Courtship, Cooperation & Negotiation: What Darwin Got Wrong about Human Emotions

Many social critics in the Peak Oil community are fond of saying “Men do what they do driven by the desire to please women.” But what if that notion is just plain wrong? Is there power in the narrative that redirects our energies away from helpful pursues believing that such striving are “against the laws of nature?”

In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed. Charles Darwin

Most of us in the Western world have accepted a story about sexual selection, and by extension ‘human nature,’ that goes something like this: Men are aggressive, and fight each other in order to win the chance to mate with desirable females. For the love of hot babes and Babettes, they burn a lot of fossil fuel, build a lot of corporations, rape and pillage other nations and destroy the planet in order to be powerful and desirable to us gals.

This, as the story goes, is for very specific biological reasons: They have small sperm, and lots of them, (making them “cheap”) so they can throw them around with very little “invested” in an attempt to impregnate females. From an evolutionary standpoint, this horn-dog behavior promotes their own gene pool, beating out some other guy’s gene pool. Men (and all males in general, to use Darwin’s terms) are “passionate” and women are less eager or “coy.”

Women are “coy,” because they have large eggs, and a whole lot fewer of them, and becoming pregnant requires a large investment of energy and time dealing with pregnancy and caring for the offspring that result. Their eggs are “expensive” to them, in evolutionary terms. Therefore, evolution demands that they carefully look over their choice of males and choose the “fittest” one for mating. Women do the choosing. So, as the theory goes, men compete with each other for females’ attention, and women have innate preferences about which males they choose to mate with…and may the best man win.

The female is less eager than the male,” Darwin wrote, “She is coy,” and when she takes part in choosing a mate, she chooses “not the male which is most attractive to her, but the one which is least distasteful.” (1)

Darwin’s World
Charles Darwin was a man who once lamented that his own fragile physical state would clearly prevent him from producing great works. He had multiple psychosomatic ailments that kept him from socializing without great cost to his health. “Darwin worked alone at home, leading the life of an independent scientist.”

His decision to marry was an intellectual one, as he weighed the pros and cons:

After drawing up lists of the benefits and drawbacks of marriage, he proposed to his first cousin Emma Wedgwood, whom he married on Jan. 29, 1839. She brought fortune, devotion, and considerable housewifely skills that enabled him to work in peace for the next 40 years.

Together they had 10 children.

He needed quiet during the day in order to work. She dutifully brought him meals and tea in his office, at which time she might request to borrow the key to the drawer where he kept all of the keys to the rest of the household pantries.

Although he considered all young people immature like adult females, at 39 years old, he considered his own wife “always the mother, never the child, Darwin always the child, never the father.” Darwin gave his wife the nickname “mammy”, writing, “My dearest old Mammy … Without you, when sick I feel most desolate .. Oh Mammy, I do long to be with you and under your protection for then I feel safe.” (2)

While Darwin began to write down his theories of evolution in the early 1840’s he was reluctant to make them public. “He was a beneficiary of this conservative English society, and his fear of ostracism was one of the forces that prevented him from publishing his theory sooner.“(3) The world was evolving and the political climate was welcoming to evolutionary notions. While still reluctant, on June 18, 1858, he received a paper that summarized his own twenty years of work, written by Alfred Russel Wallace. He shortly afterward presented a paper jointly with Wallace.

In 1871, Darwin elaborated upon the theory of sexual selection. Darwin observed that in some species males battle other males for access to certain females (“aggression”). But in other species, such as peacocks, there is a social system in which the females select males according to such qualities as strength or beauty, like a fabulous tail.

Beyond “He” and “She”
Darwin lived in a binary world of males and females, but today’s science tells us that these represent a minority of the Earth’s living things. We live in a complicated world of uni-gendered, bi-gendered, and even cross-gendered living species. You’ve got remarkable creatures like Clownfish (4) that are born male and turn female (called sequential hermaphrodites); you’ve got hermaphroditic fish. The world is full of homosexual, asexual or autosexual creatures, and gender behavior of all descriptions.

These aren’t just the exceptions to the rule, this IS the rule.

We can’t put labels like “coy” or “passionate” on these things. It doesn’t fit the vast majority of living things.

Beyond the Dating Game
Darwin’s analysis appeared to stop at mate selection. However, mating is the start, not the end of the genetic path to reproductive success. The “passionate” (later labeled “promiscuous”) male isn’t an example of evolutionary success, if most of those offspring die before they, too, get the chance to reproduce. The male who can raise the larges number of children successfully and brings them effectively into the next generation is the real genetic winner.

The male, to be maximally successful, is proactive in assuring that his offspring grow up and make it into the next generation.

