more frequently during their first month showed those same infants being more sociable later in life. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => why-gazing-at-babies-may-be-so-irresistible [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-06-14 11:11:48 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-06-14 15:11:48 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120004951 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [2] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120004792 [post_author] => 52 [post_date] => 2016-06-01 11:12:17 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-06-01 15:12:17 [post_content] =>
Bottleneck by Samuel Silva, via Flickr.

Population genetics presents us with numerous conundrums – several of which have to do with how the same genomic disposition can be “reached” over evolutionary time with multiple alternate demographic or selective processes. I have discussed several of these issues before (here and here), wherein demography confounds selection or vice versa. Studies that estimate genetic diversity, differentiation, and/or effective population sizes thus need to pay attention to the effects of linked selection before making conclusive statements about their underlying evolutionary history. The issue at hand has to do with demographic inference in the presence of selective sweeps. As expected, selective sweeps (or positive selection at a site, and the subsequent reduction in genomic diversity at linked neutral sites) cause reduction in effective population size, a consequence also characteristic of population bottlenecks. Considering that the inference of effective population size is a key component of most genome-scale studies, Schrider et al. (2016) in a new manuscript discuss these confounding effects of sweeps in the inference of effective population sizes using three popular evolutionary model-based inference platforms – ABC, δaδi, and PSMC. Their findings have important implications for how we study genomic diversity and differentiation. Briefly, using coalescent simulations of 500 unlinked loci, and 100 replicate genomes under each of four population histories – constant size, bottleneck, exponential growth, and bottleneck followed by exponential growth, they determine the efficiency of genetic diversity (π), Tajima’s D, and the three methods above in recapturing the effects of linked selective sweeps of varying intensities on sites with increasing genetic distance. For inference using PSMC, the authors simulated 100 replicates of 15 Mb genomes under four scenarios – neutral, one recent sweep, three recurrent sweeps, and one of five sweeps. [caption id="attachment_120004793" align="aligncenter" width="620"]Inference of effective population size change using PSMC under different scenarios of recurrent sweeps. Image courtesy: Figure 5 of Schrider et al. (2016) http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/047019 Inference of effective population size change using PSMC under different scenarios of recurrent sweeps. Image courtesy: Figure 5 of Schrider et al. (2016) http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/047019[/caption] Under the bottleneck model, increasing the number of loci under sweeps upwardly biased parameter estimates of effective population sizes using both δaδi, and ABC. Similarly, the population growth model simulations showed bias towards more recent and faster growth rates using both methods. Inferences were differently biased under both methods in the contraction followed by growth model as well. Inference using PSMC indicated that sweeps can influence population size change estimates considerably, depending on the number of recurrent sweeps over evolutionary time, with increased variance in estimates with increased number of sweeps, thus “dramatically skew”-ing estimates. Note however, that this is exactly what one would expect to see while using PSMC in the presence of sweeps – selective sweeps cause drastic reductions in effective population sizes, which can confound true bottlenecks (see this interesting Twitter conversation over this debate). Rightfully so, Schrider et al. (2016) caution scientists about the challenges in “simultaneous estimation of parameters related to natural selection and demographic history”.
Until an approach to obtain accurate estimates of demographic parameters in the face of natural selection is devised, population size histories inferred from population genetic datasets could remain significantly biased.
Reference: Schrider, Daniel, Alexander G. Shanku, and Andrew D. Kern. "Effects of linked selective sweeps on demographic inference and model selection."bioRxiv (2016): 047019. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/047019 This article was previously published by the author on The Molecular Ecologist here. [post_title] => (How) Do Selective Sweeps Confound Demographic Inference? [post_excerpt] => Does analysis of your genomic data reveal signatures of bottlenecks? Maybe they are recent selective sweeps after all. Schrider et al. (2016) show you how. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => how-do-selective-sweeps-confound-demographic-inference [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-06-15 18:03:13 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-06-15 22:03:13 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120004792 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [3] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120004788 [post_author] => 30 [post_date] => 2016-05-24 13:26:22 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-05-24 17:26:22 [post_content] =>
A bleak future awaits us — if we stay the course set to serve financial elites.

Here’s an amazing fact: It’s 2016 and humanity is collectively moving toward a future that nobody wants. We are literally going somewhere that will hurt every single one of us.

