Sex at Dawn 100-150

4 sentences into this section, on p. 101, we already find an important mistake.

“De Waal’s research had demonstrated, for example, that the increased sexual receptivity of the female bonobo dramatically reduces conflict, when compared with other primates whose females are significantly less sexually available.”

It is the exceptional sexual PROCEPTIVITY of the females that reduces conflict among males.

My naturalist friend Bill many years ago told me one example of a female bonobo just needing a male to get out of her way – the bonobo equivalent of a guy standing in the middle of the grocer aisle – and she just rubbed her vulva against him, he relaxed and oozed out of her way. That’s not RECEPTIVITY, that’s PROCEPTIVITY.

Another example: conflict brewing among males, and the females come over and simply lay their hands on the males. The mere act of touch functions much as it does between human parents and children. Biochemistry changes, aggression dissipates.

de Waal says it, describing some hypothetical early humans: “He himself [early human male] would have profited from her [early human female] talent for precision tool-use (female apes are more skillful than males) and her gathering of nuts and berries. The female, in turn, may have begun offering sex so as to keep her protector from running off with every good-looking passerby.”

Offering. Proceptivity, not receptivity. And if we’re going to get political about bonobo behavior, as we are indeed about to get, I think it’s crucially important that we not mistake the two.

Okay, and then, “Unconstrained by cultural restrictions, the so-called continual responsiveness of the human female would fulfill the same function: provide plentiful sexual opportunity for males, thereby reducing conflict and allowing larger group sizes, more extensive cooperation, and greater security for all.” (emphasis original)

If it weren’t for the fact that I have committed to reading the whole book and writing about it on the blog, there is very little chance I would keep reading past that sentence. It is so utterly male-centric, so perfectly uninterested in the internal experience of females in that world (and no, they don’t explore it later), that the mistake of “proceptivity” for “receptivity” takes on an ominous tone of female sexual objectivity – as receptacles for sex, like litter bins to contain male aggression that would otherwise overtake our streets and towns. Gross.

If the book were addressing culture, it would just be a sloppily written, muddily reasoned book full of (not perfectly honest) quotes from other popular press books, reporting science other people did 20 or more years ago. If they had not tried to think about evolution but instead had just shown us the hypocrisy of scientists in cultures, it could have been interesting. Like the contrast on pp. 110-1 between Malinowski’s Victorian moralizing against contemporary foundling hospitals, where infants died as a matter of course. If that had stuck with stuff like that, it could have been interesting.

But instead, they continue to make the kinds of mistakes they’ve been making for more than 110 pages.

p 107 – Again, they can’t decide who their argument is with. Is it with the science? If it is, why are they quoting a 17th century Jesuit missionary and his attempt to impose his moral system on the natives? OF COURSE that’s what he did, HE WAS A MISSIONARY IT WAS HIS JOB. So maybe it’s not with the science but with culture. In which case, why do they SAY they’re argument is with the science rather than with culture? Why did Ryan, when he commented previously, SAY it was with the science?

Another repeated mistake: conflating “pair bonding,” absolute, life-long monogamy, and “marriage,” as though they mean identical things. They quote Robert McElvaine saying “Pair bonding (albeit often with some backsliding, especially by men) and the family are, exceptions not withstanding, among the traits that characterize the human species.” And they respond with “Sure, forget all that backsliding and the many exceptions, and you’ve got a real strong case!” (BTdubs, the sarcasm just gets really dick-like after a little while.) Robert Wright said the same thing about non-monogamy and short-term relationships in the quote they shortened (see previous post). And it comes up again on p. 114, quoting de Waal, “The intimate male-female relationship… which zoologists have dubbed a “pair-bond,” is bred into our bones. I believe this is what sets us apart from the apes more than anything else.”

Here is what de Waal actually said:

It’s no accident that people everywhere fall in love, are sexually jealous, know shame, seek privacy, look for father-figures in addition to mother-figures, and value stable partnerships. The intimate male-female relationship implied in all of this, which zoologists have dubbed a “pair-bond” is bred into our bones. I believe this is what sets us apart from the apes more than anything else. Even Malinowski’s hedonistic “savages” were not without a tendency to form exclusive households in which both males and females cared for children. Our species’ social order revolves around this model, which gave our ancestors a foundation for building cooperative societies to which both sexes contributed and in which both felt secure.

(PS – the full quote also contradicts their contention that the “standard narrative” says we were solitary (see preiovus post). de Waal’s point, quoted to illustrate the standard narrative, is that pair bonding made us more cooperative.)

They spend a whole section – pp. 119-23 – describing lots of different kinds of “marriage,” and concluding “As these examples show, many qualities considered essential components of marriage in contemporary Western usage are anything but universal: sexual exclusivity, property exchange, even the intention to stay together for long. None of these thing are expected in any of the relationships evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists insist on calling marriage.”

Yes, the word marriage means lots of different things. That doesn’t make it not marriage. It makes it not modern western industrialized monotheistic marriage.

This would have been an awesome opportunity to point out how observations of multiple human societies underscores the universal variety, adaptability, plasticity, and diversity of human sociosexual systems, which is what the point of the book COULD (and in my opinion SHOULD) have been. The whole long section on the Mosuo should have been about that.

But no. They just whine that scientists are calling things “marriage” that don’t match the mainstream Platonic form of marriage.

p. 122-3 They make a fair point – one that I’ve been making in my class for, oh, 9 years – that “mate selection” research often assumes that the criteria we use in forming preferences for sex partners are the same ones we use in selecting a relationship partner.

p. 117-8, assuming again that what is “natural” will not require encouragement to come or punishment to prevent it. We are self-domesticating, and the dynamics of punishment and reward in a culture are, some argue, our solution to the free-rider problem. I’m inclined to get the ebook version, so that I can search for “free rider problem” and see if they even talk about it.

At p. 141, they mention David Buss by name and I guess he’s the scientist the whole book is aimed that. I myself am critical of a great many conclusions of Buss’s. I follow Hrdy, de Waal, Low, and all the other researchers who note the VARIETY, DIVERSITY, PLASTICITY, and ADAPTABILITY of human sociosexual systems, recognizing that what makes a human sociosexual system is not the actual structure of the system but the underlying rules from which those various systems emerge.

The really agonizing part for me is that I don’t disagree with their critique of CULTURE – we do frame permanent sexual monogamy as the expected standard, and that’s bullshit. And I really, really want the world in general to know more about evolution, about apes, about the biology of sex. I just want them to know the ACTUAL FACTS. The communication of facts is not what is accomplished by this polemic.

Anyway. I got to the end of the jealousy section, as I feared, with not a word breathed about jealousy, even when talking about how children are jealous of parents. Oh. My. God. It’s truly just missing. They think they can understand how human sociosexual systems work without including attachment.