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Gender Differences? 15 November 2009

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Biology, Culture, Evolution, Gender, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
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In my ongoing quest to integrate genetic, neurological, biological, physiological, and evolutionary research and knowledge into my cultural sociological work, I am constantly trying to grapple with a way to theorize an integrated “nature/nurture” transaction in human behavioral and cultural characteristics. As I’ve said many times here before, I find it frustrating that English, because of its Western cultural heritage of separating humanity from nature, lacks a way to talk about the interaction of genetic/biological heritage with the umbworld (the combined physical, social, and cultural environment) in that intricate dance to create a phenotypical characteristic. The cultural baggage evident in the way we continue to talk of “nature v. nurture” forecloses our ability to think in terms of what is more or less the empirical emergence of human characteristics in an interactive dynamic of evolutionary, biological heritage and the social & physical environments.

Recently I tried to summarize where I stand with gender in my naturalistic sociological standpoint. I thought I would re-post this here on the blog to see what other people thought and get some feedback and pushback on these ideas. This was in response to two acquaintances who had taken very stark stances about the origins of gender, one hard to the biological side and one hard to the social constructionist side. This was my effort to offer a naturalistic and critical perspective:

This is an extremely messy discussion with no easy or clear answers. Both the biologically determinist and the culturally determinist position make me uncomfortable. Here’s where I am on gender difference right now:

There are average differences between the sexes in various areas of behavior and physiology. This however is complicated by several observations:

• in both behavioral and physiological characteristics where there are average differences, the bell curves overlap significantly, to that most individuals fall in the overlap area (the only exception to this that I know of off the top of my head is body mass, where males are roughly 20% greater than females, across geographic-races).

• the human brain is incredibly plastic, so that any characteristic that appears to be possibly an average difference (e.g., a preference for symbolic thinking or spatial reasoning) can actually be learned by any normal brain of either sex. in other words, many mental differences turn out to be preferences, but those preferences turn out to be so strong and universal that they appear to have at least some heritability

• it is difficult to tease out the differences that matter, and often the ones that we decide matter are because of our cultural biases; the best way to see through that is to do cross-cultural research, but cross-cultural research still risks being driven by the cultural biases of the researchers, regardless of their culture of origin

• early childhood studies consistently seem to show a base-line gender difference in behavior and cognition (meaning the *way* they think), even when conducted by feminists; but feminist researchers tend to explain it away as “constructed” difference; I’m becoming less and less convinced. This is completely anecdotal, and just meant for illustration my friends are generally pretty feminist, and all of them who have had both male and female children have been stunned at how gendered their small toddlers are.

• any individual man or woman can fall anywhere in the bell curve, and in any given characteristic be “masculine” or “feminine”, so even if there are generalizable, average sexual differences, they only function at a population and species level and tell us absolutely nothing about the person sitting next to us or about how we should organize our societies or how we should distribute social goods.

• finally, even if we are able to demonstrate clearly how exactly gendered phenotypes arise in human individuals, we run the risk of reifying them socially, so that they become normative: e.g., here’s the gendered mean for a male on characteristic X, therefore, men should or must behave like characteristic X. This is precisely the wrong conclusion to draw from any research that shows average gendered differences in behavior or physiology. This is why, especially for those of us who fall far outside the bell curve, such research feels threatening and dangerous and particularly UNTRUE.

[As a side note, I think the only two brain structural differences that seem to matter at all are the average size of the corpus callosum and perhaps the average sizes of the pituitary.]


Theorizing Sexuality: Vexing and Vexed Categories 25 March 2009

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Biology, Culture, Evolution, Homosexuality, Language, Postmodernity and Postmodernism, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
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At the base of the problematic of theorizing any social/cultural phenomenon lies the task of defining the phenomenon in the first place. Definitions by nature are a process of creating useful categories of analysis, categories that draw boundaries in the world of phenomena in order to enable the analysis we desire. Here I’m going to attempt merely to point out the baseline problems of coming up with categories of analysis for a Theory of Sexuality. A warning that this isn’t a polished piece of writing, but meant to be more informal and conversational with other specialists and interested parties.

This discussion arises out of my reading of a book called _Homosexuality and Civilization_, where the author traces a predominantly Western history of same-sex sex, both in terms of socially sanctioned practices and in terms of social repression. Confronting the range of historical meanings of homosexuality (for lack of another word) at the same time as watching the author struggle to maintain his categories of analysis pushed me to think about whether or not there is a Homosexual in the past (not unlike Foucault, I suppose). What I found is that there are interrelated but not coextensive phenomena at play that must be carefully dealt with in order to adequately frame an analysis (or theory) of sexuality.


I begin by laying out some of my basic assumptions about the source of knowledge categories at the meta-level. I’m not trying to be rigorous in my citations as I might in a scholarly article; rather, I’m trying to move through my assumptions so you, the reader, can understand where I begin my consideration of the problem of categories in the theorization of sexuality.

I am firmly anti-foundationalist, but in a Deweyan way, where I would argue that empirically speaking all human categories derive from a group’s interaction with its environment and it’s efforts to understand and in some way control its environment. I purposefully think of this as a group effort, probably because of my social science bent, but also because by definition, the human mind is shaped socially, in interaction with other humans. There simply is no human mind that is constituted in and of itself. My Deweyan orientation becomes more important when I compare what I’m saying against the extreme strands of post-structuralism (e.g., the hard-constructionists of the British sociology of science), who often conclude that all knowledge is self-referential and all symbol systems can only derive meaning from other symbols; and therefore that human knowledge is radically disconnected from the world it seeks to explain and can never be anything but a construct.

