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The Two Main Ways In Which Evolution Is Not Our Friend

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With millions of years of evolution behind our species, and a billion behind life in general, we might expect – in a Panglossian frame of mind – to function very well, and to be free from unnecessary misery. Wouldn’t the ruthless process of selection have removed causes for fitness-draining suffering and poor well-being in general?

There are two main reasons why we should expect a great deal of unnecessary suffering to be the product of evolution.

1. Adaptation Executors

A maxim of evolutionary biology is that organisms (like us) are adaptation executors, not fitness maximizers. Evolutionary processes create organisms that execute biologically-mediated strategies – it does not create rational beings that maximize fitness in all instances.

In many cases, the detection mechanism is “too sensitive” for our own good – our pain response and our startle response, for example, both generate lots of “false positives” in terms of fitness threats we may respond productively to. This is because in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, the cost of tons of false positives was outweighed by the benefit of being “right” that one time that counts.

Our social ostracism detection system has also been posited to be hypersensitive, for the above evolutionary reasons. Social belonging has such a high survival value that any potential threat must be addressed immediately. This is true even if it means 100 “false positives” – instances of social ostracism with no actual fitness threat – must be suffered by the individual organism.

What’s a good idea for evolution is not necessarily a good idea for you. Evolution works fine – it just doesn’t give a fuck about the well-being of individual organisms.

2. Failures

In other cases, complex systems interact in such a way that the detection system is “broken.” This may be because the EEA doesn’t match current conditions, as may be the case with asthma, allergies, diabetes, and obesity. In other cases, it may be because organisms aren’t created perfectly every time, and are not perfectly matched even to EEA conditions. Evolution can only act on the mutations it’s given. The pain of a migraine, for instance, is not an indication of a necessary response the way the pain from a burn is. Problems may not reflect any adaptation at all – it might be a defect in the system, or in the organism.

Written in response to this comment by The Plague Doctor.

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Written by Sister Y

May 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Judge Nature

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Now in Spanish! Thanks Daniel.

The extent of the suffering of wild animals is literally unimaginable.

We have a function in our minds for imagining suffering – remembering a dog bite, perhaps, or another nasty injury. And we have an abstract multiplication function in our minds as well. But this doesn’t get us even close to understanding the amount of suffering that occurs in nature in a single minute.

What would it feel like to land on the surface of the sun? Answer: not like anything. You can’t even approach the surface of the sun; even millions of miles out, shielded by a spacecraft, a human body would disintegrate. We are physically incapable of perceiving how bad the surface of the sun would feel.

Thus it is with the amount of suffering in the natural world (and, incidentally, its subset, the human world).

1. On The Ways In Which Nature Makes Andrea Yates Look Like June Cleaver

This photograph shows a Eurasian coot feeding its chick:

These coots may hatch up to nine chicks (so we learn from David Attenborough). But under normal circumstances, food is in short supply. The parent birds feed the baby birds on tiny shrimp for the first three days after hatching. Then, mama coot turns into Mommy Dearest. A baby bird begs for food, as usual – but, with no warning, the parents “punish” it, biting the chick hard on its tiny head. The parents do this to all the chicks in turn. Eventually, one chick is singled out for special torture, and abused until it stops begging for food and starves to death.

This process is repeated until only two or three chicks survive.

Pelicans hatch three chicks, but under normal circumstances, only one survives. Instead of the parent birds doling out death, it’s the siblings – the two larger birds pluck at the smallest with their sharp beaks and knock it out of the nest. Then the conspirators turn on each other until only one chick is left.

Is that awful?

Is that tragic?

Is that . . . good?

Sir David himself acknowledges that this might be a bit cruel, by human standards. But, he assures us, it’s all for the best – in especially good years, a pelican or coot can raise an extra chick or two. So torturing baby birds to death serves the purpose of increasing the genetic fitness of the parents by a little bit.

But does that really make it okay?

2. The Incoherence of Species-Relative Morality

We are taught as children not to apply human standards of morality to animal behavior. We do not expect macaques to be egalitarian, nor male lions to refrain from killing cubs sired by other males. We should not, this theory goes, expect animals to raise the babies they produce to adulthood; we should not be dismayed if they, in fact, torture their young to death when it is advantageous for them to do so.

Most people of our era have a strong, visceral inclination against cruelty to animals, just as we do against cruelty to human children. We judge animal suffering to be bad. Watching the nature special, we hope the impala can evade the lion, but we hope the lion cubs get fed somehow. But watch what your mind does when considering these two contradictory hopes. Does it come to a coherent resolution of the problem? Or does it just shrug its shoulders and spackle the problem over with some bullshit about the circle of life? Life must go on . . . end of thought.

Is it okay that the impala gets eaten? That the cub dies? What about an old lion slowly dying in the hot sun? How about that little chick pictured above, getting abused and starved to death by its parents? Genesis 1:21 (KJV) says: “And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.” (Emphasis mine.) According the the Judeo-Christian God, torturing baby coots to death is not just okay, but good. “God” gave us that whopper to swallow; can you swallow it?

Human morality, some may argue, applies only to human actions – not to the actions of animals. I agree with this. For the most part, animals are not agents, but merely robots – machines executing programs created by natural selection. However, morality must certainly also apply to human inaction, and especially our inaction in preventing harm, suffering, and awfulness. What is the moral justification for the “hands off” dogma regarding nature? We often interfere with nature for the good of humans and human industry. Why not for the good of individual animals? Bloody Nature is a machine for pushing genes into the future. Does it really “know best”?

3. Respect for Species?

Nature exists. We try to “conserve” ecosystems in their “natural” state (scare quotes because ecosystems evolve and change over time, in response to environmental pressures, including those from other species). But who is it good for?

Is it good for the animals themselves? Thomas Nagel considers the difficulty of this question in his essay “Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life,” in his important book The View from Nowhere (from which my blog takes its title). While teaching at Princeton in the 70s, Professor Nagel noticed a sad little spider living in a urinal in the men’s bathroom. The spider appeared to Professor Nagel to have a crappy life, constantly getting peed on; “he didn’t seem to like it,” notes Nagel. He continues:

Gradually our encounters began to oppress me. Of course it might be his natural habitat, but because he was trapped by the smooth porcelain overhang, there was no way for him to get out even if he wanted to, and no way to tell whether he wanted to. . . . So one day toward the end of the term I took a paper towel from the wall dispenser and extended it to him. His legs grasped the end of the towel and I lifted him out and deposited him on the tile floor.

He just sat there, not moving a muscle. I nudged him slightly with the towel, but nothing happened . . . . I left, but when I came back two hours later he hadn’t moved.

The next day I found him in the same place, his legs shriveled in that way characteristic of dead spiders. His corpse stayed there for a week, until they finally swept the floor.

Professor Nagel acted with empathy toward the spider – treating the spider how he imagined the spider would want to be treated. But did he do the spider any good? Would non-interference by Professor Nagel have done the spider any good? The spider might have lived longer, scrambling away from piss streams a hundred times a day, and may have eventually made more spiders. Would that be a good thing?

What do spiders want? Is there such a thing as a meaningful life for a spider? Does a spider’s life do the spider any good?

There is a popular idea, born, I think, from applying the principles of liberalism where they do not belong – the idea that non-interference indicates respect for a species or animal, as if it were a person. (Where interference is allowed, it is to remedy some previous human interference.) This is also (idiotically) applied to human cultural systems, not just biological systems; in this context, it is known as cultural relativism. And it is just as incoherent applied to animals as applied to folks slicing off the clitorises of babies.

Let us for a moment suppose that we will treat individual animals as persons whose pleasures, pains, and desires we can identify and respect. In that case, empirically speaking, non-interference is a shitty policy. We could do more to make animals suffer less by intervention than by complete non-intervention.

On the other hand, perhaps it is the species that is our “person” – we should try to respect a species, or, perhaps, a whole complex ecosystem. But since species and ecosystems are not percipient beings capable of pleasure and suffering, by assigning them respect, we beg the question of the purpose of doing so. Who are ecosystems good for? Or are they perhaps mystically intrinsically good, as Jehovah would have us believe?

4. Is Nature Our Bitch?

To some degree, nature au naturel is good for humans. We need trees and algae and fish in order to live. Genetic diversity, developed over millions of years, ensures the longevity of our biosphere.

We frequently violate our supposed policy of non-intervention with the natural world when doing so benefits humans, in some cases actively seeking the extinction of certain organisms (like smallpox). I don’t think this is wrong at all, because (a) smallpox doesn’t do anyone any good by existing, including itself; and (b) smallpox causes untold suffering. But why draw the line at smallpox? It is my contention that not just smallpox, but all creatures, do not do themselves any good by existing – from spider to coyote to human.

Not only do we breathe oxygen and eat food produced by biological systems; we also appreciate the beauty of complex systems. Can we justify the suffering of baby coots because we think their ecosystem is interesting? Earlier generations of humans liked to torture animals for their own pleasure (and some still do). We now judge this to be evil. But is standing by while animals torture each other in “natural” ways, when we have the power to stop it, any better than actively torturing animals? Responsible people spay or neuter their pets. Why not spay Nature herself?

We don’t even have to harm or kill animals in order to stop Nature from doing her evil deeds. We could simply prevent their reproduction, or even merely cease our current “conservation efforts” that involve breeding animals. Breeding wild animals and releasing them into the wild is doing the ugly work of Genesis all over again – and cruelly claiming that it’s “good.”

