by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright January 2006
Intelligently designed or not, the more I look at the human body, the more I'm impressed with the numerous changes that had to be made to come up with the modern human design from whatever the original "generic four-footed mammal” base design was that all mammals sprang from.
We are all familiar with the often discussed differences: Big brains, opposable thumbs, walking on two legs instead of four, and language. But there are some other differences that are a bit subtler, but equally fun to think about: The "flat man", “big males”, and "bride-and-matron" thinking.
If you look at a human walking down the street compared with, say, a dog walking down the street, you can see that the human design is "flatter" -- the torso and hips are shallow compared to the usual four-footed animal design. As I looked at a few humans walking down the street (it happened to be a nice day for doing so when I was thinking about this), I thought about how many things had to change to get this "flat look". Human lungs had to become shallower, the position of the heart and other internal organs had to move closer to the spine, and the anchoring tendons that hold the organs in the right places had to change from holding things hanging down from a horizontal spine, to holding things hanging sideways, lying next to a vertical spine. And, in fact, it may be this difference in which way things hang which has driven human bodies to get flatter. It may be that the flat design reduces the leverage tendons need to hold the organs in their proper places, and this reduces the mass of muscle and tendon support structure required.
Whatever its cause, the result is a thousand-and-one little changes to the basic mammal design, and that's amazing. It's amazing because those thousand-and-one changes had to follow the big event -- upright walking -- they could not lead that event. Basically, someone, or something, in the Evolution Design Department had to say, “Bad as pre-humans are at it, upright walking is already better for them than four-legged walking, so they are now going to do it whenever they can." Only then could the thousand-and-one design choices to improve upright walking ability make sense and be added to the basic human design. Humans walked upright, then got flat, not vice versa.
Big males are an oddity of mammals, as compared to birds, fish, insects, and reptiles. In most animal species, the females are larger than the males. Having big males seems to be an oddity of using the testosterone/estrogen hormone system for sex determination. In most of life’s circumstances, having large males is a weakly negative characteristic. It's weak because making eggs takes more energy than making sperm, so the egg makers should be bigger, so they have more body resource to make eggs with.
Where size does make a bigger difference is when a species becomes highly cooperative. In a highly cooperative situation, the bigger members of the species are going to lead the cooperative structure. In the case of bees and wasps -- insects -- the females are larger, and they dominate the cooperative system. In the case of humans -- mammals -- the males are larger, and they dominate the cooperative structure. It is this oddity of the testosterone/estrogen sex hormone system -- growing big males -- that has produced the human patriarchy that is common in human communities.
Less obvious than flat bodies and big males are some subtleties of thinking that are likely to be distinctively human.
In the generic mammal, the adults engage in dominance disputes. The females dispute within a loosely cooperative matriarchy, while the males tend to go it alone until mating season comes. When mating season comes, the males will join the females and dominate them for a while, and fight with other males who want to do the same.
The children of these generic mammals don't engage in dominance disputes with the adults; they are submissives and cooperators. They are submissives and cooperators because this lets them survive better while they need adult help. The adults encourage this submissive and cooperative behavior in their children by nourishing them when they are submissive and cooperative. They do it because it helps the species survive. The result is, in the average mammal species, the children are submissive and cooperative, but as the child matures into an adult, its thinking process transforms from submissive and cooperative to either dominance-seeking and weakly cooperative (female) or dominance-seeking and even less cooperative except during mating season (male).
This transformation of thinking from child thinking to adult thinking is straightforward and widely applicable, so it is deeply wired into most mammals. Even our close relatives, the chimpanzees, think this way. This is why baby chimps are amicable and easy for humans to work with, but the adults are not -- even those adults who as children were raised with humans. Once a chimp starts thinking like an adult, it slips into dominance-checking thinking patterns, and it becomes "untrustworthy" -- it will attack humans to find out where it ranks with them, and it will try very hard to win when it does attack.
