If you have ever read a lot of what passes for evolutionary psychology these days, you know that many of the field’s practitioners are in love with a vision of early humanity that can only be described as vicious and brutal. You know, man clubs food, man clubs woman, woman cowers in cave while making mastadon stew and popping out baby after cave baby, oog oog booga. The underlying idea of most of these arguments is that men should be permitted to behave as atrociously as they want because they are genetically programmed to be assholes. (Dudes, please tell me this offends you as much as it offends me.)
A really good example of evopsych gone waaaaay wrong is an article for Psychology Today, written by Dr. Satoshi Kanawaza, in which he asks the pressing question that is on everyone’s mind: “Why are black women less physically attractive than other women?”
It’s enough to make even the most mild-mannered lady go all FEMINIST HULKSMASH on the world.
Fortunately not everyone buys into this commonly-held vision of early humanity. In “Born to Run,” Chris McDougall pretty much calls all that out as steaming piles of dork-shaped horseshit. In his book, McDougall says the humanoid species that actually clubbed animals to death is, surprise!, not the humanoid species from which we descended. In fact, we out-competed the animal-clubbing Neanderthals, despite being smaller and not as strong and probably not even as smart. How did we do this? By running our prey to death
This theory is known as “endurance running hypothesis“:
Most mammals can sprint faster than humans — having four legs gives them the advantage. But when it comes to long distances, humans can outrun almost any animal. Because we cool by sweating rather than panting, we can stay cool at speeds and distances that would overheat other animals. On a hot day, the two scientists wrote, a human could even outrun a horse in a 26.2-mile marathon.
Why would evolution favor the distance runner? The prevailing theory is that endurance running allowed primitive humans to incorporate meat into their diet. They may have watched the sky for scavenging birds and then run long distances to reach a fresh kill and steal the meat from whatever animal was there first.
(Quick aside: I’m the dog-mom to a greyhound, which is pretty much one of the definitive running mammals. Evan could probably outsprint me, but he tires quickly and cannot cool himself down. I suspect I could easily outrun him over longer distances, which tells me that my body is meant to run as much as his is, if not more so.)
The early-humanity theory McDougall advances, which goes along with endurance running hypothesis, is one that is a bit more egalitarian than the idea that men provided food while women provided babies and clean caves:
“Women have really been underrated,” Dr. [Dennis] Bramble [an evolutionary biologist at the University of Utah] said. “They’ve been evolutionarily shortchanged. We perpetuate this notion that they were sitting around waiting for the men to come back with food, but there’s no reason why women couldn’t be part of the hunting party. Actually, it would be weird if women weren’t hunting alongside the men, since they’re the ones who really need the meat. The human body benefits most from meat protein during infancy, pregnancy and lactation, so why wouldn’t women get as close to the beef supply as possible?”
McDougall writes about ultrarunner Kami Semick, who carries her four-year-old daughter in a backpack while running trails, and another ultrarunner who ran the Hardrock 100 while stopping at every aid station to breastfeed her son. His point is that childbearing and childrearing are not feats that necessarily require a woman be stationary.
Think about all of the junk psychology and crap pop science that uses the Violent Cavemen theory of early human life to explain our modern lives. Think about how it is used to explain everything from dating to sexual violence, how this inherently unequal theory of humanity guides so much of our common discourse about ourselves.
Imagine if that went all away, and was instead replaced by this vision of early human life:
I could see a band of hunters – young and old, male and female – running tirelessly across the grasslands. The women are up front, leading the way toward fresh tracks they spotted while foraging, and hard behind are the old men, their eyes on the ground and their minds inside a kudu skull half a mile ahead. Crowding their heels are teens eager to soak up tips. The real muscle hangs back; the guys in their twenties, the strongest runners and hunters, watching the lead trackers and saving their strength for the kill. And bringing up the rear? The Kami Semicks of the savannah, toting their kids and grandkids.
No one is stashed away from public life. No one is deemed only worthwhile for childbearing or for hunting. No one is given a free pass on violent behavior. Everyone takes part. Everyone is essential.
So what does this mean for so-called ‘traditional’ life? I’ll tell you what I think, which is that ‘traditional’ life is not as natural as its proponents say it is. What is natural? A society in which all members are valued for their contributions, in which all members hang together and work hard for the sake of the group. An egalitarian society is what’s natural.
I strongly believe that all liberation movements – be it feminism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-poverty, gay rights – are as much a part of our natural heritage as human beings as violence, hate and oppression. The inclinations for both are buried deep inside of our hearts and minds, and the dueling impulses play out all over the world. It’s why we hear about kindness and solidarity in refugee camps and abuse taking place within activist groups and religious organizations. The question is, which inclination are we going to allow to dominate?
I have no idea if Bramble and McDougall’s vision of early humanity is true. I’m not a paleontologist or an evolutionary psychologist or a researcher of any sort. I know that this vision appeals to me because it correlates with my own dreams and ideas for the world around us. I’m woman enough to admit my biases. But I’ll tell you why else it appeals to me – because it gives us alternatives. It tell us that we are not fighting a Sisyphean battle when we seek social justice and liberation. It tells us that another world is indeed possible.