The Peacock Boy’s Club
Even the species that were suppose to be perfect examples of sexual selections, like peacocks, aren’t, according to evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden. They are “failed poster-child species.” Take pea hens. They are supposed to prefer the highly ornamented tail of males, the larger the better, which, supposedly, indicated “good genes.” However, in a 2008 study that actually looked at this in the wild; (a) there wasn’t much difference between tails and (b) the females showed no real preference. They ignored the tails, when selecting mates.

What researchers found, instead, was that the tails were sort of a ‘ticket into the boy’s club’ of other male peacocks. In fact, it turned out that a lot of stuff Darwin thought was for the benefit of the female was actually a show for other males of the same species.

Mommy Dearest
What about the notion that can be summarized as “females almost always invest more energy into producing offspring than males, and therefore in most species, females are a limiting resource over which the males will compete”? This theory, called the “Bateman Principle” was the work of British geneticist Angus John Bateman – and it turns out to be wrong. His research was fraudulent in all sorts of ways, even down to basic arithmetic mistakes.

Roughgarden (4) asks: if females keep choosing males who are the fittest, why do bad genes still exist in nature? Aren’t females supposed to be eliminating them through partner choice? After twenty generations, the choice for bad genes should disappear. Why isn’t that happening? Darwin says, “Nature needs to keep renewing bad genes all the time.” Why is that? So females can continue to choose the best mate? What are the best genes in an ever-changing environment? “Most theorists don’t appreciate how great this problem is for the theory of sexual selection.” according to Roughgarden.

Family of Tarzan

Cooperation and Negotiation
Through courtship (perhaps too strong a word for some species), the male and female, negotiate the cooperative relationship through which to raise children. Their cooperation allows them to act as a unit, in a ‘two heads are better than one’ sort of arrangement. The fitness is assessed in terms of a “couple team” who are able to place a large number of offspring into the next generation. The mating couples have a common evolutionary bank account and an overlap of interest. This model suggests that cooperation, not competition is the cornerstone of reproductive success. Conflict happens when they don’t strike an effective bargain with each other or they have different opinions about “what’s good.”

“A family like a ‘firm’ Roughgarden says ‘and the produce of the “firm” is offspring.’ The paradigm is “family as cooperative system” rather than “family as a cauldron of conflict.”

Joy in Your Company
But it’s not all ‘love and happiness,” as a quick glance at the front pages of newspapers or time spent at a family holiday dinner will tell you. Nevertheless, we aren’t living in a world of competitive stand-offs, like John Nash’s (“A Beautiful Mind”) theory of Competitive Equilibrium – but more like his notion of “Cooperative Game theory.” Here the sexes “negotiate from a position of strength,” and establishes a “threat point.”

Taking his lead from labor negotiation, a crucial aspect of effective negotiation is that each has to believe that the other is willing to suffer and see the other suffer, before they are willing to hash out a deal. They also, however, have to see the other has having “utility,” and a “position of strength.” They have to believe that each of them has something the other person wants, and is willing to give up something else to get it, and they have to realize the point beyond which the other person is unwilling to bargain.

If either player increases their demand beyond this limit, both players receive nothing. If either reduces their demands too greatly, they will receive less than if they had demanded more.

What is the “position of strength” in reproductive politics? It is the mechanism where the animals can experience pleasure in each other’s company-friendship and physical intimacy (including sex).

Contextualizing an Idea
Survival of the Fittest” were not Darwin’s terms, but those of Herbert Spenser. It first appeared in 1864, in which he drew parallels between his own economic theories and Darwin’s biological ones.

There is a political danger in who takes control of the narrative. It turns out that this narrative of a nasty, competitive selfish world is based on partial recollections of the data. It doesn’t tell the whole story. But it presents a political (power) explanation for oppression using biology to justify it. “Nature is selfish so I can be selfish.” It is a narrative of genetic classism. It is also a narrative of domination and imperialism.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Famous Charles Darwin misquote likely from L.C. Megginson (the quote was also imbedded as in foot-high letters on the floor of the California Academy of Sciences, so I don’t feel so bad…

It is time the world abandoned that narrative and launch a new one. Our very survival may well depend on it. A high fitness requires working together in teams. It requires us to choose to invest our collective energies carefully and cooperatively, and that includes our reproductive decision-making in an age of overpopulation.

What we are learning about emotions is helping us to see that selfish and destructive tendencies in humans, so lauded as “natural” and “normal,” are the extreme subset of sociopathic individuals who lack a capacity for several basic emotions that are intrinsic in humans as social animals. And we’ve modeled corporate institutions, in this image, with disastrous ends.

