By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
You enjoy breaking down the walls separating humans and animals ("Wolf is wolf to wolf as well," you write), demonstrating examples of altruism, deceit, murder and war in the animal world. Is suicide a uniquely human activity? And what of celibacy?
No clear evidence of suicide in animals, although perhaps male honeybees come close: After mating, the lower part of the male's abdomen literally explodes under fluid pressure, killing him and jamming his genitals into the female. As to celibacy, the social insects once again demonstrate it: Worker bees, ants and wasps don't reproduce but labor instead for the success of their mother, the queen. As for humans, there is evidence that celibacy is more claimed than actually practiced, and in many societies, having offspring or siblings in monasteries enhances the overall genetic success of other relatives.
You mention in the book that animals having a lethal attack (rattlesnakes, scorpions) typically refrain from using their poison on their own species, whereas the "harmless" Homo sapiens attacks with everything it has at its disposal. Does this suggest that if we had evolved from scorpions, we might have a greater genetic awareness of the dangers of guns, nuclear weapons, etc.?
Exactly! The key point, as I see it, is that we "evolved" our horribly destructive weapons nongenetically — via cultural evolution — and without the restraining benefits that would have been there if, like rattlesnakes or scorpions, we evolved our weapons along with equally "biological" restraints on using them.
In your article about displaced aggression in The Chronicle of Higher Education, you suggest that suffering animals have a biological need to commit aggressive acts, regardless of the target. Might animal sacrifices or the Roman circus or burning effigies serve some pacifying effect on a populace?
Also add, for individuals: running, having a basement punching bag, and maybe even having a bit of insight.
Do you believe in free will?
As a technical matter, I have no belief whatever in free will. Given that every effect has a pre-existing cause, how can the slightest twitching of any neuron not be caused by some immediately previous condition? So where is the free will? On the other hand, I live my life — and you doubtless live yours — convinced that everyone is largely a free agent. It's a curious paradox. We aren't limited to our biologically given tendencies, which, after all, are tendencies, not rigid requirements. More than any other species, we are able to examine our situation and decide to act in our own best interest (and that of our planet), once we understand the issues. In short, we have great big, fat brains, and can use them.
Can we overcome our genetic "parasites"?
I don't believe we can truly defeat our genetic impulses, any more than we can overcome the tendency of our kidneys to filter blood or our hearts to pump. Much as we would like to think of ourselves as conscious, free-willed, "enlightened" creatures, history and science have shown that our genetics and our animal impulses can never be fully tamed by cultural laws or individual willpower. In fact, when people attempt to put up a wall against their evolutionary cravings, the result is typically a nightmarish, dystopian situation (as in Brave New World), or at least an absurd one (as in the case of Jonathan Swift's Laputa). But that doesn't mean that we are helpless puppets dancing at the end of strings held by our DNA. In some cases, we can literally say "No" to some of our more troublesome inclinations. Evolution whispers within us; it does not shout.
At other times, I like to advocate a kind of "genetic jujitsu," in which we take the raw force of our genetics, but redirect that force towards ends that we view as more humane, ethical, or at least less perverse and single-minded. Even when we can't defeat our genetics, we might be able to toss them in the right direction. For example, given our biologically based fondness for sex with a variety of partners (especially true for those of us burdened with a Y chromosome), we can essentially fool ourselves into maintaining sexual enthusiasm with a longtime partner if we do "it" in different places and in different ways. We can trick our genes into faithfulness.
So you're not a cynic?
Am I a cynic? A good question. Certainly, it can be disheartening once you begin to explore the true motives behind human behavior. I like to compare it to someone listening to modern classical music for the first time. It might sound like a dreadful din, strange and dissonant. However, with proper musical training, you can come to appreciate the nuances of the work. The same is true of evolutionary psychology. At first blush, it certainly doesn't sit easily with many of the beliefs we like to hold about ourselves. But as you venture further, you begin to see the wonderful complexities and conundrums of our evolutionary selves, and can appreciate the grandeur of it all.
Like how in medieval times, people were excommunicated for playing a diminished fifth on the piano, but without it, we wouldn't have Debussy?
Right. I know that the moon isn't made of green cheese, and doesn't have a man in it, but that doesn't in any way interfere with my enjoyment of moonlight.
NATURAL SELECTIONS | By DAVID P. BARASH | Bellevue Literary Press | 192 pages | $25 hardcover
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