Stone-age sex

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Stone-age sex

French actor Alain Delon and Italian actress Claudia Cardinale during a scene from The Centurions 1965. Photo by George Rodger/Magnum

When it comes to sex, will humans ever be liberated from the basic biological needs that drove our evolutionary past?

Neil McArthur is a philosopher at the University of Manitoba in Canada. He wrote David Hume’s Political Theory (2007) and directed Land of Oil and Water (2009). He blogs at Moral Lust, and lives in Winnipeg.

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Literature tells us that our desires know no reason. We read Racine’s Phaedra or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and we see people captured by passion, acting in defiance of all sense or explanation. But science is never satisfied with ineluctable mystery, even in the realm of desire. During the past four decades, researchers into human behaviour have begun to investigate sexual desire. More than anything, they want to know: why is it that we want who we want?

Evolutionary psychology offers one compelling answer to this question. It tells us that, for all its complexity, human desire is the result of something quite simple: our struggle to stay alive. Lust, infatuation, true love – these are all just mechanisms we have acquired in order to reproduce and to keep our children alive. Meaning that, when we look for sex, we are actually, unbeknown even to ourselves, acting in ways that are highly strategic and rational. We are using adaptive techniques that humans developed over our species’ long history, in order to maximise their genes’ chances for survival.

In the four decades since it was first developed, this strategic theory of desire has become a dominant paradigm in psychology, and a familiar feature of media discussions of sexual behaviour. But the strategic paradigm is now facing a challenge from a new generation of evolutionary theorists who have put forth a new story about our species’ past, and new predictions about how we might have sex in the future.

I’ve never had a beard. It would take me forever to grow one, and I haven’t had any reason to try. When I was young, women hated beards. Facial hair was seen as a 1970s thing – something your dad or Burt Reynolds might wear. Then, one day, there were hipsters and, within a few short years, magazines were filled with bearded models, and razor-makers were in a panic over falling sales.

The New York Daily News concluded in an August 2013 article that ‘the country’s recent fondness for the full beard goes back less than two years to a small number of trend setters’. But the article made no mention of a study on beards and desire published earlier that year in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior. The study’s authors, Barnaby Dixson and Robert Brooks of the University of New South Wales in Australia, showed a series of photos, depicting men with different kinds of facial hair to a group of women, and asked them to rank the photos in terms of attractiveness. The women said they liked beards, but not, according to the authors, because beards are in fashion. Rather, the weak preferences of the study’s participants were taken to show that women have been programmed by evolution to pursue men with facial hair. Beards apparently signal age, maturity, industriousness, aggression, dominance, and ambition – all traits than women are innately attracted to.

In reaching its conclusions, the study applied what has become the standard paradigm in evolutionary psychology. This paradigm says that our real-world sexual choices tend to reflect biological imperatives that have, over the course of millions of years, programmed men and women to approach sex very differently. For women, pregnancy is a difficult, costly process, and raising children even more so, meaning that sex must be taken seriously. By and large, biology conditions women to avoid casual sex and to connect sex with love. It also pushes them to look for good providers who tend to be older and wealthier.

Humans have adapted to a wide variety of ecological niches, and part of that could be due to our sexual plasticity

Men, on the other hand, have lots of love to give at no cost to themselves, and they behave in ways that will spread their genes as widely as possible. On this theory, men will settle down with a woman who is fertile and whose fidelity is assured, in order to have legitimate offspring. But they will also sleep around as much as they can, especially with women who possess the key ‘fertility cues’ of youth and physical beauty.

Someone who reads only the media coverage might wonder why anyone takes the evolutionary study of sex (ESS) seriously. It is easy to caricature, and many of its followers seem intent on doing the job themselves. In the past couple of years, evolutionary psychologists have been able to grab reporters’ attention by suggesting, for instance, that men with smaller testicles make better fathers, that men with attractive partners perform oral sex more often because they’re checking for competitors’ sperm, and that women have orgasms in order to attract mates willing to commit to raising offspring. Stories such as these have given plenty of ammunition to critics of ESS and, as a result, many people now dismiss it out of hand. And that’s a shame, because the discipline has stimulated some genuinely original thinking about human sexual behaviour. A closer look at its history can give a sense of its sophistication.

Daily Weekly

The roots of evolutionary psychology can be traced back to Charles Darwin himself, who says in On the Origin of Species (1859) that, armed with the theory of natural selection, ‘psychology will be based on a new foundation’. But it truly came into its own in the 1970s, thanks to Robert Trivers, then a Harvard postgraduate, who wrote a series of papers that helped to define evolutionary psychology as a field. One of these, ‘Parental Investment and Sexual Selection’ (1972), laid out the basic elements of an evolutionary explanation for sexual behaviour. Trivers looked at data from a variety of animal species, and concluded: ‘The relative parental investment of the sexes in their young is the key variable controlling the operation of sexual selection. Where one sex in­vests considerably more than the other, members of the latter will compete among themselves to mate with members of the former.’

