Thursday, September 02, 2004

The Bonobo Blues

They say the web is responsible for higher divorce rates. We've heard this before. Everything from the corner bar to cars to smoking to television to golf to ham radio has contributed to the divorce rate over time. This time it is the ease of using a web service or Google to Yahoo with old lovers. The press can blame the web like it once blamed the telephone or notes left in hollow trees, but these are just means to ends. Why do we do it? We just do. We're mammals.

Monogamy is a hard row to hoe for the mammals. While the current popular media excorciate males for it (see Nip and Tuck) and celebrate it for women (see Sex in the City), it is the oldest non-story in the literature. Cultures regularly phase in and through causes and choices of victims and vary in the importance of fidelity to a spouse. Mammals, on the other hand, haven't changed in recorded history. It is likely we won't in the future.

Get over it.

It isn't that nature is cruel; nature is whimsical. When the male is at his most flighty, the female is at her most determined to build and hold a nest. Chaucer got it right, Dudes: it's about sovereignty.

You have your fling and the mama bird might ignore that, but the first time the other bird shows up with a gleam in her eye for your home or your children, get ready for trench warfare. There is a reason they call it "no man's land". If you don't understand that, you are among those poor helpless guys at the corner brew pub claiming that you don't understand women but you sure do like 'em. So with almighty ignorance as your motto, you pursue and persuade and beg on your knees to please. Hit it once, you can get away, but hit it twice and you're there to stay. Why? Because you like it.

Dudes, you are dogs, and a dog with a steak within reach is a stomach without a brain. It gulps it down and feels guilty but just as satisfied. Women count on that. As Nora Ephron, the finest director of chickFlix said, "God, I hope he doesn't want me for my mind". Only keep in mind that the married lady you are flirting with at work won't trade down and if you are a trade up, you're not a loaner. No one gets out alive.

Get ready for it.

If the kids are what you care most about, then just say no and do what you do when you're alone. As the child of a very large His Hers and Ours, I know first hand what the great ping-pong match of wife versus ex-wife does to children. I think that economics is the deal but men wonder about the economics of unlimited supply. On the other hand, the laws of economics have not been suspended, just your calculations.

What goes up must come down. True for trading markets, tents and elephant's trunks. Where the trade is legal tender, the tenderness goes out of the trade. If the equation only has an X and a Y, maybe you can juggle the numbers for better results. A street walker depends on X increasing while Y stays constant and in mathematical terms, that's a linear equation with no slope. A call-girl has a limited clientele but each one is selected for their conformance to ever higher standards of reward and that is a linear equation with a slope. Quality is a hill you must run up and you might not be the fastest runner in that herd. A married couple attempts to increase the value of X AND Y. That is a power law so maybe this all comes down to power. Whoever has the power also has the least number of Xs or at least knows Y.

Get down on it.

I'm not so sure we wouldn't be better off if we took a page from one of our close genetic cousins, the Bonobos and just got it on without too much ceremony. As they say in the song, "a little less talk and a lot more action". But by the time women get to this stage of the game, men are entering adulthood or at least their second marriage and don't care nearly as much about the score. That's another one of nature's whimsies. Science is extending the game time with all kinds of miracle drugs and the marketing seems to indicate that this is what men want but really it is what women want and once again, sovereignty outs. Nature is whimsical.

Get on with it.

Somewhere in all of this, you might think I have a point to make, but I don't. Life among the mammals has taught me that everything we do doesn't have a reason behind it. It might have a cause, it definitely has consequences, but if you believe that mammals are rational and all stories have a denouement followed by a happy ending and fade to the credits, well, you don't understand. Why do mammals want their old lovers? Because they haven't had them in a while.

That's it. That's all. It is as the hip say, a Jones, a hunger, a thirst, a need, a habit. Is it bad? No but it can make for a bad scene and unless one wants to go through life moving their stuff to new places, think twice. Stuff is just stuff but a relationship builds a craving and cravings last longer than stuff. It might be better if women treated men less like territory and men treated women less like applicances. Men would keep more stuff and women would have fewer cravings.

Get past it.

Sex is a never-ending story and like soap operas, the story arcs never quite conclude the action; they just cross fade or jump cut and new actors are on camera delivering the same old lines. Later, they might pick back up where they left off and the soap opera starts a new season, but the plot varies not at all. Is there a reason?

No. Nature is whimsical. Get used to it. That's life among the mammals.

2 comments:

Joshua Allen said...

On the other hand, all generalizations are lies, and generalizations about sexual relations tend to obscure some of the most interesting truths.

To start, linking "mammal" with "promiscuous" implies a sort of genetic biological predetermination to promiscuity for the entire genus, and de-emphasizes the psychological and cultural factors in promiscuity. Admittedly, male mammals statistically tend to have higher levels of promiscuity than (for example) a swan; but there are wild variations in the levels of promiscuity of mammals, and recent research shows that genetic variations within mice can account for variations in fidelity.

