Egalitarianism & Arrogance

When men are most sure and arrogant, they are commonly the most mistaken, and have then given views to passion, without that proper deliberation and suspense which can alone secure them from the grossest absurdities.”                            – David Hume


Person 1: “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’ ”

Person 2: “True, but there is an ‘M’ and an ‘E.’ ” 

On occasion, I have been arrogant at times in my life. To be fair to myself, I believe such episodes have been rare, and most people who know me would probably describe me as introverted, possibly even timid. More than once, I have been told that I am “too nice” and overly conciliatory. During my pre-tenure review, one committee member told me that my autobiographical narrative was too modest, and that “in academia you need to toot your own horn because nobody else is going to do it for you.” That’s probably true in most fields, but it often makes me uneasy. And if you spent some time in the cacophony in my head, you’d see there is plenty of self-doubt and insecurity in here (you’re better off not doing that). Still, like everyone else, I am complex, and have had enough instances of arrogance that they irritate me and force me to consider from where they originate.

I bring this up now because I’ve been reading about hunter-gatherer societies, and was reminded of this famous passage from the anthropologist Richard Lee (1979) on egalitarianism in the !Kung of Namibia and Botswana.

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Biology: The Science of Exceptions

[Edit: July, 2018. Every year, I get a large number of visitors from Nepal and Bhutan on this post. Welcome, everyone. I’m just curious why this seems to happen every year at the same time. Could someone please let me know? It would help me understand how this site is being used, particularly if it’s for educational purposes. Thank you.]

Biology is sometimes referred to as “the science of exceptions.” A few recently reported examples from the study of animal behavior (i.e., ethology) help to bolster that reputation.

The first instance has probably received the most attention simply because it’s just so cool. It’s a video from Russia of some type of wild corvid (others have said it is most likely a hooded crow) that appears to snowboard down a roof. It does this multiple times by sliding on a small unidentified object under its feet, picking it up with its beak when it gets to the bottom of the roof, then flying back to the top to do it again. See for yourself.

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Part 5. Humans are (Blank) -ogamous: Pair-Bonding and Romantic Love

This is the fifth part on the evolution of human mating behavior, comparing evidence for promiscuity and pair-bonding in our species. Please see the introduction here.


One of these days I will wake up – which I think I have done already – and realize to myself that I really do love. I find it very difficult to allow my whole life to rest on the existence of another creature. I find it equally difficult, because of my innate arrogance, to believe in the idea of love. There is no such thing, I say to myself. There is lust, of course, and usage, and jealousy, and desire and spent powers, but no such thing as the idiocy of love. Who invented that concept? I have wracked my shabby brains and can find no answer. (Letter from Richard Burton to Elizabeth Taylor)

“Emotions and motivations (are) hierarchically ordered in the brain. Fear can overcome joy, for example. Jealousy can stifle tenderness…But in this pecking order of basic and complex emotions, background feelings and powerful drives, romantic love holds a special place: close to the zenith, the pinnacle, the top. Romantic love can dominate the drive to eat and sleep. It can stifle fear, anger, or disgust. It can override one’s sense of duty to family or friends. It can even triumph over the will to live. As Keats said, ‘I could die for you.’ ” (Helen Fisher 2004: 97-8)

“Only love can leave such a mark / But only love can heal such a scar.” (Paul Hewson)

Attempting to summarize the evolution of romantic love and pair-bonding in humans is an enormous task. This is exacerbated by many complications: the literature on these topics is vast; the term ‘pair-bond’ has been used in different ways by different primatologists in the past and is often erroneously confused with ‘monogamy’; the neurobiology of romantic love – which is not a prerequisite of pair-bonding – is complex; the question of when/if humans became pair-bonded in our evolutionary history is highly speculative; and then there is the complicating factor of culture. Furthermore, parts two through four in this series addressed ten biological traits indicating that humans have promiscuity built into us to some degree, and that monogamy, or at least lifelong monogamy, does not come easily.

Gibbons (Hylobates lar). From Wikipedia.

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Part 4. Humans are (Blank) -ogamous: Promiscuity & Physiology

This is the fourth part on the evolution of human mating behavior, comparing evidence for promiscuity and pair-bonding in our species. Please see the introduction here.



