“Making sense” is a funny phrase, because we use it to mean two different things. In the first place, we use it to mean “making logical sense” — that is, a conclusion follows directly from available data according to the strict and very specific laws and modes of logical reasoning; in the second place, we use it to mean, “seems intuitive” — that is, when we hear a scenario, and we hear the prediction made for that scenario, it seems “right” or “familiar” to us. We use this term precisely to muddy up the difference between “logical sense” and “intuitive sense”, and it’s unfortunate, because while logical sense is verifiable and repeatable, intuitive sense is based on predictions made from past experience, and is therefore only as accurate as the experience is representative, and furthermore is essentially tantamount to saying “that’s true because it’s familiar.”
Today I want to talk about the “science” of Evolutionary Psychology. Evolutionary Psychology is a pretty fun thing, because what it consists of is: you observe some behaviors, notice a couple statistical facts, and then make up a story to explain why cavemen had to do it that way. Is it true? Is it false? Is it genetic, or cultural? Who knows, or cares? It’s not like we’ve got a bunch of cavemen sitting around that we can ask about it, who knows what those guys thought? And it’s not like we can just crack open some DNA and find the gene for “wearing pants” or for “wanting to have a lot of sex with women,” or something.
It’s less like a science and more like a kind of weird game, I guess. Anyway, almost inevitably, it’s used by douchebags to justify being douchebags (“observe douchey behavior, make up a story about why cavemen were douchebags”), and I just wanted to point out that there are couple of ideas that only make it LOOK, for instance, like the human race is naturally inclined towards patriarchy, but with a little imagination you can make an equally compelling story for how it’s maybe the other way around.
Let us consider the humble peacock. I had an argument about this before and people plainly didn’t understand it, so I’m going to try to explain it again but in a different way: via THOUGHT EXPERIMENT. Imagine that you have a fictional, proto-peacock species. That species has two selection pressures that come into play when it evolves patterns of color on its feathers: 1) it must be invisible to predators. 2) it must be visible to mates. These things are mutually contradictory, and whatever we gain in one respect (visibility to mates) we lose in another respect (invisibility to predators).
Imagine four populations of proto-peacock, each with a flat 25% chance of being eaten by a leopard — that is, the proto-peacock inevitably loses 25% of its population to leopard deaths every year. In population one, both the peacock and the peahen are camouflaged, so their deaths-by-leopard are divided equally (for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s lower if they’re both camouflaged, but it can’t be *higher* than 25%, because there’s only so many peacocks a leopard will eat): 10% of the males get eaten, 10% of the females get eaten.
In the second population, the females have bright-colored feathers and super big tails to attract mates — they don’t always keep these tails out, but it’s not like they disappear when they’re folded up, they still represent a pretty distinct lack of camouflage. Being brightly colored hugely increases the likelihood of getting eaten by a leopard, let’s say to 20%, but there’s still that 25% cap, so 20% of the females get eaten, and 5% of the males.
In the third population, both the males AND the females are brightly colored, so they split the cap evenly: 12.5% of males get eaten, 12.5% of females get eaten.
In the fourth population, the males are brightly colored, but the females are camouflaged, so 20% of the males get eaten, 5% of the females get eaten.
(These numbers are all made up, by the way, that’s what makes this a thought experiment; I’m not saying it IS WHAT HAPPENED, I’m saying it’s both easy and possible to imagine a scenario in which these numbers are true.)
So, which population survives? Well, the fourth population is clearly best adapted to survival, because population growth is contingent on the number of females, and as a consequence, it should be the case that male peacocks end up brightly colored with huge feathers, and peahens end up brown and camouflaged right? What does this tell us about evolutionary behavior?
A lot of people will tell you that bright plumage is a way for males to demonstrate their fitness, by surviving despite all those leopards, and thus leading to smarter and smarter peacocks (this seems crazy, on the grounds that peacocks are fucking stupid); but looked at from this alternative perspective, it’s abundantly clear that the reason that it’s the MALES with the bright plumage and not the females is because duh, males are expendable.
The Sons of the Tribal Chieftain
Kevin Williamson (not of Scream fame) recently wrote an “article” about why all the women should vote for Mitt Romney, due to Romney’s many sons*. In that article, Williamson raises the “conventional biological wisdom” that men choose mates based on fertility and women choose them based on status (I think probably someone should mention to Williamson that there’s no such thing as “conventional wisdom” in science, just data and hypotheses-to-best-available-explanation, but this is Evolutionary Psychology, so not science but “science.”), and that men who are of a “high status” produce more sons, as does Mitt Romney.
