pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
Okay, new rule: I'm not allowed to discuss behavioral biology on a first date, and I am especially not allowed to discuss Sex at Dawn. In fact, I should probably avoid either topic until I'm officially friends with someone.

The problem I run into is that behavioral biology was My Thing for 10 years. I didn't work in it after college, but it's a systemic way of thinking that has never left me. Citing homosexuality as evidence evolution's powers are limited hurts me almost physically, like telling a physicist that the existence of airplanes mean they're overestimating gravity's importance.* I am pathologically uninterested in having a discussion on the topic with someone who doesn't understand it. Even people who think they are agreeing with me tend to be frustrating, because they're still ignorant about the system as a whole. I am totally happy to teach the topic, but very few people want to hear a lecture.

Although now that I think about it, I do like being lectured. I freaking love finding people who know so much more about a topic that the best use of our time is for them to expand on it and me to ask questions. And I would say the same thing about most, maybe all, of my friends. We love both sharing things we know lots about and learning new things from people who know lots about them.

I still need to learn to say "I studied this topic and find Sex at Dawn lacking as an academic text, but I respect that many people have found a lot of value in it." But perhaps the solution to the other question is not to avoid talking about my areas of expertise, but to continue using "tell me something you find interesting" as a conversational opener.

*For the record: evolution means change in allele frequency over time. It's not a driver of change, it's a shorthand for the results of change. If you believe genetics affect survival and reproduction, and you believe the environment changes, your choices are evolution and pixie dust.

Given this, you have 2 choices for explaining the existence of homosexuality: it is adaptive in certain circumstances, or it is a non-adaptive side effect of something adaptive. To take the easier example of Down's Syndrome: DS is clearly maladaptive, but it is still the result of a process shaped by adaptation, which includes weighing the cost of errors against the costs of avoiding or fixing them. An airplane's chairs don't have much to do with gravity, but they're still shaped by the fact that an airplane is designed to stay aloft against a force that wants it down. Similarly, airplane seats have nothing to do with gravity per se, but the fact that it is extremely expensive to defy gravity puts pressure to fit as many people into the plane, and the superiority of air travel to other options for traveling long distances limits counter pressure, so seats shrink.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
Man, I had such high hopes for this book.

The questions "is this biology or environment?" or "is this genetics or environment?"* is dumb. It's like asking whether the dots on my screen are caused by the hardware or the software. The answer is that it arises from a complex interaction between several pieces of hardware and software, and changing either one would produce different dots on the screen. That said, it's totally valid to ask "how much of the difference between thing A and thing B is caused by the software, versus the hardware?" If all I do is change the contrast on my monitor, it's 100% hardware. If I run a different program but leave all the hardware settings the same, it's a software issue.**. If I upgrade from an SNES and Super Mario 2 to a Wii and Super Mario Galaxy, it's both hardware and software: A Wii can't make SM2 look any better because its graphic algorithms expect much weaker hardware, and an SNES doesn't have the hardware to run SMG's graphics algorithms.

When one of the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts was on Savage Love and not only got this, but added to my understanding of it, I was pretty impressed, and the book went to the top of my queue immediately. It's not a bad book, but it's not everything I hoped for.

It's hard to figure out how much I should criticize them for simplifying. Simplifying is necessary, and not everyone has a degree in behavioral biology. Nonetheless, it rubbed me the wrong way. I felt a one-time warning that "just like men are taller on average than women doesn't mean all men are taller than all women, men like X and women like Y doesn't mean a given man likes X more than a given woman" was insufficient, given that they didn't even use the word average in the remainder of the book. Additionally, while their solution to the age old problem of getting honest data about sex is ingenious and should be celebrated, they seem to have mistaken it for a solution to the other age old problem of disentangling genetics and environment. The most interesting parts of the book for me were the cross-cultural comparisons that shed a little light on this issue.

However, the book is extraordinarily well written. I'm prone to checking "how many pages to go?" in slow sections, and I didn't do it once with A Billion Wicked Thoughts. So possibly it's a perfectly good book that just isn't what I wanted it to be. It's far more scientific and generally better than Sex at Dawn, although there are hints the authors committed the opposite fallacy of believing cavemen lived in monogamous nuclear families.

