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Evolutionary psychology and the shaping of the novel Primal

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From the book : Evolutionary Psychology 9 issue 2 : 181-185.
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Evolutionary Psychology – 2011. 9(2): 181185
Evolutionary Psychology and the Shaping of the NovelPrimal
Robin Baker,Primal. Virgin Books: London, 2009, 384 pp., US$12.95, ISBN #9780 753518267 (paperback). Robin Baker, Spain. Email:rrobinbaker@msn.comwww.robin
Stripped of everything, how wouldyoubehave in paradise? Would you put all self interest aside to help form a moral, caring and supportive society? Would you be prepared to share food and space—even a lover—in order to reduce conflict and promote harmony? And even ifyouwould, how would you then cope with others in your group who wouldn’t? Those who are perhaps more jealous, spiteful, possessive or aggressive than yourself? These are the dilemmas that confront a group of university students and staff in my novel,Primalon a field course to a remote and uninhabited Pacific island paradise. Taken by their Professor, Raúl LopezTurner, the students at first see the trip as just a fun way to earn marks towards their degrees. But then things start to go wrong and eventually they find themselves stripped of everything: privacy, clothes, medication, shelter, tools, all hope of rescue, and most of all law and accountability—everything. Almost overnight they find themselves as naked and dependent on their instincts for personal survival as the members of the feral society of chimpanzees that are living alongside them. So how would these people respond; can we in any way predict, perhaps looking for guidance from evolutionary psychology? Or do we just allow our imagination free rein? From 1981 to 1996, I was Reader in Zoology in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Manchester, England, and in the final decade of that tenure my main research interest was the sexual biology of humans and other animals. My approach was evolutionary, hovering somewhere between biology and psychology. Several papers came from my lab during this time, and just before our group dispersed, our work culminated in an academic book,Human Sperm Competition, which I cowrote with my former student, Mark Bellis. My hope as I left academia in 1996 to concentrate on a career in writing and broadcasting was to bring the evolutionary approach to a wider audience than I had managed as a scientist. My first nonacademic book,Sperm Wars, combined fiction and science and was essentially a popularization of my earlier coauthored tome. Translated into 24 different languages and making the bestseller lists in countries as different as Britain, Germany, Poland, China and Japan, it did, I hope (along of course with classic books by others, such
asThe Evolution of Desire by David Buss) succeed in bringing the approach of the evolutionary psychologist to an audience that stretched far beyond the purely academic. Then, as three further less successful popular science books followed, I began toying with the idea of using the yetagain different medium of fiction to try to reach an even wider audienceandPrimalwas my eventual first attempt. Much of our current understanding of human sexual behavior derives from evolutionary psychology; not only from such experiments as are ethical and feasible on our species itself, but also from a careful comparison with the behavior of our nearest genetic relatives, the great apes. At one point inPrimal, Professor LopezTurner says during a TV interview: “If you really want to know what humans are made of, just try returning them to the wild. Make them live naked amongst apes. You won’t like what you see, but maybe then you’ll understand. Modern society is just a way of hiding us from our true selves. That’s now fragile it is.” (pp. 300301). His belief is extreme: that our true instincts have not changed during the transition from the apehuman common ancestor to the present day. Only our circumstances have changed. To many people this would be a diabolical view of human nature—and most would probably like the events that unfold inPrimal to prove the Professor wrong. But what would need to happen for that? Is there anything the stranded group of students and staff could do that would allow someone to say, “You see, Professor. These peopledidn’tend up behaving like apes.” To find the answer, we first need to review how our nearest primate relatives might behave in the same situation. There are four great apes—the Orangutan, Gorilla, Chimpanzee and Bonobo and we might consider that they would all respond differently, both socially and sexually, if released onto an island paradise. The Orangutan would probably live solitarily. Individuals—both males and females—would space themselves through the forest and socialize only as much as necessary to reproduce. The Gorilla would organize itself into harems. Each large “silverbacked” male would attract, protect and guard a number of adult females and their young, and the group would then live and travel together within its own territory on the island, having little