Cheating is natural, Crawford maintains

June 24, 2004, vol. 30, no. 5
By Roberta Staley

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For millennia, historical iconoclasts from Plato to Shakespeare, Hobbes and Freud, have agonized and philosophized about the true nature of man.

It would seem, however, that country and western crooner Hank Williams finally got it right, as expressed in his tuneful lament, Your Cheatin' Heart. If you accept that cheating is mankind's great flaw, you are well on your way to understanding human behaviour.

That, at least, is the opinion of Charles Crawford, professor emeritus of psychology and co-editor of a new book, Evolutionary psychology, public policy, and personal decisions. Catherine Salmon of the University of Redlands in California shared editing duties on the 379-page volume, which is based upon a series of lectures held in 2000 and 2001 at SFU Harbour Centre.

The book, says Crawford, illustrates the need for public policy and legislation that is based upon a common sense understanding that people act according to ancestral motivations of self-interest - Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Civilization may have bridled us, but we are not truly tamed.

Take cheating, for example. Humans have developed (along with chimpanzees) into a highly cooperative species. However, says Crawford, “within a cooperative system, it always pays to cheat - to accept the other person's help, but not reciprocate.” That means that protections against cheating must be built into our social, economic and political systems, from marriage to international trade.

The book also sets out to prove that evolutionary psychology is applicable to understanding such social and policy issues as women in the workplace, rape, child support, morality and the difference between the sexes.

Hence, idealism and ideology are shaky ground upon which to base public policy and legislation, continues Crawford, winner of the 2002 Sterling prize for controversy. Yet, moral principles can still be useful, so long as the idea that “what ought to be can be, and what ought to be is” is recognized as “moral fallacy.”

Man's existence may not be, as Thomas Hobbes cynically put it, “nasty, brutish and short,” but it certainly isn't “good, sweet and kind,” Crawford adds.

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