The Book That Tries to Explain Sex

May 6, 2011 § 4 Comments


The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (Ridley, Matt)

“You might have a gene that is more like the gene of a certain cow than it is like the equivalent gene in your spouse. This is considerably more astonishing than it would be to discover that the word for, say, meat, was viande in France, fleisch in Germany, viande again in one uncontacted Stone Age village in New Guinea, and fleisch in a neighbouring village,” says Matt Ridley in this book.

I beg to differ. I find the latter phenomenon infinitely more intellectually appealing than the former.  In fact, the moment you say ‘gene’ and ‘cow’, my eyes glaze over. When you say ‘culture’ and ‘language’, my eyes light up.

There are two possible reasons for my disagreement. Perhaps traumatic teenage memories of being forced to draw the alimentary canal of a toad, which I think is an unattractive part of an unattractive creature, repeatedly and for no great reward, have so scarred my psyche that I have been left ever since with a mild distaste for all things biological. Or perhaps my brain is wired differently from Ridley’s, in a rather fundamental way (it is a vehement disagreement, you know), causing us to find different things interesting. Vive la difference, of course, but Nature or Nurture? That is the question.

Indeed, that is a question (among others) that Ridley tackles in this book – and it has been tackled by a whole horde of science authors since Darwin. I find it an exasperating question, to be honest, one that is unworthy of the mountains of paper on which it has been debated. Why does human behavior have to boil down to one or the other? Ridley concludes that it doesn’t, rather obviously in my opinion, and that both are at play in pretty much everything.  Anyway, that is not his central theme in this book, which is the one articulated below:

If we are to understand how human nature evolved, the very core of our inquiry must be reproduction, for reproductive success is the examination that all human genes must pass if they are not to be squeezed out by natural selection. Hence I am going to argue that there are very few features of the human psyche and nature that can be understood without reference to reproduction.

Alice in Darwin-land (Red Queen and Alice by Tenniel, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In which case, say I, the book is ever so slightly mis-subtitled “Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature.” He actually means reproduction and the evolution of human nature. And I am not quibbling here, either, because one of the failings of the book is its inability to distinguish, in meaningful terms, between sexual selection, and selection of someone to reproduce with.

Why do women have sex at all? Because they consciously want to. But why do they consciously want to? Because sex leads to reproduction, and being the descendents of those who reproduced, they are selected from among those who want things that lead to reproduction.

So says Ridley, with not a lot of evidentiary support, I believe. And later, with even less evidence, he explains the male preference for women of facial beauty by saying:

Given the importance of facial beauty, a man who chooses an ugly-faced mate will probably have daughters who marry late or marry second-rate husbands

In fact, Ridley asserts – repeatedly, throughout the book – that the key parameter used by males and females of all species, including ours, in their choice of sexual mates, is the potential for healthy progeny that will in turn breed healthy progeny.

Now I cannot speak for the sage grouse or the peacock, but speaking as a man, I tend to disagree that the very thought of the health and well-being of potential progeny is ever on one’s conscious mind when selecting a girlfriend or even a wife. When a teenager experiences his first crush, the sudden shortness of his breath, the dryness of his mouth and the sweatiness of his palms are unconnected with any visions whatsoever, of pudgy, snotty, squealing babies that resemble him and need their nappies changed. I humbly submit that any such visions would have led promptly to lifelong celibacy vows on the part of the said teenagers, and the inexorable extinction of the human race.

Perhaps the desire for healthy progeny is subconscious, then? Well, the realm of the subconscious is one of dubious conjecture rather than of provable fact, and one could concoct any number of theories of the subconscious. Personally, I am more inclined to believe in a theory of the subconscious involving men gravitating towards a girl that other men believe to be pretty, because they subconsciously covet the status symbol derived from  a trophy wife,  than to believe in a theory involving men subconsciously looking for child-bearing hips in their sexual partners.

Or, as our iPhone-toting generation may put it, is there a ‘gene’ for that? This theory says that men with a perverse gene that told them to look for thin hips, died out, because their kids never made it out of those hips. The descendents of men with the other kind of gene survived – and here we are. So it is neither a conscious will nor a subconscious need – what we call our ‘free will’ is nothing but what our hormones and genes command us to feel, and what we will find attractive is pre-programmed by a kind of racial elimination process. It is certainly a plausible explanation, but in order for it to be acceptable, it needs one crucial piece of contingent evidence: the gene itself.  If such a gene existed, it would certainly explain our selection; but the fact of our selection does not imply the existence of the gene. It’s a simple matter of logic – or is it that simple?

The use and abuse of logic in the human sciences, be it economics, sociology, Darwinism, or psychology, is an interesting subject for study in its own right. Darwin be danged – for such an evolved species, we are terrible logicians. It is the erroneous application of logic in the interpretation of statistical data that gives statistics such a bad name (lies, damned lies, etc.). Social scientists have perennially confused cause, consequence, correlation and coincidence – and have arrived at fallacious conclusions that appear irrefutable at first glance. Ridley, I’m afraid, does not prove infallible either. For just one instance, while trying to explain why world leaders tend to produce more sons than daughters (American presidents from George Washington to George Bush Sr. apparently sired 93 sons and 56 daughters), he puts it all down to hormones, saying,

Rank determines hormones, which determines sex ratios at birth

But what if hormones determine rank as well as sex ratio, especially in non-hereditary hierarchies like the US Presidency – hormones that promote competitiveness, risk-taking and extroversion, that could motivate someone to contest and win elections? After all, most of the Presidents must have had their babies before they acquired their rank.

