Thursday, October 10, 2013

Ode to a lemon tart (the Darwinian determinism of sexual behavior....or not)

If any characteristics of animals should have been fixed in place genetically by 4 billion years of natural selection, it should be mating behavior.  Among the aspects of life that determinative genetic variation most directly affects is sex, and there should be little variation that we can see.  A whole edifice of behavioral evolutionary theory has been built on the assumption of Darwinian fine-tuning, of winner-take-all genetic determinism.

But a book reviewed in Oct 6'th NY Times Book Review,  called PERV: The sexual Deviant in All of Us, by Jesse Bering (reviewed by Daniel Bergner, who writes about what 'women want'), has got us thinking about how secure such Darwinian convictions really are.  We have not read the book ourselves, just the review, so we can't attest to Bergner's accuracy.  But the reviewer casts no aspersions on the research the book reports.  If true, some reflection is in order. 

The Playgirl chimp and other lurid stories
The book reports experiments showing that shepherds don't have anything on sheep and goats.  Cross species nursing of newborns leads to their cross-desiring when they come of mating age.  They lust for what they knew.

Goats and sheep; Wikipedia

And this coming out, so to speak, is not restricted to the dumb beasts of the fields.  Lucy, a chimp  raised from infancy with humans showed no pubescent interest in male chimps.  She loved gazing at Playgirl magazine centerfold pictures of nude males and lustfully juxtaposing her reproductive paraphernalia on the image of the male's corresponding features.

If all we see are the 'normal' (that is, the norm), and never observe or test for alternatives, it is very easy to assume that the normal is law-like, driven by evolutionary necessity and hence by our genes. 

Oh, do a lemon tart!
An ode is a poem of reverence for some idolized or idealized topic.  Certainly a dessert, like a lemon tart, deserves such treatment!  Through the ages, courtesans and tarts of all sorts have won reverence with many subtle devices, from low-cut gowns, to perfume, fluttery eyelashes and flashy jewelry.  But this book takes things an aromatic step further.

Lemon tart; Wikipedia

Rat pups who nurse of mothers whose nipples and genitals were scented with lemon fragrance grew up only to want to mate with adult females adorned with enticing lemony aroma.  We hardly know what to say! 

Of course, it's easy to find the very uneasy contortions by which evolutionary psych advocates attempt after-the-fact rationales for the clearly substantial fraction of homosexuals (not to mention celibate) members of our species.  And this is clearly not an artifact of the anomie of dispassionate industrial society.  Even the titillating title of the book refers to 'deviant' or 'perv' behavior, again reflecting the shackles of our language that conceptually define what is most common as normal and distinguish it from the rest that is given negative connotation--much the way, as feminists have long pointed out, 'women' etymologically means modified 'men', with all the conceptual baggage that goes  with that).

Indeed, to a great extent, what is common, or the stereotypical rule, in our descriptions of our culture, may itself be more wishful thinking than we'd like to believe.  This might include monogamy, just for starters  especially for women (we've posted on the fallacy of that).  Given the stringency typically attributed to natural selection, and its very long history of imposing that supposed stringency on our ancestry going all the way back to the primal soup, do we have to acknowledge that what may have been selected is the ability to assess and respond, rather than just to respond? (Indeed, we recently noted that even flies make sexual judgments.)

Sigmund Freud; Wikipedia
Could Freud, so long dismissed, rather than Darwin, have been more right about how our first experiences, not our genes, affect what we write odes to later in life?

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