Evolutionary psychologists take the story of Adam and Eve very seriously. Not because they don’t believe Darwin’s evolution is as revolutionary for the field of biology as Newton and Einstein were for physics, but because it asks the most crucial question about what separates us from the animals. Nothing an animal does is immoral because it acts according to its nature, but once the first couple broke God’s commandment and ate of the fruit, they knew the difference between right and wrong, and sin became possible.
Darwin is always used to rationalize bad behavior, from social Darwinism and Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness to the philanderer’s excuse that monogamy “goes against nature.” In truth, we are also wired to work together and bond with one mate—for a time, at least. We humans, armed with the knowledge of good and evil, are capable of moral judgment, even if it is, ultimately, for selfish reasons.
So, what was it that gave us the potential to act against our instincts, and do what is right as opposed to what merely spreads our genes? What makes humans capable of altruism: the act of making a personal sacrifice for the benefit of others?
In a word: Love.
Biologists have found that generally, the more social an animal is, the more intelligent. This suggests there’s something about close relationships that requires a lot of brainpower.
The problem stems from cooperation. As animals start to gather in herds or hunt in packs, it requires quite a bit of risk to each individual. What’s the incentive to be the first to tackle prey if everyone gets a piece? Why defend when you can be defended? Each wolf would be better off hanging back and enjoying the spoils of those doing all the work, but if no one takes the risk, no one eats. But why on Earth would anyone want to be the hero?
The answer to this conundrum, again, comes from the Bible: the Golden Rule.
If you have extra to spare, you will personally benefit more by sharing—if you can trust them to return the favor when you fall on bad times. To know who to trust and keep track of favors owed requires lots of gray matter—and language, so you can gossip about what that bastard such-and-such did to so-and-so. You also need to be able to punish freeloaders. So it’s do unto others and an eye for an eye.
But freeloading is only one way the selfish can exploit the system: they can lie, cheat, preach one thing and do another, thus encouraging more sacrifice by others while diverting attention from your own selfishness. There’s a reason we despise hypocrites.
To figure out what someone else is up to requires an ability to read people and put yourself in their shoes, or empathize.
What makes this possible is mirror neurons. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, neurophysiologists from the University of Parma in Italy made one of the most important neurological discovery in decades. By using electrodes on macaque monkeys to measure their brain activity during various actions, they found that some of the same neurons fire both when the monkey performed and observed an action such as sticking out their tongue. So to a very real extent, one experiences what others do, particularly humans.
It’s a revolutionary concept. If you can imagine yourself as someone else, you can run simulations in your head and predict the result of sticking your hand in the fire without doing it yourself. Seeing someone dance in pain is enough. Empathy allows us to imitate, learn and speak—we know if a panda “eats shoots and leaves” or “eats, shoots and leaves” because we put things in context.
With empathy, we want to stop someone’s suffering because their suffering is ours.
Get your mind out of the gutter. We’re not talking about the beefsteak lifting weights at the gym, but the steak you grill in the backyard. On second thought, go ahead and hop your brain back in there because the purpose of this BBQ does, eventually, come down to sex.
All this extra brainpower had a cost as the growth of skulls outpaced female hips. Women started to die in childbirth, and natural selection postponed more mental development until we got outside, increasing the length of child rearing. Our instincts were replaced by education and experience until human children required the longest period of parental attention. Whereas cubs might be hunting within a period of months, human brains don’t fully mature until college.
So, when you’re up against animals pumping out pups by the litter, a lot rides on the succes of every child. Women couldn’t easily hunt, so they created agriculture, education, pottery and basically laid the foundations of human civilization while the men went off with their buddies occasionally spearing shit.
(They even took a form of primitive pornography with them, clay figurines of their ideal woman: exaggerated breasts, ample hips—no head.) And when they came back empty handed, they didn’t pick up after themselves or lift a hand to help out around the hut.
What they did bring back was invaluable: meat. Agriculture gives a consistent supply of food, but the protein and fat of a juicy steak was an invaluable supplement. Men who brought home the bacon quickly learned they could trade this valuable commodity for what they wanted, and women saw their offspring were healthier with a man around to add a little red meat to their diet.
When men figured out that one well-fed youngster might outlive a dozen starving bastards, things changed. Gathering meat became not just a lure, but providing for a family. She provided the veggies, him the protein, and both had healthy, happy offspring.
So, what happened to “spreading the seed”? Don’t get cocky, guys. For years, blood tests at paternity wards have shown that 1 in 10 of those men who think sleeping around is not in a woman’s nature are raising someone else’s kid. (By the way, the bird that lays its eggs in another bird’s nest is a “cuckold”.)