ETA: I cannot disagree with this hard-constructionist model more. All knowledge is inextricably linked to a transaction with the environment that produced it. It is, at its core, significantly more than self-referential. Anti-foundationalism in the pragmatic mode means a radical contextualization of knowledge, not a radical disconnection from the world that is known. Now onto language, really the sticking point for post-structuralism (IMO).

I’m more prone to accept the findings of cognitive linguists and neurologists who are finding that language, in the way our brain functions, is not the constituter of thoughts (i.e., is not the stuff of thought) but rather a tool the brain uses to think. When you “hear” yourself htinking with language, what you are experiencing is your brain using language to manage the phenomena it encounters and analyze them.  Language and symbolic representation of the world writ large are not the stuff of the contents of the brain, but rather a tool the brain uses to think about the world it experiences. Language is active and moving, like a hammer; not the thing itself.

Secondly, with Dewey, James, Pierce, and Mead, not to mention a whole raft of cognitive scientists and evolutionary psychologists(1) of the past 25 years or so, I would insist that knowledge is an emergent property of the brain’s interaction with its environment (including the social environment), so that knowledge can never be separated from the body’s experience of its environment or the collective and social experience mediated through language and interaction in the society. Knowlege and categories are always situated historically, that is, radically contextual; they are always without foundation, that is, without eternal, universal meaning; but they are always connected directly to the group’s experience of its world and are always embodied. (Always remembering that part of the world is the social, symbolic world of the group, including its history, tradition, language, practices, objects, etc.)(2)


The first problem of categorization when theorizing sexuality is deciding how to draw the lines of inclusion and exclusion in the categories in question. Indeed, “sexuality” itself is a fraught category, already begging the question of its own usefulness. Is sexuality the bodily, embodied act? is it also the fantasy, the desire? does it include the acts unrealized and only imagined? or is it more than acts at all, including systems of meaning? or is it psychological, the “identity” of an individual and how the individual categorizes herself in terms of her sexuality (which again begs the question of “sexuality”)?

So any category to be used in any field of research includes a relationship of a) the word(s) used to contain the category; b) the phenomena to be included, and by extension, excluded from the category; and c) the social work of building and maintaining the category’s boundaries long enough for the conversation to be useful in lighting our understanding.

The first problem of the word-label is probably obvious. Since the words we use are shared in multiple contexts and have multiple meanings, we can only be sure of their rigorous use if we reiterate the meanings we need, or by coining new words (an often clumsy and opaque solution, but one which appeals to me). Language by its very nature always fails to contain that which it seeks to describe; there are always “leakages” of meaning.

But If “sexuality” is the word, then what phenomena will we include in it? Is it the only category that matters? For me personally, I’m interested in sexual dissent, secret behavior, minority sexual practices; these seem to beg for categories of their own in addition to “sexuality”.(3) As soon as we start deciding what phenomena to include in the categories, we engage in a process of exclusion; categories may also limit our perception, when we accept them as salient and representing something useful in the world. Categories can thereby eliminate from view important facts that might change our understanding. Perhaps there is simply no way to avoid this danger and it must be embraced as part of the process.  But the possible consequences can be dire, leading to the erasure from history or analysis entire experiences or populations, or misapprehending groups or individuals under our gaze.

I will argue here, briefly, that the categories used to analyze sexuality must include both biological, embodied knowledge and social, cultural knowledge.


At the risk of stating the obvious, the very fact that I want to theorize “sexuality” necessarily arises out of my experience in my own place and time in human history, my situatedness in the 21st century, unitedstatesian culture of sexuality, and my gayness. Indeed, “sexuality” itself is a rather new category, at most about 150 years old in Western European thinking (see note (3) below).  Problematically, historical categories do not match our own; that is to say, culturally speaking, that in different times and places, human groups have categorized sexual phenomena in radically different ways. With homosexuality, for example, I have only to go back to just before WWII to find a significantly different world than the one I live in now (noting, of course, that in that sentence I couldn’t have even expressed it without the word “homosexual”).

If pre-contact Hawaiians, for example, had no concept of “sexuality” at all, did they have it? Is it even possible to analyze Hawaiian sexuality if their own culture didn’t have a category to describe it?  Or what about today, where in, say, much of the Muslim-Arabic world, homosexuality is seen as a Western-Christian phenomenon, so when men have sex with men, it’s not homosexual (to them) but something else altogether with completely different contexts and rules governing its meaning and behavior. What then would I even be studying if I tried to analyze “homosexuality” among Saudi men, for example? Or if I go to Taliban controlled Afghanistan (you’ll excuse me for using hot button examples, somewhat glibly, to illustrate), and women are so holy and also so dangerous to the spiritual health of men, they must be hidden, uneducated, and silent, and traded among men who control their very bodies (or at least outwardly so). Is that even “heterosexuality”? Does it make sense to call their marriages “heterosexual” just because they are opposite-sex composed?

Or is there something thin enough, something universal enough that can be laid down as the basis of a category that can be used to analyze across cultures?


