Archive for November, 2009

Evolutionary Psychology

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

Okay so earlier today this article showed up on Richard Dawkins’ twitter feed (which is basically just a feed that links to articles about evolution and atheism – I don’t think Dawkins himself uses it personally, and I’d be suprised if he has anything to do with it at all, really). It’s a classic, by-the-numbers example of the theory of evolutionary psychology and the way people leap on it to try and rationalize human behaviour, so I thought it would make a nice example for me to rant about here. Especially since I am currently (and very slowly) writing a couple of posts which deal with evolution and behaviour, so I think this one will serve as a useful caveat to illustrate that I am aware of the numerous problems with this subject, and the way it is usually portrayed in the media.

Nowhere else in science do you see such transparent bias as you do in evolutionary psychology (obviously, I don’t include Intelligent Design Creationism in the category of science). The hilarious thing is that oftentimes, people don’t even seem to realise this bias exists – they will stand there with a straight face and tell you that women like pink things because it reminds them of the berries they used to spend all their time gathering 100,000 years ago. This is my favourite example because it’s so obviously wrong – the blue/pink gender preference thing has been around for less than a hundred years and is clearly a social construct – but there’s also a more serious reason to keep it in mind, because this obstinate failure to question “common knowledge” should give anyone pause before extending similar logic to behaviour which is much more difficult to break down from a nature/nurture perspective.

Creationists aside, I don’t think anyone is going to argue that the human brain wasn’t shaped by evolution. But it is a huge and absurdly simplistic leap to say that this offers a conclusive explanation for human behaviour. And more importantly, it ignores possibly the most remarkable product of evolution so far: consciousness, and free will. This doesn’t actually free us entirely from biological constraints, but it does change the way they operate, and introduces a bunch of new variables into the mix. Evolutionarily pre-determined behaviours are one of the many variables that contribute to the way we act, but in most cases, we are not bound by them.

I think the best way to approach questions of human behaviour, to borrow a metaphor from cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus, is to think of the brain as starting off in a “first draft” state, with some initial organisation and potential behaviour, but also a lot of malleability and room for change and adaption. The first draft can be overwritten by cultural and environmental influences – and in fact, it usually is, because that’s how it’s supposed to work. On top of that, you have the conscious mind, which begins making decisions that affect outcomes and behaviour in different ways. In the early stages of childhood development, the mind is operating from a place of extreme ignorance and naïveté, which is unfortunate, considering these early decisions can have a lasting effect later on in life (it’s kind of a sad and annoying fact that the better you get at making decisions, the less important they are, and the harder it is to change behaviour that you’ve possessed from an early age). This obviously makes the nature/nurture debate even more hopelessly complicated, relying on chance events and multiple influences which may or may not be significant, depending on what the developing mind makes of them and how they affect conscious decisions in seemingly-minor ways.

So whilst understanding all of this complicated mess is a pretty big task, does that make it impossible to pull apart some of the things that influence human behaviour? As the pink berries example highlights, some explanations can be easily debunked. The same can be said of a lot of the more popular ev-psych theories, which basically just parrot back established social roles and provide a comforting “scientific” explanation which allows people to accept these roles rather than ask uncomfortable questions about right and wrong. The article I linked to above is a telling example of the way such explanations are readily applied to problematic behaviour, giving people an excuse, rather than an explanation. Oh, don’t you know… men can’t help it, that’s just the way they are. Of course, it’s merely a coincidence that that’s exactly how they’ve been taught to behave from an early age, and that they grew up surrounded by men who behaved the same way. But when you extend the same logic to other areas of life, and say, for example, that the only reason they chose their partner whom they love dearly is because of pheromones and genetic compatibility, they generally start to get a lot more uncomfortable. I guess some things are more complicated than others, eh.

The main reason why humans have been such a successful species, spreading all over the world and even tentatively beyond it, is because we have developed highly adaptable minds which can change dramatically to suit the environmental circumstances. For better or worse. Writing off negative behaviour as just a product of evolution which can’t be helped is not only simplistic, but highly counterproductive, because it stops people from questioning their behaviour and searching for the sources of such problems, and how to change them. In regards to the specific problem raised by the above article: powerful men don’t cheat on their partners because they are displaced apes who should have been born 100,000 years ago. And they don’t do it because of some innate need to spread their seed far and wide, either (which, it could be argued, is not actually a very good evolutionary approach at all for a highly social species like humans, though that’s another discussion I guess). In part, they do it because they have a basic reproductive drive combined with cultural pressures both pushing them in the same direction – both nature AND nurture, which is always a recipe for powerful and difficult to control behaviour. Ultimately, however, they do it because they choose to – even if that choice is merely the latest in a long line of choices extending back to a time when they were too ignorant to know any better. Evolution doesn’t explain why we do things; it only explains why we have the potential to do things.