Mass extinctions are terrible things. Impoverished societies create the conditions for radical extremism and violence. Depleting top soils create food insecurity and mass starvation. Debt-bloated economies become unstable and easily collapse. Extreme shifts in climate cause millions to become refugees. These kinds of things — all of which are becoming more likely with each passing day on our present course — are bad for business, harmful for parents raising their children, damaging to the psyches of people rich and poor, and downright devastating to non-human life.

Billionaires don’t fair well in a world where starving billions could storm the barricades to get food and shelter. Sick people create conditions for the spread of disease. You see what I’m painting here? It is all connected and the global crisis is arising because we have yet to realize this deep truth about the world we live in.

Then WHY IS IT that humanity is going in this very direction right now? Simply put, it is because the “powers that be” are disconnected so profoundly from reality that they have no idea what they are doing.

Elected officials in high office? These days they are bought and sold by the highest bidders. They only care about staying in power.

Corporate CEO’s at multinational companies? All they care about is playing financial incest on each others’ boards, enriching each other with golden parachutes and year-end bonuses.

Everyday people? They are just going about their lives, doing what their cultures tell them will lead to a good life. They just want to live and be free.

And yet, here we are. In late May of 2016 there are more greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere each year than ever before. The human population continues to grow at an exponential pace. And we are literally consuming the trees, rivers, and grassland meadows of the Earth.

What if it didn’t have to be this way?
The future isn’t written yet. We still have time to change it, but only if we know what we want.

Now imagine what kind of future most people do want. We would like to be healthy and happy, have time to pursue our passions, become skilled at doing things we love, and — of course — give abundance to our children who will inhabit the earth after we are long dead and gone.

It’s so simple in so many ways. Human beings enjoy leisure and human contact. We find pleasure in being seen and loved by others we care about. It is in our nature to be social, to make music and art, to make love and seek pleasure. Nowhere in our genetic code are we wired for destruction of all-things-sacred in the world.

And it is in this gap — between that which currently is and that which could possibly be — that I find deep hope for the future of humanity. My friends have written about the singular ideology that currently dictates core logics of the global economy. They describe how we are taught to believe in therugged individual, a human island in the vast sea of self-reliant possibilities.

Yet no man (or woman) is an island. Each of us is born precariously fragile from a mother’s womb. We would quickly die in those first few years if caregivers were not ever-present to feed us, wipe away our excrement, and protect us from harm. Human beings are deeply social creatures. We arise from the natural world and are profoundly immersed in webs of dependency from the first drawn breathe to the last wavering exhale.

The sciences of human nature tell us much more than this. Not only are we social beings, we are also deeply moral in nature. A sure-fire way to piss us off is to be unfair, dominate or oppress us, or take more than your share. Which begs the question: Why is it that wealth and power inequality are the norm today? The answer can be found in the annals of research on hunter-gatherer societies. Our ancestors — once upon a time in the distant past — were strong males who ruled by physical domination (just as silverback gorillas do today).

But there came a time, several million years ago, when hunting technology combined with a good eye and agile shoulders. Some of our ancestors got together and ganged up on the dominator males. Throw rocks from multiple angles in an ambush attack and even the largest silverback can be taken down. Herein lies the great secret of democracies the world over. We use our ability to form collectives (and act as teams) to out-compete the lone bullies who would otherwise take more than their share.

Of course, a key difference between those ancestral times and today is that societies were much smaller then. Everyone knew everyone else. If someone was abusive or prone to cheating, word would get around quick. All of this changed with the advent of complex societies some 8,000 years ago. Empires were born around the settlements of agriculture. Strong men could organize wannabe strong men to form elite cabals and wreak havoc on the newly forming masses. They ganged up on the rest of us and have been dominating the game ever since.

Fast forward to today and you’ll see how our amazing ability to learn from each other and build upon what came before (called “cumulative” culture by the experts) made it possible for empire-builders to refine their craft. They invented things like corporations, accounting and bookkeeping, and the government control of property rights granted to those with existing wealth. This is what we all capitalism today.

For more on how capitalism actually works, see here…

And so it became possible to weave systems of dominance, wealth extraction and hoarding. Those who sought to have the most were able to invest in media institutions, marketing and advertising and make the greedy aspiration of the super-rich a run-of-the-mill aspiration for everyday working folk.

