The long, slow sexual revolution (part 1) with nsfw video

A while back, Bora Zivkovic directed me (well, …all his Facebook followers) to the word, ‘sapiosexuality’: the tendency to become ‘attracted to or aroused by intelligence and its use’ (thanks, Bora!).

Ironically, although the term may be a bit of a joke, the idea that intelligence is a species-specific aphrodisiac has more than a shred of evolutionary plausibility. Moreover, ‘sapiosexuality’ is a crucial point of reference in the contemporary discussion of human sexual selection, especially to break the stranglehold that Victorian social mores and sexist assumptions have on popular understandings of human sexual evolution.

I was reminded of the term ‘sapiosexuality’ after teaching my annual introductory course on human evolution. Student evaluations are in, and over and over again, student comments lead me to think that, in order to change popular understandings of evolution, we need not simply better data, but also better stories. Especially when tired, old tropes are repeatedly trotted out again in a popular discussion of how ‘evolution’ has shaped ‘human nature,’ even when the data is showing the opposite, we should wonder if evidence alone can ever overturn rusted on bad interpretations.

Jason Antrosio makes a similar point about the need for new metaphors in his post, The Tangled Bank: Old metaphors for new evolutionary understandings. I believe Jason is right. Pernicious evolutionary narratives cannot be displaced by facts alone: to replace a story, you need a competing story. Specifically, in this series of columns, I’ll discuss a contender that might displace the man-the-promiscuous-horny-hunter/woman-the-choosy-chaste-gatherer chestnut (if for no other reason, to try to head off too many more Ed Rybicki short ‘comedy’ pieces like ‘Womanspace’).

I believe that a story we might title, ‘the long, slow sexual revolution,’ does a better job of foregrounding the most important salient facts about human sexual selection and evolution. The opportunity I’m taking to discuss this alternative narrative is a documentary series that you can watch most of online where I got to try out this framing, and it seemed to work (as it also worked in my evolution class).

The video, with a caution before you watch

Australian network SBS aired ‘Sex: An Unnatural History’ over the course of six weeks.  I offered commentary in episodes one (below), five and six. (I can’t find episode 6 online.) The head researcher for the series read some of my earlier posts criticizing some forms of evolutionary psychology (the old posts are compiled here), and brought me on board, primarily to talk about evolutionary psychology and sexuality from a neuroanthropological perspective.

However, before you watch Episode One, ‘Revolution,’ a warning: the video is NSFW unless you work at a lad magazine, in a topless donut shop or in a similarly liberal environment. Australian television, especially SBS at 10pm on Friday night, is a LOT less tame than US TV (although nothing to rival Italy, I’m told).  Be ready for an eyefull of frontal nudity, simulated sexual intercourse, and even archival videos of ‘love ins’ of shaggy people from the 1960s — of course, that might be precisely the reason some of you showed up here (if so, talk about your low percentage surfing…).

At about 20:02 my voiceover makes its first appearance, accompanying footage of animals mating, straight and gay couples in flagrante, and some great shots of our farm, including a cameo by one of our horses who, ironically, is a gelding as well as a camera hog.

The series editors actually gave me the sort of ‘last word’ for the opening episode on sexual ‘revolution’, and I got to meet Julia Zemiro, Australian celebrity, actress, comedian, and Eurovision presenter, so I’m pretty happy about how it turned out.  And don’t worry: at no time do I appear naked!  Here’s the vid, and below the fold is the discussion…


The new story, in a nutshell

This post will stretch over at least three installments, so the punchline has to come early or you all might turn on me; besides, you might have something better to do. When asked about the ‘sexual revolution,’ and whether ‘the pill changed everything,’ at the end of episode one for the SBS series, I tried to shift the frame: the ‘big news’ in human sexuality as a species isn’t a revolution in a long-unchanged sexual rut that started with oral contraception (never mind that it’s parochial to assume that Euro-American middle-class trends define ‘human evolution’ or ‘human sexuality’ as a whole).

The 60s and 70s, including the ‘Sexual Revolution,’ feminism, divorce, and more and more diverse family structures, should instead be seen as a recent round of a longer-running, ongoing pattern of sexual change, a trajectory very different from those taken by our nearest great ape cousins: chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans. They’ve had their own trajectories of sexual change over the same time, but we’re mostly concerned about our own.

Becoming human over the last five million years has included sexual changes almost as monumental as transformations to other aspects of our bodies, cognitive abilities, tool use, and social life. This sexual change has made use of some of the same resources and adaptive tendencies, and been instrumental in facilitating these other changes. Overall, the pattern of human sexual evolution has moved toward:

  1. fluctuating and variable male-female equality and roles (with much less marked increase in dimorphism than gorillas or chimpanzees if we look across all traits and just don’t pick our favourites—I’ll come back to this in part 2 of the series);
  2. exaptation and redeployment of sex for non-reproductive or semi-reproductive purposes (like cementing cooperation);
  3. satisfying the broad demands of reproduction in our species, not just conception, but also parenting, provisioning and socialization;
  4. adaptation of sexuality to balance the other needs of our species, such as foraging behaviour, hierarchy and social solidarity;
  5. greater awareness of our own sexuality and corresponding top-down cognitive influences on sexual expression; and
  6. in summary, a flexible, even contradictory sexuality, which, although it confounds the simple description of human sexual ‘nature’, is actually an adaptive strategy given an animal that is going to have to adapt quickly and respond sensitively to shifting contexts (such as a large-bodied, hyper-invasive, wide-ranging mammalian omnivore).

