Wrapping up the (Blank)-ogamous Series

“We have both a moral and ethical responsibility to protect all children and adolescents in our community. We cannot withhold information from children, adolescents, or adults, live in silence about this taboo subject and expect everything to turn out all right. We have tried ignorance and it does not work.”

– Joycelyn Elders, former Surgeon General, writing about human sexuality (2010: 249)

A few years ago, I began the “Humans are (Blank)-ogamous” series. I originally intended it to be only a few posts that would explore the roles that evolution and culture play in human sexual behavior. The inspiration for it was that several theorists over time had proposed that humans had evolved to be a number of things – monogamous, polygynous, serially monogamous, promiscuous, etc. I wondered how people could look at the same species and reach such different conclusions. Perhaps if I could read enough I might be able to find “the answer.”

From there, the series grew, blossoming into 20+ posts, citing over 200+ references (yes, I counted). I probably could have gotten at least a Master’s Thesis out of this. Anyway, those posts easily have been among the most read things on this site. That’s not because they are particularly brilliant. Rather, I think it’s because people are hungry for credible information and – despite how important the topic of human sexuality is – that can be hard to come by. Having those three magic letters “Ph.D.” after one’s name can help with internet search engine results, but a Ph.D. is no guarantee of being right. Far from it. All that means is that I went to school for a long time. I’m still in school, actually, so there’s always more to learn…

The series has been pretty well received by a number of people I admire, which feels pretty good I have to admit. They’ve been shared on social media, and some posts were even included on different university syllabi. In fact, I taught my own class on the subject last semester, and I think it went very well. When I re-read some of the earlier posts, there isn’t too much that I regret, (which is a good sign – sometimes when I reading my old stuff I sound like Sideshow Bob stepping on a rake).  

With all that said, I think I think I’d like to wrap this up by taking the utilitarian approach. If I’m confident about anything that I wrote, and willing to put my money where my mouth is, then what would I emphasize to my students, friends, or (most importantly) to my own children?  I’ll keep some of the lessons I’ve learned private, but here are a few:

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Your Life is a Logical Absurdity

“Think of it: zillions and zillions of organisms running around, each under the hypnotic spell of a single truth, all these truths identical, and all logically incompatible with one another: ‘My hereditary material is the most important material on earth; its survival justifies your frustration, pain, even death.’ And you are one of these organisms, living your life in the thrall of a logical absurdity.”  

Robert Wright, The Moral Animal

Sex and Love in the Long Run

[Note: Nov 10, 2019] I’m seeing an uptick of views on this older post. Can anyone kindly tell me how/ why? As this site is a labor of love, I’m curious how it is used. My university is too.

[I hope you like graphs … ]

♪ Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true, / But you and I know what this world can do. / So let’s make our steps clear, so the other may see./ I’ll wait for you, and should I fall behind, will you wait for me? 

— Bruce Springsteen & Patti Scialfa (“If I Should Fall Behind”)

 

“Contrary to what has been widely believed, long-term romantic love (with intensity, sexual interest, and engagement, but without the obsessive element common in new relationships), appears to be a real phenomenon that may be enhancing to individuals’ lives—positively associated with marital satisfaction, mental health, and overall well-being.”

— Bianca Acevedo and Arthur Aron (2009: 64)

 

In the 2013 film “Before Midnight,” we caught up with Celine and Jesse (played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) who had fallen in love during a chance, whirlwind evening in Vienna eighteen years earlier. After nine years apart between the first and second parts of the trilogy, they have been together for the last nine and are now in their early forties, and have twin girls together as well as a son from Jesse’s first marriage.

The first part of the trilogy, “Before Sunrise,” focused on Celine and Jesse’s incipient romantic connection as they explored the city, talking all night about a variety of topics before ultimately having to separate. In part two they reconnected. By the third film we see that there is still love, but with more complexity within their long-term relationship. We see themes of restlessness, resentments over suspected past infidelities, and the struggles that come with balancing parenting, career, sexual desire, domestic life, and having family spread out over long distances. They lament that passion (for all things) came easier to them when they were younger, and Jesse suggests that maybe “this is the natural human state – always a little dissatisfied, perpetually discontented.” We are left wondering if their relationship will survive.

