Casaubon's Book

There’s quite a bustle among my colleagues about the deficiencies of recent studies about whether X female thingie evolved as a strategy to prevent rape. My favorite such study is one that seems to think that the only critical thing that happens when women ovulate is that they might get raped. The (probably bullshit) increase in strength, for example, one study showed couldn’t be part, say of making sex more fun, could it?

Mike the Mad Biologist as always makes a cogent analysis of the general limits on that study while Greg Laden critiques speculation about tears being used to limpify rapists.

Generally speaking, I agree with my fellows here that evolutionary psychology is pretty much a load of hooey – of course our evolution affects the way we think and act, but any claims made on that subject are a. totally unfalsifiable and b. operate as basically mythological stories about how we came to be who we are. Despite that, I’m friendlier to evo psych than most people here, because I think stories are good, and we’re going to keep telling stories whether they are true or not. The question is how to get better stories, and how not to coat them with a veneer of scientific credibility.

It may well be the case that actual science never does have much to tell us about portions of the details of how we came to be – and I’m ok with the idea that we need a mythos of our past, one that suits our engagement with actual sciences. I think an emerging mythology of who we are is probably a necessary cultural development, and it being false doesn’t really bother me as long as we don’t try and vest it with credibility it doesn’t have.

The real problem I have with evolutionary psych is that the stories are boring – really boring. How Raven hung the clouds or the story of the Sphinx looks awfully good in comparison to “how we came to like tasty food, rather than icky food.”

We also have an obligation to make our just-so stories not more sexist, reductionist and stupid than the ones they actually replace. But once we’ve acknowledged that Evolutionary Psych is a mythology, we ought to be writing creative just-so stories, the kind one would actually want to hear. I’m mostly joking in this post, obviously, but I am genuinely interested in the ways new mythologies are part and parcel of cultural narratives – I actually think many of my colleagues here miss the ways that science itself contributes to the mythologies that inform our worldview. To my mind the continual complaining that people don’t understand science is true, but even if everyone understood science perfectly, we’d still use stories and science in ways that didn’t lead to truth.

In the interest of contributing less boring just-so stories, I offer up my own contribution: “How Guys Came to Dangle” in which we see that rape prevention, far from limiting itself to shaping evolution by crying or occasional bursts of ovulatory racism, actually did something cool and reshaped the male body.

In this story, our heroes, the testicles, live comfortably and happily in recessed body cavity, never descending into the cold, cold air. “Primitive Dude” is happy and his sperm love their cozy, extra-warm spots and thrive happily on higher temps than at present. Some few men have testicles that stick out a little bit, and while women secretly think those things look weird, they do not discriminate, kindly tolerating the odd bits.

However, early humans discover something – sexual dimorphism permits males to go around making females have sex with them. This is bad, as Greg Laden points out, because males are less likely to invest resources in children they don’t think are theirs, and thus the children are less likely to live. This is bad from a non-evolutionary standpoint as well, since females probably didn’t like it much better then than they do now.

Then one heroic pre-historic woman realized something. Those testicles that stick out are excellent for kicking hard when some asshole comes to rape you. Males kicked thus tend to moan and be immobilized, while clutching themselves. “Primitive woman” who was not stupid, came to strongly prefer to mate with males who dangly bits meant that a potential rape victim had at least one avenue of recourse. It didn’t always work, of course, and you were still stuck with those silly-looking dangly bits, but at least they gave you a shot at getting away and not being raped, and this was good, because not only were your offspring more likely to survive but you didn’t waste time you could be spending hunting and gathering on flashbacks and anger. The males with recessed testicles eventually were selected against (since rape was the only way they got any), and since the most fertile dangly males had more offspring, we evolved so that spermies like it cooler. And that, my dear grasshoppers, is how the house-ape came to have hairy balls – as a rape prevention method.

I’m expecting a study to come out supporting my hypothesis any day now.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Rob Monkey
    January 25, 2011

    The Mad Biologist had a great take on this, but I think this is a brilliant little example of why evo psych doesn’t work so well, and the second to last sentence was a terrific closing. The thing I’m always surprised about evo psych is that I never see right wing religious evo psych “studies” justifying their backasswards view of the world. It seems like a discipline ripe for the dishonest cherry-picking of that group. I might just not have seen it, but given PZ’s disdain for both evo psych and religion, I figure I would have seen a tearing apart of one by now ;)

  2. #2 TTT
    January 25, 2011

    The “tears” thing might very well be the stupidest idea I’ve ever seen from people who actually are smart enough to know better.

    Without getting too graphic or glib, women crying is pretty much an automatic corollary of being raped. It obviously has no impact on rape prevention, or else there would be no such thing. Someone could just as well hypothesize that, since if you get enough blood in your lungs you will drown, bleeding when you are stabbed is an evolutionary response designed to make your attacker fear drowning and thus stop stabbing you.

    Greg Laden’s questions are right on the mark. I could honestly believe that many of the features of human crying (regardless of gender) at many levels provoke protective responses, to help nurture infants and strengthen social bonds, and that these “protect and nurture” switches tend to counteract a wide variety of others, including sexual desire. But saying it really only works with one type of interaction is stupid for all sorts of reasons, chiefly among them being the fact that it quite plainly does not work in that way at all!