Williamson sort of treats the number of sons as being somehow a mark of Romney’s fitness to survive, but as the Peacock Argument suggests, that may not be the case. Obviously, we don’t expect Evolution to just reward you for being successful by handing you a bunch of sons (it’s not the US tax system, haha! Zing!), that’s not how it works. And really, there’s not a good way for populations to biologically recognize “high status” just by itself. What is the mechanism for that?
Let’s tell a slightly different story, then. Let’s say that biologically, in times of high anxiety and low resources (the conditions that you might face if you were “low status”), your body starts making certain changes to essential functions: it goes into a “survival mode”, in which it cuts off non-essential functions and devotes its remaining energies to producing things that will ensure that it can pass on its genetic material in as robust a way as possible.
When you’re in bad circumstances, in other words, you start producing only what you need. And if you’re “low status” (that is: low resources, high anxiety), what do you produce? Daughters. Why? Because daughters are the species; sons are a luxury. Williamson would have you believe that the fitter you are to survive, the more sons that you produce, but it’s really the other way around: the more you NEED to survive, the FEWER sons you’ll produce — Romney’s many sons and grandsons don’t really say anything about him except that, because he’s rich, he has the luxury of not contributing to the survival of the human species by producing a bunch of boys. I suppose, though, it is indicative of a broad, philosophical difference between left and right — if your concern is purely for individual success, rather than global success, certainly wasting genetic material by expending it inefficiently probably IS a mark of status.
Ladies and Their Many Orgasms
A lot of people will tell you that men are biologically predestined to want to have multiple partners, while women are predestined to want to stick with one partner forever, and that’s why men cheat. This is an interesting argument, because is that biological, or acculturated? When we say “biologically predetermined”, do we mean it’s genetically inevitable, or do we mean, “this is what we noticed was true now, so we made up a story for why cavemen might have been like that”?
Let’s look at what we actually DO know is biological, and leave the cultural stuff aside for a moment. Men and women have sex differently, we know this, and we know that there are two big differences in the way sex affects our bodies (really, this is probably one difference): women are energized by sex, while men are enervated by it; women can have multiple orgasms, men have a refractory period (a time after orgasm during which it is impossible to have an erection). In fact, women can have orgasms MORE EASILY after they’ve climaxed, so it’s literally opposite biological functions here.
Why is this? If men are supposed to be the genetic code carriers, going, like the honeybee, from flower to flower to flower, why do we have a refractory period, instead of multiple orgasms? Why don’t we have, like, EIGHT sets of testicles, queued up like a Gatling gun, ready to shoot them off in every woman we see?
This isn’t a hard thing to figure out either, especially if we look at the honeybee again — flowers, with their “pistols” (that is a word for the flower’s penis) are male; honeybees are all female. Oh, well, duh: in order to ensure that THEIR genetic material is passed on, the best strategy for a woman is to take multiple partners, since she’s got no real way of knowing which men are the fittest to survive; and it’s in the population’s best interest if men, instead of getting jealous when the women leave them to find another partner and make DOUBLE SURE that those eggs get fertilized, are best off hauling off somewhere and taking a nap, instead of getting into fights.
In this sense, it’s clear that the biology of women suggests that they should be the ones with many partners, while, generally speaking, men should pay attention to their biology and chill out a little more.
Homosexuality and Times of Surplus
Every once in a while, you’ll get one of these “anti-homosexual” guys who, tangled up in the mess of politics and religion that we’ve made of our culture, think there must be some kind of evolutionary reason that homosexuality is wrong.
The passing on of genetic material is all, anything that interferes with it must, therefore, be counter-evolutionary.
Oh, well, but.
Let’s imagine two populations of
australopithecus asutralopethecenes austra uh. Proto-humans. In population number one, there is no homosexuality, in population two, there is. If we accept the earlier stories as being true — that males are largely expendable, that males are only produced in excess in times of surplus, and that females are meant to have multiple partners — what happens when both of these populations enjoy a certain amount of extra resources? Everyone is well fed, so we’ve got the luxury of making some spare sons, and because there are spare sons, the females can afford to be a little pickier about which genetic material they want to carry — they’re under no obligation to do EVERYONE, after all. Moreover, if there are just a bunch of extra males, it means that each male just generally gets less time with a female; his refractory period ends, but she’s still busy doing all the other guys, so what’s he supposed to do?
