Debunking: Sex at Dawn, by Ryan and Jetha
August 26, 2010
by Fred Hsu
This is a diary I kept as I read a book an acquaintance who taught social science once recommended. The book presumably argued successfully against current evolutionary psychology theories and practices. I had my doubts. But as a rule I don’t criticize something I haven’t investigated. So I bought the book and read it. Following are my personal notes I jotted down after reading a chapter or two.
Chapter 1 and Chapter 2
So I’ve read chapter 1 and 2. Am reading chapter 3 now. Here are my PREMATURE reactions so far. I reserve the right to contradict my own earlier, premature views later on as I read more. As much as I love my Kindle v1, I concede that is it a poor platform for random-access reading/re-reading that is often required for non-fiction materials. I may end up ordering a dead-tree version after all.
The authors summarized their main points and their main attacks on existing evolutionary psychology in the first two chapters. I see detailed claims on how existing mainstream evolutionary psychology (E.P.) theories are wrong, but very little actual evidence supporting authors’ main points. I see not even a hint of authors’ own theory that can explain the scant evidences shown so far. Perhaps more evidences and real theories are forthcoming in later chapters.
Main claim: prehistoric human lived in small groups and shared both females and male partners (both polygyny and polyandry). Evidences offered include some present day tribal groups where promiscuity (not in a derogatory sense) are observed. Also it was reasoned that since we know prehistoric tribes were egalitarian and shared everything, they must have also shared both wives and husbands.
Theory to explain how this would have been more evolutionarily advantageous to, say, only polygyny, or only polyandry, or even to a monogamous arrangement: none so far. They seem to be appealing to reader’s soft spot for social justice.
Side notes to myself: The lack of new theory got me thinking. It appears to me that polyandry can be extremely evolutionarily advantageous in a tribal system where male descendants stick around, and daughters are exchanged with neighboring tribes. Since most males are related, from their male-gene’s point of view (genes residing in males), sharing wives and rearing offspring as a group may turn out to be better, for the genes, compared to simple monogamy. Same can be said of a polygyny tribe, if the women stick around, but sons wonder off to neighboring tribes.
More side notes: What I can’t fathom is how small, prehistoric tribes can share both wives and husband for geologically long time. If both daughter and sons stick around, you’ve got incest and we all know that it leads to evolutionarily. If sons wonder off to other tribes where they finds unrelated male competitors, how would genes that make a (slightly more) charming, (slightly more) selfish and (slightly more) canning man not (over evolutionary time) overtake the entire population? Think of evolutionarily stable games. Same for cases where daughters leave their tribes. I also can’t think of a good argument for both sons and daughters leaving their tribes; how would that promote an egalitarian culture? Help, anyone?
Attacks on E.P. theories (called the ‘standard model‘ in this book):
EP theory: Women’s seemingly consistent preference for men with access to wealth. Authors believe this is due to farming and the advent of personal properties with its associated patriarchal society, not due to biologically programmed traits.
(notes from me) I can see how this argument may work. But why does farming always leads to a patriarchal society? Perhaps answers are forthcoming in following chapters.
EP theory: “naturalness of wedded bliss, female sexual reticence, and happily-ever-after sexual monogamy”. I don’t recall ever reading an E.P. “propaganda” that claims any of these. Authors cited 150-year-old papers claiming these. Authors also cited Pinker talking about related fields as if that automatically made Pinker endorse these straw man arguments.
(notes from me) For a summary of Pinker’s real views on these topics, see pages 460 through 493 in the chapter Family Values in How The Mind Works.
EP theory: (of Pinker in particular) “judging from the social habits of man as he now exists”. And the authors’ claim based on limited observations of promiscuous tribes in today’s jungles is not?
(notes from me) How do we know today’s jungle environment offers the same selection pressure as African savannas 500,000 years ago?
EP theory: “they argue that rape is an unfortunate, but largely successful reproductive strategy and that marriage amounts to a non-win struggle of mutually assured disappointment. Romantic love is reduced to a chemical reaction luring us into reproductive entanglements. Parental love keeps us from escaping. Theirs is an all-encompassing narrative claiming to explain it all by reducing every human interaction to the reptilian pursuit of self-interest.”
(notes from me) Ever read Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow? Grow up. Stop suckling your thumb.
