In 1960, most Americans embraced the traditional Christian attitude that premarital sex is immoral, which was also shared by Muslims and Jews. Since then, popular opinion has shifted, and the majority of people now believe that premarital sex is acceptable, even beneficial.
Our grandparents were correct, while we were incorrect. To recognize this now, we might add to their acquired wisdom arguments based on evolutionary psychology, a school of thinking that views human impulses as a set of survival and propagation tactics for our “selfish genes.” Many gender stereotypes have been confirmed by evolutionary psychology; yet, when combined with some commonsense ethics, it can offer a new justification of conventional moral ideas on sex.
Evolutionary psychology explains why humans cannot be content with casual, no-strings-attached sex because it does not come naturally to them. Men are eager for it, and when they can get away with it, they use women for pleasure, but women are inherently discriminating and coy. They prefer to have sex in a committed relationship. Because of intrinsic conflicts of interest between men’s and women’s selfish genes, premarital sex is complicated and difficult. In this way, it differs dramatically from marriage, which brings genetic inclinations into harmony.
Instincts, Ethics, and the Selfish Genes
To illustrate how evolution might explain altruistic behavior, Richard Dawkins developed the phrase “selfish genes.” Though the altruist may not be serving his own interests, he is serving his genes’ “interests.”
Humans have a natural desire to help others, yet most of these impulses are the result of our genes’ self-help efforts. The most basic example is parents’ innate benevolence toward their children. Parents make sacrifices, yet their genes are passed down through the generations. Selfish genes feed our appetites, urges, reflexes, and preoccupations—in a sense, instincts—on a sub-rational level.
In terms of ethics, these inclinations are neither good nor harmful. C.S. Lewis said it best in Mere Christianity when he compared instincts to piano keys and ethics to the musician. No piano key is a correct or wrong note in and of itself, but each is a right or wrong note at a specific point in a piece of music. Similarly, our instincts are all fine in certain situations and harmful in others. Ethics is not about blindly obeying or suppressing instincts, but about governing them rationally. Reason, a soul-based faculty that is not reducible to genes, chemicals, or physical forces, determines the purposes for which we should use our instincts.
Evolutionary psychology elucidates the component of human nature that Paul referred to as “the flesh,” not human nature as a whole. Humans have lived in situations of competition and scarcity for hundreds or thousands of generations as a result of the Fall, and genes have had to be “selfish” to maintain market share in the human gene pool during that time. That is why, even those who dispute or deny that all life evolved through evolutionary processes, the merits of arguments based on selfish genes should be recognized.
To effectively control our impulses, we must first comprehend them. We must remember that evolution is slow, therefore our selfish genes are trapped in a time loop. Human instincts appear to have evolved to assist us in surviving and reproducing in “the environment of evolutionary adaptation,” that is, in the Stone Age. We have an unhealthy obsession with salt, sugar, and fat because these foods were limited in the Stone Age. To generalize, men prefer video games and sports because they were hunters in the Stone Age, whereas women enjoy shopping because they were genetically predisposed to be Stone Age gatherers.
Above all, the selfish genes are concerned with sex, as this is how they reproduce. Testable, successful hypotheses regarding men and women, sexual desire and behavior, can be found in evolutionary psychology.