Sunday, July 6, 2008

Nagging: An Evolutionary Perspective

With the amazingly concise clarity of its writing, Webster’s New World Dictionary defines ‘nag’ as ‘to annoy by continual scolding, faultfinding, complaining, urging…a person who nags, particularly a woman.’ The behavioral definition may be offered as: Repetitive communications which imply or direct behavioral change, usually unwelcome to the recipient.

In most cultures, nagging occurs between mates, usually wife to husband, mother to children, less often to extended family and other members of the community.

A safe assumption is that any behavior which persists from generation to generation probably has some survival value. What is the evolutionary advantage of nagging?

Picture a Neanderthal cave. The male is dominant, having superior strength, better able to provide food and protection. Female mate is weaker. She cannot coerce him by physical threats or withholding sexual activity. She can, however, repeatedly urge him to build a fire, hunt a mammoth, chase away an intruder. By trial and error, she must learn to calibrate this behavior. Too little, the family is cold and hungry; too much she gets a rock to the head. Some dyads may have no need of nagging; the male provides without it. Others may require much for bare survival. Most require some. Obviously, the dyad in which the male yields to the female’s nagging by satisfying her realistic desires has a better chance of survival than one in which the male is lazy, unreliable (instead of hunting mammoths, he goes off with another woman), or has a low threshold for retaliatory violence.

Fast forward to the present. The Jewish ethnic group is characterized by wifely nagging. The males are usually compliant. Here it must be noted that much nagging is good, sound, advice: lose weight, eat your vegetables, stand up straight, do your homework, stop drinking, get a job, go to work on time, drive slower, go to college, etc. It is therefore possible that a factor in the generally high achievement level among Jews is—nagging.

To sail into risky waters, is it not at least a reasonable observation that successful nagging is directly proportional to cultural success? And that the reverse is true?

Cultures which have a high incidence of impulsive male violence and low achievement, the black and Hispanic, have high incidence of domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse. It’s no use, in fact dangerous, to nag an intoxicated spouse.

Fudamentalist sects, such as the Amish, and the billion-strong Muslims inculcate obedience, submission, servitude in their women. The Koran explicitly commands wife beating. The Taliban cruelly force subjugation, ignorance, fear, on the enslaved distaff population. The technological, intellectual, and artistic accomplishments of these groups speak for themselves. It is difficult to imaging a nagging Taliban wife.

High achievement in Italy was often associated with older, single males—da Vinci, Michelangelo (gay), Galileo. In Ireland, the clergy, who were not spouse-nagged, preserved civilization in the Dark Age. Wife beating is common in both cultures. Nordic, English, and French cultures are characterized by significant nagging, low domestic violence, and high achievement.

Finally, to recognize its value is not to approve it.

William Goldsmith, M.D.
July 5, 2008

No comments:

Robert Benchley Society

For more information about the Robert Benchley Society, local chapters near you, our annual Award for Humor, and our Annual Gathering, visit The RBS Website