Evolutionary Advantages
March 8, 2004 2:24 PM   Subscribe

IS there any evolutionary advantages to monogamy; non-violence; vegetarianism; religion?
posted by Pericles to Science & Nature (12 answers total)
Evolutionary sociobiology is an ugly, confused, borderline psudeoscience. Very little can be said about these topics with any degree of scientific certainty. Anything that is said is wildly speculative, and should come with caveats to that effect.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:28 PM on March 8, 2004

Pseudoscience, I mean.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:32 PM on March 8, 2004

The book you're looking for here is Richard Dawkin's "The selfish Gene" (Available at all good e-tailors). Religion, monogamy and non-violence can all be adequately explained (mr_roboto is right though), but I'm not sure about vegetarianism.

You could hazard a guess though. Vegetarianism allows for families to grow older, and more resources / care-giving can be given to child-rearing (via grandparents). This could be classified as a positive evolutionary pressure. Plus in situations where food is scarce, vegetarians make better use of available resources.
posted by seanyboy at 3:45 PM on March 8, 2004

Ack! The Selfish Gene is not about human social behavior. Dawkins does discuss altruistic behavior among animals (certain insects, in particular), but he would never in a million years claim that the theories he presents could "adequately explain" religion or monogamy or non-violence (if anything, his equilibrium theories argue against non-violence as a stable evolutionary strategy). The seminal work on this subject is E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology. This book is, again, mostly about insects (Wilson is an entomologist), but the last chapter touches on human evolutionary psychology. He's also written a book called On Human Behavior, which seems relevant, though I haven't read it.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:18 PM on March 8, 2004

And in my first post, I should have written "human evolutionary sociobiology", or "evolutionary psychology", rather that "evolutionary sociobiology". The study of the evolution of animal (particularly insect) social behavior is well established. I'll shut up now.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:25 PM on March 8, 2004

Pericles, do you mean for modern-day humans in particular?
posted by shoos at 5:13 PM on March 8, 2004

For monogamy, there are benefits (somewhat guaranteed care for young, but see the grandmother hypothesis below), but also disadvantages of being stuck with one mate. Humans aren't really monogamous by default; a majority of world cultures are polygynous and/or polyandrous, which allow greater amounts of mate selection. Jared Diamond and others have posited "The Grandmother Hypothesis" which essentially says that fathers are irrelevant in parenting and the presence of grandmothers is much more beneficial; this jibes with the general matrilineality of primates. There is compelling, but not completely convincing, evidence for the idea.

Non-violence and religion, in general, are both ways of creating favorable environments for yourself and others like you (read: reciprocal altruism), which aids in one's self-preservation and the preservation of one's genes in the form of children. Religion also gives a somewhat a priori mate pool.

Vegetarianism is a tough one, as it's thought by some that systematic meat-eating was the catalyst that allowed these giant brains of ours, which are very costly in terms of body development resources. Others dispute that, however, and say that cooking was the catalyst, or other things completely.

These are all cursory explanations, though, and are not law, but rather ways of thinking about the ideas. Mr. Roboto is right in his caution, but I would say that it is definitely worthwhile to explore these ideas without pulling the "oh, it's not scientific and we'll never KNOW!" card.
posted by The Michael The at 7:38 PM on March 8, 2004

Try "Global Brain" or "Lucifer Principle" both by Bloom for a possible explanation of the existance of religion.

To me, it seems that religions have evolved as ideas, than as evolutionary adaptations. Most successful religions (like successful species), encourage spreading the religion as much as possible, and increasing the number of believers (by- for example- disallowing contraception to encourage pregnancies among believers)
posted by drezdn at 10:53 PM on March 8, 2004

Response by poster: Pericles, do you mean for modern-day humans in particular?

I mean in our past. A friend of mine argued that people don't make moral choices; we make choices that are advantageous in evolutionary terms, and over history we've dressed them up as "moral". I argued that, because we have language, we're capable of moral choice that isn't purely instinctive. We agreed to differ, and I was interested in other perspectives.
posted by Pericles at 2:12 AM on March 9, 2004

IS there any evolutionary advantages to monogamy; non-violence; vegetarianism; religion?

Well, Yes, if you mean the evolution of the spirit...
posted by Shane at 7:51 AM on March 9, 2004

Remember that our behavior (probably) isn't necessarily directly related to evolutionary strategy. For example, we aren't so much programmed to have as many kids as possible, but rather to have as much sex as possible, since during 99.9999% of our evolution they were inseparable. This distinction becomes clear if you look at populations who use birth control.

IMO, religion can't really be looked at separately from the total worldview or culture of any preliterate society. Religion was (and often is) an attempt at pseudoscientific reasoning about the world, a way to pass knowledge down the generations, a form of primitive government, a way of marking "us" vs. "them," a way of firing up troops and workers, a way of justifying the ruling person/class, etc. A religion has to make God- or at least spiritual-claims to be a religion, but it can include everything but the kitchen sink. Look at the OT. You have stories with morals, histories, food guidelines, government rules, attempted scientific knowledge about the world, ideas on how to live your life, who and when you should go to war against, etc. It's particularly interesting to look at how the (nominally) same religion varies from place to place and time to time.

Monogamy seems more like an ideal than a reality, if you look at divorce and infidelity statistics. Perhaps you should ask if maintaining the appearance of monogamy has evolutionary advantages.

Non-violence is helpful if it means letting everybody else die, unhelpful if it means letting everybody else kill you.
posted by callmejay at 8:29 AM on March 9, 2004

The social aspects (monogamy, non-violence, religion) are way, way complex. Most people who say they know much about these things in human evolution, like mr roboto suggested, are mostly full of it. Take your friend, for example.

But vegetarianism? There are naturally vegetarian animals (eg, most apes), and this diet has served them well, ie, they exist. Same goes for carnivores - they've evolved into a niche that has allowed them to survive. Neither diet is universally advantageous from an evolutionary standpoint. Anyways, humans are omnivorous, so what's the argument about?

This is a pretty solid overview of the human evolution vs. diet topic.
posted by shoos at 4:48 PM on March 9, 2004

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