EP & Paternity Paranoia

Among the many problems that ail evolutionary psychology or EP, one of the most glaring is the field’s ignorance of hunter-gatherer ethnography. When evolutionary psychologists have finished testing their thoroughly modern and deeply acculturated subjects, they usually claim to have identified some deep-seated or hard-wired psychological propensity. With the supposedly universal trait in hand, evolutionary psychologists then explain how it would have made sense, and thus adaptively evolved, in “ancestral environments.”

Aside from the ex post facto or just-so storytelling that usually follows, few evolutionary psychologists have intensive knowledge of hunter-gatherers. Consequently, evolutionary psychologists freely speculate about ancestral environments. While hunter-gatherers are imperfect proxies for the evolutionary past — and certainly are not static exemplars of that past, they at least provide us with constraining data.

When evolutionary psychologists ask themselves how some emotional trait or psychological propensity might have worked in ancestral environments, their first methodological step should be to evaluate or test the trait using the hunter-gatherer ethnohistoric record. The next step should be to evaluate or test the trait using primate studies, and the third should be testing with the hominin archaeological record. Because most evolutionary psychologists skip all three steps (or are largely ignorant of these three constraining datasets), they tell speculative just-stories about “ancestral environments.”

If an allegedly universal trait or propensity (1) is not found or is not significant among hunter-gatherers, (2) is not found or is not significant among non-human primates, and (3) is not evidenced by hominin archaeology, the trait-propensity probably did not evolve as an adaptation in ancestral environments. Moreover, if we can archaeologically or historically identify places and times where the trait-propensity appears and subsequently develops, the trait-propensity probably is cultural or learned.

Eschewing this methodology, evolutionary psychologists often mistakenly identify fairly recent cultural-historical developments as “evolutionary” and “ancestral.” A classic example of this mistake is the supposed “evolutionary-biological” problem of cuckoldry. As evolutionary psychologists spin this particular story, the worst possible genetic-fitness outcome for a man is to be cuckolded and then unknowingly raise another man’s child. The horror, they (and the math) say!

But as everyone familiar with hunter-gatherer ethnography knows, paternity assurance is a non-issue in such societies. Biological fatherhood, while often known and acknowledged, is in most cases not of paramount or even primary importance. It is often the case that the mother’s brother will be the most important male relationship in a child’s life and this biological “uncle” will be called “father.” In other cases, a child may have many “fathers” consisting of “uncles” and “grandfathers.” These uncles and grandfathers may be biological, fictive, or both, and they are often the most important adult male figures in a child’s life. In still other cases, children freely circulate among group members and may be adopted by non-related adults who are then called “mother” and “father.”

There are additional variations on these themes, but the message we get from them is consistent and clear: biological paternity is not a matter of major or overriding concern. This is because “father” relationships are structured so differently in these societies. As I explained in “One Flew Over the Cuckold’s Nest,” biological fatherhood and paternity assurance became important concepts, indeed overriding concerns, only in those societies that settled down to produce food. For these societies, the phase change known as the Neolithic transition was accompanied by shifts from communal to private property, and in conjunction with private property, shifts toward patriarchy and primogeniture.

These are the historical circumstances and cultural conditions in which biological fatherhood and paternity assurance become great anxiety inducers. These concerns did not evolve in prehistoric or “ancestral” environments for “adaptive” or biological reasons. Paternity paranoia is a product of particular times and places. It is not a universal trait or genetic imperative.

With these things in mind, we can evaluate a recent Atlantic article touting a new study that “looks at the evolutionary psychology behind ideas of sexual morality.” As is often the case with EP studies, what sounds promising quickly devolves into yet another ancestral story:

We’ve evolved to consider sex, the researchers argue, as a game of finite resources. For our ancestors, multiple sexual partners meant things could get knotty when it came to proving whose kids were whose. For women who depended on men for their livelihoods (and the livelihoods of their offspring), that uncertainty meant losing out on the support of their male partners. Bad news. For men, it meant investing in the well-being of children they hadn’t necessarily fathered. Also bad news.

The connection between sexual behavior and morality, then, may have come about as a way of keeping a gender-based social order intact. “Through moralizing,” the researchers wrote, “individuals can promote behavior which serves their own personal and coalitional interests.” Back in the day, judgment was a form of defense.

