Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Nair-do-wells, and their evolutionary message

In what, if you'll forgive the pun, is a barely visible revolution, it appears that women are throwing away their razors (sorry, Nair!).  As Beverley Turner put it in The Telegraph last week, "Ladies, breaking news: it is time to step away from the molten wax and let our lady gardens grow free." Maybe it's because Gwyneth Paltrow told Ellen DeGeneres that she "rocks a 70s vibe down there", or maybe it's just, like clothing, another changing fashion, but pubic hair is back.  Whether this is caused by, or will be followed by the porn industry is something that, surely, many university professors will be seeking grants to study.

This should be especially interesting to the evolutionary psychology industry, because of their determination to document the Darwinian reasons for the hard-wiring for every element of behavior.  In the old, naive days, their academic ancestors showed how clearly pubic hair evolved as a sexual-display trait, to ensure that males would be interested (as if that were necessary!).  Otherwise, if it were not all about mate choice and sexual selection, what was it doing there?

Well, perhaps it wasn't just a sexual attractant, but instead, a signal by the females that they were no longer girls, but women, ready and able to mate and conceive.  No wasted sperm by males who would otherwise be attempting to make the Shakespearean beast with two backs with those who couldn't yield the offspring by which the promiscuous males were so driven to propagate.  Or maybe it "aids in the wafting of human pheromones", never mind that there's no uncontroversial evidence that humans even have much in the way of active vomeronasal organs, or pheromone receptors. 

Whatever the explanation, strong sexual selection clearly mandated this particular patch.

But if so, how could it possibly be that for the past generation the fashion was no pubic hair at all?  After all, why would looking like a pre-pubescent girl attract men?  How could any woman give up her come-on signal, that so clearly, we were told, evolved as a fundamental necessity for evolutionary existence?  We haven't tried to explore what the evolutionary behavior people said about this patchwork trend in patchwork, but given it's lascivious appeal surely there are articles and books galore, retrofitting Darwinian explanations to that once-new (and now obsolescing) hirsute reality.

But that doesn't really work if we are hard-wired to respond to that View.  It may be a conundrum.

This is not (only) a prurient post!
We must leave this mesmerizing topic, to show that we ourselves are not dwelling on it for its reader-appeal.  There are many similar issues, that generalize the point, and it is in fact an evolutionary one!

Nov 24's NY Times book review section reviews two new books dealing with the philosophy of dilemmas, specifically the trolley dilemmas, which goes like this: If you could divert a trolley from its current track, knowing that if it continued on that track it would be derailed, killing all on board, to a spur that was safer for all on board but someone was tied across the tracks and sure to be killed if the trolley goes in that direction, what would you do?  Intentionally kill someone, or kill one to save many more?

You might think this a strange thing to consider along with the now you see it, now you don't pubic hair issue, but it's actually very similar.  The reviewer notes that the book reports research showing that what people choose to do in such a Hobson’s-choice situation is not hard-wired.  It depends upon the individual, how the choice is presented to them, their gender, and aspects of their recent lives.  They are not programmed to evaluate whether the person to be killed is one they would normally have affinity with, nor asked whether they would sacrifice themselves by jumping on the track in front of the trolley to save everyone else.  Their decision was contextual and specific to individuals. 

You might think this could be the biggest ‘so what?’ item one can imagine.  Duh!  People make different choices!  But given the tenor of the behavioral evolution literature, such optional thinking should not be optional at all: people should use their hard-wired game-theory neurons to make the self-interested decision that Darwinian selection mandated them, by eons of filtering right decisions from wrong ones, to do.

The real evolutionary problem, harder and so easily being ignored
There are countless other examples of similar issues that we could cite.  They have one aspect in common:  humans are generally not hard-wired for our behavioral repertoire.  Instead, we are hard-wired not to be hard-wired.  And how that could be is the real evolutionary problem we should be trying to understand.

Now you might defend the ev-psych Darwinian point of view by saying that since Eve ate the forbidden apple, it was cover-up time with the proverbial fig leaves, which thwarted the Vital View that men needed to see to know that what they wanted was ready.  Thus clothing put all bets off, and since men can't know what's hidden until the action actually starts, they now have to respond to something else, and women provide it with, say, tight clothing or makeup or hanging out in bars, or whatever.  

But that doesn't wash as an escape, because if we really were hard-wired to respond to the View, we would not be able to substitute it with something else.  For reproduction to occur and our species to survive, even clothed women would have to wear a see-through triangle (that, in freezing winter, could be double-glazed).  And women, hard-wired to be fearful that they would not be properly recognized, would never, ever, ever reach for the razor.  And of course all this male mate choice talk doesn't explain why they have pubic hair.

No, the obvious truth is that the View is not necessary--men and women can alter their landscape and still succeed.  And that raises the key point.

The hunger for competition-based, simple, dramatic and telegenic stories about how this or that behavior must have evolved to wire us to behave as we do, makes it easy to write grants, publish papers, tell stories on television and the like.  Also, it is easy, and hence convenient, to imagine and hypothesize hard-wiring of a clockwork organism, and how the trait could evolve:  if the incoming retinal signal-carrying nerve from the eye synapses in a fixed neural arc with some relevant behavioral neuron that connects with some muscle activating neurons, one can easily imagine evolution favoring this hard-wiring--when the signal comes in, the behavior goes out.  Such a generic story doesn't make a specific invocation of it true nor even easy to find the neurons, but at least it fits in a highly selection-based, model of the body as a machine.  

