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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Evolutionary psychology watch: Natural selection, not consciousness, accounts for sexual jealousy?

A press release advertised - just in time for Valentine's Day - an allegedly "scientific" understanding of the wish for a faithful partner:
Researchers have identified something called "sperm competition" that they think has evolved to ensure a genetic future. In sexual reproduction, natural selection is generally thought of as something that happens prior to – and in fact leads to -- the Big Event. This thinking holds, for example, that we are drawn to physical features that tell us our partner is healthy and will give us a fighting chance to carry on our genetic lineage. But a new article in the February issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science suggests that the human male has evolved mechanisms to pass on his genes during post-copulation as well, a phenomenon dubbed "sperm competition."

The item goes on to explain that behaviour resulting from concerns about one's partner's infidelity is a mechanism evolved through natural selection for passing on one's genes.

As to the value of the research, well, non-falsifiable Darwinian explanations should, of course, be accorded the same status as non-falsifiable Freudian explanations. We can be sure of one thing: Whatever the researchers found, it would somehow support their theory of natural selection as the driver of human behaviour.

Many who listen to this stuff with more than idle interest do not realize that a materialist view of the human mind and mental processes is fundamental to it. According to the materialist view, consciousness is simply the buzz created by the workings of the brain. It does not initiate action.

What, you may ask, is the connection between the idea that consciousness is an illusion and the idea that sexual jealousy is simply the outworking of natural selection? Well, if you believe that consciousness is not an illusion and that it can initiate action, you can readily account for the hostility that a person (or dog or cat, for that matter) perceives toward a new favorite. An intelligent life form perceives benefits lost and reacts accordingly. No further explanation in the form of a mechanism is needed because the perception itself drives the process. Moreover, the life form's behaviour can be interpreted without reference to the question of whether any genes get passed on. You will also notice that jealousy is not even primarily a sexual emotion, as parents, bosses, and military commanders soon discover ....

Indeed, it is quite easy to assemble examples of people whose jealousy had quite the opposite effect from passing on their genes. One thinks immediately of archetypal characters like Othello and Medea. You, gentle reader, can probably think of numerous lesser known examples from your own city, as I can from mine. Jealousy has doubtless doomed many an animal as well.

So the drive to identify an explanation for jealousy that is based in natural selection does not derive from observing behaviour. Indeed, behaviour does not especially confirm it, as we can see. It derives rather from the belief that consciousness is not the driver of behaviour but an irrelevant outcome of brain states. That is the only reason for defaulting to a less effective, more complex explanation.

Oh, and here's another example of similar silliness.

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.

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