Human Behavior – Active vs Passive and the concept of a default state

oakleyBefore I get into this article too deeply, I want to make a comment on the distinction between an excuse and an explanation. As I fumble around with the ideas for this post in my head I realize that there is a decent chance that I will touch on some contentious issues. I want to clarify that any explanation I give for a behavior, social construct, or belief or anything really is not in any way an excuse for that behavior. However, if the explanation holds any truth, it has value despite its “political correctness”, because without true understanding of the factors contributing to an issue there is no hope of ever actually resolving that issue. This post seeks to explain, and I hope the explanations I explore here help you to consider new or different approaches to the problems you see in the world.

Human beings are, and have been, shaped by evolution the same as any other organism on the planet.  Despite more recent arguments that we may have broken free of the constraints of most natural selective pressures through science and technology, we have an extraordinarily long history of selective pressure that starts well before our ancestors could even be considered human. The important thing to remember is that human behavior has been shaped by these pressures as much as our bodies.

Earlier today on reddit there was a discussion surrounding the sharpshooter Annie Oakley. During the Spanish American War Annie Oakley volunteered to fight, along with 50 other women.  They were already trained and proposed to supply their own arms and ammunition.  Their offer was subsequently denied.  One user sarcastically jokes about bullets fired by women doing less damage as a possible explanation regarding why their offer to fight was denied/ignored.

But let’s look closer at the situation through an evolutionary lens. For an absurdly long time women were the lifeblood of each and every community. One reasonably good measure of a primitive tribe or village’s health was the number of women of childbearing age and the ratio of these women to the men of reproductive age in the community.  This is can be explored through some basic math.  If you have a small tribal group that has undergone some calamity, be it famine, pestilence , or war, and your population dwindles to 20 people, 10 of whom are old, this leaves you with 10 people capable of “rebuilding “ the tribe. If these 10 people are comprised of 9 females and one male  the tribal group is capable of producing up to 9 children a year for a while and rebuilding its population.

However, if those 10 people are made up of 9 males and one female, the tribe can produce only 1 child per year for a limited amount of time, this kills the community.

Because of this, we can explain the circumstances that would lead to males engaging in protective behaviors towards females, even to extreme levels including self-sacrifice, especially when they identify that woman or group of women as belonging to their in-group.

This is why men are often uncomfortable with seeing women in dangerous situations, it sets off an alarm in the primitive parts of our brains responsible for pro-social behavior that should positively affect the health of the community at large. This is why a group of extremely competent women volunteered to go to into battle, effectively supplying their own training and materials reducing their cost to the war effort to zero, were effectively ignored. Because to the men involved in the situation the cost was not zero, the cost was the potential loss of reproductive value to their tribe. Taking a protective stance towards women is the males default state.

This does not excuse the behavior, nor does it mean that in today’s world (or even in the past) considering a woman’s value to be first and foremost her reproductive value is at all acceptable. But it does explain the behavior and it introduces the concept of the default or passive state.

Human beings are incredibly complex and we come with some incredibly complex behavior sets that have been ingrained in us for hundreds of thousands of years. There is a reason why most people get creeped out by spiders and heights, and why people tend to overeat when they have access to excessive amounts of cheap calories. Because  these reactions are the default state. These are the reactions that we have been programed with by the trials of time. There is, however, good news. Just because these are the default state does not mean that we are destined to behave the way we are  programmed forever without fail. We can choose to limit our calorie intake, we can choose to overcome our fear of heights and creepy crawlies, and we can choose to move past outdated social constructs and behaviors that no longer provide the benefit they once did.

The trick, I think, is in recognizing the situation for what it is. Without an accurate understanding of the contributing factors to a situation, it is more difficult than necessary to enact any kind of change. I don’t think many people would be outraged by the suggestion that our evolutionary history is a large contributing factor to the obesity epidemic in the world. However, the suggestion that maybe some of the undesirable social behaviors are equally influenced by our past never seems to be given the same level of consideration or acceptance and is sometimes met with hostility, thus my decision to include the little disclaimer at the beginning of this.

This general idea of a default behavioral state is an interesting one and something I hope to explore in future posts. I think that this general concept may be a better way of framing my earlier article regarding race and culture as well as other issues such as conservation, other gender issues, and general human conflict.

What are your thoughts?

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