The key to this story is what precisely is meant by “our ancestors” and “back in the day.” If these researchers are referring to sedentary, food-producing ancestors who developed notions of property, patriarchy, and primogeniture, then this story makes sense. It was in these societies that gender-based hierarchies were created, female dependence was encouraged, and in which individual — rather than group — interests came to the fore. But this makes it a provincial cultural and historical story, not a universal evolutionary and biological one.

If, however, these researchers are talking about our hunting and gathering ancestors, then this story is surely wrong. These ancestors probably had multiple sexual partners, did not worry about paternity, and did not moralize these issues.

What the study in question actually shows is that in modern or post-Neolithic societies, female dependence on males correlates strongly with moral judgments (and religious strictures) against adultery and promiscuity. While historians and anthropologists have known this for quite a long time, it’s always nice to have psychologists experimentally and statistically confirm what we already knew.


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11 thoughts on “EP & Paternity Paranoia

  1. pain0strumpet

    Fiction writers have a major problem with ideas like this. Prior to this article, I’d have said that the reality of paternity paranoia was almost certainly known to be valid from our origins. I’d bet a decent sum that most people would have said “certainly” or “almost certainly.” So if I write a story that involves hunter-gatherer folks, and I don’t include paternity paranoia as a going concern, the bulk of my readers would probably react badly to it.

    Historical fantasy author Chelsea Quinn Yarbro commented on this writers’ problem regarding the stirrup. For a long while, everybody knew the earliest appearance of the stirrup on saddles. Then somebody dug up a stirrup that predated that known period by a large chunk of time. A century or more? I forget the detail. But she was writing a novel set in that earlier period, and she knew that stirrups were present, so she wrote them into the story. Expecting reader backlash from folks who were certain (and wrong) about the facts, she wrote an author’s note in the beginning to explain.

    Shy of writing an author’s note and linking to the articles here, the other thing that a fiction writer can do to make the lack of paternity paranoia seem realistic is to include some of the reasoning about family structure from inside the perspective of the culture. What are the assumptions they have that nobody ever talks about, and what are the articulated ideas that they have on the subject?

    Where can I read about the perspective of hunter-gatherers on sex, child bearing, parenting, etc?

    – emc

  2. GregJS

    Hello Cris,

    Excellent blog you’ve got here (I stumbled across it a few weeks ago while doing a search to find out what, if anything, Calvin Martin has been up to lately. His books really helped me enter deeper into the hunter-gatherer way of looking at things. Never did find out what’s up with CLM these days, but I’ve enjoyed hopping around on your blog.)

    Your current post describes why I find evolutionary psychology so disappointing – and shows how important it is to have a solid reference point – grounded, as you say, in the hunter-gatherer ethnographic record – for what’s truly normal for humans. The whole misconception about cuckoldry is a great example. Other examples abound, as this sort of thing comes up all the time. Here’s an example from yesterday’s New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/sunday-review/no-time-to-think.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&_r=0 :

    The author is trying to explain why people today feel such a strong need to keep themselves busy all the time and why they can’t bear to put their electronic gadgets down and just be alone with their thoughts for even a few minutes, to the point that, as one study found (unbelievably), “64 percent of men and 15 percent of women began self-administering electric shocks when left alone to think.” (!!)

    Her explanation: “It could be because human beings, when left alone, tend to dwell on what’s wrong in their lives. We have evolved to become problem solvers…”

    Just like that, she makes up an “evolutionary” explanation for why many modern people prefer electric shock over having an idle moment, as if we’ve always found it unbearable to be by ourselves and as if we’ve always been prone to intensely negative thinking.

    I guess if we put our minds to it, we can come up with an “evolutionary” explanation for just about anything.


  3. Connor Wood

    I wholeheartedly agree that evolutionary psychologists need to be much more careful about distinguishing cultural particularities with genetic universals. However, I see several very serious mistakes in your analysis.