The idea of the ‘long, slow sexual revolution,’ I think, provides a simple and balanced umbrella for pulling together contradictory elements of our sexuality, gender relations, and reproductive strategies. Everyone knows that the more recent ‘Sexual Revolution’ didn’t erase pre-existing sexual mores and patterns, but rather mixed with them, producing a conflicted, sometimes-unpredictable pattern of sexual expression. Starting with a ‘sexual revolution’ rather than the Men-are-from-Mars-Women-are-from-Venus story means less erroneous leaping to stereotypes to undo when we teach or communicate about human evolution.

This idea that we have an inherently contradictory sexuality, the sixth point, is important because a one-sided narrative (say, for example, an argument that humans are ‘naturally’ bonobo-like, polyamorous and peaceful) shouldn’t be simply pitted against a pre-existing, opposing one-sided account, like the Mars-Venus contrast. I’ll come back to this point in part three of this series, but my fear of the over-corrective is the reason that I’m a touch uncomfortable with Ryan and Jethá’s (2010) book, Sex at Dawn. Although many of their innovative ideas are well worth considering, if for no other reasons to cleverly counter-balance other pervasive accounts of human sexuality in evolution, the book does run the danger of a competing partiality, however important the corrective may be.

The statistical prevalence of institutions like male dominance, female-centred family structure, and widespread idealization of monogamy (even alongside equally-widespread patterns of extra-pair mating and other forms of sexuality) is incontrovertible. Our discussion of sexual evolution has to be consistent with observable facts, both now and in our phylogenetic past, and we can’t be cherry-picking data to fit a feminist Darwinist or bonobo-ist polyamorous account any more than to fit an anti-feminist one.

Different proclivities in a species need not be harmonized by natural and sexual selection, nor need sexual selection be one-directional; the presence of unresolved conflicts in instincts or behavioural tendencies can produce a more flexible and responsive behavioural repertoire and a two-way form of social selection is likely in a highly intelligent primate. (Of course, unresolved tendency can also produce confusion and ambivalence, but that’s for part three). For example, a tendency toward male domination underwritten by sexual dimorphism and high levels of male aggression can be pitted against tendencies towards greater egalitarian sexual relations grounded in female sibling solidarity, female mate choice, and foraging versatility. Together, opposing tendencies can produce a behavioural repertoire that tips in quite different directions given the right conditions.

The caveat emptor: Although I’ve been spending a lot of my time in the last few years teaching and writing about evolution, it’s not my area of research, so all of this is based in my reading of the literature, much of which I do for teaching. Soon, I’ll be back to posting on my own research area as there’s much new stuff to report there, especially with the start of the rugby project.

What does the new narrative accomplish?

The narrative is hardly ‘revolutionary’ itself, but I think it accomplishes some important functions. Although I had lectured along these lines, calling this particular view the ‘long, slow sexual revolution’ for the SBS interview crystallized for me this counter to the presentist assumption that oral contraceptives ‘changed everything’ about human sexuality a few decades ago (the SBS researcher really liked this change and probably recruited me because of it). More importantly, as I thought about it, the ‘long, slow revolution’ framing also undermined the idea that sex—alone among human traits—was frozen and unmoved throughout evolution, as so much else of what makes us human underwent radical change and innovation.

First, some of the discussion around the documentary assumed that oral contraception unleashed ‘natural’ sexuality from being tied to reproduction; that desire and reproduction, prior to that point, were yoked together inseparably as heterosexist partners assuring the survival of our species. The ‘pill-causes-sexual-revolution’ argument underestimates, in my opinion, the degree to which sexual expression in humans (and in most sexual species) has long been much broader than just to get gametes together successfully. Sexual behaviours like mounting and receptive postures are routinely used to mark dominance, affiliation, and submission in many, if not most mammals (and sometimes even for dominance in reptiles and insects), and things get even more complex in humans, especially with concealed female fertility.

Among humans, we have known about and sought to manage fertility, sometimes with marked success, for millennia. The pill improved that control and the efficacy of techniques, certainly, but hardly represented an entirely unprecedented ‘revolution.’ So the idea that reproduction was a chain tying down sexual expressivity probably over-estimates the degree to which risk of pregnancy affected human sexuality (says this Catholic boy from a small family). Moreover, the ‘sexual revolution’ hardly meant that individuals’ desires were all suddenly acceptable and expressible.

Second, some of the discussion of the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s revealed a startlingly superficial awareness of variation in human sexuality across broader historical, archaeological and evolutionary scales, and of the complexity of sexual relations in different classes and social groups. Yes, the Sixties were a revolution compared to the force-fed sexual ideology of the post-WWII era, but the bourgeois marketer-manufactured idea of the perfect family of the 1950s was itself innovative, a willful distortion of actual patterns of reproduction, cohabitation and family structure in the period. And most families failed to live up to the ‘ideal’ in a host of ways—social, economic and reproductive—in the 1950s, long before they got all ‘revolutionary.’