We left off with a list of eight traits in humans suggesting promiscuity in humans. Admittedly, the previous post was a little thick, as it dealt with imprinted genes and population genetics. The current one concerns human reproductive physiological and anatomical traits consistent with a multiple-partner mating structure, building on a couple of points addressed by Ryan and Jethá in their book. If you’re paying attention, that’s three posts concerning promiscuity and one (yet-to-be-written) on pair-bonding. Perhaps it seems I’m stacking the deck, but please reserve judgment. One reason more space is needed to make the case for the evolution of promiscuity is that the biology is less well known, and more effort is needed to bring it into the light. That single post on pair-bonding will be an important one, and quality matters just as much as quantity.

Continuing on with our list of traits hinting at promiscuity…

9. Sexual dimorphism in body size. This point remains somewhat contentious. In the majority of anthropoid species (monkeys, apes, and humans), males are the larger sex, with the degree of dimorphism ranging from slight to extreme (Plavcan 2001). This pattern correlates strongly with mating structure and male-male competition (Plavcan and van Schaik 1997). For monogamous species like gibbons, males and females tend to be roughly the same size. In species where females prefer larger males or where males compete for access to females, bigger males will leave behind more descendants. This is true for polygynous gorillas and dispersed, territorial orangutans, where males are physically about twice as large as females. A good non-primate example is elephant seals. On the other hand are horseshoe crabs, where smaller males cling to the backs of larger females and wait for the release of her eggs. This ‘reverse dimorphism’ is found in a few primates, but is slight and only in some prosimians such as lorises and lemurs.

Former sumo wrestler Konishiki and his wife Chie Iijima, an obviously cherry-picked example of extreme dimorphism. (From

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Part 2. Humans are (Blank) -ogamous: Promiscuity

This is the second part on the evolution of human mating behavior, comparing evidence for promiscuity and pair-bonding in our species. Please see the Introduction here.


I’ll be frank. True monogamy is rare. So rare that it is one of the most deviant behaviors in biology.” (Olivia Judson 2002: 153)


In their best-selling book, Sex at Dawn, Chris Ryan and Cacilda Jethá suggest that there is a good amount of direct and circumstantial evidence that extended monogamy does not come easily for humans, and that this derives at least in part from our fairly promiscuous evolutionary history. (To clarify, they use the term ‘promiscuous’ not in a judgmental way, but merely to convey having multiple sex partners). Their main premise is that rigid monogamy became common only after our ancestors made the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture. With agriculture came an emphasis on fixed settlements, private property that could be inherited, genetic paternity, and female sexual fidelity. They argue that this stands in contrast to our hunting-gathering past, when sexual relationships were more open and not confined to an exclusive pair-bond.

Bonobo sex. From Lola ya Bonobo

Bonobo sex. From Lola ya Bonobo


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On Fatherhood: Proud Primate Papas

For Father’s Day, Scientific American compiled a series on the biology of fatherhood, including a list of 8 species where males are integral in raising offspring. Included were birds (rheas, emperor penguins), mammals (marmosets, red foxes, wolverines), fish (catfish, sea horses), and even insects (giant water bugs). For some of these species, male parental investment extends to carrying fertilized eggs until they hatch. In others, it entails postnatal protection and/or procurement of food for young offspring.

Two things stand out. First, although the list didn’t claim to be comprehensive, at just 8 examples, it seemed quite short (they couldn’t make it to ten?). In addition, there’s just something peculiar about highlighting species that exhibit good fathering skills to begin with. Consider how odd it would be to encounter a list of species where mothers care for offspring. In mammals, it seems almost tautological that parenting is associated with motherhood since they alone can gestate and lactate. However, there may be rare exceptions to this, such as lactation in male fruit bats (Kunz and Hosken, 2009), and possibly in Robert De Niro, though this issue remains unresolved. Are species with active fathers the exception to the rule? What good are males, then?

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On Optimism and ‘Human Nature’

In the last few days, I came across a couple of unrelated quotations on human nature and our internal tug-of-war between cooperation and conflict.

A 20 year-old Charles Darwin in an 1830 letter to his cousin, W.D. Fox:

It is quite curious, when thrown into contact with any set of men, how much they continue improving in ones good opinion, as one gets ackquainted (sic) with them. This was an argument used, in a religious point of view, by a very clever Clergyman in Shrews. to encourage sociability (he himself being very fond of society), for he said that the good always preponderates over the bad in every persons character, & he thought, the most social men were generally the most benevolent, & had the best opinion of human nature. I have heard my father mention this as a remarkably good observation, & I quite agree with him.

In “East of Eden,” John Steinbeck wrote:

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