Thursday, October 13, 2011

Evolutionary Psychology and Sexuality

I've recently been having a discussion with Jen Wading regaring evolutionary psychology and its use by one Ms. Amy Alkon on her blog, "Advice Goddess". (The particular posting in question can be found here.)

As some readers might be aware, I have problems with evpsych, not so much as a field (hey, it generates a lot of whacko theories, but then again, so does anthropology. Leví-Strauss and his views on structural cybernetics, anyone?), but the miraculous and myriad uses that its untrained or self-trained proponents put it to in trying to explain human sexuality as some sort of field subject to univeral rules.

Ms. Alkon is apparently one of these pop evpsych practicioners and Jen wanted to know more about the holes in her theories. I thought it'd be useful to post our conversation here, because this sort of thing comes up a lot in internet discussions and I'd like to be able to refer people to a set document regarding ev psych and why it isn't a magic key which unlocks the mystery of human sexuality.

Jen started out byindicating she didn't quite understand what biodeterminism was, so I gave her a pocket definition:

Biodeterminism = Biology is the primary and ultimate explanation for our social behaviors.

Ferinstince: Women are naturally less promiscuous than men because, biologically speaking, they have more investment in a baby than men do.

Jen then responded:

So would something such as this be considered biodeterminism?

"There are all types of men and all types of women and saying there is only one correct way for them to proceed is overly simple."
Amy Alkon: No, it's absolutely not. There are variances in people, but we have evolved human psychology that is more similar than it is different. As a woman, you take a risk in approaching a man because he is likely to devalue you (because his genes are well aware that sperm are cheap and eggs are expensive, per Daly and Wilson). 

My answer follows below...

It is extremely biodeterminist.

It also points out a main problem with evpsych: most of its proponents simply haven't read sweet fuck-all in ethnography so they tend to blithely assume that whatever their own culture does is somehow a transhuman norm.

Take the "higamous, hogamous women are monogamous; hogamous, higamous men are polygamous" crap Amy seems to support. Yes, it MAY be a fact that "women invest more in their children" than men, biologically speaking, but to go from that to "women thus need to play hard to get" in the dating game" ignores a shitload of research in so-called "primitive" societies which shows plenty of examples of women being sexually aggressive and not biologically monogamous. Folks who use evpsych to explain their dating problems tend to presume that "marriage" means "never fucking anyone other than one's husband". But just to pull one example out of a hat, there are many, many societies where women's sexual favors are "given" to guests as a matter of course. Certain traditional Eskimo societies spring to mind, but our own society also tosses up plenty of examples where monogamy isn't the rule...

So how does all this square with the idea that women's sexually is somehow driven by the relative rarity of their eggs?

In fact, there are plenty of serious biologists (Jared Diamond springs to mind) who point out that human sexual receptivity (which is constant) combined with the fact that human women have hidden ovulation may suggest that NOT KNOWING who the father of one's child is may in fact be the glue that held early human societies together. In this reading, it would be biologically in the woman's interest to have an "official" mate and yet also have sex with other guys now and again. That way there'd be one man with a primary interest in her children, but all men in the band would have at least SOME interest in her children.

This is even more likely when one takes into consideration that early human bands were small and very probably inbred, so from a pure "Darwinian transmission of the genes" rule, pulling for the team as a whole became a very solid evolutionary strategy rather than just pulling for one's own whelps. It's also notable in this context that anthropology and psychology have both looked long and hard at the birth of the incest taboo as the possible foundation-stone of "modern" human sociology.

Evpsych people - especially the self-taught amateurs - also generally preume that there's been no substantial biological evolution among human beings for the last 250 thousand years (generally true) and that this thus means we are basically larger, naked, tool-using, walking chimps (largely false). When we learned how to manipulate symbols via speach and especially when culture was born some 40,000 years ago with the birth of abstract thought, we became socially-programmed, culture-bearing animals. Sure, biology still INFLUENCES us. It does not, however, DETERMINE our behavior: culture plays a much larger role than biology in determining what you do and, of course, there is always individual agency to take into consideration.

Take my country, for example. There's no evolutionary reason for anyone to use clothes in a climate like Brazil's and yet everyone I see around me is using them. That's a fact created by our history and society, not our genes. And our sexual behavior - especially our supposed penchant for greater acceptance of "trans-racial" and extra-marital sex - can be much more convincingly traced back to slavery and its consequences rather than any particular combination of genes.

Evpsych people (and again, particularly the amateurs) like to hand-wave everything discovered by sociology and anthropology over the last 200 years as "squishy science" and thus not even worth looking at. They thus miss out on social science's one indisbutable contribution to human knowledge: its dense and varied descriptions of thousands of diversified human societies. And in the field of sexual mores, it's REALLY diverse. One of the things evpsych amateurs ignore is that today's norm of "civilization" is quite well linked, scientifically speaking, to a norm of hypergamous marriage, female subordination and female sexual passivity. Given that the vast majority of the world is now "civilized", evpsych people point to the majority of today's peoples as "proof" that these characteristics are transhuman norms. What they should be doing, were they truly serious about their field, is looking into the vast corpus collected by anthopologists re: "non-civilized" sexual behavior in order to see if it meets their predictions.

It generally doesn't.

This shit is convincing in theory. Where it fails is when we look at what people REALY do as opposed to what evpsych theorists think they should be doing according to there readings of Wilson and Dawkins.

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