5. Is Being Human-Like Better?

We are touched by human-like (or ideal-human-like) characteristics in animals – nurturing young, monogamy, neighborliness, cooperation. Humans, although we commit parental infanticide at a rate higher than any other great ape (as would be expected from our relative immaturity at birth), at least attempt to raise most of our young to adulthood. But is “human” really more “humane”?

Compare the pelicans and coots to the rosella parrot. These parents feed “fairly” – that is, all chicks are fed equally, although they hatch at different times, so some chicks are larger than others. Large, older baby parrots even share their food with their smaller siblings! Aw.

Sound good? Nice parrots. However, they are merely postponing the point at which the red teeth and claws come into the picture. These parrot parents produce more than two offspring. What do you think happens to most of them? They go off and found happy egalitarian parrot families of their own? Maybe for a little while. But a species can’t expand indefinitely. Most of these new parrots will get eaten or starve to death. The lucky few will go on to put dozens of new parrots into the world, for natural selection to claw apart and eat alive. r is evil, but K is not so great either.

Antibiotics were not invented until World War II. Prior to that, any human parent faced the very real possibility of losing some or all of his children before they reached adulthood. Humans were visibly under the same selection pressures as the rest of the animals. However, for a couple of generations, we have managed to pretend that nearly all our offspring can survive to adulthood and bear children of their own. We must look to nature to remind ourselves that this is a temporary fantasy.


If you haven’t read it, please take a look at this short, sweet, and effective piece on Evolution is Suicide: “Why end a life? Why begin a life?

Written by Sister Y

January 4, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Demonic Males and Attack Heifers: On the Sex Ratio of Marital Violence

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Introductory Words about Truth, Legend, and Bullshit: Putting the “Pissed” back into Epistemology

Truth is secondary. On its own, it doesn’t help us survive or reproduce, and it isn’t even necessarily any fun. Truth often does us more harm than good. Human beings have not evolved to actively care about and seek out truth for its own sake. (It’s often beneficial to signal that one cares about truth when one does not – this, rather than mere factual inaccuracy, is the genesis of bullshit.)

Truth – and here, I mean factual veracity – is especially vulnerable in the face of legend, the kind of cultural story that invests its believers with feelings of comfort, belonging, and value. Facts that contradict important legends tend to be denied and disbelieved; uncomfortable facts are prevented from reaching consciousness, and if forcibly brought to consciousness, are resoundingly shouted down. (This strong emotional reaction – the shouting-down of facts contradictory to cherished beliefs – is valuable to those who try to serve truth for truth’s sake, because the strong emotional reaction is a clue to the existence of an underlying important cultural legend or fixed belief that can, once identified, be examined.)

Legends are not necessarily universal. The pictures is more complicated. Often there are two or more competing, incompatible legends within a large society on the same topic. Subcultures form around countercultural legends, and these new legends are not necessarily any closer to truth as the majority legend.

Such is the case with beliefs about gender. There are some beliefs about gender roles and differences that are so common among human societies as to form a sort of universal legend. In modern times, feminism has provided a countercultural narrative to many of the traditional beliefs about gender (defining the prevailing norms as patriarchy). Feminism was such a popular critique that it became, over a generation or two, arguably the predominant cultural narrative about gender in modern Western society. And a counter-counter-critique which we might call the men’s rights movement has challenged the feminist narrative (labeling it gynocracy – only sometimes tongue-in-cheek). From the perspective of history, we can see the back-and-forth of revolution and counter-revolution, but we must make our factual judgments in the present moment. Recognizing the narratives and counter-narratives is a first step in looking for truth – but it is by no means a final step.

Every source has its biases; I myself, as stripped of myth as I consider myself to be, no doubt operate with my own unrecognized legends forming the firmament of my consciousness. But let’s try to look beneath at least the truth-threatening legends we can recognize, while remaining open to the possibility that our reasoning may be swayed by unseen narratives.

Legends exist where, for the legend believer, some fact must be true or can’t be true. That is, the need to believe the legend is greater than the desire for truth (this is the origin of political correctness – a particular form of the more general class of bullshit). But compare the life work of even someone as purportedly truth-seeking as a scientist; if a scientist becomes identified with a particular theory, it must be mortally terrifying to have this theory threatened. One’s life work will be undone. I think we must be circumspect about even the truth-orientation of scientists. But that doesn’t make science worthless; only imperfect.

On to the Sex and Violence

I am interested here in violence in sexual relationships, or marital violence, if you prefer.[1] Specifically, I am interested in the question of how violence by men in relationships compares to violence by women in relationships. Murray Straus and others claim that women are just as violent in relationships as men – in terms of frequency and severity of violence. Others dispute this claim. I can’t pretend to be neutral, since I had formed the belief prior to writing this article that men are, in fact, more violent than women in relationships; but many people that I respect (including David Benatar) have articulated the opposite belief, and I must ardently promise (okay, signal) that I was, and still am, open for correction on this issue if presented with strong evidence.

Evidence

At the outset, I ask the reader to imagine himself a sociologist, and to think about what sources we might consult to explore the question of who is more violent in relationships, and what these sources’ limitations might be. As a sort of epistemological meta-issue, we would ideally like to find lots of different types of sources using different methodologies; and the more these diverse sources agree, the more confident we may be in our conclusion. Similarly, if a source has a limitation or potential bias, we must examine such limitations and biases. Assuming that a bias exists it is as unscientific as assuming there is no bias – such a claim must be examined, not assumed to be true or false.

In brief, some of the sources we might consult – and their expected limitations – are as follows: (please suggest other sources in the comments section)

  • General population surveys, utilizing various methodologies. (Limitations: depends on both truthfulness and accuracy of subjects)
  • Targeted surveys using various methodologies. (Limitations: findings may not reflect general population; depends on truthfulness and accuracy of subjects
  • Emergency room records. (Limitations: only catches violence that produces injury, and for which treatment is sought. Lesser and unreported violence will not be counted. Cause of injury may be partly determined by report of subjects, so some of the same limitations as survey data.)
  • Data on people seeking help with domestic violence (shelters, hotlines, etc.). (Limitations: only catches reported violence for which help is sought. Depends on truthfulness and accuracy of responders.)
  • Police assault records. (Limitations: Only catches violence that is reported to police. Conclusions may be partially based on reports by subjects, so truthfulness and accuracy of subjects is still an issue.)
  • Homicide records. (Limitations: only catches the most severe violence, which may or may not reflect general levels of violence.)

The error in these sources may be random (noise), or it may be systematic – effectively biasing the results in a particular direction. The latter type of error is more dangerous, from our perspective.

One type of systematic bias we must consider is that men may be less likely to report violence than women. It is shameful, we might hypothesize, for a man to let a woman smack him around; he might feel a bit silly going to the hospital or to police, or responding to a survey, even, especially given that human males are on average about 15% more massive than human females. This is related to the fact that, at the outset, we probably assign the greater probability to males being more violent in relationships; the idea that women are just as violent in relationships as men is counterintuitive, but that might just be because there is a huge, unrecognized epidemic of battered husbands too humiliated to speak out. It might be that the belief that men are more violent than women, that battered wives are more prevalent than battered husbands, is just a cultural legend that is ripe for toppling.

What the Case for Sexual Symmetry of Marital Violence is Based Upon

1. Conflict Tactics Scale

Beginning in the 1970s and continuing until the present day, Murray Straus began claiming that women are as violent as men in relationships. His claim in the initial studies was based on a single source of data: a survey of married or cohabiting couples, using the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) as its methodology.[2] Other researchers have since joined Straus; generally, they use the exact same methodology as the studies in the 1970s, that is, the Conflict Tactics Scale. This reliance on a single source of data for confirmation is endemic to those who claim sexual symmetry in marital violence; one 2000 meta-study[3] found that out of 82 empirical studies that found marital violence to be equal between genders, 76 of them used CTS measures exclusively.[4]

The CTS is nearly the only methodology that produces the counterintuitive result of gender symmetry in relationship violence. Where a hypothesis is supported by only a single source of data, and contradicted by all other sources, this does not necessarily mean that the single source is wrong. It does, however, necessitate careful review of the source producing the aberrant result. I will examine the CTS shortly. But there is one other source which produces similar results, and that is:

2. American Homicide Data

In the United States, women are nearly as likely to kill their husbands as men are to kill their wives. The Sex Ratio of Killing (SROK) – the ratio of women who kill husbands (legal or de facto) to men who kill wives – is about 75 in the United States, meaning about 75 women kill their husbands or live-in boyfriends for every 100 men who kill their wives or live-in girlfriends.[5]

And that’s pretty much . . . it.

What the Case for Asymmetry is Based Upon

Everything else.

Seriously.