Trivers’s paper looked only glancingly at human behaviour, though it was rich in suggestions for further research. In his book, The Evolution of Human Sexuality (1979), the anthropologist Donald Symons used Trivers’s basic ideas to explain how people make sexual choices. Symons wanted to know what women and men were after when they went looking for sex, and he arrived at a relatively simple answer: ‘Men like sex with strangers ... and women generally don’t.’

There is nothing maladaptive about a woman having a casual affair. It’s a great way to get access to strong, healthy genes

Symons was a powerful theoriser, but he had been unable to offer much in the way of actual data. In 1981, an ambitious young Harvard professor, David Buss, read Symons’s book, and decided to look for hard evidence to test its key claims. Though he started with a survey of a few middle-class white people, he was not content, as many of his followers would later be, to stop there. He assembled a group of international collaborators into what he called the International Mate Selection Project, which asked people from 37 different cultures what they looked for in a sexual partner. His collaborators risked their lives to survey Zulu women in remote South African villages and to smuggle information, carefully coded to avoid government censors, out of Communist China. The results, first published in 1990, provided data from close to 10,000 respondents in 33 countries and they revealed some strikingly consistent patterns across a variety of cultures, all more or less in line with Symons’s predictions. Buss used this data as the basis for what he called ‘sexual strategies theory’.

Though the data from Buss’s surveys confirmed the basic hypotheses of Trivers and Symons, the resulting theory introduced some important refinements. Notably, sexual strategies theory pays attention to an obvious fact that earlier evolutionary psychologists had left largely unanalysed: women sometimes want casual flings, too. According to sexual strategies theory, women don’t altogether avoid sex outside of committed relationships, but they use different criteria for choosing partners depending on whether they are engaged in short-term or long-term mating. Women out for casual sex generally place a premium on looks, which signal fertility and genetic health, in contrast to those looking for a long-term partner, who look for someone with status, maturity, and access to resources. There is nothing maladaptive about a woman having a casual affair. It’s a great way to get access to strong, healthy genes, and ones that are different from those of her other children, thereby increasing the family’s overall resistance to disease. She just has to be sly about it, so she can still hold on to her life partner.

Critics of evolutionary psychology have long accused it of crafting theories that work not as predictive hypotheses, but as ‘just so stories’. Such stories take observed behaviour as they find it, and simply speculate about how it might have bestowed some adaptive advantage on early humans. But this charge, when levelled at sexual strategies theory, is unfair, for in the hands of researchers such as Buss, the theory does make predictions – for example, that women will be more likely to pursue hyper-masculine men when they are ovulating than at other times. These hypotheses can then be subjected to confirmation or refutation through data drawn from any cultural context. Indeed, proponents of sexual strategies theory often point out that their chief critics, the ‘social constructionists’ who insist that our sexual behaviour is entirely the result of our cultural conditioning, have a ‘just so’ problem of their own.

Nevertheless, it’s certainly true that even the most robust cross-cultural data cannot show that a given phenomenon is the result of our mental hardwiring. And ambitious cross-cultural studies of the sort that Buss and his colleagues undertook are exceedingly rare. Indeed, an embarrassing portion of the ESS literature is based on surveys of university undergraduates: hardly a reliable sample population for uncovering universal human characteristics. Not only do these people come from a single culture, they come from a narrow subsection of that culture, one that is mostly white, liberal, educated and affluent. College students also operate in an unusual social context, where they are surrounded by large numbers of single people their age, all of them equipped with means of instantaneous communication and social networking, and without any supervision by parents or other familiar elders. As one recent paper put it, these conditions ‘may not have existed during the majority of human evolution’.

Evolutionary psychology has also been criticised for its focus on heterosexual desire. To be fair, natural selection operates by means of reproduction, and so reproductive sex is clearly going to play a crucial role in any explanation of its mechanisms. But humans are not an exclusively heterosexual species, and an adequate theory of desire must explain how people can be oriented, either partly or exclusively, towards members of their own sex. ESS has most commonly seen same-sex desire as a by-product of our evolved, heterosexual mating strategies. On this view, it is the result of traits – such as our tendency to build same-gender alliances in order to solidify our social position – that are adaptive in their origins, but that have, in certain individuals, become distorted or overdeveloped. This account describes homosexuality as a kind of software glitch – one that evolution hasn’t bothered to fix because it isn’t serious enough to crash the entire programme. But not many gays and lesbians are likely to be satisfied with that explanation, and they could be forgiven for wondering whether the problem lies with the paradigm itself.

Among the Na, monogamy is frowned upon, everyone is free to have as much casual sex as he or she wants, and jealousy is apparently unheard of

One could argue that traditional ESS looks at the question of sexual orientation exactly backwards. When we survey the full range of sexual practices across different human societies, we might conclude that the sort of rigid, predictable patterns of desire posited by sexual strategies theory are either nonexistent or maladaptive. Humans have had to adapt to a wide variety of ecological niches, and we have done so with remarkable success, and part of that could be due to our sexual plasticity, which allows us to calibrate our sexual behaviour to fit our environment. Same-sex and bisexual desire are two very visible products of our innate variability but, as the ethnographic record shows, there are many others that fit equally poorly into the standard paradigm.

