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A Talk by David Lykken

DAVID LYKKEN: How is that some scientists, psychologists like Leon Kamin, biologists like Steven Rose, even the odd geneticist like Richard Lewontin, or the odd paleontologist like Stephen Gould, continue to believe with John Locke that the infant human mind is a tabula rasa. How can they suppose that baby brains are as alike as new Macintosh computers fresh from the factory; indeed, even more alike because the computers at least have operating systems and various ROMs already installed? How can anyone imagine that, sometime in the Pleistocene, evolution mysteriously stopped, but just for one sub-system of one mammalian genus, the nervous system of the genus homo?

Without postulating that we possess ancestral inclinations, slowly acquired over many millennia, how could one explain why children tend to shy away from snakes and spiders but not from guns or electric sockets, which are much more dangerous? When the Minnesota Twins won the World Series in 1987 and again in 1991, when "our boys" had defeated those invaders from the National League, why did nearly four million Minnesotans, most of whom had never seen a game, proudly think that something wonderful had happened? When the Gulf War ended and "our boys" had killed a lot of Iraqis so the Sultan of Kuwait could return from the Riviļæ½ra to rebuild his palaces, the entire U.S. Congress stood, some on their seats or desks, to cheer President Bush for his accomplishment. Those senators and representatives were not play-acting to impress their constituents; they really felt proud (but why?).

Romantic love, which anthropologists once thought had been invented by French poets in the middle ages, is now known to have characterized virtually every traditional society of which we have records. The other great apes do not experience infatuation because they do not need to pair bond. The baby chimps cling to their mother's fur and she can provide for their care and sustenance without any help from the unknown father. But when our ancestors began producing those big-headed, altricial babies that needed several years of constant carrying and oversight, more than the mothers could manage on their own, some sort of attachment had to be invented to persuade the fathers to help out. It turns out that, over all known societies that permit divorce, the modal length of marriage for those couples who eventually split is just four years; the fast-setting superglue of romantic infatuation lasts just long enough for Junior to be sturdy on his feet.

Identical twins, whose tastes are remarkably similar in all other respects, are about as likely to be charmed by their cotwin's romantic choice as by some passing stranger of the same age and gender. The spouses of identical twins, infatuated with Twin A at the time they meet Twin B, are no more inclined to "fall for" Twin B, the clone of their beloved, than for the boy (or girl) across the street. Natural selection had millions of years in which to fashion pair bonding in eagles and wolves but it was a hurry-up job for the early hominids. My guess is that the mechanism used in our case was similar to that which produces imprinting in ducks and geese.

In their London debate, "The Two Steves" (Pinker and Rose) alluded briefly to why human parents love their babies. Pinker, a sensible evolutionary psychologist, thinks it is probably because those ancestral parents who were not somehow motivated to nurture their offspring were unlikely to have grandchildren and thus to become ancestors. I was never clear about what Rose thinks. But a more interesting question is why do Americans spend billions annually on dogs and cats and other pets? Assuming Pinker is correct, as assuredly he is, would natural selection continue fiddling with the machinery until parents felt nurturant about their own genetic offspring only? For some seals and sea birds that operate giant collective nurseries, where the young may wander off from their mothers, it appears that both mothers and offspring have evolved olfactory methods of identifying one another. But for most mammals, including the featherless bipeds, the danger of a parent "wasting" effort nurturing an unrelated baby was low enough so that a more precise targeting of maternal affection was unnecessary. The selection pressure favoring the more discriminating mothers was not great enough to produce a species change. Natural selection is parsimonious. It continues just long enough to fashion the ROM or module required to accomplish the necessary result in the environment of evolutionary adaptation.

A recent news report tells of a lost dog that had been fitted with a radio collar and was finally located in the den of a mother bear. Each time the dog started to emerge in response to his master's call, the bear gently drew him back again to his new home. My wife and I, like millions of others of our species, are more like the bears than we are like seals in this respect. In most jurisdictions, a person who kills a neighbor's dog or cat is treated by the law like someone who destroyed the neighbor's lawn mower. If law-makers understood evolutionary psychology (or human pet owners) better, the offense would be treated much more seriously. My bull terrier is to me much more like my adopted child, if I had one, than like my lawn mower.

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