Studying psychology from an evolutionary perspective is undoubtedly still a field that has a lot of potential for unlocking the secrets of the human mind. But as long as it remains infested with people searching for ways to legitimize their biases with simplistic excuses disguised as explanations, it will be difficult to get anywhere, and any progress that is made will be obscured. To return to the above article one more time, the problem can be best summed up by the quoted chapter title: “Life’s Not Fair, Or Politically Correct”. Evolutionary psychologists are second only to Rush Limbaugh when it comes to declaring themselves free agents working against the tyranny of political correctness. It’s a rather cute delusion, to be honest. Or at least it would be if these people weren’t affecting public opinion. Anyway, here’s a rule of thumb to keep in mind: if you need to resort to the PC strawman to support your argument, it’s time to rethink your position, because you’re clearly not running on logic anymore.

Evolution Of Mammal’ya Reproduction On Planet ‘Ya

Friday, November 6th, 2009

Millions of years ago, sexual development amongst mammal’ya on Planet ‘Ya evolved in a most unusual way: the very first mammal’ya groups developed a symbiotic relationship with a small species of reptile’ya which took shelter in their genital region. In exchange for this shelter, the reptile’ya travelled between different members of each social group as they slept, transfering genetic material in the process – much like a bee pollinating flowers. This served to make mating – traditionally a very vulnerable moment for any organism – much safer and more prosperous. Because mating usually took place at night, some reptile’ya evolved a bioluminscent ability, so they could both see what they were doing and also attract the attention of their counterparts inhabiting the opposite gender. Over time, most mammal’ya developed a small pouch in which their helpful friend could reside, and they began producing much greater quantities of reproductive material than was necessary, as this soon formed the basis of the reptile’ya diet.

Several million years later, however, a devastating virus epidemic swept the planet, causing a massive extinction event which eliminated over 70% of the species that had been alive at the time. The survivors didn’t escape unharmed, either – the virus penetrated their cells and into their very DNA, elicting wholesale transfer of RNA strands between the virus and its host. The only creatures that survived were the ones capable, through naught but random chance, of incorporating the virus into their own genetic makeup.

An explosion of bizarre mutations soon followed, as life flourished to fill all the gaps left vacant by the extinction event. A small percentage of mammal’ya species – including the distant ancestor of the ‘Ya themselves – made it through the turmoil, but in all the confusion of the virus-catalysed DNA alterations, it turned out that the reptile’ya DNA had fused with the mammal’ya DNA, resulting in both organisms occupying the same body. The reptile’ya was still in its traditional position in the mammal’ya genital pouch, but was now stuck there, a permanent fixture on the mammal’ya genitals. It retained a small brain, eyes, mouth, and arms, but most of its other organs had been lost, or integrated into the mammal’ya organ system. It also retained its bioluminescence ability, and to this day, glowing genitals are known as a sign of sexual arousal amongst mammal’ya (often leading to embarrassing situations, especially amongst adolescent ‘Ya, at movie theatre’yas, swimming pool’yas, etc). Directly below the odd-looking face on the mammal’ya pelvic region were either the traditional three prehensile penises of the male, or the corresponding triple-clitoris analogue of the female.

