It's all in the genes . . . maybe

I tend to be slightly suspicious of evolutionary biology, especially evolutionary psychology. By which I don't mean that I doubt the veracity of the theory of evolution, but rather that I am suspicious of the claims of evolutionary biologists to have found hard and fast rules about human nature based on the inevitable necessities of natural selection. The stories often sound very convincing--but often I could make up an equally-plausible sounding story to prove the opposite. Unsurprisingly, the theories tend to confirm the researchers' prior beliefs about human nature.

For example, the fact that men have lots of sperm and women have few eggs is often advanced as the reason that men want multiple sexual partners, while women crave a stable relationship with one man. Men can be indiscriminate, relying on volume, while women have to husband their resources, choose carefully, and make sure he'll stick around to raise the offspring. This genetic hardwiring is why most female animals don't cheat.

Except, oops, they do. I could theorize that women have an incentive to find lots of fathers for their children, in order to ensure that she and her brood will still be taken care of if one of them dies in the rough Pleistocene lifestyle. There's no a priori reason to believe that this is any less plausible than the "men are genetically destined to prefer more sex than women"--except that we have a deep cultural belief that women don't want to have lots of sex, so therefore we "know" that evolution must have programmed them that way.

And maybe it's true. But I'd rather be a prostitute than eat another human being, and there's little evidence that evolution selects against cannibalism. Disentangling what's natural and what's programmed into us by our shared culture is really, really difficult.

That said, this is a pretty plausible, and certainly interesting, essay on how our attitudes towards various forms of dominance hierarchies may have evolved:

Well-structured societies today, including modern mass democracies, provide adequate outlets for our hunter-gatherer preferences to fit into hierarchies, to achieve relative dominance in them and to possess personal autonomy, all at the same time. The variety of independent spheres of life today opens greater possibilities than the Pleistocene did for individuals to fit in, to lead and to follow in organised groups.

As for hierarchies and elitism, our intrinsic resentment of leaders, our Pleistocene anti-elitism, may partly be explained by the fact that small-scale tribal societies were zero-sum economies. Everything that was owned by one person was something that someone else could not enjoy. Some psychologists argue that the zero-sum nature of the Pleistocene gives us a psychology that has a lot of trouble grasping concepts of borrowing, interest and economic growth.

In the Pleistocene, people had a very poor notion of inheritance because mobile bands could not acquire land or much in the way of possessions to pass on to children. Inheritance became possible only when cities were established, along with systems of kingship and ways for power and property to be passed through dynasties. There were no dynasties in the Pleistocene.

The Pleistocene mentality tends to regard anyone who gets rich as having done so at the expense of someone else. When it comes to the benefits of free trade, for instance, this kind of thinking makes us hard-wired protectionists. Our intuitions favour basic Pleistocene-style exchanges, but modern economies involve much more than that, with processes such as interest and investment that we don't always understand.

It makes intuitive sense to me--this may be why (bad) arguments in favor of protectionism are an easier sell than (good) arguments in favor of free trade. But still, my doubt remains . . .