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Friday, 23 February, 2001, 11:27 GMT
Did the caveman teach us to queue?
Indian voters queuing
The cult of evolutionary psychology has received another boost with the theory we were born to queue. But, asks Chris Horrie, can caveman behaviour really explain everything we do?

Psychologists have announced that the famously British propensity to stand in a queue has roots stretching back 30,000 years to the behaviour of semi-naked ape-men struggling for survival on the African savannah.

According to the theory, early humans who copied the behaviour of others tended to live longer and, therefore, had a better chance of reproducing and passing on the behaviour to later generations. Those who did not, died out.

Supermarket shopper
It's only a small step from going out to kill a wild boar
The queuing claim is only the latest in a welter of theories in the field of evolutionary psychology.

In the last few years evolutionary psychology has been used to explain everything from consumer behaviour in supermarkets, to management theory, sexual attractiveness, divorce, war, football, road rage and even a supposed male propensity to rape.

According to the theory, people eat too much because, as cavemen, we never knew where the next meal was coming from. Possibly there were Neanderthals who counted the calories, but the chances are they died out during the frequent famines of stone-age life, having failed to build up enough fat.

Self help

Likewise, according to the theory, early men learned to lust after women displaying the physical signs of fertility - thus ensuring the genetic traits which made women look fertile in the first place.

Husbands are unfaithful because spreading their seed helped men reproduce their genes. Men lust after playboy bunnies and supermodels because they learned that an hourglass figure was a sign of high fertility

New York Times columnist Erica Goode
It is also claimed that the supposed modern female preference for physically strong men has similar ancient, biological roots.

In recent years, discussion of evolutionary psychology has passed from university lecture theatres into the media, popular books, "how to" management theory and the developed world's booming "self-help" sector.

Two months ago a book called Mean Genes, containing a popular "self-improvement" version of the theory, became a best seller in the United States.

The book's co-author, Harvard Business School guru Terry Burnham, writes: "Ancient and selfish, our genes influence us every day in almost every way."

The caveman within

Businesses which recognise the essential caveman hiding within their staff and customers do better than those who delude themselves that modern people are more than a monkeys with clothes, driven solely by the most base physical instincts.

Steven Rose
Critical: professor Steven Rose
Behind the wave of interest in evolutionary psychology lies one of the longest running conundrums chewed over by thinkers: is human behaviour and personality determined mainly by social environment or by genetic make-up?

The debate over the role of "nature v nurture" in determining human behaviour has raged since classical times, with the pendulum swinging first one way and then the other. At the moment the "nature" camp is making the running, as the enthusiasm for evolutionary psychology seems to indicate.

But the theory also has many critics.

Last month no less than 16 British and American psychologists and scientists lined up to denounce evolutionary psychology despite its growing popularity.

Mean Genes
Making your genes work for you
The counter-claims came in a book of essays edited by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose of the Open University, entitled Alas, Poor Darwin.

Evolutionary psychology, says Professor Rose, has become popular with professional academics because "talking about genes is powerful talk against the background of the Human Genome Project - psychologists are scrambling to get on the 'hard science' bandwagon".

The idea, he says, that behaviour in a bus queue can be linked to human genetic evolution, is "just laughable".

The popular appeal of the theory, he believes, is explained its concentration on sexual attractiveness.

'Talking dirty'

"There's a lot of talking dirty in evolutionary psychology. Lots of discussion of how women look and how to attract a mate - stuff about the importance of women having small waists and big hips on the grounds of 'survival of the fittest'. But it's all nonsense."

Ape man
An early advocate of football and shopping?
Given that there are some cultures where the wearing of a five inch plate inside the upper lip is seen as the ultimate in sexual attractiveness, it is perhaps hard to see the advantage such behaviour provides in terms of Darwinian "natural selection".

Sometimes, Professor Rose thinks, the whole theory seems like a cross between the thinking of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and Adolf Hitler - except that evolutionary biology is not racist.

Some of its most extreme critics say "EP" has a "direct intellectual lineage" from Nazism and the idea that people can be improved - just like animals - by selective breeding and eugenics.

Others object to the theory's "sexism" which, controversially, can be seen as an apology for rape.

The critics nevertheless admit that some human traits, such as breathing, sleeping and eating, are evolutionary and not "learned" Some even concede evolutionary explanations of sexual attractiveness may have some validity.

But, the critics say, human behaviour is more complex than evolution and results from a mixture of biology, environment, culture, learning, moral choice and free will.

For many, their mantra remains: "Biology is not destiny".

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