*Which are not the same question.

**Modern computers are blurring this more and more: my monitor actually has software in it, and many programs have the ability to mess with your video card settings. But pretend we're in a simpler time.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
For all its faults, Sex at Dawn has made rethink some things. Primarily, libertarianism. One of the reasons sexual and romantic fidelity isn't a big deal in tribal culture is that resources are not really controlled by individuals. Some people are better hunters than others, but no one is so good a hunter that they weren't guaranteed dry spells that could starve them (and their children, if they were the sole providers). So the culture develops an ethic of sharing- not just among adults, but from adults to children. Essentially, there's (at least) two equilibria: everyone strictly invests in their own children, or everyone invests equally in everyone's children. If resources are distributed fairly evenly, the first works out fine, and you save some effort assigning paternity. It's not until you get real differentials in resource holdings that it's worth the effort to control paternity. Add in that most people in the tribe are pretty heavily related to one another, and resource sharing isn't virtuous, it's just good planning.*

I think that a lot of progressives are going by an intuition developed for those earlier times. You don't need a really vicious criminal system when you know everyone and shame can do the job effectively. Ditto for monitoring people for good behavior before giving them welfare.** Notice that a lot of feminists are specifically trying to provide for children and mothers independent of paternity. I keep saying I support libertarianism because I don't think we're on the hook for one another's choices, but that is not a luxury primitive tribes could afford.

Which doesn't mean I'm wrong. First, that kind of shame based control is hard to implement in modern nations. You can do what Japan does, which is have an honest-to-god permanent record for every citizen that includes their relatives misdeeds, so that your uncle's divorce can keep you from getting into college. I'm assuming I don't need to explain why I'm against this.

Second, that kind of control imposed real costs even in primitive societies. Sex at Dawn talks about how jealousy was damaging in these tribes and the methods they used to prevent it, such as group sex rituals and mandatory sex between cross cousins. A society isn't a paradise just because it's a man hiding in a hut trying to avoid the female cousin he is culturally unable to refuse sex. Beyond that, I like that I can choose how much work I do, based on how much I value what the additional money will buy me.

*There's a well know, much repeated psych experiment where people are given a dollar, and told to divvy it up between them and a partner however they choose. The partner can choose to accept the distribution or reject it, in which case neither person gets any money. The game is anonymous and non-repeating, so the optimum thing to do is accept any distribution. But they've gotten amazingly consistent results that show people reject offers of less than ~40%, even when working in very poor countries where the exchange rate enables them to offer an awful lot of money, and that's about what people offer as well. The exception comes from small tribes that are highly related, where they will accept and offer much worse deals, as low as 10/90. Essentially, these people don't develop a sense of fairness because they're always dealing with close relatives, so it simultaneously doesn't matter if one person pulls one over on the other and they're vastly less likely to try. These tribes treat strangers terribly.

**The Mormon church has its own welfare system, and they do go over people's past spending before giving them help.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
You know, they were doing really well in their descriptions of violence. I think there might have been a bit of idealization/noble savagery going on, but their ending paragraph to the chapter was "humans do a wide variety of things depending on circumstances. Don't confuse reaction to circumstances with inborn traits", and that was awesome. My complaints on their handling of penises still held water- humans have larger testicles and penises than many other primates, but they're both tiny and boring if you expand your horizons beyond monkeys- but apparently there's experimental evidence backing the penis-as-vacuum-plunger hypothesis.

And then, we had total fail. They assert that penis and testicle size correlate positively with non-monogamy. This is semi true. The testicle thing is well supported (in brief: in species where females mate with multiple males in a short time period, males will produce more sperm), you can tell some stuff from penises, but I wasn't listening because of the aforementioned reference point fail. But in the only bit of true science in the book, they suggest that if penis size correlates with mating structure in humans, then penis size will vary among races. They examined some survey data, and what do you know, it does. Hypothesis proved.