EP theory: for women, sex is about security of the relationship, not the physical pleasure. “if women were as libidinous as men, we’re told, society itself would collapse. Lord Acton was only repeating what everyone knew in 1875 when he declared, “the majority of women, happily for them and for society, are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind”.
(notes from me) Show me a modern evolutionary psychologist that claims women receive no pleasure
Chapter 3 – A Closer Look at the Standard Narrative of Human Sexual Evolution
3.1 How Darwin Insults Your Mother
3.2 The Famously Flaccid Female Libido
3.3. Male Parental Investment
3.4 Mixed Strategies in the war Between the Sexes
3.5 Extended sexual Receptivity and Concealed Ovulation
Reading this chapter reminds me of some Intelligent Design materials people have passed onto me, with what they thought were good intentions (to save me). It also reminds me of conversations I have had with an elder in a Christian church. What bothered me in this book was waves and waves of baseless attacks on straw man EP (Evolutionary Psychology) theories. Authors again appeal to readers’ sophisticated moral sense on how the human nature ‘ought’ to be, as opposed to what can be observed and deduced from what we know so far.
I am still waiting for novel, testable propositions from the authors. None is yet to be found in this chapter. Perhaps some will be put forward in the coming ones.
Authors purport to show that the main tenets of EPs are wrong, I thought perhaps it will help to link to this useful table for reference: Theoretical foundations of evolutionary psychology
3.1 How Darwin Insults Your Mother
Actual text from this section:
“Prominent evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker calls this way of looking at human reproduction ‘the genetic economics of sex’.”
“And make no mistake: according to the cold logic of standard evolutionary theory, leaving a genetic legacy is out sole purpose in life.”
“As attentive readers may have noted, the standard narrative of heterosexual interaction boils down to prostitution.”
“Darwin says your mother’s a whore. Simple as that.”
That about summarizes authors’ reasons for declaring the gene-centric view of evolution wrong. For those who are unfamiliar with what the gene-centric view of evolution really says, I recommend all of Dawkins’ books. If you are of the impatient type, read “River Out of Eden”. If you are of the poetic type, start with Unweaving The Rainbow. If you like to think of yourself as a scientist, start with The Selfish Gene and continue on to The Extended Phenotype. If you are a Wikipedian, go straight to The Ancestor’s Tale. You get the idea.
I can’t stress enough times that all the authors have in their toolset is an appeal to readers’ soft spot for what ought to be the “right” human experience.
A scientific writer’s self-confidence always shows through in their writing. If a writer passionately disseminates what she or he has in their mind to the extent that they just dismiss their ardent opponents in a few words in a footnote or even completely ignore them, you know the writer has something new and interesting to say.
On the other hand, when all you read are futile attempts at poking holes in others’ well-tested theories… (I recognize the irony that I am only able to criticize this book, and not able to propose new ideas. I have no new ideas to put on the table now. I am honest about it, and am not trying to hide that fact by only putting forward criticisms)
3.2 The Famously Flaccid Female Libido
Actual text from this section:
“Women have little interest in sex, right? Despite Tiresia’s observations, until very recently, that’s been the near universal consensus in Western popular culture, medicine, and evolutionary psychology… but as far as the standard model is concerned, not much has changed since Dr. William Acton published his famous thoughts on the matter in 1875…”
“One of the most cited studies in all of evolutionary psychology published by 1989, is typical of the genre. And attractive undergraduate student volunteer… Seriously, this study really is one of the best known in all of EP. Researchers reference it to establish that woman aren’t interested in casual sex, which is important if your theory posits that women instinctively barter sex to get things from men.”
In this section, and in previous chapters, time after time, authors conflate women’s “calculated sex” with “lack of desire for sex” and “lack of enjoyment from sex”. Most EP theories posit that because of high parental investment due to the 9 months of pregnancy, genes in women’s bodies build a vehicle (the body) that deploys many strategies to maintain an evolutionarily competitive return on investment. One of these strategies is to be discreet in choosing a mate.
Authors will cite a EP discourse on “calculated sex”, then turn around and explain that this means EP claims that women “lack sex drive” and “cannot enjoy sex”. Then they will knock down this straw man with an appeal to the reader heart.
EP does not posit that women lack sexual drive nor that women derive no enjoyment from sex with men that pass muster, just like EP does not posit that men lack sexual drive and derive no enjoyment from sex with attractive women because they are just “consciously” going around trying to “make attractive babies”.