Evidence from criminal and divorce courts, police, women’s shelters, and emergency rooms all support the hypothesis that males commit considerably more violence than females in relationships, as do survey data using methodologies other than CTS.[4][6][7][8][9]

American SROK is Not Reflected by Homicides in Other Countries

Again, in the United States there are nearly equal homicide rates between husbands and wives (75 husband-killings for every 100 wife-killings). In every country other than the United States, however, the Sex Ratio of Killing (SROK) is quite low – in no case higher than 40, and generally much lower than that.[6] This peculiarity of SROK data to the United States pretty much destroys its probative value for sexual symmetry of violence. As Dobash et al. note,

. . . U.S. homicide data and CTS data from several countries have been invoked as complimentary pieces of evidence for women’s and men’s equivalent uses of violence (citations omitted). One cannot have it both ways. If the lack of sex differences in CTS results is considered proof of sexually symmetrical violence, then homicide data must somehow be dismissed as irrelevant, since homicides generally fail to exhibit this supposedly more basic symmetry. Conversely, if U.S. homicide counts constitute relevant evidence, the large sex differences found elsewhere surely indicate that violence is peculiarly symmetrical only in the United States, and the fact that the CTS fails to detect sex differences in other countries must then be taken to mean that CTS is insensitive to genuine differences.[6]

Advocates of the sexual symmetry of violence hypothesis point to the reporting bias – mentioned above – to justify the poor match between CTS data and all the other data (except international homicide data, which, as they cannot be dismissed as products of reporting bias, go unexplained). Men, it is posited, are less likely to seek a protective order, to call the police, to go to the emergency room, to seek help from a hotline or shelter, to press charges against an offender, and to report being victimized to the National Crime Victims Survey (though not, for some reason, on CTS). Is this factually accurate? One study[10] found that male victims of domestic violence are actually significantly more likely than women to report domestic violence to the police – twice as likely, in fact – and less likely to drop the charges. Without data, we should not assume that a particular bias exists, any more than we should assume a particular data set is perfect and without bias. It is also a bit silly to assume that all violence against women is reported; women have strong reasons not to report marital violence, just as men do.

Why the CTS is Kind Of Retarded

1. Zero Interobserver Reliability

If CTS surveys were factually accurate, and were in fact detecting real phenomena, we would expect the reports of husbands and their wives to match. The validity of the CTS depends on people telling the truth; a necessary (thought not sufficient) condition for factual accuracy is that witnesses of the same incident agree with each other. In the case of marital violence and the CTS, they don’t. A given husband and wife interviewed separately using CTS methodology are no more likely than chance to agree in their reports of violence in the relationship. From Dobash et al.:

Szinovacz (1983)[11] found that 103 couples’ accounts of the violence in their interactions matched to a degree little greater than chance. On several CTS items, mainly the most severe ones, agreement was actually below chance . . . . In a similar study, Jouriles and O’Leary (1985)[12] administered the CTS to 65 couples attending a marital therapy clinic, and 37 couples from the local community. For many of the acts, the frequency and percentage data reported are impossible to reconcile [that is, data reported are mathematically impossible. -ed.]; for others, Jouriles and O’Leary reported a concordance statistic (Cohen’s Kappa) as equalling [sic] zero when the correct values were negative. Straus (1990b)[13] cites this study as conferring validity on the CTS, but in fact, its results replicated Szinovacz’s (1983)[11]: husband/wife agreement scarcely exceeded chance expectation and actually fell below chance on some items.[6] [Bolded emphasis mine.]

2. Conflation of Serious with Minor Violence

The Conflict Tactics scale asks responders to relate the violence they have perpetrated or experienced in their relationships according to acts: whether one has “pushed,” “slapped,” “kicked,” etc. the other. Certain acts are grouped together as mild, moderate, or severe, regardless of the specifics of the situation or the degree of injury, if any. Throwing an object qualifies as a “severe” assault, regardless of the nature of the object, the context of the “assault,” and whether the blow even landed. When case histories are examined closely, the retardedness of this classification becomes obvious. Again quoting Dobash et al.:

In a study of 103 couples, Margolin (1987)[14] found that wives surpassed husbands in their use of “severe violence” according to the CTS, but unlike others who have obtained this result, Margolin troubled to check its meaningfulness with more intensive interviews. She concluded:

While CTS items appear behaviorally specific, their meanings still are open to interpretation. In one couple who endorsed the item “kicking,” for example, we discovered that the kicking took place in bed in a more kidding, than serious, fashion. Although this behavior meets the criterion for severe abuse on the CTS, neither spouse viewed it as aggressive, let alone violent. In another couple, the wife scored on severe physical aggression while the husband scored on low-level aggression only. The inquiry revealed that, after years of passively accepting the husband’s repeated abuse, this wife finally decided, on one occasion, to retaliate by hitting him over the head with a wine decanter.

[6]

CTS pretends to measure, but does not actually measure, the severity of violence.

Violence Outside Relationships

Men are, across the board, more violent than women. Gender (male) is the single greatest predictor of criminal violence. In non-marital contexts, this is not at all controversial. One problem with the sexual symmetry hypothesis is that its proponents fail to provide any theory or explanation for why violence would be asymmetrical in nearly all contexts, but symmetrical in this one limited context. In fact, female violence this context is particularly in need of explanation, since it is particularly bizarre for an actor to choose a victim much larger than she, which husbands generally are. Which brings us to . . .

That Whole Sexual Dimorphism in Body Size Thing

Proponents of the sexual symmetry hypothesis generally concede that women are more likely to be injured by marital violence than men, yet still maintain that “women initiate and carry out physical assaults on their partners as often as men do.”[15] Focusing on the frequency of violence, rather than the severity and consequences, is silly and dishonest in the context of a physically mismatched pair such as a typical heterosexual couple. Imagine reading a study that found that children were as likely to hit their parents as vice versa, or elderly dependent adults were as likely to hit their caretakers as vice versa. We might say – interesting, but so what? Violence by the physically stronger party is simply more dangerous – more of a “social problem” – than violence by a weaker party. (This is aside from the issue that violence initiated by the stronger party against a weaker party is vastly more common than the reverse in other contexts, casting even more doubt on the veracity of the symmetry claim.)

However, violence against men is not nonexistent; in my experience as a domestic violence attorney, men with physical disabilities were particularly vulnerable to abuse by their female partners.

Evo Psych

The idea of sexual asymmetry in marital violence is not just a feminist idea; it is one grounded in evolutionary psychology. Men have much more to gain from violence against their wives than women do from violence against their husbands. Violence is an effective means of achieving men’s evolutionary aims (maintaining exclusive access to a woman’s reproductive capacity); women are unlikely to advance their evolutionary aims by physical violence against husbands. Women must use other means of getting what they want, which brings me to my . . .

Closing Words: Toward an Evolutionary Biology of the Attack Heifer

Over the past several years in my personal life, I have been baffled by a phenomenon affecting several of my male friends. Four of my male friends are or have been married to extremely mean, unpleasant, downright emotionally abusive women. The abuse was (or is) so severe that all of my friends developed a perceptible depression; one actually began to wet his pants at work (he’s still married, God save him). From an evolutionary perspective, I could understand my friends tolerating this abuse if the females in question were attractive (had high reproductive value); however, in each case, the female is significantly less attractive than the male. Two of the four women are clinically obese as well as ugly; the other two are merely ugly. Based on the baffling (to me) combination of emotional abusiveness and ugliness, I have termed this surprisingly common beast the attack heifer.

My male friends in question are characterized by innocence, lack of experience, and early age at marriage. They are also characterized by IQs within the top tenth of a percent of American adults (easily). Why did (or do) they stay?

My thinking is that this phenomenon – an objectively less “valuable” mate being crappy to a more “valuable” mate – is analogous to the fact that a man is more likely to kill a young wife than an older wife, and that age difference is a strong predictor of interspousal homicide.[16][17] A young wife has a higher reproductive value than an older wife; the husband of a young wife has “more to lose,” and is more likely to use violent tactics to prevent or punish his wife’s infidelity or attempts to leave the marriage.

Similarly, attack heifers perceive that they have a great deal to lose, and escalate their tactics to maintain control within the relationship – not through violent means, which wouldn’t be effective anyway, but using skills at which women surpass men: emotional manipulation.[18] Physical violence is not necessary to cause extreme suffering. Women do not need to be as violent as men to be as evil as men.


1. I dislike the fuzziness of the concept of “romantic relationships,” and marriage is too limiting for what we are discussing, which includes de facto marriages as well as legal unions. I tend to reduce this kind of relationship to its sexual component, which, to me, is what separates romantic relationships from friendships. The special value of sex compared to other, more nebulous concepts involved in romantic relationships, and the questionable value of monogamous relationships, are certainly something of legends for me, albeit examined ones.

2. Straus, Murray A. “Measuring intrafamily conflict and violence: The Conflict Tactics (CT) Scales.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 51:75-88 (1979).

3. Archer, John. “Sex Differences in Aggression Between Heterosexual Partners: A Meta-Analytic Review.Psychological Bulletin 126.4:651-680 (2000).

4. Kimmel, Michael. “‘Gender Symmetry’ in Domestic Violence: A Substantive and Methodological Research Review.” Violence Against Women 8.11:1332-1363 (2002).

5. Wilson, M. I., and Daly, M. “Who kills whom in spouse killings? On the exceptional sex ratio of spousal homicides in the United States. Criminology 30:189-215 (1992). No, it’s not because of guns, and it’s not because American women are more violent in general. Read the paper – it’s fascinating.

6. Dobash, R.P., Dobash, R.E., Wilson, M., Daly, M. “The myth of sexual symmetry in marital violence.Social Problems 39:71-91 (1992).

