Monthly Archives: January 2016

Gossip Is An Evolved Social Skill, Not A Character Flaw

Evolutionary psychologist Frank T. McAndrew explains at The Conversation:

Let’s face it: gossips get a bad rap.

 

Smugly looking down from a moral high ground – and secure in the knowledge that we don’t share their character flaw – we often dismiss those who are obsessed with the doings of others as shallow.

 

Indeed, in its rawest form, gossip is a strategy used by individuals to further their own reputations and interests at the expense of others. Studies that I have conducted confirm that gossip can be used in cruel ways for selfish purposes.

 

…When disparaging gossip, we overlook the fact that it’s an essential part of what makes the social world tick; the nasty side of gossip overshadows the more benign ways in which it functions.

 

In fact, gossip can actually be thought of not as a character flaw, but as a highly evolved social skill. Those who can’t do it well often have difficulty maintaining relationships, and can find themselves on the outside looking in.

We are, in fact, “hardwired to gossip,” McAndrew continues:

Like it or not, we are the descendants of busybodies. Evolutionary psychologists believe that our preoccupation with the lives of others is a byproduct of a prehistoric brain.

 

According to scientists, because our prehistoric ancestors lived in relatively small groups, they knew one another intimately. In order to ward off enemies and survive in their harsh natural environment, our ancestors needed to cooperate with in-group members. But they also recognized that these same in-group members were their main competitors for mates and limited resources.

 

Living under such conditions, our ancestors faced a number of adaptive social problems: who’s reliable and trustworthy? Who’s a cheater? Who would make the best mate? How can friendships, alliances and family obligations be balanced?

 

In this sort of environment, an intense interest in the private dealings of other people would have certainly been handy – and strongly favored by natural selection. People who were the best at harnessing their social intelligence to interpret, predict – and influence – the behavior of others became more successful than those who were not.

 

The genes of those individuals were passed along from one generation to the next.

Yes, so the fact that you exist today, suggests that you had ancestors mumbling on to each other about the Kardashians of their day.

More on what fuels our thirst for gossip about celebrities at the link.

Sexual Harassment Is About Wanting Sex, Not Wanting Power Over Women

A 2012 paper in Evolution and Human Behavior by Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair and Mons Bendixen takes a much-needed evolutionary look at the issue of sexual harassment. They write in their paper:

While traditional social science theories have explained harassment as male dominance of females, the evolutionary perspective has suggested that sex differences in the desire for sex are a better explanation.

And their finding, in brief, was that an “unrestricted” sexuality “motivates people to test whether others are interested in short-term relations in ways that sometimes might be defined as harassment.”

The competing prediction suggesting that male dominance over females is the primary motivation for harassment was largely unsupported in this study. Not only was female harassment of males quite prevalent, so too was same-sex peer harassment. In addition, other competing social factors did not outweigh the importance of sociosexual orientation in explaining variations in sexual harassment for either of the sexes.
They further explain:
The main idea behind our predictions was the hypothesis that harassment is an unrestricted sociosexual style of behavior, aimed at testing out whether a potential sexual partner is available for a short-term sexual encounter, and that perceived harassment behavior to a large degree is motivated by a desire for sex. However, many instances of harassment in our study were cases of same-sex harassment. This may be understood from a similar perspective. It is an example of sexual surgency or dominance, and sexual competitiveness (Campbell, 2004). Thus, the logic of the evolved psychology of derogation (Schmitt & Buss, 1996) is relevant for understanding this behavior.
And their conclusion:
While more boys sexually harass and coerce than girls, both sexes commit sexual harassment and coercive acts. And while many different negative precursors and correlates have been suggested, it would seem that the main motive is an interest in short-term sex indicated by an unrestricted sociosexuality. This same characteristic also causes behavior that advertises an interest in sex, increasing the attraction of nonattractive partners. Furthermore, these individuals probably have an increased interest in sexual competition, thus both being subject to and partaking in same-sex derogation. Thus, an unrestricted sociosexual orientation is related to both harassing behavior and being a victim of harassment in high school.

The Evolutionary Ecology Of Cancer

Theoretical evolutionary biologist Athena Aktipis, a co-founder of the Center for Evolution and Cancer at UCSF, talks to David Sloan Wilson about how cancer is evolution that’s taking place inside an organism, but a perversely adaptive form of it, since it ends in the death of both the organism and the cancer.

Aktipis explains the selection pressures on cancer cells:

Let’s say that a tumor has evolved and grown so much that the interior is totally absent of nutrients, like you see in some cities, where the slums are totally absent of resources and filled with garbage. There is intense selection for cells to survive better in those conditions, which we call hypoxic conditions. These cells become pre-adapted to live in regions that are far away from blood vessels, so when you give chemotherapy, they are able to hide out, a phenomenon called “refugia” in cancer treatment. There are some really important aspects of the environment, ecology, and diversity of ecological niches that get created in the course of cancer progression and changed during treatment that haven’t been fully considered from an evolutionary perspective. There’s a lot of opportunities.

A particular cancer therapy can make sense — that is, until it’s viewed from an evolutionary perspective. Aktipis gives the example of the medical bias toward going with the most aggressive treatment possible:

For a long time it was almost a moral imperative to use the highest dose and most aggressive treatment possible, but now that’s being reexamined and many top cancer treatment hospitals in the country and the world are backing off from that. Not all of them are backing off because of an explicitly evolutionary framework, but some of the work that has been done over the last decade has helped to show why an overly aggressive approach can be problematic. As for drug-resistant infectious agents and resistance to pesticides in agriculture, high doses in cancer treatment imposes the highest selective-pressure on a population of cancer cells. If you have a small population that’s not very diverse, then using a high dose can make sense. But if you have a large and diverse population of cancer cells then the higher the dose, then the greater the selection pressure for resistant cells. That’s one of the really important insights that comes from taking an evolutionary approach to treatment. We shouldn’t just think about killing cells; we should be more strategic about what we want to select for and against.

Dr. Aktipis is also the author of the forthcoming book from Princeton University Press, “Evolution in the flesh: Cancer and the transformation of life.”

The Mating Crisis Among Educated Women

David Buss at Edge:

Every year, more women than men become college-educated. The disparity is already prevalent across North America and Europe, and the trend is beginning to spread across the world more widely. At the University of Texas at Austin where I teach, the sex ratio is 54 percent women to 46 percent men. This imbalance may not seem large at first blush. But when you do the math it translates into a hefty 17 percent more women than men in the local mating pool. Speculations about reasons range widely. They include the gradual removal of gender discrimination barriers and women’s higher levels of conscientiousness (relative to men’s) that translate into better grades and superior college app qualifications. Whatever the causes turn out to be, the disparity is creating a dramatic and unintended mating crisis among educated women.

 

…Most women are unwilling to settle for men who are less educated, less intelligent, and less professionally successful than they are. The flip side is that men are less exacting on precisely these dimensions, choosing to prioritize, for better or worse, other evolved criteria such as youth and appearance. So the initial sex ratio imbalance among educated groups gets worse for high achieving women. They end up being forced to compete for the limited pool of educated men not just with their more numerous educated rivals, but also with less educated women whom men find desirable on other dimensions.

 

…What are the potential solutions to the mating pool shortage for educated women? Adjust their mate preferences? Expand the range of men they are willing to consider as mates? Mating psychology may not be that malleable. The same mating desires responsible for the skewed gender imbalance to begin with continue to create unfortunate obstacles to human happiness. As successful women overcome barriers in the workplace, they encounter new dilemmas in the mating market.