Along these lines, the long, slow sexual revolution specifically undermines the amnesia and class-centrism inherent in the way some self-proclaimed ‘conservative’ political programs insist that they just fight for what is ‘normal’ or ‘natural,’ for example, against feminism or sexual rights movements. James Peron points out in the Huffinginton Post in ‘Creationism and the Marriage Debate,’ that a kind of ‘faith-based’ history denies marriage was anything other than Ozzie and Harriet, in blatant contradiction even to the relationships described in the ‘sacred’ texts for these movements (yes, I’m talking about the Bible):

The moment someone tells me “marriage has always been” something or another, I know they are ignorant of the actual history of marriage. It has never “always” been anything. It has taken different forms, with different social rules attached. Those forms and rules changed as the function of marriage changed.

Third, the long, slow revolution narrative fights the tendency to argue that, in relation to sex, ‘human nature’ is what you get when you remove every human trait, as Daniel Lende and I have argued in a forthcoming book chapter. Anyone who argued that you get to the ‘nature’ of human cognitive ability in a thought experiment in which you strip off everything that’s distinctly human, like language, social complexity, and self-awareness, would be mocked mercilessly as a fool. And yet people can routinely assert that, when it comes to sex, we’re just follicley-challenged monkeys. (Greg Laden’s 2008 column on the subject specifically demolishes the idea that other primates offer some clear model for ‘natural’ sexuality. If you haven’t read it, the piece is still well worth the time.)

Finally, related to this last point, the ‘long, slow sexual revolution’ narrative more clearly locates sex with other dimensions of human existence in the account of our evolution, as both survival problem and resource. Sex isn’t just a trait, or a challenge, or a tool—it’s all of these at once. And the same dynamics that shape our other traits also affect our sexuality, including some very peculiar human dynamics, such as increasingly byzantine neural architecture and the ability to suppress even the most basic instinctual or reflex behaviour, deflect primary drives, and affect our own development into sexual beings.

The reason I push the ‘sexual revolution’ line is that I think this account makes intuitive sense to a broad audience, and that, as the layers of depth and complexity are added to the narrative, the foundation is essentially sound. Unlike other simple ways of talking about evolution (like the ‘selfish gene’ model, or the ‘we’re just bonobos in clothing’ story, in my opinion), you don’t wind up with people getting really, really off track by following logically on the implications of your beachhead narrative.

Some people might say that we don’t need a simple story to tell about the evolution of human sexuality, that we should ‘complexify’ and ‘problematize’ other accounts instead, refusing to be pinned down to something overly basic. I think that the ‘complexifying-problematizing’ rhetorical strategy is too distracting and diluted to oppose pernicious popular evolutionary fables. And the old, sexist narratives aren’t going anywhere without a struggle.

Old stories don’t die easy

One problem with old sex stereotypes in evolutionary narratives is that they are so damned clear and memorable. They’re hard to keep down because they appeal to our cultural common sense, so we have to seek to replace them with equally plausible, persuasive, and—to be honest—glib ways of describing alternative positions.

In the battle to persuade, good ideas also need sharp marketing: quick, clear ways to communicate the nub of an argument (as I’ve argued about ‘branding’ anthropology and Jason Antrosio is pointing out in his discussion of new metaphors). Those of us who seek to dislodge sexist narratives from evolutionary theory need both data and the same kind of forceful rhetorical tropes that old school sexist evolution accounts had; you know the type, the Men-are-from-Mars, Women-are-from-Venus version of human sexuality.

‘Dear Jesse, do you mind serving as an example?’

Case in point is a recent post on the Scientific American weblog, Bering in Mind, “Dear Jesse, I like very young girls.” In the post, self-proclaimed evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering acts as an agony aunt, answering readers’ letters with evolution-based advice. Specifically, Bering writes to a self-declared ‘deep-thinking hebephile,’ an adult man attracted to pubescent-aged girls, that these predilections are not particularly rare and that society’s negative reaction is a case of it catching ‘an especially alarming sight of itself in the mirror.’ His answer, however startling, is a pretty logical extension of the typical, May-December evolutionary psychology account of human mate preference, that doods dig young chiks because it’s a ‘successful’ reproductive strategy.

Although Bering expresses some reservations, his reaction overall suggests that a hebephilic orientation would have been ‘biologically adaptive in the ancestral past.’ Moreover, Bering thinks that society might be over-reacting by forbidding adult-adolescent consensual relationships because some evidence might be interpreted to say that these relationships actually are all that detrimental to young people. (See Anna North’s argument with this last assertion at Jezebel.)

The reaction to Bering has been pretty deservedly scathing, as I’m leaving out some of the worst details. Isis the Scientist in An Open Letter to Jesse Bering takes Bering to task for his disregard for power, manipulation of children and feminism (Bering specifically suggests elsewhere he is sympathetic to ‘anti-feminism’). White Coat Underground argues that Scientific American effectively condones what Bering is writing. Stephanie Zvan at Almost Diamonds writes a response to the letter that is grounded in psychological and therapeutic practice, rather than in ‘evolutionary theory.’

Finally, Janet D. Stemwedel, at the science and ethics blog Doing Good Science, countered Bering specifically on the distinction between scientific explanation and moral justification: Science and ethics shouldn’t be muddled (or, advice for Jesse Bering). And, if you haven’t had enough, Chris Clarke provides a brilliant parody, Dear Jesse: I Want To Eat My Stepchildren. Is This Normal? and Jeremy Yoder a bit of a review of his own gripes with Bering.

