On Human Nature

AuthorCraig Jones
On Human Nature
The Devil Inside
What possessed Harold Blackmore and his wife to marr y a third and
adopt the polygamous lifestyle, enduring the excommunication and
ostracization that would inevitably follow?
e simplistic explanation would be that Harold, Gwen, a nd Florence
were led to polygamy through devotion to their religion. But let me sug-
gest to you that such an explanation might be putting the cart before
the horse. What if the religion simply provided an environment a pre-
text in which an unusual but natura l human mating behaviour could
become manifest? Fundamentalist Mormons did not invent polygamy;
they simply, for a brief period of time, resurrected it in the middle of
an overwhelmingly monogamous socia l environment. In this context it is
interesting that almost every advocate of faith-based polygamy presents it
as not only a religious imperative, but also in some way a natural human
family struct ure. Is it? And if so, does it matter?
One of the riskier, or at least more controversial, aspects of the Attor-
ney General’s case in the reference would be our invocation of evolutionary
principles to explain the phenomenon of polygyny and its establishment as
the overwhelmingly domina nt form of polygamy. Equ ally fascinating is the
question of whether the competing mating model monogamy could
also have evolved, and how. e overall theory of the Attorney General
was a cultura l and cognitive co-evolution that is, the combination of
evolved behaviours and social st ructures that succeeded or failed based on
their ability to sur vive as genes or as ideas through the generations.
e starting point is the relatively new eld of evolutionary psych-
ology the application of Darwinia n principles to patterns of human
behaviour, instead of simply to physical attributes. David Buss, a pioneer
in the eld of evolutionary psychology, explains it as “a hybrid discipline
that draws insights from modern evolutionary theor y, biology, cognitive
A Cruel Arit hmetic: Inside the Case Against Polygamy
psychology, anthropology, economics, computer science, and paleoarchae-
ology.” e gist of it is that behaviour has evolved through selection over
deep evolutionary time, and that “[h]uman psychology consists of a large
number of functionally specia lized evolved mechanisms, each sensitive to
particula r forms of contextual input, that get combined, coordinated, and
integrated with each other to produce manifest behavior.”
at specic behaviours not just more generalized cognitive sys-
tems evolve in tandem with more physical ly apparent features is a fact
we easily accept when we are discussing any other species. If a particu lar
breed of nch feeds o insects plucked from holes in trees, it would be
unsurprising that it has evolved both a long bea k and a tendency to search
for food in holes.
e diculty comes w ith the application of evolutionary principles
of behaviour in the context of human societies. Ideas of “human nature”
are easily exploited in the service of all manner of prejudices to the point
where suggestions that human behaviours a re innate are almost automatic-
ally oensive because they suggest immutability and therefore a futil ity in
the progressive will to alter behaviour through social cha nge. Evolution-
ary psychology, then, is seen by many as a capitu lation to human nature, a
denial of free wil l, and a surrender of our responsibility to improve society.
To look at it a slightly dierent way, our social order, from religions to
behavioural norms to laws, is premised on our w ill to impose standards
of behaviour on others, even where that behaviour has no eect on us.
Humans are unique in that norm-enforcing characteristic. And those
most inclined to design rules for others (with the best of intentions, of
course) believe that their project is undermined by suggestions that there
may be real, innate, and immutable barriers to social manipulation.
is is a particularly thorny idea where the suggestion is that there
are evolved and more or less innate dierences between dierent groups
of people. Dierences asserted to have evolved among the races, mak ing
some smarter or more creative or lazier than others seemed thoroughly de-
bunked by Stephen Jay Gould in e Mismeasure of Man, only to resurface
again in the debate that surrounded t he publication in 1994 of Herrnstein
and Murray’s e Bell Curve.
e debate over the social implications of evolutionary theory followed
very quickly in the wake of Darwin’s Beagle. In the Victorian era and be-
yond, “natural selection” was cheerf ully recruited by imperial apologists
as not only explaining, but justifying the subjugation of the world by the
most advanced few. e success of one group over another was deemed to
be foreordained, ipso facto proof of genetic superiority. e theme will be
immediately recognizable to students of the philosophies of Nietzsche or
the rhetoric of Nazism.

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