Sex at Dawn pp 50-75, and I'm still not dead

Thanks for keeping me honest, blog. Writing about it keeps me honest and on task. I’ll split the second 50 pages into two posts because there’s a bunch to say. Here we go:

p. 53 This is how they quote Robert Wright:

“In every human culture in the anthropological record, marriage… is > the norm, and the family is the atom of social organization.”

Here is the actual quote:

In every human culture on the anthropological record, marriage — whether monogamous or polygamous, permanent or temporary – is the norm, and the family is the atom of social organization

The context here is male parental investment, and they’re saying that researchers argue that high male parental investment is the reason marriage (and it sure has SEEMED up to now that by “marriage” they actually mean “monogamy,” but I’m going to have to read a lot more closely for that as I go on) is ubiquitous. The original is not quite so compelling as an example of the “standard narrative,” which, just to remind you back on page 11 they described this way, “if each male could have only one female mate at a time, most males would end up with a girl to call their own. Indeed, where there is debate about the nature of human sexuality, the only two acceptable options appear to be that humans evolved either to by monogamous or polygynous – with the conclusion normally being that women generally prefer the former configuration while most men would opt for the latter.

“But what about multiple mating, where most males and females have more than one concurrent sexual relationship? Why – apart from moral disgust – is prehistoric promiscuity not even considered…?”

On p. 89 in Moral Animal (the book Sex at Dawn is quoting here), Wright, critiquing Desmond Morris, writes, “We do not seem to be much like our famously, just about unswervingly, monogamous primate relative the gibbons, to which we have optimistically been compared. This should come as no great surprise. Gibbons aren’t very social. Each family lives on a large home range – sometimes more than a hundred acres – that buffers it from extramarital dalliances. And gibbons chase off any intruders that might want to steal or borrow a mate. We, by contrast, have evolved in large social groups that are rife with genetically profitable alternatives to fidelity.”

So. “Prehistoric promiscuity is not even considered.”

p. 54 More on male parental investment. The authors say that the “standard narrative” assumes a man must be able to “know which children were biologically his, which presumes that he understands that one sex act an lead to a child, and he has 100 percent certainty of his partner’s fidelity. The claim they’re addressing is that male parental investment is a factor in the evolution of human sociosexual systems. But evolution does not requires that you explicitly KNOW that sex makes babies or that particular babies are yours. It will just reward you by making your babies survive to reproductive age, whether you know it’s happening or not. Chimps and bonobos don’t know that sex makes babies, and yet they’ve evolved their sociosexual systems. It’s as if they’re saying, “The gene can’t be the basic unit of selection because we didn’t even KNOW about genes until, like, yesterday!”

pp. 55-58 they refute the dual mating strategy, a feat accomplished with dexterity and precision by Alan Dixson, whose work I have described here. (One of Dixson’s books is cited in the back matter, but not the one with this refutation.) So there’s 3 more pages of attacking the straw man. (Read Dixson’s book! It’s AWESOME!!)

On p. 58, we find this problematic thinking that I’m beginning to see as a pattern: “Conventional evolutionary thinking assures us that all you scheming, gold-digging women reading this are evolved to trick a trusting yet boring guy into marrying you, only to then spray on a bunch of perfume and run down to the local singles club to try to get pregnant by some unshaven Neanderthal as soon as hubby falls asleep on the couch.”

Putting aside for a moment whether or not the science this caricatures is accurate (it’s not – see Dixson), is this a remotely fair representation of the science? Does it suggest that we women reading this are, by nature, gold digging, deceitful, unfaithful, and, ultimately immoral? Of course not. Evolutionary science is the study of what dynamics were rewarded with offspring who survived to reproductive age. It is not the study of whether or not women are bitches and men are assholes.

Now, if the authors whom S@D critiques write the science as if that were the case, that’s a different thing entirely. But instead of saying, “These authors we’re critiquing are thinking sloppily about evolution,” they say, “This science is wrong.”

p. 60 – Here I see the same problem as p. 54. They write as though the processes at work are EXPLICIT DECISIONS that early humans made, rather than low-level dynamics that functioned over hundreds of centuries. “According to this view [i.e., the putative “standard narrative”], both males and females are, by nature, liars, whores, and cheats.” This, after two pages describing two theories of cryptic ovulation. Because women are DECIDING to keep men guessing? It’s an anthropomorphizing or personification of evolution as a personality.

The conclusion I’m coming to is that the authors’ misunderstanding of the research, vis a vis this “anthropomorphizing” of selection processes, has led them to believe that the researchers they “contradict” are being moralistic, when in fact they’re just importing their own sense of judgment. The researchers are talking about dynamics, and the authors are presenting it as if the researchers are talking about decisions.

Or maybe they’re two unrelated mistakes.

p. 68 – I said I would note the good stuff too, and here I can’t fault them for taking issue for Dawkins here, who, it seemed to me when I read his work, conclude that our characters are created by what’s selected. I thought when I originally read it that he was being poetic, but can I fault S@D for taking him literally? Anyway, this would have been a good place for them to write about group selection. I guess we’ll see if it turns up later.

pp. 70-72 I also agree with them that scientists sometimes observe non-human animal behavior through moralistic eyes; confirmation bias in the evolution of sex is not news, and has been explored with great care and precision in the NYT.

pp 74-45 Are men and women’s sexualities different? They say, “We’re confident Dr Fisher will find that what she called ‘fundamental differences’ in sexual behavior are not differences at all when she looks at he full breadth of information we cover in the following chapters.”

Ya’ll know my approach to this questions: it’s all the same stuff, organized in different ways. We are all different from each other, we are all the same as each other. We profit not at all by insisting that we are all the same when it is so patently obvious we are not, but neither do we profit by insisting that THESE people fit in THIS category and THOSE people fit in THAT category. Same stuff, organized in importantly different ways.