…nevermind, we’ve got plenty of examples…

I’m not going to specifically delve into the Bering-hebephile controversy, or his less-commented-upon responses to other letters, equally grounded in the standard May-December mate preference model, which include an assertion that a 29-year-old woman is a ‘young, reproductively viable female with diminishing mate value in the throes of intense intrasexual competition with potential rivals for a desirable mate.’ (Kate Clancy has pointed out on Twitter how problematic his answers are; or see her response to Bering here).

The reason I won’t discuss Berring extensively is that, if I were to wait two more weeks to publish this post (and at the rate I’m going, I might), almost inevitably, another controversy—major or minor—would emerge from someone claiming that a particular strain of ‘evolutionary psychology’ justified trafficking in hackneyed gender stereotypes or penning an apologia for patriarchal sexual mores.

If I had written this post earlier (say, in November), I could just as easily have used the example of Ed Rybicki’s risible ‘comedy’ piece ‘Womanspace.’ If you’ve missed it, see Jacquelyn Gill’s comprehensive rundown of this sorry episode in science publishing at The Contemplative Mammoth. In fact, Rybicki’s story would have been an even better jumping off point than Bering’s column because Rybicki’s version of the sexist narrative was so, as Scicurious beautifully put it, tired and ‘smelling of old farts and cigar smoke.’ In other words, the Bering controversy just isn’t that interesting because it’s pretty predictable given the narrative problem dogging evolutionary accounts of human sexuality (Patrick Clarkin says as much in his blog, too).

Defending evolutionary psychology from the fables

When a piece like Bering’s, Rybicki’s, or Satoshi Kanazawa’s argument that black women are unattractive (pulled down by available here) is published and outrage ensues, also predictably, some other self identified ‘evolutionary psychologist’ comes along to disown the offense, pointing out that the offender is making the whole endeavor of evolutionary psychology look pretty bad, and probably isn’t really an evolutionary psychologist. The serious evolutionary psychologist will insist that the problem is neither evolutionary theory, nor psychology, but this particular individual’s interpretation of evolutionary psychology (for example, in this report of the refutation of Kanazawa at the Times Higher Education supplement and the letter (download pdf)). And I agree.

The problem of evolutionary psychology in the public sphere isn’t generally the research, or serious researchers and theorists (although I’m ambivalent about Bering and a couple of others who seem to revel in anti-feminism). The problem is the over-arching narrative available for anyone to pick up and wave around, selectively cherry-picking a little bit of data, an anecdote, or a cultural common sense point before going out for a little jag. I think serious evolutionary psychologists are a bit too cavalier about this narrative, knowing full well that it no longer represents the state of understanding in the field of evolutionary theory. They have a responsibility to counter the sexist, retrograde account of human sexuality if they don’t like being tarred by the brushes that come out to knock down amateur ‘ evolutionary psychology.’

The problem is that this terrible narrative inevitably tends to drag down any discussion of the evolution of sexuality into misogyny, gender stereotypes, and apologia for inequality, providing a thin pretense for an up-swelling of reactionary attitudes in non-scientists. As a man, I’m even offended by the portrayal of masculinity, the smug confidence that if I don’t recognize I’m a pig (who wants to sleep with adolescents or can’t figure out the most basic domestic tasks, in the case of Bering or Rybicki), I’m just denying my true masculine nature.

If I, like other cultural anthropologists, have to hose down overly radical cultural constructivists and take flack for some of their weirder pronouncements, then evolutionary psychologists have to do more to counter-act sexist rhetorical tropes.

The amateurs often use principles that haven’t been dominant in evolutionary theory since the 1960s; even basic textbooks in human evolution have caught up. But amateurs can and do traffic in the old stories because the foundational Mars-Venus narrative hasn’t been sufficiently put to rest, stake through the heart style. The particularly delicious irony is that the story even gets faithfully repeated when it appears at odds with or utterly unconnected to the more specific results of the research, as often is the case in science reporting (and I’ve discussed in some of my earlier posts on evolutionary psychology and sexuality). In other words, we need a strong narrative antidote to clichéd accounts of human evolution to short-circuit a popular communication problem.

Evolutionary psychology and feminism

The big problem for evolutionary psychology, which is not a feature of evolutionary thought more generally, is anti-feminism. As Laurette Liesen (2011:749) points out, evolutionary psychology often has been especially resistant to feminist intellectual critique and methodological corrective, whereas evolutionary biology has successfully integrated many key insights from feminist biologists (see also Liesen 1998, 2007). Cassidy (2007) has argued that feminism and evolutionary psychology have been pitted against each other since the 1970s, when evolutionary psychologists opposed the ‘women’s liberation’ movement, some of them (such as David Buss) specifically arguing that one could not be both a feminist and an evolutionary psychologist.

The relationship between evolutionary psychology and feminism probably hit its nadir with the publication of Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s (2000) book, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion. The book argued that rape was primarily a reproductive strategy, predating the emergence of our species, whereas feminists argued that rape was about power, an expression of patriarchy and an act of violence. In fact, Vandermassen (2010) argues that the evolutionary and feminist perspectives are compatible, but this stream of thinking in evolutionary psychology tended to drive feminist thinkers from evolutionary psychology even though their perspectives could really enrich the endeavour.