Two US anthropologists, Katherine Starkweather and Raymond Hames, have recently shown that polyandry, the practice of women taking multiple husbands, is much more common than people in their discipline previously recognised. And Stephen Beckerman at Pennsylvania State University has drawn attention to what he calls ‘partible paternity’, where a woman has sex with more than one man in order to get pregnant, with these multiple partners jointly recognised as fathers of the offspring. This practice is common throughout the lowlands of South America, and other examples can be found around the world. And some cultures, such as the Na (or Mosuo) people in southwest China, don’t seem to have any stable pair bonds at all. Among the Na, monogamy is frowned upon, everyone is free to have as much casual sex as he or she wants, and jealousy is apparently unheard of.

All this shows that we are a weird, wonderful and sometimes downright kinky species. But sexual strategies theorists have never pretended that their model can explain all of our sexual behaviour. Their claim is rather that they can give us a way to distinguish signal from noise. Beneath all of our diversity, the thinking goes, there are certain forms of behaviour, such as stable heterosexual pair bonding, that might not be universal, but which recur with sufficient regularity as to be considered the norm. However, as historians and anthropologists continue to add to the catalogue of anomalies, we need to decide what sort of evidence counts as falsifying the theory. How common does a behaviour need to be before we consider it a norm?

Right now, there is no rival grand theory that promises to explain fully what we might call the ‘variability hypothesis’ – the view that humans are capable of adapting most or all aspects of their sexual behaviour to fit their historical and environmental context. On its own, an appeal to our innate plasticity does no predictive work. A full, predictive theory of variability should tell us, for instance, which sorts of environments produce stable heterosexual monogamy, and which lead to alternative arrangements, such as polyandry or, as in ancient Greece, widespread bisexuality. Until we have such a theory, the variability hypothesis leaves us with yet another dreaded ‘just so’ story. But research on sexual variability is still at an early stage, and we can hope that such a theory will yet emerge. If and when it does, we can pit it directly against sexual strategies theory, and see which of them does a better job explaining the evidence overall.

Even if evolutionary psychologists come up with the perfect theory to link our sexual behaviour to the hardwiring in our brain, many people would argue that it wouldn’t matter much anyway. We would still wake up every morning to be buffeted by desire’s mysterious winds, and we would still be left to cobble together, from our unruly urges and our imperfect decisions, lives that make as much sense to us as possible. Tracing your sexual preferences back to the Pleistocene doesn’t help you decide between the rough boy in the leather jacket and the nice banker who will help with the kids. And yet, when all is said and done, we’re animals – and evolution is the most powerful tool we have for understanding the animal world. Biologists would not try to explain the development of our kidneys or our immune systems without reference to human evolution. And it would be very odd if evolutionary theory had nothing to contribute to the understanding of the human mind.

So we all have an interest in figuring out what will make us sexually happy. Humans in the 21st century, at least those in developed, Western democracies, live in an environment that provides almost complete sexual liberty. And thanks to technology, we can now connect with one another with unprecedented ease. We can see more potential mates in an hour on Tinder than our Pliocene ancestors encountered in their lifetimes. Assuming that we are hard-wired sexually, ignoring that hardwiring will come at a cost. Modern consumers have unlimited freedom when it comes to food. But if they use that freedom the wrong way, they could make themselves obese, and potentially die of a heart attack.

If jealousy is truly hard-wired, then experiments with non-monogamy are doomed to fail

Though evolutionary psychology is often seen as a conservative discipline, dedicated to providing justifications of the status quo, its final conclusions could be quite radical indeed. Researchers might tell us that it’s the accepted norms of our culture that are doing violence to our nature. Indeed, the current best-seller among ESS books, Sex at Dawn (2010) by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, two self-described ‘shame exorcists’, is a sustained attack on our society’s norm of monogamy. It surveys the anthropological record, as well as the behaviour of our closest primate cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos, and makes the case that humans actually evolved to be promiscuous. Ryan and Jethá claim that it is only with the advent of modern agriculture, and men’s ensuing need to protect their inheritance, that humans began to expect exclusivity from their partners. They attribute our modern sexual malaise to the mismatch between our Paleolithic libidos and the monogamous straitjacket into which we have forced ourselves.

Sex at Dawn is longer on polemic than it is on data and argument, and the reviews in the specialist journals have generally been negative. But the book has provoked its readers to look again at our culture’s norms surrounding monogamy. Gay men such as the US sex columnist Dan Savage have always found straight society’s obsession with sexual exclusivity somewhat bizarre, considering that people of every orientation experience it as a difficult struggle. And here evolutionary science might genuinely have something to say. If jealousy is truly hard-wired, as sexual strategy theorists claim, then experiments with non-monogamy and what Savage calls ‘monogamishness’ are perhaps doomed to fail. But if jealousy is instead the product of a contingent set of historical circumstances, it might be that our norms need to go.