Mind you, as a complete layman, I don’t know if such ‘competitive’ hormones even exist – but all I am saying is, does the data conclusively prove which is the cause and which the effect? And how does any of this explain why the three presidents after George Bush Sr. have collectively sired five girls and no boys? And what if it is all pure coincidence? After all, it is possible to end up with a sequence of 93 heads and 56 tails, followed by 5 tails in a row, if you have nothing better to do than to toss a fair coin a huge number of times.  The trick, as ever, is to name – and produce – those elusive hormones, and then to demonstrate their linkage to behavior; all else is pure conjecture.

Statistical data, as far as I know, can only suggest correlations – causation and intention are overlaid on them by eager interpreters who are more often wrong than right. Here’s more from Ridley on the sex ratio:

A son is a high-risk high reward reproductive option compared with a daughter. A mother in poor condition is likely to produce a feeble son who will fail to mate at all, whereas her daughters can join harems and reproduce even when not in top condition. So you should have sons if you have reason to think they will do well, and daughters if you have reason to think they will do poorly…

Just because the data shows a sudden preponderance of children of a certain sex at certain times, among a certain economic class, does in no way tie up to what the parents ‘have reason to think’ about the future of the said children. I can readily understand the number of children produced being linked to their potential well-being – no right-thinking parents would bring children into the world to starve, and even here, there are thousands of non-right thinking parents around! But the purported manipulation of the gender of such children is to stretch too far. Reason at an individual level has very little to do with the gender of newborn babies, and genes, geniuses as they may be, do not have access to global economic statistics. Perhaps Ridley is propounding a law along the lines of this: “Only those species, sub-species and genetic threads survive, that behave as if the group itself, as an entity, were capable of rational thought and logical decision-making, where logical behavior is defined as that which leads to continued existence.” In other words, only those groups survive that behave, inadvertantly, in a way that leads to their survival – but that doesn’t say a whole lot, does it?

Ridley’s other glaring boo-boo, I thought, was in his discussion of neoteny – the phenomenon by which human adults retained features that were previously seen only in juveniles, and developed big heads (and brains). Ridley explains, convincingly enough, that big heads made humans look younger, and since youth is preferred in sexual selection, big-headed (and big-brained) people managed to pass on their genes more often than others. But from this he rapidly proceeds to conclude that it demonstrates how we became more intelligent than other apes.

Neoteny … could be a consequence of sexual selection, and since neoteny is credited with increasing our intelligence (by enlarging brain size at childhood) it is to sexual selection that we should attribute our great intelligence

Whoa, there – back up your train, engineer, you’ve skipped a station! Do bigger brains imply more intelligence? I am no biologist, but I thought gorillas had bigger brains than us. And sperm whales. Oh, and I’ve read that men have bigger brains than women – need I say more?

In fact, Richard Alexander’s theory (“Only humans themselves would provide the necessary challenge to explain their own evolution”), quoted by Ridley in the same chapter, rings truer to me: that it is an intense inwardly-focused competitive (and cooperative) streak, genetic and cultural in source, that has influenced human choices and motives, and has made us what we are today. Such a  ‘gene’,or ‘hormone’ or whatever, if and when discovered (and only then!), could prove to be a more primitive cause of all social phenomena Ridley describes, sexual preference being just one facet of it.

Please don’t get me wrong. Ridley is very knowledgeable and quite the Renaissance man, harnessing theories from a whole host of disciplines – genetics, biology, zoology, sociology, anthropology and evolutionary studies – into coherent arguments. Every argument that he puts forward in this book provokes thought (for which fact alone the book is definitely worth a read) and many are sufficiently convincing. But none of them should be mistaken for the Gospel truth.

As Ridley himself says, “If you want to understand human motives, read Proust or Trollope or Tom Wolfe, not Freud or Piaget or Skinner.” Or Ridley, for that matter.

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§ 4 Responses to The Book That Tries to Explain Sex

  • The One says:

    Ok then – two things to say, both some degree of conjecture
    1) Presidential daughters may indicate a different kind of evolution- the evolution of human society conjecturing that as society has evolved, qualities that may previously be desirable in world leaders (i don’t know, some sort of strange macho militaristic urge – hormones – rank – sons) have been replaced by other qualities as being desirable (more touchy feely (sorry Clinton), sensitive (sorry W) etc) and hence men that would not previously have made it to the “ranks” of world leadership now are…
    2) Bigger brains more intelligent is only as proportion to body size……..perhaps your wife is therefore more intelligent…

    • psriblog says:

      Dear The One – you had me at ‘some degree of conjecture’.
      These are fascinating theories, all of them, and I have no doubt that some of them will turn out to be true. But all of them involve a ‘degree of conjecture’, some even more than others.
      Your first theory, in addition to the conjecture about the evolution, has the logical leap of faith that men who have sons are more macho (or seen as such) while those with daughters are (or are perceived as being) sensitive. Do you REALLY think so?

      Regards
      PSri

  • […] matches my own mental construct of the world. Broadly. Earlier in these pages (here , here and here ) I have talked about my belief that human history can be validly modeled on probabilistic, game […]

  • […] one of the more interesting points in his bestselling The Red Queen (reviewed here), Matt Ridley tries to explain why the peacock evolved its bright and gaudy plumage, when anything […]

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