    First, in assuming a massive divide between the stable ancestral environment with its various niches and selection pressures and post-agricultural civilizations, you’re not taking into account that agricultural civilizations form their own evolutionary sub-niches, within which novel selection pressures are present and active. More importantly, you’re oversimplifying the concept of evolutionarily stabilized tendencies and instincts. You’re claiming that if something does not appear in some cultures or time periods, it’s not an evolved trait. But any evolutionary psychologist worth her salt would say that there are also gene-culture interactions, and underlying behavioral or cognitive adaptations can be manifested very differently in different cultural or ecological circumstances.

    For example, for a serious evolutionary psychologist (one of which I had dinner with last night and talked with about this very issue) the “phenotype” under question in the current post isn’t monogamy. It’s sexual jealousy. Sexual jealousy IS well-documented among hunter-gatherers, as well as literally every other society on record. Different cultures have different ways of dealing with, mitigating, or even outright flouting sexual jealousy. Some cultures condone multiple partners. Others don’t condone them but allow them tacitly. Some cultures try to enforce monogamy or polygamy. Some, like many subsaharan African cultures, have stabilized traditions of multiple different sorts of sexual partners for different periods of life cycles. So to try to describe any of these particular forms as a sui generis evolutionary adaptation would be absurd. But understanding each of them as locally stabilized solutions to the various universal tensions of sexual jealousy and competition would be exactly right – because that’s what they are.

    The basic insight that humans have genetic motivations to maximize their fitness is undeniable. These motivations are distal and unconscious, but they inform a great deal of our emotional and social lives. This is the point evolutionary psychologists have been trying to make, and they are correct about it. They have often been very sloppy about discerning between this basic behavioral insight that sexual competition is a serious issue in human societies, and the contingent cultural solutions to the issue. But solving the dilemmas that crop up because of sexual competition and jealousy is one of the key jobs any culture absolutely has to accomplish to achieve any kind of long-term stability. In hunter-gatherer settings, enforced monogamy has not been as common as in the Christian West (although, contrary to the picture you seem to paint, it’s also not totally unknown – there are tribes in Australia for which the punishment for extramonogamous dalliances was banishment, for example), in part because monogamy is not the most efficient solution to the problem of sexual competition in the sorts of social-ecological environments that hunter-gatherers often inhabit. But monogamy has been stable in Western culture, in part because of what you point out – agriculture and sedentary civilization create new contexts and pressures that push human cultures and sexual norms in certain directions. But don’t confuse the distal motivators – which are the actual targets of EP inquiry – with the proximate cultural forms. There is still a real evolutionary problem to be solved in sexual jealousy, and it gets solved in different ways in different settings.

    It seems to me that you’re arguing, quite naïvely, for a Rousseauian or Margaret Meadean view of the pre-civilized life as a hind of hedonic utopia, free of the constraints of Western culture and its repressions (with a lot of Daniel Quinn thrown in). So I’d caution that you’re in as much danger of romanticizing the often very difficult lives of hunter-gatherers in order to make what is essentially a political point – that patriarchy is bad – as the naïve EP folks you’re critiquing are in danger of mixing up proximate and distal evolutionary questions.

    Finally, by implicitly critiquing Western sexual norms so harshly, using the vehicle of a critique of evolutionary psychology, you seem to be advocating for a different type of sexual morality. But how would you implement such a morality? If you argue that we all ought to simply toss off the patriarchy and emulate the sexual lives of the hunter-gatherers you’re citing, then you’re ignoring the fact that a 2,000-year-old culture is its own form of stable niche, and that different rules apply than would apply to a nomadic gathering society. We’ve got two millennia of habit, cultural programming, inertia, and structures oriented toward monogamy as a longterm solution to the question of sexual jealousy and competition. To get rid of normative monogamy would entail fighting upstream against this immense weight of this culture. So is your solution to abandon Western culture tout court? To reprogram it slowly, over generations? To allow it to collapse? Evolutionary psychology is fundamentally relevant to your answer to this question, because you have to take into account both humans’ evolved setups and the inertia of the various wildly differing cultures we’ve established to deal with those setups.

