Lower-Class Families and Evolutionary Psychology
By Bryan Caplan
A few more thoughts on Rodman’s Lower-Class Families:
1. There is little sign that the welfare state has anything to do with ubiquitous impulsive sexual behavior in Coconut Village. Even the neediest single moms appears to receive little or no support from the government.
2. So how do the neediest single moms cope? Rodman:
What does the woman do, however, when she has children by a man and he leaves her? The separation may “solve” the man’s financial problem if he stops supporting the woman and her children, or if he contributes less to their support after his departure. It is on this point that we can explain the child-shifting pattern in Coconut Village. Since a woman is often left alone with her children, the child-shifting pattern provides her with a solution to her problem. She cannot both care and mind her children, and so she turns their care over to a female relative while she takes on the job of minding them financially.
3. Rodman never mentions evolutionary psychology, but the residents of Coconut Village are almost explicitly Darwinian (or, more precisely, Dawkinsian). Males avow extremely high sex drives and women demand financial support for their offspring. Men promise the world early on, but quickly renege. Both men and women cheat – men with anyone who will have them, women with men who are more charming or generous. The calypso songs of the island (in a 20-page appendix!) are a memetic testament to evolutionary psychology.
4. But how could the impulsive society that Rodman describes evolve in the first place? Male libido is predictable, but why do women accept such plainly unreliable partners? The best story is probably the “sexy son hypothesis.” In Coconut Village, this amounts to: Emotional susceptibility to charming men leads women to have charming sons, which ultimately gives women extra grandchildren.
5. Does this mean that Rodman is ultimately right to claim that lower-class values are socially functional? Not at all. Evolutionary psychology doesn’t claim that human psychology benefits humanity – or any sizable subset thereof. It only claims that human psychology benefits individual human’s selfish genes.
6. Doesn’t evolutionary psychology mitigate individual blame? It is hard to see how it would. Long before Darwin, human beings have been aware that humans often have wicked impulses – and affirmed our duty not to act on these impulses. How does discovering the biological origin of these impulses in any way undermine our duty to control them?