In population one, obviously the guys are going to start fighting each other, killing off the extra sons, possibly killing off females as the fights escalate (females, after all, have an interest in protecting the diversity of their sexual partners, and would therefore have an interest in protecting some males from other males).
In population two, the males can just have sex with each other, and everybody goes home happy.
Male homosexuality can be seen as part of the same process as the refractory period — it’s designed to decrease male competition over females; a biological safety valve that protects the integrity of the population by reducing infighting, and thus resulting in a stronger, healthier, more-likely-to-survive group than the “ruthlessly hierarchical” behaviors of, say, the humble chimpanzee.
So, what about female homosexuality? I think we can tell largely the same story: considering that there are going to be times when there are fewer males available, and — because of the refractory period — times when those males are all going to be napping, it stands to reason that females would have a similar social safety-valve to reduce competition for mates. Females may just engage in homosexual sex because they like it, rather than because there’ a specific genetic imperative for it as with males, which may explain why women statistically have a slightly more flexible sexuality than men (also, it could be because of the raging Male Inferiority Complex that has defined every aspect of our culture for five thousand years, who is to say?).
As you can see, all it takes is some imagination (and, on the real, not even very MUCH imagination) to invent a few stories that tell the OPPOSITE stories from the conventional wisdom in the “science” of Evolutionary Psychology. There’s a challenge that’s always posed, of course, that says that if our genetic instincts are one thing, shouldn’t our culture mirror that? Isn’t it prima facie evidence that because our culture is such-and-such a way that our genetic template must be equally such-and-such? The answer to which is, of course not, that is dumb. We do all kinds of cultural things for which we have no genetic instinct: wear pants, cook food, stay up late at night. And different cultures had different attitudes towards all kinds of things: the Athenians thought homosexual love was actually superior to heterosexual love (okay, sure, because their culture considered women to be biologically inferior breeding tools, but you see how similar cultural propositions can evolve into two completely different cultural mores?).
And the question of whether we, humans, create culture, or culture creates us is equally silly. It’s not hard to imagine an ad-hoc culture, formed in response to whatever specific circumstances required it, being passed on to the children who were born in it (thus, created by their culture), and who in turn passed it on to THEIR children (thus, creating their culture). That is, in fact, the entire history of culture. The individual has a reciprocal relationship with culture, we both create it and are created by it, and there is, therefore, no reason to think that we couldn’t over many years create a culture that was largely at odds with whatever hoary biological instincts are lurking in our genomes. Culture, in other words, “makes sense” because at the end of the day, we don’t use “logical sense” to decide whether or not things are or should be true, but because we use “intuitive sense” to decide it, and therefore our decisions about what culture should be are predicated on what is familiar — we see as true, in other words, what we have been taught is true.
Finally. Is any of what I’m saying real? No, don’t be stupid. It’s Evolutionary Psychology, and Evolutionary Psychology is a “science” that is really a bunch of made up stories that can be used to explain ANYTHING. Trust me on this one, there isn’t a single EvPsych “theory”, based on a single piece EvPsych “data”, that I couldn’t reconstruct to mean the exact opposite.
*As is always the case in political opinion pieces in which no statistics are provided and only counter-intuitive theories are offered, it says a lot more about the person writing it than it does about the people it purports to represent — that is to say, the fact-free and embarrassingly grovelling tone Williamson strikes makes it clear that HE is going to vote for Mitt Romney because he, Kevin Williams, would like to be in a submissive homosexual relationship with him.**
**Incidentally, I don’t want to imply that as a criticism, per se. As I mentioned, I am principally a sexual libertine, and I don’t think there’s anything immoral or prurient or disgusting or in any way wrong about Kevin Williamson’s desire to fellate Romney; in fact, I think it’s pretty progressive of him to come out and say it to his audience. It’s good that he’s trying to normalize both homosexuality and BDSM among Republicans, I think they could use that. I just don’t happen to think that it’s a very good reason to vote for a man for president. As it turns out, neither do a lot of women.