Zelophehad’s Daughters

When Did Chimpanzees Become Our Gods?

Posted by Kiskilili

Although I find the field interesting, I have some suspicions about evolutionary psychology, and Satoshi Kanazawa is doing little to allay those reservations with his recent post on what evolutionary theory tells us about happiness (hat tip to BCC’s side bar). The crux of his argument seems to be: do whatever you want, because that will make you happy. And since you, the lay reader, unschooled in the intricacies of baboon behavior and therefore not qualified to serve as an authority on your own desires, probably don’t know what you want, let me pronounce authoritatively on what will make you happy: you want status if you’re a man and children if you’re a woman.

Happiness can in fact apparently be distilled into this simple gender-differentiated formula:

Money, promotions, the corner office, social status, and political power are what make men happy (as long as they win, of course, but then dropping out is by definition a defeat). Spending time with children is what makes women happy.

That’s all there is to it? Give birth (if you’re female) and your happiness is assured? It’s hard for me to take seriously conclusions that are this facile and reductive and defy the complexity of my own experience and observations. Besides its glibness, I’m suspicious of a maxim assuming desires for children and status are mutually exclusive. Unless there’s technology I’m unaware of, women are not acquiring those joy-inducing offspring from a stork catalogue; men are having children too, and if they abandon the project entirely in order to pursue status singlemindedly as per his suggestion, it’s not clear to me where the women are going to get the children.

In addition, his system has no coping mechanism for women who are exhausted by childcare or men who find the rat race distasteful, except perhaps to suppose they are not sufficiently in touch with their “inner apes.” Apparently he’s under the impression that your inner ape, should you successfully locate such a creature, will speak in a voice strikingly redolent of his own:

Forget what feminist, hippies, and liberals have told you in the last half century. They are all lies based on political ideology and conviction, not on science.

In other words, gorillas are a higher authority on what makes people happy than certain people are–specifically, people who disagree with him. Other people advocate Ideology (which is bad). In contrast, he, seemingly by observing a chimpanzee community or the like, has found the Unadulterated Truth about humankind.

Remarkably, he concludes his post with the following dictum:

Live as you feel like, not as you think you should live like. Your feelings are seldom wrong, because you are designed to feel certain way [sic] by millions of years of evolution. Decades of feminism can’t stop that. You are seldom wrong if you follow your feelings; you are seldom right if you follow feminism or any other political ideology.

Setting aside the fact that Mr. Kanazawa just stepped into the rabbit hole leading to the wonderland of political ideology himself (how did he miss the slogan “the personal is political”?), if he genuinely believed what he wrote here the rest of the post would have been unnecessary. The very fact that he felt compelled to spell out explicitly earlier in the post what is “natural” and appropriate behavior vitiates his own argument. By definition, we shouldn’t need the expertise of an evolutionary pyschologist or primatologist to tell us how we “naturally” behave and feel. If boys and girls really are different (as I believe they are), why are we obligated to teach them to be different?

What follows is my wishlist for discussions invoking evolutionary psychology:

(a) A better explication of the relationship between the descriptive and the prescriptive. Evolutionary theory might provide us with (generally equivocal) data about our tendencies and dispositions, but it does not thereby provide us directly with moral imperatives. Considerably more theoretical elaboration is needed to get from the point “apes do x” to the conclusion “so should we.”

(b) Open acknowledgment of complexities and variations in behavior. Bonobos, our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom, are matriarchal (and in addition, they have a lot of gay sex). Following his own implicit methodology, what’s to prevent me from concluding that women (we are after all supposedly more like those female bonobos than we are like men, he believes) are happiest in a matriarchal, lesbian society, and advancing such a theory under the imprimatur of Science?

(c) Avoidance of false dichotomies, such as that what men and women want necessarily has no overlap.

(d) A clear exposition indicating that circular reasoning, the bugbear of such discussions, has been avoided. For example, since he doesn’t provide data I’m not sure how his conclusions were reached. Does he believe women are like female chimpanzees because they, too, are invested in childcare, and simultaneously that women should invest in childcare because they’re like female chimpanzees? I’m left wondering.

In conclusion, thank you for those pearls of wisdom, Mr. Kanazawa. I will indeed be doing whatever I personally think will make me happy. Just please don’t be surprised if it doesn’t quite fit your model for female gorilla behavior.

28 Responses to “When Did Chimpanzees Become Our Gods?”

  1. 1.

    my wishlist for evolutionary psychology is short:
    1) Stop. no really, just stop.

  2. 2.

    Excellent analysis. I was bothered by all of these points you outline, thanks for articulating them.

  3. 3.

