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The Caveman Cometh

By Jeremy Ireland on June 1, 2021 in Other

Homo erectus.

My dog loves the couch. He’s a dachshund and has no issue snuggling into anyone who’s willing. No sooner have you sat down and he’s demanding a pat on the head or a tickle under the chin. It’s terribly cute and extremely hard to resist.
Recently however, while I was caving in to his cuteness he started growling. His head and tail went bolt upright and the hairs on his back stood up. Suddenly he took off, barking like mad. He was at the fence, frothing like crazy and jumping on the spot like a springbok. He’d spotted a cat walking along the top of the fence, like something out of a Warner Brothers cartoon.
Sensing danger, the cat stood tall, also erecting the hairs on his back and began hissing through bared teeth. I asked myself, how does such a small friendly hound turn from couch potato into Cujo in half a second? I also wanted to know if his hair raising was instinctive.
There is quite a functional reason for this behaviour. An evolutionary explanation suggests self-preservation and survival, i.e. when the hairs stand up it makes the animal look larger and more intimidating, which makes sense. But how does this evolutionary phenomenon apply to humans? Well, it’s thought that human cognition, or the way we mentally acquire and process information, can be best understood in the context of evolution. What this means is that an evolutionary explanation reconstructs the evolutionary history of a structure or behaviour.
If an image of Charles Darwin and his hipster beard has popped into your head, you’re on the right track. His mantra was ‘natural selection’, or ‘survival of the fittest’. If such a theory can be applied to the characteristics, like the colour of a moth, then can it apply to behaviours? Perhaps.
If you were an evolutionary psychologist one of the first things you’d look into is reproductive success. It’s a fundamental concept in all evolutionary theories, i.e. that evolution selects organisms that have the best odds of reproductive success. The reproductive drive from this evolutionary standpoint is instinctive in most species, willing them to survive and produce offspring.
Are humans exempt from this? According to Professor Robert Winston, no. He produced a great documentary series called Human Instinct. In the follow-up book of the same name he talks about sex and evolution. The very first line is quite blunt, “Most men think about sex every six minutes, while about 20 per cent of women think about sex at least once a day.” It’s a mind-boggling statistic! If you do the maths, men think of sex 240 times a day on average, whereas 1 in 5 women will think of it just once in 24 hours. The difference is astounding.
Are we obsessed with sex? Professor Winston says we are, as we engage in a great deal of activities that are, at a base level, connected with sex and reproduction, things like career, friendship, money and competition.
But hang on, we don’t live in caves anymore. Surely we have evolved since then, surely we are more civilised? Well, yes, we’d like to think so, but the professor has a point. The only reason we are here is that we are at the end of a very long line of sexual success stories. As far as our genes are concerned, reproduction is the whole point.
What does this mean in today’s world? Dare I say that much research suggests that what men seek from women and what women seek from men are very different. Even our caveman, when seeking a mate, looked for maximum reproductive potential, a 0:7 waist to hip ratio and young symmetrical features, while our cavewoman looked for an older male who could provide and would take risks but be altruistic, dependable and faithful, with a square jaw and broad shoulders desirable but not essential.
To look into psychology and reproduction from an evolutionary perspective can be quite fascinating. But, unlike my dog, there is one major difference: we as humans have the ability to reason, and it is this ability to reason and be rational that can lead us to overcome instinct and ultimately evolution. Worth a thought.

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