charles darwin origin of the species evolution natural selection vulnerability

From Darwin to Hawking: Our Evolving Understanding of Vulnerability

charles darwin origin of the species evolution natural selection vulnerabilityIt is hard to think of any individual who has so dramatically shaped our view of the fundamentals of human nature as Charles Darwin. His epic treatise On the Origin of the Species, published in 1859, is considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology. In 1864, Herbert Spencer coined the phrase, Survival of the Fittest to describe Darwin’s ideas about natural selection.

A common misinterpretation of this theory suggests that competition naturally weeds out the weak, propelling evolution forward without need for intervention. Some economic schools continue to argue that our fiscal policy should be based upon this principle, cut-throat economic competition compatible with Adam Smith’s laissez faire economy.

The evolution of men’s societal role has been similarly influenced by this interpretation. The hypermasculine male believes that vulnerability is something to avoid. Literature from the Romantic Period up to mid-twentieth century popular culture has lionized the male as head of the household. Patriarchy — a society where men hold greater control of the decisions and actions that shape it — is based upon this premise. Vulnerability equates to weakness, to be disowned, attributed to women (or ‘over-sensitive’ men) and consequently discounted.

Are we correct to assume that vulnerability is contrary to evolution?

To the contrary, we have been misled by Spencer’s phrase and the lingering patriarchy it enables. Darwin did not in any sense suggest that the fittest were the strongest or least vulnerable. Nor did he refer to individuals. Rather, he suggested that the traits of species that survived were best-fitted to their environment. For many animals, adaptation involved becoming more gentle.

Consider our close evolutionary relative, the orangutan, for example. Though we once considered them to be fierce due to their size and ability to demonstrate fierce protectiveness, closer study has revealed them to have a remarkably gentle character. They have the longest childhood dependence upon their mother of any animal in the world, nursing to age six and staying closer to their mother for several years more.

Species can survive and thrive by becoming smaller (the field mouse), bigger (the whale), faster (the hummingbird) or slower (the sloth). Many animals survive precisely because of their sensitivity to vulnerability (the deer).

Darwin proposed that natural selection would occur at the level of community.

That would suggest we pursue policies and choose behaviors in the best interest of the larger collective, in the case of humans we would refer to families, communities, even societies. For a minority of a species to succeed at the cost of a majority would be fatal, in fact, for the survival of that species. Yet that is precisely how patriarchy has been established.

The elephant, equally capable as the orangutan of exerting strength to protect its young, also teaches us the importance of nurturance and communication. When an elephant is born, the community gathers around, rumbles in joy, and from that point forward will tend to the welfare of the calf collectively. A critical reader might observe that the male elephant tends to roam on its own in between mating season. That is true, but that male also has little influence in the direction of the herd. If human males wish to be a healthy contributor to our families, community, and society, we too must learn nurturing skills.

In fact, nature is abundant with examples — dolphins, doves, and otters to name but a few — of animals whose greatest adaptation is their sensitivity and compassion for one another, marking both individual and collective emotional intelligence. When sheep are threatened, for instance, they gather in a large group and run away together from predators.

Over the past century we have stepped back from such glorification of humans as the wisest species and men as the fittest gender along with the corollary diminution of women as delicate and inferior. Modern biology has exposed the fallacy of such beliefs. Further, as a basis for intimacy it is recognized to be fundamentally narcissistic. Yet the question remains, as imbalanced and patriarchal as our stereotypes have been, if not this then what?

Darwin later wrote that emotions serve a biological purpose and hence have been passed down, not only from generation to generation, but from species to species. The fact that all animals, including humans, have a dominant limbic brain with the express function of releasing peptides we experience as joy, satisfaction, excitement, fear, sadness, and anger suggests that this full range of emotion must be valuable to our survival. The influence of René Descartes and subsequent philosophers has led to the separation of science and the mind from matters of heart and spirit. Great leaps in knowledge were gained, but at a cost that is the dissociation of men from our emotion and intuition.

