Evolution is culture

Evolutionary strategies are fighting battles in our culture right now. That is how evolution has transitioned to functioning in our big-brained animal world. We’re social animals, and our culture is an outstretched, warped version of biology. I’ve been struggling with how to digest a variety of news that has hit me over the break. I keep coming back to biology, evolution, and ultimately how survival of the fittest is going on in our culture. Humans have designed our culture, but at the same time, we’re still mammals. Our brains give us the ability to imagine scenarios, extending reality into this meta-simulation in our heads. We can take the basic struggles of biology and change them, theorize about them, and then create new ways in which to fight them out. We take the basic struggles of the African savanna and imagine new ways to fight these battles.

P.Z. Meyers wrote a piece about why women menstruate. It’s a question that you don’t think about all the time. I know how the biology of menstruation works. During the second half of the menstrual cycle, in the Luteal phase, the uterine wall thickens to get ready for a fertilized egg to implant. Menstruation happens when, at the end of the Luteal cycle (about 14 days), no egg implants, and the wall is shed in preparation for next months. The biology of how menstruation happens, however, is different from why it happens. It’s a wasteful process and not all mammals menstruate. When you think of the why in terms of evolutionary strategy, here is the anthropomorphized reasoning of why menstruation might occur.

So the question is, why do humans have spontaneous decidualization?

The answer that Emera suggests is entirely evolutionary, and involves maternal-fetal conflict. The mother and fetus have an adversarial relationship: mom’s best interest is to survive pregnancy to bear children again, and so her body tries to conserve resources for the long haul. The fetus, on the other hand, benefits from wresting as much from mom as it can, sometimes to the mother’s detriment. The fetus, for instance, manipulates the mother’s hormones to weaken the insulin response, so less sugar is taken up by mom’s cells, making more available for the fetus.

The larger aspect of this struggle is the male-female strategies of reproduction. Males want to spread their seed and come away with a pregnancy from every sexual encounter. Females want to get pregnant when they’re the healthiest, can carry the fetus to term, and then can live to reproduce again. These strategies are in competition, and I don’t think there is a winner. These strategies exist to propel human evolution forward, and they’ve created the species we have now. This female-fetal struggle is only one example of a evolutionary struggle in culture.

I don’t think it ends here. We’ve used technology to extend our animal abilities to extremes. We can now kill millions of people that we don’t like, for arbitrary reasons like skin color and ethnicity. There is nothing stopping rapid attacks against people considered to be outside of our group. It’s a psychology principle called in group bias, and it’s well documented. Most of the time, this bias is created by arbitrary standards, but it’s based in biology. We are conditioned not to trust people on the outside of our social groups. It’s a primal instinct, and with our frontal cortex, we’ve out-sized this in-group bias into every area of our culture. Politics is fueled by in-group, out-group bias. We’re conditioned to attack those who don’t think like we think, who don’t fall in line with our ideals.

This is why, when people ask, ‘why isn’t there more diversity in our group?’ I have to look at how they define themselves. Who is your in group? You have one, I promise you that it exists. Every movement, every culture has an in group. This brings me to the flood of news pieces I’ve read this week. There’s the rabid Ron Paul followers, the on-going atheist misogyny, the constant culture wars, and the countless spats that occur in the celebrity tabloids. What do these things have in common? We’re trying to fight what we consider the out group. No one is immune to it. In group bias is the antithesis of diversity. It’s us shutting ourselves down to others, creating barriers, and imposing a dominant culture on others. When you wonder where the diversity it, look at the in group. Understand what they’re doing, and understand evolution is driving us onward.