In sociology and anthropology, there is a perennial problem of whether or not we use our current, accepted categories to understand the cultural, social Other, and if so, what effect that has on our ability to understand. If we use our own categories, does that merely reproduce our own cultural biases, our own situated context? In sociology, the idea is that is sometimes put forward that if the researcher can somehow reformulate the categories of analysis, it will increase the intellectual payoff and therefore usefulness of the analysis. By simply reproducing the old categories (e.g., race, class, gender), we reproduce the social phenomena we are studying.

In history, an analogous problem of “presentism” demands that to understand the past you must leave aside your current understandings to simply express what was believed in the past. For historians, the culture of the past can never be known if it is only in terms of the present.

While I’m sympathetic to both critiques, I’m also wary of them. In the sociological critique, I find the idea that new or different categories may better illuminate the phenomena in question; but I also think that asking questions from our own contexts is not only human, but deeply useful. I don’t mean to say that I would advocate using unexamined categories of my own culture; but that using them isn’t necessarily bad, when done so carefully and systematically and perhaps with a detailed explanation of why. So in the case of sexuality, we would need to ask up front why are we even studying what people do with their genitals and/or what they think about what they do with their genitals? Why would such a study matter? What knowledge is gained and why? Or why do I want to use my idea of homosexuality from the 21st century (and academic, I must add) context to understand, say 18th century America or 21st century Saudi Arabia?

I think the historical warning against presentism is extremely useful in establishing the phenomena to be analyzed. This is analogous, to me, to the anthropological warning against ethnocentrism in studying present others. But I think it hamstrings the analysis once you get there. I’m not sure there’s a away not to be presentist or ethnocentric when conducting an analysis of social cultural phenomena that we hope to be useful in some way, beyond the mere curiosity of understanding the other.

So I would argue for a three-part process: 1) a careful work through and definition of the categories to be used (kind of what I’m setting the stage to do here); 2) when gathering the phenomena (data) a strict effort to avoid presentism and ethnocentrism; 3) an analysis that brings what is discovered about the Other into conversation with what the researcher knows and experiences in their context.


To set out where I think a useful and empirically sustainable theory of sexuality should base its categories of analysis, let me give some observations:

1) humans have sex (and also choose not to have sex);
2) they do so for a multitude of reasons;
3) those reasons are always both social/cultural and bodily/biological (ranging from social duty, to “love”, to boredom, to horniness, etc.);
4) humans constantly generate meanings for sex (4);
5) those meanings vary from context to context because they emerge from humans interacting with each other in a complex environment, which they do not control and which constantly changes;
6) there seem to be discernible patterns of sexual behavior over time and across cultures, though these patterns manifest in statistical distributions rather than in trans-cultural universals;
7) humans have sex because they want to, but defining and studying “want to” (i.e., desire) is probably the most difficult aspect of sexuality, because it seems to always bound in the reasons and meaning of sex.

Given the above, I think that the ground of a theory of sexuality must have three interweaving, moving parts of sexuality:

sex Act(s) and behavior [embodied and in some way connecting mind to genitals?]

Desire and affect [embodied, but affect focused]

Meaning [the organization of the acts and the desire within a social-historical context]

Two things to note. First, I do not think that identity is a good or useful way to categorize sexuality (although I do think there’s a history of sexuality as identity to be told).  Identity seems to be one of the possible outcomes of a culture’s efforts to understand or control its sexuality, rather than something that is necessarily attached to sexuality.

Second, from reading extensively about Greece and Roman meanings of sexuality in terms of today’s understanding of homosexuality (not to mention the vexing problem of defining “homosexuality” in today’s world) I think it necessary to insist on a relative independence of the three parts of Act, Desire, and Meaning to understand how the work together.

Acts: although the acts and embodied experience of sex do not exist outside of culture and are always attached to at least one actor’s desire, they can be studied physiologically as things in themselves. If we can think of embodied acts as separate (even if its just an intellectual conceit), we can come to think more clearly about desires and especially meanings.

Desire/Affect: There are layers of desires (always connected to bodies and emerging in cultural, meaning-full contexts) at work in sexuality, that may or may not have a direct correlation to the bodily act, the sensation of sex, or an orgasm. The desires may be social (e.g., for status), psychological (e.g., to affirm an identity), or bodily (e.g., to come). The most difficult to study, mainly because the fleeting affect within an individual rarely leaves a trace to be studied. And because defining “desire” itself can be vexing, from Freud’s “overestimation of the object” to a biological explanation of the function of oxytocin in the brain.

Meaning: Here we have the qualitative difference of acts and desires as they are manifested in social roles, symbolic explanations and representations, sanctions and repressions, etc.

Acts, Desires, and Meanings are all experienced in the Deweyan sense: They are both undergone (that is, passively put upon our senses, as stimulus upon our bodies (sometimes from the brain itself)) and a “doing” or activity (we always act in response to the undergone stimulus, be its origins in our own brains or outside of them). For Dewey, the experience must be always seen in this inseparable nexus of undergoing and doing; it is always both-and; it is always passive reception of what “is” and active reaction to change it.  So for me, sexuality in these three phases, is always a movement through time and place, the emergence of particular genital-desire-meaning formations.

