Nearly every day I hear, read, or see the latest news story about how the human brain is hard-wired to make all humans act in one particular way or another. These stories annoy me because:
- They emphasize that all humans are the same and ignore the fact that we’re all unique and, to a large degree, unpredictable.
- They imply that humans are unlikely to change or deviate from one another.
- They repeatedly claim we’re all hard-wired despite the fact that the human brain has NO WIRES.
Even worse, at the bottom of most of these “Your brain is hard-wired” stories is a mythical evolutionary explanation. This annoys me even more . . . because when it comes to everyday human behavior, evolution makes for very bad explanations. But if you’re listening to what pundits and scientists say in the media, you’d be inclined to believe the opposite of what’s really true about humans.
For mysterious reasons, many scientists—especially evolutionary scientists—want to put humans in a box. They suggest and imply and assert that human behavior is predictable. But the truth is that—apart from breathing—there are very few predictable human behaviors. As decades of controlled psychological experiments have shown, even under laboratory conditions where little choice is possible, scientific predictions typically account for no more that 30-40% of the variation in human behavior. This means that humans are 60-70% unpredictable . . . even under highly controlled conditions.
Aside from being mostly wrong, simple evolutionary and biological explanations for human behavior also often are translated into messages that are generally unhealthy for society. Let’s take one big example.
An especially popular media and science topic is male sexual behavior. The argument usually goes like this: Over millions of years males have become hardwired to be attracted to fertility and novelty in sexual partners. This is because . . . the argument continues . . . males seek to perpetuate their gene-pool. This is why, they say, males are attracted to younger females who exhibit signs of reproductive health. This also explains why males—especially young males—are driven to have sex with multiple female partners.
Given current U.S. social problems—think sexual assault and high divorce rates—it makes little sense to promote the mostly false ideas that males seek sexual novelty to perpetuate their gene pool. This information is unhelpful to women who want safe and stable relationships with men and it’s unhelpful to the majority of men who—in contradiction to evolutionary theory—want safe and monogamous intimate relationships with women (or other men).
Most of the time, most males engage in sexual behavior that’s not at all designed to spread their seed or perpetuate their gene pool. Young men are often strongly motivated to NOT get their girlfriends pregnant. Recent data indicate that many young men are NOT especially interested in engaging in indiscriminate sexual behavior.
Even in a 2011 research study at Syracuse University, 333 undergraduate males apparently hadn’t gotten the memo about being hardwired to want sex with novel partners. When asked, whether they could “. . . imagine themselves enjoying casual sex” these young men showed an average response that was largely in the “undecided” range. Think about that: males from 18-22 years-old at Syracuse University couldn’t really decide if they might enjoy casual sex. This is good news. And it’s not consistent with evolutionary-based myths about contemporary young men.
In the same study, 300+ Syracuse University women reported—in direct contradiction to evolutionary theory—that they had been engaging in casual sexual encounters at approximately the same rate as the males.
And so next time you hear or read or view a media story about how millions of years of evolution explains why human males or females behave one way or another, remember that many immediate conditions can and do override evolutionary-based predictions. Evolution is a generality that may or may not apply to a single organism living in the 21st century. Evolution does not trump choice. And that’s the point: Your choices tomorrow will have much more to do with the situations you’re facing today (and that you’re anticipating tomorrow) than they’ll have to do with yesterday.