From ........ Forbes

October 24, 1994

page 270

INSIGHTS - Science & Technology


Commentary by Peter Huber Peter Huber, a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute, is the author of Orwell's Revenge (Free Press, forthcoming, fall 1994).

THIS BEING the political season, we think of sex. The politicians of our species, it sometimes seems, have evolved over the generations to pursue sex as vigorously as votes. We shouldn't reproach them, we are often told. Sexual bulimia is a private problem, not a public one.

Here's a contrary view. A promiscuous politician is stealing from the public till. I'm talking science, not religion. You'll find much of the relevant evolutionary biology and game theory described in two intriguing recent books, Matt Ridley's The Red Queen and Robert Wright's The Moral Animal.

Males (human and other) compete against other males for mates. Reproduction costs them little, and Darwinian selection favors fecundity. To be sure, males pursue most avidly those females whose appearance telegraphs fertility. But if nothing else mattered, males would proposition every plausible reproductive vessel in sight. More than a few males on the Potomac behave accordingly.

Females compete equally intensely for mates, but emphasize quality over quantity. They have to, because they invest more in each child, and cannot produce as many as successful males. So females vie for the mate most likely to father and help raise premium offspring. One good predictor is the father's own record of success. In species that live communally, the female is thus programmed to prefer the high-status male. Like a preapproved credit card, he is already certified to be healthy, wealthy and wise. If nothing else mattered, she'd couple with him, surreptitiously if necessary, while feigning fidelity to any cuckold who would help raise baby.

But most people, most of the time, do not behave that way.

The reason is simple: On both sides of the sexual divide, other things do matter. It takes more than sex to survive genetically. The most successful tribes, human and other, are not programmed to cheat sexually at every chance, any more than they're programmed to beggar their neighbors or obliterate whales.

Altruism, even for other species, is not anti-Darwinian. It is genetically normal. In fact, it is genetically superior. Game theorist Robert Axelrod demonstrated this over a decade ago in his landmark book The Evolution of Cooperation. In communal species, the golden rule prevails over more predatory approaches. A dog-cat-dog world does not end up filled with vast herds of contented golden retrievers; it ends up occupied by a few battle-scarred, flea-bitten rottweilers. Simple, basic rules of cooperation and reciprocity yield more collective prosperity, and therefore more viable offspring all around.

Cooperation remains vulnerable, however. Defectors and cheats can always prosper at the fringes, by pretending to cooperate while secretly breaking all the rules. So rules, and a willingness to enforce them, have to be maintained. Nowhere more so than in matters of sex.

Sexual norms don't exist to protect one sex from the other. They exist to prevent endless, energy-sapping, conflict-creating competition among members of one sex for the favors of the other. They protect women from other women, and men from other men. A potentate's huge harem is bad enough for the women inside, but it's far worse, genetically speaking, for the celibate men outside. The rules of monogamy, in short, serve a public purpose, quite as much as the rules proscribing monopoly or murder.

Back now to politics. In a democracy, a politician gets high social status in much the same way as he gets an F-16. We the people lend it to him , on the strict understanding he'll use it for our benefit, not his own. Once it becomes acceptable to use the sexual magnetism of public office in pursuit of private sex, democracy crumbles. Cashing in on political power in the bedroom is the same as depositing tax receipts in a private account in Switzerland. It's all part of the same, wolfish business of turning social power against the people who entrusted it to you.

The worst societies tolerate it the most. Look at a political map of the world. Note all the despots, the kleptocrats, the desert pashas and feudal princes. A few dominant males reproduce like ferrets. A few high-status females may prosper, too. Most everyone else is a slave, or a reproductive chattel. There may be millions of them at the bottom of the social heap - lots of genes - but they survive as precariously as beetles. They are periodically decimated by plague, famine and war, the last often orchestrated by their own leaders to thin their ranks. Predatory societies lack the time, energy or inclination to overcome such things.

Sexually cooperative cultures do far better. Male cooperators don?t have to fritter away energy defending harems against sexually deprived brothers. Female cooperators can spend the energy saved on seduction not only raising healthy children but also doing eye surgery or investment banking. Monogamous cultures, cultures that respect rules of sexual cooperation, are able to go forward from there, and cooperate in other matters. Their science and medicine, their art and their weapons, advance far faster as a result.

A polysexual politician (of either sex or party) is an embezzler and a fraud. Trust a man or woman like that with your vote, and (s)he'll abscond with the family jewels.