“Some people would claim that things like love, joy and beauty belong to a different category from science and can’t be described in scientific terms, but I think they can now be explained by the theory of evolution.”
— Stephen Hawking

Yes, there is a hierarchy within packs of animals, but we should not confuse that with survival of the fittest. It is actually about creating pack stability. Empathy holds equal importance among most animal packs; members will fight for one another when posed with any external threat. Similarly, among human tribes, communities that support one another become the ‘fittest’ in harsh environments. People of North America’s First Nations knew and lived that code long before European colonialists arrived.

From each according to his ability and desire…

We humans, in fact, do sort ourselves within a similar taxonomy of workplace roles. Who becomes a doctor or a landscaper? Ideally that would be based upon ability, desire, skill, etc. That is how we can create stability within our own human community. Those who wish to become veterinarians should be able to study animal biology, and so forth.  Note, however, that there need be no gender delineation.

The reality is that we all need both a sense of agency and communion.

Dan McAdams, Professor of Psychology and Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern University and author of Stories We Live By, identified two central themes in our stories about happiness (or lack thereof in our personal struggles). Agency he defined as our ability to make choices and act effectively upon the world. At the same time we experience a need for Communion; the bond that unites us in our care for one another, our compassion and sense of reciprocal well-being.

Is it preferable to rise to the top, to sacrifice relationships and a balanced life for business glory?  A recent Vanderbilt study suggests not. Over four-decade researchers tracked 1,630 ‘gifted’ 13-year-olds, all of whom scored in the top 1% in ‘mathematical reasoning ability’, a predictor of success in later life both for boys and girls. In their 50’s, these individuals had indeed fared well, accomplished and high-achieving. Men, however, were more likely to be CEOs as well as work in technology and engineering while women were more likely to work in general business, education, and health-care (both were equally likely to work in fields such as finance, medicine, and law). Men’s careers could be described as high-powered, women’s careers could be more aptly described as successful yet balanced.

The difference, the researchers learned, was less a consequence of workplace bias and limitation (though that still plays a role) as much as preference; men value money and want to excel at work, women value free time, flexibility, and social relationships. Women have access, the study concluded, to the boardroom. They choose, however, a more balanced life and scored equally on all measures of psychological well-being; “There are multiple ways to construct a meaningful, productive and satisfying life.”

So is it women who have been brainwashed to cede pinnacle success or, alternatively, men who have been brainwashed to disown their vulnerability, cede any relational needs for the promise of material reward?

The answer, I believe, is the latter. The corporate model of relationship is based upon a zero-sum game; conflicts are to be fought rather than mediated. This is not conducive to the very real need of love and belonging essential to a long-term healthy intimate relationship. We need to be able to communicate with one another for a relationship to last, we need this person to be our best friend, that is the motive for examining and reconstructing norms for men and women.

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
— African proverb

Certainly, Western culture in the past century has framed the accumulation of wealth as the greatest measure of personal success. But is it? Do material rewards not, in fact, offer just a brief satisfaction that deteriorates with time to create an insatiable desire for further and further accumulation? If the social relationships that the gifted young girls in the Vanderbilt study value and are more likely to maintain throughout their successful career are important to our well-being, how do we fail to recognize this?

Genuine social connection acknowledges interdependency, our need for others, the impact they have upon us or, in short, our vulnerability.

When I first introduce my male clients to the topic of vulnerability, many express an aversion approaching horror. It is something they feel must be avoided at all cost. To acknowledge vulnerability suggests that they’re weak, they protest. While I validate that this is not an uncommon belief, I warn them that their therapy could turn this type of thinking on its head.

To live is to be vulnerable. The relationship between vulnerability and intimacy is inseparable, linking the intra- to inter-personal. Vulnerability infers our dependency upon others in some aspects of our life, at certain moments, to attain certain needs. Intimacy is our willingness to allow others to know this about us.

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