  3. #3 Gordon
    January 25, 2011

    And, then, there are those images from (if I recall correctly) Hopi culture, wherein a very-soon-to-be mom is supporting herself by clutching the two ends of a rope that is tied around those self-same dangly bits of the (I presume) father, therby enabling him to more fully share in the birthing experience and (we might suppose) develop a more enduring commitment to family welfare…either that or it was a way to help keep population in check.

  4. #4 Andy Brown
    January 25, 2011

    @Gordon – thanks for a good laugh. I can’t imagine anything that would instill more creative solicitude in the father-to-be than to have his bits tangled up in a rope that the mother-to-be was grasping through labor. (Now if we could just entangle the average MD’s junk into the process, imagine how comfortable that hospital labor could be made!) In any case, it sounds like the Hopi (or whoever) shared Sharon’s idea that women might hold a preference for a bit of extra vulnerability in their men.

  5. #5 andy Brown
    January 25, 2011

    re: my above comment — I didn’t mean to render the Hopi into past tense!

  6. #6 Roy
    January 25, 2011

    Could you expand your explanation of dangly things to other species – goats, elephants, and bulls for example. And also please explain about rape in these other species. I think there is a PhD in there somewhere (piled higher and deeper?).

  7. #7 Jim Brewster
    January 25, 2011

    When I saw the title, I thought it might refer to erectile mechanics. That might be better low-hanging fruit (so to speak) than the bits you chose, since dangling testicles are primitive to the entire mammalian lineage, and therefore should have little to do with human sexual politics. But if you like the story, go with it…

  8. #8 Sharon Astyk
    January 25, 2011

    You mean there might be a flaw in my reasoning…shocking, really very shocking!

    Sharon

  9. #9 Jim Brewster
    January 25, 2011

    Oh yeah, that was your point, wasn’t it?

  10. #10 Greenpa
    January 25, 2011

    “of course our evolution affects the way we think and act, but any claims made on that subject are a. totally unfalsifiable and b. operate as basically mythological stories ”

    Here’s the thing. I really totally disagree with those statements. Really do.

    However. You’re completely correct that the vast majority of “work” in that “field” is pure crap, done by idiots. Who do indeed blather on interminably about unfalsifiable myths.

    The blinding Truth I’m about to reveal for you; the “field” of evo psych has been created and populated by sophomores looking for a career somewhere, and greatly inspired by the field of “Economics”.

    They took “Macroeconomics For Poets” as a pass/fail filler course, and quickly learned that good careers were readily available for glib charlatans. Economists print the most astonishing bullshit professionally; mathematicize it into opaque incomprehensibility, and become Regents Professors and advisors to governments all the time.

    We know this. My point being; does the fact that all current academic Economics is pure crap mean that the concept of studying resource use is therefore per se nonsense?

    I don’t think so. Just as it is possible to study resource flow scientifically (ecologists do it), it is also possible to study some aspects of the evolution of behavior scientifically. I.e., using falsifiable, testable, rigorous experimentation.

    It’s just that actually designing and carrying out such experiments is a) difficult, b) expensive (true double blind always is), and c) time consuming, d) unnecessary to publish technical papers in the current climate, and e) unnecessary to raise a huge ruckus in the popular press, which gets you laid.

    The few sound workers I know (I do know some) are discouraged by the current climate to the point where they are silent, and rarely working. But it’s a mistake to discard the entire concept of comprehending ourselves through this kind of thinking.

  11. #11 Sharon Astyk
    January 25, 2011

    Greenpa, I don’t claim there are no things you can discover through good evo psych studies, but I admit, I think the things you won’t ever be able to figure out well outnumber them. But I do take your point that there are good and serious people working in the field, outnumbered by idiots.

    Sharon

  12. #12 Claire
    January 25, 2011

    When I read your hypothesis about dangly things, first thing I thought was that if any male possessing dangly things did attempt to rape a woman and she did in fact grab and squeeze said dangly things, she might well have damaged them beyond ability to repair themselves, thus rendering said possessor of said things descendant-less and hence selected against versus possessors of dangly things who don’t attempt to commit rape. Maybe you should add this mechanism to your story, as long as you’re making things up anyway.

    I am *so* tired of just-so stories about this sort of thing … I refuse to read the latest supposedly serious ones.

  13. #13 Mikey
    January 25, 2011

    New Rule: Before you criticize a scientific discipline, first look to see whether or not the leaders of that discipline have already replied to that exact criticism years or decades earlier.

  14. #14 moonkitty
    January 26, 2011

    Since we get to make up New Rules, here’s another: Before you criticize people for criticizing a scientific discipline, first look to see whether said discipline has ever, however remotely in the past, offered a convincing reply to said criticism.

  15. #15 Wow
    January 26, 2011

    The male dangly bits may be an *impediment* to rape. They’re readily available for a swift knee insertion.