    Evolutionary psychology is a great idea, but silly Mr. Kanazawa is focusing on the wrong apes. Humans clearly need to pattern their behavior on bonobos, not gorillas: Group sex as the solution to everything!

    See, evolutionary psychology can be lots of fun. ;)

  4. 4.

    Quite right, Kaimi! Evolutionary psychology can even be used to support Evil Feminist Ideologues, who Mr. Kanazawa thinks are universally in the wrong. (Honestly I’d love to know how he’s making sense of bonobo behavior.)

    Thanks, Jacob! I’m flattered that you agree with the post.

    Too funny, actualthoughanonlesbian. :)

  5. 5.

    Kiskilili: For example, since he doesn’t provide data I’m not sure how his conclusions were reached.

    To me this is the biggest problem with his post. He may have arguments to support his rather strident claims but he doesn’t share any of them with the reader so we are left scratching our heads.

    (I actually plan more posts based on his blog in the future. It is nothing if not thought-provoking. But you are right that he seems to have a real beef with what he calls “modern feminism” )

  6. 6.

    Exactly–he’s implicitly setting himself up as an authority, which I think is a problem. But you’re right–he’s certainly got provocative material!

  7. 7.

    To elaborate on your (a) — note that there is a lot of normal chimp behavior that we absolutely do not condone. Chimps regularly engage in forced sex; they kill the infants of their sex partners who were sired by other male chimps; and so on.

    Yet, no one would argue that men ought to say, “I’m a primate, so it’s natural that I would engage in rape and infanticide.”

    The “it’s just like the chimps” arguments all involve a whole lot of cherry picking. It’s couched as perfectly objective, but it’s quite subjective. And it’s easy to see a person’s underlying biases based on which comparisons they choose to make.

  8. 8.

    The “it’s just like the chimps” arguments all involve a whole lot of cherry picking.

    I really like your summary point, Kaimi. It relates directly to, I think, points Lynnette and Ray have made on the “Religion in the Public Sphere” discussion. Lots (most? all?) of our arguments involve careful cherry picking of evidence. We start with conclusions and proceed to marshal arguments in favor of them rather than working the other way around, no matter how much we like to convince ourselves otherwise.

  9. 9.

    8 seems like an awfully convenient thing to believe if one wants to avoid having to offer a decent justification for what one avows…

    But evolutionary psychology is still idiotic, and on that claim, I’m entirely prepared make book.

  10. 10.

    That it’s convenient doesn’t make it any less true, ATAL. I read it in an evolutionary psychology book.

  11. 11.

    ok. that got me to laugh. :)

  12. 12.

    so we are left scratching our heads.

    Don’t chimps scratch their heads? So it’s good to be confused. (Wow this is fun!) I rest my case.

  13. 13.

    This is the problem with evolutionary psychology in general. It’s fun to speculate that “this human trait must have evolved for this purpose,” and — because it has to do with evolution — to mistake such speculation for hard science. But the adaptiveness of complex human behaviors doesn’t always lend itself to objective study through the scientific method. Even with species we can study, like orangutans, we can’t always pin down how, why, or if a given trait is adaptive, and we can’t study early hominids, so sometimes the missing pieces get filled in by (biased) speculation.

    That’s not to say that it’s not useful to study other primates to gain insights about human behavior — you just need to keep in mind the limitations of this line of reasoning and not overstate/overestimate what you’ve really shown. We had some interesting discussion of a book on primate parenting on Rational Moms here.

    And I’m not sure I follow your comparison between chimpanzees and God. I would say (in all sincerity) that chimpanzees are a far more useful model than God for understanding human behavior since chimpanzees are physically present and we can observe them.

  14. 14.

    If boys and girls really are different (as I believe they are),


    If you ever get time, and if you ever feel like presiding over a 300 comment thread, I would be very interested to hear you elaborate on this.

    (Says Mark, who finds it hard to type while hanging from a tree by his tail.)

  15. 15.

    Oh k., just admit it, you’re ticked off for not having that quiver of children to nurture.

    I would elaborate further, but I’ve got to return to scheming how I’m going to take over that corner office two doors down from where I’m typing this.

    (You should see the silver on my back!)

  16. 16.

    I didn’t explain the title well in the post, did I, C. L. Hanson? I guess I’m looking at it from the perspective of extrapolating morals–chimps might be more helpful than God in understanding human behavior, but God (rumor has it) seems to spend his time prescribing human behavior. It’s when we look to chimps to prescribe how humans ought to behave–set them up as a God over ethical laws–that we quickly get into trouble.

    You make a great point about the problems in applying the scientific method to human evolution–what are you going to do, manipulate individual variables and watch different evolutionary scenarios unfold?