The 18th-century philosopher David Hume told us long ago that you can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Two centuries earlier, Montaigne called the art of composing our character our ‘great and glorious masterpiece’, and science can never spare us the burden of this task. Regardless of what evolutionary psychologists decide about our nature, it’s still up to us to choose the lives we want. Yet when it comes to sex, we don’t seem to be especially good at it, which is why so many of us are confused and unhappy. On the bright side, however, we are also in the midst of a massive social transformation that is giving us more sexual freedom than we have ever had before. If evolutionary theory can help us to navigate this dizzying new world, we ought to be willing to listen. After all, we need all the help we can get.

Read more essays on evolution, gender & sexuality and sexual health


  • reed

    If you say "we are animals" when it comes to sex you have no right to feel agony or pain when humans try to destroy one another when sex doesn't go their way like in the recent UC Santa Barbara shooting. The guy who killed pretty women because they wouldn't have sex with him was justified in his actions because he wanted to destroy pretty women who wouldn't help him spread his genes. As soon as you say humans are just animals trying to mate you are declaring war on our very souls.

    • Collin Shields

      One could care for animals just as easily. We are, like animals, programmed with certain things innately via our long evolutionary history. Fear of loud, sudden noises being a prime example. We are not some tabula rasa exception to the rule. We are animals and there is no doubt about that. Your UC Santa Barbara example is needlessly demonizing and you do not make any attempt that I can see to connect why acknowledging that humans have innate behavioral tendancies in any way is an advocation of homicide. The author is even careful to explain in his closing comments that we cannot derive an "ought" from an "is" meaning that just because something might naturally lean one way doesn't mean we shouldn't control it. And honestly being able to accurately describe and recognize an impulse allows you better control over it.

    • Dr. Jones

      And how does the fact that Elliot Rodger killed twice as many men than he did "pretty women" play into your theory?

      • Princess

        His plan was to take down the hottest sorority. That didn't go well, as they refused to open the door. But it was his intent. Remember, he was not only angry at the women he believed he couldn't have, but the men who had them.

        • Dr. Jones

          "Remember, he was not only angry at the women he believed he couldn't have, but the men who had them."

          So let's just call a spade a spade and say he was angry psycho who lashed out at the world then ended himself. Typical shooting rampage MO.

          Let's avoid being sexist.

          • Princess

            You know the saying, "Never let a good crisis go to waste." As expected, it became a lightening rod for gun control. I'm just thankful they chose to not ruin the graduation last Saturday with political posturing.

    • Jhoopy theElder

      What "souls"? This is legacy metaphysics pitching respect in a field of Occam's razors. What is more worrisome is the author's embrace of free will: "it’s still up to us to choose the lives we want." The issue, of course, is just how much "free will" is actually in play when you consider our actions are tempered amygdalan responses -- said "tempering" (consideration) itself no more than repeated neural voting passes against pre-programmed (genetically or imprinted) neural net weighting templates. It may feel like "free will" -- but bias and predisposition lurk everywhere...

      • paul wright

        quite right. if there is free will it is a weedy little thing. otherwise there would be no donuts in the world.

    • Dave

      Utter nonsense

    • ChrisinCT

      What animal tries to kill all the females in his group who he has been unable to have sex with?

  • Guest

    What factor does disease play in ESS? The prehistoric human population may have not been large enough to successfully incubate and propagate disease and thus new mates would not be dangerous. In more recent history, cultures that practiced monogamy may have been more successful because they limited transmission of disease and consequently had greater survival rates.

    • Phil Hartman

      That's a lot of assuming there. For one you are assuming disease is only transmitted human to human, which it is not. The same viruses that affect us, like small pox, chicken pox, avian flu, swine flu, certainly affect animals as well. Living with large herds of animals certainly was part of our evolutionary past. Furthermore, if tribes were so small and so disconnected then contact with a foreign group's disease which we have no immunity to would be fatal. Like the native americans weak immunity to european disease nearly wiped them out. in that case the children of native women and white men stood the best chance of survival. That was a rare situation where two groups had been separated for 12,000 years, but in most of human history contact with neighboring tribes and intermarriage with them would have been common.

      • Lo

        Living with large herds of animals is very, very recent in our evolutionary past.
        And so is the practice of entering previously undisturbed forests and eating certain animals for the first time, thus picking up their viruses for the first time.
        That's as bad as taking a smallpox-infected blanket from a Conquistador.

        • Phil Hartman

          What makes you think we didn't live with large herds? That's what our species has been since at least Homo Erectus. We are walking, long-distance herd hunters. We follow and capture larger animals and roast their meat over fire. That is the essence of what hominids are. Viruses are likewise extremely ancient. They are believed to predate DNA. A form of Hepatitis B was around during the time of the dinosaurs.

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  • Wang Chung

    Without Desires, what's the point of living?

    • Hominid

      You needn't worry about that.

  • Lucas Mearian

    Overly lengthy and inane article.

    • basenjibrian

      Pointless and trolling comment.

