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Sex, Diamonds, and Chimps April 11, 2008

Posted by Jeff in Evolution, Gender, Science.
Tags: , , , ,

Yet again there’s a scuffle going on at Feministing over evolutionary psychology (which, for my carpal tunnels’ sake, I’m abbreviating EP), and yet again I am irked (to use a less colorful phrase than I could) that no one seems to grasp anything beyond the pop version of EP. This ev-psych, as some commenters call it, resembles real EP in the same way that I resemble George Clooney. That is, not at all. Normally I’d respond in a comment, but I’m feeling wordy today and I don’t think it would fit. So I’ve compiled some of the more irksome comments and my responses below the fold. (They’re long because they’re direct quotes, not strawmen)

It makes perfect evolutionary sense that men want more sex than women. Men don’t get pregnant, so as long as they keep having sex with different people, they can continue producing more offspring.

It might make sense, but only because that’s what’s been taught for so long. In fact, that theory is a little dated. More scientists now believe that both sexes of nearly all species are promiscuous. Females get the advantage of multiple mates vying for their affection and better genes for their offspring, and males get to cuckold other males.

It’s kind of bizarre to me that the only interpretation of this behavior by evolutionary psychologists is that males are “exchanging resources for sex.” I give my boyfriend gifts all the time, and it’s not because I’m exchanging goods for sex. It’s because I’m expressing affection and bonding with my partner.

This is one of the most common misconceptions about EP that I’ve seen, and somewhat understandable. It comes largely from the fact that scientists are lousy communicators. When an scientist says that “such and such a gene makes us want to have sex with someone that gives us diamonds,” she is not saying that our mental image of the perfect mate involves giving diamonds. Genes that control our behavior work through general drives.

In the case of gift giving and sex, we are attracted to people that give us gifts, and we have sex with the people we are attracted to. Our thought processes are less “x gave me an expensive present, therefore he/she is the person I want to share genes with” than “x is so generous, I’m head-over-heels in love for him/her.”

Big surveys show that men want more sex, more quickly, with more people, in every society tested.

This one’s sort of true. Yes, studies have shown that men have greater sex drives than women. However, with the normalization of promiscuity, the rates have been approaching that of our closest relatives, the Bonobo. That is, equal between males and females, and absolutely astronomical. Studies in France and Italy have actually shown that women have finally reached the equality that our biology seems to dictate.

Evolutionary psychology is basically untestable and thus is rife with bias and misinterpretation.

Of course there’s bias and misinterpretation in EP. There’s bias and interpretation in physics too. It’s the untestable part that really gets to me, though. The popular conception of science is that in order to test something, you have to be able to isolate it in the lab. If that were the case, evolution itself would be excluded from scientific discourse, as would geology, archaeology, and ecology. When approaching an historical science, researchers have to change their methods slightly, but the process is still the same. Data is collected (EP isn’t just coming up with just-so stories, as many people think), hypotheses are developed and revised, and the studies are peer-reviewed and critiqued. EP is a relatively new science, and has had a lot of rubbish and patriarchal baggage to clean out, but it’s done a good job.

Our arguments with ev-psych, on the other hand, are based on our own observations of our lives and society

Ah, good old personal experience. See, the problem with personal experience is that it’s, well, personal. That is, it’s not useful in determining what actually happens. If I based my view of the world on my personal experiences, I’d have to conclude that 10% of the world is Mormon, there are almost no people of color, and Panamanians are universally excellent piano and violin players. I’m pretty sure none of those are true, and if I rejected a scientific study based on those, I’d be naïve at best, and insane at worst.

If I have sex or seek a prostitute, it’s not because I want to oppress anyone – it’s because I really want to have sex and maybe I have no other way to do so consentually [sic].

I used to think that was true, and I wish it were true (it would reassure me that my gender isn’t composed of total asses), but it’s not true. Maybe a few men really do “patronize” prostitutes only as release, but the fact is that most Johns do so for the high they get off of controlling someone else. For example, did you know that a lot of men visit prostitutes for something other than sex, like to have a “conversation” that consists of them talking and the prostitute listening? It’s true, and it’s definitely because they want someone to control for a few hours. They could do it with their wife or girlfriend, but then they’d have to reciprocate, and listening just isn’t something “men” do. Also, when the Netherlands legalized prostitution in 2000, human trafficking increased because the Johns weren’t looking for sex as much as for someone to abuse. Prostitution is about control.

Animal societies are organized purely to ensure survival of the species. All behaviors develop as a result of their potential to maximize reproduction and maintain the species…. Humans, however, develop cultures whose goals are not always the maximization of reproduction and saving the species.

Not true either. First, animal societies are not “organized purely to ensure survival of the species.” If this were true, chimps would never attack other chimps. Evolution promotes behaviors that ensure a particular gene gets passed on. The species as a whole is irrelevant. More importantly, it is impossible to separate human society from our evolutionary past. For example, why did communism fail? We simply are not equipped by our genes to care enough about non-relatives to work for them without some gain for ourselves. Why have we never had a truly non-violent society, even when the dominant religion forbids violence (even Tibet has waged war in the past)? Because we are genetically programmed to consider violence as an option when dealing with a rival.



1. Rishi Gajria - April 11, 2008

Thanks for responding to my post on Feministing. I do not view Arranged Marriage any more malignant then any other notion or method of marriage or finding a mate.

2. SAC - April 12, 2008

Yes, but are all Mormons of Panamanian descent living in a soggy state excellent piano and violin players? Hmmm……

3. spike the cat - April 12, 2008

Hi. Yes, I made the comment about the untestability and bias but only to explain why there are so many outlandish interpretations from psychologists. Furthermore I gave an example. Other evolutionary psych examples are the claims that “all (not just Europeans but all) men have a preference for blond haired women” or proclaiming that certain preferences are “universal”, such as the 0.70 ratio for a females figure.

It’s unfortunate that evolutionary psych seems to have it’s unfair share of this type of reasoning; whereas geology, general evolutionary theory, physics, etc seem to be less vulnerable to human cultural prejudices. That’s all I meant.

But great post!

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