Among humans, variations between individuals and across cultures are tremendous. You paint a picture of a human truth that hasn't changed throughout recorded history, yet I was struck by how local and limited your examples are. To elevate the example of man flirting with woman at office to a "human truth" is kind of culturally arrogant. I would start by pointing out that men often pursue other men. And if you're just talking about the urges "dog with a steak within reach", the range of objects of affection go far beyond humans.

This is why I strongly dispute those who say it's all about the hormones or neurotransmitters. The hormones are certainly there, but they are really not an explanation for human sexual behavior (not even close). For starters, it's just false to imply that the urges are uncontrollable, as if testosterone is even remotely comparable to heroin or cocaine. On the scale of things, it's not exactly the best way to get a dopamine rush. And the urges exist in varying intensities, and only exist in people for less than half of their lives. And finally, during the short period of life when humans *do* have these relatively weak urges, the manner it which humans chose to *act* on these urges is immensely varied. Considering that most people can satisfy these urges without the involvement of another human being, it is really bizarre to then extrapolate these urges as being responsible for a significant portion of interpersonal sexual relationships.

In my opinion, human sexuality is 99% cognitive and only 1% biological. If the bulk of humans can satisfy their urges without the involvement of another human, then why is it that humans have such quirks about *how* those urges are satisfied *when* it involves another human (or humans?). At the extremes you have the people who can't get off without sophisticated rituals, role-playing, cross-dressing or whatever. Surely there is nothing biological about that! But one wonders how far distant this fetish is from the fetish of the guy who says he can't be satisfied unless the other human is a female. In fact, from a cognitive perspective, the same man would be just as satisfied by another male as long as he believed the man was a female and never knew differently. This very simple gestalt thought-experiment shows how arbitrary our interpersonal preferences are and demonstrates the cognitive component (there is nothing biological about it!). Our interpersonal sexual preferences and patterns are nothing more than elaborate cognitive fetishes implanted by social and cultural conditioning.

It is not very difficult to install or remove particular "fetishes". In fact, this is one important function of culture. New humans are socialized with the particular fetishes that we have found lead to useful behaviors for the overall society. It's not the biology that drives the culture, but the culture that harnesses the biology. As a case in point, contrast the "female choses" societies with the "male chooses" societies. In some human societies, the norm of sexual behavior is that the female selects the male; in others the norm is that the male takes whichever female he can get by conquering other males and the female doesn't get a say. In a society where the female has the dominant role in mate selection, the males need to become good at persuading and communicating with females, and by extension are relatively better socialized toward other males. Such societies are biased toward communication, information-sharing, and cooperation (at least relative to the male-choses societies). Therefore, the cultural choice of whether or not to strongly condemn rape will have significant long-term effects on the society.

When a culture implants a particular sexual pattern, it's a tool to facilitate and manage human social interaction, which is necessary for the survival of the species. A certain amount of promiscuity is probably beneficial in socializing people, spreading ideas and contacts, and so on. At the same time, a certain amount of fidelity is also beneficial. And of course, a certain amount of moral guilt is useful to give journalists titilating things to write about and keeping the churches full.

That's how I see it at least; all of this stuff is just warring cultural memes..

len said...

On the other hand, all generalizations are lies, and generalizations about sexual relations tend to obscure some of the most interesting truths.

[Len Bullard] Aww heck. I was writin' humor.

To start, linking "mammal" with "promiscuous" implies a sort of genetic biological predetermination to promiscuity for the entire genus, and de-emphasizes the psychological and cultural factors in promiscuity.

[Len Bullard] Not at all. That's why it varies by culture as to importance, but not that it occurs. It occurs because it can.

Admittedly, male mammals statistically tend to have higher levels of promiscuity than (for example) a swan; but there are wild variations in the levels of promiscuity of mammals, and recent research shows that genetic variations within mice can account for variations in fidelity.

[Len Bullard] Did they ask the mice about that?

To elevate the example of man flirting with woman at office to a "human truth" is kind of culturally arrogant.

[Len Bullard] Or very observant.

I would start by pointing out that men often pursue other men.

[Len Bullard] And that would be your story.

And if you're just talking about the urges "dog with a steak within reach", the range of objects of affection go far beyond humans.

[Len Bullard] Yes. Men chase dogs too. Dogs chase cars. Cars chase other cars. It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

This is why I strongly dispute those who say it's all about the hormones or neurotransmitters.

[Len Bullard] Well, I think it's also about having a fresh flower and a ready joke and a happy-to-see-ya smile.

For starters, it's just false to imply that the urges are uncontrollable, as if testosterone is even remotely comparable to heroin or cocaine.

[Len Bullard] Good sex is better than all three. Who said, uncontrollable? Often out-of-control, yes.