  • Kim Fierens

    This article hits uncomfortably close to home for me. My entire adult life I've been struggling to come to terms with the fact (?) that having a disability (mine happens to be Cerebral Palsy) renders me unacceptable as a sexual and/or romantic partner to the vast majority of my fellow human beings. What has me particularly worried is that people with disabilities are discounted as potential partners not just for cultural or social reasons (which are to some extent surmountable), but also because there seems to be a strong biological imperative not to mate with inviduals who are perceived to be 'weak' or 'unfit'. I guess inviduals who are extremely obese or disfigured have to deal with similar emotional challenges.

    Of course it would be far too simplistic to categorize people as either evolutionary winners or losers, as some of the more outrageous 'parasites' of evolutionary psychology (pickup artists and such) want us to believe. Sexual attraction is a very complicated thing about which much remains to be said, as the article suggests. For instance, many people with disabilities eventually do find erotic fulfillment one way or another. Then again, many don't, and I cannot but suppose that a physical or mental disability often is a real obstacle when it comes to dating, sex, and relationships.

    Apart from any personal involvement, I'm rather curious as to what the future holds for people with disabilities and their erotic prospects. Perhaps it will be too late for me personally to benefit from any positive changes in the social-emotional dynamics of disability, but at least it would be nice to live long enough to see the imperative not to mate with the disabled starting to give way. Maybe we can transcend our evolutionary urges after all.

    • paul wright

      I'm afraid it is a biological imperative Kim. I was not born with a disability, but have acquired one (parkinsons) and it definitely is not a positive (anyone with jokes about vibrators can FO). Women want somone who can bring home the wooly rhino, men want someone who can make rhino-hair socks. Maybe there should be a site for disabled people. Someone could make a lot of....excuse me i have a site to register.

    • Bonegirl06

      I think that this is already happening. Online there a thousands of groups dedicated to helping those interested in certain types of mates meet up.

  • Hominid

    Studies that treat human reporting as data are unreliable. The speculations to which such studies give rise are worthless at best and can lead to tragic applications. Psychology is a social study - it's NOT science, it's pseudoscience.

    • mattmark

      (?) Not only do human reports qualify as data (on what ground could they possibly be excluded?), no-one has ever come up with a more reliable way of ascertaining what people want than to ask them.

      • paul wright

        unfortunately 'most reliable way' is not necesarily 'adequately reiable way'. People lie, often to themselves, and are not necessarily in the best position to judge their own intentions.

        • john_borstlap

          Indeed.... ALL studies that rely upon people's utterances remain speculative.

          • mattmark

            The three of you should get married--to each other. No fights as you happily miss the point together... and waitresses could even choose your meals for you as there would be no point giving you a menu or soliciting any statement of preference from you, your tastes being unknown to yourselves and your reports of them unreliable.

            A lie is a datum, and while a study might have some difficulty discriminating between data that distorts reality (a stick appearing bent in water, for example) and data that doesn't, it can certainly reliably report them.

          • john_borstlap

            Nonsense; research that cannot determine the fundamental difference between data relating to fact and data relating to opinion, merely produces data as opinion. Nothing wrong with it, but obviously results can only be considered speculative. There
            is, by the way, nothing against speculation, thinking of the history of science where lots of discoveries began with speculation.

            (And where did that first silly and puerile paragraph come from? Having had a bad, lonely night?)

          • mattmark

            Not only are opinions data (the point you are somehow contriving to continue to miss), opinions can be statistically analyzed to yield empirical generalizations that differ in valuable ways from mere speculation. Furthermore, surveys and experiments never proceed in a vacuum; our interpretation of the results is always informed by what we've learned from other surveys and experiments. Hence, we know that a straight stick appearing bent in water is exactly what we should expect if we've got the laws of refraction right. If we couldn't ultimately discriminate between lies and truth we wouldn't have a concept of a lie, yes?

            As for where my first paragraph came from, well, I guess where there's no sense there's no sense of humour...

          • john_borstlap

            ".....opinions can be statistically analyzed to yield empirical generalizations that differ in valuable ways from mere speculation." No doubt, 'empirical generalizations' of such kind remain within the territory of the speculative; the word 'empirical' makes no sense here because it is referring to unreliable data - if the aim is to find-out what is really going-on in people's sex life. If the aim of research is to find-out what people prefer to tell enqueteurs, that's fine, but what is the point of such exercise? It will merely tell what people think in relation to the subject and nothing definite can be drawn from such data that is more than speculation and suspicion. Research of opinions never produces results referring to facts, and statistical procedures cannot change that. There are subjects that do not lend itself to quasi-scientific research, and statistics based upon subjects' utterances never go very far. That was the problem with the notorious Kinsey reports where 'information' that subjects told the enqueteurs got understood as 'evidence'. What really happens in people's bedrooms, and what is going-on in people's inner emotional life in terms of erotic sensitivities, is inaccessible to scientific investigation, incl. statistics, and that it a good thing.... Science has its limitations, as any book on the philosophy of science will make clear (maybe that is something to be recomended, given the last comment, because such books offer a lot of sense).

          • mattmark

            Your apparent incapacity for anything resembling nuanced
            thought notwithstanding, there are, of course, several levels of epistemological happy medium between a confirmed scientific theory and speculation. How curious to see a denial of even 'datum' status to reports on the ground that they may falsely represent the convictions of those making them, couched in reports implicitly offering themselves as sincere, reliable representations of the convictions of someone who most emphatically knows his own mind about the matter.

