Does Personal Ambition Make Us Less “Fit”?

January 26, 2008 at 1:20 am (evolution, feminism)

Evolutionarily speaking – Does ambition to seek higher education and a prestigious career go against our innate drive to procreate?  A conversation I had with a friend today got me thinking about this.  He mentioned to me how many Western European countries and China currently have birth rates that are to low to keep pace with the death rates.  The trend isn’t quite that dramatic in the U.S. (go figure), but it seems that countries with more educated and “professional” populations are the ones with declining birth rates.  Aren’t we always hearing news-fluff stories about how women are waiting until they are older and more professionally established to have children – often with negative repercussions for her fertility?
Putting political correctness aside, let’s face it – its not the women that are seeking masters, PhD’s and upwardly mobile careers that are popping out 4, 5 or more children.  And of course, of course, of course, there are exceptions to every rule!  Speaking in evolutionary terms, women that choose to wait until they have achieved their educational and career goals, until they have put away some money and established a home, until they have been married for a couple years – these women are less fit than women who start having children in their early 20’s and have a herd of them.  Taking myself and my friends as examples, I will not graduate until I’m 27, I’ll marry when I’m 27 and if I have a child – and that’s a big IF – it won’t be until I’m nearly 30.  At that point, I’d be lucky to have one or two, three at the most (god-forbid).

If this is truly the case, then in order to perpetuate one’s own personal blood line, wouldn’t we encourage our own children against seeking out ambitious goals, thus ensuring the continuation of our lineage?  Well, at least with my parents, this was certainly NOT the case, and it is not the case with most parents.  We are always hearing that children are encouraged above all else to get the most education they possibly can and to achieve their own goals in life.  Have we, as humans, evolved beyond the point of the blind urge to pass on our own genes?  It is now culturally acceptable and encouraged for one to find their own true happiness before settling down with a spouse and kids.  It seems that we have surpassed pure species perpetuation and moved onto self-gratification.  And I’m not saying that either is better, but it is truly interesting.

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Highly Sensitive People

August 23, 2007 at 3:17 am (books, evolution)

I have been to busy this week to even think.  Between the onset of classes, squeezing in last minute experiments and getting a big presentation ready I have been completely fried.  I feel like my brain has melted, not unlikely in the desert heat.

I did read something while I was scarfing down lunch today that I found kind of interesting.  I am currently reading “Evolution for Everyone” by David Sloane Wilson.  I thought it’d be good preparation for dealing with snarky undergrads questioning evolution in the class I’m TA’ing.  Anyway, the chapter I was reading dealt with the evolution of personality, something which is certainly not limited to humans, but was first demonstrated in a diverse range of animals.  Wilson discussed the the personality type “Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP) – basically a person who is, as the name implies, very sensitive to stimuli.  As I was reading the description of the HSP characteristics, it was like a mental checklist:  that’s me, uh huh, that sounds about right, oh yea I do that, that’s not normal???  Things like being extra sensitive to bright light, loud noise, pain, clothing texture as well as drugs and caffeine.  It also includes people who are easily overwhelmed by to many things to do or by change.  Also, people who are easily startled and very emotional about art and music.  Wilson provides a link to a self-test.  I scored 22/27 – that’s high in case anyone was wondering.  Apparently 15-20% of the population falls into this group, so it is by no means abnormal.

I was often made fun of as a child because I would come downstairs after I had gone to bed to tell whoever was downstairs watching TV to turn it down, even if it was just at normal volume.  I am completely incapable of tuning out noise or light, which is why I pretty much have to have pitch dark silence to sleep.  I have never understood people who could read or study with the radio on – I wish I could do that!

So great, every little thing bugs me, how is that a personality trait that would have evolved?  Well, it turns out HSPs are very sensitive to their surroundings and have been historically better equipped to be aware of things (predators, food, weather, etc) which might affect their health and livelihood.  This is obvious when you think about it.  I mean who’s going to survive to pass on their genes – me, who wakes up with the first drop of rain, or my brother, who would sleep through a tornado?  Isn’t evolution wonderful?!

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