The theory of sexual selection put forth by Darwin fit well with a culture that told us that the “best man” was white, Western, upper-class, and, so obvious a fact as to be overlooked, “male.” The theory of sexual selection fit that current dominant paradigm of the 1860’s. At a time when the industrial revolution was wiping out the entrepreneur, the independent farmer, the home craft producer, it became “natural” for men to aggressively eliminate one another’s livelihoods, push them off their native lands, and participate in genocide in order to push forward their aspirations for genetic empire-building. The ‘losers’ lost the chance to mate and reproduce offspring because, after all, they weren’t the ‘fittest.’ It was all quite “natural.” It wasn’t “evil” or “good” in any moral sense. It was simply “how things are.”

Gone were notions of cooperative and collaboration as “natural” to humans and animals alike. Even actions that could be viewed as “altruistic” had to be framed as “deviant” or discussed away as ultimately benefiting selfish ends.

People made all sorts of extrapolations from this, including the notion that being blind to suffering was also “natural.”

Genial Gene vs. Selfish Gene
So, Roughgarden (5) proposes, the metaphor of the “selfish gene” isn’t accurate anymore. The theory worked in the early 70’s, but now we know more. Notions of “survival of the fittest” and “savage competition” is replaced by the empirical argument of cooperation in nature.

Less than the Ape
While Darwin argued that human ancestry descended from the ape, others argued that human evolution caused our social behavior to depart from that of other primates. Edgar Rice Burroughs was fond of using the phrase, “the thin veneer of civilization” to describe mankind’s condition in relation to his more fundamental savage makeup. The phrase was repeated in The Return of Tarzan, which he wrote in 1912.

However, in his book “Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved” Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal used the term “Veneer Theory” to argue that the view that human morality as “a cultural overlay, a thin veneer hiding an otherwise selfish and brutish nature” is outdated, and that our morality and social relationships are also embedded deeply into our genetic make-up. We cannot live alone, and we, therefore, have within us the basic stuff it takes to figure out how to work together.

The last of Darwin’s sequels to the Origin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), was an attempt to erase this last barrier presumed to exist between human and nonhuman animals–the idea that the expression of such feelings as suffering, anxiety, grief, despair, joy, love, devotion, hatred, and anger is unique to human beings.

Darwin connected studies of facial muscles and the emission of sounds with the corresponding emotional states in man and then argued that the same facial movements and sounds in nonhuman animals express similar emotional states. This book laid the groundwork for the study of ethology, neurobiology, and communication theory in psychology.

Paradoxically, it took neuroscientists beginning actively during a conference in 1995 to start focusing on a variety of these emotions we call ‘social emotions’ like embarrassment, shame, contempt, passion, admiration, pride, and guilt. These researchers suggest that in contrast to the notion that culture is a thin veneer, we are learning that what look strictly like ‘cultural’ features such as our rules of law are in fact, based upon the origins of these early pro-social emotions.

I’ll take that discussion up in greater detail in my next post.

1. In Descent:


3. In Descent:



About Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television.


  1. It never ceases to amaze me that a large part of the human species considers itself ‘above’ nature, as if we’re not even part of it. Although it probably goes a long way towards explaining why we are in such a pickle!

  2. Kathy, this post leaves me with the feeling that you would see one black and white rule (that people’s self interest governs every action) with another black and white rule (that human co-operation governs every action).

    Personally I don’t see that. My impression of human nature is that co-operation and selfishness are balanced by circumstance.

    I find it instructional to look at what stress (financial, emotional, physical) does to co-operation. Usually it breaks it. Stress any group of people (a nation, a state, a city, a town, a suburb, a family, or a house hold) and at some point you will find that it’s members will stop co-operating and start competing with each other.

    Only at the very smallest unit (parent and child) does this not always hold true.

    So, co-operation is just one more (very powerful) tool that humans can employ to increase the chances of their survival. Survival still seems to be the name of the game.

    Peak Oil will be the ultimate stress on our species. While we have oil and economic growth, mass co-operation (nations) is great and mostly benefits everyone. Take away the oil and the story will change. For the most part I expect that co-operation will go right out the window except at the scale of the fundamental human society: the tribe (up to around 100 people – the limit of numbers that you can reasonably know).

    At that level co-operation can enhance day to day survival. Much beyond that though it’s benefits in a post Peak Oil world are few.

    So if co-operation can break down entirely, I dont’ see that Roughgarden’s “universality of co-operation” holds any more true than Dawkins saying that competition is all that exists.

    It seems to me that SURVIVAL is the only universal imperative. Compete, or co-operate (or do both together) if you will, but you (and therefore by extension you genes) must survive.

  3. Hi LS,

    What I’m saying in this post and the previous one, is that humans have both qualities built within their very genetic make-up to work cooperatively on a larger group level. The key is what we make of these environmental cues, and if we have a path, a set of stories, a direction that guides us.

    Clearly we saw in the last Great Depression numerous stories of groups banding together to help each other and themselves to get through these times of unemployment and starvation. They were rough times, and instead of competing with each other, they saw the wisdom of mutual aid. What I’d like to point out is that these stories, the stories of pulling together, of rejecting the cultural meme of “individualism” or that “prosperity was right around the corner,” are not considered “the norm” in this community. It is considered unrealistic, Panglossian. Yet, hard times CAN, in contrast to what you are saying, bring that behavior out in people.