Perhaps I can illustrate this point with an example. We know humans, as apes, are built to seek out sugary things due to our evolutionary history. I don’t know about you reader, but I do not lack desire for sweets nor do I find no enjoyment from eating sweets because I am just “consciously” bartering my precious stomach space for the “best packaged biological fuel” for my body.
3.3. Male Parental Investment
Actual quotes from section:
“… Robert Wright puts it succinctly, saying: “We are built to be effective animals, not happy ones… still the frequent absence of happiness is what keeps us pursuing it, and thus makes us productive.” This is a curious notion of productivity – at once overtly political and yet presented innocently enough, as if there were only one possible meaning of “productivity” ”
This betrays authors’ lack of understanding of EP and the gene-centric view of evolution. “Effectivity” and “productivity” are a measure of how successful “vehicles” built by immortal genes can perpetuate the genes. Nobody in evolutionary biology and in EP is under the false illusion that evolution works for the benefit of “vehicles” (that would be us, organisms). There is only one possible meaning of ‘productivity’ if you are talking about evolution.
No evolutionary biologist will claim that the purpose of life, insofar as there is one, is to make “vehicles” happy. The single purpose of life is to perpetuate genes. All else are just tools, including us. But genes are immobile agents; they can’t interact with the environment directly. All they can do is to build an organism that is “driven” by unexplained “urges” to “do things” for the benefit of genes. If the organism can be enticed to carry out these “things” in exchange for a short period of “enjoyment” or “happiness”, that is a byproduct, not a goal.
No amount of “wishing” on the part of authors or the entire population on Earth can change this fact of life.
“Ethologist/primatologist Frans de Waal, one of the more open-minded philosophers of human nature, calls this Calvinist sociobiology”
Mhm… everyone one else is labeled an ‘evolutionary psychologist’ in this book, except for Frans de Waal. He is now an ethologist, a primatologist, and a philosopher, but not an evolutionary psychologist, when it is convenient for authors to quote him to their benefit. Last time I checked, De Waal was the author of Our Inner Ape. Now that I recheck, the book still sits on my bookshelf.
I mean, just open the book, and read it. It is standard EP fare. De Waal differs from many scientists in that he thinks bonobos should be given more attention. And I agree. Chimps were easier to observe for a long time, but that is no excuse for not giving bonobos their chance. De Waal does misinterpret the Selfish Gene and incorrectly claims that Dawkins proposes that “organisms” are “selfish”, when in fact Dawkins proposes that organisms can be altruistic while genes are selfish.
To label Frans De Waal as anything other than an evolutionary psychologist is like saying Billy Graham is a scholar, great orator, and a deep-thinking philosopher. The description is true, but the intention is disingenuous.
(the reason why I elaborated on this seemingly minor point will become apparent, once we reach chapter 4)
“Evolutionary psychologist David Buss… continues, “but women in the past who failed to exercise acumen before consenting to sex were left in the evolutionary dust; our ancestral mothers used emotional wisdom to screen out losers.” Buss doesn’t explain why there are still so many “losers” in the gene pool today if their ancestors were subject to such careful screening for thousands of generations.”
It is either another complete misunderstanding of evolution, or an intentional, blatant misinterpretation of EP. I can’t decide which.
Losers are simply vehicles of genes that happen to be statistically less fit, in their one generation of population. It is a relative thing. Losers are losers to winners of their generation. You can’t compare losers today to losers from a thousand generations ago. The physical environment may have changed. Certainly the losers’ “competitor environment” (that would be the rest of population) has changed. Of course there are still losers today. There will be losers for as long as there are people on this planet.
“We’ll briefly note a few of the questionable assumptions underlying this argument (that men were preoccupied with paternity)… In the ancestral environment, a man could know which children were biologically his, which presumes that: he understands that one sex act can lead to a child, and he has 100 percent certainty of his partner’s fidelity.”
EP presumes no such thing. EP does not presume that a prehistoric man had a clear mental model of the causal relationship between sex and child-making (he might have been able to, but that is irrelevant to our discussion). EP does not presume that man has 100 percent certainty of his partner’s fidelity. These are more straw man arguments. I don’t know where authors got these ideas and EP assumptions from.
