The Frontal Cortex

Spitzer, Ethics and Evolution

Evolutionary psychologist David Barash excuses the behavior of Eliot Spitzer on the grounds that monogamy is unnatural, an artificial construct of bourgeois civilization:

One of the most important insights of modern evolutionary biology has been an enhanced understanding of male-female differences, deriving especially from the production of sperm versus eggs. Because sperm are produced in vast numbers, with little if any required parental follow-through, males of most species are aggressive sexual adventurers, inclined to engage in sex with multiple partners when they can. Males who succeed in doing so leave more descendants.

A story is told in New Zealand about the early 19th century visit of an Episcopal bishop to an isolated Maori village. As everyone was about to retire after an evening of high-spirited feasting and dancing, the village headman — wanting to show sincere hospitality to his honored guest — called out, “A woman for the bishop.” Seeing a scowl of disapproval on the prelate’s face, the host roared even louder, “Two women for the bishop!”

On balance, the Maori headman had an acute understanding of men. He also reflected a powerful cross-cultural universal: Around the world, high-ranking men have long enjoyed sexual access to comparatively large numbers of women, typically young and attractive. Moreover, women have by and large found such men appealing beyond what may be predicted from their immediate physical traits. “Power,” wrote Henry Kissinger, “is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

Power-as-pheromone is pretty much the default among mammals. Elk, elephant seal, baboon or chimpanzee, in a wide array of species, females eagerly mate with dominant males while disdaining subordinates. And they do so, more or less, in harems.

Last time I checked representative democracy was also pretty rare in the animal kingdom. That doesn’t mean we have to shrug, grunt and surrender to the local alpha male. Thanks to our swollen prefrontal cortex, humans can do things a little bit differently. We have the power to resist our hereditary inheritance.

I’d also find this argument more convincing if every person in power, or every NBA player, or every movie star, visited call-girls. The fact of the matter is that some people manage to exercise self-control. Nobody’s perfect, of course, but not everybody gets investigated by the U.S. attorney for money laundering and transporting a prostitute across state lines.

Barash also fails to distinguish between ordinary infidelity and visiting a prostitute. I wouldn’t give a shit if Spitzer was cavorting around town with a mistress. But Spitzer broke the law and committed a felony. Other species might not recognize felonies, but humans do. That’s why Spitzer just resigned.

Comments

  1. #1 Jennie
    March 12, 2008

    ha! Exactly. Also, I don’t see how paying call girls proves that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac…

  2. #2 tim
    March 12, 2008

    Uh – I think he got some facts wrong. Spitzer was being investigated for unusual bank transfers which lead to the revelation he was paying for prostitutes. It just so happens going across state lines to visit prostitutes is illegal (you can argue if this is a stupid law or not – i think it is). Its unclear and unlikely he broke any other laws such as money laundering. I can frankly care less if he was paying for sex.

    But this does make him an hypocrite and an idiot. That is why he resigned. A hypocrite as he spent time as AG busting prostitution rings and boasted about a squeaky clean image. An idiot as he didn’t seem to understand very basic concepts such as what triggers unusual activity in the banking system.

  3. #3 Jason Failes
    March 12, 2008

    Mmmmmmmm….naturalistic fallacy.

  4. #4 natural cynic
    March 12, 2008

    Nobody’s perfect, of course, but not everybody gets investigated by the U.S. attorney for money laundering and transporting a prostitute across state lines.

    You should have put almost no one gets prosecuted for the Mann act. What should be included is such primate behavior as making alliances to take down a powerful male. As in: Why did the bank flag the original transactions to the IRA when it was not necessary [<$10,000] and not to Spitzer? just maybe some bankers didn’t like Spitzer because of his previous work as Atty Gen and DA; Why did the FBI get involved in a prostitution ring? It wasn’t bribery and don’t they have enough work chasing terrorists; Why was client #9 leaked? Maybe someone really wanted to out an up-and-coming D [see Seigleman in AL]; Why is Vitter still in the Senate? IOKIYAR; Why are we so interested in the case? Politics, hypocrisy and the MSM having nothing better to do when the country’s in a financial and international mess; and, especially for Spitzer, why did he leave a paper/electronic trail when he had used them so often as a prosecutor? Dumb, dumber, arrogant, or wanted to get caught.

  5. #5 natural cynic
    March 12, 2008

    oops, IRS

    Other things to ponder: Why did
    Spitzer leave a trail? Why aren’t there more Repub. resignations? Why are we really bothered by this? DOJ conspiracy?…

  6. #6 Chad
    March 12, 2008

    People should just do what I have for years now: not listen to a thing evolutionary psychologists say. In my naive days I used to think there were no worthless professions in science, but evolutionary psych changed my mind.