    Long before Karl Marx wrote his first words, the people of the USA (and it is by no means limited to this country) recognized that collective action was an effective way to function, particularly in difficult times. Those from OZ worked cooperatively as prisoners of war, rejecting notions of rank in favor of collective sharing. Every culture has these stories, because they are a part of every human’s make-up.

    Humans know how to break people psychologically. There are effective torture techniques tested and proven effective. We know that children on the playgrounds will bully if they are not properly instructed. But we also know that we can create schools where bullying is rejected by both teachers and children alike and it stops happening. We know that when you strip people of their community identity, their sense of belonging, of being a part of something greater than themselves, they fragment psychologically.

    Human nature IS impacted by circumstance, but the variables aren’t hard times or stress. Allow me to excerpt from a previous post:

    “The older Alaska Natives who were my teachers had experienced and survived hardships that are almost unthinkable to most who live in modern society. This includes famine, pandemics and environmental extremes. They spoke of these challenges as being simply part of living. Tough times were considered a natural part of life’s cycle…Subsistence is based on an intimate understanding of a given environment and, in most cases, an amazing ability to make the most of often meager resources. It is a lifestyle that is built on the accumulation and transfer of knowledge and training from one generation to the next over long time spans, often centuries. It is also a lifestyle that requires a mental as well as physical hardiness….Coming to grips with the approaching realities of declining oil availability will result in considerable mental and emotional stress at all levels. People will need both hope and a realistic understanding of what it will take to make adjustments. Based on my experience and study, people are far more resilient and adaptable than most realize. As you know, attitude is often the critical difference between success and failure when it comes to surviving a disaster and starting over.”

    My invitation to recognize that the meme of “the selfish gene” is extremely popular, perhaps made so to justify sociopathic behavior as normative. I suggest it is now time to develop a broader understanding of “human nature” based on a more current scientific understanding of sexual selection and group cooperative behavior. It isn’t just the hard times we face that cause us to act horribly. It is also the stories we tell about ourselves and each other that guide our actions. Let’s stop assuming hard times brings out the worst in us, and recognize that we have a vast history that tells us that it also triggers cooperation in order to survive.

    Yes, Anna, it is amazing, isn’t it?

  4. You all can argue about different theories as much as you like, but lets face it, most, and by that I mean a good 75% will turn to looking after numero uno when the going gets tough. The groups you form to cooperate will include those that are just there to extract what they can with as little sacrifice on their part.

    And because most of those people will be willing to steal, kill, etc etc, when the going gets really tough, and there is more of them as well……which genes do you think will survive in the greatest quantity……… money is on the brutal, murdureous, do anything to survive, do anything to improve my lot genes. And if you manage to put a decent size group together consisting of nothing but people that a dedicated to the group……there is still all those people out their that serve only themselves, and they wont be carrying signs saying…….selfish bastard. This will mean your group will have to have a policy of not trusting anybody outside the group…….what have we then……..tribalism.

  5. Kathy you said: “humans have both qualities built within their very genetic make-up to work cooperatively on a larger group level”

    Can you define “larger group level”? I assume that you mean thousands, or tens of thousands of people, or more. If that is the case, then disagree strongly. I don’t see evidence of this at all. I do see a lot of evidence that refutes it. If human beings are programmed by their genetics to co-operate on a larger group level then why does every large society use force and violence, or the threat of those things to maintain it’s cohesion?

    You said: “The key is what we make of these environmental cues, and if we have a path, a set of stories, a direction that guides us.”

    Surely this is in contradiction with the idea that mass co-operation is a genetic trait? If co-operation is programmed into us, then why do we need a path, or stories to guide us? Co-operation on a large scale should just naturally happen. Which it doesn’t (see my point above).

    You said: “the selfish gene is extremely popular, perhaps made so to justify sociopathic behavior as normative”

    Sorry, where do you see sociopathic behaviour in individuals being described as normal? I see plenty of it in industry, religion, and government though. I also see normal behaviour in individuals being described as sociopathic, or at least illegal.

    Your statement could just as easily be turned around to say:

    “universality of co-operation is becoming popular because it is useful to justify sociopathic behaviour of governments, religious organisations, and corporations”

    just spend a few minutes googling “cop tasers”, or look up Dr Peter Grant, or Walmart’s employment practices, or Catholic church and paedophiles. Increasingly authoritarian regimes like the Australian, US, and UK governments are making co-operation compulsory. Even non-violent resistance is often met with near lethal force. The same can be said of many large corporations, and religions are notorious for the use of force and violence (both physical and psychological).