For me, separating sexuality into these three phases allows a much richer analysis of the past. I will discuss some of this in detail in a later post, so I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but let me just illustrate with pederasty of ancient Athens. Much of the debate in historical circles boils down to whether or not homosexuality even exists, because clearly the cultures of sexuality were so different in other times. If in Athens, homosexual contact was allowed [you’ll notice I’m purposefully leaving “homosexual” undefined for the moment] between citizen men as a mentor-mentee relationship; and if citizen men could penetrate any other human legally that did not belong to another citizen; then homosexuality did not exist. [I’m being extremely gestural here to illustrate a point about theory of sexuality, not to make a detailed argument about Athens.]

But if we analyze Athenian sexuality in different terms, we may get another interpretation: separate out the acts in general terms of partner and genital use: e.g., age-differentiated males anal penetration, age-congruent males anal penetration, cross-class anal penetration, etc. Separate out possible desires in that context: e.g., age-congruent same-sex desire, age-differentiated same-sex desire, class-congruent opposite-sex desire, etc. Then separate out the meanings of sex acts and desires: e.g., sanctioned age-differentiated, class-congruent, same-sex desire and anal penetration of younger by older, etc. The historical case of Athens does not prove to us that there weren’t men who desired other adult men in Athens; it can only show us what the culture thought of particular sex acts and how the society organized them. It doesn’t tell us necessarily about the desires of those engaged in a particular act or practice. It tells us how a particular culture in a particular time and with a specific history sought to channel, organize, and control sexual acts and desires. This may seem rather painfully obvious, but in the historical literature and in much of the anthropological literature, the emphasis on difference is so strong and overpowering, that all categories of analysis get reduced to such tightly focused contexts, thereby limiting our perception of the phenomena to the terms of the people who produce them, which has the effect of erasing from view the human experience of having desires that need to be consummated in a given context, possible variations, misapprehension of normatives for empirical realities, and collapsing of possibilities.


(1) Following the brilliant critique of evolutionary psychology in Buller’s _Adapting Minds_, I’m referring here to the empirical and provisional work in the field, not the sweeping and highly problematic claims of the more popular Evolutionary Psychologists (Buller distinguishes them by the caps).

(2) I’m stopping this discussion here, but could go on about it. For example, only when we understand language as a tool and knowledge as emergent properties of brains, i.e., the Mind, can we understand empirically how and why knowledge changes over time in useful, adaptive ways. Evolutionary metaphors can be exceptionally helpful when theorizing the flux of knowledge over time in groups.

(3) This is where I really still see the brilliance of Foucault’s analysis in La volonté de savoir (Will to Know (a take on Nietzsche’s Will to Power (volonté de pouvoir, in French)), in the first volume of the _History of Sexuality_, where he traces the Victorian sexological process of an ever more granular categorization of the most miniscule and narrow experiences, feelings, desires, fancies, and behaviors of the genitals. I want to avoid falling into the Victorian pit, but it’s a delicate dance around the edge of the precipice to create useful categories.

(4) I tend to use the word “meaning” in the way that G.H. Mead via Dewey would use it, to indicate not a dictionary definition, but rather the language-symbol combined with an experience of the interconnection of social practice and behavior and affect with a given phenomenon. So the meaning of “tree” isn’t its place on the biological typography, but rather it is the symbol “tree” in conjunction with the lived-experience of treeness in a social context by the individual experiencer and in interaction with the cultural group giving “treeness” its meaning.

Theorizing Sexuality: Introduction 15 February 2009

Posted by Todd in Biology, Evolution, Gender, Philosophy & Social Theory, Postmodernity and Postmodernism, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
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Over the past year or so, I’ve been working to rethink my theories of sexuality and especially what I think of Queer Theory. My dissertation and forthcoming book in many ways self-consciously ignore Queer Theory, a reflection of my effort to read the past (I studied gay men in the 1960s) and draw conclusions from my qualitative data without distorting them. [One of my serious objections to the way “theory” came to be used in American scholarship since the 1970s, especially in the Humanities and in Cultural Studies, is that it is treated almost like Holy Writ that gives you foregone, ready-made conclusions to what you are studying.] 

My primary purpose is to re-theorize one of the primary problematics that concerns Queer Theory, which is the nearly self-evident fact that humans are incredibly diverse sexually, from practices to beliefs to their emotional self-awareness of sexual matters. On the surface there seems to be almost nothing uniting human beings sexually, which leads many (not least of which, Foucault) to reconfigure Freud’s notion of “polymorphous perversity” into a sort of panoply of human sexual practices. Now any social scientist or humanist worth their salt would say that sexuality is a complex (some would even say, ultimately unknowable) relationship of the biological with the cultural/social. But, if you’ll indulge an unsubstantiated observation, the implication in this scholarship is nearly always that the social is dominant, and maybe even determining; in worst cases, the biological/medical data is rejected as having come out of the power-discourse of “Science” [scare quotes on purpose] and therefore is unreliable. [I’m throwing this out without an extensive review of the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment, here; this is only a blog afterall.] Much social theory (and Queer Theory in particular) has remained stuck in the old nature-nurture debates, and has been, at least since Franz Boas, firmly on the side of nurture.

Given the growing amount of research into sexual desire and behavior coming from physical anthropology, biology, genetics, ethology, medicine, and even psychology, it seems that a re-theorizing of sexuality is in order. The old Nature-Nurture model is utterly inadequate framework to understand any human phenomenon, not just sexuality. Having been highly influenced by William James, George H. Mead, and John Dewey’s (and by proxy, Charles Pierce’s) efforts to reconfigure the meaning of “nature”, I will be arguing here in a series of blog posts for something more integrated that seems to follow more easily from both the biological and the social/cultural data.