Perhaps I can illustrate this with yet another example. Imagine a prehistoric man throwing a spear to try to kill a running gazelle. The spear carves out a beautiful curve moving toward the point the gazelle would reach when the spear drops to gazelle’s height. Do we presume that the hunter was in command of the Newtonian mechanics such that he was able to solve for the point (X,Y) where two moving objects, one with an initial velocity given by the hunter while the other with changing acceleration, subject to the forces of gravity and friction, would eventually meet?
Man does things for reasons he himself does not fully understand. Evolution works perfectly fine often without the vehicles having any hint of their role in the play. There are many ways a man may know subconsciously of the paternity of his (or another man’s) child. Faces? Physical characters? Smell (e.g. women are known to report dislike of her male siblings’ smells)?
And where did that 100 percent come from? Never heard of gradualism? Perhaps it’s time to hit Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable.
3.4 Mixed Strategies in the War Between the Sexes
Actual quotes from section:
“Conventional theory suggests she’ll marry a nice, rich, predictable, sincere guy likely to pay the mortgage, change the diapers, and take out the trash – but then cheat on him with wild, sexy, dangerous dudes, especially around the time she’s ovulating, so she’s more likely to have lover-boy’s baby. Known as the mixed strategy in the scientific literature…”
“The male’s mixed strategy would be to have a long-term mate, whose sexual behavior he could control… Meanwhile he should continue having casual (low-investment) sex with as many other women as possible, to increase his chances of fathering more children. This is how standard evolutionary theory posits that men evolved to be dirty, lying bastards. According to the standard narrative, the evolved behavioral strategy for a man is to cheat on his pregnant wife while being insanely – even violently – jealous of her.”
“These conflicting agendas and the eternal struggle they appear to fuel – this “war between the sexes” – is central to the dismal vision of human sexual life featured in today’s scientific and therapeutic narratives.”
I basically agree with authors’ relation of the Battle of the Sexes as understood in evolutionary biology, except for the colorful languages used. There are even more explicit ones, applied to the ‘readers’ themselves, in the last paragraph that I am not quoting here.
3.5 Extended sexual Receptivity and Concealed Ovulation
“a foundational premise of the standard narrative is that men have no way of knowing when a women is fertile.”
“Concealed ovulation is said to be a significant human exception. Among primates, the female capacity and willingness to have sex at any time, any place is characteristic only of bonobos and humans.”
“If we accept the assumption that women are not particularly interested in sex, other than as a way to manipulate men into sharing resources, why would human females have evolved this unusually abundant sexual capacity? Why not reserve sex for those few days in the cycle when pregnancy is most probable, as does practically every other mammal?”
I don’t even know where to begin with this last two questions. Sigh.
Didn’t the authors just cited the Battle of the Sexes in the previous section? Remember that they reported that woman had two simultaneous strategies they pursued? Why would a female about to sneak out of the door to meet her wild, sexy and dangerous dudes prominently display signs of her ovulation to her husband?
And again, why do we assume that women are not particularly interested in sex? Which dudes in EP said that?
Authors then went on to relate two supposedly conflicting EP views on concealed ovulation by Helen Fisher (to keep interested man around) and Sarah Blaffer (to confuse multiple male partners). Authored expounded on how these two contradicted each other. When in reality, a clearheaded reader can immediately associate Fisher’s explanation to Battle of Sexes female strategy one, and Blaffer’s to strategy two. These two explanations are mutually compatible, from the woman’s point of view.
Only when viewed from the man’s view do these explanations seem inadequate. And they should! Because the concealed ovulation is a female strategy. It was not evolved for the male’s benefit. The males have their own weapons.
Authors are either incapable of understanding the intricate details of evolutionary biology, or are purposely misleading readers.
OK. That’s it, for chapter 3.
4. The Ape in the Mirror
4.1 Primates and Human Nature
4.2 Doubting the Chimpanzee Model
4.3 In Search of Primate Continuity
“The ancestral line leading to chimps and bonobos splits off from that leading to humans just five to six million years ago… with the chimp and bonobo lines separating somewhere between 3 million and 860,000 years ago.”
Here is the first chart mentioned by text. It’s apparently a diagram showing relative distance between common ancestors of various primates. Yes, I wish I could see it. But I already know what it looks like. See this phylogenetic tree of mammals where edge length represents evolutionary time (a chronogram) : The Ancestors Tale Mammals Phylogenetic Tree in mya.png
If you page down to look at the Summary table, you will see that in fact, I generated this chart and uploaded it to Wikimedia in 2007.
