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Friday, July 09, 2010  

Evolution, our Master and Tutor

Dan Savage's latest is a column-length shill for the book Sex at Dawn, another in the seemingly bottomless genre of pop evolutionary psychology books. The presenting issues in the column are a cuckolding fantasy that has a wife concerned that her husband is gay, a woman who is in love with a man but struggles with sexual fidelity, and one partner's loss of interest in sex.

The answer, in all three cases, turns out unsurprisingly to be that sexual exclusivity is the problem. "You didn't fail monogamy, DWBAH, monogamy failed you, as it has failed so many others (Clinton, Edwards, Spitzer, Vitter, Ensign, et al) and will continue to, because monogamy is unrealistic and—this is not a word I toss around lightly—unnatural." Monogamy is unrealistic, Savage argues, because "nature" designed us to want more than one sexual partner for various adaptive evolutionary reasons. Two people who wrote a book even say so.

TAE offers a sound caution on this thesis. But let's grant for the sake of argument that it's true enough. Let's assume that various kinds of non-monogamous practices are adaptive and therefore enduringly present in the human species, making monogamy "unrealistic." And lo it is so, monogamy is hard and honored more often than not in the breach. But evolution has made a lot of things hard. Eating a healthy quantity of calories, and no more, is hard. Respecting the property of others and the welfare of their children is hard. Refraining from unconscious discrimination against people from other ethnic groups is hard. Using the world's resources in a prudent and responsible manner is hard.

You can burn up your life in frustration at the persistence of these facts, or you can make a realistic concession that they will continue to define our life as a race even as we try to curb and restrain their effects. Very few people, after all, look at the persistence of racial discrimination and its putative evolutionary basis and conclude that non-discrimination policies are "unnatural" and should just be junked. And if they did, I don't think Dan Savage would admire their hard-nosed evolutionary realism. Like most decent people he'd probably be appalled.

That a behavior may be adaptive on a population-wide scale just does not tell us much about ethics. If I come home bearing a sack of three bacon-double-cheeseburgers for dinner, my wife probably won't accept a shrug of the shoulders and "it's evolution--what are you going to do?" as an explanation for why I'm eating myself to death. That doesn't mean we should obsessively moralize unhealthy eating, just as we shouldn't obsessively moralize sex or anything else. We just shouldn't look at the ancestral environment as an escape hatch for norms we find difficult or even impossible.

And that, ultimately, is my recurrent problem with Dan Savage's approach to sexual ethics. Like a lot of ex-Catholics, he is only able to think of sex in terms of what is forbidden and allowed. That degrees of nobility or goodness are attainable in sexual relations does not enter his thinking. Sexual fanatics of any variety lack interest in those things. They seek only to establish and police the boundaries of acceptable behavior. As I've argued repeatedly, monogamy is not a contract voided by non-performance. It is an ideal of human togetherness may elevate our lives even as we fall short of its perfection.

Consider the confused woman whose husband has the cuckolding fantasy, which she has now helped him fulfill. Dan invites his booky-book expert to explain that cuckolding fantasies are normal and straight as can be, which is well and good. But is this a fantasy to which the woman can or should subordinate her own desires, sexual and otherwise? Is it enough to judge the fantasy normal? Is this fantasy a once-a-year-on-your-birthday kind of thing, or must she submit to regular trysts with strange men in order to keep her totally normal, totally straight husband satisfied?

Follow this train of thought long enough and it becomes clear that the would-be liberators of sexual behavior have just ushered us into a different prison. You feel too guilty for sleeping around! You feel too jealous! You're neurotic to want to save anything for marriage, because your mean God is already angry at you for all the oral sex! The mirage of healthy, natural, normal sexual relations is always waiting for us on the other side of a desert of mortification, as we strip away all the maladaptive morality we have learned.

So yes, monogamy is hard. So hard, in fact, that in its most radical, ideal form it is probably never realized. But that makes it all the more impressive of an ideal, in a way--just as racial equality, child welfare, conventions against certain methods of warfare and so on are all the more impressive for being evolutionarily counterintuitive. The idea that you stay with a sick spouse or weather a sexual dry spell or work hard on being compatible or forgive transgressions--all of this depends on the notion that we can, by grace or free will or whatever, overcome our momentary desires to skip off into the woods with Rousseau and the cuckolded birds and just screw. We should never be surprised when people fall short of this ideal, but we should think long and hard about what we are sacrificing when we give it up altogether.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:11 AM
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