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March 7th, 2011

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01:44 am - Of Myths, Science, & Sex
As I've mentioned several times, I have little respect for most work in Evolutionary Psychology and am in fact dubious of the worth of the entire discipline.

Part of my reason for my distrust of this discipline is that it is so closely connected to reactionary social agendas. However, this is far from always true – E.O. Wilson is the founder of sociobiology and from reading his work, he seems to me to be a humane and progressive individual with a particularly dismal view of humanity. Of course, there are also drastically different alternatives in this field. teaotter told me about having recently read Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, which unlike so many works inspired by evo-psych, isn't horrific from a progressive perspective – it's instead all about how humanity are most like bonobos and are thus innately promiscuously polyamorous beings. While the author's hearts are clearly in the right place (at least from my PoV), even just from talking with Becca and looking at reviews online, it's equally clear that the author's brains were not.

Ultimately, so many of these works, both pleasant, horrific, or simply silly, are modern myth making. My friend bruceb described them as "evolutionary just-so-stories", which I like, but I think an even better description comes from Ernest Gellner's brilliant book Plough, Sword, and Book: The Structure of Human History, which features the following brilliant passage that I vividly remember from reading it 20 years ago:
"Which Way Will the Stone Age Vote Swing?

Primitive man has lived twice: once in and for himself, and the second time for us, in our reconstruction. Inconclusive evidence may oblige him to live such a double life for ever. Ever since the principles of our own social order have become a matter of sustained debate, there has been a persistent tendency to invoke the First Man to settle our disputes for us. His vote in the next general election is eagerly solicited. It is not entirely clear why Early Men should possess such authority over our choices. Suppose that archaeologists, digging up a very early site, found a well-preserved copy of the original Social Contract: should we feel bound by its terms, and proceed to declare all current statute law which was incompatible with it to be null and void? Would it supplant the United Nations Charter?"
Ultimately, it's a different version of what I described as the argument from origins, but even more than that, this process modern myth-making. People explain how the world is, or perhaps more often how it should be, and "prove" their argument with suppositions about how these actions and behaviors are clearly more "evolutionarily fit", or that they are "natural" (a word I've always inclined to deeply distrust ) by virtue of having been the way that early humans lived.

Myths are designed to explain curious &/or troubling facts about the world. 1,000 years ago, myths were all about deities, angels, miracles, and magic. Today, they still exist, but are couched in the language of science, but that doesn't give them any scientific validity. From what I've seen, these particular myths seems to specifically be attempts by people who both believe the world to be a certain way and who prefer simple and clear explanations to "prove" that the world is the way they wish it to be and the reasons for this are simple and clear.

In any case, one of the things that inspired me to write all this was that I actually discovered a study about sexuality and gender differences that doesn't look like utter junk. I'm impressed both because it is an exploration of a question about people's response to requests for casual sex that both uses moderate sample sizes and is repeated in attempts to discover further answers to the question. I'm naturally inclined to like it because the answers make sense to me, but also because the study looks to be both thorough and careful – two traits I see in almost no studies of this sort.

The study investigates the fact that very few heterosexual women respond positively to a request for casual sex from an unknown man, while a moderate number of heterosexual men do respond positively to a request casual sex from an unknown woman. The most basic form of the results is that in general both men and women expect men who make such request to be far creepier than women who make such requests, thus revealing aspects of rape culture and various other forms of sexism that remain embedded in our culture, especially in areas relating to sexuality (here's a truly excellent and fairly detailed discussion of the results that’s well worth reading).

What impresses me most about this study is that, it's not a study attempting to discover the origins of a behavior or explain a modern behavior as the result of ancient genetic "imperatives", but is instead looking at a modern question in light of the thoughts and responses of modern people in a particular culture who are making what are presumed to be rational responses to the events around them. In short, a study that is about science and not mythology.
Current Mood: impressedimpressed

(9 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:March 7th, 2011 04:27 pm (UTC)
Hmmm... So what do the reviews about Sex at Dawn (I'll admit it, I'm lazy and you've already read them...) - I read it and found it rfefreshing and have actually interected a bit with one of the authors online. My take away was not a book that says "This is the way it is..." but instead focused on the "We still have an insane amount of Victorian carryover in the way we look at sex - see how it carry's over here and look at what nobody talks about over there..."

And that is what the author said they were trying to do as well in response to some accusations that they were doing exactly what you say they did.

[User Picture]
Date:March 7th, 2011 09:37 pm (UTC)
Yep! I like this study too.
[User Picture]
Date:March 8th, 2011 01:26 am (UTC)
I just read Sex at Dawn and found it quite interesting. At best, it's good ammo to use against those who argue that people are naturally monogamous.

I realize that "natural" is invalid as an argument. Hemlock is natural and indoor plumbing is unnatural.
[User Picture]
Date:March 8th, 2011 06:27 am (UTC)
Evolutionary Psychology is very good for some things, and very lousy at others. The chief things it is good at are A) explaining the impulses among humans that are non-rational; and B) explaining certain psychological quirks that seem to separate humans from other animals (human brains, for instance, are absurdly large and energy-expensive: it is nearly impossible to think of a set of environmental circumstances where it would be beneficial to have such a brain without a psycho-sociological context. It is really bad at providing explanations for behaviors that can be explained in terms of culture, although it can offer insight as to why certain cultures develop the beliefs that they do.
[User Picture]
Date:March 8th, 2011 11:24 am (UTC)
Can you say a bit more on your assertion that the authors' brains are not in the right places?
[User Picture]
Date:March 8th, 2011 08:21 pm (UTC)
Simply that their entire endeavor is IMHO misguided in the sense that it's nothing more than an exercise in myth-making rather than anything remotely like social science. There is no proof, no evidence of what human sexuality was like in prehistory, and even if there was it wouldn't prove anything at all about people today.

Claiming to do social science w/o actually having evidence is, to me at least, seriously misguided even if the goal and the attitudes behind it are ones I approve of. I'd far rather see studies like the one on casual sex that I linked to above, which examines the actual behavior of actual modern people and in doing so disproves regressive social ideas.
[User Picture]
Date:March 8th, 2011 03:35 pm (UTC)
Having just finished the Evo Psych chapter in my Psych class, I was pretty pleased by how they handled it. They largely limited it to 'we are attracted to mates we think look healthy', 'hormones affect brain development and give tendencies to temperaments', phobias of spiders and snakes might be evolutionarily based, and some bits on early childhood survival instincts like fearing unfamiliar people. The rest, including the casual sex offer study (with an amusing film of a hansom guy being repeatedly turned down), was attributed to social/environmental.

I tend to think that while biological influences can be sometimes traced, they remain only influences and anyone who claims they are the root of absolute laws of behavior is seeking to justify more than science. Ever the problem with this field is the loss between 'people are this way' and 'I want people to be this way'.
[User Picture]
Date:March 8th, 2011 10:02 pm (UTC)
That's very cool. Of course, I'm also not at all surprised that evo psych was discussed in this way in a psych class. One of the issues is what's known in History of Science as "boundary maintenance" - the better anthro and psych departments are generally fine with dealing with evo psych like you have said, but there's a subset of biologists (population biology being one of the most common) who consider human behavioral sciences to be nothing more than a subset of human biology, and that these entire disciplines can be entirely explained by means of human genetics - sort of like this (because XKCD can be used in any discussion :)
[User Picture]
Date:March 8th, 2011 10:18 pm (UTC)
Heh. Chapter 1 was basically: Science - we do it here. Here are some ways people in this field fail at science. Don't do this.

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