Being a Man V: Birds & Bees

Male Scarlet Robin (Petroica boodang) in the M...
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After reading an article in National Geographic about orchids and evolution, the idea struck me that it makes sense to look at being a man in the context of evolutionary theory. In the case of the orchid article, the idea was that the amazing adaptations of orchids (for example, imitating female insects so as to attract pollinators) can all be explained in terms of natural selection. While humans have a broader range of behavior than orchids, the same principle would seem to apply.

Crudely and simply put, the theory is that organisms experience random mutations and these are selected for (or against) by natural processes. Organisms that survive and reproduce pass on their genes (including the mutations). Those that do not reproduce, do not pass on their genes. Over time, this process of selection  can result in significant changes in a species or even the creation of new species. While there are no purposes or goals in this “system”, it can create the appearance of design: organisms that survive will be well suited to the conditions in which they live. This is, of course, not design-if they did not fit, they would not survive to be there.

Getting back to being a man, evolution has shaped men via this process of natural selection. As such, the men who are here now are descended from men who had qualities that contributed to their surviving and reproducing. These men will, in turn, go through the natural selection process. In the case of humans, the process is often more complicated than that of birds, bees and orchids. However, as noted above, the basic idea is the same.  The “men” of the non-human species have  a set of behaviors that define this role. In most cases, the majority of these behaviors (nest building, fighting, displaying, and so on) are instinctual. In the case of humans, some of the behavior is probably hard-wired, but much of it is learned behavior. However, if one buys into evolutionary theory, what lies behind all this is the process of evolution. As such, being a man would simply be an evolutionary “strategy” that arose out of the process of natural selection. As such, being a man is on par with being a drake, a bull or a steer.  That is, it involves being in a gender role that is typically occupied by biological males.

Of course, this does not help a great deal in deciding how one should act if one wants to be a man in a meaningful sense. But, evolution is not about what one ought to do. It is simply about what is: survive and be selected, or fail and be rejected. That said, looking at comparable roles in the animal kingdom as well as considering the matter of evolution (and biology) might prove useful in looking at the matter scientifically.

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16 Comments.

  1. men suffered the embarrassment of | Man game and boy game - pingback on May 20, 2010 at 2:20 am
  2. men suffered the embarrassment of | Man game and boy game - pingback on May 20, 2010 at 2:20 am
  3. Mike,

    I agree that male behaviors did go through evolutionary processes, but I felt that your interpretation of the system was too simplistic. There need not be a single characteristic that decides clearly who survives to reproduce and who doesn’t. It is often a mix of many characteristics that work synergistically that determines survival and reproduction. Female tastes/predilections/choices would seem to be the most important factor in modern human evolution considering the medical professions prowess at keeping us alive. And we all know how varied/complex women are. . .

  4. It may be helpful to look at this question at this question from say Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene viewpoint whereby we are the vehicles constructed by genes for their own implicit interest. Dawkins stresses that that the genes are not driven by any motive or will, merely that their effects can be described as if they were. The genes that get passed on are those which best serve their own interest which is survival. So deciding how one should act if one wants to be a man is genetically somewhat irrelevant. If you think being a man is being obsessed by football beer swilling and sex than it could well be that the offspring of such people is abundant, which genetically is presumably good and perfect if the bad habits are genetic rather than generated by environmental factors. It is also interesting to note That where poverty reigns genetic reproduction is often abundant abundant.

    So It seems to me that genes, to continue the anthropomorphic analogy, do not care one jot about the qualities of manhood all that matters is survival. The whole situation concerning evolution and inheritance is of course vast and it is impossible to do justice to the question posed here. I feel sure that regarding the matter from a scientific viewpoint is a very fruitful path to pursue.

  5. An example that often comes to mind is that male lions are too large to be good hunters; the lighter, more agile female does most of the hunting. The size of the male, along with the hot and heavy mane, is believed to be selected by the female, as a sign of strength–even though that strength isn’t useful for much more than fending off other suitors. Evolution certainly chooses a variety of ways to present the masculine traits.

  6. I’m not sure what the naturally selected human male is like. Don Bird ventures ‘being obsessed by football beer swilling and sex’. Is it a scientific statement or a stereotype?

