Sexy Beasts 

Getting in Bed with Darwin

Once upon a time in Africa, there were three genetically related tribes. The first tribe was characterized by a rigid male hierarchy. In this tribe, violence between males was commonplace, and, since even the lowest ranking male was dominant over every female, so was sexual violence, as females were required to pony up for any male in the tribe who asked, or suffer a nasty beating.In the second tribe, the dominance hierarchy was female and the social interactions of the tribe were negotiated not through violence but through sex -- sex between males and females, between females and females, between males and males. In this tribe, the main form of social lubrication was genital-to-genital rubbing, which was used as a way of saying "Nice to meet you," "Can I have some mango?," "I'm sorry," or simply "Whassup?" Sooner or later, almost everyone in this tribe had sex with everyone else.

The third tribe, which shared more than 99 percent of its genes with the other tribes, spent a lot of its time in the jungle watching the other two groups. They kept track of who had sex with whom and how many times. They also noted who ate what, and who killed whom. They wrote all this information down and then held conferences to debate the question of what the behavior of their close relations had to say about their own tribe. Members of this tribe had sex too, though not in public -- at least not during the conferences. They believed that's what hotel rooms are for.

Anyone who has read anything about anthropology or primatology in the last ten years will have recognized these three tribes by now. Tribe Number One is our closest animal relation, the chimpanzee. Tribe Number Two is our equally close cousin, the bonobo or "pygmy chimpanzee." The scientists who study these groups and glean abstract lessons from them are Tribe Number Three.

Not all field researchers observing apes in the jungle are trying to solve the puzzles of human behavior. Those who do call themselves by various names -- behavioral ecologists, animal/human behaviorists, evolutionary psychologists, or (more rarely nowadays) sociobiologists. The word "sociobiology," title of Harvard naturalist E.O. Wilson's seminal 1975 book on the subject, took such a political drubbing when it appeared that today's scientists strive to describe what they do by almost any other name. This is unfortunate because the word "sociobiology" describes the field as a whole better than any of the new contenders.

Craig Stanford, author of Significant Others: The Ape Human Continuum and the Quest for Human Nature, doesn't call himself a sociobiologist, but he is clearly in the mainstream of the sociobiological tradition. His method -- and the method of sociobiology itself -- is to apply the logic of Charles Darwin's theories of evolution to human and animal behavior. Sociobiologists start with the hypothesis that certain behaviors (or predispositions to certain behaviors) are genetically inherited, just like height or hair color.

According to Darwin's laws of natural and sexual selection, inherited behaviors that provide either a survival or reproductive advantage should be passed on to future generations. Behaviors that don't provide those advantages either aren't passed on or are passed on to a much lesser extent. To provide evidence that a given behavior might be inherited, sociobiologists look to three areas: 1) the behavior and biology of our closest animal relatives, namely primates such as chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, and monkeys; 2) the behavior of the world's few remaining hunter/gatherer peoples who live in a manner and environment similar to those of early humans; and 3) the behavior of other modern humans around the world.

As codirector of the Jane Goodall Research Center, and director of the Biwindi Impenetrable Great Ape Project in Uganda, primatologist Stanford is, of course, most interested in the behavior of primates. Every chapter in Significant Others attempts to reinforce the idea that there are significant genetic and behavioral similarities between great apes and human beings -- in social behavior, feeding habits (such as meat-eating, hunting, and food sharing), and even in culture and language ability. These latter two are controversial because they are usually considered hallmarks of human culture -- the things that separates us from the "lower" animals. Stanford's agenda is to breach that wall of separation.

Stanford has spent a lot of time in the jungle observing animals in their natural habitat, and it shows. Those long years of fieldwork give Significant Others a clarity and authority that stands in marked contrast to most popular books in this field. In fact, Stanford goes out of his way to distinguish his work from that of his sociobiological colleagues, the evolutionary psychologists. Calling evolutionary psychology "science with a small 's'," Stanford even starts his book with a joke about the difference between the two approaches. It goes like this:

Two specialists in human origins, one a field researcher, the other an armchair theorist who's never set foot in a jungle, are sentenced to death. The warden asks each what they need to occupy their time while they wait for their execution. The armchair theorist (read: evolutionary psychologist) requests a laptop computer so he can complete his grand synthesis on the theory of human origins. The field researcher requests only a window so he can observe the natural world. As the date of their execution nears, the warden asks for their last requests. The armchair theorist asks to give a lecture about his grand theory to the entire prison population. The field researcher replies, "My only request is to be executed before the lecture."

