Thursday, May 22, 2008

Are we not men?

One aspect of the article on married men and adultery that depressed me- possibly because I saw some truth to it- was the emphasis on evolutionary biology to explain the problems of marriage: men want to reproduce with a great number of mates, by nature, and women want to find a mate to provide and protect them as they raise children, also by nature. In some sense, this is an old argument: ever since Rousseau, people who are discontented with civilization have idealized a natural state away from civilized life where they can run free and the sperm flows like wine. Evolutionary biology is merely an extension of that.

There are two problems I have with evolutionary biological arguments. The first is that they're circular. Q: Why do I like Pepsi so much? A: It must be an evolutionary drive; perhaps the need for sugar. Q: What is the evidence to support this thesis? A: The fact that I like Pepsi. Most evolutionary biological arguments work this way, and frankly, I tend to see them as a bit of a parlor game.

The other problem is that of free will: I like to believe it exists. My college roommate and friend Aaron Henry once had a month-long argument about free will. His point was that there is no free will without the soul and I didn't agree. Eventually though I saw his point: if you reduce the mind to a switchboard, at some point you either see something as throwing the switches or not. Either everything we do is beyond our control, a confluence of forces, randomness; or there's something to "me" that is unquantifiable. Ultimately, there's something missing to the self however deep we quantify, some sort of ghost in the machine- provided that we still believe that we control our actions. If not, we have to right to hold others accountable for their actions, not even murder.

Okay, some people say that we can still jail murderers who lack free will, although I think this would be superstitious and odd. The free will debate is long and unending. What unnerves me about the rush to reduce ourselves to a chemistry set: if unhappy, add Prozac; if distracted, add Ritalin: is the sense I have that we don't really want selfhood, which really is a hell of a burden in the first place, and that we'd rather turn our souls over to the technicians.

And yet, I take Prozac. I don't like to, but when I stop taking it, I suffer panic attacks, inexplicable terror, and bizarre earaches. I like to see it as akin to my glasses- I need them to fix a slight flaw in my physical condition, but they don't alter the core of who I am. I would like to believe that I have a soul. But I have no concrete proof that I do.


narrator said...

I think, yes, evolution does play its role, though I think the reproductive urge by males is only a small thing. Because I also note that, in choosing a mate, there are different motivations. Evolutionarily women had a million reasons to keep a man around, especially when they were pregnant or raising a child, but the only reason a man would really stay around, was/is emotion. They fall "in love."

So maybe that cancels the urge to wander out. Maybe.

Either way, yes, we have free will, but we also define ourselves - at least in part - by societal rules and societal constraints, so we use tools. We make things illegal because, yeah, otherwise we might steal a lot more often. we take anti-depressants because otherwise we don't always function real well around other people.

Is the making of tools evidence of free will or evidence of evolution? I'm not going to tackle that on a Friday afternoon.

Hiromi said...

I have ranted time and again about evolutionary psychology on my blog. Unfortunately, the reasoning is so appealing to people; it neatly affirms our stereotypes about human behavior, so its theories spread through the news media like a virus. The fact that we have no idea what the environment was like tens of thousands or millions of years ago seems to ignored. It's like evo-psych people simply project current conditions onto the past.

In that article you linked to, I let that wash over me. I don't think that was his main point. Also, he mentioned female infidelity and evo-psych reasons for that, so at least he was being even-handed. His point was that some people just aren't "built" for monogamy; the explanation for why was kind of irrelevant. Although you're right in criticizing the glib acceptance of evo-psych.

But there does seem to be *some* biological basis for behavior. Alcoholism and addiction, for one thing. Also, for those who believe gender is pure construction, how does the fact that many gays and lesbians say that they're "Born that way"?

Hiromi said...

I really need to preview my comments.

I meant to say, How does the fact that most gays and lesbians say that they were born that way fit into the worldview that gender is pure construction?

rufus said...

I should probably choose my words carefully here, but I'm fairly skeptical of the idea that people are born gay or straight. I can imagine that people might be born with some inclination one way or the other, just as I was born with an inclination towards nearsightedness; but leaving out life events and parenting entirely seems much too rigid and determinist to me. I find it surprising that people who are opposed to determinism in most other matters are so adamant about it here, especially given how little genetic evidence there really is. The "gay gene" hasn't eluded discovery for lack of looking.

Also, I have to wonder how much of their anecdotal "evidence" isn't culturally determined as well. I hear a lot of things like, "well, I always liked to play with dolls" that strike me as relating more to cultural ideas about sexuality than to actual sexuality.

So, we would agree that there's probably some biological aspect there, but I definitely think that people who talk about these things as genetically determined, or being there from birth, are thinking wishfully.