One of the hard lessons humans have had to learn to become human-as-we-know-it-today is how to stay cooperative even as adults. I suspect this was a difficult reprogramming task, and it's likely not completed. I suspect moving from hunting and gathering into the Agricultural Age pushed this change towards adult cooperation very hard, and the rate at which human communities could make the thinking change may have set the limit on how fast mankind could progress from being a collection of Neolithic agrarian communities into an advanced civilization.
As farming developed, it was beneficial for humans to learn to cooperate. But it's not that simple, either! Here is another subtlety to add to the mix, one that likely predated farming by a million years: The complexity of human child raising.
One of the other distinctive features of human living is assisted childbirth and assisted child raising. Both of these require close cooperation between the females and other members of the community. Both are greatly benefited if males, as well as females, assist. It has been pointed out in many anthropology texts that this benefit of having males close is probably the root of human females' distinctive trait of being interested in sex all year round. It is also likely the root of another distinctive behavior of human females, the one that is the heart of this article -- the transition between "bride thinking" and "matron thinking" that happens in human adult females. I will define these two terms in the next section.
I was first put on the trail of discovering the bride-matron concept by watching soap operas.
"Ohh ... He's left me for another woman!" some distraught, middle-age housewife would say, and then add in emotion-laden words, "for a younger woman!" Then she would burst into tears as her friends consoled her.
My feeling the first few times I saw this scene was, "Of course, you silly old woman! Why would he want to replace you with another one of you?"
I was a teenager when I first thought this. I got suspicious that an instinct was involved when I found myself thinking the same thing forty years later. Even today, given a choice between marrying an attractive fortysomething and an attractive twentysomething, who would a man pick? The attractiveness of hitching up with younger women for love-making is universal among humans. (A woman’s attractiveness to a man seeking wealth or power is different matter entirely.) The question is: Why has evolution supported a strong instinct to make twentysomething females seem so much more attractive as mates than fortysomething females? The answer is (envelope please ... rip ...) the difference between bride thinking and matron thinking.
Historically, when a woman is of childbearing age and bearing children, she needs a lot of help. She is either pregnant, raising young children, or both. To get this help, she needs to be cooperative, and the community has to be receptive to cooperating with her. She needs the help of her fellow females in the community, and she needs the help of that strong male who is going to win her bread for her, as well as other males in the community. To get this help, she needs to be cooperative and attractive enough that when she signals that she needs help, others will respond positively. Mother Nature found that the effective signal to initiate more cooperation was to extend childhood submissiveness. A woman who is thinking she wants to be motherly submits to a man (and her extended family) to become a wife (In soap opera terms, “Oh, I became a fool for you!") and submits to other women of the community to get support with her children. This is what the ritual of the baby shower is all about. At the baby shower, the other females of the community are showing their approval of the pregnancy and giving an informal pledge to cooperate. A bride-thinking woman is attractive because, even though she is an adult, she is still willing to be a submissive.
Later, as the woman gains experience and as her nest empties, she doesn't need the intense cooperation she did when she was younger, so her thinking can change to "mammal-standard" for her age. Several things happen as the young mother ages: First, the mother becomes experienced -- she knows what’s going on, and her body has learned how to deal with pregnancy and child raising. Second, her children are getting older. The oldest are transforming from helpless into little helpers. Third, her status in the community is changing. The result of all these changes is that a woman can engage in dominance disputes in a more mammal-standard way. She can now say, “I want my share, too!" and try to win disputes through outright confrontation.
At the same time, the community recognizes that she is no longer extra vulnerable, so they scale down their special supportive efforts and expect her to fend for herself. The woman transforms from a "bride" into a "matron" of the community, and she can transform from a "bride thinker" into a "matron thinker", too. Matron thinkers are not submissives; they are after their share AND NOT SHY ABOUT SAYING SO! Matrons are older, not-sexy ladies who dive for bus seats and push for their place on crowded elevators because the community no longer volunteers them those places, but instead owes them those places.
