Saturday, March 17, 2007

On Evolution (for all you rabid Biology fans)

Quite often, I find articles stating that men are like this or women are like that because of genes, and thus they are all thus and if they aren't they're abominations of nature. They say that humans are all one way because they evolved. I think that this is a bit of a fallacy, as it ignores another crucial part of being human - our potentially long life spans.

Let's start at the basics here. The mayfly. It has a tiny lifespan, leading it to be called the 'one day fly' in various languages. (Its temporary nature is reflected by the rather beautiful name the French have given it, l'éphémère.) Once it has emerged in its adult form, it has a day to fly off, find a mate, breed, find a suitable area to lay its eggs and then do so before it dies. With such a tiny window of time within which to fit everything, it would mean the extinction of the species if it had to first learn how to perform all of its actions - especially in the absence of any parents to do the teaching. Thus, it makes sense that the little naiad is largely controlled by its genetic make-up.

Creatures such as elephants and us ape-y types are a bit different. We can live for decades. We produce fewer offspring than our small, short-lived neighbours and these offspring receive a good deal of parenting before cavorting off to be independent like all the cool kids. All this parental help we get gives us a greater survival chance in the early years, and also mean we have plenty of time to learn from observation, trial and error and straightforward lessons from our parents. We also continue to learn throughout our lives, picking up skills and tips as we go. Thus, human behaviour has a lot more to do with learning than it does in the case of a mayfly. We have different personalities, different ways of expressing ourselves, different habits. To say, then, that we will be a certain way purely because of our genes is to deny that we have any individuality and also says that parenting means nothing - we could be brought up in any way but will always be X. Even parenting doesn't predict us though, as is shown by numerous cases of children 'turning out differently' to expectations. We are influenced by social and familial pressures and our own growing minds and ideas, with our genes only providing a 'groundwork' for many of us.

Let's look at evolution in the case of monogamy. If we are to look at our closest relatives, chimps, which share a whopping 98% of their genetic material with us, you will see that they are... not monogamous. Gorillas... no. In fact, I learned by reading The Descent of Woman (Elaine Morgan's precursor to The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis) that where natural, genetic monogamy happens, it is usually in the case of creatures like gibbons and a wide range of both aquatic and terrestrial creatures which are so fiercely territorial that, if they did not go through a stage of imprinting that would allow them to bond with another member of their species with which they would mate with and allow to live with them, they and their species would face some serious problems establishing themselves. Humans are rather less territorial than that, yet we still get people saying that women are monogamous purely due to genes. If we went through the imprinting process then we could say that love at first sight was universal, we'd go through a short period of time in which we would latch on to a mate and, once the window has closed, wouldn't so much as look at another one. Cheating in relationships would be EXTREMELY rare if not unheard of.
Not. The. Case.
The evidence suggests that our genetic foundations do not mark us as monogamous, and thus the practice of monogamy is a result of choice and social influence. I'm not saying 'monogamy is bad'. I'm saying 'there's no proof that humans are monogamous by default'.

There are several examples of this, all ignoring the human capacity to learn and be influenced. So before simply saying that humans should be a certain way because of what they are, think about the other factors first.

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