1) I think that social and cultural scholarship risks becoming obsolete if it doesn’t take seriously the research in genetics, ethology, etc., concerning sexuality.

2) In order to retheorize sexuality successfully, it requires a full rejection of the nature-nurture dichotomy. Although I’m not keen on using biological metaphors, it might be useful to begin with the concept of “phenotype” from genetics, where any trait (including behavioral and phenomenological) can only emerge from a constant, inextricable transaction between genes and environment. Dewey theorized this throughout the 1920s, for humans, as coming from an evolutionary history where our social environments are our environments. This jibes with current scholarship in human evolution, where it appears that the evolution of our behaviors and brains is directly connected to the environmental pressures of a complex social environment. In sum, my base assumption here is going to be that bodies (brains, hormones, genitals, genes, nerves, senses) are inextricably connected to environment (physical, object world; climate; food; world of social interaction; symbolic world of meaning). I want to emphasize here that the social world itself cannot exist without the bodies from which it emerges and are limited by the potentialities of the bodies involved. Both bodies and environment exist only in and through the other. So far, this is probably not all that revolutionary if you’re coming from the biological side of study; but from the social constructed side, this can have major implications for research and, in this case, our theories of sexuality.

3) Clearly, Western languages (i.e., English) is weighted down with 2500 year history of assumptions about the special place of “mind” or human consciousness outside of the natural world. So language is going to be a barrier here. One of my goals over the coming months will be to work out how to actually have this discussion in English without evoking all the precisely wrong connotations from the words we must necessarily use. 

4) A positive theory (yes, I really did just say “positive”, and I’m doing it to provoke reactions, on purpose) of sexuality, one which assumes the body-environment transaction, must also account for change over time, that is, for history. At present, history now stands more or less as proof of social construction of sexuality. But I will be arguing that history is better seen as evidence of the body-environment transaction.

5) Queer Theory (and social theories of other things, such as race and ethnicity) often fail to account for what exactly is being socially constructed. When we say, “It’s socially constructed”, what exactly is the antecedent “it”? Is it a concept? A phenomenon? An event? A qualia? And having assumed that “it” is socially constructed, Queer Theory (if you’ll excuse again a sweeping generalization) never accounts for the limits on that construction, other than social/cultural limits.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to be using this blog as a means to work through these evolving ideas of mine. I welcome feedback and pushback from serious readers with whom I can hone, change, develop my ideas. To be clear, you don’t have to be a scholar to participate: layfolk and students should also dive right in to the discussion with questions and comments.

Please remember that these are ideas-in-process, so approach the discussion as open-ended and exploratory.

Here are, so far, the topics that I hope to treat in upcoming posts, in no particular order:

  • Category of ‘sexuality’ itself (origins, usefulness, limists)
  • accuracy of “orientation” as a category
  • Gender: Women, sexual desire, and sexual identity
  • social institutions and embodied desire
  • changeability and fluidity of desire within a lifetime
  • untangling normative from descriptive in studies of sexuality
  • mistaking discourse for the thing itself in sexuality studies
  • history & sexuality (Foucault, here we come)
  • theorizing the biology-culture-social connection in empirical human sexual behavior and sexual qualia (i.e., desire and sensation)

Neanderthal Females Kicked Ass 14 November 2007

Posted by Todd in Biology, Evolution, Gender.
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neanderthal.jpgApparently, a pair of anthropologists at University of Arizona are arguing that Neanderthal women were hunters alongside the males. The evidence is pretty sketchy, but I like the image. In any case, we know that even in our line, Homo sapiens females were far more involved in the day-to-day survival of their (relatively) egalitarian bands pre-history. The anthropologists say the archeological evidence still shows a gender division of labor, but that they think it’s clear that women were also hunters.

Now I’m fine with that idea of las chicas neanderthalas hunting mastodon. What raised an eyebrow, however, was the Boston Globe’s lead into the story, which was that this practice might be what led to the species’ extinction. The demographic issue is obvious: hunting is dangerous, and losing fertile females would be catastrophic to a species’ survival. The problem here is that the species lasted for nearly 150,000 years. A practice so detrimental to the population as losing fertile females to a random tusk here or a stomping furry foot there would have led to a much quicker demise of the population (which coexisted for thousands of years with Homo sapiens in Europe).

In order for that to have been a major factor in Homo sapiens neanderthalis extinction, it would’ve had to have been a recent behavioral innovation. Otherwise, it would’ve led to demographic collapse much earlier. To have lasted 150,000 years with that behavior would have to mean that Neanderthal females kicked some serious ass with a spear.

The Allure of Determinism 12 November 2007

Posted by Todd in Biology, Philosophy & Social Theory, Philosophy of Science, Postmodernity and Postmodernism, Queer Theory, Science, Social Sciences.
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Inspired by John Dewey’s declaration that Darwinism changed everything [see epigraph to the right], I’ve spent the past three years reading everything I can get my hands on about human evolution, with a healthy dose of cognitive science mixed in. My undergraduate education was firmly post-modern/post-structural, seeing all meaning as ephemeral and utterly situational: human life could only be explained by the wispy, evanescent strands of thought they attached to it. Graduate school introduced me to a more social scientist mode of saying roughly the same thing: human life, or rather, the meaning of human life is socially constructed. In both educational experiences, the dominant view of human nature was that it did not exist, because anything you could say about it would be, of course, socially constructed or pure culture.