  7. #7 MattXIV
    March 12, 2008

    Many species will engage in opportunistic cannibalism of the young, including their own offspring. I trust Barash will defend my penchant for baby sandwiches as a natural behavior.

  8. #8 RoySV
    March 12, 2008

    Face it. In our culture, if you are male your wife is considered the owner of your genitals. Any other attitude is considered uncivilized (so no porn, no masturbation, no mistress and definitely no prostitute). I don’t agree with this attitude but there it is.

  9. #9 c
    March 12, 2008

    So, that is why Barash was hitting on my female colleague when he came over to give a (bad) talk…

  10. #10 MattXIV
    March 12, 2008

    natural cynic,

    He was first found out because the transactions he was engaging in were consistent with any set of activities in which Spitzer would have an incentive to go out of his way to conceal where the money was going to, which could have been just about anything illegal. Banks are obligated to report suspicious transactions under the Bank Secrecy Act, which I don’t approve of fully, but it’s not unreasonable to require a higher level of financial disclosure for people in positions of public trust. And even if you take the Mann Act away (Mann Act prosecutions of johns are rare because it was a mostly symbolic act aimed at a largely imaginary moral panic so it’s hard to fall under it – Spitzer only may have violated it by paying someone to cross state lines for the purpose of prostitution, something that is pretty rare overall. If you can find an example of some case where Mann Act charges weren’t filed when the prosecutors were capable of showing that someone was transported across state lines for the purpose of prostitution, I’d be impressed. The Feds don’t spend a lot of time proactively looking for Mann Act violations, and that’s a good thing, but I don’t think they pass up ones they incidentally encounter.), he’d still be in violation of a variety of local laws, which the Feds would have turned the evidence over to the local authorities for. I wouldn’t jump to conclusions since he hasn’t been charged yet and he may also have violated money laundering laws as well while concealing his activities. I may not agree with all the laws here, but it’s pretty unambigious that the root of Spitzer’s trouble was his decision to break them.

    If politically motivated prosecutions concern you, you may want to take a look at Spitzer’s record, which includes assigning the state police to trail his political opponents and creatively reinterpreting regulations to puff up his prosecutions. He’s probably the worst politician in the country outside of the Bush administration when it comes to using law enforcement powers for his own political gain.

  11. #11 Siamang
    March 12, 2008

    Also across the animal kingdom, bad internet discussion skills are pretty much uniform among mammals, be they elk, elephant seal, baboon or chimpanzee. Which is why I ook eeek ooo-ooo aaaa-aaa, eek-eek, ooop-ooop. Aaak-eeep, oooooh-ooooh, eeek-eeek?

    Ahem.. sorry there. Reverted for a second. What is it with this evolutionary psychologist? To him culture is merely an arbitrary artificial construct imposed on our true biological natures? Who is imposing this construct then, if it isn’t our biological and evolutionarily-programmed selves?

  12. #12 RoySV
    March 12, 2008

    Face it – continued: Spousal ownership of genitals is preserved no matter how great the mismatch of sexual interest between partners. Further, it appears from a scientific point of view, that increased ejaculations are health-promoting for males…. But that would be naughty!

  13. #13 Luna_the_cat
    March 12, 2008

    Aw, poor baby, RoySV. Let us contrast this for a moment to the all-too-consistent cultural attitude that husband is the owner of the wife, not just her genitals; and that he is perfectly entitled to hurt her or even kill her if any sexual infidelity is detected.

    Yeah, you poor wee victimised mannie. You are expected to keep it in your pants. You probably don’t expect to be killed if you are caught with someone else, though, do you. Whereas, women can’t be quite so confident about that; and according to both FBI statistics and the NCVS, the largest category of female murder victims are wives or girlfriends attempting to leave a relationship. Tell me how “natural” this is, while you’re at it, ok?

  14. #14 RoySV
    March 12, 2008

    reply from “poor baby”: I did not use the word victim. Nor did I seek to cancel out one wrong with another. Apparently some think my comments are aimed at justifying murder. Wow.

  15. #15 Paradigm
    March 12, 2008

    Barash didn’t exactly excuse Spitzers behavior, and he certainly didn’t say that monogamy is unnatural. He said that “maleness plus money plus political power isn’t likely to add up to the kind of sexual restraint that the public expects”.

