Monday, July 26, 2010

Sex, Darwin, and the Ancient Empires

It’s interesting to contemplate man as an animal versus man as an intelligent being – the great dichotomy of our life on earth. Originally we were animals with a big brain, unused until we learned to take control of our environment in a way that fostered practical thinking. Domesticating animals and agriculture ended man’s life as a nomad and brought people together in larger groups (villages). The size of these groups led to a division of labor, and man’s brain was finally put to work.

There seems to be a trend these days that seeks to suppress the animal part of us like it’s some barbaric mantle that keeps us from a utopian existence. The adherents of this point of view want us to become sensitive to the needs of all other humans -- logical, caring robots, mass produced in a political correctness factory who will not offend anyone. It’s an era of neglected responsibility where causes don’t matter – only situations.

My position is a bit different. I believe that the refusal to accept man’s animal nature is nonsense based on what would result from attempts to be “un-human”. Would it be bad for a man to be attracted to a woman, for example, because that would exhibit animal behavior? Should we accept a low paying job because the desire to do better is immoral or elitist? There is no question that biology has played an important role in our success as human beings. Men have striven for better lives, invented great things, and pushed knowledge forward because of a motivation to succeed, be the best, or win the race. You can’t legislate away humanness even though some utopians think you can. The progressive movement wants to see a “leveling” of society to make us all socio-economically equal, and part of the plan is to remove humanness as roadblock to societal equality. Strength must be replaced by equality.

I was asked to review the book The Dynamics of Ancient Empires by Ian Morris and Walter Scheidel, published in 2009. Although a heavy academic read, the book presents some interesting ideas on humanness, especially in the last chapter, written by Professor Scheidel and titled Sex and Empire, a Darwinian Perspective. His point of view is that not only did the men of antiquity differentiate themselves by ability, but they also sought power because it allowed them access to more sexual partners and control over their own procreation.

Scheidel starts with the notion that humans are driven by their bio-molecules to interact with the outside world for the sake of energy consumption and replication.

“Since genetic survival is contingent on scarce energy resources, reproductive processes inevitably involve competition, which in turn drives evolution in response to natural selection. As a result, behavior of organisms is adaptive if it increases the chances of reproductive success.”

To put it another way, it was more useful reproductively for men to possess a harem of females than for females to possess a harem of males.

“Typically, resources, status, and power co-varied with reproductive success for males. In general, the acquisition of symbolic capital – honor, prestige, and power – translated into the accumulation of material capital, which enhanced reproductive success.”

Of course, a major criticism of this idea is that sexual urges are not known to prompt men to engage in warfare or the exploitation or resources, but the author counters that men can be motivated by a variety of causes and that the desire for warfare can be brought about by the desire to increase a man’s inclusive fitness; driven by such emotions as “we’re better than them” or “they have dishonored us.”

If you look at ancient history, the norm is polygyny (multiple wives) among elites. The data also shows that increased social stratification (based on wealth) increases the level of polygyny. But does this data support a Darwinian point of view?

“Because of the protracted childcare in humans, a premium has been placed on post-partum parental investment, so female mate choice is governed by the desire to obtain resources from long-term mates, an objective that conflicts with man’s desire for multiple partners.”

These forces put man in a position of wanting it both ways – stable long term partners associated with producing heirs and secondary partners used outside the accepted relationship. Indeed, Scheidel asserts that the first monogamous societies (Greece and Rome) were socially imposed. By this he means there was social pressure to monogamous based on the increasing importance of cooperation among coalitions (peer groups), needed to deal with external challenges. This pressure led to a moral standard that monogamy should be the only acceptable marriage practice.

In both Greece and Rome there grew to be severe penalties for having sexual relations with someone else’s wife, but no penalties for relations with slaves or concubines.
Enhanced by Zemanta


Judith Weingarten said...

As far as I know, the ancient Egyptians, with very rare and questionable exceptions, were monogamous (except for the royal family). So why privilege Greece and Rome?

Mike Anderson said...


According to Scheidel, Polygyny existed in Egypt from the period of imperial expansion during the new kingdom, although he agrees that the data below the royals is difficult to determine. I was not trying to generalize behavior over each culture, only to discuss behavior at the top. As you know, there were obvious economic constraints that affected polygyny among the lower classes which would have created pressure to be monogamous. No disrespect for Egypt intended.