Sex at Dawn pp 150-200. Week 4

A month I’ve been doing this. Has it gotten better? Well. It’s gotten CONSISTENT, making the same kinds of mistakes over and over, so there’s a nice predictable pattern.

Part III (p. 151) begins:

A central theme in our argument is that human sexual behavior is a reflection of both evolved tendencies and social context. Thus, a sense of the day-to-day social world in which human sexual tendencies evolved is essential to understanding them.

Putting aside for a moment the vagueness (“tendencies”?) of these two sentences, I need to say immediately that a sense of the day-to-day social world in which human “sexual tendencies” (which I take to mean “sexual behavior and systems”) is far from essential. Handy, sure, fascinating, unquestionably, but far from essential.

What’s essential is a sense of the dynamics from which can emerge the abundant variety of human sociosexual systems and behavior. As Anne Fausto-Sterling is using dynamical systems modeling to examine the development of gender-based variability, so we can study extant cultures to generate universal models of phenotypic plasticity, both at the individual and population levels. No need to know in what social context the sexuality evolved – and in all likelihood when we have these models (which we will, in 50 years), that will help us make informed guesses about the initial social context.


Toward the end of that first paragraph, “the false view of prehistoric human life summed up in Hobbes’s pithy dictum, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short is still almost universally accepted.” Again, no reference, no evidence that it’s “almost universally accepted,” no mention of any specific researchers or studies in which it is accepted. Just a blanket statement to make people feel cozy.

I promised I would note the good thing: p. 156-7 makes me want to read a biography of Hobbes. I’m halfway through this book and trust nothing of the reasoning of these authors, but their description of Hobbes makes me want to read something by an author I do trust.

p. 160 – The discussion of resource abundance and scarcity desperately needs the ecological modeling and perspective of folks like Bobbi Low. This would have been a much better – and perhaps genuinely interesting – book, had the authors read about twice as much before writing. (It occurs to me, with this observation, that the book is what I would expect from a precocious high schooler who had read a bit of science and was feeling very motivated and organized. Enthusiastic, but sadly lacking in information and in reasoning ability.)

p. 167-8 A short section on the prisoner’s dilemma (why does game theory not appear in the index? this is the worst index I ever saw in my life.) that doesn’t reference behavioral economics. Hoping but doubting it appears somewhere in the last 100 pages of the book.

p. 171 Oh look! The payoff for their incorrect assertion that knowing about the social context in which we evolved is “essential.” We evolved, it seems, to function in groups of 150, and we “aren’t very good” at being in giant communities of modern life. See, this is where the judgment comes in, the naturalistic fallacy that they claim to abjure. We were “better” at being in small groups because that’s what’s natural? No. We are different in smaller groups. We are what we are, and the rules (or our behavior) simply CHANGE when the scale changes, they don’t get “better” or “worse.”

p. 177 – Quoting Dawkins on the role of individual-level organism in promoting gene-level selfishness, they write, “Why, then, are so many of this admirers unwilling to entertain the notion that cooperation among human beings and other animals may be every bit as natural and effective as short-sighted selfishness?” (emphasis original) WHICH FOLLOWERS? Scientists or journalists or the general public or who? Here again would have been an excellent opportunity address (a) the unit of selection question or (b) the non-implications of what is “selected for” in determining an individual’s “character,” as implied back when discussing Hrdy and Fisher. But they do neither.

Confession: there’s a giant snowstorm, I’v been drinking ginger libation, and I’m having to take deep breaths to avoid rolling my eyes too often. My brain just keeps repeating, “Oh fer chrissake, y’all are SUCH DICKS.” For my sanity, I skimmed two pages that didn’t involve much science.

p. 183 – Another individual scientist they address by name – Steven Pinker. We are invited to watch “at least the first 5 minutes” of his TED talk before reading on. So I did – I’m not a Pinker fan (I once went to a conference where he was a keynote speaker, and I spent that hour sitting by the hotel pool, reading The Case of the Female Orgasm) but I watched the whole thing, including the first 5 minutes, and then I carefully read their arguments about whether or not the cultures named actually are the kind of culture they are reported as being. And seriously, I just can’t bring myself to get invested in the argument because it seems totally irrelevant to the central claim of the book (maybe it’s just padding, to make the book bigger?) I guess the thing is they’re busy showing how cooperative we were in the EEA? They’ve certainly been working really hard to show that we’re social and “not isolated,” despite their lack of evidence that anyone thinks we were.

p. 191 – Either this is a gross double standard or else I’m misunderstanding: they cite the result from “hunting-and-gathering and agrarian societies” that “above average population density was the best predictor of war” to argue against Pinker’s claim that violence has decreased steadily, when their argument a few pages ago was that Pinker didn’t include relevant data because it lacked purely hunter-gatherer cultures. I mean, either this argument is a straightforward double standard – “we can use agrarian cultures but you can’t” – or else it’s so hopelessly muddled that I can’t figure out how it’s NOT a double standard.

All I’m looking for at this point is clarity as to what the CLAIM is; I’ve given up trying to keep track of the evidence in support of it, since I can’t even nail down what that evidence is trying to support. Here at the middle of the book, it seems to have lost all focus.

I wish it had just been a media literacy work – a critique of how the media covers the science. They’re pretty entertaining and good at that part. It’s the science they suck at.

You know what came in the mail for me today? Lisa Lloyd’s Science, Politics, and Evolution. I’m gonna go read a bunch of that as a palate cleanser.