7. Felson, Richard. “Big People Hit Little People: Sex Differences in Physical Power and Interpersonal Violence.” Criminology 34.3:433-452 (1996).

8. Henning, Kris, and Lynette Felder. “A Comparison of Men and Women Arrested for Domestic Violence: Who Presents the Greater Threat?” J. Family Violence 19.2:69-80 (2004).

9. There are lots more, of course, but I can’t be arsed currently lack the resources to conduct a major literature review. But notice that even the proponents of the sexual symmetry hypothesis admit that most data sources do not reflect sexual symmetry in intimate partner violence.

10. Kinkaid, Pat. The Omitted Reality: Husband-Wife Violence in Ontario and Policy Implications for Education. Maple, Ontario: Learners Press, 1982. Cited in Dobash et al. (1992), supra.

11. Szinovacz, Maximiliane. “Using couple data as a methodological tool: The case of marital violence.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 45:633-644 (1983).

12. Jouriles, Ernest, and Daniel O’Leary. “Interspousal reliability of reports of marital violence.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 53:419-421 (1985).

13. Straus, Murray. “The Conflict Tactics Scales and its critics: An evaluation and new data on validity and reliability.” In Physical Violence in American Families, ed. Murray A. Straus and Richard J. Gelles, 49-73. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers (1990).

14. Margolin, Gayla. “The multiple forms of aggressiveness between marital partners: How do we identify them?” J. Marital and Family Therapy 13:77-84 (1987).

15. Straus, Murray. “Physical Assaults by Wives: A Major Social Problem.” In Current Controversies on Family Violence, Richard Gelles and Donileen Loseke, eds. Newbury Park, California: Sage Publication (1993).

16. Daly, Martin, and Margo Wilson. Homicide. New York: Aldine de Gruyter (1988); see especially pp. 205-207.

17. Wilson, Margo, and Martin Daly. “Lethal and nonlethal violence against wives and the evolutionary psychology of male sexual proprietariness.” Pp. 199-230, in Violence Against Women: International and Cross-disciplinary Perspectives, Dobash & Dobash, eds. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications (1998).

18. “A man will rip off your arm and throw it into a river, but he will leave you as a human being intact. He won’t mess with who you are. Women are non-violent but they will shit inside of your heart.” – Louis CK

Written by Sister Y

August 19, 2010 at 8:46 pm

Yet More Evidence that Suicide is Adaptive

with 7 comments

The more babies you produce, the less likely you are to commit suicide (Reuters: The more kids, the lower moms’ suicide risk).

This evidence supports the theory that suicide can be an adaptive behavior – people who commit suicide are people of low reproductive value anyway (i.e., those with few or no children and little likelihood of producing any viable offspring). Suicide may be an effective means of accomplishing one’s evolved ends – “make sure your genes live on.” When one consumes more than one contributes to one’s relatives, one’s continued existence is a drain on evolutionary fitness.

Of course, that’s not how the study phrases it. Rather, motherhood is seen as having a “protective effect” against suicide – as if suicide were gonorrhea, and motherhood a condom.

Looking at 30 years’ worth of data on 1.3 million Taiwanese mothers, [Dr. Chun-Yuh Yang, of Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan] found that women with two children were 39 percent less likely than those with one child to commit suicide.

That risk was 60 percent lower among women with three or more children, Yang reports in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Thus the species continues.

(As do I, despite speculation to the contrary.)

Written by Sister Y

March 23, 2010 at 10:11 pm

Murder, Suicide, and Murder-Suicide

with 15 comments

The characteristics of murder-suicides differ dramatically from those of simple murders and suicides. What the fuck is going on?


Murders and suicides are individually so common as to rarely merit reporting in the press. Combined murder-suicides are much more rare, but, like simple homicides and suicides, occur with clockwork regularity.

It can be difficult to understand why suicides happen. Is it insanity? Impulse? Crippling despair? If so, why that particular impulse, and why that particular self-destructive despair?

Suicide seems like the most irrational of acts, if not in personal terms than at least in terms of evolutionary fitness. Doesn’t suicide cut off one’s chance to survive and reproduce?

There are, however, reasons to think that the impulse to self-destruction is often one that is conducive to inclusive fitness, or would have been conducive to fitness in recent environments of evolutionary adaptedness.

Murder is somewhat more understandable without doing genetic math. Despite the modern state prohibition on murder and murder’s consequent fitness costs, there is every reason to suspect that most murders are fitness-promoting.[8]

Some murders, however, are not in themselves fitness-promoting, but nevertheless appear to occur as the most extreme effects of a generally fitness-promoting drive. Male violence against women, for instance, seems to be commonly motivated by actual or suspected infidelity, and is of course an effective tool for controlling women and discouraging fitness-damaging adultery. As Johan van der Dennen puts it in his review of David Buss’ The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind is Designed to Kill,

Traits that have been subjected to natural selection often overshoot and undershoot the exact optimum in terms of their reproductive advantage.[10] [Emphasis mine.]

By far, the most common victims of a murder-suicide are one’s spouse and/or children. Why would anyone commit such a fitness-damaging act? If they are truly inexplicable flukes, why do murder-suicides happen with such regularity? The Violence Policy Center reports that

Medical studies estimate that between 1,000 and 1,500 deaths per year in the United States are the result of murder-suicide. [Violence Policy Center] analysis reveals that, in the first half of 2005, there were 591 murder-suicide deaths, of which 264 were suicides and 327 were homicides. Using these figures, more than 10 murder-suicide events occur in the United States each week.[11]

There are many factors that indicate that the presumed fitness-promoting motives for murder are not present in homicide-suicides. Children killed in murder-suicides are significantly older than children killed in simple filicides.[12] Infants are the most frequent victims of simple filicide, with rates of filicides falling for preschool children and reaching a low point among elementary school children; child victims of murder-suicide, however, are most likely to be elementary school children and least likely to be infants.[9] An infant is much less valuable in fitness terms than an older child; the murder-suicides therefore seem paradoxical.

In addition, biological children are significantly more highly represented among murder-suicide victims than among simple filicide victims.[13] This is especially remarkable, note the authors of one study, because

the familicide victims’ ages averaged substantially older; this age difference should have had an opposing effect since 12-year-olds (the mean age of familicide victims) are much more likely to have had stepfathers than 4-year-olds (the mean age of other filicide victims). [13]

Of course, killing a biological child is likely to be fitness-threatening, whereas killing a stepchild is likely to be fitness-enhancing; again, the murder-suicide data is perplexing in evolutionary terms.

Another data point is the extreme underrepresentation of women among perpetrators of homicide-suicide, as compared to simple homicide and suicide. Women commit suicide at about a quarter the rate of men in the United States, and kill their spouses at about 75% of the rate at which men kill their spouses.[12] But out of 264 murder-suicide perpetrators in the first half of 2005, only 16 were female.[11] (In contrast, of the 327 murder-suicide victims in the same period, 255 victims were female and 72 victims were male.) Females are particularly underrepresented among perpetrators of familicide, a variety of murder-suicide in which a perpetrator kills both a spouse and one or more children. One study of filicide-suicides [9] found that half as many women as men commit filicide-suicide, but that

[s]ixty-five percent of the fathers attempted to kill their wives as well as their children, whereas no mothers attempted to kill their husbands. In all, 55 percent of the fathers, but none of the mothers, attempted familicide, that is, annihilation of the entire family. [Emphasis mine.]

In simple spousal homicides, as noted above, jealousy is the typical motive. But jealousy is rare as a motive in murder-suicides. Bossarte et al. (2006), using data from the National Violent Death Reporting System, found that only 1.9% of murder-suicides during the study period were associated with jealousy.[5] *

Yet another salient difference between murder-suicides and simple homicides is the victim-offender relationship. Homicide-suicides differ from homicides in that a significant majority of homicide-suicides – ranging from 66% to 84% in various studies – involve killings of “intimate partners.” [2] (As noted above, almost all these victims are women.) In contrast, only between 5.2% and 19.2% of simple homicides are wife killings. [7]

The correlation works in both directions. Not only are homicide-suicides more likely to involve intimate partners than simple homicides; intimate partner killers are much more likely to commit suicide than killers of other victims. One study found that only 5% of all homicides were followed by a suicide attempt, but “among men who killed their female intimate partner with a firearm, 59% also took their own life.”[3] Another study found that “among male perpetrators, nearly one third (30.6%) of those who killed their intimate partner (n = 438) also ended their own lives, while only 1.7% of those who killed a non-intimate (n = 3459) also killed themselves.”[5]

The mental state of perpetrators also varies between homicides and homicide-suicides. Homicide-suicide perpetrators are much less likely to be psychopathic than are those who commit simple homicide. A Swedish study reported that

‘Psychopathic’ perpetrators, who generally are over-represented in most violent criminality, were comparatively uncommon. Only seven (4%) in the study group [of 164] met the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy . . . [4]

And homicide-suicides are much more likely than ordinary homicides to be premeditated.[2]

To summarize the differences, homicide-suicides are

  • characterized by older (and therefore more valuable) child victims
  • more likely to include biological (and therefore more valuable) children
  • unlikely to be perpetrated by women (especially murder-suicides that include spousal homicide)
  • unlikely to be motivated by sexual jealousy
  • likely to be wife killings
  • unlikely to be perpetrated by ‘psychopathic’ people
  • likely to be premeditated.