My mind already primed from Dewey’s form of philosophical naturalism, I delved into the natural history of humankind, opening my eyes to some basic, yet key insights. Humans share not only a history but an evolutionary past. Human bodies are not the mere objects of our capricious and malleable cultures, but are indeed the source of our cultural capacity. I had to learn stochastic thinking in a new way to see how generalizations could still be made despite the rather overwhelming diversity of humans.

But now I grow weary of the evolutionary scholarship, more particularly the evolutionary psychology. Just as the cultural determinism of my education had grown thin in its effort to eschew our bodies, so has my impatience grown with the “just so” explanations coming from some of the more prominent researchers in biological anthropology, human evolution, population genetics, and most egregiously evolutionary psych.

I find that I’m reacting against determinism on both sides of this theoretical fence. Determinism seems, to be honest, lazy. It seeks easy explanations for human behavior. And in fact it produces sometimes rather aesthetically pleasing results, often sublime in their simplicity even when dead wrong. When you take something like homosexuality (which I’ve discussed at length here) and you have to tease out the interplay of evolution, hormones, genitals, fetal development, cognition, sensing and problem-solving brains, child rearing, cultural mores, social pressures, pop culture, institutions, the results are messy and contingent. You must rely on probability to determine the interplay of multiple possible causalities and you have to hold in your mind the relationship between individual cases and overarching trends, commonalities, and generalizations.

This is nothing I haven’t written here before, nothing new. I can’t help but wonder when the biological and the social/cultural will finally merge and start working together to deepen our understanding of what it means to be human.

Evolution, Religion, Biology and Social Science 6 July 2007

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Biology, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Evolution, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Social Sciences.
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I’ve written several times here about whether or not I think religion is evolutionarily adaptive. A friend of mine referred me to a recent critique of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion written by David S. Wilson, author of Darwin’s Cathedral. Wilson is famous for his theorizing of the evolution and adaptiveness of human religion, and he is a compelling evolutionary thinker. I find myself having many of the same problems with Wilson’s writing about social phenomena that I do with many other scientists: In a nutshell, why do individuals trained in biology think that they are qualified to talk authoritatively about society and culture? It is especially ironic, considering how biologists get all cranky when physicists, chemists, engineers, or medical doctors (or for that matter, social scientists) purport to know about biology.

Christopher O’Brien, an archaeologist/anthropologist and one of my favorite science bloggers. He recently posted a great discussion of why biology is so complex, and why it’s irritating in the extreme when engineers and medical doctors speak as if they have authority in biology (emphasis mine):

[Richard Dawkins wrote] If you throw a dead bird into the air it will describe a graceful parabola, exactly as the physics books say it should; then come to rest on the ground and stay there. It behaves as a solid body of a particular mass and wind resistance ought to behave. But if you throw a live bird into the air it will not describe a parabola and come to rest on the ground. It will fly away and may not touch land this side of the county boundary.

We can explain the dead bird completely in relation to physics. But the live bird we must explain not only in terms of physics and chemistry, but also anatomy, physiology, zoology, ecology, ethology, paleontology, geology, and a host of additional disciplines. The explanation for living things (what they do and why, how they live and why, where they come from and why) is more complicated than any nonliving system. (I would further argue that adding the cultural complexities of human societies on top of their nature as biological organisms, the complications increase – so anthropology is actually a more complicated science than biology – but don’t tell the bio-bloggers that!). The engineer and medical doctor for the most part cannot intellectually grasp the intricacies of biological systems.

I would never say that Wilson or Dawkins should not explore social or cultural issues or phenomena, merely that they should do so humbly and with care. And please with at least a nod of acknowledgment to the 1000s of men and women for the past 150 years who actually have expertise in studying human culture. So after reading Wilson’s review of Dawkins, and being admittedly intrigued by his discussion of evolutionary theory, I came away with that exact same feeling about Wilson that I often do with biologists and evolutionary psychologists who are studying social phenomena.

First, I agree completely with Wilson’s critique of Dawkins refusal of group-level selection. Papa D is an amazing thinker and at that gene-level thinking, brilliant. But like Wilson says, he misapprehends group-level selection completely. [I liked the article’s explanation of the history of the idea of group selection in evolutionary biology.] But the problem in talking about humans is that group-level selection is the consensus norm among anthropologists. And there’s an entire body of research into human evolution that basically demonstrates clearly that many if not most of the selective pressures on human evolution come from the social environment, that is, the adaptation of the individual to the social group. Anthropologists have been working on this for decades, and the state of the field is a brilliant synthesis of the ways that human complex sociality co-evolved with cognition, bipedality, enephalization, and language. When I read a couple of biologists having this arcane argument, while there’s an entire discpline that’s been working on this stuff for years and years, it makes them seem oblivious.

2) On a purely evolutionary level, Wilson is right that to evaluate religion as a trait means to see it as adaptive, maladaptive, or as a spandrel (the result of genetic drift or the accidental byproduct of other adaptations). Where he and I part ways, however, is twofold. First, his approach to human culture belies an overly simplistic view of how cultures work (not surprisingly) and an ignorance of the social sciences. Second, I disagree with his conclusions about the adaptiveness of religion. This, however, is a normal part of these kinds of dialogs, and it’s less a critique than simply my read of the evidence. Wilson believes that religions are, group-selectively, adaptive. I think the social scientific data don’t support that conclusion.