The New York Times critic A.O. Scott reviewed “Before Midnight” jointly with the European film “Amour,” released the previous year. In that movie, we saw an elderly couple struggling with failing health. Scott pondered why such films, with their focus on a couple already-in-progress, were less common than ones centered around early romance. In his view, the reason is that unlike romantic comedies, marriage “has no story arc.”

“A marriage plot, which is to say a comedy, is a story with a wedding at the end. The exchange of vows provides a satisfying and efficient exit from an intricate story. After the chaos of misbehavior, misunderstanding and missed connection, order is restored, the curtain falls, and love’s essential labor is done. But if the story starts in the middle, sometime after the honeymoon, at the breakfast table or the parent-teacher conference, where then does it conclude? There are only two logical possibilities, both of them sad.”

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The Branches of Humanity

I think it helps to remember that all humans share common ancestry. While there are certainly cultural and biological differences around the globe today, these are the tip of the iceberg, the distant branches of the tree. Under the surface, at the roots, the distribution of people across the globe owes itself to a long, gradual process of migration — or several migrations — during which time some differences arose (along with the interbreeding with neighboring groups that maintained similarities). 

The animation below illustrates some of the major migrations of people across the world over the past 200,000 years, reminding us of our roots and shared connections. Some of this is already out of date. For example, a recent study suggested that modern humans may have reached China by 100,000 years ago, much earlier than suggested in the video. But the point still stands — no matter where they live today, all humans can trace their lineage back to the same place.

“Many times, I have kissed & cryed over this”

In an 1839 letter from Emma to Charles Darwin, shortly after they were married, she wrote about her worries that Charles’ pursuit of scientific questions on evolution might lead him further away from religious faith. Emma wrote: 

“May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way, & which if true are likely to be above our comprehension.”

At the time, Darwin would have been around 30 years old, two decades before On the Origin of Species was published. Their correspondence showed that Emma’s concern that Charles’ need for evidence could not be applied to matters of faith, and that this probably meant — to her distress — that they would probably be separated in the afterlife. At the bottom of her letter, Charles added his own note: 

“When I am dead, know
that many times, I
have kissed & cryed
over this. C. D.”

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Six Million Years of Hominin Evolution in Four Minutes

From the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria, this video shows some of the major hominin fossils discovered so far. It’ seems to have been recorded by a tourist, so the quality isn’t the best. However, it’s really well done, and the nice part is that it nicely illustrates these species’ geographic and temporal distributions, which can be hard to find elsewhere. 

Confronting Human Frailty

A man carries within him the germ of his most exceptional action; and if we wise people make eminent fools of ourselves on any particular occasion, we must endure the legitimate conclusion that we carry a few grains of folly to our ounce of wisdom.”                                                                                                               

                                                                                     ― Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), Adam Bede

 

In his book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker borrowed a concept from the conservative scholar Thomas Sowell, who argued that there were two “visions” of human nature (Pinker, 2002). Pinker referred to these as the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision, and he spent several pages placing famous historical thinkers into one of the two camps.  

According to Pinker, the Tragic Vision suggests that “humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits” (p. 287). On the other hand, in the Utopian Vision “psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world.”

These groupings are not perfect, but Pinker argues that they work better than trying to categorize people as left/right or conservative/liberal. For some examples, in the Utopian camp, Pinker placed people like Bobby Kennedy, Rousseau, and Thomas Paine. For Tragic Visionaries, he chose – among others – Friedrich Hayek, James Madison, Edmund Burke, and Hobbes.

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Genocidal Altruists: Are We ‘Naturally’ Violent? Altruistic? Both?

“We know that we are apes, but we cannot be classified simplistically as ‘naked apes’ or ‘killer apes’ or ‘moral apes.’…Our past is complicated; so is our present, and so will be our future.” – Paul Ehrlich (2000: 331)

“When we are bad, we are worse than any primate that I know. And when we are good, we are actually better and more altruistic than any primate that I know. ” – Frans de Waal

…..

The Eagles headed back to their cabin feeling dejected after losing a tug-of-war contest to their rivals, the Rattlers. Along the way, one of the boys noticed the Rattlers had forgotten their flag on the baseball field, leaving it unprotected. Craig and Mason soon seized it, but struggled to tear it to pieces. McGraw then presented some matches and suggested they burn it instead. The group then hung the flag’s charred remains from the top of the backstop fence. Mason said, “You can tell those guys I did it. If they say anything I’ll fight ‘em.”