I guess they missed the step in the scientific method where if you want to prove two things are correlated, you have to examine them both and prove that they vary together. Merely proving they both vary isn't that compelling. There could be 400 billion reasons why penis and testicle size varies between humans, and the only one they backed up was body mass.

Maybe I should think of this as a documentary, not a nonfiction book. I'm fine with documentaries forming convenient narratives because I view their job as conveying emotional truth, not strict facts. And Sex at Dawn does reasonably well at showing how humans survive and thrive in many different settings and we shouldn't assume that the one we settled on in 18th century Europe will serve us well forever. But it's also a prime example of doctors and psychologists playing dress up as scientists and fundamentally not getting it.

Sex at Dawn

Apr. 4th, 2011 08:41 pm
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
Sex at Dawn has been a shining example of why one should withhold criticism until one has read the book question. I may be jinxing the hell out of it by writing this halfway through. Anyway, it's by no means perfect, but it's not nearly as stupid as Dan Savage made it sound. It appears Savage may have selectively read and promoted the parts of the book that agreed with his existing worldview while disregarding nuance. I know, I was shocked too. One of the authors went along with it in web and podcast interviews, but if my choices were "selectively emphasize and overextrapolate from certain parts of my book, huge amounts of media coverage" or "stick to the exact truth as written, no media coverage", I would probably say what the columnist with an agenda wanted to hear as well.

Which is not to say the book is entirely correct, either. It's a little hard for me to judge because this is related to what I studied at college, so there's an abundance of things they've simplified that I know more about (or simply don't know much about- the authors are a psychiatrist and a psychologist, and it's clear their knowledge of biology doesn't extend past apes, birds, and prairie voles, the species that come up most in pop evopsych). And a few things where I know they're not outright lying, but where the evidence either doesn't support or in toto runs directly counter to the point they're trying to make.* And a few more things that I don't know much about but don't pass the smell test: they heavily imply that because jealousy is considered shameful in certain societies, no one feels it. And it killed my inner biologist to see them cite societies where a woman's brother is a primary caretaker (in place of the genetic father) as evidence that genetic relatedness as unimportant.**

This is perhaps typical of the minor strain of exotification running through the book. For a book that's about calling modern sexuality stupid, and takes pains to criticize anthropologists who constantly phrase their analysis of cultures as arising from the choices of men, it seems weird to see sentences like "During [Darwin's] circumnavigation of the glove on the Beagle, the young naturalist appears never to have gone ashore in search of the sexual and sensual pleasures pursued by many seafaring men of that era.", which appears to me to be treating the native women like especially awesome vending machines. Not to mention all the times they talk about rituals and protocols designed to combat jealousy that appear to boil down to "you have no right to say no," but don't actually say that outright.

The truth is, I went into this book with my mind made up: humans are capable of a wide variety of behaviors, and they adapt those behaviors to the circumstances. Either they do it consciously, or the ones people who naturally do the now-advantageous thing have more babies.*** The evolution of sexual possessiveness in response to the emergence of the importance of property isn't humans being stupid, it's fascinating. And there's still room for the book I really want, which is an exploration of how different resource distributions lead to different bonding and parenting concepts.

*They state it's a widely accepted fact that Homo erectus lived in single-male, multi-female harems, like gorillas. I can't prove they're wrong because very few cave man pre-nups survived into the present day, but I can mention that, to the best of our knowledge, H. erectus does not display the sexual size dimorphism typical of harem-keeping species.

They're not so great at anthropology either: they conflate partible paternity- the belief that a baby can have more than one father- with the more specific belief that babies are made of accumulated sperm. I have the distinct feeling that if I knew more anthropology I'd be less impressed with the book.

**Biology primer: caring for your sister's children, rather than your non-exclusive sexual partner's children, is a sign that you do care (in an evolutionary sense) about how genetically close you are to the children you're investing in, seeing as you're choosing to save your resources for children you know you're related to.

***In brief: in small tribes where resources are held nearly-in-common, it's not a big deal if you don't know if a kid is yours, or if you fall out of favor with your kid's father, because it doesn't change the transfer of resources from father to child much.


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