What explains the differences?

One hypothesis is that murder-suicide is motivated by altruism or caring. There is little evidence to support this claim. In one study that reported motive, only seven out of 65 murder-suicides were “mercy killings” – and in six out of seven cases, the victim was over age 55.[5] In addition, a person determined to commit suicide may wish to spare his or her spouse the suffering associated with his or her loss. In fact, men are particularly affected by a spouse’s suicide. The male suicide rate, already high compared to that of women, rises by a factor of 46.2 after the suicide of a partner.[1] (The suicide rate for women, already lower than that of men, rose by a factor of 15.8%.) If altruistically preventing suffering were a major motive in murder-suicides, one would expect women to commit spousal murder-suicide and/or familicide at a rate closer to that of men (or, at least, closer to the rate at which women commit simple suicide or homicide).

Vengeance as a motive is belied by the low rate of jealousy-related homicide-suicides, as noted above, and by the high rate of inclusion of biological children.

I propose a model for homicide-suicide as follows. Homicide-suicide is the result of the unfortunate juxtaposition of two ordinarily fitness-promoting drives. On their own, each drive is evolutionarily adaptive; together, they spell disaster. However, the relatively low rate of murder-suicide indicates that this juxtaposition is rare enough as to not counteract the beneficial selective effects of the two drives individually.

The first drive is the drive to self-destruction under conditions of (a) perceived burdensomeness and (b) failed belonging, as described by Thomas Joiner (though he does not concede that this drive is selective). In selection terms, it is reasonable to commit suicide when the burden one’s continued existence places on one’s genetic kin exceeds one’s prospects for future genetic contribution via creating new offspring (or caring for existing offspring). It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the drive to commit suicide under these conditions would be subject to positive selection. In fact, one study found that perpetrators of homicide-suicide were likely to have experienced “recent legal problems (25.3%) [or] a job or financial problem (9.3%),”[5] both indicating perceived burdensomeness and/or failed belonging.

The second drive is proprietariness. Perceiving one’s children as one’s property is generally fitness-promoting; one protects one’s children from harm, utilizes their labor, benefits from their breeding capacity, and directs their life choices. Proprietariness toward children promotes both the nurturing and protection of children and the parental side of parent-offspring competition.

Proprietariness is the explanation that Daly & Wilson [7] propose to explain the enormous overrepresentation of men as perpetrators of spousal homicide-suicide and familicide-suicide as compared to women. It makes evolutionary sense for a man to be proprietary toward a woman; exclusive sexual access is extremely important for a man in fitness terms. It makes much less sense, evolutionarily, for a woman to be proprietary toward her husband. His sexual dalliances make little fitness difference for her, as long as they do not threaten his continued investment in her children. Purdah and related behaviors are relatively common in societies toward women; nowhere do they exist toward men.

Proprietariness tidily explains the relatively high representation of women among filicide-suicides as compared to familicide-suicides and spousal homicide-suicides; women would be expected to feel proprietary toward their children, but much less so toward their husbands.

Murder-suicide, according to my model, occurs when (a) a perpetrator experiences extreme despair as a result of perceived burdensomeness and/or failed belonging, and therefore wishes to commit suicide; but (b) proprietary feelings toward a spouse and/or children lead the perpetrator to take others with him, as if they were tomb ornaments.


Notes

It is probably more psychologically comfortable to assume that men are violent toward women because of suspected infidelity, rather than actual infidelity. However, the violent responses of men, while certainly not morally justified, seem to at least reflect genuine female infidelity most of the time. Daly & Wilson [7] cite a study at p. 201 that found that, in eleven out of eleven non-psychotic spousal homicides studied, “the victim was engaged in an affair with another man or had led the offender to believe that she was being unfaithful to him. In 10 of the cases, the victim made no attempt to conceal her other relationships.” Another study, cited by Daly & Wilson at 208, found that 47% of women who had been raped and beaten by their husbands admitted to adultery, compared to 23% of those who were battered but not raped, and only 10% of women who were not victimized.

*Bossarte et al. (2006) note that their results contradict a 2005 study[14]) on “intimate femicide” using data from the province of Ontario, Canada, from 1974-1994, which found that intimate partner suicide-homicides were significantly more likely to be motivated by jealousy than simple intimate partner homicides (55% versus 42% respectively). The Ontario study also found a higher percentage of de facto unions versus registered marriages in simple murders than in murder-suicides, which contradicts both the Wilson et al. (1995) data[13] and the Banks et al. (2008) data.[2] What do we make of this?

There is circumstantial evidence that makes the Bossarte et al. result more convincing than the Dawson result. First, married people are highly represented among intimate partner murder-suicides compared to unmarried cohabiting couples; unmarried cohabiting couples, on the other hand, are drastically overrepresented among ordinary intimate partner homicides.[2][13] Why does this matter? Daly & Wilson (1988) [7] at p. 213 think that male investment is low in couples living “common law” (compared to married couples). They say: “Perhaps the material investment of men in common-law unions is relatively low, and the women are therefore more likely to be on the lookout for alternatives, inspiring a more coercive proprietariness in their mates.”

Second, a huge proportion of men who kill their estranged wives or wife-equivalents commit suicide. The proportion of men who kill non-estranged adulterous wives are much less likely to also kill themselves (Daly & Wilson (1988) [7] at p. 219). That estrangement is such a trigger fits better with proprietariness than jealousy; losing a female mate, while costly in fitness terms, is nowhere near as costly for the male as potentially supporting non-biological children.

Third, victims of intimate partner murder-suicide are significantly older than victims of simple intimate partner homicide. Barber et al. [3] found a mean age difference of 9.4 years between the two groups. Young wives (who are most valuable and fertile) are extremely highly represented among simple homicide victims; a reasonable interpretation of this is that more valuable women trigger more violent sexual jealousy. Wives who are victims of murder-suicide tend to be older and hence, in evolutionary terms, less valuable (see Daly & Wilson (1988) [7] at p. 206), and so less likely to trigger violent sexual jealousy.

Daly & Wilson [7] (at 219) also dismiss the “remorse” hypothesis (that women rarely commit murder suicide because they lack the highly developed moral sense of men – which assumes that suicides following homicides are committed out of remorse). In fact, murder-suicides often leave evidence of premeditation. In addition, if a murder-suicide is to take place, the suicide generally happens contemporaneously with the homicide; a suicide days or weeks after a homicide, when remorse would be expected to set in, is extremely rare. Daly & Wilson cite a study that found that “whereas 192 homicidal Canadian husbands killed themselves immediately after the homicide, only another 3 committed suicide days or weeks later. Indeed, in the total sample of 6559 Canadian homicides, there were just 8 killers who committed suicide after a delay that might reflect remorseful brooding.”


Works Cited

1. Agerbo, E. “Midlife suicide risk, partner’s psychiatric illness, spouse and child bereavement by suicide or other modes of death: a gender specific study.” J Epidemiol Community Health. 59(5):407–412 (2005).

2. Banks, Laura, Cameron Crandall, David Sklar and Michael Bauer. “A Comparison of Intimate Partner Homicide to Intimate Partner Homicide-Suicide: One Hundred and Twenty-Four New Mexico Cases.Violence Against Women 14:1065 (2008).

3. Barber, Catherine W., Deborah Azrael, David Hemenway, Lenora M. Olson, Carrie Nie, Judy Schaechter and Sabrina Walsh. “Suicides and Suicide Attempts Following Homicide: Victim-Suspect Relationship, Weapon Type, and Presence of Antidepressants.Homicide Studies 2008:12:285.

4. Belfrage, Henrik, and Mikael Rying. “Characteristics of spousal homicide perpetrators: a study of all cases of spousal homicide in Sweden 1990-1999.Criminal Behavior and Mental Health 14:2:121-133 (2006).

5. Bossarte, R M, T R Simon and L Barker. “Homicide-Suicide: Characteristics of homicide followed by suicide incidents in multiple states, 2003–04.Injury Prevention 2006:12(Supplement 2 ):ii33-ii38.

6. Buss, David M. The Dangerous Passion. Bloomsbury, 2000.

7. Daly, Martin, and Margo Wilson. Homicide. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1988.

8. ——– Risk-taking, Intrasexual Competition, and Homicide. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation 47: 1-36(2001).

9. Hatters Friedman, Susan, MD, Debra R. Hrouda, MSSA, Carol E. Holden, PhD, Stephen G. Noffsinger, MD and Phillip J. Resnick, MD. “Filicide-Suicide: Common Factors in Parents Who Kill Their Children and Themselves.J Am Acad Psychiatry Law 33:4:496-504 (2005).

10. van der Dennen, Johan M. G. “Review Essay: The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind is Designed to Kill.Homicide Studies 2006:10:320.

11. Violence Policy Center. “American Roulette: Murder-Suicide in the United States.” (2006).

12. Wilson, M. I. & Daly, M. “Who kills whom in spouse killings? On the exceptional sex ratio of spousal homicides in the United States.Criminology 30:189-215 (1992).

13. Wilson, Margo, Martin Daly, and Antonietta Daniele. “Familicide: The Killing of Spouse and Children.Aggressive Behavior 21:275-291 (1995).

14. Dawson, Myrna. “Intimate Femicide Followed by Suicide: Examining the Role of Premeditation.Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 35(1) (2005).

