Thursday, March 12, 2009

Does Sociobiology Say Nice Guys Finish Last?

According to Pandagon, yes it does. She goes so far as to say that sociobiologists (e.g. evolutionary psychologists) are all just Nice Guys who can't seem to grasp that women have thoughts and feelings and free will like anyone else. This is an extremely common misconception of sociobiology, so I suppose I shouldn't blame Pandagon for not looking up a little about the field she's relentlessly bashing.

First off: Sociobiology does not say that all behaviors must be instinctual in order to be selected for. Sociobiology does not in any way imply that women are instinctual beasts driven only by whatever behaviors are innate. Sociobiology says this: Under the assumption that all traits are genetically mediated, including behaviors. It follows then that human behaviors must all be genetically mediated, and since all behaviors are genetically mediated, the ones that we ended up with were probably selected for at some point. Sociobiology tests hypotheses about those selection pressures.

So, the eagerness (and capacity!) to internalize social rules must be genetically mediated and therefore "instinctual" in some way, and natural selection can act on the capacity to learn behaviors based on those social rules just as it can act on instinctual behaviors themselves. What matters for natural selection is whether those behaviors or the capacity to learn ones like them were present while our species was evolving (or are present while we are evolving, depending on your opinion).

Pandagon makes a couple of ridiculous assumptions that I cannot let slide. First, she assumes that women and men have the same reproductive stakes. If this is the case, then as she says, it's worthwhile to say that proving women prefer men in higher tax brackets is the same as saying that women earn less. This is not the case. A woman's stake in her reproductive success is extremely high: she can only produce a certain number of offspring in her lifetime. A man's is extremely low: he can impregnate a woman a day.

Second, she assumes that all societies are patriarchies, and thus that women's preference for wealthy men across cultures proves only this first point. Even if every society in the world were a strict patriarchy, in order for this to be the case, we would have to see men being favored more or less according to their wealth ONLY as a product of the strictness of the patriarchy. Note here that social status has been divorced from wealth: a high-status noble who owns no land would gain no benefit, while a low-status upstart with a large tract of land would have his pick of the ladies. Social stratification in countless societies does not support this.

Third, she assumes that sociobiologists negate the possibility of social status, brains, and other useful things traveling through the female line. Social status is a hot topic for sociobiologists. One measure of it just happens to be wealth. And time and time again it has been proved that individuals with higher social status tend to have more offspring, who tend to have more offspring.

On that vein, Pandagon talks about a plethora of studies that equate "number of sexual partners" to "reproductive success", which is a holdout from oldschool evolutionary theory. Nowadays, evolutionary scientists of all flavors, including psychological, discuss "reproductive success" as any number of things: the number of your surviving grandchildren, the number of your fertile offspring, and the number of individuals in the next generation who contain some of your genes are some popular ones. Sheer number of sexual partners will not necessarily be correlated with a woman's reproductive success, because having sex with a lot of men might actually not result in more children than having sex with the same man over a long period of time. Also, having a lot of children and abandoning them will not result in more children reaching fertility, while having children who are supported by the additional resources of a father contributing to their upbringing will most likely result in more children reaching fertility, especially in an evolutionary setting where survival is not aided by welfare stamps and the foster care system.

Intriguingly, if you look at "reproductive success" through this lens, you might expect that being a proper nice guy and contributing more to your lady even if you haven't got as many resources overall would end up with more babies with your genes being born into the next generation. And if that's a strategy that works, it might explain the proliferance of pantomimes, the "Nice Guys (tm)", that poor Pandagon fears are controlling the field of sociobiology.

And remember, folks, just because a gene or set of genes was selected for doesn't mean a) everyone has it, b) it's going to be expressed the same way in modern times as it was in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (which is a proper term in sociobiology, I swear), or c) it's the only strategy to reproductive success. Just because something is genetically "mediated" does not mean it is genetically "determined."

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