And the urges exist in varying intensities, and only exist in people for less than half of their lives.

[Len Bullard] Huh? Rats!

And finally, during the short period of life when humans *do* have these relatively weak urges, the manner it which humans chose to *act* on these urges is immensely varied.

[Len Bullard] Boy howdy.

Considering that most people can satisfy these urges without the involvement of another human being, it is really bizarre to then extrapolate these urges as being responsible for a significant portion of interpersonal sexual relationships.

[Len Bullard] Can yes. Want to? Interpersonal relationships and urges don't have to happen on the same date, but the date is more fun if they do.

In my opinion, human sexuality is 99% cognitive and only 1% biological.

[Len Bullard] I defer to Nora Ephron on that, but the biological results are self-evident. What's cognitive is the way you go about it, so if you're still arguing for mind over urges, that's my point too, but if you believe it feels good because you do it well, well you're right about that too.

I do it because you can. I like it.

If the bulk of humans can satisfy their urges without the involvement of another human, then why is it that humans have such quirks about *how* those urges are satisfied *when* it involves another human (or humans?).

[Len Bullard] Options?

At the extremes you have the people who can't get off without sophisticated rituals, role-playing, cross-dressing or whatever. Surely there is nothing biological about that!

[Len Bullard] Why not? That confuses means (funStuff) and objectives: (funnerStuff)

But one wonders how far distant this fetish is from the fetish of the guy who says he can't be satisfied unless the other human is a female.

[Len Bullard] Far enough for some; not far enough for others.

In fact, from a cognitive perspective, the same man would be just as satisfied by another male as long as he believed the man was a female and never knew differently.

[Len Bullard] A trick can pass for the real thing.

This very simple gestalt thought-experiment shows how arbitrary our interpersonal preferences are and demonstrates the cognitive component (there is nothing biological about it!).

[Len Bullard] Ummm.... perhaps you noticed. Only one combination produces children. Is that a cognitive choice or in the hardware?

Our interpersonal sexual preferences and patterns are nothing more than elaborate cognitive fetishes implanted by social and cultural conditioning.

[Len Bullard] And reproductive urges. Kids are thrilling.

It is not very difficult to install or remove particular "fetishes".

[Len Bullard] Yeah? I can't seem to convince myself to send the kids back.

In fact, this is one important function of culture. New humans are socialized with the particular fetishes that we have found lead to useful behaviors for the overall society. It's not the biology that drives the culture, but the culture that harnesses the biology.

[Len Bullard] Ah yes. Hollywood. Bollywood. Dollywood. As long as there's wood.

In some human societies, the norm of sexual behavior is that the female selects the male;

[Len Bullard] Yep. That would be my elementary school

in others the norm is that the male takes whichever female he can get by conquering other males and the female doesn't get a say.

[Len Bullard] That would be the trick the high school cheerleaders pulled on the football team . The helmetHeads bought it. So did the
other team. "Everybody's workin' for the weekend...." Anyway, I've never found men who could give me a female. I did offer my
father-in-law four goats, two pigs, a cow and some chickens but he said if I'd buy her a new car, we were Jake. True story.

In a society where the female has the dominant role in mate selection, the males need to become good at persuading and communicating with females,

[Len Bullard] Money helps. Cars help. Houses are a big big plus. That's just the persuasion part. Communication? Excuse me, but I have to
check your secret decoder ring first. Oh... ok.

1) Learn their names 2) Make them laugh. 3) (secret#69) 4) Remember their names. 5) Remember to call. 6) Repeat from 2 . After that, they own you.

and by extension are relatively better socialized toward other males.

[Len Bullard] With all that action, they sure are. It's Miller Time.

Such societies are biased toward communication, information-sharing, and cooperation (at least relative to the male-choses societies).

[Len Bullard] Just because the helmetHeads can't talk about football or get their wives to install new fetishes is no reason to be mean to them.
They have their wives for that.

Therefore, the cultural choice of whether or not to strongly condemn rape will have significant long-term effects on the society.

[Len Bullard] No argument there.

[Len Bullard] When a culture implants a particular sexual pattern, it's a tool to facilitate and manage human social interaction, which is necessary for the survival of the species.

[Len Bullard] I'm not sure how that explains Viagra.

A certain amount of promiscuity is probably beneficial in socializing people, spreading ideas and contacts, and so on.

[Len Bullard] So is the Internet but it isn't half as much fun.

At the same time, a certain amount of fidelity is also beneficial.

[Len Bullard] Yeah. You get to keep stuff and manage the urges with someone you like.

And of course, a certain amount of moral guilt is useful to give journalists titilating things to write about and keeping the churches full.

[Len Bullard] Nah. I'd feel guilty because I love her.

That's how I see it at least; all of this stuff is just warring cultural memes..

[Len Bullard] Did they move in with their parents too?

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