    You said: “Human nature IS impacted by circumstance, but the variables aren’t hard times or stress.”

    That statement could be true, but, given that this conversation is in the context of Peak Oil you should be considering a “new”, or “unexpected” stress on the society rather than known, expected stresses. There are always good times and bad times (we handle them by co-operating, some times on mass), but really we are discussing “extraordinary times” here and how people react to them.

    To address a couple of your other examples …

    “Those from OZ worked cooperatively as prisoners of war, rejecting notions of rank in favor of collective sharing”

    This is a very clear case of “us against them”. The natural boundaries of co-operation and competition were set by race and the power balance of the war, so don’t really tell us much.

    “The older Alaska Natives who were my teachers had experienced and survived hardships that are almost unthinkable to most who live in modern society.”

    You are talking here about an old, stable society dealing with hardships that were known and expected (even thought I have no doubt that they may have been terribly hard). You can’t compare that with our “economic growth” based society hitting peak oil. Our modern society losing cheap oil is like a spoilt brat having all of its toys and treats taken away. I don’t expect good behaviour.

    Either way, survival will be the aim of every individual. Personally I am betting that we won’t all be “pulling together” as a nation, state, city, or even town when petroleum products become scarce. The co-operation will go only so far as it helps people to ensure the survival of “them and theirs”, which won’t include people hundreds of kilometres away who they have never met.

    I will agree that co-operation is built into the human genome, but no more so than competition. And both are just a means of ensuring ones own survival.

  6. JohnSherck says:

    It’s probably been a decade since I read the book by Richard Dawkins that coined the term “The Selfish Gene,” but my recollection is that the argument Dawkins presents is about how our genes can be acting “selfishly” in ways that prime us and other products of evolution to act altruistically. Which is perhaps to say that our genes act out the sort of bitter struggle from generation to generation but the host organisms act out a far more complex struggle mixing very different strategies in a mute sorting of genes by natural selection.

    So, for instance, going back to mating strategies for a moment, what we actually see in the world is a mixture of strategies adapted to particular circumstances. A certain percentage of the male population may very well adopt a strategies of sowing seed widely without investing any energy in child-rearing–and in some particular circumstances this could be very successful for the genes that influence such behavior… and in other cases it could fail. The same is true of a strategy of monogamy. Presumably, each one has a certain utility in ANY environment, which is why both have survived in the population.

    In all complex organisms–but especially in human beings–a central factor in the success or failure of a given strategy will necessarily be “cultural” or memetic–that is, tied to the cultural practices and beliefs that people hold. And this is where we enter the current discussion, because at heart what we have between Kathy’s vision and dissenters like LS or Stu: an argument first about human nature and second about the cultural milieu in which it will play out.

    Starting with human nature: Kathy seems to be arguing–and I would agree–that we are deeply flexible in our approach to difficulties, that we are quite capable of communally-based responses of “banding together” and of selfish behavior. What she seems to be arguing against, in the first place, is that we are “naturally” selfish (that, I take it, is what is intended by “the selfish gene,” that we have a genetic tendency toward selfishness). To this extent, I agree–we’re not “naturally” selfish, but we can choose to be, particularly if we believe that *that* is human nature, to be selfish.

    In the second place, we must come to grips with what the actual cultural milieu is. If, indeed, “most” people will react to crisis with a selfish strategy, then we need to be prepared for that. If, on the other hand, “most” people are willing to “pull together,” we *should* embrace that because it’s a better world to live in than “every man for himself.” And, for that matter, communities tend to take a dim view of such people.

    I suspect that part of what Kathy would like to do is to force an acknowledgment of our communal side in order to shift culture in that direction, which is certainly possible–our beliefs, individually or as a group, aren’t simply a given. I’m speaking here, I should add, not so much about “the culture” at large, but on the one hand about the people oil community culture and on the other hand she’s speaking to the possibility of shifting our local communities’ cultural givens.

    Concurrent with this is an argument about the utility of a “pull together” approach–assuming it can maintain its coherence, a group offers many benefits not just for surviving but for thriving.

  7. I agree with much in the earlier comments.

    “The selfish gene” (as first elucidated by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book of the same name) is a concept which actually *explains* altruistic behaviour. Therefore, it is a mistake to conflate the concept of “the selfish gene” with sociopathic or selfish behaviour.

    When a mother sacrifices her life in order to save the life of her child:- that’s an example of “the selfish gene” at work. The point is that the gene survives, even if it has to sacrifice one of its carriers (in this case, the selfless mother) to do so. Hence, the selfish gene can produce supremely selfless and co-operative behaviour in humans.

    Do humans have a long and fruitful history of co-operation? Absolutely.

    Is co-operation and communalism always the best strategy for survival? Definitely not.

    Your example of Australian prisoners of war who shared with each other and worked co-operatively struck a chord with me.

