Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and the Importance of Adaptation Implementation in Evolutionary Psychology
I’m not going to lie. If you follow my work at all, hopefully this isn’t a surprise – I try to stay honest – it’s a way to compensate for my deficits. Lots of folks I know – several of whom I consider good friends – report that they just can’t stand evolutionary psychology. Some seem to think it’s the devil – morally and scientifically irresponsible and reprehensible. I do my best to deal with things, but every now and then, honestly, I just shake my head. And sometimes I just have to write about it.
A few weeks ago, a really interesting discussion about the mating-relevant differences between Luke Skywalker and Han Solo emerged in my graduate course in social psychology. This was one of these moments when a thread of the fabric of American culture and the content of the course interfaced perfectly.
Luke is prototyipically non-masculine – whiny and wimpy throughout three episodes. Han is just macho. He plays it cool, doesn’t need anyone’s help, and has classic masculine good looks.
What’s attractive about Luke? What’s attractive about Han? The conversation touched on several themes relevant to evolutionary psychology – mate choice, optimal features of long-term mates, optimal features of short-term mates, morphological features of sexually attractive males, the handicap principle applied to high levels of testosterone, inbreeding depression, and so forth. It was an exciting class discussion that put a face to many of the concepts from the readings of the week.
About a week later, I had a passing conversation with a long-time academic friend – who’s, notably, not a huge fan of evolutionary psychology. Somehow, I briefly mention this great class discussion – and my friend sort of scoffs – saying something like “can’t it be just that Han Solo would be way better in bed? It’s not like I’d want to have babies with him!”
I’ve learned to not bother arguing about evolutionary psychology in certain circles – but my mind immediately went to a conversation I’d had with David Schmitt when he visited New Paltz last year (to give a talk about mating psychology on Darwin’s 200th birthday). David is, of course, a leading thinker and researcher in the field – and the only thing as substantial as the academic rigor of his work is his reasonable take on things. An expert on the nature of psychological adaptations (see Schmitt & Pilcher, 2004), David introduced me to the distinction between “adaptation implementers” and “fitness optimizers” (a conception that he attributed to his mentor David Buss, a luminary in the field).
If we think of organisms as designed by evolutionary forces to propagate their own genes (Dawkins, 1976), we can have two general ways of understanding organisms. Perhaps (a) organisms are “fitness optimizers,” designed to consciously do whatever it takes to successfully produce viable progeny. On the other hand, perhaps organisms are “adaptation implementers,” designed with a battery of specific adaptations that, on average, had the effect of increasing the reproductive success of the organism’s ancestors compared with conspecifics without said adaptations.
OK – so let’s put a face to all this. Think about pregnancy sickness, famously studied by Margie Profet (1992). If pregnancy sickness is conceptualized from a fitness-optimization perspective, then pregnant women are essentially framed as conscious of the deleterious effects of certain foods on their babies, and they make themselves sick to certain stimuli as a result. If women with pregnancy sickness are, instead, framed as “adaptations implementers,” then the fact that they tend to get sick in certain contexts (e.g., when eating certain foods that are likely to possess toxins) is the result of this psychological and physiological tendency (that we call pregnancy sickness) to have increased the fitness of ancestral women – regardless of conscious thought surrounding the reproductive benefits of pregnancy sickness.
As Dave put it to me, evolutionary psychology sees humans as “adaptation implementers” – not “fitness optimizers.”
This important construct can be applied, really, to any adaptation. Think about fear of heights – one of the most basic and culturally universal fears. On one hand, we can think of this fear in terms of “conscious fitness optimization” – with people thinking “I know that if I fall 100 feet, that’s it for me – and my entire genetic lineage – ouch!” OR we can think of expressed fear of heights as explicating “adaptation implementation.” In this way, we can think of a natural fear of heights as the product nature selecting for ancestors across generations who happened to, by chance – and likely unconsciously – fear heights. In this way, someone expressing a fear of heights is simply implementing an adaptation that, on average, across generations, gave the ancestors of people with a fear of heights a reproductive advantage over others.