Written by Sister Y

April 3, 2009 at 7:28 am

How People Die By Suicide

with 11 comments

A review of Why People Die By Suicide, by Thomas E. Joiner. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2005.

Thomas Joiner provides a robust descriptive model of suicide, but repeatedly refuses to consider the deeper “why” – the answer to which might be evolutionary adaptation in the Pleistocene.


In bathrooms at Disneyland, signs over the sinks offer what are described as “hand washing tips.” The alleged “tips” are:

  • Wet hands and apply soap.
  • Scrub hands and rinse.
  • Dry hands thoroughly using paper towels.

People find this sign amusing from an epistemological standpoint: it’s not so much a set of hand washing tips as it is a (humorously unnecessary) phenomenological description of the act of hand washing. It is funny because it purports to have normative content, but fails to contain anything but description.

Similarly, Thomas Joiner’s Why People Die By Suicide promises, in its title and its project, to provide an explanatory model for suicide. Joiner does provide a useful descriptive model of suicide, but he fails to live up to his title’s promise of an explanation of suicide. In fact, he explicitly rejects, on what are essentially aesthetic grounds, the most promising candidate for a genuine explanatory model of suicide – that is, evolutionary psychology.

Joiner’s Model

According to Joiner, three factors cause suicide: competence, or the ability to carry out a suicide; the feeling of being a burden; and social failure to belong. The first factor, competence, includes the physical ability, knowledge, and pain tolerance required to carry out a suicide, as well having lost or overcome the fear of death. The second and third factors, burdensomeness and failed belonging, join together to create the desire for death. Both the desire for death and the capability to achieve death must coexist in order for a person to commit suicide; that much is obvious. Joiner’s main contributions are setting this up in a clear formulation, and positing the two specific factors that constitute the desire for death.

Importantly, while maintaining that mental illness is relevant to suicide, Joiner does not implicate mental illness in causing suicide – rather, his model explains the elevated suicide levels in people with disorders like Bipolar I and II and Borderline Personality Disorder by the fact that such disorders (a) facilitate comfort with increasingly lethal self-harm, (b) increase feelings of (and perhaps actual) burdensomeness, and (c) decrease the ability to belong.

Joiner’s model is clear, helpful, and well-supported by studies. The problem with Joiner’s model is that, while it describes who commits suicide and how they manage to do it, it fails to explain why those people commit suicide. Why should people care about being a burden to others? Why should people care about social belonging? Why should they care about these things, but not other things, enough that death is preferable to the pain of burdensomeness and thwarted belonging?

Joiner is comfortable providing an answer as to why it should be difficult to commit suicide, and why the first element of his model, competence, should be necessary: natural selection. He implicates specific genes and brain traits in suicidality (even distinct from the genetic contribution to mental illness). Yet he explicitly refuses to consider the possible role of natural selection in regard to the other elements of his model, or to suicide as a phenomenon.

Why should people care about whether they are burdens on other people? Why isn’t it, say, the feeling of being overburdened by others that causes suicide? And why should failure to belong be so painful as to facilitate suicide? Why not anger, or guilt, or physical pain, or even excessive social contact? Joiner makes no attempt to explain. But an adaptive model readily explains the features of Joiner’s model, in addition to clarifying Joiner’s more questionable results; indeed, the adaptive model has more explanatory power than Joiner’s model.

Failure to Consider Suicide as an Adaptive Behavior

Suicide, like filicide, seems upon first consideration to be a ludicrous act, viewed from the perspective of evolutionary biology: how can one’s genes go on if one kills oneself or one’s child? However, the act of filicide (the killing of one’s child or children) is clearly adaptive in many cases. Not only that, but it can be shown through statistical evidence that actors seem to differentiate between adaptive and non-adaptive filicides when they “decide” to commit filicide (as well as other apparently fitness-threatening homicides, like uxoricide and siblicide). What about suicide?

An act is adaptive when it increases the inclusive fitness of an actor – that is, when the act’s benefits – in terms of survival, procreation, or nepotistic distribution of resources to one’s genetic relatives – exceed the act’s costs, in the same terms.[1]

Under certain conditions, one’s expected contribution to one’s own genetic fitness (likelihood of reproduction, likelihood of the survival of one’s future offspring to reproduce, effectiveness at materially supporting one’s offspring and other relatives) may fall to virtually nothing. However, as long as one survives under these circumstances, he not only contributes nothing to his own genetic fitness, but also likely drains the resources of his genetic relatives. His continued survival is contrary to his genetic interests. Therefore, suicide, in this limited situation, must be said to be adaptive. (For my earlier thinking on this topic, see my essay, The Evolutionary Biology of Suicide: Is Suicide Adaptive?)

It would be callous and cruel to think of a sick relative as a burden who would be better off dead. And that is not the message of an inclusive fitness model – its message is merely that, in the Pleistocene era when modern humans were evolving, a heritable trait that functioned to tell a human something like “die if you’re a net burden on your genetic kin, otherwise stay alive” may have carried benefits in terms of selection. However, Joiner cannot get past the (admittedly substantial) emotional load of the adaptive model of suicide, and rejects it on what are essentially aesthetic grounds:

. . . I do not much like this adaptive suicide view; my own dad died by suicide and the idea that he was an actual burden is offensive. My view is that self-sacrifice is adaptive in some animal species. It may have been adaptive under certain conditions in the course of human evolution, but we will never really know. Most important, it does not really matter now. What matters now is that perceived burdensomeness – and, to the extent that it exists, actual burdensomeness – are remediable through perception- and skill-based psychotherapies. Death is no longer adaptive, if it ever was. [Joiner, p. 115]

This is a strange statement for a scientist. Although Joiner is writing a book called Why People Die By Suicide, he asserts that the essential “why” of his research does not matter – especially to the extent that it might be “offensive.” In this, I think he misunderstands the nature of the adaptive view. It is not to say that suicide is good or bad, or that Joiner’s dad really was a burden to Joiner or his family – simply that, in the human environment of evolutionary adaptedness, the ability and predilection to commit suicide under certain conditions may have conferred a benefit. Joiner also wrongly asserts that “we will never really know” about the adaptive theory, when he should know that the evolutionary psychology model is perfectly capable of generating testable hypotheses, and has done so in the past with robust results.

Joiner pushes the notion that it is perceived burdensomeness – not actual burdensomeness – that facilitates suicide. However, this may be more nice than true: suicidal persons’ perceptions of their own burdensomeness may in fact be highly accurate. Just before he dismisses the adaptive theory of suicide, Joiner summarizes a study supporting the view that suicides really are a burden: “when researchers interviewed the significant others of eighty-one people who had recently attempted suicide, a majority of significant others reported that their support of the patient represented a burden to them.”

The adaptive model leads to different predictions (and, in turn, possibly different risk assessments and treatment models) from Joiner’s model. For instance, in Joiner’s model, “belongingness” is all that matters. But an adaptive model would predict that some forms of belongingness would be more protective against suicide than others – specifically, contributing to the welfare of one’s genetic relatives (or, perhaps, surrogates for genetic relatives) would be more protective than other forms of belonging. Relationships with spouses and children would matter more than relationships with friends in an adaptive model, but not in Joiner’s model. Joiner does not even consider this to be a question worth researching. Similarly, in Joiner’s model, all that matters is “burdensomeness” – no matter who is burdened. An adaptive model might predict that burdensomeness on genetic relatives in particular (or their surrogates) would trigger suicidal behavior, rather than burdensomeness on non-relatives. Again, Joiner is not interested in testing this hypothesis, although it might have major implications for treatment and risk assessment. It cannot be said, with regard to the adaptive view of suicide, that “it does not matter now.”[2]

Joiner’s model, including a refusal to consider the adaptive view, seems to strain when it encounters certain data. For instance, when explaining the data that pregnant women experience a lower suicide rate than non-pregnant women – one-third the non-pregnant rate in one study – Joiner says: “I would suggest that the protective influence involved feelings of connection to the baby, as well as feeling needed by the baby and thus not a burden.” But a relationship to an unborn, unseen person who cannot respond is a strange sort of “relationship.” An adaptive explanation – pregnancy confers clear survival value compared to non-pregnancy – is less strained than a belongingness/burdensomeness model, and, in fact, provides a deeper explanation of why a pregnant woman might develop deep feelings for a non-speaking person inhabiting her body.[3]

Joiner’s model accounts for sex differences between the suicide rates of men and women in two ways: first, in terms of competence, men are more likely to be exposed to provocative stimulation (all kinds of violence and more) that break down one’s fear of death over time; second, in terms of desire for death, men are more likely to be disconnected and more likely to feel they are burdens than women. This is probably true – the first part, in particular, accords well with what I believe to be the most accurate explanation for the differences between the suicide rates of men and women – but, again, why should this be? Why should men be more prone to risky, painful, violent, or as Joiner terms it, “provocative” behavior?