The above scene is from the psychologist Muzafer Sherif’s classic social psychology experiment at Robbers Cave, Oklahoma during the summer of 1954. Sherif divided twenty-two 11-year-old boys with comparable backgrounds into two even groups at nearby cabin sites, with the boys kept unaware of the other group’s existence.

After giving them a week to bond among themselves, Sherif introduced the groups to each other and announced that they would be competing for prizes in team sports and other events. Eventually the rivalry grew heated, and the boys turned to name-calling, flag-burning, and vandalizing each other’s cabins. The competition nearly escalated into serious violence, with sticks and rocks as potential weapons, before adults intervened.   

Sherif’s experiment is sometimes cited as a depressing warning of how easily people can slide into “us versus them” hostilities, even if the groups are formed rather arbitrarily, and even if we’re only talking about preadolescent boys with little at stake except ego and trivial prizes. There is truth to that warning. People can cling tightly to group identities, sometimes resulting in serious animosity toward outsiders.

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Sapiosexuality & Our Behavioral Complexity

You know, animals have sex. It’s biology, it’s natural instinct. We are the only ones who have an erotic life, which means that it’s sexuality transformed by the human imagination.”  — Esther Perel

One of the reasons some cultural elitists – political pundits, novelists, intellectuals – tend to be so unsettled by the Internet is that it has revealed how oceanically broad are the interests of the public in general. Before the Internet, with no way of observing the obsessions of the masses, it was a lot easier to pretend that these obsessions simply didn’t exist; that the nation was “united” around caring about the same small number of movies, weekly magazines, novels, political issues, or personalities. This was probably always a self-flattering illusion for the folks who ran things. The Internet destroyed it. When you gaze …upon the Pacific of strangeness online, you confront the astonishing diversity of human passion.”  — Clive Thompson (2013) Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better

Kissing, by Alex Grey.

Kissing, by Alex Grey. (alexgrey.com)

                                                                                 ~~~~~~~

Please bear with me as I try to connect two not very obviously connected ideas: romantic love and our species’ behavioral flexibility. I don’t have it all worked out. Perhaps I’m going down the wrong path altogether.

I started thinking about these things after several friends on social media shared this Mandy Len Catron essay: “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This”. Catron describes a time that she and a male acquaintance intentionally tried to induce feelings of romantic love. To do this, they followed two steps, borrowed from a study done by the psychologist Arthur Aron. First, they asked each other a series of 36 increasingly intimate questions. Next, they stared into each other’s eyes for four uninterrupted minutes.

My first reaction when I went through the questions was that I can see how they could elicit feelings of intimacy under the right circumstances and with the right person. To work through all 36 of them would take some time, as they are not typical of everyday conversation. Time itself is could be a factor in bonding. To answer each question would require some thought, as they do not have prepared, canned responses. Some examples from Aron’s list:

  • Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
  • Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
  • Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
  • What is your most treasured memory? Continue reading

We Are Complex

A list of claims of what humans are, with ‘human nature’ overtones. It’s meant to be in fun, and the list isn’t complete. 

  • We are moral animals. (1)
  • We are killer apes. (2)
  • We are risen apes, not fallen angels. (3)
  • We are aquatic apes. (4) No we’re not.
  • Man the hunter. (5)
  • Woman the gatherer. (6)
  • Man the firemaker. (7)
  • Homo, the endurance runner. (8)

    runners

    Born to run? (Source: Wikipedia)

  • Homo, the high-velocity thrower. (9)
  • We have an instinct for art. (10)
  • We have an instinct for language. (11)
  • We do not have an instinct for language. (12)
  • We are Homo economicus. (13)
  • Man the tool-maker. (14)
  • Pan the tool-maker. (15) Not us, but it’s clever.
  • We are social animals. (16)
  • We are cooperative breeders. (17)
  • We are hypersexual animals. (18)
  • We are sexy beasts. (19)
  • We are political animals. (20)
  • We are rational animals. (21)
  • We are irrational animals. (22)
  • We are no longer just apes; we are biocultural ex-apes. (23)
  • We are complex.