  4. Cris Post author

    Thanks for the thoughtful and detailed response Connor. While I don’t have the time to respond to all of it, I will address a few basic misconceptions about what I wrote and what I think on these issues. I think you are reading way too much into this post, and are isolating this particular post from the rest of the work I’ve done on this blog over the past four years. With these things in mind, I will say:

    1. There was no “stable ancestral environment.” For hominins, ancestral environments were constantly changing, highly unstable and intensely variable. In fact, this is the basis for Richard Potts’ work on variability selection and its primary effect: plasticity. Potts has much good company in thinking that the primary hominin adaptation is plasticity. In fact, I’ve often been surprised by the number of world-class paleoanthropologists who will tell you, after a few beers, that Potts has it mostly right and hominin evolution seems to be one long course of selection for plasticity. This obviously complicates the kinds of stories that evolutionary psychologists want to tell, and are in fact fond of telling.

    2. As I have explained to you before in detailed comment responses, and have explained on this blog in some very long posts, I don’t find neo-cultural evolutionist theory compelling, persuasive, or workable. As much as I admire Boyd-Richerson’s musings on gene-culture interactions, the Ur-impulse (and simplifying tendencies) for this kind of meta or “explain everything” theory are too much for me. I’ve addressed all this in many previous posts, so don’t feel a need to explain myself again. The kind of arguments you are making are primarily of interest to true EP believers and those who subscribe to the meta-theory. I’m not one of them.

    3. My use of hunter-gatherers as a constraining dataset with which to test EP “theories” is not to be confused with romanticism, idealization, or any of the other Rousseauian sins of which you accuse me. Perhaps better than most, I’m fully aware of what HG life was like, and know it was no kind utopia. Foragers faced their own sets of problems, which differ from those of modernity. I use them as contrasts, and to make methodological points, but I don’t see hunter-gatherers as superior or better or happier than others, whether ancient or modern. All people in all ages and places face their own unique set of challenges and issues, and all peoples have their problems and shortcomings.

    4. I am almost completely disinterested in politics, and patriarchy just happened to be the political issue that arose in the context of making a methodological point in this post. So my point in this post was methodological, not political. But the fact that you interpreted it as political may say something about your concern over “distal” and “proximal.” Whenever I see distal/proximal used in EP or evolutionary theory, it’s usually a signal that some deeper values, either hidden or unexamined, are at work.

    5. I’m not advocating for any kind of sexual morality and am not interested in the issue. I’m also not interested in “western culture” or its future. These simply aren’t concerns of mine. I understand that you probably have certain political and religious commitments which animate your interest in these issues, but I don’t have those and am not interested in arguing either for or against them.

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree. I’m not a believer, either in God or EP, the two of which appear to be normatively entangled in your response.

  5. GregJS


    As I understand this post, it addresses a somewhat different issue from what you are raising. I think I understand what you mean about “distal motivators” and the attempts of evolutionary psychologists to explain them (in whatever proximal guises they take). But while all humans have to, say, eat food – and there is clearly an evolutionary explanation for this – does this then mean that there is a truly “evolutionary” explanation for ALL forms of food acquisition, particularly agriculture – and for all the proximal forms of cultural expression that flow from it? Are agricultural societies truly “evolutionary sub-niches?” Or are they better conceived in different terms?

    For example: when some animals are left to languish in cages, they’ll do strange things – like bite their own tails off. We can then imagine, over millennia of living in cages, that these animals could form an entire culture around such behaviors, like with special Tail Biting Salons and so on. What this post seems to be saying is that evolutionary psychologists tend to come along and fashion evolutionary explanations for why humans engage in behaviors that are the equivalent of caged animals biting their own tails off – without noting that these behaviors have no precedent in our evolutionary history and only occur when we are living in the “cage” of civilization. So while, of course, there is some underlying evolutionary explanation for why animals bite their tails off in captivity, this is not the same as explaining, for example, why animals wag their tails to communicate, or use them to grab on to branches, or whatever else they do with their tails in the evolutionary context in which those tails emerged. Is tail-biting an “adaptation” in this sense? Is a cage truly an evolutionary sub-niche?

    Similarly, is there truly an “evolutionary” explanation for why, say, men in civilized societies frequently treat women, children, and animals like property? Is it not possible that such behaviors are very much more like the tail-biting of caged animals than true evolutionary adaptations?

    I realize the example of tail-biting animals in cages is a bit extreme, but it’s just an attempt to highlight that there seems to be some real distinction at play here that many EPs do not make. I often do not see EPs taking into account the extent to which our behaviors might be like those of caged animals.