This is how it came to pass that we collectively began to serve power structures in the present that create the conditions for that future world no one wants. If we are to change course, we will need to understand how we got here. It will be necessary for us to pull back the veil and see how systems of wealth hoarding hide in our minds. We will have to understand how thestories that organize our lives are broken and begin to replace them with better alternatives.

And all of this is about healing. Capitalism is dying (can you feel it?) and it is our collective choice whether we die with it.

Now is the time to consciously introspect about what kind of future youwant. If no one wants the one we are creating now, it might just be a good idea to start seeking common ground, explore shared intentions, and discover ways forward that the majority of us can agree on. We can cooperate together around these themes and overtake the would-be dominators at the helm today. Change the rules of politics and economies to serve all of humanity and life on Earth.

That will require a credible knowledge of human nature. And it will take some serious visionary thinking about how to get from here to there. I am up for the challenge!

How about you?

Onward, fellow humans.

[post_title] => Elites Don't Understand Human Nature, But It's Time They Learned [post_excerpt] => Human beings are deeply social creatures. But the “powers that be” are disconnected so profoundly from reality that they have no idea what they are doing. It is time to consciously introspect about what kind of future we want. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => elites-dont-understand-human-nature [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-05-24 13:31:09 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-05-24 17:31:09 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120004788 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 3 [filter] => raw ) [4] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120004702 [post_author] => 40 [post_date] => 2016-05-12 09:16:37 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-05-12 13:16:37 [post_content] => "Stone Sex Party," Khajuraho, India, by David Tubau, via Flickr.   “(A)s our forebears adopted life on the dangerous ground, pair-bonding became imperative for females and practical for males. And monogamy – the human habit of forming a pair-bond with one individual at a time – evolved.” (Helen Fisher 2004: 131) “Several types of evidence suggest our pre-agricultural (prehistoric) ancestors lived in groups where most mature individuals would have had several ongoing sexual relationships at any given time. Though often casual, these relationships were not random or meaningless. Quite the opposite: they reinforced crucial social ties holding these highly interdependent communities together.” (Chris Ryan & Cacilda Jethá 2010: 9-10) “We are not a classic pair-bonded species. We are not a polygamous, tournament species either…. What we are, officially, … is a tragically confused species.” (Robert Sapolsky)   The above three quotations were selected to illustrate the range of views that exist on the evolution of human sexual and mating behavior. Obviously, this is not a trivial matter. To the primatologist Bernard Chapais: “The central puzzle of human social evolution… is to explain how promiscuity was replaced by the pair bond” (that is, assuming the pair-bond has gained complete ascendancy). But it’s about more than our ancestors’ mating behaviors. Lurking in the background is the notion that our ancestral behavioral patterns impact current ones, via phylogenetic inertia. Additionally, how we view the past is important because, rightly or wrongly, we have a tendency to associate what is natural with what is good (but note well the naturalistic fallacy). For both of these reasons, the past matters. This is obviously a sensitive topic that goes beyond academic esoterica, so it is important to tread softly. But it is also necessary to confront the facts. Heterosexual monogamy remains the dominant, privileged model in Western societies. However, with sex scandals in the news recently (and… always), and with popular books and articles asking whether monogamy is obsolete, a myth, fettered by unrealistic expectations, or in need of amending, it is understandable that people would wonder how ‘natural’ it is. To begin, let me say that I side with Sapolsky. Individuals may figure out what works best for themselves in terms of balancing sex, love, intimacy, and commitment, but collectively we are a tragically