    And more generally he said:

    “After all, ‘doing what comes naturally’ is what nonhuman animals do. People, most of us like to think, have the unique capacity to act contrary to their biologically given inclinations. Maybe, in fact, it is what makes us human.”

    But this was at the end of the article ; )

  16. #16 Luna_the_cat
    March 12, 2008

    No, I did not think that your comments were aimed at justifying murder. That is not what I read into them, and not what I implied in my comment, and that you think I did indicates to me that you missed the point entirely.

    Let me lay this out more clearly for you, then:

    You appear to be somewhat cranky over the perception that the wife gets to “own” her husband’s genitals.
    And you appear to think that this is unnatural, indeed.
    You ignore the very long-standing cultural tradition that the husband doesn’t just own the wife’s genitals, he owns the wife.
    In your whine (and yes, it was patently a whine) you ignore the fact that the punishment for male infidelity is nothing at all like what has been accepted as punishment for female infidelity.
    What I am trying to point out to you, which you evidently missed, is that not only does this particular sword cut both ways, it also cuts very much sharper in one direction, and not the direction you seem to think.

    Male infidelity is not just tolerated, it is encouraged in many western cultures where it is seen as “natural” and/or a mark of virility (cf. Italy, Spain, any given American high school); female infidelity, on the other hand, is absolutely not tolerated and is often severely punished.

    So basically, gimme a break.

  17. #17 RoySV
    March 12, 2008

    to Luna, etc.: No break granted. This is an open forum. I get to be cranky just as you do.

  18. #18 El Christador
    March 12, 2008

    Paradigm’s comment raises the question: is it Barash who has made the common slip of confusing explanation with justification, or Lehrer?

  19. #19 El Christador
    March 12, 2008

    Yeah, I read the piece. I think Paradigm is right. The piece is only describing, not excusing, and it explicitly makes the point that it doesn’t excuse it. What I think has happened here is that Lehrer has perceived an argument that isn’t actually presented in the piece, which is certainly easy enough to do. (My point being, I would not castigate Mr. Lehrer or say he is “at fault” here, but I also think he has made a mistake of a common kind which I certainly make too.)

    That is, the article isn’t saying “this is the way people are by nature, so it’s ok,”, it only says “this is the way people are by nature,” and the “so it’s ok” part is not present in the article but appears to have been inadvertently added by Mr. Lehrer.

  20. #20 El Christador
    March 12, 2008

    My point being, I would not castigate Mr. Lehrer or say he is “at fault” here, but I also think he has made a mistake of a common kind which I certainly make too.

    What I mean to say is this is an entirely natural and understandable thing to do. It’s pretty much the way the human mind works. Except that my point is that in this case, that does make it ok… uh oh…

  21. #21 Milt Lee
    March 12, 2008

    I find the whole discussion to kinda funny. Mr. Spitzer was acting the way that many males of our species do. In America, people don’t like that, and that’s OK. But to somehow think that there aren’t lots of men in power that act this way seems a bit naive, and to be shocked by it – even crazier!

    Elliott Spitzer has been the worst kind of hypocrite. Well, maybe not the worst – Bush is probably worse, but still – Spitzer is right up there.

  22. #22 Milt Lee
    March 12, 2008

    Whoops – should have been “to be kinda funny” – oh well..

  23. #23 Luna_the_cat
    March 13, 2008

    RoySV: sure, you can be cranky and whiny in your privileged position if you want — I can’t physically stop you, after all. Just don’t expect any sympathy, or for me to be impressed at how big a problem you find marital fidelity.

  24. #24 SFP
    March 13, 2008

    RoySV: If you don’t want your wife to “own your genitals” then don’t enter a relationship for which you take a vow of faithfulness. Please.

  25. #25 Oran Kelley
    March 13, 2008

    Barash in 2001: at Salon.

    He’s excusing, let’s face it.

    He’s an old hand at passing off what is essentially SWAG to reporters and editors as scientifically authoritative insight.

  26. #26 Susan
    March 13, 2008

    This is kind of a digression I don’t really give a crap about Eliot Spitzer. I’m more bothered by his hypocricy than his infidelity. (It seems weird to me that he was so easy to nail. did he really believe he was untouchable? Or did he actually want to be caught?) I tend to agree with the above poster about the uslessness of evolutionary psychologists. (The same people who said that women like pink because our primitive hunter-gatherer great grandmothers liked to gather red berries against a blue sky or some such. Ignoring the fact that a lot of red berries are poisonous and not all berries are red…Anyway) I was curious about the concept that it is more natural for men to be polygymous…That humans are like deer or chickens and like to form harems with an alpha male doing all the breeding. Since we tend give birth to equal numbers of men and women, wouldn’t the idea of alpha male harems, taken to it’s logical conclusion leave a lot of pissed off, undersexed men running around. I’m kind of wondering if that’s why we invented war. A few powerful men send soldiers off to die and keep all the women to themselves. Look at all those polygymous Mormon communities in North America and their “lost boys” If only a few men covet all the women then they have to find excuses to get rid of all the young, handsome, eligable bachlors when they hit sexual maturity. Maybe manogamy isn’t “natural” but its more egalitarian. Better sex with one person all your life then no sex at all.