Social scientifically, religion must be seen in interaction with all other aspects of culture, for religion is, simply, a subset of culture. It moves through time in much the same way as other kinds of culture *except* for its “otherworldly” aspects. Wilson’s argument makes short shrift of the otherworldly, saying that evolutionarily the only thing that matters is what it causes people to *do*. Unfortunately, this undercuts his entire argument by willfully ignoring the complexities of where human culture comes from, which includes not merely observable behavior, but the experience of qualia and the cognitive-rational processes that undergird the behavior, and how all of these things interact to change over time.

Indeed, when religion is taken in its whole form, including its experiential as well as cognitive aspects, you get much more complicated views of how it works, and you are prevented from drawing too-easy conclusions about its adapativeness, because you have to see it interacting with all other aspects of the culture and you must account for the side of religion that is an experience of the individual.

In sociological terms, where Wilson ends up is with religious functionalism: what role does religion play in the social group. This made me laugh out loud when I read it, because this is literally an idea that’s about 130 years old in sociology, and Wilson presents as if he’s discovered something new. Social functionalism, however, at least in the way Wilson frames it, is about what’s “good for the group.” In other words, Wilson’s framework relies on the non-human biological group-selection frame. For humans, however, and I would argue for most other social organisms, at the raw level of adaptability it has to do not with the good of the group (or at least not baldly so), but rather with the adaptation of the social group to itself and of individuals to the group. Anthropologists have book length explanations of how human social complexity arose for species survivability, and how that pushed the co-evolution of our brains to handle complex social interaction.

[To be fair, Wilson’s functional conclusions, that religions are practical and that new ones form when old ones don’t work, are spot on. They just date back to Durkheim, and probably even Comte before him. This is hardly a revelation. And so it is only a “transformation of the obvious,” as Wilson calls the shift from seeing religion as non-functional to functional, to someone who is ignorant of the hundreds of years of social science about this topic.]

Why I disagree that religion is adaptive:

First, religion acts in conjunction with many other aspects of a culture to produce the positive group effects Wilson describes. In other words, the kinds of cohesiveness he sees (with the Jains, for example) is common in all kinds of cultures, religious or not. Second, his use of ESM as a source for understanding how religion effects the relative happiness and integration of individuals is fascinating and I can’t wait to look it up; but as Wilson points out, ESM is limited in that it cannot explain the differences between religious and non-religious to a degree that would satisfactorily demonstrate emotional adaptiveness of religion. It is, at best, suggestive; and incidentally, it’s also contradicted by numerous social-psychological studies into the relative happiness of atheists.

But more importantly, I simply find the evidence of the cognitive psychologists when combined with the work of paleoanthropologists to be far more convincing. By ignoring the “otherworldly” experience of religion, Wilson’s hypothesis ignores the main question: of all the cultural solutions to group cohesiveness (and there are many), why is religion among the most powerful and widespread (basically universal among humans)? The cognitive science work seeks to answer that question (I’ve covered this ground in other posts, so I’ll be brief here):

Human brains co-evolved with complex social interaction, in a beautiful dance between gestation length, energy expenditure on brains, encephalization, energy expenditure on child care, and social hierarchy. The older mental process of working in the physical environment (our innate physics, if you will) has combined with our more recently evolved mental process for dealing with complex social interaction (our innate sociality) to create an overlapping cognitive space where our understanding of cause and effect (physics) interacts with our need to impute intention in interacting with other humans (sociality). In studies done of atheists, even they fall easily and unthinkingly into a mode of thinking of imputing intention where none exists. Cognitive psychologists call this “hypertrophic social thinking.” Our hypertrophic sociality, which enables interaction in complex groups, also makes us extend our theory of mind outward from the body, so that we both experience our own mind as being separate from our bodies and we then infer that others’ minds are also separate from their bodies. Again in studies done of atheists, even they, when they aren’t thinking carefully, impute intention and existence to dead things (even inanimate objects!).

Wilson all but rejects this evidence, claiming that it is merely the building blocks upon which adaptive religion is built. But the cognitive science has taken a giant step toward answering *why* religious culture as opposed to other cultures in creating the cohesive function that Wilson describes, and why religious culture is *universal* among humans.

In the end, Wilson’s functionalist answer for group-level adaptation falls apart for me on the grounds that while religion is sufficient to create the cohesive result he finds, it isn’t necessary. That is, other cultural formations have the same effect.

So we are left with the original question, is religion adaptive evolutionarily?

With all this evidence, I fall to the side of seeing religion as a spandrel, a byproduct of the evolution of our social minds. The effects of religious culture overlapped with culture more generally, producing group cohesion, necessary in a species so radically dependent on each other for survival. It was only adaptive in the way that culture generally is adaptive; but as a specific kind of culture, one tied to otherworldly experience, it is evolutionary neutral. I have to agree with Dawkins on this one point: Religion is on the verge of becoming maladaptive, by which I mean that religion by its nature, according to Wilson’s own research, is about drawing group boundaries and defining social relationships, so in a world of increasing pluralism, a level and degree of pluralism our species has never known before, those kinds of rigid group boundaries will increasingly lead to violence and I fear group extinction — that is, maladaptation to the social environment.

So after reproducing (badly) the work of 135 year old sociology, Wilson ends up with the wrong answer to the evolutionary question.

