When I did my last open thread, someone asked for more on evolutionary psychology. I have at least one idea for a post I may write on the subject in the future when I have time, but for now, let me direct you to a couple really good evo psych links I’ve found recently.
Steven Pinker’s recent AMA on Reddit. If you don’t want to comb through the whole thing, Ed Clint did an excellent job of pulling out the highlights here. There’s too much good stuff to quote all the good stuff, so I’ll just quote some of Ed’s comments to whet your appetite:
I really appreciated the candor (not shying away from controversial questions like those about rape or violence) and Pinker’s focus on academic rigor over political entanglements. He also showed great skepticism in pointing out a false dichotomy (19), in agreeing with Henrich et als criticism of social science (which I previous wrote about here)., and in discussing the moralistic fallacy (11) in play when some discuss the etiology of rape. He warns against hero worship (18) because no one is always right. He is not afraid to say ”I don’t know” (3) or “we might never know that” (2) rather than avoid the appearance of ignorance. This is the stuff of excellent scientific skepticism.
Pinker again corrected distorted strawmen versions of his positions regarding feminism and STEM fields. Importantly, he points out that the sexual dimorphism in sexual ability is a matter of imperfectly overlapping bell curves, and that individual variation is high, which means discrimination by sex is unfounded. He also says we should encourage everyone of any gender to pursue math and science.
It’s great to see Pinker’s open support for secularism, humanism and social justice (4). Surprisingly few academics, let alone those who routinely appear in the media, are willing to take that stand.
Reading this book, I found myself in the odd situation of endorsing where the authors end up, just not the road they took to get there. There’s no reason to expect every person to slot neatly into a cultural mold of abstinence until marriage and then till-death-do-us-part fidelity, and the moral guardians who’ve treated this pattern as one-size-fits-all have caused enormous and senseless suffering. I think our culture would be much healthier if we recognized that human sexuality is fluid and multidimensional, that people’s preferences and desires can change over a lifetime, and that negotiation and consent are more important values than monogamy. But we can defend this conclusion for its own sake, without recourse to dubious speculation about what’s “natural” for human beings, and I think Sex at Dawn often strays into very dubious and speculative territory indeed.
But what annoyed me most of all is that the authors don’t even seem to understand the reigning paradigm they’re attacking. As part of their argument for the unnaturalness of monogamy, Ryan and Jetha point out that genetic testing shows infidelity is common among species once thought to be monogamous, like swans and prairie voles [p.136]. They also illustrate the violent lengths that human society goes to in order to enforce monogamy, citing horrific laws like Iran’s which mandate stoning for adulterers. They conclude, “No creature needs to be threatened with death to act in accord with its own nature” [p.98].
But this is completely off-base. The standard narrative doesn’t say that human beings evolved to be monogamous, but that we evolved to want our partners to be monogamous, a drastically different claim. Men want women to be faithful because they don’t want to spend their resources raising another man’s child; women want men to be faithful because they don’t want him to divide his efforts between them and another partner. But at the same time, each partner also has an evolutionary incentive to cheat: men to mate with as many women as possible, to broadcast their genes more widely; women to mate with higher-status partners who might have superior genes. The tug-of-war between these conflicting impulses is what produces the uneasy equilibrium we see. What’s even more puzzling is that, earlier in the book, Ryan and Jetha present a perfectly adequate summary of this model [p.7]; but when it comes time to argue against it, they only thrash at straw men.
Evolution never expends resources unnecessarily, so in species where there’s little chance of sperm competition, the male’s testicles are much smaller. A four-hundred-pound silverback male has testicles the size of kidney beans. Chimps and bonobos, which do mate promiscuously, have things the other way around: as Ryan and Jetha put it, a one-hundred-pound bonobo male has testicles as large as chicken eggs, significantly larger than a human’s [p.222].
And where do humans fit in this scheme? It turns out we’re basically in the middle: men, on average, are larger and stronger than women, though not to the extent seen in gorillas. Nor are men’s testicles as large, relative to their body size, as the more promiscuous chimps and bonobos. This fits well with the standard narrative that human beings are generally monogamous, with some mate competition and some sperm competition on the side.