            Thanks for once again confirming that people unable to laugh at themselves and those who can't be gently brought to see the absurd incoherence of their own locutions can generally be expected to form coincident sets. ;-)

            P.S. I've read books on the philosophy of science, thanks. You might try one on inductive logic. Facts belong to that special subset of data which perform the function of place-holders in rational hierarchies. Data themselves have no truth value; they are simply 'givens' of experience

          • john_borstlap

            It's getting too boring to react.... sorry!

          • mattmark

            It was, of course, predictable that you would be well-equipped with an arsenal of face-saving exit lines and require their use often (score one more for inferential logic). But we were probably close to exhausting Aeon's patience anyway. ;-)

    • Ravi Wells

      ... and the combination of psychology and epidemiology is simply ludicrous.

      so many of these aeon articles - written by intellectual wanna-be's who read other (old male must-be-great) intellectual wanna-be's but have never even tipped their toe into any of the waters of which they are speaking - non-monogamy, shamanism, etc etc -

      i keep hoping for an insightful article but get mental masturbation instead--

    • ChrisinCT

      Although I am not a scientist or a medical doctor I think that anecdotal evidence, especially in medicine, is extremely important, and what is troubling is how many doctors discount it. Anecdotal evidence may not be hard data but it at least it gives you a good idea in what direction to look, and certainly not "worthless at best."

      Psychology and the study of human consciousness may be a kind of social study but only because science hasn't figured it out enough to test it empirically. Does not having a complete understanding of something that we know exists render an attempt to study it as pseudoscience?

      • Hominid

        Science and medicine are two entirely different enterprises with different goals. Of course a physician should listen to his patients - no one would sensibly argue otherwise.

        One can study history or economics or music, but that doesn't make them sciences.

    • thefermiparadox

      You must be thinking of pop or clinical psychology. Those are social sciences.

      Neuroscience (physiological psychology/biopsychology) and evolutionary psychology are biological sciences. The brain (mind) is a product of biology and an evo devo explains animals and organs like the brain/mind. People seem to not understand that studying the brain is a biological and evolutionary science and pursuit. psychology is biology.

      • Hominid

        Semantics. Phys psych, biopsych, evol psych - call it what you like - they're NOT neuroscience - they coopted that term in an attempt to legitimize their bogus discipline.

  • john_borstlap

    The article leaves-out the psychological factor when it comes to relationships. Sexual desire is often driven by purely psychological sparks, for instance the sudden discovery of someone's vulnerability. Literature is offering many instances of such things, like Tagore's short story (forgot the title) where a young woman, being wed against her will to a young man who merely obeyed his family's wishes, after a long period of stubborn, angry resistance, accidentally - through the window - sees the expression of helpless sadness on the face of her 'husband', which shows her that they both suffer from the same thing. Further-on in the narrative it appears that this awareness breaks-down, bit by bit, all the otherwise fully justified emotional barriers between the two young people, and indeed an emotional and sexual relationship gradually flowers. A pleistocene explanation would fall rather short on this sort of narrative, which is, by the way, the result of deep psychological insight and careful observation, which we can expect from gifted authors.

    • Ted_Fontenot

      Where does the psychological come from?

      • john_borstlap

        Ask evolution theory. Or a theologican.

        • Ted_Fontenot

          Well, evolution seems the better bet. To paraphrase H. L. Mencken, theology is discussing the unknowable in terms that make it not worth knowing.

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  • Guest

    Like most ess, this article offers lots of promise and little to no substance. Yeah those primates may have multiple partners (bonobos) but considering how violent our society is, we're probably closer to chimps. Also, sex is used as a way to prevent infanticide - which is common among animals including primates- should we reconsider that as a norm??? Evolutionarily speaking, killing your partner's offspring from previous partners will ensure that she attributes more resources to yours - so? Why should we let societal norms dictate what's appropriate. Let's ban polygamy shaming with monogamy shaming. Nailed it!

    • Michael Hanlon

      Actually our society is extraordinarily non-violent, both in comparison with other similar species and historically within our own species. For several billion humans alive today their chances of being killed as an infant, murdered or killed in war are less than one in a thousand.

  • PL

    "On this theory, men will settle down with a woman who is fertile and
    whose fidelity is assured, in order to have legitimate offspring."
    But biology knows nothing of “legitimate” or illegitimate.” Human values with no source in biology have sneaked in the back door of this discussion. They always do, because they are as real as biological drives.

    • Ted_Fontenot

      What's the source of those non-biological values?

      • PL

        A deeply philosophic question, like what is the source of value, itself—the whole category of “ought” as opposed to “is”? Do you believe biological facts can produce values—e.g. tell us not just what our bodies, or our genes impel us to do, but what we ought to do? Or would you say that that’s all that “ought” ultimately means?
        Anyway, it’s hardly a topic we can thrash out in format like this.

        • Ted_Fontenot

          Still, if not biology, what? And what is your evidence for whatever it is you have in mind.