    Obviously, the male danlger is the result of women picking only mates that have this “safety feature” installed, ensuring that those with more protected equipment fail to breed as readily and therefore are selected out of the gene pool.

    See, women DO run the planet!

  16. #16 Brad K.
    January 27, 2011

    Sharon,

    I imagine you didn’t think of your rationale in this light – but your dangly bits theory is an excellent explanation of why we want a limited-scope government and why we need to be armed.

    I do challenge one presumption, though. At the time when evolution was sorting things out, most peoples were still of the opinion that babies came of spontaneous generation or of blessings from the g*d(s). If there was a sense of attachment to the child, it would be that the mother is the custodial parent, only. Some stories have it that the father would take no interest in a child unless male and weaned (about four years), or female and nubile. That is, if the father was any relation to mother or child other than mate. If Jean Auel had her story straight, there might well have been a group or community identity, any mating bond between adults might well have been inconsequential and brief to life-long and intense; I don’t know, and like today I imagine it varied.

    Sexual exclusivity (for women) as a means of reducing exposure (to men) of venereal disease may have been strongest since Renaissance Italy. (As long as we are making up just-so stories!) Using mating bonds and children of such bonds to forge and cement (semen’t?) treaties and agreements would be useful only for the affluent, which until recent times of cheap energy would have had a statistically insignificant impact on the gene pool.

    And I am not sure that women, pre-Victorian times, were as reticent about being sexually active. Even the Scandinavian ‘wedding rape’ raids were, reputedly, often pre-arranged and agreed to by all. The problem I see with rape being the primary sexual relationship is that the solution is all too apparent. As was recited in the Navy, “Sleep light tonight, (expletive deleted).” That is, unwillingness as a lifestyle would amount to slavery. While that might have been the case, I submit that it couldn’t have been genetically significant.

    Yes, I know that historically armies would rape the women of defeated nations after killing the men, as a means of assimilating the conquered territory and destroying the former opposition as a culture. And that many soldiers used the tactic to bring home ‘war brides’. But that came into practice rather late, genetically speaking. This would have had a significant culture impact, but relatively little genetic impact in the evolution of the species.

    I do like the subtle way you toss in the way women of the genetic past came to a collective conclusion and acted. This conforms to my own understanding that prior to modern times most societies and religions held women to be vessels of great magic, and holding significant authority in their groups and families.

  17. #17 IanW
    January 27, 2011

    You forgot to address the crucial question of why humans do not have a prehensile penis….

  18. #18 Sharon Astyk
    January 27, 2011

    I think the collective “ewwww” of all women is sufficient explanation for that, Ian.

    Sharon

  19. #19 Wow
    January 27, 2011

    Pfft. It’s fine for *Centauran* women! Just ask Lando Mollari!

  20. #20 Wow
    January 27, 2011

    “At the time when evolution was sorting things out, most peoples were still of the opinion that babies came of spontaneous generation or of blessings from the g*d(s).”

    Isn’t this because “The Mysteries” were the perview of Women and Women Alone? I.e. Women were in charge of the mysticism and men in charge of the physical outreach program (aka “hunting”).

    Once you’ve seen one sprog drop from the clacker, you have no room to believe that a stork brought THAT along, or that it would be found in a cabbage patch..!

  21. #21 hello
    January 27, 2011

    I realize this story is at least partly in jest, but you do realize that is does not make any sense, right? Females would prefer to be raped by dangly males, but why would they preferentially mate with them? Unless we’re positing an understanding of selection on the part of these prehistoric women, such that they are purposely selecting men for dangliness. Which seems unlikely. (Even today, how many women think, “I want a weak man I can overpower if necessary”? No, they think, “I want an NFL player!”)
    Indeed, in this scenario dangly males should be less fit: they can achieve reproductive fitness only through consensual sex, while non-dangly males can do that and commit rape. And while children of rape may be less fit than dual-parented consensual-sex children, they still represent some non-zero value of fitness. So, assuming one male can care for only n children, Mr. Dangly gets n children, while Mr. Non-Dangly gets n children plus however many children of rape he can manage, and he wins. Moreover, females should want non-dangly sons (because they can have more babies), so you could argue that they would preferentially mate with non-dangly males.
    I know this post is meant to be silly, but if you’re going to make up things, at least make them logical!

  22. #22 cavanaugh
    January 27, 2011

    Hello, “Hello”—let’s take that energy you’ve just put into your LOVELY post above, #21, and if you wouldn’t mind just pointing it at the idiots who claim (beneath a big banner saying “SCIENCE”) that tears evolved as a rape defense, which uses pretty much the same kind of logic? Okay, thank you!

  23. #23 Wow
    January 28, 2011

    “Even today, how many women think, “I want a weak man I can overpower if necessary”?”

    Lots.

    “Overpower” doesn’t mean “throw down on the mat and pin them there”. Even if it did, Judo shows us that strength isn’t the last word then either.

  24. #24 Wow
    January 28, 2011

    PS most people think “I want someone I can love and who loves me”. I don’t know that many women say to themselves “I want an NFL player”.

    Fantasies about being boffed by one, yes. If they’re “cute”.

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