    Great examples, Kaimi. We’re definitely cherry-picking what we like from primate behavior; “do whatever you want because evolution has shaped your desires,” as Kanazawa concludes, leaves us with a culture authorizing rampant rape and murder, as you point it. He might want to think that through a little better. A less extreme example I considered putting in the post is the following: our ancestors apparently evolved in a tropical climate (Neanderthals were probably better adapted to the cold). But is anyone making sweeping suggestions like: “Everyone, move closer to the equator and you’ll be happier”? We already understand cold weather can be unpleasant. We also understand civilization gives us all sorts of complicated trade-offs, and even that winter can be enjoyable. The point is, people can make decisions about whether to keep their Canadian citizenship themselves. They don’t need an evolutionary psychologist advising them with blanket statements from the jungle.

    actualthoughanonlesbian, I suspect there are people offering all sorts of decent justifications for things that they believed before they ever formulated a rationale. Thus, whether or not someone can offer a justification is not the best index of how one came to a conclusion.

    You go for it, Kevin! Because I’ve noticed male gorillas tend to plot to take over corner offices.

  17. 17.

    I do wonder how Mr. Kanazawa feels about emulating this.

  18. 18.

    I think the cherry picking argument is missing the mark. Having read only a little on evolutionary psychology, I get the impression that a central thesis of Kanazawa is that there is at heart only one human culture. He admits that there is variance in the details but claims that for the fundamental things, as Paul McCartney famously sang, “people are the same wherever you go”. See this post for an example. So the fact that other primates evolved differently than the human primate is probably not all that relevant to him (despite his quip in the “happiness” post).

  19. 19.

    Yeah, well, that argument may be a bit of a straw monkey. :)

  20. 20.


  21. 21.

    16: sure. but whether or not someone can offer a decent justification for a view is a pretty good index of whether or not it admits of a decent justification. :)

  22. 22.

    A better explication of the relationship between the descriptive and the prescriptive. Evolutionary theory might provide us with (generally equivocal) data about our tendencies and dispositions, but it does not thereby provide us directly with moral imperatives. Considerably more theoretical elaboration is needed to get from the point “apes do x” to the conclusion “so should we.”

    I think that this is a good point. My understanding is that certain behaviors in non-human primates lead to certain genes being pasted down. For example, male primates who have power and status in their group are more likely to have their genes passed down and female primates who have a lot of offspring are more likely to have their genes passed down. However, I don’t see how this can be linked to happiness. Sure, male primates who have more status are probably more likely to be healthy, have better food etc. But it is quite a stretch to think that this has anything to do with a satisfaction with life in humans.

  23. 23.

    That’s another great point, Beatrice. He didn’t explain the relationship he sees between happiness and evolutionary pressures. And even if he believes there’s a universal human culture, he still has to demonstrate that that culture is “good,” or that it maximizes happiness for the most people, or something.

  24. 24.

    Beatrice, my understanding of the current state of Primatology is that when baby chimps started being genetically tested to find out their actual fathers, quite often, and to the surprise of the researchers, the father turned out to be either an unknown chimp or one of the other chimps in the tribe.

    It seems when the alpha male was busy fighting usurpers to his throne, the chimp females bolted off into the bushes with the the chimp males they really liked. This is also true of deer and elephant seals. And humans. (Think beautiful woman, rich husband, pool boy.)

    Which is why the supposed evolutionary psychologist quoted above is no such animal.

  25. 25.

    I read a study which tested for stress hormones in male chimps compared to their status in the tribe. The higher ranking the chimp, the fewer stress hormones–happiness? The chimps with the most stress were the young bucks at the bottom of the dominance hierarchy (misery?), but this was not universal.

    Some lower status chimps had developed ways to alleviate the stress, mostly by opting out of the dominance hierarchy altogether, spending time with baby chimps, hanging out with their moms, etc. Turns out domesticity is another road to happiness for MALE chimps.

  26. 26.

    I can’t cite a study, (not that I’ve been citing anything but memory–darn monograph firewalls) but I bet those domestic boy chimps have plenty of offspring. Newsweek needs to find an actual Evolutionary Psychologist to write for it.

  27. 27.

    saw this today for you :)

    Enough with the Evolutionary Psychology BS Already

  28. 28.

    Kool!!! Did you notice that male chimps prefer older female chimps? Yeah; I suspect this is a byproduct of menopause–Female chimps don’t have it, so they remain fertile until close to death; us, not so much. It makes sense that men (homo sapiens) that prefer fertile females would leave more offspring. Dang dang dang dang.

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