          Biology seems to produce values in other animals. Indeed, studies indicate other animals have values. Other than some deus ex machina, some ghost in the machine, some Cartesian duality in which a mind/soul is imposed, what could it be, if not biology. Biology produces animals with attributes; those animals have to coordinate an existence that involves a relationship with each other. Just like other animals. The article mentions Robert Trivers work. Kin selection and reciprocal altruism, and a mind that sees how extending that in complex arrangements is beneficial can go a long way toward explaining that.

    • rsanchez1

      There are many cases of biology knowing legitimate or illegitimate. Lions will kill cubs of males they chased out. Chimpanzees will do the same.

  • lukelea

    Starts out strong, ends up ridiculous.

  • LennyH4747

    How can evolution be strategic or rational? Is not evolution based on chance?

    • john_borstlap

      Not necessarily. For instance, Teilhard de Chardin suggested that it is possible that evolution is driven by some sort of consciousness within nature, hence the extraordinary diversity and complexity of the results, including humans.

      • rsanchez1

        Interesting that someone would try to say a consciousness is driving evolution. I bet that is not a popular opinion.

        "Strategic" and "rational" certainly do seem to imply that something (or someone) is guiding evolution. However, I suspect that when most evolutionary biologists use these words, what they really mean is that evolution is often optimized for reproduction, as in traits that appear "by chance" and that allow organisms to reach maturity and reproduce are selected. Since we humans love to anthropomorphize, we use words like strategic and rational to describe this selection.

        • LennyH4747

          So by chance we ended up horny bastards.

          • Ray Madison

            Yes, but chance has made us free to develop cultural mythologies, which have, wittingly or otherwise, caused us to both restrict and refit our more natural copulative behaviors as the evolution of our superstitions may direct. All of this of course based on the discovery that pleasure and guilt are cyclical, each tending to exponentially enhance the other. As they damned well ought to.

        • Roy Niles

          The consciousness that drives evolution is our own. And our consciousness is driven by our strategically adapted and adaptive physical formations that we've determined should be designated as biological - because we decided that life, and its ability to take advantage of what would appear to be the accidents of nature, is logical, whether such as Hume thought it ought to be or not. As you can see, nature moves from what it would to what it could to what it should, yet never gets there. With what it ought to be, in the end, the same as what it never is. Logical.

    • Hominid

      It's none of those things - including random. Part of the problem lies with the inadequacy & ambiguity of language.

  • Ted_Fontenot

    Good article, well-written article, that raises interesting points. Thanks.

  • Tom Slattery

    We don't know what tickled a trilobite or turned on a dinosaur. But we probably have trilobite fragments, dinosaur fragments, and fragments of many other critters from the whole of evolution in our DNA. We may never know what turns us on. Might it sometimes be something truly ancient crossing paths with desires which motivate procreation?

    In the heat of passion in bed or on automobile furniture Is anyone really consciously thinking of making babies? Do these drives and pleasure sensations actually have anything at all to do with procreation?

    What we think of and label sexual activity often has nothing to do with procreation: BDSM, fetishes, cunnilingus, fellatio, anilingus, foot worship, etc.

    By their very nature, activities of sexual pedophiles and sexual sadists or serial killers avert procreation. Seldom do victims of pedophiles or sexual killers remain alive long enough to reach an age of reproduction, and victims of serial killers are by definition killed before they might reproduce.

    To treat human sexuality solely as a strategy for procreation would seem to miss the mark.

    • Linda

      " Is anyone really consciously thinking of making babies?" not, of course, but that is why it is called an instinct. Do you think lions are also conciously thinking when mating?
      And those versatile sexual activities you meant are - I put the helmet on - either paraphilias - adaptive behaviors, compensating the most deep traumas - or tools to strengthen attachment between partners, but attachment is needed only for biological reasons -for rearing children with least risks possible.

  • Robert Landbeck

    When I consider ESS as an 'intellectual' discipline, I am reminded of the image of 'a man up a high tree out on a branch, facing the trunk and sawing off the branch in front of himself. Eventually all will come crashing down. Will our species ever escape 'Stone age sex' ? Not through any understanding of Darwin. Our species remains too dishonest with itself. I would suggest there is more insight and wisdom in 12 lines from Shakespeare that all the ESS that will ever exist! From his poem Venus and Adonis:

    Call it not love for Love to heaven is fled
    Since sweating lust on earth usurped his name.
    Under whose simple semblance man has fed,
    upon fresh beauty blotting it with blame,
    which the hot tyrant stains and soon bereaves
    as caterpillars do the tender leaves.

    Love comforteth like sunshine after rain,
    while lusts effect is tempest after sun.
    Love's gentle spring doth always fresh remain,
    lust's winter comes ere summer half be done.
    Love surfeits not, lust like a glutton dies,
    Love is all truth, lust full of forged lies.

    • Hominid

      Poetry is wishful thinking, not reality.

      • Robert Landbeck

        Not any more! Reality has changed, you just haven''t discovered it yet yourself!

        For as I turned, there greeted mine likewise

        What all behold who contemplate aright,

        That's Heaven's revolution through the skies.