  6. Connor Wood


    Great response. Thanks. I’ve actually never heard of Potts before, and it sounds like he has a perspective that ought to lend some real rigor to criticisms of EP. I’ll look forward to reading him.

    I do think we’ll have to agree to disagree, though – plasticity may be key for hominids (actually I completely agree that it is), but that doesn’t mean we’re tabula rasa when it comes to instincts. There are too many cross-culturally similar cognitive biases for that. And clearly I think the evidence for some modularity in the brain is better than you think it is.

    I think you’re absolutely right to point out how normative concerns and questions about EP and human sexual history are entangled, but I think you’re also mistaken to believe you can escape those entanglements in your own work. Something I’ve pointed out repeatedly in other writings is how closely people’s commitments to or against pure gene-level selection track their attitudes toward the evolution of religion; the cultural/group selection skeptics tend to be highly anti-religious atheists (Dennett, Pinker, and Coyne come to mind), while the authors who take group and cultural niche selection seriously tend to be much more nuanced in their attitudes toward religion (although most of them are still atheists). The debate between group and gene selection (which bears directly on the evolution of cultural solutions to sexual competition’s socially destabilizing effects) is a primo example of how basic premises (often unexamined) deeply inform how different people read the data. So, in other words, I’d say you’re on political turf when you write about the failings of EP and monogamy whether you like it or not.

    Again, thanks for the response. It’s good to debate with someone who understands the field so well.

  7. Cris Post author

    You are welcome, and thanks for being thoughtful and polite. I agree with everything you said in your penultimate paragraph. Those are very real underlying issues and they should excavated and examined by those in working in evolutionary religious studies.

  8. Cris Post author

    Hi Greg, I’m glad you found the blog and thanks for contributing. As for CLM, I get the sense that he is wandering. He certainly has an interesting background, and his alienation from modernity seems fairly profound. While I admire much of his work, he also seems to have constructed an idealized animist worldview as an alternative in which he can live and use to critique modernity. Such a worldview may never have existed, and his “noble savage” version of it certainly is romantic and utopian. Sabio often critiques such views in the comments section of this blog, and his critiques (while misdirected at me) would certainly apply to someone like CLM, who seems to be doing his best to live in ways that accord with his understanding of animist worldviews. Good for him, even if it does seem a bit quixotic.

  9. Cris Post author

    Eric, unfortunately there is no one place or single source that will give you information about HG perspectives (which are variable) on sex, child bearing, parenting, etc. Jared Diamond tried to do this in “The World Until Yesterday,” and I suppose it’s a good place to start, but keep in mind that his book has serious limitations.

    My advice on matters like this can be found in this post, which I fear won’t be very encouraging for you as a reader, unless of course you are really interested in HGs, in which case I’d pick a “people” and dive right in.

  10. GregJS

    Thanks, Cris, that would explain why CLM seems to have dropped off the radar.

    Constructing idealized worldviews must be a major occupational hazard for those of us trying to learn about earlier forms of human society. I’ve continually had to reassess my views because of this tendency in myself (and in the writers I read) – and am sure I’ll have to do plenty more in future. That’s part of what makes this such an interesting learning process. And at every point, there are people on either side of us: those who accuse us of indulging in noble savage fantasies (some people will make this accusation at the slightest mention of anything positive about hunter-gatherers; these folks usually strike me as having their own idealized worldview – usually some version of the “noble modern”), and those we ourselves accuse of doing the same.

    Got any posts that specifically address this sort of thing (I’ll do a search to see if you’ve described what aspects of CLM’s writings in particular seem idealized to you); or know of writers who you think do an especially balanced job explaining hunter-gatherers and/or animists while also specifically addressing and helping to sort out this idealizing tendency? CLM actually did that for me at one point (which maybe tells you how idealizing I had been). More recently, Morris Berman’s Wandering God gave me another de-idealizing tune-up.

  11. Gyrus

    I was going to mention Berman’s The Wandering God as a source for info on HG child-rearing and parenting. Berman’s got his own very particular point of view, which definitely endears him to me – though he won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But he’s very thorough in his research, and while I’ve not followed up any of his references for HG child-rearing, it would be my first place to start if I wanted to go deeper into that topic.

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