Mendacity and biology

Various sorts of morally reprehensible behaviour exist in humans because they confer biological advantages on the agents. Similar sorts of behaviour exist in animals.

For example, male lions tend to kill cubs that they did not sire. In doing so, they “make room” for their own cubs – “room” that consists of scarce resources such as the mother’s care, and shared food and protection of the rest of the pride. By killing the offspring of others, they give life to their own offspring – which carry genes for infanticidal behaviour and thus ensure that it continues.

Or again, mallard ducks are notorious rapists. This behaviour continues from one generation to the next, again for obvious evolutionary reasons.

Like male ducks, men are potential rapists, and for the same evolutionary reasons. Rapists who are accused of rape generally do not admit to rape – so they’re liars as well as rapists. And again, they’re liars for evolutionary reasons. Rapists who don’t admit to rape are more likely to rape again and pass their genes on so that the raping and lying continues from one generation to the next. Their behaviour is morally reprehensible, but its biological causes are well-understood.

Women’s behaviour can also be morally reprehensible, as well as being well-understood biologically. For example, women sometimes commit infanticide – not just by killing other women’s children to make more room for their own children, as men do, but also by sometimes killing their own children. The second sort of behaviour makes more room for later children of their own at a more opportune time, such as when they can hope for better provisioning.

Like men, women are prone to mendacity in circumstances where it is biologically advantageous to tell lies. These circumstances need not be as dramatic as rape, although lack of consent of one party or another (such as a cuckolded husband) is always involved. “Ordinary” extra-marital “cheating” can be biologically advantageous to those who can get away with it by lying successfully. Although the respective advantages can differ slightly, cheating can enable both sexes to produce a larger number of offspring and/or offspring with a wider variety. But secrecy is essential – mendacity evolved with the cheating behaviour. Through cuckoldry, both men and women can raise offspring provisioned by victims of mendacity – those who have been duped into thinking they are provisioning their own offspring. This is common among monogamous animals, and humans are no exception.

Intelligent and just law-making must take account of the biological roots of these sorts of mendacity. For example, if a woman accuses a man of rape, no decent, just law would simply “take the man’s word for it” if he denies it. (Nor would it simply take the word of the woman who asserts it.) Similarly, if a woman claims a man is the father of her child, we shouldn’t simply take her word for it, as it might be an attempt to dupe him into provisioning someone else’s offspring. To overlook this possibility is to court injustice.

In principle I welcome the suggestion that a child’s birth certificate should carry the names of both mother and father. But the law must ensure that the name of the father is decided by more than the mother’s say-so.

10 thoughts on “Mendacity and biology

  1. You stopped a little abruptly there! Think an analysis of how such a massive and invasive task as taking DNA samples from every new baby and parent in Ireland might be done would be useful. Is it practical? Is it conducive to freedom to insist on this? Will it necessarily prove paternity (what if the woman had an affair with the supposed father’s sibling)? What if the father knows he’s not the biological father and wanted to be registered as the father anyway?

    According to this 2% of married men who had every reason to believe they were their children’s father are not in fact their children’s father. Even among those men who are suspicious and take paternity tests, only 30% are not in fact the father of their supposed child. You are suggesting a massive change in personal liberties for what appears to be a relatively rare problem.

  2. You may be right – I’m really just floating the idea for discussion, or adding my own tuppence worth to an already-floating idea. My claim is really quite modest: “in principle” I’m in favour of giving equal consideration to the interests of both parents. To do that, we’d have to take account of factual differences that exist between the sexes. (Which is actually quite a good example of how equal consideration of interests often entails unequal treatment.)

    “You are suggesting a massive change in personal liberties for what appears to be a relatively rare problem.”

    First, I think there is much confusion between two concepts of “privacy” – the “privacy” of having your own “space” in which you can do what you want, and the “privacy” of being able to keep secrets. This proposal would certainly diminish the latter, but I think it would enhance the former. In other words, I think that overall it would increase freedom.

    Second, I gather that recently even the 2% figure has come to be considered an exaggeration – family names are more closely correlated with specific types of Y-chromosome than was formerly thought.

