Wisdom from your local zoo

Updating Dear Abby and Ann Landers, a British newspaper has engaged an evolutionary agony aunt. 
Denyse O'Leary | 1 March 2010
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When Britain’s Guardian newspaper first introduced its “evolutionary agony aunt”, this writer thought - a spoof for sure. But where evolutionary psychology is concerned, it can be genuinely hard to tell.

No spoof. The Guardian burbled proudly, “A mere 150 years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, we are proud to introduce our very own Evolutionary Agony Aunt” in the person of Carole Jahme, author of Beauty and the Beasts: Woman, Ape and Evolution and star of comedy Carole Jahme is Sexually Selected, described as a combination of Charles Darwin and Charlie Chaplin. We were told that her column will shine the “cold light” of evolutionary psychology on readers’ problems, in sharp contrast to the glossy magazines.

Carole counsels her troubled readers by citing the behaviour of chimpanzees, other apes, and monkeys. And with what result?

Reading through the advice, the first thing that struck this reader was that the “evolution” stuff is spectacularly uninformative. Carole’s advice is not uniformly bad. Sometimes it is good. For example, she advises a “too-nice” man looking to settle down with a suitable woman,

I'm guessing you are dating women of a similar age to yourself; past girlfriends may have said you are too nice, but they were not at the settling-down stage in their life. When you get into your thirties women looking for long-term commitment will be attracted to your naturally cooperative personality. Having a "gsoh" (that's "good sense of humour" in Lonely Hearts parlance) is considered to be a desirable social skill, so brush up on your repertoire of jokes and stop worrying!
Good approach, Carole, but grandma could have told him that.

Sometimes, however, Carole’s advice is misguided. For example, she informs a woman who doesn’t like “people coming round to my house ‘for a drink’”,

All humans are located somewhere on the autistic spectrum. The closer your personality is to the autistic end of the spectrum, and disorders including Asperger’s syndrome and full-blown autism, the more inflexible you are likely to be about people “coming around for a drink”. The closer you are to the empathic end of the spectrum the more likely it is that you will exhibit a flexible social benevolence irrespective of reciprocity.
Hmmm. Drive-by, shout-in diagnoses of this type can do real harm. A competent advisor proceeds much more cautiously. After all, what do we know about the “coming round for a drink” crowd in this advice seeker’s life? Maybe her caution, whether gleaned from evolution or personal experience, is wise.

Some of the information Carole gleans from evolutionary psychology is quite simply untrue. For example, we learn, “Young children have opinions - they are wired for survival and will ask for changes that benefit themselves.” Well sometimes. Usually, they ask for whatever they happen to want, wise or otherwise. Many throw tantrums if they don’t get it.

But, in virtually every case, Carole’s advice would be more relevant and concise if she just left out all the ritual padding about chimps, bonobos, etc. At no point does it shed any new light on the problems the readers are concerned about, nor are any chimps or bonobos writing Carole about their problems.

The hand of popular culture is far more evident in the series than the paw prints of common ancestors. In her first column, addressing a woman who can’t decide between two men, Carole advises that “some Darwinists might say” that she her best approach is to commit surreptitious adultery. After all, “A worldwide study of sexual preferences revealed that females feel more secure if they have a mate in reserve. It seems you have the best of both worlds.”

Or the worst, if one or both of those guys find out - historically, it is a reliable way for a woman to get herself killed. And in fairness Carole does warn her. Still, we are also informed, in the next reply that “We have not evolved to stay with one mate for the whole of our adult lives.”

But Carole’s tone changes abruptly when the advice seeker is a guy who wants to fool around. Suddenly, the agony aunt is all a lather of concern for the poor wife, and we learn that “The sentiments of love and guilt are not Christian hangovers, they are evolved, higher cognitive emotions. These sentiments are adapted to best guide us through life.” Whatever the problem is, evolutionary psychology can not only explain it, but explain it within the comfort zone of the glossy women’s mags.

Throughout, the light of evolutionary psychology seems not so much cold as dim. The series was sent up by Polo Blacke-Golde in the Hastings Center’s Bioethics forum, as “The Evolution of Dear Abby”. He noted:

Take some space from daily stresses for personal reflection, you tell one reader, to figure out what you want from life. It sure is a good thing we have chimps to teach us the value of quiet contemplation – the Zen tradition, the mental health literature, and common sense are obviously of no use on that. You must be scouring only the most practical resources to help each inquirer.
Mid-twentieth century “Dear Abby” is an interesting choice because if there is one thing usually missing from the Evolutionary Agony files, it is common sense, for which Abby was famous, as her sister and fellow advice columnist Ann Landers was for “Wake Up and Smell the Coffee” humour

Call it devolution, if you want.

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

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