Sex and Evolutionary Theory: Ur Doin It Wrong


http://www.scheissprojekt.de/evolution.htm

New communications technologies and media have blown the doors off of information propriety. On one hand, this is awesome because knowledge is power. On the other hand, this blows because factoids without understanding create false assumptions of the world.

The term “pop psychology” comes to mind. Example: I date those women/men because my mother/father was that way!

Here’s another term: “Pop Darwinism.”

Few things are more seductive than biological explanations of behavior. No moral assessment needed because it’s in your genes. Don’t bother with social analysis: we can’t help our human nature.

Let me disabuse you of any evolutionary misinterpretations.

When it comes to sexual behaviors, experts love to claim we get down how we do because of sexual selection favoring a hunter gatherer society, where females nurtured the babies and males hunted the food. Somehow, these behaviors are etched deep into our genes and any resulting behavior is an attempt to recreate this world.

An easy to digest concept package.

Problem is, organisms are complex. Reproductive strategies are diverse in the animal kingdom, from fishes to humans. Many like to assert that our ancestors favored only one type of male-female relation but this flies in the face of multiple adaptive reproductive strategies found among animals. Forget all this selection favoring only the dominant males and fecund, nurturing females nonsense. If species survival favors adaptive ability, then organisms adopting multiple strategies would fare better. Diversity and complexity beat out simplistic single-strategy approaches.

Organisms relying on social groups (like humans) are even more complex. Claiming that our sole purpose is sexual reproduction ignores life in social groups. If we want to pass on our genes, if we want our species to survive, cooperation (on some scale) increases our chances of survival. Cutthroat competition would only be beneficial in situations of absolute scarcity. United we stand, divided we devolve.

Our biology is one of many factors when we talk about behavior in humans . Genetics are not behaviorally deterministic, only influential among mammals. We learn most of our behavior from traditions and mores passed down through culture and adapt to contemporary contexts. Behavior and culture are not absolutely predicated on some genetic competition. Influence is possible but, again, we would be influenced by a multitude of genetic reproductive behaviors and strategies.

Joan Roughgarden from Stanford wrote a book called Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People. (Go buy that book! Complex ideas, but she’s an excellent writer.) One of her chapters challenges concepts of sexual selection. Here’s a passage about how we actually misinterpret Darwin’s texts, even in the academic world:

“The universal claims of sexual selection theory are inaccurate. Males are not universally passionate, nor females universally coy. The social dynamic between males is not universally combat to control females. Diversity among males and females does not universally fit a hierarchy of genetic quality. Females do not universally select males for their genetic quality. Moreover, sexual selection theory is inadequate to address the diversity in bodies, behaviors, and life histories that actually exists. Darwin didn’t bother to explain the exceptions he recognized, and as data on diversity in gender and sex continue to accumulate, sexual selection theory, which addressed only a subset of facts to begin with, becomes increasingly inadequate.” -page 169.

So the next time you hear, read or encounter any Pop Evolution, think back on this article and realize that well-packaged, comforting explanations of human behavior are often false.

10 thoughts on “Sex and Evolutionary Theory: Ur Doin It Wrong”

  1. Hi,

    I’ve enjoyed many of your posts, but I’m especially happy to see this one about evolutionary theory. It has troubled me for a while, too. I come at it from a different direction in a recent post http://notanodalisque.wordpress.com/2010/01/10/myth-number-two-i%E2%80%99m-a-neanderthal .

    Thanks for this post, and for the last one sticking up for us tall, “intimidating” women. I’m looking forward to reading more.

    Not an Odalisque

    1. Thanks! I really liked your take on evolutionary psychology. And the juxtaposition of those two harem paintings is *so* fascinating.

  2. Great topic!

    But…**raises hand meekly** I tend to take one part of sex evolutionary theory a little too heart: the extreme desirability of pubescent females. You know, all that talk about metrics of attractiveness being based on characteristics of the young. Of course, this says more about my fears of growing old while 1) surrounded with glamorized image of said pubescent girls; 2) any sexual/sexually attractive older woman is treated like a freak [Cougar attack!]