    Two of my grandfather’s brothers – Leslie and Reginald Grosvenor – were Australian prisoners of war at Sandakan in Borneo during WWII. Of the 2,400 allied POWs who found themselves on the so-called Sandakan Death Marches, only 6 men survived. Those survivors were men who were willing to leave their comrades behind, go into the jungle – and keep going, alone when necessary, no matter what.

    My grandmother spoke to one of the survivors of Sandakan, who told her that her brothers-in-law had been wonderful, community-spirited fellows who kept up morale in the camps by singing. Was this true, or was it just a nice story to bring solace to a grieving woman? Who knows. The only indisputable fact is that my grandfather’s brothers – and 2,400 other men – died a horrific and all too communal death in Borneo.

    When one of the survivors, Owen Campbell, was asked about what happened at Sandakan, his response was: “I don’t intend to tell anybody what actually happened. They ask, but I say no. They wouldn’t want to know.”

    Going back to the blog post: the 2008 study which found that peacocks are a “failed poster-child species” of Darwin’s sexual selection theories is flatly disputed by other scientists who have studied peacock mating behaviour. And (while I don’t want to turn this into a discussion about peafowls) Roughgarden’s ideas about peafowl plumage, predation, and evolution seem quite ignorant of a number of basic facts.

    I had a quick read of Roughgarden’s book, “The Genial Gene”, and found that it had a surprisingly strong focus on trans-gender and homosexual attraction. I get the distinct impression that Roughgarden – herself a transgender Christian – has some challenging sex-related issues that she’s been trying to work through, and I’m far from convinced that the bulk of her “evidence” stands up to close scrutiny.

    (Roughgarden’s attempt to marry evolution and the bible – as she did in her book “Evolution and Christian Faith” – does nothing to boost her scientific credentials in my mind. If ever there was a marriage doomed to failure, surely that would be it).

    Finally, I’m not sure whether you are arguing that non-human animals do, or do not, experience emotions – but anyone who doubts that animals experience genuine emotion (including empathy) should read the very moving New Scientist article, “Do animals have emotions?” @

  8. Hi Samantha and John, and the rest of the commenters.

    There are a number of points I’d like to make, without boring the reader or myself.

    Samantha writes:
    “The selfish gene” (as first elucidated by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book of the same name) is a concept which actually *explains* altruistic behaviour. Therefore, it is a mistake to conflate the concept of “the selfish gene” with sociopathic or selfish behaviour.”

    Although Dawkins did emphases group selection and reciprocal altruism as ways to reconcile the appearance of seemingly altruistic traits, as one proponent said, “the purpose of altruism theory is to take the ‘altruism’ out of altruism.’ You can explain some seemingly self-less behaviors within the context of a gene that is good at getting itself replicated. Genes that favor altruism (for example, reciprocal altruism) do so for the “selfish” reason of carrying themselves into the next generation.

    None of this is on a conscious level necessarily, nor implies that the person, him or herself is “selfish.”

    The notion was taken to make a big deal out of sexual conflict and emphasizes the narratives of conflict. It has been more the discussions that were an extension of it, rather than the statement of it in The Selfish Gene. A dialogue that focuses on competitive and selfish behavior, to the extent that it exists today, might not have been anticipated by Dawkins as a result of his 1970’s writings, although Dawkins, himself, has never actively attempted to change the nature of that narrative, according to Roughgarden.

    She is asking for us to examine reality in a broader sense. Why does a gene that is “successful” in the sense that it “increases its gene frequency in the next generation” have to be understood as a ‘selfish gene.’ Why not ask, more broadly, “why does it continue from one generation to the next? Is it because it worked in cooperation with some other gene or is it because it out-competed some other gene? Why did the genes who didn’t carry over to the next generation fail to do so? Is it because they failed to be selfish, or because they failed to cooperate in some way?

    It is circular logic to say that those genes that made it into the next generation were, in fact, ‘selfish’ because they made it into that next generation. Can there be alternative explanations? By assuming this circular logic is correct, we foreclose or pre-empt the possibility of asking about the role of cooperation.

    She argues that there is a loss of explanatory potential in equating “selfishness” with “success,”- a successful increase in numbers or percentages into the next generations. And there is a more contemporary notion that selfishness leads directly to conflict and by extension implies that conflict itself is a natural state.

    Roughgarden is trying to expand the conversation. The point is not that a peacock’s tail serves no purpose, but rather that it is, in fact, an “admission ticket for males into a power-holding clique.” There are ecological demands that set up a selection pressure for these sorts of admission tickets. When these ecological demands aren’t present, the necessity of these “admission tickets” no longer hold. These cliques or their admission tickets aren’t unique to males, (she uses the hyenas’ female ornamentation as an example of an admission ticket into a hyena’s girl’s club) and don’t exist universally in all ecological circumstances. Therefore, because this is the case, the theory of ‘sexual selection’ isn’t a broad enough narrative to describe the conditions we see in nature.

