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The Evolution of Dear Abby

Dear Carole,

I’ve recently discovered your new column featuring advice informed by evolutionary psychology, and I’m writing to express my enthusiasm for it. I must say it does add a new meaning to “The Guardian Unlimited: Science;” truly, your evolutionary insight is limitless in its claim.

Why would we trudge through the mire of carefully considering the complexities and nuances of challenging social interactions like partnership and child-rearing when we can recline in the warm glow of a one-dimensional evolutionary interpretation? It would be such a shame for things to get so messy and out of hand! Boiling down the cold facts of chimpanzee life seems to offer spectacularly simple solutions.

Take some space from daily stresses for personal reflection, you tell one reader, to figure out what you want from life. It sure is a good thing we have chimps to teach us the value of quiet contemplation – the Zen tradition, the mental health literature, and common sense are obviously of no use on that. You must be scouring only the most practical resources to help each inquirer.

Let’s also remember the exchange with Suzie, whose husband’s failure to follow through in his work required medical help, in your expert opinion. If “some form of genetic disorder underlies his erratic behavior,” you suggest, “he will need counseling and support.”

Heaven forbid either of them from enjoying the benefits of counseling and support regardless of their genetic makeup. If we can’t reliably consider our misbehaving as genetic or evolutionary, we might have to look to the social context in which it arises, and again, such complexity would just be too darn hairy!

I’m especially pleased at the advice you gave Carry. Given the opportunity to have “sexy” offspring, I, too, would let all other concerns (an established, successful relationship? honesty? compatibility?) go the way of the Dodo.

You encourage Carry to think about the “sexy son hypothesis,” which (you explain) holds that the offspring of a more attractive and virile male, regardless of his ability to provide or care for them, will also be attractive and reproductively successful. What does this really mean for Carry as she decides whether to commit to a man she cares for and respects, or instead to turn to a financially unstable, younger, more passionate tempter?

Surely the sexy son hypothesis isn’t sufficient to attend to the myriad other questions she might be well suited to ask before risking a good relationship for a sexually tempting one. And let’s be clear here: did you actually nudge Carry toward getting pregnant with the younger man and hoping the older one will support her and the child? It’s this exquisite perspective of yours that compelled me to write you.

This last scenario brings up a question about the role of evolutionary theory in the advice you’re giving. Evolutionary psychology serves to explain the persistence and development of psychological traits as adaptations. This is fascinating science with great explanatory power and sometimes quite incisive findings. But should we automatically consider this field’s explanations to provide good reasons for action?

It may be a scientific truism that we find the genes of the most reproductively successful among us in our next generation. And it may be edifying to understand better the patterns that have emerged in this process. But do the norms that evolutionary psychology reveals make for worthy goals for individuals? Or even for a society? Is the individual maximization of reproductive success a good way of living?

I can imagine a more critical perspective; it would go something like this. Evolutionary theory fails to appreciate that we humans find ourselves in far more perplexing and multifaceted social situations than a purely evolutionary story can tell. In particular, evolutionary psychology inherently disregards anything but heterosexual procreative sex as important, and relies on an extremely rigid conception of gender. And most lamentably, this critique might point out the unexamined leap in reasoning that premises your entire column: the conversion of the norms of evolutionary theory into values that guide our decisions.

Understanding the patterns that underpin our current and historical culture as social animals is wildly important, this imaginary critique would admit, but maximizing reproductive success seems like a perspective-impoverished guide to life.

Where would this critical perspective put us? It might say that our higher cognitive and communicative faculties allow us to shape our environment and effect change with our peers far more quickly than the process of natural variation and selection does. It might show that this kind of social interaction is uniquely human. We could choose to value traits in each other that haven’t fit the evolutionary mold in the past. We could urge each other to make better choices rather than to sit idly by and throw our agency to the evolutionary wind. We could even act against the direction this wind has blown in the past.

But let’s not get carried away. You’re writing an advice column. Readers need answers! It would be far too idealistic to consider your work as a way to cultivate more carefully considered interpersonal interaction. If we can understand ourselves as “nothin’ but mammals,” bothering with anything more seems like a waste of time!

In short, Carole, your column leaves the old “Dear Abby” advice in the dust. You can unpack a troubled reader’s fear of snakes better than Abby can explain the fork order in a place setting. And when chimpanzees rule the world, I’ll want you right at my side for direction. But until then, I’d hate for us to succumb to monkeying around merely because that’s what the finches fancy.

Published on: January 7, 2010
Published in: Science and Society

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