Blank slate syndrome

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Blank slate syndrome

Critique of an evolutionary psychology talk by Johan Nayar, hosted by Dorset Humanists, Bournemouth, September 2019

I come from the ‘blank slate’ generation, which I feel might be more a result of post-war optimism than a deliberate ignoring of Darwinism. (‘Blank slate’ being the notion that differences in people’s behavior result from social conditioning and other experience rather than from their genes.) How we all clung on to the idea that everybody is equal for so long in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary is surprising though. Moreover, that I continue to encounter apparently well educated people who seem to believe that, while evolution accounts for our physical traits, it cannot possibly have any effect on our preferences and other behavior, is shocking.

This fascinating talk was, for me, revisiting the early 1980s popularizing of what had been known until a year or two earlier as sociobiology. Things cropped up that I never hear about nowadays, including items from the audience such as the woman who mentioned women carrying out (subconsciously of course) selection at the sperm level. I recall a female evolutionary psychologist (I forget who) describing that in the early 1980s. She summarized it with the memorable line, “Where there’s a valve there’s a way.”

Then there was the guy at the back who commented on the overwhelming evidence that males are more promiscuous than females, “That’s not true!” I immediately imagined him recalling encounters with a succession of promiscuous women. (Just an assumption on my part.) That illustrates, to me, a problem with popular understanding of science as a whole, not just of evolutionary psychology. We rely on personal experience as the best guide, which it undoubtedly was through most of our evolution. However, as science demonstrates, it is awfully unreliable, not least because in everyday life the observer is unwittingly interfering with the ‘experiment’, at least in social observations.

Evolutionary psychology cartoon by Jacky Fleming in The Guardian, Nov 19, 1998

Cartoon by Jacky Fleming in the Guardian, Nov 19th, 1998

A few items from the talk itself strike me as worthy of question or comment…

Nayar seemed to imply that the predominance of men in higher paid jobs is the result of the ‘market’ as distinct from a government-led top-down initiative to change that. This implies perhaps that the ‘market’ economy correlates with natural selection. However, managers manage to promote their own genes (typically by promoting their proverbial favorite son-in-law) which is not what economists usually mean by ‘market forces.’ (In my experience, economists steadfastly ignore the lessons of evolutionary psychology in their ‘market’ doctrine.)

I have never understood the ‘peacock theory’ that having a genetic disadvantage (gaudy feathers attracting predators) that is overcome by different genetic advantages (running fast?) somehow equates to being better adapted. Runaway sexual selection seems to me a more likely explanation, but again maybe I misunderstand it. (My speculation: Such species don’t last long. Are peacocks still around only because humans protect them?)

FM Rogallo and Jack Swigert of Apollo 13 (NASA photo)

FM Rogallo, inventor of the Rogallo wing (behind) and its test pilot Jack Swigert, later of the ill-fated Apollo 13 (NASA photo)

[Jack] Swigert, meanwhile, was a world-class bachelor who pursued his calling with the same methodical, fastidious approach he brought to test flying. His date book included codes that signified single, divorced, or widowed. His success with women was at once legendary and utterly mysterious.

— Andrew Chaikin in A Man on the Moon, the Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, 1994

Minor point: I recall the idea that male lions’ killing of the infants in a pride that they take over (because they are fathered not by him) correlates with child abuse by step fathers. However, I read later that further analysis revealed that relative poverty is the strongest correlation with child abuse, and that confounded the statistics about step-fathers. Maybe that illustrates the problem the interested amateur (like me) has of assimilating conflicting info from apparently equally reliable sources. Maybe it is not such a minor point though. Government policy is sometimes based on such reports (or findings of that kind misinterpreted by the mass media).

The biggest problem I had, again assuming I understood properly, was the result of a survey of human mating preferences based on what people say they do rather than what they actually do. To state the obvious, the two are usually different, often radically so.

Lastly, I learned something quite new that points the way forward for me. As an almost life-long ‘incel’ (involuntary celibate) I think I will try the lobster approach of dissolving my brain and growing another one! Did you know that loser lobsters did that? Holy sh1t!

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