For example, primatologist Sarah Hrdy, in a long and distinguished career, has demonstrated how shifting the research and theoretical focus to strategies of females and infants provides a much more complex perspective on the diverse demands of reproduction and the selective pressures introduced by complex social lives (see esp. Hrdy 2009). In her book, Mother Nature (1999), for instance, Hrdy argues that the ‘maternal instinct’ is not an inevitable behaviour pattern; female primates assess the health and viability of infants, and can neglect those judged to be unlikely prospects. In addition, if possible, mothers may farm out infant care to ‘alloparents,’ often sisters, grandmothers, or the infant’s siblings. By recognizing that women are active in sexual reproduction in a range of ways, that mothers, too, make strategic decisions about mating and child rearing, we better understand complex primate social life.

At this stage, with work like Hrdy’s well known, it’s simply incontrovertible that feminist critique has made evolutionary theory better since the time of Darwin. It’s not just feminist biologists who have helped, obviously, but you’d have to be pretty recalcitrant to insist that work like Hrdy’s is not hugely important to our understandings of primate reproduction and sexual selection.

Feminism, of course, is a broad area of thought with blurred boundaries (as is ‘evolutionary psychology,’ in fact), in some areas philosophy or political project, in others practical, methodological and theoretical. One cannot write a simple definition of ‘feminism.’ Evolutionary psychologists tend to get hung up on the political project of feminism and believe that the foundation for their disagreement with feminist biologists is that the evolutionary psychologists are doing ‘science’ and their critics are practicing politics.

In some cases, the evolutionary psychologists are right: the critique is political. But that’s often because the psychologists themselves strayed over the line from ‘science’ into social, cultural or political interpretation. Either that, or they have a tin ear for how their arguments are going to be heard. That is, evolutionary psychologists often don’t get why they’re arguing with other intellectuals, or at least they act like that they don’t get it.

For example, when Buss and Malamuth (1996) sought to bring together feminism and evolutionary psychology over a decade ago, they were so concerned with the ‘naturalistic fallacy’—the conflation of scientific and ethical thinking, or ‘what is’ with ‘what ought to be’—that they spent most of their energy and ink trying to argue against political forms of feminism, failing to bring on board the insights of methodological and theoretical feminism in science. The effort by Buss and colleagues may have been genuine, but they were more concerned with their interlocutors’ failings than their own (at least, that’s how I read it). Likewise, evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurban’s response to those who criticize his field is four bits of advice, all of which are ‘learn more about evolutionary psychology.’

Even in more recent academic venues, evolutionary psychologists argue that their communication problem lies mostly in the reception; Kurzban (2010), for example, suggests that critics don’t engage their ideas ‘on scientific grounds,’ stymieing the entire production of knowledge:

Debate and discussion are, of course, all to the good. Conflict helps distill truth, as champions make their cases for their favored proposition, allowing their views to be judged by observers.

The challenge faced by evolutionary psychology, however, is that the critics do not participate in this dialectic. Interlocutors engaging with evolutionary psychologists frequently don’t engage with evolutionary psychology, preferring instead to fabricate evolutionary psychologists’ views, and then attack the imagined positions (see Kurzban, 2002).

Why is this the case? At this point it is unclear.

Kurzban’s critique is valid, of course, as many of the critics do miss the mark or offer political criticism instead of scientific rejoinder. But what he sees as the inaccurate aim of the critics is often a response people claiming to be ‘evolutionary psychologists’ themselves first wandering out of the protected game reserve of ‘science’ and into the wilds of politics, social criticism, or, even more dangerous, sexual advice columns.

As most any anthropologist or researcher in the social studies of science would hasten to say, it’s hard enough to do science without a political perspective sneaking in under the cloak of objectivity and value neutrality, let alone keeping ‘scientific’ when you’re writing sexual advice (which Kurzban is definitely not doing). Especially in a field like evolutionary psychology, where, Kurzban points out, serious questions are being addressed with broad implications, the tightrope between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought to be’ is a challenge. You can’t avoid the tightrope simply by pretending you’re not walking it.

If Kurzban or other evolutionary psychologists are really mystified, or ‘unclear’ as Kurzban suggests, about why critics ‘are not just skeptical, they are angry’ (Kurzban quoting Daly and Wilson 2007: 396), or truly in the dark why their interlocutors appear ‘to be motivated by something other than a humble search for the truth’ (Kurzban quoting Daly and Wilson 2007: 390), I can help. Alas, if evolutionary psychologists feel ‘unfairly accused’ and ‘unjustly condemned’ (Kurzban 2002), I think I might be able to explain it: they’ve got a chronic, recurring narrative problem.

Not all publicity is good publicity

When critics attack evolutionary psychology, they typically don’t have to ‘fabricate evolutionary psychologists’ views.’ Instead, critics take popular or just out-dated versions of evolutionary psychologists’ arguments like those put forward by Bering, Rybicki or whatever scandaloteur du jour gets wide media play. If Kurzban really doesn’t understand the dim view taken of evolutionary psychology by feminists and others, he probably doesn’t realize how much damage this sort of publicity does to his field, both with other intellectuals and with the reading public. The misogynist pop evolutionary psychology also attracts those looking to justify their own retrograde attitudes (anyone who doesn’t know what I mean, just look in the comments on any blog post discussing research on sex differences in evolutionary psychology, perhaps even this one).