contact with any neighboring harems. But with each silverback male jealously guarding up to eight females, there would be a lot of surplus and frustrated males wandering the forest, looking for an ailing or ageing harem master to attack and replace, or even kill. The Chimpanzee would live socially, forming a large but fairly loose society from which smaller mixedage and mixedsex groups would wander off to forage and explore before returning. Also, this ape would behave promiscuously, females as well as males. During the middle, fertile, phase of the menstrual cycle, each female Chimpanzee would casually work her sexual way through every willing and able male she could find. Finally, the Bonobo would take promiscuity to an even more extreme level. Intercourse and orgasm would be no more than trivial social gestures, the human equivalent of shaking hands, slapping on the back, kissing on both cheeks (and not only between adult males and females but also between samesexes and adults and young). So if the people inPrimalend up on the island living solitarily (like Orangutans)... Or the strongest man expels all others to keep the women for himself (like Gorillas)… Or each woman becomes so promiscuous that she has sex with every available man each month (like Chimpanzees), perhaps reducing intercourse to an uninhibited but casual
Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 14747049 – Volume 9(2). 2011. 182
gesture, neither loving nor even erotic (like Bonobos)… We would probably have to accept that Professor LopezTurner had been proved right. Only one outcome would allow us to say otherwise, because it would be different from any of the great apes. And that outcome is monogamy. To some, there will be no surprise in this. For them, monogamy is the most likely— and only moral—outcome for a stranded group of humans anyway. They would expect the nuclear family to emerge in thePrimalgroup as the instinctive and distinctive human way of life, showing that our species really has moved on. But would it happen? And can the evolutionary study of human sexuality help us predict? Of course, there is no direct evidence for us to consider; evidence based on experiment. How could there be? When have people ever been stripped of everything in the name of science and been made to “live naked amongst apes,” just in order for us to see how years or decades later they would end up behaving. Never in the past, and in these days of ethical committees, never likely in the future (no matter how much a researcher might fantasize about such an experiment.) But there is another form of evidence we can consider; indirect rather than direct, but nonetheless powerful. And it concerns testes. Evolutionary biologists consider that much can be learned about the “normal” behavior of thefemaleof a species by measuring the size of the testes of themaleof that species. Next time you see (or see a film of) an ape, take a close look. You cannot miss the scrotum on a male Chimpanzee, but you will do very well to see anything between the legs of a male Gorilla. Why the difference? Female promiscuity! For a short period each month, the promiscuity of a female Chimp (or Bonobo) means that her womb teems with sperm from multiple males. Almost every baby born is fathered by a male whose sperm have out competed others in an episode of intense sperm competition. To stand any chance of siring a female’s next child, any given male has to inseminate huge numbers of sperm in an attempt to outcompete the sperm from each of his rivals. This means that he has to manufacture numbers of sperm, which in turn means he needs huge testes, and huge evolution has endowed him accordingly. In contrast, the female Gorilla rarely mates with a male other than the haremmaster, so her womb is a quiet place. Success for her partner’s sperm is almost assured; few sperm are needed from him, and evolution has given him tiny testes. The male Gorilla directs his energies elsewhere. And what has evolution contrived for men to allow them to cope with the inherent sexual behavior of women? What we see is that men’s testes are much bigger than those of a male Gorilla, especially if the difference in body size is taken into account. But (thankfully) they are also much smaller than those of a Chimpanzee. The biological implication is that women are driven to bemorepromiscuous than female Gorillas but to be less than female Chimpanzees. What sort of omen is this for monogamy in promiscuous paradise? InSperm Wars, based not only on testes size but also on other lines of evidence from evolutionary research, I elaborated the view that some women are subconsciously driven to promote sperm competition through promiscuity and infidelity much more than was traditionally thought. Less often than a chimpanzee but more often than a gorilla, a woman can benefit by staging a competition between sperm from different males inside her. To do this she needs to have sex with two or more different men within the space of
Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 14747049 – Volume 9(2). 2011. 183
