Evolutionary psychology--Azar Gat

From: Keith Henson (hkhenson@rogers.com)
Date: Mon 02 Jan 2006 - 18:06:55 GMT

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    I came upon this by accident. It is really worth reading as background to memetics since understanding the meme's host is essential to understanding why some memes do better than others.

    (Snips and line breaks added to improve readability, worth reading in full plus the Ferguson reply and response material)

    Keith Henson


    Published in Anthropological Quarterly, 73.1 (2000), 20-34.



    Azar Gat

    Part I: Primary Somatic and Reproductive Causes

    At the centre of this study is the age-old philosophical and psychological inquiry into the nature of the basic human system of motivation. Numerous lists of basic needs and desires have been put together over the centuries, more or less casually or convincingly. The most recent ones show little if any marked progress over the older, back to Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, 6
    (e.g. Maslow 1970 [1954]; Burton 1990).

    In the absence of an evolutionary perspective, these lists have always had something arbitrary and trivial about them. They lacked a unifying regulatory rationale that would suggest why the various needs and desires came to be, or how they related to one another.

            Arguing that the human motivational system as a whole should be approached from the evolutionary perspective, this study focuses on the causes of fighting. It examines what can be meaningfully referred to as the 'human state of nature', the 99.5 percent of the genus Homo's evolutionary history in which humans lived as hunter-gatherers.

    In this 'state of nature' people's behaviour patterns are generally to be considered as evolutionarily adaptive. They form the evolutionary inheritance that we have carried with us throughout later history, when this inheritance has constantly interacted and been interwoven with the human staggering cultural development.


            The causes of 'primitive warfare' remain a puzzle in anthropology, with explanations ranging from the materialist to cultural and psychological
    ('sheer pugnacity'). In recent years, the discussion has been largely dominated by what has been presented as a controversy between the evolutionist and cultural-materialist theories.

    That the debate has taken this form is due to historical developments within anthropology. Being one of the principal theoretical approaches in anthropology, cultural materialism stresses people's desire to improve their material lot as the basis of human motivation.

    Since there is a very substantial grain of truth in this idea, cultural materialism has had an obvious explanatory appeal. However, its limitations should have been equally clear, and they were revealed, for example, in the anthropological study of war during the 1970s.

    It was horiticulturalists, the Yanomamo of the Orinoco basin and the Highlanders of New Guinea, that stood at the centre of the debate. It was not clear why these horticulturalists fought among themselves, for there was no real sign that either the Yanomamo or some of the New Guinea Highlanders experienced agricultural land shortage.

    The proponents of the materialist school thus suggested that they fought over highly valued animal protein. With the Yanomamo, this supposedly took the form of competition over hunting resources in the forests around their villages.

    In New Guinea, the competition was allegedly over grazing grounds in the forests for domesticated pigs. While this interpretation had some plausibility, it did not sit quite comfortably with all the evidence. Indeed, the cultural materialists themselves began to look for complementary explanations.

            At a more fundamental level, the cultural materialists never seriously explained, never felt that there was a need to explain, their central argument: why was it that the quest for material gains was the overriding motive of human action.


    . . . the materialist argument often called for elaborate intellectual acrobatics, which in extreme cases made cultural materialism famous for the most contrived explanatory stories.

            From the mid-1970, modern evolutionary theory slowly began to win attention among anthropologists. One of the first anthropologists influenced by it was Napoleon A. Chagnon, who had already been the best-known student of the Yanomamo. Chagnon argued (1979a, 1979b, 1988) that Yanomamo warfare, as well as their internal conflicts, were predominantly about reproductive opportunities.

    In inter-village warfare, women were regularly raped or kidnapped for marriage, or both. Village headmen and distinguished warriors had many wives and children, many times more than ordinary people did. Violent feuds within the village were chiefly caused by adultery.

            As we shall see, most of these ideas were true. Unfortunately, however, Chagnon - who in the 'protein controversy' wholly opposed the idea that Yanomamo warfare involved competition over hunting territories - gave the impression that evolutionary theory was about reproduction in the narrow rather than the broadest sense.

    His arguments have thus opened themselves to all sorts of criticisms; anthropologists have anyhow exhibited considerable resistance to the intrusion of evolutionary theory, which called for a thorough re-evaluation of accepted anthropological interpretative traditions.

    Many of the criticisms levelled against Chagnon's position have been poorly informed about the fundamentals of evolutionary theory. For instance, one critic (McCauley 1990: 3) queried why, if fighting was beneficial for inclusive fitness, was it not continuous and ubiquitous.

    He failed to realize that fighting, like any other behaviour, could be only one possible tactic for inclusive fitness, depending for its success, and activation, on the presence of specific conditions.

    Another cluster of often-voiced criticisms was that it was not true that people were motivated by the desire to maximize the number of their offspring; that the widespread occurrence of infanticide among primitive people was one example that belied this idea; and that women were sought for economic as well as sexual purposes, as a labour force (McCauley 1990; Ferguson 1995: 358-9).

            The flaws in these criticisms can be pointed out only briefly here. It is not that people consciously 'want' to maximize the number of their children; although there is also some human desire for children per se and a great attachment to them once they exist, it is mainly the desire for sex
    - Thomas Malthus's 'passion' - which functions in nature as the powerful biological proximate mechanism for maximizing reproduction;

    as humans, and other living creatures, normally engage in sex throughout their fertile lives, they have a vast reproductive potential, which, before effective contraception, mainly depended for its realization on environmental conditions.

      Infanticide typically takes place when a new-born in conditions of resource scarcity threatens the survival chances of his elder siblings, as, for example, of an elder nursing infant; for inclusive fitness is not about maximizing offspring number but about maximizing the number of *surviving* offspring.

    The fact that women may sometime also be valued for economic, as well as reasons is strictly in line with evolutionary theory; people must feed, find shelter, and protect themselves (somatic activities) in order to reproduce successfully. snip

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