Perhaps because he doesn’t realize the damage being done, Kurzban’s excellent blog (Evolutionary Psychology, found here) tends to focus more on the ‘we’re misrepresented’ part of the ‘scientific dialectic,’ rather than on clarifying errors within the field or fighting misrepresentation of evolutionary theory by those who claim to represent it (a rare exception is his post about Kanazawa’s column on black women, but even there, Kurzban gets around to how unjust it is to treat evolutionary psychologists badly because of Kanazawa). Kurzban is pretty quick to point out when critiques of evolutionary psychology have failed to keep pace with changes in evolutionary theory (for example, on his weblog here and here), but a bit less swift to point out when erstwhile public proponents of evolutionary psychology are a decade or more behind, as well.

I have no doubt that Kurzban and other evolutionary psychologists feel misunderstood, even aggrieved. But if having a pitcher of water poured on another person’s head at a meeting in 1978 (as happened to E. O. Wilson) is enough to produce a sense that you and your field’s persecuted, you should be able to spare a bit of empathy for other oppressed groups. And if being told you’re not a ‘science’ offends or hurts, as Kurzban implies, then certainly he can spare some fellow-feeling for the feminist scientists so often on the receiving end of that particular rhetorical truncheon. I would hope that, if a bunch of smart evolutionary psychologists really put their minds to it, they could well understand why feminist intellectuals should feel persecuted by evolutionary psychologists if the psychologists are still retelling tales of aquatic insult at a conference more than thirty years old.

I agree with Kurzban on many issues, but if he and other evolutionary psychologists want to make some headway on their public reception problems, I doubt they’re going to make much progress by just complaining that they are misunderstood. In addition to opening themselves to legitimate critique by feminist evolutionary psychologists (which I think most do), they’ve also got to help with cleaning up the public narrative. It’s probably not efficient or a good use of their time for serious evolutionary psychologists to have to deal with each poseur, one at a time, writing blog posts again and again saying, ‘He claims to be one of us, but he’s just another misogynist. Go ahead with the online beatdown…’ Instead, they could attack the misleading and partial narrative, helping to replace it with a better one.

Ironically, as Richard Wright (1994; cited in Smith and Konick 2011: 597) has pointed out, some of the ‘evolutionary’ perspectives on men’s innate attitudes are remarkably similar to the most rare and radical anti-male brand of feminism — ‘Human males are by nature oppressive, possessive, flesh-obsessed pigs’ is how Wright put it — a delicious case of extremes doubling back to meet each other. It’s just that the supposed evolutionary theorists often don’t think there’s anything we can or should do about piggish behaviour. (Or, as Bering implies, society should probably just lighten up about men behaving badly because a few hundred generations ago, the behaviour would have been pretty normal and adaptive.)

It’s possible, however, as Kate Clancy points out, that some evolutionary psychologists may simply enjoy the role of ‘science provocateur.’ They might relish provoking public reaction or ginning up outrage by finding new ways to assert that feminists or other progressives are just soft-headed, self-deluding, politically-correct ninnies fighting human nature, like well-meaning nitwits raging against gravity for being oppressive.

If they’re just in the debate to have a bit of a lark, then my advice is pretty much moot (and if this is you, please don’t bother commenting as I won’t respond – I’ve got too much to write). But I think that there’s a possibility of strengthening the discussion of evolutionary psychology by expanding it significantly to include more paleoanthropologists, neurologists, anthropologists, primatologists, ethologists, historians, and, yes, anthropologists of all stripes.

One could find unhelpful strains of all these disciplines, of course, such as overly politicized scholars of various sorts who might be opposed on principle to the effort or scholars who only see things through their own disciplinary lenses and refuse to acknowledge the potential validity of any other approach. But a serious consideration of the relation between human evolution and sexual psychology would need to be pretty open and willing to listen to diverse perspectives, one would think. And a good starting point would be a change in the orienting narrative.

Where we’re going with this post, credits and predecessors

The ‘long, slow sexual revolution’ account of human sexuality is hardly original, as I’ve tried to make clear. It’s simply my way of trying to communicate in some coherent, simple package, diverse ideas that I’ve learned from people like evolutionary psychologists Robert Trivers and David Buss, sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, and anthropologists Don Symons, Meredith Small, Agustín Fuentes, Jonathan Marks, and Sarah B. Hrdy, among many others.

More immediately, this particular column has been influenced and inspired by fellow online writers Patrick Clarkin (check out his excellent series on human pair-bonding which starts here), John Hawks, Greg Laden (see especially his piece on female orgasm), Kate Clancy (I’ll talk about her post on ‘mate magnet madness’ more in the second part of this series), Eric Michael Johnson (see his great discussion of recent genetics research on polygyny) and Jeremy Yoder (amazing long read relating his own homosexuality to his interest in evolutionary theory and the possibility of a ‘gay gene’ persisting in a population).

What I hope to add in this series of post, however, that may not appear in some of the others discussions of the evolutionary psychology scandal-of-the-month, is an analysis of the story that underpins this interpretation and a proposal for an alternative story we can tell about human sexuality and evolution that is intellectually inclusive.