The answer, again, lies in evolutionary biology. Men are not merely “socialized” to be more violent – there are good evolutionary reasons for their greater violence and risk-taking in all areas. A great deal of this is due to what Daly & Wilson term the “effective polygyny” of human beings (at least in the EEA) – that is, that the fertility variance among men is much higher than among women, with many more men than women having a high number of children, and, similarly, many more men than women having zero children. This leads to the sad phenomenon of male disposability – while a woman is “valuable,” with a certain, nearly guaranteed level of reproductive success, a man may have no reproductive success at all – but may, by engaging in risky behavior (e.g., successful killing in wars or honor battles), increase his reproductive success to well beyond what a woman might have. A human male is, sadly, invited by his genetic heritage to gamble his life on the chance of a big payoff in reproductive success.[4] What is driving differential violence in general may also drive differential suicides – even independently from the greater access to fear-reducing, provocative experiences.

More specifically, Joiner’s model does not explain why, in addition to varying between genders and across age groups, the time pattern in suicides across age groups is different between men and women. Men’s suicide rates are a linear function of age: the older the male, the higher the suicide rate. Women’s suicide rates vary with time differently, however. While in some countries, the pattern for women matches that for men, in other countries the pattern is very different. In Canada, rather than rising linearly with age, suicide among women peaks during the 35-44 age range; in the United States, the Netherlands, and Sweden, it peaks during the 45-54 age range; and in Australia, Denmark, and Poland, female suicides peak in the 55-64 age range.[5] While belonging and burdensomeness are probably implicated, the fact that these are the age ranges of menopause and post-menopause in women seems to lend support to the adaptive view as to why burdensomeness and thwarted belonging would come into play at those times.

While Joiner’s model is compelling, I think there is persuasive evidence that an adaptive model explains suicide better than Joiner’s model.[6] At the very least, such a hypothesis deserves to be considered, and should not be rejected on merely aesthetic grounds. To do so is irresponsible and unscientific. An accurate analysis of the etiology of suicide affects both assessment of the risk of suicide and treatment for the suffering that causes suicide.

Failure to Consider Unsuccessful Attempted Suicide as an Adaptive Behavior

Joiner refuses to consider whether a successful, completed suicide may be adaptive. Elsewhere, he refuses to consider data suggesting that making an apparently lethal but ultimately unsuccessful suicide attempt may be not only adaptive, but economically beneficial – provided one does not die in the attempt. In a 2003 article in the Southern Economic Journal, Dave Marcotte presented data that suicide attempters experience an increase in income after the attempt that is proportional to the lethality of the attempt. Charles Duhigg summarizes in his Slate article, provocatively subtitled “Why trying to kill yourself may be a smart business decision“:

Marcotte’s study found that after people attempt suicide and fail, their incomes increase by an average of 20.6 percent compared to peers who seriously contemplate suicide but never make an attempt. In fact, the more serious the attempt, the larger the boost — “hard-suicide” attempts, in which luck is the only reason the attempts fail, are associated with a 36.3 percent increase in income. (The presence of nonattempters as a control group suggests the suicide effort is the root cause of the boost.)

Marcotte’s data suggests that a suicide attempt, particularly an apparently lethal one, acts as a signal that the individual needs help – and, as it is a signal that entails significant cost (the risk of death), it is a particularly believable signal. This signal seems to act to make resources “cheaper” – a suicide attempter may get access to resources that he did not have access to before the attempt.

Again, Joiner is having none of it, and again, it’s for aesthetic, not scientific, reasons. Joiner’s complaints are two: the economic “viewpoint” is dangerous, in that it may encourage lethal-seeming suicide attempts; and it is callous, in that it denies the reality of the suffering experienced by the suicidal individual. Both of these “complaints” are without merit and are, I think, evidence of shoddy thinking on Joiner’s part.

As to the “danger” of the economic model, Joiner says

The danger of viewpoints like this should be pointed out. Any analysis that encourages suicidal behavior in any way – particularly in ways that romanticize or glorify it, or make it seem easy and normative – has potential negative consequences for public health.

But it is hardly the viewpoint that is dangerous – it’s the existing incentive structure in our society that encourages apparently lethal suicide attempts in people who often don’t really want to die. I have argued that if the suicide prohibition were ended, this dangerous incentive structure – the “fantasy of rescue” – would also end. (I have also proposed an outline of a model for ending the prohibition on suicide, with particular attention to ending the dangerous fantasy of rescue.) Analyses are not dangerous. Problems are dangerous; analyses identify the problems and point the way to solutions. By suggesting that the economic analysis is dangerous, Joiner is contributing to the taboo against speaking about suicide.[7]

Joiner’s idea that the economic hypothesis denies the reality of the suffering of suicide attempters is even more ridiculous. He believes that the economic idea is part of some kind of “deconstructionist” philosophy – he actually mentions Jacques Derrida by name (not kidding): “What is left for the deconstructionist, then, is a constant questioning of the very existence of reality and meaning – including the reality of emotional pain. Try telling that to a suicidal person.”

This objection makes so little sense that I had to reread the section (pp. 43-44) a couple of times before I understood it.[8] Joiner thinks that the economic model does not account for the pain suffered by those who attempt suicide. But the economic model suggests no such thing! Despite Duhigg’s unfortunate opening example in his popular reporting of the Marcotte study, the hypothesis is not that people coldly calculate that they will get a benefit from an apparently lethal suicide attempt. Rather, suffering people are motivated by that awful, extremely real suffering to do something awful – to, essentially, gamble their lives on a chance at making the suffering stop.

Culture, Language, and Occam’s Razor

One of the anomalies that Joiner believes he can explain with his theory is the fact that, while, in general, men commit suicide at a much greater rate than women, women in China commit suicide at a greater rate than men. Joiner is quick to find a cultural culprit: Confucianism. Specifically, he says that “the role of Confucianism in Chinese society and its view of the inferior position of women has been emphasized as one explanation, one that is consistent with the current emphasis on effectiveness as a buffer against suicide. (p. 157)” Social scientists, particularly white, Southern social scientists[9], are often quick to reach for a complicated but distancing cultural explanation when there is a perfectly good, but uncomfortable, solution available that might actually survive Occam’s Razor.

In the case of female suicides in China – and higher comparative rates of female suicide throughout Asia, including India (a noted hotbed of Confucianism) – the uncomfortable but obvious explanation is that lethal poisons are available in Asia, but not in the United States. Most females who commit suicide in China do so by poison, and the pattern holds true in other areas where female suicides exceed those of males, such as Bangalore, India. In the United States, many people, including females, attempt suicide by poisoning, but few succeed – lethal poisons are just not available in the United States, and in the event of a potentially lethal poisoning, medical care is not only available, but compulsory. The medical care necessary to treat a poisoning is often not available in China, especially in rural areas.

According to Joiner’s own model, females, who are exposed to less violent, provocative stimulation than men, should have less capability to commit suicide – by violent means. However, death by overdose or poisoning is not violent and is within the capabilities of many women. One need not reach for what even Joiner admits is speculation – that Chinese women, since they perform well in sport competitions (is he thinking of the Olympics?), are, as a group, encouraged to engage in athletics, leading to the development of more masculine traits, such as violence. Joiner’s explanation is, indeed, speculation, and ignores an obvious explanation that is consistent with his model. Perhaps the poison explanation is not as satisfying to Joiner as speculation about the effects of athleticism, because it fails to portray Asian people as sufficiently different from whites.[10]

Joiner indulges in even less responsible speculation when he considers language. Joiner devotes considerable time to the hypothesis that suicidal people fuse themes of life and death – that death becomes a focus for belonging and effectiveness. In contrast to the rest of his book, in which peer-reviewed studies are frequently cited as evidence for his claims, his main evidence for the “fusing of life and death themes” hypothesis is Nirvana lyrics (though he does give us a few isolated quotations of suicidal people that, if you squint the right way, seem to back up his idea).[11] I think that Joiner likes the idea that suicidal people fuse themes of life and death because it makes us seem more psychotic, and less rational in our actions.

The Ethics of Suicide and the Reality of Suffering

Though Joiner clearly has an ethical opinion (suicide is bad), he devotes no time to the question of the ethics of suicide and of forced hospitalization and the suicide prohibition in general. This is not unexpected. It is considered polite and compassionate to do “what is best” for suicidal people, and it is considered to be a serious failure of compassion to suggest that some of us might just know what is best for ourselves. To question suicide prevention on ethical grounds would be extremely foreign to Joiner’s way of thinking.

In addition, Joiner is sure that every death by suicide is preventable because treatment is available, but he fails to cite studies of treatments for suicidal misery that have a 100% long-term success rate. Instead, he proposes, in addition to the usual coercive suicide prevention techniques, public service announcements that say “keep your friends and make new ones too – it’s strong medicine.” He thinks that if more people called a friend every day, just to chat for a few minutes, there would be fewer suicides. He does not seem to apply this thinking to the suicide of his own father, however. His father, at the time of his death, was receiving what Joiner terms “reasonable treatments” (a mood stabilizer and an SSRI), but “his treatment came too late.” Joiner notes that his father sought out friends toward the end of his life, as Joiner’s patronizing public service announcement would have advised him, but “his efforts were not sufficient . . . . These things were beyond him . . . . (p. 226)”

Based on his (undefended) position that suicide is wrong, Joiner repeatedly describes websites like ASBS (an incarnation of the usenet group alt.suicide.holiday.bus.stop) as “pernicious” (God knows what he would think of my project). He wrongly and tellingly characterizes ASBS as pro-suicide – ASBS is pro-choice, as am I. He approvingly cites restrictive guidelines for news outlets regarding reporting on suicides. Joiner says he is against lying about suicide, and is in favor of removing its stigma, but he doesn’t want conversations about suicide to occur if he doesn’t approve of their content.