    How do I scientifically argue the “healthy, fertile, young female primates” theory?

  3. Most people are attracted to health. Open face sores are not attractive in any culture.

    The assumption here is that *everyone* wants a “healthy, fertile, young female primates” because this is embedded in our genetics. Problem is, not everyone is attracted to that and not all cultures promote virginal girls as the ideal female sexuality. In China, when Confucianism rose to prominance, sexual attraction shifted towards older females that had borne children and away from young nubile females.

    When we look at modern day examples, you see people with broad ranges of attraction sets. And remember: often mating behaviors occur for non-reproductive reasons. Do we see signs of healthy people attractive? Sure. But you can’t look at someone and gauge their potential fecundity. An exceptionally beautiful young female can have as many issues conceiving, carrying a fetus to term or giving birth as any other female.

    I suggest reading Nancy Etcoff’s book Survival of the Prettiest: http://www.amazon.com/Survival-Prettiest-Science-Nancy-Etcoff/dp/0385479425

    Excellent book on beauty perception’s biological basis and the cultural aspects.

    My feeling? Culture plays a huge role in shaping attraction. We live in a culture that worships youth and has the technology to chase that fountain. So we see youthful beauty everywhere, both natural and fabricated.

  4. “The universal claims of sexual selection theory are inaccurate. Males are not universally passionate, nor females universally coy. The social dynamic between males is not universally combat to control females. Diversity among males and females does not universally fit a hierarchy of genetic quality. Females do not universally select males for their genetic quality. Moreover, sexual selection theory is inadequate to address the diversity in bodies, behaviors, and life histories that actually exists. Darwin didn’t bother to explain the exceptions he recognized”

    thing with this statement is that most people or critics get caught up in semantics of the theory. for instance(And this has happened to me alot because im predominatly a theory person) whenever a theory or concept is created that attempts to explain a certain phenominon or event, most people forget the unspoken rule of there are no absolutes for certain things, just general patterns that occurr given that variables are set up or in place for the situation to occur. for intance, if you go to a poor country and put a suitcase with a million dollars in it in a poor neighborhood, do u think someone will steal it? hell yes,but to be more open minded about it, it is more likely to occure because the conditions that favor the particular act to happen have been established within the given parameters of the test. to make it simpler, if u decided to choose a mate, would you want him to be attractive or rich? both choices are driven mostly by a biological aspect. looks because you want your children to have the best genes available for survival and therefore also be preselected both others, and riches because that male will be able to provide for your children well which will further garantee the survivial of your offspring.

  5. Thanks for this post.
    What irritates me mostly about the evolutionary theories is that, much like social Darwinism 60 years ago, these theories are used to put down women today, by trying to “scientifically” justify theories about women intelligence, field of intelligence, driving skills and of-course beauty and sexuality.
    If it’s purely biological, than there’s just nothing you can do about it, but if it’s cultural, you can change the society and advance women.

  6. Okay, while I have NO background in academia, I can tell you that I was well into adulthood before I ever heard an anthropologist in a documentary about human sexuality remind people that we’re more than a collection of biological dictates no matter what they’ve uncovered about the roots of our behavior patterns.

    All I could think was it’s about damn TIME we heard that.

    Essentially, you DO have control….even if it IS “purely biological” functioning…it’s why we have had customs & protocols in dealing with each other as sexual human beings throughout recorded human history. It’s why blogs and other reputable sites like this one even exist; to help us evolve socially by making peace with biological reflexes through reasoning & all the other mental tools human social evolution have struggled to develop through the ages.

    This reminds us that while these “urges” may help explain how we look at each other (especially across gender lines) when it comes to explaining the mysteries of attraction & so forth, it is no excuse for not exercising discretion, self control, and the many other qualities that makes the human race worthy of the gift of mating at will rather than the dictates of (ironically) biological cycles.

    1. This is only here ’cause I THINK I forgot to check the “notify me” button in the previous post. I cheerfully admit that I can’t wait to hear from those of you who have already posted comments.

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