Evolutionary sexuality

I’m reading up on the biology and sociology of sexuality, and am struck by the volume of palpable progress being produced, much of it reasonable for all I know. On the biological determinants of sexual orientation, for example, there seem to be at least two thriving growth areas of research concerning androgen exposure or other chemical shenanigans in the uterus: older brothers and finger length. But that’s another story.

Following the references around led me to wider questions of evolution and sexuality, and the real reason for this post. Evolutionary theory done wrong is a carnival mirror: what is good is adaptive and natural, what’s bad is artificial or maladaptive. In a well-written polemic against sexist sociobiology in 1985, Mina Caulfield quoted from The Evolution of Human Sexuality, by Donald Symons. He theorized – amazingly – that real human female orgasms have no “adaptive significance,” but fake orgasms might:

A male’s concern with female orgasm (perhaps based on the misconception that it plays the same role in her sexual experience that it does in his own) might inadvertently lead him to discover heretofore latent erotic possibilities in himself and hence to modify further his behavior to increase his own sensual pleasures. …. A female might have or pretend to have orgasms to enhance her partner’s self-esteem, to increase his sexual pleasures… to increase her value to him, or to indicate that she cares for him.

Go figure.

Incidentally, the speculation and debate over the role of sexual displays in evolution has been going strong ever since, including topics such as the attractiveness of women’s armpit odors to men at different times in their menstrual cycles (it matters, but the results are only generalizable for women not wearing deodorant and not taking the Pill).

Symons’s logic (there is a lot more) reminds me of the funniest sociology spoof I remember, from The Onion, “Sociologist Considers Own Behavior Indicative Of Larger Trends.” The story summarizes research by sociologist Stephen Piers, whose work over several decades has eerie echoes in his personal life.

Piers’ 1974 paper, Domestic Situationality: The Fortunate Male In American Society, was hailed as a landmark work almost immediately upon publication. Published one month after Piers’ wedding to college sweetheart Angela Beckman, Domestic Situationality reported that American males were “blissfully happy, despite lacking the freedom of single life.” However, in his 2000 paper, U.S. Wives: Lying, Cheating Whores? he found an enormous upswing in infidelity among American middle-aged wives and a parallel rise in the risk of fiery death among single male textile salesmen from Seattle.

The story even includes snippy criticism from a rival sociologist, quoted as saying,

Piers reports that ‘the married American male can no longer stand his wife’s hyena-like laugh … I don’t know if Piers keeps up on the literature, but I reported that trend almost three years ago. By the time Piers released his findings, the American husband’s general attitude toward the laugh had long passed into the stage known as ‘icy acceptance.’

As our grad students must know best, the scientific enterprise relies on the image of progress – new discoveries are necessary for career advancement. Some of this is fed by news media, with the complicity of researchers who are so happy to see their work referenced they’re willing to let some exaggerations slide (believe me). Today’s example is the story “‘Useless stay-at-home men’ a female myth,” from the Guardian – that one’s real.

In addition to its pernicious effects, this institutional bias may serve as a motivation to do good research. It’s probably not as corrupting as the tendency for scientists to see what they want to see in their results, and to make theories to justify their preconceptions.

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