2000s >> 2001 >> no-1159-february-2001


Food and sex, then and now

Dear Editors,
I welcome your discussion of neo-Darwinism/evolutionary psychology. Your Paul Bennett is fairer than Adam Buick who slightly misrepresents the idea by implying that it says only competition is natural. Nature is not “red in tooth and claw”. It is both competitive and co-operative.

As male individuals we compete to form the peck order which reduces fighting, and gives the winner access to the most desirable females. We then co-operate as a group to defend our food-producing territory. We then compete with neighbouring groups to enlarge our territories making food collection easier. (In our anonymous society we agree to decide the peck order by how much money we have-conspicuous consumption. The bigger the car, the better the girl. And the bigger the population, the harder we have to compete. Your Andrew Westley showed a good understanding of the significance of status, i. e., peck order).

Competition is as necessary as co-operation. We share within the group and compete with outsiders. By over-emphasizing co-operation the SPGB is less persuasive when everyone can see the competitive reality, as well as the co-operation.


Reply: If we were birds, then what you write might make some sense, but we’re not. We’re humans, and one of the distinguishing features of humans, compared with all other animals, is the virtual absence of the sort of innate behaviour patterns that have been observed in birds. As humans, our behaviour is not innate but acquired from the society in which we are brought up in and live, and from its culture. We have no innate “territorial imperative”, to take up a term coined by Robert Ardrey in his notorious 1966 book of that title. We can be competitive or co-operative or, at different times, both; that depends on the social conditions.

If you want to argue that what is valid for birds is therefore automatically valid for humans, you’ll have to do a lot more than merely assert it. You’ll have to show why, and how, this is so, but no serious student of anthropology shares your views. Ardrey was a Hollywood scriptwriter; Konrad Lorenz an expert in animal not human behaviour; Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, was also an expert on bird behaviour; while EO Wilson, founder of “sociobiology”, specialised in ants. Their views on human behaviour are worth no more than the man (or woman) propping up the bar next to us. But here’s what the anthropologist, MF Ashley Montagu, wrote in reply to Ardrey and Lorenz:

“The notable thing about human behaviour is that it is learned. Everything a human being does as such he has had to learn from other human beings. From any dominance of biologically or inherited predetermined reactions that may prevail in the behaviour of other animals, man has moved into a zone of adaptation in which his behaviour is dominated by learned responses. It is within the dimension of culture, the learned, the man-made part of the environment that man grows, develops, and has his being as a behaving organism” (in Man and Aggression, edited by MF Ashley Montagu, OUP, 1968, p. xii, his emphasis).

Even on your own terms, your argument is absurd. Where do you produce your food? Where is your food-producing territory? Today, under modern technical conditions of production, all production is social; all the things we consume, including food, is produced as the collective effort of producers all over the world. Just think, next time you have a meal, where the food you’re eating is likely to have come from, and where the machinery, fertilisers and means of storage and transport to grow it and get it to your table would have come from. Today, for humanity, “our food-producing territory” is virtually the whole world. It’s certainly not the areas where we live, or even the national-state we live under. And most people do their “food collection” at the local supermarket, hardly a place, we would have thought, for you to play out your fantasies of being an alpha male.

Maybe, at one time, our remote hominid ancestors did live like you suggest (though we doubt that the relations between the sexes would have been as crude as you make out, and from what we know from the Stone Age societies that survived into historical times marriages were arranged between reciprocal clans). But that would have been then, not now. Today, even under capitalism, things are vastly different, and are changing. Now, many more women go out to work than ever before and so don’t need to be as dependent on men for a meal ticket. In fact, in Britain, more than half the employed working class are women. All this is already affecting relations between the sexes.

Things will change even more in a socialist society, when every single man, woman and child will have free access as of right to the things they need to live and enjoy life. In other words, no woman will be dependent on any man. We say it is perfectly possible for such a state of affairs to exist because how we humans behave depends on the social conditions we are brought up in, not on our genetic make-up. Humans can live like you say they did, and presumably think they should, but they can-and have-lived in other ways, and could adapt to the conditions of socialist society. Biologically-inherited brains capable of versatile and flexible behaviour and so being able to adapt to different environments, that’s “human nature”, and it’s no barrier to socialism.

The “evolutionary psychologists” you admire have a slogan “our modern skulls house a stone age mind”. You seem to be in the same position, but don’t worry, it’s not innate but something you acquired, probably from too much uncritical reading of Ardrey, Lorenz and Desmond Morris. – Editors.

Leave a Reply