    What are the ecological circumstances in which it is advantageous for males or females to form power-holding cliques and when are power-holding cliques economically advantageous? We don’t ask those questions when we assume they are “natural.” We ignore the natural selection pressure for those admission tickets. Penguins live in ecological circumstances where it is not economically advantageous to form power-holding cliques. They are foraging at will in the sea, and there is no advantage to being in a clique, because they do not need a group in order to capture fish that require more than one penguin.

    It is useful to ask what are the local ecological conditions under which it is advantageous to have cliques and therefore develop admission tickets into a power-holding clique. That’s an important question when we look at what’s coming.

    There hasn’t been the kind of intellectual effort into conjuring up reasonable alternative hypotheses when you “know” why something happens, and it can’t be science until you actually put an alternative hypotheses up against it. You can’t look for a pattern that you believe is the right one, ignore the alternatives as “exceptions” and emphasize that this pattern is the sole explanation. You can’t say “this is consistent with sexual selection so sexual selection is the best explanation,” until you test out a variety of hypotheses.

    Nothing is always the best strategy, and that’s just the point. If you belong to a group and someone is planning on killing your group, perhaps the best strategy would be for group action, even if individual members die. The second best may be to run off by yourself. But this doesn’t necessitate support for a universal “selfish gene.”

    Roughgarden’s work is “surprisingly strong [in her] focus on trans-gender and homosexuality” and sexual dimorphism, because these are some of the powerful “exceptions” that are set aside to “prove” that principles of sexual selection are correct.

    There are, as well, interesting Christian writers who make convincing cases for understanding Christianity within the framework of evolutionary biology. Theology and Evolutionary Biology by Richard Beck is one example. It’s dangerous to toss out discourse based on one’s religious bias, and your comment about her own sexuality seems too close to an ad hominem attack for my taste. Criticizing her ideas are one thing, but throwing psychological interpretations based on the fact that she’s a part of a very hated sexual minority… that just doesn’t seem fair.

  9. Kathy, you really have lost me here. Anyone who wants to dabble in mixing religion and science understands neither, or is simply a conflicted mess.

    I have found some of your posts quite useful (including the post about social dislocation) but when you start talking about Christianity actually having something useful to say about science, I will smile and wave bye-bye. You have just lost most of your credibility, which is a shame, since you have some good ideas and observations.

  10. Kathy, I notice that you didn’t approve my reply to your comment, or let me know why. This rather confirms my disappointment, as I spent real time and effort trying to construct a reasoned response and argument.

    I would greatly appreciate any explanation you can offer for why my comment was too offensive to post.

  11. Sorry for my delay in getting to this LS.

    Can you define “larger group level”? I assume that you mean thousands, or tens of thousands of people, or more.

    I’m working on a post about “Peaceful Societies,” so you see I haven’t ignored your comment at all! To jump ahead and read what I’m reading, you can start here. I agree with Rob Hopkins that we need to be able to conceptualize “the group,” and therefore even if several thousand people live in one community, we probably will break down our associations into smaller and smaller groupings. Huge cities are tough.

    “Surely this is in contradiction with the idea that mass co-operation is a genetic trait?”

    Biology isn’t destiny. We have many different genetic traits ready to come to the fore in response to ecological demands, just like we have different emotions that are hard-wired in, but may appear conflicting (another post I’ve got on the burner, LS, but hey, give me a break! It is the end of my teaching semester! … I know, I should have told you…)

    Your statement could just as easily be turned around to say:
    “universality of co-operation is becoming popular because it is useful to justify sociopathic behaviour of governments, religious organisations, and corporations”

    Well put. That was my thought, exactly. I was thinking of the movie “the corporation,” which are run by humans, but the system itself is sociopathic. Sociopaths make up 5% of any group. Their key lacking is the capacity for empathy. They are very dangerous because most of us can’t make sense of their behavior and give it meaning that it doesn’t have. If we do not take these individuals as a direct threat to our community wellbeing, they will ruin us, no question. But they are also 5% and CAN be identified. (Let’s hope they aren’t running an important community institution at the time…)

    There are always good times and bad times (we handle them by co-operating, some times on mass), but really we are discussing “extraordinary times” here and how people react to them.

    Yes, and this extraordinary time will be “managed” via the mainstream media. Nowhere is there a full and engrossing discussion of our history of communitarian work that got us through the last extraordinary time. In fact, we can’t even imagine our “cooperative” genetic nature even exists! So therefore, how can we begin the necessary work of discussing what it takes to move toward a more cooperative stance in a culture that has bellicose tendencies? It appears that we can’t, if we believe we can’t. (Stay tune for an upcoming post.)