about a week, a sperm lifetime. By turning her cervix, uterus and fallopian tubes into an arena for competition, she ensures that any child she produces will be fathered by a man with winning sperm—with the benefit to her that her resulting son or (if a daughter) maybe grandson will possess similarly winning sperm in their turn. The study of human sperm competition by myself and others has established a new set of “facts of life”: up to 10% of children may not be fathered by their “fathers;” less than 1% of a man’s sperm is capable of fertilizing anything; the human penis, in combination with thrusting, is designed to remove semen from a woman’s vagina, as well as to put semen in; “smart” cervical mucus under the influence of female orgasm (or lack of orgasm) encourages some sperm but blocks others; and a woman is far more likely to conceive through a casual fling than through sex with her regular partner. And all of this is based on what happens in “civilized” society. How much more extreme might sperm competition be in paradise? When—after a year on the island—the surviving staff and students inPrimal are finally rescued, three of their members (including the Professor) are reported dead and all but one of the women is either pregnant or already has a baby. The story that they feed the media is a litany of political correctness and sexual propriety; of camaraderie, cooperation in the face of adversity, and conjugal harmony amongst the couples that they say formed. The narrator, a close friend of the dead professor, is unconvinced by their story and begins an investigation to unravel how the group really behaved during their time as castaways. Piece by piece he reconstructs the truth, but it is not until the surprise paternity of one of the children is established that the jigsaw of the entire episode is complete. I shan’t disclose here how the university students and staff inPrimalare portrayed as behaving, nor the repercussions for the fate of the group as a whole. Just to say that as the story unfolds the sharpeyed reader will spot at work more than one of the principles that have been uncovered by evolutionary psychology over the past two decades. But there is one thing I will point out, because even two years after the book was first published this element seems to have escaped notice. The mating system that develops among the humans on the island is different from the one they would have adopted in their university city—everybody notices that. But the mating system that has already developed among the feral chimps is also different from that of chimps elsewhere—that has not been noticed. There is an orchard on the island, planted by the zoologist who liberated the chimps decades earlier for fear that there was not enough naturally occurring food to support his fledgling colony. This orchard is a hotspot of resources, important for ease of survival and feasible to defend. On the island the pre liberation mating systems of both chimps and humans change andegrevnco as an adaptation to the local conditions of which the orchard is a pivotal part. I leave the scientific interpretation to the reader. Primal a novel shaped from beginning to end—plot, subplots, events, even is characters—by my previous involvement in evolutionary psychology and biology. Indeed in France the publishers even asked me to write an Introduction to their translation of the novel to explain the book’s scientific background to the lay reader. Alone amongst Primal’s publishers, the French were happy to promote the book—through the extra Introduction and their choice of picture for the cover—as the product of scientific research
Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 14747049 – Volume 9(2). 2011. 184
into human sexual behavior. In contrast, the Dutch publishers preferred a more ethereal feel, the Czech publishers focused on entrapment, and the Hebrew and Portuguese (Brazilian) publishers have yet to decide. But the English and American publishers opted for a theme that will resonate with evolutionary psychologists everywhere: horror. There is nothing supernatural inPrimal. On the contrary, it is an exercise in the quintessentially natural. Yet the English and American publishers felt—in common with many who react badly to the findings of evolutionary psychology—that their readers were more likely to be horrified than uplifted by a portrayal of unrestrained human behavior, no matter how accurate it could be argued to be. Publishers generally know their readers rather well and the responses toPrimaland USA have so far tended to prove the in the UK publishers right in releasing it as a “horror” book. Although a smattering of reviewers and readers agree that the novel makes them think deeply about human nature, an equal if not larger number have considered any insight to be not only chilling and unpleasant, but better left unsaid. How many in our discipline have had this reaction to their research, no matter how convincing the results. Evidently there are aspects to being human that many would prefer not to confront, even if it is based on science. But … Stripped of everything, howwouldyou behave in paradise?
Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 14747049 – Volume 9(2). 2011. 185
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