The next post will review the primary conceptual foundations of the kind of narrative that predictably produces material like Ed Rybicki’s story and Jesse Bering’s advice. I don’t think it’s just sexism that produces sexist evolutionary psychology, but an inordinate focus on a small number of key issues: anisogamy, sexual dimorphism, universalism, and ‘mate preference,’ predominant among them. My goal is not to argue that these factors are not important, or even to say that they might not produce something like the sorts of tendencies that the Mars-Venus account of human sexuality suggests, but rather to suggest that they might not be quite as clear cut or unchangeable as sometimes assumed.

The third post will offer my approach to teaching the ‘long, slow sexual evolution,’ maybe even my slides if I can pull it together, in a way that includes both long-standing concepts in discussions of human sexual selection (all the ones that I discuss in post two), as well as other material that I think works well with students and popular audiences. In particular, one way that we can teach human evolution and sexuality is to highlight how the ‘revolution’ produces contradictory elements in our sexuality, and that this instability is actually an adaptive resource, allowing human sexual behaviour to shift quite dramatically given different social and contextual pressures.

Additional reading

If you haven’t had it by this point, here’s some additional columns, including many discussed in the post.

References:

ResearchBlogging.org

Buss, D., & Schmitt, D. (1993). Sexual Strategies Theory: An evolutionary perspective on human mating. Psychological Review, 100 (2), 204-232 DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.100.2.204

Cassidy, A. (2007). The (sexual) politics of evolution: Popular controversy in the late 20th-century United Kingdom. History of Psychology, 10 (2), 199-226 DOI: 10.1037/1093-4510.10.2.199

Daly, M., and Wilson, M. (2007). Is the “Cinderella effect” controversial? A case study of evolution-minded research and critiques thereof. In Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology, C. Crawford and D. Krebs, eds. Pp. 383-400. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.  (pdf available here)

Eagly, A., & Wood, W. (2011). Feminism and the Evolution of Sex Differences and Similarities Sex Roles, 64 (9-10), 758-767 DOI: 10.1007/s11199-011-9949-9

Hrdy, S. (1999). Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection. New York: Pantheon Books.

_____. (2009). Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kurzban, R. (2010). Grand challenges of evolutionary psychology Frontiers in Psychology, 1 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00003

Liesen, L. (1998). Book reviews Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 7 (3), 105-113 DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1520-6505(1998)7:33.0.CO;2-M

Liesen, L. (2007). Women, behavior, and evolution Politics and the Life Sciences, 26 (1), 51-70 DOI: 10.2990/21_1_51

Liesen, L. (2010). Feminists, Fear Not Evolutionary Theory, but Remain Very Cautious of Evolutionary Psychology Sex Roles, 64 (9-10), 748-750 DOI: 10.1007/s11199-010-9857-4

Ryan, C. & Jethá, C. (2010) Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships. Harper Perennial: New York.

Smith, C., & Konik, J. (2011). Feminism and Evolutionary Psychology: Allies, Adversaries, or Both? An Introduction to a Special Issue Sex Roles, 64 (9-10), 595-602 DOI: 10.1007/s11199-011-9985-5

Thornhill, R., & Palmer, C. T. (2000). A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion. Cambridge: MIT.

Vandermassen, G. (2010). Evolution and Rape: A Feminist Darwinian Perspective Sex Roles, 64 (9-10), 732-747 DOI: 10.1007/s11199-010-9895-y

Wright, R. (1994, November 28). Feminists, meet Mr. Darwin. The New Republic 34-38.

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The long, slow sexual revolution (part 1) with nsfw video by Neuroanthropology, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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31 Responses to The long, slow sexual revolution (part 1) with nsfw video

  1. Agustin Fuentes says:

    Well done Greg! Excellent overview and I am looking forward to the next segment!
    Let me just add my emphatic support to your strong points and fine prose via a super brief summary of the chapter on busting the myth of sex/gender differences in my upcoming book. This is the take home message based on an extensive survey of anthropological, biological and psychologicla literature on sex and gender differences:

    “There are important biological differences between the sexes and there are also important similarities, however there is a greater range of overlap in male and female bodies than most people realize. Behaviorally males and females also overlap extensively. Humans, regardless of sex, seek to form pair bonds of both social and sexual sorts, but pair bonds and marriage are not the same thing. Males and females, given the opportunity, will engage in sexual behavior across the lifespan in more or less the same rates and manners. These strong similarities in male and female bodies and behavior do not mean that gender differences are not real and important. Gender is a powerful cultural construct and the perception and expectation of gender differences impacts individuals and society. Males tend to control economic and political resources and women are heavily involved with the child rearing because they give birth and lactate, but males and females have the same behavioral ability to care for offspring. There is no biological or evolutionary mandate that only females care for young and only males care for economics and politics. These patterns of gender difference and the strength of the cultural assumptions about sex fool us into thinking that men and women are so different by nature.”

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    • gregdowney says:

      We should make sure to cover your new book when it’s out, Agustín, here at Neuroanthropology. I saw the one-sentence summary when I linked to your profile — looks very good.

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      • Agustin Fuentes says:

        I’ll make sure they send copies! This post is really good…have you thought about turning this set of musings into more than blog?