Joiner promises an explanatory model – he calls his book “a comprehensive theory of suicidal behavior (p. 222)” – and makes assertions based on tacit moral assumptions. I think that Joiner owes us not only an explanation of why people die by suicide, but also of why dying by suicide is wrong – and why coercive means of suicide prevention are ethically appropriate.


Notes

1. Of course, traits are heritable, not acts, but the ability and predilection to commit certain acts, and the ability to distinguish when to do so and when not to do so, may be seen as traits to the extent that they are specifically heritable. More precisely, we must say that a trait is beneficial when it increases one’s inclusive fitness. A trait may be very specific.

2. There is one sense in which it really doesn’t matter, of course, and that is the ethical sense. In fact, this is the sense in which even I have previously stated that an adaptive model makes no difference. But this is not the sense in which Joiner means it. He means that it can have no assessment or treatment consequences and that it is not an appropriate topic for scientific inquiry. As I stated above, the adaptive model has clear assessment and treatment implications. Whether the adaptive model is supported or refuted, it does matter.

3. Another set of data must be explained – a group of “initially pessimistic” teenage mothers reported low depression while pregnant, but high depression postpartum. Joiner attributes this to “the belief that connection to the baby and the baby’s father would solve ongoing problems” during the pregnancy, and to the fact that “the idea that motherhood would solve ongoing problems was not confirmed” after birth. However, the adaptive model gives a cleaner explanation: it makes evolutionary sense for the chemical changes during pregnancy to promote positivity and effectiveness, but also for the fitness prospects of the new baby to be evaluated coldly once the baby is born. This is particularly true for a young mother with no mate. This view is supported by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson’s work on infanticide.

4. See, e.g., Chapter 6, “Altercations and Honor,” in Homicide by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson. Aldine de Gruyter, New York, 1988.

5. Suicide Across the Life Span by Judith Stillion and Eugene McDowell. Taylor & Francis, Washington, D.C., 1996, p. 18.

6. I have not even mentioned the work of Denys DeCatanzaro, whose studies demonstrated a correlation between factors indicating low reproductive value and suicidal ideation. See, e.g., DeCatanzaro, D. (1991). Evolutionary limits to self-preservation. Ethology & Sociobiology, 12, 13-28; and DeCatanzaro, D. (1995). Reproductive status, family interactions, and suicidal ideation: Surveys of the general public and high-risk groups. Ethology & Sociobiology, 16, 385-394.

7. The unquestioning acceptance of the idea of suicide contagion, and of the harm to free speech and freedom of the press done in its name, are also ways in which the taboo against speaking about suicide is maintained.

8. I suspect that Joiner has limited familiarity with economic models and economic thinking, which may be why he seems even more threatened by this idea than by the idea that suicide is adaptive.

9. I don’t think this characterization and its implications are unwarranted. Joiner reports two incidents of people doing crazy things that might inure them to the pain of suicide. In one, a man Joiner specifically identifies by name, Huyn Ngoc Son, “swallowed three metal construction rods, each around seven inches long,” on a bet from drinking buddies, and had to have them surgically removed. In the other story, a man in England, whose name Joiner does not mention, drank fifteen pints of beer, had an argument, and went home to get a shotgun – which, while he was carrying it back to the bar in his pants, discharged shotgun pellets into his “groin area,” potentially rendering him infertile. Research reveals that the man’s name in the second incident was David Walker – the non-Vietnamese name was apparently not funny and foreign-sounding enough for Joiner to include in his description of the event.

10. I know that’s not warranted, but I have as much evidence for that claim as Joiner does for his claim that Chinese women are “sportier.” Also, I am an Internet crackpot, and Thomas Joiner is a goddamn principal investigator.

11. Elsewhere, Joiner reports that he did a “social word” analysis of a suicidal and a non-suicidal Faulkner character – yes, characters from literature – and found that, indeed, the suicidal character used fewer social words. “Faulkner accurately portrayed relatively poorly understood, intense, and rare psychological processes – still more indication of his literary genius.” This is a fun stunt, but the fact that Joiner thinks it belongs in a section called “Research on Social Isolation, Disconnection, and Suicidal Behavior” calls his judgment and intellectual honesty into question.

Thanks to Chip Smith for comments on this piece.

The Evolutionary Biology of Suicide: Is Suicide Adaptive?

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See also “How People Die By Suicide,” my review of Thomas Joiner’s book, Why People Die By Suicide, challenging Joiner’s refusal to consider an adaptive model for suicide and attempted suicide.

Suicide, like filicide, seems upon first consideration to be a ludicrous act, viewed from the perspective of evolutionary biology. However, the act of filicide (the killing of one’s child or children) is clearly adaptive in many cases. Not only that, but it can be shown through statistical evidence that actors seem to differentiate between adaptive and non-adaptive filicides when they “decide” to commit filicide (as well as other homicides). What about suicide?

We can define an act to be adaptive when the act increases the genetic fitness of the actor – that is, when the act’s benefits – in terms of survival, procreation, or nepotistic distribution of resources to one’s genetic relatives – exceed the act’s costs, in the same terms. When considering adaptiveness of acts or traits, it is important to consider not only the particular acting organism and its existing offspring, but all its genetic relatives, including possible future offspring and non-offspring relatives. (A judgment about whether an act is adaptive or not implies no moral judgment. An adaptive act may be praiseworthy, horrible, or neither.)

Filicide is adaptive when the resources to be expended raising a particular child would be better spent on others, in terms of benefit to genetic relatives, present or future. If a child is likely to die or otherwise fail to reproduce, or if raising the child will adversely affect the parent’s ability to have future children that may be a better genetic “bet,” then filicide – while certainly a gruesome act – must be said to be adaptive. Perhaps even more obviously, filicide of a partner’s offspring that is not one’s own genetic offspring is almost always adaptive.

Are people more likely to kill their children under circumstances where the act is adaptive? A major body of work in evolutionary psychology suggests that this is so. For instance, stepparents are much more likely to kill their stepchildren than birth parents are to kill their genetic children. People are much more likely to kill babies than older children, and younger mothers are more likely to kill their babies than older mothers. It seems that not only is filicide sometimes adaptive, but that humans possess mechanisms to prevent themselves from committing filicide when it is not adaptive, and to allow themselves to commit filicide when it is adaptive.

Does the same hold true for suicide? There are two related questions: first, is suicide ever adaptive? Second, if suicide is sometimes adaptive, do humans appear to possess mechanisms to limit suicide to cases where it is adaptive?

As to the first question, it can be clearly demonstrated, at least in the abstract, that suicide is sometimes adaptive. The easy case is one in which a person sacrifices her life so that genetic relatives may live. Such cases must be rare, and are so different from the usual connotations of “suicide” as to barely be considered suicide at all. The more common case where suicide is adaptive is this: one’s total expected future contribution to one’s genetic fitness is exceeded by one’s total expected drain on the resources of one’s genetic relatives.

To put this in more concrete terms, there are many cases – old age, crippling disability – where all measures of genetic fitness approach zero. Once one may no longer reproduce, and is no longer an effective nepotistic distributor of resources (including wisdom), one’s expected contribution to one’s own genetic fitness is likely to be nil. However, as long as one survives in this condition, he not only contributes nothing to his own genetic fitness, but also likely drains the resources of his genetic relatives. His continued survival is contrary to his genetic interests. Therefore, suicide, in this situation, must be said to be adaptive.

The second question is: given that suicide is sometimes adaptive, do human beings tend to commit suicide in circumstances where it is adaptive?

Unfortunately, I lack the quantitative tools and study design knowledge to answer this question. But I will point to two conflicting bodies of evidence on this question.

In support of the idea that humans tend to commit suicide when it is adaptive is data demonstrating that the suicide rate increases dramatically for elderly people. Using age as a rough estimate of expected genetic contribution, the suicide rate (inversely) tracks genetic fitness. Excluding children, the suicide rate is lowest for those with the highest expected evolutionary fitness – those ages 15-34. The suicide rate climbs from there. In 1950, before the age of nursing homes, the suicide rate for those ages 75-84 was more than double the average suicide rate for the country. In addition, suicides by the elderly are more likely to be planned, with less likelihood of warning prior to the act.

In addition to data on suicide among the elderly, suicide is particularly likely in elderly people with poor health, and particularly those with low vision – both conditions that, in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, might be expected to indicate low expected contribution to the fitness of one’s genetic relatives.

Contrary to this is the data on familicide. Familicide is the killing of one’s spouse and children. It is almost the exclusive province of males. There are two key features of familicide that are relevant to the discussion of the adaptiveness of suicide: a familicide is much more likely to kill his biological children than a mere filicide, and a familicide is much more likely to commit suicide than a simple filicide or uxoricide (wife killer).

Familicide seems to be an extremely counter-adaptive act, especially since the killer’s biological children are commonly involved, compared to simple filicides, which are more likely to involve stepchildren. The fact that suicide is much more likely in a familicide, as opposed to a simple uxoricide or filicide, suggests, by association, that suicide is frequently a counter-adaptive act.

Note: the question of whether suicide is adaptive is an entirely different question from whether it is rational, in the lifetime-utility-maximizing sense.

Written by Sister Y

October 8, 2008 at 9:54 pm