When the female undergoes this transformation into matron thinking, her relation to her man and the community changes. Historically, the woman would want to stay married, but she and her man would have less and less in common, and she would lose the habit of deferring to him. This begins the stage in marriage where the couple have to "work at" keeping their marriage together. In the face of this "mid-life crisis", the man would either tolerate this change and allow a lot of distance to gather between himself and his wife or pull out of the relation entirely. If the man decides to pull out of the marriage and try again, he does not look for another dominance checking, matron-thinking woman, he looks for a submissive, bride-thinking woman ... a younger woman … and the soap opera horror will enact.
Even if he does not pull out, he will be likely to look for some kind of relation with another woman who will do what his bride-thinking mate used to do: Be submissive to him and enjoy doing it. That second relation could be as innocent as an attractive, bride-age secretary pouring his coffee at work or serving him food at a restaurant, or something much more risky and involved -- there are many forms.
Meanwhile, back at the Matron Ranch ... aging women see the attention that their younger competitors are getting from both males and females of the community. Being the clever humans that they are, the matrons want their piece of this bride-protecting action. This is the driving force behind cosmetics and fashion -- women of all ages trying to get their piece of the benefits of sexy-submissive attraction, without actually being a sexy-submissive, childbearing female.
This gaming of the system by matrons who try to look younger has gone on for so long that bride-age woman have developed a defensive response -- they wear outrageous clothing. Teenage women look attractive in a much wider range of clothing than matrons do, so each teenage cohort develops a distinctive look that is hard for older women to imitate without being ridiculed.
Historically, a woman married and had her first child between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four -- a brief eight year period, a period even shorter than childhood. Being only eight years long means that a community's "bride pool" changes by twelve percent every year, a lot of change! This means that a community instinctively expects the faces in the bride pool to constantly change, and this may explain why entertainment and fashion industry beauties cycle so quickly -- the community may be comfortable seeing an actor or matron actress over and over again, but it gets uncomfortable watching the same woman for her beauty after only a few years.
The basic change that prosperity has brought to human society is to increase the amount of cooperation in the society, and make the range of cooperation much wider and more subtle. For instance, a person can now cooperate using money as a medium of cooperation in addition to family- and community-relations. One effect of this has been to liberate women -- they no longer have to subordinate themselves to a specific man or a specific community to gain the resources they need for living and child raising.
A second change has been to let society members do many more kinds of things. Men and women have many more things they can do with their lives in addition to resource gathering, nest building, and childbearing and raising. The result of these influences has been a dramatic increase in the age of marriage and childbearing and a reduction in average family size.
Given the balance of opportunities available to modern humans, this delay in childbearing and rearing may be a good thing, but it is fighting the instincts, the "hardwiring" of the human brain. Instinct says a woman is ready to bear her first child between sixteen and twenty-four -- a brief, eight year period. If a woman waits until she's thirtysomething or fortysomething to start that first child, she's doing it as a matron thinker rather than a bride thinker. This means that the child-rearing experience is going to feel a lot different for her and for the community around her. It's going to be more different than just aging ten or twenty years would account for.
In sum, a woman who delays childbearing and rearing should not be surprised that:
A man's instincts are to get involved in family-making with sexy-submissive women, not matrons, and a community tends to be instinctively surprised at child raising so late in a woman's life.
On the other hand, the neat thing about evolution is its ability to adapt. If prosperity stays with us for ten or so generations (three- to four-hundred years), then those men and women best adapted to child raising in a prosperous environment will prevail, and the gene pool will begin to shift. If the most successful breeders are those people who wait until forty to have children, and having good cooperation at that age enhances child-raising, then mankind will evolve instinctive thinking that makes fortysomethings look really sexy.
And that will make for some interesting new twists in the soap operas of four hundred years from now....
The slim, long-haired, blond twentysomething breaks into tears as her boyfriend says, “Grow up, Jane! I'm leaving you for someone older."
Update: This 9 Aug 13 WSJ article, Take Back Your Pregnancy: Modern pregnancy comes with a long list of strict rules, but does it have to? An economist examines the data and finds room for choice amid the familiar limits by Emily Oster, talks about all the prescriptive advice Emily is getting now that she is pregnant, and how little of it is based on researched fact. This is an example that shows that the community's instinctive thinking about prescribing for bride age woman is still with us and still strong.
-- The End --