If that weren’t enough to get you tracking your wife’s SUV on the GPS, women are actually genetically wired to ensure they are impregnated by their lover NOT their husband.
As a general rule, you can determine the promiscuity of the females of a species by the size of the males’ testes. For example, the enormous but monogamous gorilla only sports a pair of golf balls, whereas the female chimpanzee, which hands out sexual favors like handshakes in heat, is courted by bow-legged males who look like they’re lugging around a bag of cantaloupe.
So where do human men (ahem) measure up? About average.
It seems if we are hardwired for anything, it is to have a variety of partners and a
faithful spouse waiting at home whom never gets jealous. Since such a person is rare, it is our nature to be in conflict. We all must choose our torment: a wife or husband’s wandering eye, the swinger’s jealousy, the bachelor’s loneliness or player’s fear of getting found out.
It is in our interest to be a player. That’s the selfish thing to do. Yet a recent study published by the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy suggests 45-55% of married women and 50-60% of married men have strayed at some point in their relationship. High, but still, most are faithful for most of their relationships. Though difficult, almost half manage to remain faithful their entire marriage.
If it’s in our genetic interest to sire many children, or expand your genetic pool by having your beau raise the alpha male’s child, what force, what chemical in our brains is so powerful it could overcome millions of years of evolution dictating we look out for numero uno?
Dopamine is the brain’s carrot (more or less), reinforcing good behavior. A lot of animal instinct is about getting our fix. Do what your body thinks it needs—eat, drink, cozy up to the fire on a cold night, find a new way to the watering hole—get a couple of CCs of joy juice.
According to Dr. Helen Fisher, author of Why We Love, romantic love is an addictive drug:
Virtually all “drugs of abuse” affect a single pathway in the brain, the mesolimbic reward system, activated by dopamine. In fact, when neuroscientists Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki compared the brain scans of their love-stricken subjects with those of men and women who had injected cocaine or opioids, they found that many of the same brain regions became active.
If dopamine is the currency of our motivation, heroin is the counterfeit operation that can flush our brains with cash without having to earn it. No wonder, then, that one bitten by the love bug shows the three classic symptoms of addiction: tolerance, withdrawal and relapse.
One starts casually dating, convinced they can quit any time, but as the addiction takes hold, they become obsessed with maintaining their high, skipping class or risking their jobs to sneak away from work for lunchtime rendezvous to satisfy their craving for constant contact. When the love-junkie is abandoned, they yearn for another hit, and start to demonstrate the symptoms of withdrawal: crying fits, depression, loss of sleep and appetite. And you can relapse: after quitting cold turkey for a few years, a poke on Facebook from an old flame might be all it takes to put you back on the wagon.
Sex puts us at huge risk: the big heads make more women die in child birth, the long rearing times requires a huge investment, the exchange of bodily fluids puts us at risk of disease. To get together at all requires the dopamine equivalent of beer goggles. It appears that this narcotic cocktail our brain releases when we fall for someone includes chemicals specifically designed to impair judgment, amplify someone’s attributes and blind us to their faults.
So what happens when we’re around each other as much as possible, and build up tolerance? Then, another force takes hold: attachment, the bond so deep and enduring we’d be willing to die, kill or even remain married into our grouchy golden years.
Love and War
As our attachments extended further into our families, so did our dependency on the rest of society. Evolution favored selfish groups instead of selfish individuals. As we took on different roles and drew lines in the battle of the sexes, there also started to be a division of labor outside of the immediate family. Man can’t live on bread alone, but he can be a baker—provided there are farmers, blacksmiths and the like to trade with you.
All this interconnectedness and getting along came with a downside. With the concept of “us” comes “them.” To define who is part of our group worth fighting and dying for, we need to determine who is not.
Very few species demonstrate this much specialization. In this respect, humans have more in common with ants than primates. Ants have a queen, workers, farmers and soldiers. That capacity for war is only found in these highly social animals because only a society that interdependent is capable of having a devoted class willing to die for the greater good.
As we expanded our definition of family outward to include cousins, neighbors and state, we also bred nepotism, tribalism and nationalism. From love came hate, our camaraderie bred prejudice, the capacity to choose good requires an option for evil.
And, with love comes jealousy and heartache. In the end, the best summary of all the conflicting drives and emotions of love are found in the book of Genesis. Adam was with Eve when she broke God’s commandment. As Milton interpreted it, Adam must have know the implications, but when faced to choose between his God and his woman, Adam said, “For with thee, certain my resolution is to die,” and ate because damnation was preferable to living without her.