confused species. The signposts in our biology and behavior suggest as much. This seems to originate from a few places: our evolutionary past, the overlapping – but independent – drives for love, sex and reproduction, individual variation in sexual preferences and drives, and the powerful effect of culture. One would think, given the importance of sex and mating in evolution, that natural selection would have put a straight-jacket on it and given us a stricter blueprint to follow, as other species seem to have. That doesn’t seem to be the case, however. Humans are said to have an inclination for homogamy (mating with people from the same ethnic or sociocultural background), and exogamy, where one sex leaves the natal group to find potential mates (evidence from 2 million year-old teeth suggests that, like chimpanzees, Australopithecine females were the ones to leave). But biology is the science of trends and exceptions, not laws. Across the spectrum of human cultures, we can find examples of heterogamy, endogamy, polyandry, polygyny, monogamy, non-monogamy, polyamory, and so on. However, these do not all occur in equal frequencies, so I don’t think we are truly “blank-ogamous.” There is also lots of room for variation within each culture. Being good Popperians committed to the principle of falsifiability, it is probably easier to say what we are not than what we are. One thing is clear: we are not simple. It must seem audacious to presume to know anything about the sexual and mating behavior of our ancestors. Interpreting the past is tricky because behavior does not fossilize well, and outside of time travel we cannot observe this directly. However, researchers can utilize clues from many fields – cultural anthropology, paleoanthropology, anatomy, genetics, psychology, primatology, neuroscience – to place the pieces of the puzzle on the table to see what the big picture looks like. And the pieces are fascinating. A few qualifiers at the outset: I am a biological anthropologist, but this topic is not my specialty so I’m not claiming this will be comprehensive or conclusive. I’m writing this because, from my reading of things, there are good arguments on both sides for humans being pair-bonded with the ability to love deeply, though with a penchant for promiscuity. Trying to synthesize those two arguments is proving quite difficult, which I suppose makes me just another confused member of our species. It probably says something that I actually found it easier to write about the meaning of life. Due to the complexity of the topic, I decided to break this up into a series of posts (still in the works), roughly divided into the evidence for promiscuity in our species, the evidence for pair-bonding, and a synthesis of the two. Each post is probably too long, and in bullet-point style (as my advisor at Binghamton, Mike Little, used to say: “when in doubt, make a list”). I’m not completely satisfied with what I’ve compiled so far, but I am still learning.   Series: "On the Origin of Human Sexuality" Part 1. The Tragically Confused Species Part 2. Is the Human Species Sexually Omnivorous? Part 3. Coming soon...   References Fisher H. 2004. Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. MacMillan. (Link) Ryan C, Jethá C. 2010. Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. Harper. (Link) Sapolsky R. This quote comes from a lecture series titled “Biology and Human Behavior,” found here (see lecture 11). It was too good not to use. [post_title] => On the Origin of Human Sexuality: The Tragically Confused Species [post_excerpt] => “We are not a classic pair-bonded species. We are not a polygamous, tournament species either…. What we are, officially, … is a tragically confused species.” (Robert Sapolsky) [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => on-the-origins-of-human-sexuality-part-1-the-tragically-confused-species [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-06-15 16:45:41 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-06-15 20:45:41 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://evolution-institute.org/?post_type=blog&p=120004702 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => blog [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 2 [filter] => raw ) ) [post_count] => 5 [current_post] => -1 [in_the_loop] => [post] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 120004936 [post_author] => 40 [post_date] => 2016-06-15 02:22:52 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-06-15 06:22:52 [post_content] =>
"Deseo" (Desire) by Jose Camilo Palacio Constain, via Flickr.