Of course, I say this as a married man who loves fashion magazines, gardening, and Audrey Hepburn films! But I also love having sex with my wife, so what can you do?

Hiromi said...

leaving out life events and parenting entirely seems much too rigid and determinist to me.

I don't know. What could the environmental influences on sexual preference be?

Say you find people who fit into three definite categories: totally gay, totally straight, 50/50 bi (people who have sexual urges but deny/lie about them don't count). The problem is, the backgrounds of each person in each category is bound to be varied in the extreme. If it's true that parenting or whatnot contributed, you'd expect some similarity, wouldn't you?

Rufus said...

Okay, I know I'm about to step in a big pile of controversy here, but alas...

When you said "some similarity" a number of similarites jumped to mind. I know it's not the decorous thing to say, but honestly I don't think I've ever known a gay man who didn't have both an overly nurturing mother and an emotionally distant, or even abusive father. Actually, this used to be the joke in certain gay circles that I roamed- the "gay mother" was as much a stereotype as the "fag hag". Of course, it's also annecdotal, and I can't imagine anyone could get funding to study it, but I'd say that I've seen similarities there.

Let's say that there's a certain personality type that is innate. I can imagine that a child might have had some stereotypically 'gay' traits that contributed to that sort of parenting- say they were an artistic or overly sensitive child and the father and mother responded in that way. But, again, that's still a combination of nurture and nature.

And, I can say that, as a male, if you behave in certain ways outside of a very narrowly defined spectrum, people will just assume that you're gay, no matter how old you are. Also, with a distant father comes a yearning for male closeness. I'm guessing it's the same with females- I'd imagine that many lesbains were 'tomboys', but I don't know that that equals a sexual identity.

I imagine that all of this is touchy to talk about, but again, I think there's a sort of longing for a gay gene- a sort of 'the devil made me do it' excuse that will please some theoretical midwestern Christian bigot. To me, I don't see any sexual choice as invalid, so it's less important to think that people were 'born that way'.

Also, I have to say that almost every friend I've ever had, gay or straight, has admitted to occasionally fantasizing about "playing for the other team" to me, usually when drunk. To be honest, I suspect that bisexuality is really the norm, almost universally, and gay and straight are just variations on that.

Holly said...

Thing is, and I don't say this to be dismissive, but just to point out that you're making one of the most egregious logical fallacies, generalization. To say that your friends consistently demonstrate a certain behavior tells us more about YOUR FRIENDS than about the nature of humanity.

Clearly, that doesn't mean that your theory is wrong. It's just not supported by that evidence. It does tell me where to go for some drunk off-sides action, though. When's your next party?

gregvw said...

I'm going to go along with the non-representative sample space hypothesis. Either that or possibly biased observation. I, for one, do not fit the trend you have observed.

Rufus said...

Okay, I see what you're saying in that sample, and it has occurred to me that I have about as much proof of my theory as I do for the theory I'm arguing against.

But, still, here's where we end up:
1. Supposedly, a high percentage of gays and lesbians say that they always knew they were different.
2. Their reasoning for this is that, as children, the boys were more sensitive, spent more time with their mother, liked fashion and art, etc. While for the girls, it's generally that they were tomboys.
3. All I'm saying is that none of that equals sexual identity. It might make someone more inclined to turn out gay, but surely it effects the way that the culture treats them as well, which makes a difference.

As for bisexuality, would you say that you're 100% straight? Sure, I can see that my sample group is nonrepresentative- I mean, a sampling of my friends would show that 100% of people have used illegal drugs! Okay, so we can throw them out as a group.

But, on the Kinsey scale, what percentage of the general population would we expect to be 100% straight or 100% gay?

Holly said...

I don't even know what 100% straight (or gay, or whatever) actually means? For instance.... would 100% straight mean never even pausing to consider IF same sex relations were interesting? Does it mean not being aware that same sex relations are a possibility?

Probably I should go read up on the Kinsey scale thingie.

gregvw said...

People who both have bisexual tendencies and are willing to discuss them are probably more tolerant of others than the average person. Since you are, in fact, a nutter, you are more likely to get along with tolerant people and thus become friendly with them, possibly to the point of confiding non-cardinal straightitude. There are no hard and fast laws here, but it is easy to conjecture that this leads to a nonrepresentative sample space.

As for 100% straight, I don't really know what that means. Like, Holly, I will need to read up on Kinsey.

Rufus said...

Well, I'm no Kinsey expert, but the basic idea is that on one end you would have totally gay and on the other end is totally hetero and most people are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. This to me makes more sense than when people say, "That was the day that I realized that I. am. gay." I just find it hard to believe that 90%, or whatever it's supposed to be, of people have always been exclusively gay or straight.

For me, to be honest, I've never really figured out what I am. (Well, aside from a nutter) I'm just in love with Claire.