Is Matrilineality or Matrilocality a Human Universal

For humans, matrilineality (tracing the line of family descent from mother to daughter) and matrilocality (married couples residing with the wife's family) are unusual. In most cultures the woman leaves her family and moves to the location or inside the household of the husband. We bent over backward in an attempt to find examples of this as a human universal by limiting our search to foraging peoples, since their pre-agricultural, pre-urban pattern is often more egalitarian than other modern cultures. Consulting the same atlas of cultures, we found that only 16 of the 179 hunting-and-gathering societies are matrilineal.

Thus, we must conclude that these supposed evolutionary and "genetically conservative universal" traits are neither conservative nor universal. Yet all of these traits were believed to be a product of our hunting past. Wilson figured that for more than a million years, man was a hunter and "our innate social responses have been fashioned largely through this lifestyle."18

The problem with the sociobiologists' approach to the old nature—nurture question is that they do not have any better criteria by which to formulate the key to human nature than did the earlier Social Darwinists of the Victorian era. Social Darwinism proclaimed that human morality should be based on the evolutionary process of the survival of the fittest.19 Individuals, ethnic groups, races, or societies that were most fit would survive and those that were weak would be eliminated, and this was good! Competition—especially winning through competition—was the basis of human ethics and morality. Herbert Spencer, a contemporary of Darwin and the father of Social Darwinism, argued that we should cherish the evolutionary process that allowed the fittest to survive and the inadequate to be rigorously eliminated. Robert Ardrey's proclamations on the benefits of war are reminiscent of this approach.

Sociobiologists don't find fault with the fact that Social Darwinists linked evolution to ethics but simply that, when Social Darwinism was popular, the mechanisms of evolution were so poorly understood. Given sociobiological tenets, they claim we now can proceed to ethics from "known facts" rather than from mere theory. Here are two of these "known facts": The first is that the goal of each and every living organism is to pass on its own genes at the expense of all others. The second is that an organism should only cooperate with others if they carry some of his or her own genes (the process of kin selection), or if at some later date the "others" might support, aid, or help the organism (the theory of reciprocal altruism). However, since animals cannot make these calculations consciously, evolution has endowed our genes with a moral ethic to facilitate kin selection and altruistic reciprocation because, ultimately, this may help us perpetuate and multiply our own genes. In their own words Wilson and his collaborator, Michael Ruse, explain:

It used to be thought, in the bad old days of Social Darwinism when evolution was poorly understood, that life is an uninterrupted struggle—"nature red in tooth and claw." But this is only one side of natural selection, the same process also leads to altruism and reciprocity. Morality is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends. . . . Ethical codes work because they drive us to go against our selfish day-to-day impulses in favor of long-term group survival. . . . and thus, over our lifetimes, the multiplication of our genes many times. [emphasis ours]20

Following this logic, evolutionary morality ultimately allows us to build group cohesion in order to successfully compete with strangers and thus pass on our genes. We should not look down upon our war-like, cruel nature but rather understand that it has led to success, in an evolutionary sense, when coupled with "making nice" with some—but not with other—individuals or groups of individuals. The "making nice" part is genetically driven and the real foundation of human morality.

Wilson's observations present the non-consoling thought that "some of the 'noblest' traits of mankind, including team play, altruism, patriotism, bravery on the field of battle, and so forth, are the genetic product of warfare." If a determinedly peaceful society was to try to steer members away from the "conflicts that once gave the destructive phenotypes their Darwinian edge," we might be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In other words, looking at things through the genetic lens, we got the good traits because of our constant battles, conflicts, and bloodthirsty encounters.21

Let us pause to state clearly that we're not proposing a complete absence of a biological basis to human behavior. But, as Franz Boas—a sane voice in the decades of Social Darwinist theory—stated over 70 years ago, "unless the contrary can be proved, we must assume that all complex activities are socially determined, not hereditary."22

E. O. Wilson, himself, criticizes the Social Darwinists, accusing them of being misleading and basing wide, extrapolated explanations on a small sample of animal species. Yet sociobiology's favorite children—kin selection and reciprocal altruism—are always dressed up and adored as the only explanations for friendly social interactions. Again, in sociobiol-ogist Michael Ruse's own words:

Where kin selection fails, reciprocal altruism provides a back-up. But as one grows more distant in one's social relationship, one would expect the feeling to decline. ... [I]t is silly to pretend that our dealings across countries are going to be intimate or driven by much beyond self-interest. . . . Jesus did not suggest that the Samaritan was in the general business of charity to strangers.23

This sounds very much like the claims of Dart and Ardrey, and the Social Darwinists before them. Furthermore, the scientific evidence for human universal traits or for sociobiological tenets is just as weak as was the evidence provided by Ardrey or Dart to support their theories of human morality. And how do these theories relate to the Western European Christian views of morality? Ruse admits that reciprocal altruism, especially, begins to sound like "warmed-over Christianity." He also attributes Christianity's raging conversion rate at the beginning of the first millennium as due to its neat fit into our genetically programmed behaviors.24

Hmmm . . . so Christianity was popular because it fit so nicely into universal biological instincts? Well, here's another way to look at it that we feel compelled to lay out: Are the professed Christian morals generated by the scientific evidence for biologically based morality, or do we think they are biological universals because they happen to fit our own Christian ethics? Ruse goes on to say he is not much of a relativist—he condemns as much as anyone else "rapes in Yugoslavia and the atrocities of Hitler."25 But it seems to us that morality is often in the eye of the beholder. Western codes of ethics can be mightily flexible, as is obvious from the mainly Christian soldiers who carried out the rapes in Yugoslavia as well as the atrocities of Hitler.

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