    All the same, I think doubts about paternity are a source of much anguish – from causing emotional “distance”, to “deadbeat dad” financial neglect, to a few cases of out-and-out murder.

    • Re the privacy in which you can do your own thing and the privacy to keep secrets – both will be affected. Every parent and every child will need to have DNA taken for your proposal to work. What if the parents don’t want this done? And as for secrets, are you suggesting the state has some right to uncover our secrets? On what basis?

      I can appreciate the anguish that exists in cases where paternity is in question. What I question is whether this solution is an effective one in this case. I think it isn’t.

      • Only fathers and infants would need to have a non-injurious cheek swab taken ( a gentle wipe inside the mouth with an object like a Q-Tip). It would be quite a lot cheaper than, say, an epidural.

        Speaking of which, I think an epidural should be an expectation of childbirth. Of course those who want to opt out of an epidural should be free to do so, and men who want to opt out of the cheek swab should be free to do so too. But I suggest it should become as “expectation” of a new person, that he/she be able to trace his/her lineage. It is such a central interest of humans, why not deal with it in a sensible way?

        Although I think much discussion is needed yet before any spotty 14-year-old (or equivalent) makes a new law, my tentative, ever-ready-for-correction, “modest” self leans towards the idea that this may be a change for the better. It might not be, but I suggest for now that it may be.

        I do not presume to “oust” women from their role as mothers, so much as “ease” men into being more involved, engaged fathers. Men are hopeless idiots with babies, but they really come into their own when they deal with older children — both sons and daughters. I’d love to see more of it happening, even if it involved a bit of artificial force.

        It strikes me as right to force “deadbeat dads” to pay for their own progeny. It also seems right to me to forcibly prevent “poison mums” writing blank cheques to themselves by simply naming “the richest guy I had sex with that month”.

        Force is usually a bad thing, yes, but it can help overall in complicated situations. I don’t presume to “demand” this measure, I’m just interested that a Fine Gael TD proposed/discussed it. It strikes me as decent, exploratory political thinking.

        • I am aware the test is non-invasive physically, but that does not really alter the point re the “right of the state to know”. I see you suggest it be parallel to an epidural – an “expectation to have an epidural” is a forecast of how much pain one will be in at birth. You may expect one and not need one. On the other hand you may antipate not needing one and actually need one (the case many find themselves in I think). It is rather different from a social expectation that a father & child do a DNA test almost immediately post birth. The test is not necessary for pain or theraputic use. It is basically putting an assumption into practice that women lie about paternity more often than not. Perhaps it might encourage involvement of men with children – but I suspect that involvement can be fostered without assuming women are liars (just as we assume men are not rapists).

          Actually the TD did not suggest what you’re suggesting. He said it was incredible that birth certs are filled out with no father’s name which is a rather different matter!

      • PS it is open to men named by “poison mums” to carry out a DNA test anyway. IIRC a man cannot be added to the birth cert unless he agrees or he is married to the mother.

        As for deadbeat dads, I don’t see how this process compels them not be to deadbeats. Quite the opposite in fact when the social message is put out “women sleep around”, “women lie”, “we can’t trust women”. Just after labour, no less.

  3. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that cheating – like rape – is a recognized, distinctive reproductive strategy. It’s morally reprehensible, but it’s part of biology.

    With non-human species (such as monogamous birds) the “object” of the strategy is not simply to carry another male’s offspring to the point of birth (or equivalent), but to bring offspring all the way to independent adulthood by exploiting the bonded (but unrelated) male’s provisioning. That strategy can’t work unless the cuckolded male is convinced that the offspring he is provisioning is his own, and remains convinced for as long a period as he would normally provision his own offspring.

    There is no reason to think that the human version of this strategy differs from that of any other monogamous animal. Since human adulthood isn’t reached till age 18 or so, the human version of the strategy typically involves making sure that the cuckolded male does not suspect anything for about 18 years. That is a very thorough, very committed sort of deception. It has to be, or it simply wouldn’t work and couldn’t evolve.