  27. #27 APR
    March 14, 2008

    I say we have all the “evolutionary” “psychologists” live on a presocial island of international choice, encourage them to depend on their own “natural” “instincts”, and study them as the utterly and completely fail to practice what they preach… its as if 150 years of anthropology, geography and sociology and 3000 years of history didn’t exist for these folks.

  28. #28 njartist
    March 14, 2008

    Let’s see what Mr. Lehrer thinks in 20 years when he finally figures out why his wife really married him or why he’s not married.

    Most men, especially those who are told they don’t make enough money, don’t have enough status, or aren’t rough enough, tend to figure it out; those who don’t face such attitudes seldom find out: Mr Lehrer may be the latter.

    Doesn’t mean I agree with the original “scientist” or his reasoning to get to his conclusion: the fact that the world is round is not proof that , according to Australian aborigines, a great turtle laid an egg.

  29. #29 Rick Schauer
    March 16, 2008

    I think what we’re seeing is the untenable nature of the social laws. The old adage that “you can’t legislate morality” seems to hold some truth. There is not much observational evidence to support claims that all these criminal laws and sentences have helped lead us to some social crime-free “utopia.”

    We have more people in jails now than any other country yet there seems to be no lack of crimes or criminals. Additionally, we have raised the emotion of guilt to astronomical levels with schadenfreude escalated to the new national pasttime. It leaves me wondering at times if schadenfraude is what’s actually driving some of this legislation and resultant laws.

    On the other hand, it has been my experience that behaviors follow the old bell-shaped curve. Some, for example, are able to heal their wanton sexual desires and others less capable of restraining themselves as well.

    I’m sure if all the “Sptizers” or johns were interviewed for their reasons of infidelity and/or use of prostitutes a number of replies/reasons both genetic and environmental would emerge…or perhaps in Spitzer’s case, martial reasons which seems to be both religious and environmental.

    I look at all laws as being religiously based to some extent…especially those that surround marriage memes and prostitution/infidelity falls in that catagory.

    It comes down then to laws that uphold religion’s “protection scheme” …pay the priest you go to heaven…ignore that, well, there’s a price to pay…and Spitzer is finding out how much that is!

  30. #30 jayh
    April 8, 2008

    Late to the party, I just stumbled on this thread, and was somewhat disturbed by the strawman nature of the criticism, as well as the mixing of morality value judgements into something that should be analyzed rationally.

    Natural selection primarilly ‘rewards’ genetic success. Our instincts are the behaviors that historically acheived this goal, regardless of their nicety. It’s not about ‘morality’. Everything else is ancillary to this. Acheiving power is expensive and risky, in evolutionary terms the most important payback is increased mating opportunities. This explains why males are more often driven to seek power and behave differently than females in power. There is typically very little genetic payback for a female to attempt to use power for mating — whe won’t have significantly more of her genetics into the pool. As pointed out, Gengis Khan had around 1000 offspring (his genetics are said to have penetrated much of Eurasia), the evolultionary payoff for his extreme use of power was incredible. By contrast, a female who conquered the world would have no more, likely fewer, offspring. This type of behabior dominates the most genetically successful male members of our ancestry.

    It’s only in relatively recent times that we have actually tried to change this model of power behavior. Up till the last couple of centuries, it was far and away the norm for powerful males to have many different offspring even if it was socially ignored. A male who acheived power and did not use this for reproductive sucess would be an evolutionary ‘failure’.

    Not everything that has an evolutionary basis is good behavior (infanticide is an extreme example), but we should not be surprised when old patterns reappear. But it should also help us understand what is happening, rather than trying to pretend that males and females have been entirely programmed by society, and are essentially identical otherwise.

    Now my contempt for Spitzer is more driven by his hypocracy of using intrusive state power attacking consenting sex workers and their customers (somethingthat’s really not the state’s business). But he was a major state interventionist in many ways.

  31. #31 Francene Fehlinger
    June 3, 2011

    haha the one who is posting the comments

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