This same line of reasoning makes it so that modern-day contraception is not a deal killer for evolutionary psychology. I’ve heard people argue essentially that “well if evolutionary psychology says we do everything to propagate our genes, but we use contraception and many of us CHOOSE to not have kids, doesn’t that just say that evolutionary psychology is all wrong?” No. Actually. It doesn’t. Such an argument does, however, suggest that the conscious fitness-optimization approach to evolutionary psychology is completely misguided. If we were designed to consciously maximize fitness regardless of any other factors, then maybe contraception would not be as prevalent as it is – and maybe more people would choose to have children. But, in fact, people who use contraception (and there are lots of us out there) are still products of evolution whose psychologies are filled with adaptations. Contraception users still fear heights, spiders, and snakes more than other stimuli. Contraception users still show nepotistic tendencies when considering whom to help in emergency situations. They still get angry at being cheated by others in their close social circles. Contraception users experience the basic emotions of joy, sadness, surprise, disgust, and anger – and contraception users can identify these emotional states accurately in humans from across the globe. And they still find spoiled milk totally gross. Contraception users are attracted to the same features in mates that non-contraception users are attracted to – they still prefer that a mate be kind, intelligent, witty, and attractive. And, back on task, female contraception users still find Han Solo more sexually attractive than Luke Skywalker. That is, they implement psychological adaptations – regardless of conscious efforts to reduce the likelihood of reproducing. And this is exactly what we would expect in organisms that are designed to implement a battery of fitness-increasing adaptations – as opposed to organisms with general-purpose mechanisms designed to consciously increase reproductive success regardless of environmental conditions.
Being a person who uses contraception and chooses to not have children does NOT make that individual a person whose behavior and psychology are unrelated to the evolutionary history of homo sapiens
Back to the Order of the Jedi: Think about the sexual attraction that a heterosexual woman may feel toward Han over Luke. I haven’t done a poll, but suppose we find evidence that more heterosexual women find Han sexually attractive than Luke – thus, corresponding to a non-random mate-choice situation. Is it accurate and comprehensive to just say that Han would probably be better in bed? I don’t think so! I think that such a response actually screams for a distinction between fitness optimization and adaptation implementation!
In the domain of short-term mating, there are reasons underlying why women are attracted to masculine-looking men – with muscular bodies, high shoulder-to-hip ratios, deep voices, and symmetrical faces (Shoup & Gallup, 2008). And an evolutionary perspective on why women are attracted to such Han Soloesque features does not need to presume that women want to have Han’s baby! When we think of adaptation implementation, this way of thinking, in fact, can be greatly elucidated. It’s not enough to say that a woman would rather sleep with Han than Luke, and that’s just that. Science is about addressing WHY – why would such a pattern typify short-term desires of most heterosexual women? From the adaptation implementation perspective, the answer is steeped in our past. Women with such desires in short-term mates were more likely to leave viable offspring in the future. Mating with such “cads” likely led ancestral women who utilized short-term mating strategies to bear healthy, fit, and attractive offspring who were effective at fending off parasites (Gangestad & Buss, 1993).
So, in short, my friend who made this comment about being more attracted to Han than to Luke was completely right – it doesn’t have to be about consciously wanting to have Han’s baby over Luke’s. From an adaptation-implementation perspective, the ultimate causes of differential attractiveness toward one potential mate over another need not have any bearing on consciously trying to reproduce whatsoever. Just as fear of heights can exist without one consciously thinking about how falling a long way will lead to sudden death. Even if you don’t think that, being on the edge of a cliff in the mountains is still scary! And that’s because such fears gave our ancestors survival and reproductive benefits over others. Similarly, being sexually attracted to a potential mate may not make one think about the fitness-relevant end-product (e.g., shared offspring) – it may simply put one in a state (a hot state!) that is likely to lead to increased likelihood of mating.
And to top it off, remember, Han might be more masculine, but Luke can use the force!
Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gangestad, S. W., and Buss, D. M. (1993). Pathogen prevalence and human mate preferences. Ethology and Sociobiology, 14, 89-96.
Profet, Margie (1992). “Pregnancy Sickness as Adaptation: A Deterrent to Maternal Ingestion of Teratogens”. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Oxford University Press. pp. 327–365.
Schmitt, D. P., & Pilcher, J. J. (2004). Evaluating evidence of psychological adaptation: How do we know one when we see one? Psychological Science, 15, 643-649.
Shoup, M. L. & Gallup, G. G., Jr. (2008). Men’s faces convey information about their bodies and their behavior: What you see is what you get.
Evolutionary Psychology, 6, 469-479.