In Part 1 of this series on the origin of human sexuality, I borrowed a phrase from the biologist Robert Sapolsky, who once referred to humans as “tragically confused” in terms of the way we mate. As he put it, we’re not quite a classically monogamous species, but neither are we a winner-take-all polygamous species either. Instead, we seem to be a little from column A and a little from column B (and maybe something from columns C and D too). I’ve been trying to think of a way to explain why I think this is an apt description, where some of that confusion originates, and what are some of the potential pitfalls when thinking of human mating patterns. Analogies are imperfect, as some information is always lost in the transfer between concepts, so forgive me if this falls short. And it’s a sports analogy too, but bear with me; I’ll keep it brief. During the first year I played Little League baseball as a kid, one of the coaches told us that when we played defense we should be ready to field the ball at all times (or at least, be ready to get out of the way or knock the ball down to defend yourself). A hard-hit baseball can really hurt, especially for a young kid who has stopped paying attention because they became distracted by the flock of geese flying overhead (true story). Anyway, he taught us that the best defensive position was to have your glove ready and stand crouched while facing the batter, with our toes pointed slightly inward, or “pigeon-toed.” That may not be textbook coaching, but he explained that by having both feet pointed inward we could quickly pivot and “push off” to our left or right, reacting to where the ball was hit. For whatever reason, I’ve remembered that for more than thirty years. The lesson stuck. I think “pigeon-toed” is a decent metaphor for much of human behavior, including our sexuality. We are a highly adaptable species, capable of moving in a range of directions by reacting to, and in turn modifying, the world around us. That flexibility is one of our species’ greatest assets – along with other genetic and physiological adaptations – in that it allows us to live on every continent and adjust to a range of social and ecological conditions. Of course, behavioral flexibility is not unique to humans. The very essence of behavior is that it allows organisms to respond to circumstances, whether it be plants growing towards sunlight or water, anemones swimming away from predators, enormous herds of wildebeest migrating in search of land to graze, or chimpanzees sizing up the complex political situation within their troop. This is pretty basic stuff. However, when thinking about sexual behavior, it may help to stop and remind ourselves that evolution did not design organisms to be static things, or genetically determined automatons. One of the potential pitfalls when describing a species’ behavior, particularly for a general audience, is the temptation to use single-word descriptions. For example, among our hominoid relatives, gorillas are said to be polygynous, gibbons are monogamous, and chimpanzees are polygynandrous (or multimale/multifemale). Certainly, behavioral patterns exist, and these are very reasonable assessments of these species’ mating patterns, but one word cannot be all-encompassing. This matters because, although we like to think categorically, behaviors are complex, variable, and dynamic. Rigid definitions usually mean that some complexity must be shaved off in order to fit into a discrete category more cleanly. The problem is not that the above labels have no merit; it’s that they have a tendency to overshadow the variation that exists within a species. It's also true that our vocabulary helps shape the way we think about a given species, especially for ourselves. Several respected researchers have suggested that human mating patterns do not fit into a single category, and that the best fit for our species is a combination of monogamy/ polygyny (Dixson 2009; Gray and Garcia, 2013; Opie et al 2013). That is, some aspects of our evolved biology and behavior are more consistent with monogamous species (ex. the neurobiology of romantic love and pair-bonding), while other traits hint at polygyny (ex. slight sexual dimorphism, the fact that many cultures allow men to have more than one wife). Peter Gray and Justin Garcia specified this categorization a bit further, arguing that our biology is “consistent with slight polygyny/ mostly monogamy” (p. 142, emphases not in original), adding that “slight polygyny has been stamped into our human form” (p. 38). Elsewhere, in another paper about casual sex and so-called sexual “hookups,” Garcia et al. (2012) referred to “the biological centrality of the pair-bond” to describe human mating behavior, indicating how important this type of relationship is for our species. Our ability to fall in love and form strong pair-bonds does not negate that casual sex and other types of sexual relationships exist. Instead, it is merely a reminder that where there is a core, there is also a periphery. Others have suggested that the framing of the evolution of human sexuality has traditionally been somewhat male-centric, and that a fuller appreciation of the wide array of human mating practices is needed. For example, Katherine Starkweather and Raymond Hames (2012) found 53 societies in the ethnographic record that allowed a woman to take more than one husband (i.e., polyandry), indicating that this practice was not as rare as once believed. This raises the question: how common does polyandry have to be in order to consider it a part of the human mating repertoire? On that note, Sarah Hrdy (2000) questioned how “natural” single-male mating systems (monogamy, polygyny) were for female primates on the whole, asking where polyandrous mating might fit into things:
“The existence of one-male mating systems does not prove that females “naturally” gravitate to them. Typically monandrous (copulating with just one partner) mating systems are maintained by one male excluding rivals or by other circumstances that distort female options. As with many other animals, primate females (including women) can benefit reproductively from polyandrous matings. Understanding this takes us beyond narrow research programs intent on demonstrating “universal” differences between the sexes, and allows us to study females as flexible and opportunistic individuals who confront recurring reproductive dilemmas and tradeoffs within a world of shifting options.” (2000: 75)
