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GUEST COLUMN

Can sexual harassment lawsuits speed up evolution?

Can you expand a man's mind by pounding a gavel on it? The high-profile sexual harassment suit against New York Knicks head coach Isiah Thomas spotlights once again the differing male and female perspectives on sexual harassment.

A jury ruled that Thomas sexually harassed former team executive Anucha Browne Sanders, and Thomas' employer, Madison Square Garden, was ordered to pay Browne Sanders $11.6 million for firing her when she complained about it.

Thomas maintains his innocence, but Browne Sanders testified that he created a hostile workplace with repeated unwanted advances and verbal harassment. She says, "What I did here, I did for every working woman in America."

And thus the water cooler chatter begins.

Women are usually on the side of the accuser, cheering, "You go, girl, we shouldn't have to put up with this stuff."

But men are frequently befuddled and confused, and sometimes angry, because they don't understand the new rules about how to behave at work.

Is this a problem of differing psychology?

Or differing biology?

Evolutionary psychologists believe that we humans are hard-wired to reproduce, and that our reproductive instincts override everything else.

We may look like sophisticated beings who drive nice cars, win basketball games and understand subtle social cues. But behind our thin veneer of social civility, we're actually knuckle-dragging primates controlled by stone-age minds that are hell-bent on reproductive success.

For men, that translates into an instinctive desire to capitalize on every possible opportunity to reproduce.

For women, reproductive success lies in carefully selecting the ideal mate to ensure that her offspring are well protected and provided for.

In his book, "Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters," (Perigee, $23.95) evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa's research reveals that while men routinely over-estimate women's sexual interest in them, women typically under-estimate male interest.

And the reasons are purely biological.

Kanazawa suggests that, historically, for men the consequence of over-estimating female interest may have just been a slap in the face. But the consequence of under-estimating a woman's interest was "a missed opportunity to increase his reproductive success." A limited-life-expectancy Neanderthal can't afford to lose a single hand in the high-stakes game of gene-pool poker.

However Kanazawa writes that, for women, "thinking that a man is romantically committed to her when he is not, getting pregnant by him and then having him desert her is a far greater cost." With huge risks riding on making the right choice, women naturally take sexual overtures much more seriously.

Differing preprogrammed biological objectives - and completely different perceptions of the exact same situation - explain why our caveman-like (and cavewoman-like) instincts manifest in confusion over what constitutes sexual harassment.

I wasn't privy to the details of the Thomas case, but I'm pretty sure that Mr. Superstar didn't show up for work every day with the sole purpose of tormenting women.

When you combine male biological programming with a hero worship culture that includes groupies routinely throwing themselves at you, it's easy to see why a power player like Thomas might not be able to discern between a willing woman and somebody just trying to do her job. He's hardly the first rich guy to assume that all women are sexually available.

But if evolution programs men to gain power and resources to attract as many women as possible, and women are pre-wired to select the best possible man, then a guy who costs his employer $11.6 million isn't looking like such a good catch anymore.

So perhaps lawsuits really can rewire our primal instincts.

But until they do, here's some advice for the nice guys out there who don't want to act prehistoric. Think protector vs. procreator. If you're unsure about how you should deal with women at work, ask yourself, "Would I be comfortable if someone treated my wife, daughter or mother this way?"

If the answer is a respectful yes, Congratulations. You've evolved.

Lisa Earle McLeod is a nationally recognized speaker and the author of "Forget Perfect" and "Finding Grace When You Can't Even Find Clean Underwear."

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