One wonders what Stanford would make of Geoffrey Miller's intriguing book The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of the Human Nature. On the face of it, Miller, a Stanford psychology Ph.D. who is now a senior research fellow at the Center for Economic Learning and Social Evolution at University College in London, is just the sort of armchair evolutionary theorist that Stanford detests. And yet The Mating Mind makes for undeniably fascinating reading. Miller's ambitious thesis takes Darwin's long neglected theory of sexual selection and uses it to explain the development of art, morality, consciousness, and creativity. While Stephen Jay Gould, one of sociobiology's most vigorous critics, says that things like the artistic imagination are just accidental by-products of big brains, Miller, drawing on primatology, anthropology, and psychology (yes, including the very surveys Stanford loathes), argues that these uniquely human capacities arose during the course of a million-year-long sexual arms race, where the prize went not just to the strongest and swiftest (i.e., the traditional candidates for natural selection) but also to the funniest, the kindest, the best looking, and the most sexually skilled. Sexual selection, in other words, argues that men and women evolved to be pleasing to each other. This is an assumption that many will find hard to swallow, but Miller is a good and funny writer. It's worth going along with him, if just for the ride.

A good example of Miller's amusing and contrarian reasoning is his description of the evolution of the clitoris. Evolutionary thinkers like Stephen Jay Gould and Donald Symons view the female clitoris as an evolutionary accident, arguing that it can't be an adaptation because it simply doesn't work well enough (i.e., providing sexual satisfaction to a female takes too long, and calls for too much effort on the part of the male who really just wants to get in, deposit his seed, and get out). Miller, au contraire, argues that the clitoris' very resistance to easy orgasm makes it an excellent fitness indicator for women looking for good lovers. Now I ask you, girls, which evolutionary theorist do you want to sleep with tonight? Un-huh. Thought so.

But hey, this funny, intellectually chewy book isn't only about sex. Millers muses about the difference between folk art and elite art (and the courtship advantages of each) and explains why Uncle Scrooge is single. He zings like a pinball from natural history to pop culture to high art and back again. You may at times find yourself clambering desperately, breathlessly, as you attempt to follow Miller's dazzling leaps of reasoning. An astounding polymath, Miller's lightning connections across vastly different fields of thought are both dizzying and impressive. After a while, though, you may find yourself gasping not just for breath, but hard evidence. There is, as Craig Stanford would undoubtedly point out, a lot more entertaining speculation in this book than evidence, let alone proof.

But frankly, sometimes evidence can be a bore. Witness David Barash and Judith Eve Lipton's The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People, a relentlessly evidentiary exploration of the sex lives of dozens of different species. This is the second book that Barash, a zoologist, professor of psychology, and author of the '70s pop sociobiology book The Whisperings Within has written with his wife, the psychiatrist Judith Lipton. Though the couple describe themselves as being "voluntarily monogamous," the goal of their new book is to knock monogamy off its cultural pedestal by proving that infidelity and polygyny are the rule in both the human and animal kingdom.

Barash and Lipton have taken the unusual approach of focusing not on primates and mammals, but on insects and birds -- in part because so many bird species once had a reputation for monogamy. Alas, recent DNA studies of the offspring of many supposedly monogamous bird species have proved that there is a lot more screwing around in the bushes than ornithologists had previously thought. Tests on humans show a similar thing. A DNA survey of infants at an English village hospital found that 10 percent of the children were not related to their supposed fathers. (A similar test in Beverly Hills found a 7 percent rate.) Barash and Lipton present this as evidence of rampant human infidelity -- even in societies where culturally enforced monogamy is the norm. (One could argue, of course, that a 93 percent legitimacy rate is evidence for the opposite point.) The Myth of Monogamy does a good job of explaining when and why birds and other socially monogamous creatures seek what biologists delicately call EPCs or extra-pair copulations. While the authors are careful not to extrapolate directly to human behavior, their use of anthropomorphizing language to describe barn swallow "wives" and water skimmer "husbands" belies their intent. Though Barash and Lipton describe these extra-pair copulations with great gusto and enthusiasm, their last chapter, titled "So What?," says it all.


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