I have been thinking a lot about public policy, welfare, support of the indigent, and the growth of the underclass in industrial societies, mostly to prepare for this meeting. Public discussion and journalism routinely identify people as “right wing” or “left wing”. My reaction is that most public commentary—on both the right and the left—is hardly worth our attention.
Some trends that I find particularly distressing are outlined by Charles Murray and Robert Putnam in a youtube video which we discussed in a previous post. Both Murray and Putnam describe growing numbers of the underclass in this country with their failure of community and family organization. Single mothers are normative. Both speakers focus on white people: Murray explicitly restricts his recent book to ‘White America’ while Putnam’s new book is ethnographic in style about his own home town, again mostly white. Is there a way out of the trends they describe through social engineering?
Neither Murray nor Putnam have much in the way of policy suggestions. Murray identifies increasing isolation between the prosperous and the impoverished and the failure of the prosperous to advocate their own moral and social values to the to the poor. Putnam advocates a Soviet style system of public education in which teachers assume the duties and roles of parents, starting with early childhood education.
Politicians, journalists, and education advocates agonize a lot about issues of our social future but most of it is wordspeak and twaddle. Many politicians are shameless vote chasers with no principles, journalists seek sensation and scandal, and educators have had no real accomplishments in a century. What would be the outcome if social engineers understood evolution? Does biology have a contribution to make to the solution of do our social and economic problems?
The reasoning would go like this (straight from freshman biology): diploid organisms are shaped by evolution to generate copies of their DNA. In order to make these copies a diploid organism has to allocate energy and risk to competing demands of (a) growth and maintenance and (b) reproduction. Reproduction has two parts, mating and parenting. This allocation is the stuff of life history theory. The allocation problem is complicated by the presence of two sexes that are designed differently. This is especially so in mammals: internal gestation, mammary glands, and prolonged immaturity indicate of the commitment of females to bear the brunt of reproductive effort. Fish, for example, are not engineered in this way. In fish species where males mouth brood, mama fish is free to shed some eggs and abandon dad and the kids to continue her partying unimpeded.
Humans exhibit a diversity of strategy “choices” that are solutions to the allocation problem between mating and parenting. Males can devote most of their effort to mating effort, usually involving competition with other males. Male commitment to parenting effort is not common in mammals but there are familiar examples like beavers, coyotes, gibbons, and some humans. In the jargon the polar strategies of male mammals are called “cad” and “dad” strategies.
Females have a more restricted set of strategy choices because of their engineered commitment to parenting. At one extreme a human female can seek a dadly male who provides resources like food and protection to their joint offspring. At the other extreme, a human female can pay little or no attention to her mate choice, instead letting the guys work things out. In the jargon these female alternatives are called “coy” and “fast”.
You can find a more detailed account of this game between the human sexes works in a chapter of our book (that the editor discarded as “too academic”) on our website here. Briefly we are likely to find dad males/coy females in ecological situations where male labor and resources are critical for successful reproduction. Think of labor-intensive agriculture, European peasants and Asian farmers, as examples. In the United States in the past, “working class” meant stable mated pairs who together provisioned and cared for children. An archetype of working class in American television was Archie Bunker.
Social organization with cad males and fast females is found prominently among tropical gardeners where women provide most of the food for themselves and their children as well as for the men, who are often just parasites on the women. The euphemism in economics for these societies is “female farming systems”. These share many characteristics with our industrial “underclass” in which women have no ecological force pushing them into long term stable pair bonds.
Notice that in each of the above descriptions there are two hands clapping: in cad/fast social systems neither a coy female nor a dad male does very well while in dad/coy systems neither a fast females nor a cad male does very well. The two polar social types are deeply rooted in contemporary politics. The zany feminism of the 1980s (“a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”) precisely advocated the cad/fast setup. Our religious right with its chatter about “the natural family” and “stable marriages” and the like pushes hard for a dad/coy world.
Back to our social engineers who know biology. They share a goal of a society in which dad males mate with coy females because children enjoy the care and security of a stable home and streets safe from gunfire. The new policy is simple: welfare payments are to be given only to males.
This policy would mimic, they think, the ecology of most dad/coy societies. How would this work out? In a new post we can imagine how the new policy can be modified when the engineers are given a sense of human decency and responsibility for human well being.
Part II to follow ……