Why we are, as we are

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

In Why we are, as we are, The Economist takes the 150th anniversary of the publication of On The Origin of Species as an opportunity to ask how Darwin’s insights can be used profitably by policymakers:

Philosophers have preached that there exists between man and beast an unbridgeable distinction. Sociologists have been seduced by Marxist ideas about the perfectibility of mankind. Theologians have feared that the very thought of evolution threatens divine explanations of the world. Even fully paid-up members of the Enlightenment, people who would not for a moment deny humanity’s simian ancestry, are often sceptical. They seem to believe, as Anne Campbell, a psychologist at Durham University, in England, elegantly puts it, that evolution stops at the neck: that human anatomy evolved, but human behaviour is culturally determined.

The corollary to this is the idea that with appropriate education, indoctrination, social conditioning or what have you, people can be made to behave in almost any way imaginable. The evidence, however, is that they cannot. The room for shaping their behaviour is actually quite limited. Unless that is realised, and the underlying biology of the behaviour to be shaped is properly understood, attempts to manipulate it are likely to fail.

I’ll share just this tidbit on the evolutionary roots of crime, as studied by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson:

That murderers are usually young men is well known, but Dr Daly and Dr Wilson dug a bit deeper. They discovered that although the murder rate varies from place to place, the pattern does not. Plot the rate against the age of the perpetrator and the peak is the same (see chart). Moreover, the pattern of the victims is similar. They, too, are mostly young men. In the original study, 86% of the victims of male killers aged between 15 and 19 were also male. This is the clue as to what is going on. Most violence (and thus most murder, which is simply violence’s most extreme expression) is a consequence of competition between young, unemployed, unmarried men. In the view of Darwinists, these men are either competing for women directly (“You looking at my girl, Jimmy?”) or competing for status (“You dissing me, man?”).

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