Macho men and the jungle of genes

A new take on the naked ape: Roy Porter asks whether sociobiologists are right to deduce ethics from evolution; THE MORAL ANIMAL Robert Wright Little Brown, £20

My heart sank on opening this book and being told that the solution to the enigmas of self and society lay in a Darwinian science of human nature. Hadn't we heard all this a few years back from zealous evangelists preaching the Gospel according to St Charles? The apostle unto the English was then Desmond Morris with his rather matey revelations about the naked ape, while out of America came the scary new sociobiology, the state- of-the-art Social Darwinism which assured us that cut-throat capitalism was Nature's way, and that our genes were not only selfish but they jolly well had to be if they were going to survive in the natural selection rat-race.

Sociobiology was widely "outed" as a reactionary ruse sanctioning greed and aggression by dressing it up as a biological imperative ("all in our genes"). To his credit, Robert Wright isn't of that stripe at all. He staunchly dissociates himself from hard-nosed ideologues who bend evolutionary psychology to prove that might is right, building instead on the more sophisticated biogenetics latterly associated with Americans such as Robert Trivers and with John Maynard Smith in this country. His claim is the more measured one that we cannot understand our behaviour as individuals and as social animals without taking due account of the evolutionary roots of human nature, setting basic instincts stage centre.

Why are our times so blighted by violence, sex crimes, broken marriages, strife, bitterness and frustration? The explanation, Wright insists, lies in the fact that, in the distant evolutionary past, Homo sapiens's genetic make-up had been adapted for man's survival as a tree-swinger, cave-dweller or hunter-gatherer. What natural selection didn't know was that society would thereafter mutate down the fast lane, with our genes lagging behind. The result today is a poor fit between our genetic inheritance and our social mores. We pretend to be civilised yet we're still savage inside - it's all out of synch, as if the computer engineer showed up armed with a pickaxe and shovel.

Wright's heart is in the right place and he dutifully agonises about social chaos and collapse. Casting his gloomy eye over the way we live now, he devotes long sections to envy, emulation and status struggles, all of which he sees as re-enacting pecking-order rituals programmed eons back amongst lower life-forms.

But his primary focus is the war of the sexes. We're all "puppets" of our genes, he assures us, and the gene's first law is "total genetic proliferation"- propagating itself and its DNA. Driven by this genetic destiny, our primate ancestors developed divergent strategies. Males originally adopted as their optimal gene-survival strategy: "if it moves, screw it". Sexual selection taught females, by contrast, to pick Tarzan mates capable of providing offspring with protection.

Over the course of human development, such basic instincts evolved into the courtship rituals and moral codes that were to underwrite traditional Mills & Boon ideals of love and marriage, with dominant husbands (sometimes availing themselves of the double standard), and domesticated wives. Such a division of sexual labour met evolutionary requirements all round: in terms of reproductive strategy it suited macho men to have a faithful wife (or several) whose children were pretty sure to be his; while it satisfied females to know they had a patriarchal protector for the fruit of their womb. Possessiveness and jealousy policed a system whose paragon was none other than Charles Darwin himself, married for 40 years to a wife who bore him 11 gene-transmitters.

But in the West, this cosy matrimonial system, founded upon the theory and even practice of lifelong monogamy, is today in tatters, with consequences that are disruptive and often disastrous, especially for children. Why the breakdown? Wright tells us it's because permissiveness and feminism have liberalised sexual morals and facilitated divorce. The outcome is a reversion to a cruder and less-adaptive jungle law: tyrannised by testosterone, males are now free to discard wives whose reproductive days are numbered, and have taken to wedding a sequence of nubile nymphets. Emancipated women for their part find themselves in a trap of their own making. It's as though, Wright laments, "serial polygamy" has become the order of the day.

Hang on a minute, though: hasn't Wright blinded himself with theory? Can we really believe, as his Darwinist dogma demands, that the Updikean tragi-comedy of contemporary coupling is really driven by procreational imperatives? Any fool can see (as the Pope might have told Mr Wright) that bedroom behaviour in the West nowadays is overwhelmingly designed to prevent reproduction. Thanks to changing values and the Pill, multiplication and perpetuation of oneself today come pretty low down on the agenda even of stable married couples. Especially under the shadow of the Child Support Agency, few men nowadays go round trying to knock up as many chicks as possible, and (Mrs Betty Maxwell's autobiography notwithstanding) the number of women radiantly standing by their man and the kids is also dwindling. Think what we will about such shifts, what it means is that the prattlings of Darwinian psychologists about the ancestral reproductive imperatives that allegedly govern our conduct seem as dogmatic and irrelevant as talk of original sin.

This is not to deny that today's sexual politics are irrational and destructive; it is to deny that their inner secrets will be illuminated by going on about ancestrally-implanted genetic urges. Indeed, when Wright tries to explain actual instances of human behaviour in such terms, he can sound plonkingly crass, a prisoner of his theories. Charles Darwin grieved dreadfully over the death of his daughter, Annie. Why? Because, Wright tells us, "she was bright and talented . . . assets what would have raised her value on the marriage market, and hence her reproductive potential". Blinkered by sociobiology, Wright reduces all to status and reproductive urges.

There is a caring, earnest moralist in Wright, distressed that our social system is such a mess. But when it comes to explanations and, above all, solutions, he is either confused or barking up the wrong tree. Unsure whether to tell us to yield to the dictates of evolution or fight them, at one point he even descends to speculating whether "in sheerly Darwinian terms" a woman might be "better off mating with a good rapist".

Above all, he has blinkered himself to the fact that our conduct is shaped not by primitive urges but by here-and-now realities like jobs, money, opportunities, prospects, beliefs and values - in short everything that makes human communities fundamentally different from bands of chimps.

Wright weaves into his well-meant yet rambling book a potted biography of the author of the Origin of Species. As he shows, Darwin and his bulldog, T H Huxley, were insistent that society is essentially different from nature. They were consequently never less than sceptical about attempts to deduce ethics from evolution. How odd then that a latter-day idolater should ignore the warnings.

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