    Along the same lines, the naturally selected female would be obsessed with washing up, cooking dinner, watching TV soaps and making men happy by letting them have sex. How many women are there around who identify themselves with that model? And even more interestingly, how many men would nowadays recognise their women friends in that model? Perhaps that’s not what human females (to stay with the genetic metaphor) are like but what they should or ‘ought to’ be like (according to whom?). But then this model of human female would be excluded from evolution, which is only about what is and not what should or ought to be.

  7. I’m done with the old view of “natural selection”.

    I’ve been keeping a keen eye out for the trend that views “natural selection”, not as a process of a narrowing of traits and a refinement that narrows towards some ideal, but a process of dynamic diversity, one that deliberately generates variations in preparation for unpredictable changes in environment.

    This is why I’ve mentioned the recent study that shows female preferences regarding masculinity change according the the degree of prosperity.

    And, I think it’s interesting that the results of that study fall in line with the kind of strategy one might expect. Specifically (as I’ve mentioned elsewhere), selection favors tougher men for tougher times, while prosperity, which can support larger growing populations, favors a more genteel social cooperation.

  8. Tesser,
    Studies often do reveal what “common sense” would suggest. I remember when a study revealed that people tended to cooperate more with nice people and far less with jerks. Now that is cutting edge science. :)

  9. We always should have a great mind to help all kind of living beings especially for birds and animals.

  10. I think it’s probably too simplistic, to use Kevin’s expression, to explain human behaviour tout court in terms of evolutionary theory, as much as this is appropriate to the explanation of the behaviour of birds and bees. I’m not saying human beings are not part of nature, far from it. I’m only saying that the level of our complexity is such that laying out clearly the object of our study, i.e., human behaviour, without falling back on stereotype or common sense, is problematic. Obviously, it’s fruitful to attempt an evolutionary explanation to things such as our upright posture, the functions and organization of our physical organs, etc. However, when it comes to psychology, things start to get funny. Perhaps we should wait until we know more about our brains. Furthermore, one crucial role is played by our capacity for language, which complicates things enormously. We don’t only adapt to our environment, we do massively interfere with it by building our own environment and radically changing its conditions, we plan our actions and modify them on the basis of the results obtained. Champions of evolution like Dawkins and Dennett admit as much; they even introduce the concept of meme, which although it might sound a bit far-fetched to some, at least it points to the insufficiency of evolutionary theory to explain human behaviour the same way as it explains non human animal behaviour.

  11. M.A.,

    Good points. Of course, if our capabilities are based on evolution, then our behavior would be grounded in this process of selection. While our behavior is (allegedly) more complex than those of the “lesser” species, it is still explainable in terms of evolution. That is, humans do X because so far doing X has not exterminated the species. :)

  12. Agreed, natural selection is at the basis of our capacities and behaviour; yet, how does one go about articulating a theory that explains what this actually involves in a scientifically informative manner that goes beyond common sense platitudes, stereotypes, and even circularity? In fact, it might equally be said that the human male does X because X promotes his survival and reproduction and that the human male survives and successfully reproduces because he does X. Furthermore, to what extent can it be said that some groups of human beings, for instance, have starved to death because they didn’t possess successful survival traits by natural selection standards? This might be the case in some circumstances perhaps, but there might be other circumstances, even more likely ones I’d say, whereby possession of the winning character traits and behaviour in terms of life chances and reproductive success is dependent on human-made environment which the human animal might be able quite intentionally to change to a significant degree, thereby quite intentionally choosing which character traits and behavioural patterns to promote and select for. Without downplaying natural selection mechanisms underlying human animal behaviour, my view would be that adequate understanding of such mechanisms would require better knowledge of the human brain, the origin of which is best explained (to date) by means of natural selection.

  13. Re M Antonietta

    I think perhaps the best way to look at this problem is in the first instance as simply as possible. Just forget about Human beings, initially and think of it from a genetic viewpoint. What are genes? They are of electrochemical composition and have the ability due to their chemical and electrical properties to reproduce themselves often with slight changes in their progeny, which we call mutations. Genetic material is extremely complex and this is no place to go into a profound subject. However if we consider each member of the plant and animal kingdoms as a vehicle constructed by genes for their own implicit interest then I think we can see the situation from a viewpoint which is not anthropocentric.

