the meaningless mean

In response to my post about the interview about Sex at Dawn, Nathan made this comment:

I’m about halfway through the book. I’d say their basic argument is reasonable, assuming that they’re representing the studies they cite responsibly. The book, however, is a lot longer than it needs to be and kind of unpleasantly written – snide when it doesn’t need to be, and with large, unsupported tangents from the main point. Someone else should write a good book starting from this data.

If there’s a single thing the book hammers on that is intended to be mind-blowing, it’s that there exist (and have existed for a long time) societies that are vastly less monogamy- and paternity-focused than the contemporary West. That this is news might be unfortunate, but there are a lot of people who don’t know that.

Which triggered a whole cascade of things in my head.

(1) If the book’s point is what I think and Nathan says and Ginny wrote – i.e., that the received wisdom from David Buss et al about women preferring older, rich men and men preferring young virgins is grounded in faulty assumptions about the role of paternity in sexual selection and leads to all kinds of ideas about both monogamy and women’s sexuality that are demonstrably untrue – then yes it is, as Nathan says, reasonable.

I know that because the point is not remotely original or new. To cite just one example (that I particularly like) Hrdy’s Mother Nature was published 11 years ago and says the same thing. Hrdy is careful to note that we don’t actually KNOW what sex was like pre-historically; it leaves no fossil record. But she discusses a variety of extant pre-literate cultures that have different attitudes from ours, like the Canela in Brazil, whose wedding ceremony includes an admonishment to the newlyweds not to be jealous of each other’s lovers.

(2) I think the REAL trouble is not that this is a new idea – it’s not (see above) – but that mainstream media has happily followed the ev psych story as far as it matches our cultural norms, but then abandoned it altogether. What turns off, grosses out, or offends the sensibilities of a journalist or an editor won’t make it to the magazine article. So the Canela, the Etoro, and everybody else with a sexual culture not like ours are just thought of as freaks, rather than examples of human sexual variability. And there I think we have the crux. Variability.

(3a) It took until the 70s for gays to start moving into the sexual mainstream, and that work isn’t close to finished yet. Women still aren’t part of the sexual mainstream either. Why? Because sexual attitudes – and therefore communication, legislation, and indeed science about sex – are planted solidly in moral ground. Variation from the norm is not just “variety,” but “deviance.” Why on earth would the good readers of Cosmo, Men’s Health, or Oprah Magazine want to read about deviants, except as a “freak show”?

How, indeed, can you broadcast about variety in human behavior without having it perceived as a freakshow?

(Ye Olde Mitchell and Webb have, of course, made a joke about the half-assed attempts at same:

That’s the sort of question I can’t answer but that I’m pretty sure OTHER people, who know something about mass media, CAN answer.

(3b) And the problem is built into science as it has been practiced for yonks: measurement of central tendencies, with the assumption that “variation around the mean” is just insignificant noise; and worse, measurement of the behavior of brown people by white people from a cultural “high ground.”

With sex, the central tendency is close to meaningless. What’s important is the variability that has been traditionally ignored. That’s why Diamond’s work is so important: she’s looking directly at the variability, not looking for “averages” but for large-scale patterns, dynamics. (Hey Andrew, in her last chapter she says what I’ve been saying since 2002: that dynamical systems theory is the way to understand sexual development and diversity!)

This was Darwin’s genius: the ability to see the underlying meaning in variability. It was Kinsey’s genius too: to see variety and, like the Harvard-trained entomologist he was, see only variety, not deviance. And it is the future of the study of the evolution of human sexuality. Look at the variety, and see the principle underlying it.

When we have the right principle(s), everything will fit, all variety will be accounted for, and no sexual variety – barring the infringement of rights (which gets very complicated very fast but we’ll just leave that alone for now) – will be any better or worse, just as peacocks are no better or worse than blue tits, and hippos are no better or worse than lions.

So, now. Go. Do. Change the world. We at least – we few, we happy few – can make a start. We can look at sexual variety and celebrate it, and scold those who would judge it. Make it so.