      • Jeff


      • Bonegirl06

        Reality is extremely subjective.

        • olscratch

          And vastly overrated...

      • olscratch

        You're kidding, right? If you're not:
        Ready. Aim. Sylvia Plath.

  • rsanchez1

    If you're liberated from basic biological needs, you won't have sex. You won't have the urge to satisfy your "needs". You'll view sex not as a pleasurable experience or a bonding experience, but as a waste of time.

    You liberate humans from basic biological needs, you liberate them from sex, and seeing how sex crazed today's society is, lauding "more sexual freedom than we have ever had before", liberation from basic biological needs is not something any human (in modern American society at least) will want any time soon.

  • stevesailer

    Who is more successful in Darwinian terms: the 1,500 promiscuous Na of China or the patriarchal 1,100,000,000 Han of China?

    • Still Anonymous

      They are both cultural groups, not genetic ones, so it is impossible to discuss them in Darwinian terms. Those tens of millions of Han are as genetically dissimilar from one another as they are from the Na.

  • Robert Blankenship

    Let's hear it for 'stone age' impulses:)

  • Brad

    Worthless article, also implicitly condoning oral and homo sex, the filthiest, most disease-ridden and anti-evolutionary of all sexual practices.

  • jvkohl

    "Sex at Dawn" won the award that my book chapter in the Handbook of the Evolution of Human Sexuality won in 2007. In his book "Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation," Simon LeVay said this about my model:

    "This model is attractive in that it solves the "binding problem" of sexual attraction. By that I mean the problem of why all the different features of men or women (visual appearance and feel of face, body, and genitals; voice quality, smell; personality and behavior, etc.) attract people as a more or less coherent package representing one sex, rather than as an arbitrary collage of male and female characteristics. If all these characteristics come to be attractive because they were experienced in association with a male- or female-specific pheromone, then they will naturally go together even in the absence of complex genetically coded instructions."

    However, LeVay quickly added a caveat that removed our 1996 model of cell type differentiation in yeasts and all other species from further consideration by sexologists. "Still, even in fruit flies, other sensory input besides pheromones -- acoustic, tactile, and visual stimuli -- play a role in sexual attraction, and sex specific responses to these stimuli appear to be innate rather than learned by association [36.]. We simply don't know where the boundary between prespecified attraction and learned association lie in our own species, nor do we have compelling evidence for the primacy of one sense over another."

    The retraction of any explanation of biologically-based cause and effect (i.e., ecological variation that leads to ecological adaptations via conserved molecular mechanisms: a "...rival grand theory that promises to explain fully what we might call the ‘variability hypothesis’) may have led to Christopher Ryan's and Cacilda Jethá's claim that the permanently protruding/pendulous breasts of sexually mature human females resulted from mimicry of the fleshy buttocks -- a ridiculous theory by Desmond Morris, which fails at every level of ecological, social, neurogenic, and socio-cognitive niche construction that links food odors and pheromones to late-emerging epigenetic effects that are manifested in the sexual preferences of mature animals. See: The effects of perinatal testosterone exposure on the DNA methylome of the mouse brain are late-emerging.

    Anyone who wonders why serious scientists refuse to discuss the ridiculous theories touted by evolutionary theorists, might want to read what Dobzhansky (1964) wrote in 1964: "The notion has gained some currency that the only worthwhile biology is molecular biology. All else is "bird watching" or "butterfly collecting." Bird watching and butterfly collecting are occupations manifestly unworthy of serious scientists!" -- in "Biology, molecular and organismic"

  • ApathyNihilism

    The is-ought gap itself asserts that we cannot determine our moral behavior by any historical evolutionary data. Just because something was done a certain way by our primitive ancestors, and even if it conferred an evolutionary advantage, does not make it morally right. It is up to our own principles and moral consciences to judge what is right and wrong, and our wills to act accordingly. We should aim to better ourselves, not rationalize our behaviors by reference to our evolutionary past.

    The difficulty of the challenge does not negate the duty of morality.

  • Proust

    Now i want pussy

  • Desiree

    I just read Adultropology, the Cyber-Anthropology Behind Infidelity by the founder of Ashley Madison. Fascinating read and the digital behavioral data from millions of unfaithful men and women (this is not self-reported data, this is how people actually behave when anonymous) does not lie - monogamy worldwide is broken and the desire for sex with more than one / multiple mates is part of our biological drive. I agree casual sex is appealing and enjoyable, while women may not voice their true desires publicly, privately and anonymously the picture is much different.

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  • Don DeHart Bronkema

    Not short of genegineering it out for stability on interstellar expeditions [absent decadal or vigesimal hibernation]…untrammeled carnality is a curse that interferes w/learning & wisdom [until it eases off a bit c. age 100].

  • claymore cluepile

    much as I hate to say it, science and psychology cannot even tell us why a goat prefers to chase after and copulate with another goat rather than with a donkey or a parakeet. So it is unlikely that academagical speculationists will be able to up-inform us about the real reason why I am impelled to chase after my nephew's cousin's chambermaid