Nothing special here. Authors relate observations known in evolutionary biology about how are are similar to and different from various apes.
4.1 Primates and Human Nature
More on various apes. There is a social organization table (of various apes). Rows and columns look funny, but all texts are intact. The only contentious part is authors’ labeling of multimale-multifemale mating for the human row, in addition to bonobo and chimpanzee.
Part of me wants me believe that human can be more peaceful by nature like the bonobos. But the rational part continues to nag the other part on the wisdom of applying the label ‘multimale-multifemale mating’ for all three apes. What does it mean for us to label the wildly different sexual systems of all three apes using the same phrase?
But this section did get me thinking again. I went back to read accounts of chimps, bonobos and humans in a few books, and I must reassess my original deduction on whether group marriage (I imagine this is what authors meant by the multimale-multifemale mating label) could work.
Most mammals rely on closely-knit female communities where daughters stay around in mother’s communities. Sons wander off to other tribes to avoid high level of inbreeding. In this type of societies, polygyny (harem) is often the norm as most adult males in the tribe are strangers to one another. The males compete to move up the status ladder to become the alpha male, so that it has access to more females. And the males usually need to fight their way to the top in order to have a chance to mate, officially. Unofficially they sneak in for a quick one when they can.
In bonobos, however, the females are the one that go from tribe to tribe. The males stay around. Females go on to the next tribe to fight to become the alpha female. This almost jibes with my reasoning (polyandry), except that the are also other male-male, female-female relationships. And low-status females can mate with males as well. A male bonobo gains status if his mother has high status. (Our Inner Fish, p63, p65, p67, p92, etc) It seems that in bonobo tribes, sex is not just for procreation, but more often than not for recreation and social binding.
In chimps, as in bonobos, the exception is the norm. The females are the ones that go from tribe to tribe. The males stay around. Based on my amateurish reasoning, they should have a polyandry system. But the tribe is patriarchal instead, with an alpha male. I don’t get how a bunch of basically related males need to fight it out all the time. Alpha male has more access to females. Sigh.
After some more researching and thinking, I think I have some rudimentary images of what is wrong.
I think I am not able to properly and distinctively name these four aspects of an animal society. I don’t recall reading about proper naming either. If anyone knows, please help me out:
A.1. a tribe where sons stick around and grown daughters wander off to join new tribe
A.2. a tribe where daughters stick around and grown sons wander off to join new tribe
B.1. a tribe where males fight to climb up the status ladder, where the alpha male has access to more or all females (this does not imply or say anything about whether other low-status males can’t cheat on the side out of view of the alpha famel)
B.2 a tribe where females fight to climb up the status ladder to become alpha female, with access to more or all males
It seems tempting at first that the words ‘patriarchal’ and ‘matriarchal’ can be applied. But one could argue that B.1 is a patriarchal system because males are in power, while another argues that A.1 is a patriarchal system because males stay around and form the backbone of the community and the perpetual owners of the land.
Suppose I call them for now:
Then I spend a few hours trying to sort out all kinds of data I combed concerning chimps, bonobos and human. And got myself really really confused. Nothing really made sense…. until I thought perhaps I’ll sit down and list out all the variables. When I did that, I realized that so far, I’ve not seen anyone do this. Here are some of the factors:
Kinship – which sex remains in the parental community, sharing genes with members of the same sex in the community
Strong bonding – which sex shows strong bonding behavior within the sex
Leavers – which sex leaves the community when grown up to join other tribes
Authority – which sex dominates the other, implying a pecking order in this sex
Stable Pairing – which form of stable, official pairing is observed
Dimorphism – differences between physical body of two sexes
# Males to Females in Heat – when female is in heat, despite Stable Pairing how many males actually gets to mate with her
Testicle Size – size of male testicles
Concealed Ovulation – are ovulations hidden from male?
Personal Properties – can an ape claim personal ownership of land? If so, which sex
It seems to me that if I can create a spreadsheet showing various apes in wild, in captivity, prehistoric human, human in feudal societies and today’s human, I can try to fill in as many numbers as I can find, then:
* figure out implied relationship between some of these variables
* guess what values to use for numbers we do not have (e.g. the Stable Pairing type of Prehistoric Human)
Wait for a spreadsheet in next mail