There's never been a shortage of advice on how to have the perfect relationship, and on how to fix it when it goes wrong. Rather less attention is paid to whether such "conflict-free relationships" are even possible, let alone attainable. In this fascinating book, Paul Seabright explains why conflict comes as a package deal with the kind of cooperation that is unique to our species and that characterizes all our relationships, personal or professional. The romantics among us will be reassured that understanding the biology of human evolution does not mean the end of love. And although this book will leave you a little less misty-eyed about the business of coupling, there is still plenty of mystery to keep you on your toes.
Seabright's central claim is that conflict "exists in a particularly complicated form between men and women because human beings are the most cooperative species on earth". Driving the evolution of cooperation was our ancestors' colonization of a very risky evolutionary niche: the long childhood. Giving birth to helpless offspring and having them hang around for years in a state of utter dependence on kin does not sound like a recipe for evolutionary success, and it nearly didn't work out for us (every other hominin species went extinct). Yet here we are, not only in vast numbers on the planet but working together in groups of a size not seen elsewhere in nature. (Seabright has written about this in The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life (Revised Edition)
and Jonathan Haidt emphasizes our capacity for non-kin groupishness in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
The book "is about the traces our evolutionary past have left on the economic relations between men and women in the twenty-first century". If "economic relations" sounds a bit dry, Seabright is referring here to the systematic ways in which we negotiate over things we value, "whether these are obviously economic goods like money and food, or other, nonmonetary resources like time, effort, and self-esteem". In other words, all those things familiar to anyone who's ever been in a relationship. And how do we negotiate? Rationally, as perfect economic agents with access to complete information? Or do we sometimes rely more on our instincts and emotions to do the work?
Many thinkers from David Hume to Robert Frank (Passions within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions
) have recognized the power of the emotions (which fact has also kept many novelists and poets in work). The importance of the emotions in decision making is also becoming better appreciated (see, for example, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain
). Seabright emphasizes their evolutionary history, that while our emotions "started out as natural selection's way of directing our attention to things that mattered for our fitness" they "have become the things that matter in themselves". That can be a problem, when the fitness landscape (which now includes things like contraception) they used to help navigate has changed beyond all recognition.
Add to this that natural selection "does not fashion optimal relationships, not even in the limited sense in which it has fashioned optimal physical hearts", and it's not surprising that evolution has not given us relationships that last a lifetime. "If relationships do last a lifetime, it is because the parties can be lucid and constructive about reconciling their conflicting interests."
What has any of this got to do with the world of work? How can it explain why women represent only 32 percent of lawyers and 1.3 percent of airline pilots, or why women's salaries continue to be lower than men's even within occupations, or why "many of the most prestigious and highly remunerated positions continue to have startlingly low rates of representation of women"?
These are highly puzzling facts. Before the 20th century there would of course have been nothing strange about the absence of women from many workplaces. Now, given the remarkable and unprecedented century-long social experiment to remove obstacles to the division of labour between men and women, it's a different story. There are many more women in the labour market, and they are even in a slight majority in "management, professional and related occupations". However, inequalities remain. Seabright argues that a combination of two factors is responsible. There are differences in preferences for which woman pay a high price, and there are subtle differences "between men and women that can operate to make the talents of women less conspicuous to potential colleagues and employers than those of equivalently talented men." For example, women "caring for children signal a quality - conscientiousness - that employers really value [but] employers are not present to observe them with their children, and women continue to pay a high price for their absence from the workplace during those years."
One thing both sides of the war between the sexes can agree on is that we have bigger brains than peacocks. Unlike the peacock, we humans can devise "less wasteful ways to reveal our talents and motivations to each other" and so escape the signalling trap that condemns the male birdbrain to an arms race of tail feathers and strutting to and fro. Whether we will is another question, of course, although our chances will be improved by reading Paul Seabright.