Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Mars and Venus: thoughts on the nature and evolution of (sssh!) sex. Part I

In the wake of the revelation of alleged repeated sexual assault on young boys by a big boy who was a football player and legendary coach here at Penn State, we mused about what it all meant.  An important part of that story was how the event released all sorts of other allegations of child sexual abuse, by men and women, and figures suggesting that a sixth to as much as a quarter of both men and women had been sexual abused as children.

That the issue expanded in this way could in part be a common phenomenon of the expansion of definitions to include more than gross physical abuse, copycat claims and the like.  But even if that were partly true, still the prevalence of adult offenders is rather astonishing.  Sexual abusers are not just very rare deviants, but part of the 'normal' (that is, usual) distribution of sexual behavior--so that child sexual abuse is apparently a common form of violation of law and publicly proclaimed standards.

This is not any sort of defense of child abuse, and we won't rehash our commentary here.  But the point is that there is much more variation in sexual, or perhaps more properly put, gender-related behavior than is generally acknowledged.

Today's post was triggered by a thoughtful commentary by Andrew Barron and two co-authors, in the December issue of BioEssays, itself a thoughtful journal.  The article is about how we are--or aren't--appropriately educating undergraduates about what is actually known about sex and gender and associated behaviors.  As the authors put it:

Research over the last decades has stimulated a paradigm shift in biology from assuming fixed and dichotomous male and female sexual strategies to an appreciation of significant variation in sex and sexual behaviour both within and between species. This has resulted in the development of a broader biological understanding of sexual strategies, sexuality and variation in sexual behaviour. However, current introductory biological textbooks have not yet incorporated these new research findings.

The authors further state that

Darwin’s strict view of male and female roles most likely reflected the social constraints of his time, yet these stereotypic assumptions have influenced  evolutionary and biological research for decades. Darwin characterised males as competitive and eager in the pursuit of females, while females were described as passive, coy and choosy. Darwin’s theory of sexual selection has been enormously influential and still enjoys tremendous research discourse.

They go on to discuss how we could improve education by properly presenting what is now actually known about sexual behavior, sexual selection, and related topics.  Most books cling to the simple ideas of classical Darwinism and their expanded theoretical treatment from a mathematical and selectinonist perspective often called 'evolutionary psychology' or 'behavioral evolution'.

There is the problem, according to Barron et al., of too rigid a separation of the sexes and much too rigid dichotomization of behavior that, within and among species, is far more variable, plastic, and less stereotypical than is the usual treatment--or caricature--that is offered.  Not so long ago, Joan (once Jonathan) Roughgarden wrote a book, Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, similarly intended to debunk simplistic Darwinian treatments of sexual selection.  We mention Joan née Jonathan because Roughgarden can be viewed as having  personal, political, and experience-based, as well as scientific interests in a less rigid view of sexual identity and behavior.  Points of view are rarely totally disinterested, and that might be expected to be a major aspect of a subject such as this.

In a somewhat similar vein, Barron et al. argue (and cite supporting literature) that "biological sex (and its associated traits)" are in fact "a fundamentally plastic reaction norm."  They cite Kinsey research showing "significant and consistent variation in sexual behavior," and argue that too often sex and gender (sex-related behavior) are equated when they really are far less rigidly stereotypical in humans and in other species.

To the extent that they are on target, this is a problem because a rigid dichotomization of what is actually more overlapping and variable will lead to social definitions that categorize people, lead to laws setting legal limits and punishments, and restrictions on personal freedoms that are cultural reflections of mistaken biology.

Someone with strong selectionist views such as are common among evolutionary psychology or behavioral evolution may feel that these authors have overstated the amount variation, and that things are actually more dichotomous than Barron et al. allege or have similar reactions to Roughgarden's book.  We are not expert in this area and we are less sanguine about adaptive explanations that are so common and, we feel, weakly supported but too strongly argued in evolutionary psychology.  That difference aside, however, the point here is that if one wants to understand sex and gender behavior in our own society (forgetting strutting peacocks and bright red male cardinals), we would do well to understand what is actually going on in Nature, rather than what our culture considers 'right', 'normal', or 'pathological.'

Barron et al.'s point is that education is doing a disservice to the variation that exists.  They identify areas of sex and behavior that they feel should be included in modern college courses on the subject that would properly reflect the variation seen in Nature.  Their concern is biological factors (not just cultural ones in humans) that affect sex and gender beyond the mechanics and genetics of reproduction.  An example is the controversy over the genetic causation of homosexuality ('gay' genes).  They find that psychology texts do a better job of this but that most anthropology and especially biology texts fail their test.

But what does this have to do with sexual abuse of children?  In Part II we'll return to a point we made in our initial Sandusky-related blog-post.

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