I think this is another place we can get tripped up when describing human mating patterns. It’s another reminder how important it is to acknowledge the range of behaviors that exist, while resisting overly simplistic categorizations. There are many acknowledgements of this mating plurality in the cultural ether, in addition to Sapolsky’s description of humans as being “tragically confused.” Perhaps the most famous example comes from the advice columnist and author Dan Savage, who coined the term “monogamish” to describe his own married life, but also people generally.  In an interview with “Big Think,” the primatologist and psychologist Laurie Santos called humans “a funny puzzle,” sort of pair-bonded, but sometimes with a tendency to seek out multiple partners (for both men and women). Wednesday Martin, author of the book “Primates of Park Avenue,” recently wrote an essay about “female flexuality,” adding that “we have yet to wrap our minds around how much female sexuality has to do with context.” Similarly, anthropologist Greg Downey described human sexuality as “flexible, even contradictory.” Chris Ryan, one of the authors of the book “Sex at Dawn,” referred to humans as “sexual omnivores,” given the range of sexual practices in cultures around the world. And so on, and so on. These thinkers all come from slightly different perspectives. What they have in common is that they suggest that our species is not so easy to pin down, or at least not with a single label. We are complex. Ryan’s phrase “sexual omnivores” provides us with yet another useful analogy (uh-oh, not another one). Perhaps asking what “the” human mating pattern is, is something like asking what “the” human diet is. As true omnivores (in the dietary sense), humans can eat organisms from nearly every branch of life – plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, algae, etc. We have species-wide nutritional requirements that are built into our biology (amino acids, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, etc.), but the ways that we construct our diets will vary by time, ecology, and culture. A strength of this diet-versus-mating analogy is that we do not always have our nutritional requirements or our sexual desires at a fully conscious level. Nor did we ever need to be professional dietitians to consume a healthy diet. Instead, we learned what to eat from the generations who came before us. Those diets did not have to be perfect; they just had to be good enough to get the job done. Upon moving to a new area, our ancestors would have made due with whatever foods were available, and by trial and error put together a functional diet that provided a range of nutrients. Again, flexibility is one of our best assets. Likewise, we may have requirements or desires related to our social and sexual relationships – love, companionship, sex, pleasure, self-esteem , etc. – and here too, we may not always have an explanation for our desires at our fingertips. Humans are undoubtedly evolved organisms, and in that way we are just like every other organism. In terms of our sexual behaviors, evolution has given us biological impulses including sexual desire and romantic love, and these have genetic roots. In turn, individuals learn cultural norms as to the ways those impulses might be appropriately expressed. After all, as the anthropologist Agustin Fuentes wrote, human behavior is not strictly the product of genes or culture, but instead is “naturenurtural” (2012:16). Of course, there is one more step. Individuals do not just passively receive cultural norms; they also construct them. And different cultures, at different times, have come up with various prescriptions to balancing our erotic desires and needs. Finally, one of the obvious benefits of being a flexible, or “pigeon-toed,” species is the ability to pivot and adjust to diverse diets, or diverse relationship structures: monogamy, polyandry, polygyny, sexual hookups, serial monogamy, non-monogamy, etc. But one of the potential problems with this is that if one foot is pointed at too exaggerated of an angle – to continue with the metaphor – then it can become difficult to walk straight. We may even trip ourselves. This brings us full circle, back to Sapolsky’s portrayal of humans as tragically confused. Our adaptability prepares us to go in a number of directions. But there is also the potential for conflict and confusion if parts of ourselves are going in different directions simultaneously.   Series: "On the Origin of Human Sexuality" Part 1. The Tragically Confused Species Part 2. Is the Human Species Sexually Omnivorous? Part 3. Coming soon...   References Dixson A. 2009. Sexual Selection and the Origins of Human Mating Systems. Oxford. Link Fuentes A. 2012. Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature. University of California Press. Link Garcia JR, Reiber C, Massey SG, Merriwether AM. 2012. Sexual hookup culture: A review. Review of General Psychology. 16(2):161-176. Link Gray PB, Garcia JR. 2013. Evolution and Human Sexual Behavior. Harvard.  Link Hrdy SB. 2000. The optimal number of fathers: Evolution, demography, and history in the shaping of female mate preferences. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 907: 75–96.Link Opie C, Atkinson QD, Dunbar RIM, Shultz S. 2013. Male infanticide leads to social monogamy in primates. PNAS 110 (33): 13229-13230. Link Starkweather, KE Hames R. 2012.  A survey of non-classical polyandry. Human Nature 23(2): 149-72. Link [post_title] => Is the Human Species Sexually Omnivorous? [post_excerpt] => Asking what “the” human mating pattern is, is like asking what “the” human diet is. As true omnivores, humans can eat organisms from nearly every branch of life. Our sexuality is much the same. 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