The Evolution Of Narcissism
Almost everyone has a some grasp of how evolution of species has happened. Basically, in any natural environment there are pressures such as inclement climate, lack of food, water, predators etc. which threaten survival. Alongside this there are variations between individuals within a species. Some may have longer necks, be taller, thinner, better at storing fat, have higher cognitive abilities.
These variations happen because the genetic material we have mutates often and the genes we pass on to our offspring may be subtly different to that we have. Now most mutations are bad, but some are useful in certain circumstances. For example, people with sickle-cell anaemia can’t get the fatal blood infection malaria because their mutated proteins in their blood cells can’t be parasitized by the tiny single celled organism, plasmodium.
They then don’t die in the mosquito filled environment like everyone else, but put them in any other environment the advantage is reversed. So, evolution happens because those creatures better formed for the pressures of an environment survive and have more children. This is known as “survival of the fittest”.
What has this got to do with narcissism? Well, it is estimated that 50% of the causes of narcissism are genetic so may be passed on through the genes in a similar way to eye colour. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that it isn’t just physiology which can give advantage in the harsh environment of pre-history, but also behaviour. As such, this branch of psychology seeks to explain how people with certain behaviours were more successful in mating and producing more offspring than neurotypicals (so called “normal” people). If a behaviour does not confer any survivability advantage it would have died out. On the other hand, if a behaviour conveys an advantage then it will be assured a place in the collective gene pool. And as with many things it all comes down to sex!
They argue that for this to work either the female must find the person with narcissism more attractive to mate with or they must be better at providing the necessities for survival of their offspring (human females in prehistory were notoriously promiscuous often conceiving children with a good-looking specimen but cheating their partner who is a better provider into raising their child as their own – who needs soap operas?) Narcissists somehow must have been one of two things : either more attractive or more successful in bringing home the wild boar steaks.
Narcissistic Attraction in the Zone of Evolutionary Adaptation
Whilst it is impossible to scientifically prove what may have happened in pre-history between our ancestors, it is possible to hypothesise, based on what we know about contemporary expressions of narcissism.
The first characteristic a mate would look for is fitness to reproduce. In the animal kingdom, this can be anything from an ability to carry a bigger and heavier tail (peacock) or antlers (dear) A narcissist would score well here. Since narcissist have an astonishing capacity for apparent self-belief and a sense of entitlement. The behaviours which would ensue might include displays of physical strength, cunning or even a better collection of trophies. In this non-linguistic world, judgments would be based purely on physical displays and attraction. The female could not overlook the narcissist, could she?
Secondly, having more surviving offspring is another characteristic for evolutionary success. If a narcissist could attain dominance in the group by their display and cunning they would have the “pick” of the best females and that is where certain conventional physical attraction would come in. Large breasts and hips would indicate childbearing and child nurture. A tiny waist would indicate youthfulness (Older women tend to have thicker waists) and therefore higher fertility.
Narcissists often have sociopathic tendencies, that is they have little empathy, regard for others and their needs. This means that in the zone of evolutionary adaptation, a narcissistic cave man would mate, produce an offspring and then off to the next leaving some other man to raise the child he sired. The neurotypical male would have lower evolutionary success since he would produce fewer children because his partner would be pregnant or feeding the narcissist’s offspring, whilst the narcissist would be off displaying and capturing the fertility of another conquest.
Thus, there would be a fair old smattering of narcissistic genes in the population from way back in our evolutionary history. And, even if the narcissist got above himself seducing the wife of a chief say, and paid for it with his life, in evolutionary terms this would not matter since it is about survival of the genes, through the offspring rather than survival of the fittest to old age.
Not Only Male Narcissists
An additional piece in this jigsaw is that it isn’t only male narcissist that may have contributed to the gene pool there could have been female narcissists too. Since Liliana Alvarez and her colleagues have suggested that people look for similarities to themselves in mates which is termed – assortative mating. So, a narcissistic female may well choose a narcissistic mate giving their offspring a “double whammy” of narcissism. Hold on though, we know that narcissistic females don’t necessarily make good mothers, so how would their infants survive to reproduce? The answer is in the environment and suggested social organisation.
Narcissistic parents may well be a disaster in a complex society where the job of a parent is to help their children negotiate years of social maturation without much support for the wider kin and society in general. In these circumstances coming from a nuclear narcissistic family sucks. In the zone of evolutionary adaptation however, it was different and it is suggested that older women (past childbearing) plus others in the group were involved in co-parenting and fostering.
So even if the material instincts of the narcissistic mother weren’t quite up to scratch, it mattered less then than now, because child rearing was shared. By this method, the genes which inhabit the cells of every narcissist were assured a link to the present day because it conferred survivability.