The Sexuality Wars, featuring apes

I thought I was going to enjoy this op-ed piece.  Massimo Pigliucci said it was “tongue-in-cheek” and was going to be critical of evolutionary psychology, and from a female perspective.  Hey, I’m a female who is skeptical of a lot of evolutionary psychology, and I love internet snark! Sounds good!

But then I clicked over and noticed that it was from Wendy Shalit. Her female perspective- that women are miserable because we’re immodest- is not my female perspective.  As it turns out, she is not only critical of evolutionary psychology, but seems to view apes themselves with the kind of disdain that I usually only see coming from creationists.

Shalit apparently read a previous op-ed by Christopher Ryan of Sex at Dawn (and co-author of a book by the same name, which I have unfortunately not had a chance to read yet).  I’ve disagreed with Ryan in the past about fossils, and I take issue with comparing bonobo behavior to modern human behavior to the exclusion of chimps, or really any other primate.  Chimps and bonobos are much more closely related to each other than either are to humans, and both display extremely derived social and sexual behavior.  I don’t think either can serve as an analog for early human/hominid behavior.  But even if it could, it would say nothing about modern human behavior, because humans have evolved quite a bit in the past 6 million years.  We have faced evolutionary pressures which differentiated us from the common ancestor that we share with chimps, and so have chimps and bonobos.

But, I generally agree with him that modern humans display a wide variety of what primatologists would call “mating systems,” from the pair-bond to polygyny to multi-male/multi-female. I think a lot of it is cultural rather than biological, but I’m also willing to admit that it’s hard to tease the two apart in this debate.

Shalit, however, seems to have a problem with the very idea that studies of ape behavior can teach us about ourselves.  After a healthy dose of scare quotes around phrases like “pair-bond,” she says, “Let’s face it — the new ‘science’ of infidelity is just not very scientific.”  Part of being a scientist is actually doing some legwork to evaluate claims which you find dubious.  You either think that human behavior has evolved, or you don’t.  If you do, it isn’t an inherently offensive idea that humans are a promiscuous species. You may evaluate the evidence and come to a different conclusion, but that’s different from taking offense to it.

Here’s the thing that gets me all riled up when I read these sorts of op-eds: Lots of people study primate sexuality.  It’s a fascinating field.  And who the primates are having sex with is only part of the fun.  We know about stress, group dynamics, cognition, and general evolutionary theory because of the good, hard work of these people who are driven by curiosity. But for some reason, the only time primate sexuality gets any attention is when we turn it into a debate about how humans should be having sex.

We never say, “Hey, those muriquis are too promiscuous.  Don’t they know that all of their close evolutionary cousins are polygynous?  If they just did what came naturally to them, they’d have a lot less psychological stress.”  Or, “Those gibbons are so sexually repressed.  If they just gave in to their natural predilection for promiscuity, I bet those nasty gibbons would have fewer territorial disputes and gibbon society would be much more peaceful.”

No, we recognize that in those primates, their behavior has been shaped by different ecological and social pressures.  Sometimes, we accept that those pressures occurred very recently, and are probably very specific to a certain environment which that species occupies. We recognize that they have a unique evolutionary history. But as soon as we introduce humans into the equation, we change our descriptions of behavior into prescriptions, and our supported hypotheses into capital T Truths about human nature.  We try to figure out THE. NATURAL. WAY., so that we can start doing it ourselves, and shaming those around of us who haven’t caught on yet.

I’ve talked before about how behavior is sometimes given a “special status” in evolutionary studies.  Researchers assume that it is so labile that it is virtually meaningless.  Current behaviors, according to these researchers, can tell us nothing about past behaviors or evolutionary relationships, and so we should focus entirely on anatomy.  And yet, in the popular press, we are led to believe that human behavior has been unchanged for millions of years, while our bodies have undergone complete restructuring and our brains have increased in size to an unparalleled degree. It’s the dreaded paleo-nostalgia.

Either that, or we’re supposed to be so repulsed by our primate cousins and their raunchy sex lives that we cast aside all possible science which may or may not illuminate our own condition.

I guess there really aren’t that many people who would read an op-ed about primate behavior unless it made a bombastic conclusions about human behavior.  It’s telling, then, that there aren’t very many primate behaviorists writing op-eds about human sexuality.

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5 responses to “The Sexuality Wars, featuring apes

  1. Eric September 7, 2010 at 9:52 am

    I just looked over the Text you mentioned and stopped reading it after one minute. My tolerance for those kinds of articles is very low right now, because I read a huge amount of them during the last week.
    What bothers me most, is that in the end such texts always fall back at the real scientists, who would never think of proposing stuff like this.

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  4. Janis September 29, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    “We try to figure out THE. NATURAL. WAY.”

    Which of course always intersects perfectly with what WE want, and not at all with what those freaks over there want.

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