When evolutionary rewards backfire


I wrote here about how, by following our intuitions, we shouldn’t go wrong. Yet there is a problem with this. In the past these intuitions made sense because the world was different then: high calorific food, safe places to live and beautiful women were hard to come by. We had to look high and low for sweet things like fruit and honey. We had to track animals for days before we could corner them and spear them. We had to fight other tribes who wanted the same fertile, sheltering piece of ground that we also wanted. And we had to marry the daughter of our neighbour before she would agree to have sex with us.

That has all changed. In modern life we can have all those things without going through any of the hardships. We can go to McDonalds every day of the year and buy a Double-Quarter Pounder with cheese and a chocolate Milkshake. This is why we are fat. We can live in a safe place without having to fight or even be ready to fight. This is why we are fat, weak and often stupid. And we can have sex with lots of girls without having to marry any of them! This is why we often shun marriage until attractive people no longer want to have sex with us and we feel lonely. Then we want to marry.

One by-product of the uncoupling of sex and marriage is that attractive men tend to get lots of sex while ugly ones get none. In the old days when you had to officially pair off before you could have sex, the beautiful and the ugly alike all ended up with partners. But since it is no longer necessary to get married before having sex, handsome men can have all the sex they want with as many women as they want and not commit to any of them. And ugly men end up with nothing. Since women can have sex with handsome men and know that the state will help them financially with any children that result from these liaisons, there is little pressure for women to settle for an ugly but reliable man. The state has taken the place of the male provider and thereby tendered the only thing that made reliable men attractive to prospective wives obsolete.

Even so, it is women who are the main losers in all this. Since men no longer need to get married to have sex, they often choose not to. Thus women, who have traditionally had most to gain from marriage, now often end up either as single parents or just plain single.

You might have thought that all this pleasure without commitment would have made men and women happier, even if their children aren’t. Yet it seems that few adults are happy with this arrangement for long. Looking at a food analogy will show us why. Picking only the good bits from a relationship and shunning the more difficult part is like eating the icing but leaving the rest of cake. The icing was supposed to be an extra, not the main dish. Similarly, life’s pleasures were evolution’s way of rewarding us for acting in the right way. They tempted us into doing what was good for the continuance of our genes. These pleasures were just the decoration, the sugar to help the medicine go down. Now we take the sugar and leave the medicine. We try to build a life out of mere decorations and are surprised when these turn out not to have enough substance to hold a life together.


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