    Our modern society losing cheap oil is like a spoilt brat having all of its toys and treats taken away. I don’t expect good behaviour.

    That’s why I’d suggest beginning to introduce the concept of “sharing” in areas where this appears to be a possibilities. Let’s figure out where it isn’t, and if you are interested in surviving, MOVE! In my community, I’ve begun by a free vegetable and fruit depot that neighbors use structured with the “helping personalities” of the community. It was a smashing success in its first year, and I hope it is even better this year. It launched an effort by area farmers to commit to growing an additional share for the food pantry, to supply free fresh veggies all season to our growing hungry. Would you say “not much”? or “not enough”? Here we are laying down patterns of behavior. If we can’t “imagine” anyone would do it in time of plenty, they certainly won’t do it in times of want.

    We don’t disagree, LS, that both selfish and generous features are a part of human nature. We don’t disagree that all of us, with few exceptions, will want to survive. I guess where we may not see eye to eye is whether there are situations, in a time of plenty, when we can teach those who you define as “spoiled brats” how to share their toys. “Brats” are often exceedingly unhappy children who have never LEARNED to share. Bullies are children who have never learned to control themselves. We have psychological research that clearly change around a school where the latter dominate by getting the behavior of “bullying” as a clearly unacceptable behavior, and it stops. Perhaps if we take the job of patterning behavior seriously, we can do the same with sharing. My community is only one small model, (and a remote one at that, another trait of peaceful societies) but I’d like to be sure that at least in things, like food, nobody has to think of that as a “rare commodity.”

    Thanks for your comments.

  12. LS said:

    “I would greatly appreciate any explanation you can offer for why my comment was too offensive to post.”

    Here’s the best one: There is something hinky going on with this site. A friend of mine says he’s getting “infection” warnings. LS, I posted your comment, already, many days ago when you wrote it. Truly I did. Why it is again “unposted” I have no explanation except to blame the Internet Gods…

    “…but when you start talking about Christianity actually having something useful to say about science,”

    No, what I actually said is that science has something useful to say about religious teachings. That’s what Roughgarden says too. Beck draws interesting parallels between what evolutionary biology says about human nature and what the teachings of Christ (or most religious teachers, probably…) have to say. Look, I agree with Stan Goff and Sharon Astyk: religious institutions are THERE. You can ignore them, hate them, or join them.

    But this post is not on religion and my comment was not pointing to anything except the bias that says “If anyone shares two competing beliefs, one of which I strongly disagree with, one religious, one scientific, the science has to be bad.” That’s crap. Just pure prejudice. If you disagree with the science, fine. Disagree on its merits. But the “false by association” is the kind of thinking and prejudice we gutta get rid of as things get tougher. It is a “them vs. Us” mentality that is going to wreck a community. But let’s do a post on this, not clutter up this one with that argument here…

    “I will smile and wave bye-bye. You have just lost most of your credibility, which is a shame, since you have some good ideas and observations.”

    Well, I think I lost you for (1) not posting a comment I DID in fact post (but the Internet Gods messed with it…I even responded to it before realizing it had reverted to “unpost.” I thought you were referring to your LAST comment put up at 3:43 am MY time!…) and (2) for saying that religion teaches us about science instead of that science can teach us something interesting about religious teachings.

    I think you should smile and come back!

    But let’s look squarely at this threat of my lost ‘credibility,’ in your eyes, defined as “the quality of being believable or trustworthy.” I’d say one of the refreshing traits of those in the Peak Oil movement is their unwillingness to either trust something because an “authority” says it, or mistrust it because “a nobody” says it. Do me a favor: Don’t trust me or believe me. Do your own research and decide for yourself. I have my opinions, and I listen and read what Roughgarden says in her field of expertise. She has a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard University in 1971. She has taught at Stanford University since 1972. She’s been attacked by 40 other scientists for her work on the “26 phenomena which are not correctly explained by the current neo-Darwinian sexual-selection theory.” How many folks trashed M. King Hubbert or you for having read the science about Peak Oil and being convinced? The matter interests me because she’s saying “Let’s look at the science. The exceptions aren’t the exceptions. They are the rules.” That’s what I’m saying. Let’s look at these ideas, let’s discuss and debate them. Let’s find whether they have heuristic potential to help us understand not only science, but the politics of why some science is promoted over others. Why some is attacked as “crazy” while others seem perfectly in keeping (and therefore “sane”) with cultural values.

    I can tell this is going to be a painful collapse with this level of discourse…Let’s all raise it.


  1. […] often misreads the “selfish gene” as the “selfish human.” As I have argued elsewhere, “[t]here is a political danger in who takes control of the narrative.”  Herbert […]

  2. […] meme too often misreads the “selfish gene” as the “selfish human.” As I have argued elsewhere, “[t]here is a political danger in who takes control of the narrative.”  Herbert […]

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