When you put Dangerous Dave on stage, you always run the risk of ruining your best-laid plans. And so it proved on the final day of TH iNK as the spotlight fell on evolutionary biologist David Barash. The audience had come to hear about whether humans were hardwired for infidelity, war and revenge. But Barash veered off topic and regaled the crowd with quotable quotes on ovulation, breasts and the Big O.
If you want to go on an evolutionary mystery tour, thereâs no better guide than Barash. Thirty minutes is all he needs to make one realise we have taken everything for granted.
âWe are the only primate, only mammal species that keep our ovulation secret. Yet we donât know why!â he says. âNot only is ovulation concealed in most cases from other people, but itâs concealed from the women themselves. Very few women know when they are ovulating. Something so important to their lives is a deep dark secret.â
Could it be an evolutionary ploy to keep the male in attendance? Or does keeping it a secret enable the woman to move freely as it was impossible for a male to guard or monitor her entire cycle? Well, the argument continues.
A professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, Barash is no stranger to stirring up controversy, whether heâs talking evolution, animal behaviour or the human penchant for revenge. He was one of the earliest contributors to the growth of sociobiology, the study of social behaviour with a particular focus on the role of evolution.
âSociobiology involves examining what living things do â including complex actions such as courtship, parenting, altruism and its flip-side, conflict and competition â with an eye to how they reflect evolutionary, genetic strategies,â says the 67-year-old, who has penned 30-odd books, including Madame Bovaryâs Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature.
Itâs no accident he speaks of examining what living things â rather than people â do; he has extensively studied animal behaviour, especially the evolution of social systems among free-living animals.
So, are humans hardwired for infidelity, war and revenge? For Barash, the short answer is no, no and no. âWe are not absolutely mandated, guaranteed inexorably to do these things,â he says. âIndeed, thereâs very little in human behaviour that is hardwired in that sense. We are the most flexible, most adaptable living things on the planet, capable of rising above genetically influenced traits.â
Why are dogs and cats housebroken so easily, whereas a human baby takes years to learn how to use the loo? Because all primate species evolved in trees, humans have a deep-seated inclination not to be toilet-trained. âThe fact that we are toilet- trained is remarkable, something we should be proud of,â he says. âHopefully, a primate that can become toilet-trained can become planet-trained one day.â