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    • Brody says:

      This comment reminds me of something from the book Sex, Drugs, and Coco Puffs:

      “Apples and oranges aren’t the different, really. I mean, they’re both fruit. Their weight is extremely similar. They both contain acidic elements. They’re both roughly spherical. They serve the same social purpose. With the possible exception of a tangerine, I can’t think of anything more similar to an orange then an apple. If I was having lunch with a man who was eating an apple and- while I was looking away- he replaced that apple with an orange, I doubt I’d even notice. So how is this a metaphor for difference?…”

      It is very true that men and women are very similar to one another and one could posit a number of way in which the ways we struggle in our daily lives is similar to Chimps, ground squirrels, and pigeons (I am not, by analogy, claiming that men and women are as different as apples and oranges) . We can certainly learn things by looking at the similarities between things, but also the differences. You note differences above based on the “cultural construct of gender”. And it is true that culture has a strong influence on people, but people’s genetic pre-dispositions do also. Both culture and gene’s are not immutable forces as you note… but why is it wrong if some researchers want to focus on understanding the non-immutable genetic predispositions that might lead one to be misogynistic rather than the cultural one’s that have the same effect. I assure you, real change will not be possible without understanding both elements of the equation–indeed men and women have very different psychologies based on a different selective history and different ontogenetic developments. Pretending the former does not exist or is unimportant in order to make changes in the ladder will fail. So are men and women different by nature? If you mean that they must always and in every case and environment be different than… duh no. If you mean that men and women have different behavioral proclivities based on differential success of certain strategies which are contingent on the environment providing certain regularities then… duh yes.

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  2. Jovan Maud says:

    Great interview, Greg. I think “sex is like hands” should become an internet meme. I don’t know if I can forgive you for “koala bears” though — sheesh, call yourself a new Australian?!

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  3. Wonderful, Greg! I’m looking forward to the next installments in the series.

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  4. This was a fantastic read, and I’m also looking forward to the next installments. I’m bookmarking this one.

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  5. Robert Hagedorn says:

    Challenge yourself. Google First Scandal.

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    • gregdowney says:

      Thanks Robert for the link to the pamphlet of exegesis on the story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. Always great to see Biblical exegesis; takes me back to my days in Jesuit education. Tried to find out a bit more about you, but your Blogger profile doesn’t have much to go on.

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  6. Pingback: Roundup (Jan 10, 2012) « Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

  7. A really wonderful post Greg. I particularly appreciated your understanding that changing the discussion about the evolution of human sexuality will require a dual-pronged approach that involves both evidence and storytelling. So many of the evolutionary stories that are stuck in people’s heads were ones developed prior to 1970 and have had forty years to weave their way into popular consciousness through comics, books, and movies. There is a lot of cultural reinforcement behind these flawed narratives that evidence alone will not displace. I’ll be looking forward to the next part in this series and appreciate all of the time you put into this analysis.

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    • gregdowney says:

      Thanks, Eric. Your piece on the ‘missing polygamy’ was an immediate inspiration to try to tell stories and not just give the facts. Your own work features heavily in the next couple of posts in this series — I think you’re doing a lot of the same sort of thing: trying to dislodge this hard-to-remove master narrative. Coming from such a good writer, it’s quite a compliment.

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  8. Janis says:

    I’m rather surprised at myself that I at least skimmed over this entire post since I fall directly into the category you described of interested intellectual women who have tossed the entire topic into a garbage can because it never seems to be comprised of anything but a herd of hooting middle-aged male degenerates trying to convince me that rape is just good fun while their ravening 20-something acolytes cheer.

    Not to say that you’ve convinced me to avoid the topic, either. But it’s a very nice, very exhaustive rundown of the issues and should be helpful for those people who haven’t gotten entirely sickened by it yet. :-P

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  9. Excellent piece. I enjoyed your nuanced approach to these oft-oversimplified issues. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony…)

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  15. Interesting post. On the whole it seems very reasonable and balanced, but I do have one (rather pedantic!) issue to bring up: your description of Jesse Bering as a “self-proclaimed evolutionary pyschologist”. This does seem to imply that there is some sort of official qualification process for being an evolutionary psychologist, and that those who don’t have it are merely self-proclaimed. Jesse is an academic psychologist – with a PhD in developmental psychology – who happens to believe strongly that evolutionary theory can help us understand the human mind. Doesn’t that make him as much an evolutionary psychologist as anyone?
    In the context of your discussion of hebephily, you might also want to make clear that Jesse is openly gay – so it is not a case of his unconscious desires motivating his arguments!
    (Disclosure: Jesse was my PhD supervisor.)
    Other than those quibbles, I enjoyed the post and I do think these issues need to be discussed calmly and rationally, as you do here.

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    • gregdowney says:

      Hi Gordon –
      Glad you thought the piece was (at least close to) balanced. I didn’t mean ‘self proclaimed’ as a dig — I always think ‘so called’ sounds that way. I just meant that *I* wasn’t the one saying Bering was an ‘evolutionary psychologist’; he did.

      Sorry part 2 is taking so long, but I’ve got a couple of article deadlines I’m up against, and they’re kicking my butt.

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  16. Thanks for your reply, Greg … you know, I kind of realised as soon I hit “Post Comment” that you weren’t being derogatory but had meant that he was acknowledging the label for himself, and then realised I had wasted my time writing the comment. So often the way :(
    Good luck with your article deadlines, and I look forward to Part 2!

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  21. Mark says:

    I loved this when you posted it last year. I’m sure you’ve plenty else occupying your time, but what are the prospects for seeing parts 2 and 3 any time soon?

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