Maslow’s hierarchy


Jason Collins


June 9, 2011

I’ve just read Geoffrey Miller’s Spent, which I enjoyed. There are many interesting threads to the book, which I’ll blog about over the coming weeks.

In one of the earlier chapters, Miller discusses Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy, from the base to the top, consists of physiological, safety, love, esteem and self-actualisation needs. It is only on satisfaction of the first four needs that one will focus on self actualisation, which includes (among other things) morality, creativity and discovery.

Maslow’s hierarchy is often a framing point for discussions about development, concern for the environment and consumerism. The problem is, however, that it often doesn’t fit human behaviour. Miller puts this problem nicely:

It does not “cut nature at the joints” in terms of the key selection pressures that shaped human behavior: survival and reproduction. Survival includes most of Maslow’s physiological needs (breathing, eating), but also some of the more concrete safety needs (avoiding harm from predators, parasites, sexual rivals, and hostile tribes), social needs (building relations with family, friends, and mates who can help feed, protect, and heal you under adverse conditions), cognitive needs (to learn about survival-increasing opportunities and survival-reducing dangers), and even aesthetic needs (to find a propitious landscape for one’s clan to live in, to make weapons that are serviceably symmetric, strong, and sharp). Reproductive challenges, including finding high-quality sexual partners and raising high-quality offspring, encompass one of the key physiological needs (having sex) and most of the other social, esteem, cognitive, aesthetic, and self-actualization needs.

He then points out the more serious shortcoming:

[A] branch of evolutionary theory called “life history theory” points out that there are often tough trade-offs between these survival and reproductive priorities. The lower-level needs do not always take priority. For example, male elephant seals will often starve to death during a breeding season while guarding their harems. If elephant seals could talk, … they might explain that they were giving up a physiological need (to eat) for three higher needs: a social need (to feel intimacy and belonging with each of many females), an aesthetic need (to be surrounded by beautiful—that is, fine, fit, fat, fertile—females), and a self-actualization need (to be the best elephant seal one can be, as demonstrated through biting, mauling, bloodying, and excluding all male sexual rivals from one’s beach-front harem). But these last three Maslovian needs can actually be reduced to reproductive benefits. Natural selection crafted social, aesthetic, and self-actualization motivations because they yielded higher reproductive success over thousands of generations of elephant seal evolution. Male elephant seals who were “slackers,” content to fulfill their survival and safety needs without conflict, would have avoided the bloody beach sites where more ambitious “status seekers” fought, copulated, starved, and died. The slacker seals may have been perfectly happy, and might have even turned vegan and ate plankton, but they did not leave any descendants to inherit their easygoing temperaments. Only the male seals that were willing to compete for dominance, status, and harems, even at the cost of their own lives, sired any offspring.

There is no shortage of people (men) that are willing to significantly risk safety or forgo basic physical needs if they are deprived of reproductive opportunities.