    Before the advent of man on this planet genes reigned supreme they survived five major extinctions and a large number of lesser extinctions. Over 98% of species that ever lived are now extinct. Remember that human beings have only been on the planet as genetic vehicles for a very short time. It is estimated that humans branched off from their common ancestor with Chimpanzees the only other living hominins – about 5–7 million years ago. With the advent of man and his subsequent development these vehicles gradually acquired the ability to have some control over what the genes had decreed for them. Environments could be changed and even the functions of genetic activity could be controlled in some measure. Thus we see things like plant hybridisation selection by man of species they favour which otherwise in the wild so to speak, would have no survival value. If you consider the varieties of Dog which Humans have produced for their own pleasure and use you will observe that a huge number of them would have no survival value if left to genetic pressure alone. No other life form I can think of can do this or similar. The genes have been at work for about 3.8 billion years. Human intervention has only encompassed about a fragment of this time the earliest fossil primates are 70 million years old.

    I am not sure that my expression Human intervention is quite correct here as it is still pretty apparent that the fittest mostly do survive To me it seems there is no getting away from evolution even when Humans are now engaged in genetic engineering.

    We are told we now face the sixth major extinction which could well wipe Humans from the face of the Earth. This being the case I am sure the will be sufficient genetic material for the evolutionary process to continue. Provided the environment is permitting of the necessary electrochemical processes to occur.

    As to whether this explanation is anything like a an approach in a scientifically informative manner that goes beyond common sense platitudes, stereotypes, and even circularity I do not know. But I feel myself reasonably satisfied.

    I think Neuroscience will be very revealing in years to come. As to whether it will ever make any inroads into the Hard problem of consciousness is additionally of supreme interest.

  14. M.A.,

    True, once you get beyond the foundation (evolution selected for X,Y,Z) there is still a great deal to explain. Perhaps evolution created creatures that can make choices-if so, that would be part of any explanation. Or perhaps it is a deterministic universe. Or random.

  15. The explanation is enormously informative and all but platitudinous. However, ‘Just forget about Human beings’, although functional to an explanation of gene evolution, does only touch upon the central topic of Mike’s post, i.e., looking at ‘being a man in the context of evolutionary theory’, which is understood as ‘the theory [according to which] organisms experience random mutations and these are selected for (or against) by natural processes’. I can see that in his post Don places the human animal in the wider context of what went before its appearance and what might happen after its disappearance; it’s well and good to remind us that we’re a speck in evolutionary terms, but, although the enormity of what that speck is capable of doing in terms of natural, psychological and social manipulation has been stressed by Don, the implications of all of this for an account of that speck’s behaviour and its underlying mechanisms, including genes and the evolutionary process which I’m far from denying play a part, have not been drawn. In my view, these would have to go beyond simply saying that ‘We do X (or our genes make us do X) because it makes the species fit to survive and reproduce’ and, conversely, that ‘the species survives and reproduces because we do X (or genes make us do X)’. The fittest are those who survive, as Don says, but who or what selects for what counts as ‘fit’, and how is this done, when it comes to a still human-inhabited world? This is what, among other things, seems to me thinkers like Dawkins or Dennett have attempted to do by venturing the concept of meme and other possible or improbable hypotheses. The thing is that the nub of Mike’s discussion, that is, the explanation of human behaviour in terms of natural selection simpliciter, is still a moot point.

  16. “Studies often do reveal what ‘common sense’ would suggest. I remember when a study revealed that people tended to cooperate more with nice people and far less with jerks. Now that is cutting edge science.” – That made me ROTFLMAO. Makes one think why the study was even done!

    One thought is that the population will end up taller due to women preferring taller men (along the lines of another commenter re masculinity relative to degree of prosperity). I guess tall rich men will be in highest demand!

    As for the provoking philosophical question on the role of man and what it means to be a man, … from a procreation perspective, providing sperm. From a social standpoint, be the provider (although that is wearing thin in the present economic climate and the dual income family structure), be the father to the children, be a contributor to society (on each man’s own ability). And “man up” with integrity to tell the truth, be open and honest!

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