It sounds so simple that it sounds as if it simply must be true.  So one can see why it's easy to take this approach even when, hidden in plain sight, is the massive evidence that such pat stories are at the very best great exaggerations and usually little more than speculation. That is, one can do studies about how this particular experimental set-up or study shows what people in particular circumstances do, or how often, and even guessing at why they do it.  You can be a professor, have sage-sounding things to say, publish papers and so on.  

But it is damnably difficult to have much confidence in reconstruction of (1) the specific way, if there is one, in which genes actually affect the behavior, and (2) the evolutionary reason for it--that is, when, where, and how natural selection molded whatever the genetic basis of the trait is--if, indeed, natural selection was involved in the determinative ways usually invoked.

The real challenge
In fact, from an evolutionary and genetic point of view, the question is not whether our behavior has an evolutionary, genetic, or neural basis.  That seems rather obvious.  The challenge, and where the research ought to be being invested, is in the much more complex, longer-term, less exotic and sexy understanding of how our brains evolved not to be hard-wired.

Empirically, we use our senses and our thinking powers to evaluate circumstances in which we find ourselves, and determine how to act.  Our reasons usually seem to be quite abstract or indirect compared to simplistic Darwinian stories of immediate reproductive success.  We differ in how we assess situations, the options available, and their likely outcomes.  There is no one wiring diagram, nor one that everybody has.  Indeed, even ev-psych studies use statistical methods to argue that this or that behavior, under some controlled conditions, will occur--and statistical methods mean the behavior is, at best, only sometimes true (e.g., happens more often in some subjects shown some particular image or asked some particular questions, than in some group of controls), and at most only partially wired-in.

Instead, the real question is how can a brain be structured to do this sort of very complex evaluation and integration of many different sensory input systems, in circumstances that are always partly if not largely unique (now, to us, or to our ancestors)?  Answering that is a challenge!

If you think of it that way, you may not have the answer but you will have more respect for the difficult nature of this important biological and evolutionary problem.  You'll have more respect for science as it is supposed to be.  And you'll see that our species seems to continue to proliferate, with or without its razors.


Anonymous said...
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Ken Weiss said...

Well, since not everybody rapes somebody (I can speak from personal experience of never having done it!), clearly we are not evolved by selection to be hard-wired to rape. Traits so potentially intimately related to genetic (Darwinian) fitness should not be very variable since selection should have kept the amount of variation low. So whatever traits like murder or rape are, they are at the very least context-dependent.

Also, the fact that rape or murder or ill-temper or whatever can be found globally demonstrates that we have similar brain-related behaviors. How that evolved, how much selection and how much chance and so on, is the question.

The inheritance of felonious tendencies is an age-old notion, portrayed in awful ways by Davenport and other eugenicists. But the argument is, at best, minimal. That's because most repeated felonious behavior would be social-class related and not inbred, and by far most felonies are not familial.

So, I think we just disagree about where the genetic programming line is.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I'm going to go ahead and share, publicly, that I would not have allowed Andrew's comment to be published.

Ken Weiss said...

OK, what’s going on here?
We deleted a comment because it seemed to suggest that behavior such as rape and criminality are genetic and are passed down through the generations. People have a right to their views, but such views have already had an ample airing: countless books and papers were written on the subject….100 years and more ago. It was called the eugenics movement, and countless people were grievously harmed by holders of such views.

Our commenter may have used careless phrasing, or we may have misinterpreted, and it is indeed a form of censorship but such comments go beyond what we consider acceptable on our blog. There are plenty of outlets for such views elsewhere.

Ken Weiss said...

If the things we say in our message weren't obvious enough, just today the BBC (Britain's juicy story network) has a story reporting that Brits aren't having as much, er, fun as they once did (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-25094142). Well, if evolution can lead people NOT to indulge, when there's no penalty in child care for it, well.....

Jim Wood said...

I find it a grievous omission that you never even mention merkins in your original post.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Thanks for removing the comment. Why must so many discussions of the biology of behavior, including one about pubic hair-dos, go straight to rape and criminality within a racialist framework?

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, and when one suggests things that science should not be allowed to do, unless they stick strictly to things like not torturing people (Mice is OK, apparently), then they scream Censorship! (that is, 'I might not be able to get a grant'). People so often object, as if it's wrong to stop spending public funds on things with potential disastrous effects, that history shows can if not will be used in such ways.

It is not just now that criminality, sexual offenses (usually blamed on women being promiscuous), low intelligence, and the like are the first traits mentioned. Years ago, I think here on MT and perhaps in Ev. Anth., I've noted that nobody thinks of bank and hedge fund managers (or others one could name) as 'criminals' in this behavioral context.

These tendencies, to think of criminals and sex (against, women, of course), run deep apparently. Also, of course, it's always those in privileged positions, who usually don't actually steal or rape (privileged people have other ways of getting what they want), who are passing the judgments.

I hasten to add that I can't relate this specifically to the commenter who, we felt, went beyond the bounds, whether intentionally or not.

Robert Kopec said...

What about the male hair on the chest as in "put some hair on your chest"? Some decades it is sexy some decades it definitely is not.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, one could, so to speak, 'wax' poetic about this and other similar hairy topics. But I'm sure that all us Big Tough Guys have fur where we have it because it scares away the other guys who might want our gal, or scares away the bears (or creeps them out). It simply must have evolved for something!

Actually, to be serious (but why do that?!), human males are striped in the facial hair department--take a look at some youngish to middle-aged males. Is this like silver-backing to gorilla guys?