    So when we think about “poison mums”, we have to imagine women who typically keep their husbands in the dark not just for the nine months of pregnancy but for decades. The typical victim of this sort of deception would be unlikely to “suspect anything” at birth.

    A very small minority of women adopt this strategy, just as a very small minority of men adopt the strategy of rape. (It may be in the region of 1%–2%.) Both have to remain “minority pursuits” to be successful reproductive strategies. But that doesn’t make either or them any less exploitative of their victims. Even though there may be few victims of either form of exploitation, both are serious enough to warrant society-wide precautions to tackle them.

    For example, one might argue for a “national DNA database” that causes minor inconvenience to everyone, but prevents some actual rapes. Whatever objections one might raise to such a scheme, it isn’t reasonable to object that “fewer than 50% of women are actually raped”. It’s irrelevant that a small minority of men ever become rapists, and in the analogous scheme (to avoid exploitation of men’s reproductive resources) it’s irrelevant that a small minority of women ever become “poison mums”.

    I mentioned “deadbeat dads” not because I think a DNA connection would be much better at tracking them down and holding them to account. Rather, I was trying to imagine their motivation. Men and women have an equal biological interest in reproducing. They thus have a roughly equal interest in providing for their own offspring. They differ in how confident they can be in identifying their own offspring. A DNA test at birth would help to bring both parents’ confidence into closer alignment. The hope is that eventually we might have almost as few “deadbeat dads” as “deadbeat mums”.

    • Firstly, #risky. Where’s that famous scepticism about evolutionary just-so stories.

      Secondly, the point is not solely the low level of rapes/deception but balancing the costs (financial, intrusiveness) into individual lives. I would not support a database of all male DNA in the country to be used in rape cases. I think it is unfair to treat all men as if likely to be guilty if rape. In precisely the same way, I think it is unfair to assume all women guilty of being “poison mums”.

      I find it hard to believe assurance of paternity would mean more involvement from fathers as a factor on its own. Societies in which women were sequestered had high assurance of paternity and low parental involvement. You are placing too much weight on possible evolutionary strategies in shaping behaviour and too little on social expectations.

  4. “Where’s that famous scepticism about evolutionary just-so stories.”

    Basic reproductive strategies are really central to evolutionary theory. As part of biological science, they are indeed riskier than common sense, but not as risky as the most imaginative kinds of speculation found in archaeology, say (such as “this must be Richard III”). I think we can be very confident that rape evolved because it often results in pregnancy, and that cheating evolved because it often results in young adults!

    I don’t think I would support the “national DNA database” for detecting rape either, but not because it’s “unfair”. It’s not “unfair” to demand that all cars carry number plates, even though most drivers will never need to be traced. We all put up with inconveniences to prevent greater evils, and as long as everyone is treated the same way no assumption of guilt is involved.

    I’m interested and very surprised to hear that male parental involvement was small in (unjust, unpleasant, unfree, let us agree) societies in which women were sequestered. Are you perhaps giving more weight to early childhood? Fathers would have had a smaller role with young children, but a bigger role with older children, and a more reliably committed role, I would have thought anyway.

  5. PS: What I mean by a “just-so story” is an ad hoc, cobbled-together sort of explanation in which all the parts fit into place “like magic”, minus any convincing feeling of the “the key turning in the lock”. The best explanations do deliver that feeling, although it’s hard to pin down what we’re recognizing when we feel it. In their book The Web of Belief, Quine and Ullian gave a list of various "virtues" of a good hypothesis, and they might fit the bill here: conservatism, modesty, simplicity, generality, and falsifiability. Thinking of cheating as a reproductive strategy (as outlined above) does exhibit at least some of those virtues.

    As an example of a just-so story in evolutionary psychology, consider the following explanation of why women have long hair on their heads: humans are an "aquatic ape" and we evolved in close proximity with water, often literally swimming and wading in water. Because women had young children with them, but needed their hands for swimming, picking up shellfish to eat and so on, their long hair would spread out in the water and their young children would hold on to the hair. Huh?

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