The ancient, pre-reptile’ya method of sexual intercourse had been revived, with the notable difference that the surviving elements of the reptile’ya could still help things along, by manipulating with its arms and whatnot. In practice, it was a somewhat haphazard affair, which was why the reptile’ya method had supplanted it in ancient times – in order for genetic material to be successfully transfered, the three prehensile penises of the male had to wrap around the three clitoral stubs of the female and stretch them out, opening up thousands of microscopic pores on the surface of the clitoral stubs. Once they had been optimally stretched – usually to three or four times their original size – the male would then slowly ooze semen from his three penises, whilst rubbing back and forth along the clitoral stubs to try and maximize absorption. The climax of the the event was the female orgasm, triggering the release of a second fluid from the base of the clitoral stubs, which would then flow down and trap the semen before thickening into a soft gel, forming an impermeable outer skin. This coated the clitoral stubs for about an hour after the conclusion of intercourse, before hardening and breaking apart into a sickly-sweet, candy-like shell. This shell was then consumed by the remnant reptillian mouths of both sexes. The post-coital absorption could be aided by continual massage from the male penises, often resulting in residual aftershock orgasms for both sexes, though technically pregnancy could still occur without the additional step. Both the male and female genitals were highly sensitive to the touch, and as such, non-reproductive oral sex was a favourite pastime amongst many species on Planet ‘Ya. The pleasurable aspects of sexual interaction stimulated social bonding and encouraged reproduction.

When the evolutionary process gave rise to the first primate’ya, brain development accelerated rapidly in both the primary brain and the secondary, reptilian brain. It appears that both brains achieved consciousness at approximately the same point, and developed an internal link which allowed the two nervous centres to communicate and pool resources. But at the same time, they were also capable of focusing on independent tasks, which, in a prehistoric setting, made it much easier to keep an eye out for predators whilst mating. In modern times, however, it led to a lot of comedian’yas making dumb jokes about watching TV’ya whilst having sex’ya, causing increasing unrest amongst comedy aficionados and eventually leading to yet another civil war’ya (a common feature throughout ‘Ya history). Though on the plus side, this dire situation did warrant an inclusion in Evolution’s Greatest Bloopers, a galactic-wide TV show which gave the fledgling ‘Ya their first taste of intergalactic fame. They returned the favour during their galactic conquest several hundred years later by not destroying the show’s home planet – they just politely conquered it a little, installing their own figureheads but otherwise not interfering with the creative process.

The dual-brain setup of the ‘Ya led to a number of unique behavioural traits, most of which humans would find to be quite bizarre and difficult to appreciate. For example, unlike humans, who have stigmatized their genital regions and keep them hidden away under clothing, the ‘Ya design their clothes so that the genital region is always uncovered and on display. Addtional care is often put into genital presentation – Holter’ya, for example, has a piercing to which is attached a tiny monocle on a short chain, which his genital face delights in wearing. The genital region is also one of the few places where ‘Ya still grow body hair – usually just a small tuft above the genital face, which is then stylised into a variety of different haircuts. Social interaction often occurs simultaneously on both levels, but they are also capable of talking to two different ‘Ya at the same time – one at the head level, the other at the genital level. Whilst the two brains are connected internally, they can tune one another out to a certain degree, in order to focus on these separate tasks – however, they cannot fully disconnect, and are always aware of what the other is doing. Maintaining the relationship between the two brains is also very important, because the last thing you want is two enemies occupying the same body. Fortunately, due to the fact that they are unable to keep secrets from one another, and can communicate on the level of pure thought, without having to deal with the inherent loss of information that comes through other forms of communication, such disagreements are rare. There are also some natural behavioural mechanisms in place designed to prevent conflict. Usually, there has to be some sort of mental illness present to trigger instabilities between the two brains, though advancements in ‘Ya medical technology have gone a long way towards eliminating such problems. Earlier in their history, there were some instances where mental patient’yas had their lower, reptillian brain removed, and their genital nerves were simply reconnected to the upper brain. Unfortunately, this procedure usually led to severe depression, and in an alarming number of cases, suicide. Scientist’yas soon discovered that the two brains had grown reliant on one another through their shared evolution, and alternative solutions to these problems had to be sought. They realised that instead of hacking away at the problem areas, they instead had to learn how the brains truly functioned, so they could figure out how to get the most out of them, and more accurately identify what was going wrong when problems occurred. They took another step forward on their quest for galactic domination.

Unfortunately for Holter’ya and Magnus’ya, as a result of their mission to blend into the human population on Earth and study their defences in preparation for an eventual ‘Ya invasion, they were forced to adopt human-style clothing, which meant keeping their genital region covered up. To this end, they designed special underwear which has a small, built-in game console, to keep their lower brain entertained. So if you’re ever sitting next to a ‘Ya on a train or something and you hear a soft beeping emanating from their pants, don’t be alarmed. It’s perfectly normal.