Homosexuality Is a Spandrel 20 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Biology, Evolution, Homosexuality, Science.
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There’s a great redux of the research about the differences between gay and straight people in last week’s New York Magazine, “The Science of Gaydar.” It seems that the differences are actually mounting the more we study these things, and the evidence is just piling on that homosexuality is biological. Of course, in my own experience, I already knew this, as I don’t remember ever not being gay (although as a child, I didn’t have a language or a way to understand how I was different, I just knew that during kissing tag, I really wanted to kiss Trent, not Jenny.)

Anyway, it’s a great article, if it makes the typical journalistic mistake of simplifying biological issues and misrepresenting others (although only slightly) to create a “controversy.” This article, however, does a good job of just guiding you through the evidence.

The one repeated argument in the article that really irritates me, which I have talked about here, is the idea that homosexuality is maladaptive evolutionarily. Since I’m only an armchair evolutionary biologist (I’m actually a sociologist), I could be misunderstanding things, but there are actually three measures of survivability in a trait: maladaptive, neutral (a “spandrel”), and adaptive. The idea that homosexuality is maladaptive relies on a narrow reading of Richard Dawkins notion of the selfish genes, that it is maladaptive trait because it creates a reproductive dead end for the individual genes. But evolution works population-wide in sexually reproducing species; that is, it’s about the spread of adaptable traits in the population. A maladaptive trait decreases survivability of the species, and in worst case scenarios lead to extinction. In any case, maladaptive traits are selected against. Yet homosexuality appears in all mammal species and most bird species. So there seems to be something else going on.

For a trait to be adaptive, it must increase survivability (and fitness, or differential reproduction) of the species as it spreads through the population. Although the hypotheses are intriguing explaining homosexuality as adaptive (since it appears universally present in human populations), I actually find the evidence to be lacking. It doesn’t appear, with the evidence I’ve seen, to enhance the survivability of the species.

That leaves homosexuality as a spandrel, or an accidental side effect. Because evolution is stochastic, arising out of multiple simultaneous causes, and because traits work in conjunction or interaction with all other traits, the mathematics of determining adaptability require seeing how traits arise from or interact with other traits. Spandrels are unintended consequences of evolution, traits that arise out of other traits. To me, it seems clear that sexual reproduction (with its massive advantage of mixing gene pools) produces the conditions underwhich some individuals can be born with their sexual desires “misdirected” (biologically speaking), but that the advantages of sexual reproduction far outweigh the disadvantages of having some individuals sexually unreproductive. In otherwords, homosexuality seems to me to be an unintended by-product of other mechanisms that are incredibly adaptive. Homosexuality is a spandrel. It is neither maladaptive (it has no negative effects on survivability of the species, or it would have been selected against thousands of years ago; nor is it particularly adaptive. It is, evolutionarily speaking, neutral.

I’m speaking here only of human homosexuality. In other species, I think it could be more easily argued that it is adaptive (for example, bonobos’ pansexuality; dolphins life-long same-sex partnerships). But I think in most species where it exists regularly, it is not maladaptive, or it would have been selected against.

At the end of the day, however, this question only concerns the origins of homosexuality in our evolutionary history. It tells us nothing of the value or meaning of homosexuality.

Meaning of Life, cont. 11 May 2007

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Biology, Cognitive Science, Modernity and Modernism, Mormonism/LDS Church.
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[A cyber-aquaintence posted some questions to my meaning of life post, and I thought it might be interesting to others who read my blog.]

What are examples of adaptive, maladaptive and spandrel meanings?

Well, it’s probably easier to speak in generalities, but here’s the skinny:

1) Humans are social animals, and like all social animals, our behaviors (or mode of interacting with the environment) are necessarily also always social.

2) Meaning must be understood as much more than the cognitive-linguistic explanation of something. We tend to think of “meaning” in terms of the dictionary: a discursive, linguistic representation of an idea. However, in social-behavioristic terms, language is merely a kind of behavior: so meaning becomes the whole set of circumstances, postures, consequences of a given behavior in a particular environment. We learn what something “means” not merely by hearing a dictionary definition of the thing, but by doing, observing, experiencing the thing. [Side note: Language is very cool because it allows us to experience something vicariously and abstractly, but the brain responses are the same as if we were directly experiencing it, which is why, for example, you get butterflies watching someone else jump out of a plane.]

so 3) adaptive meanings are those which, within a given environment (which remember is both physical and social) enable survival. There are some beliefs that only peripherally relate to the physical environment, but are key to survival in the social environment. Part of survival for a social species is successful interdependence in the social group.

Maladaptive meanings are those which inhibit survival and/or reproduction in the environment. And a spandrel is a meaning that is adaptively neutral.

Think of meanings as a kind of adaptation that persist or desist in the same dynamics as physical characteristics. If the environment changes, the meanings must adapt to the new enviornment. Adaptive could become maladaptive; a spandrel could become adaptive; etc.

There are a couple professors at UC Davis who have done a series of mathematical studies and have shown that human cultures have a balance of conservative and innovative thinkers within them. If the culture is too conservative, its members will fail to adapt to a changing environment; if a culture is too innovative, its members will adopt possibly maladaptive meanings in the wrong times and places. Cognitive scientists are finding that individuals tend to lean to one side or the other, and that both sides are necessary for survival. Evolution seems to favor slightly conservation, because our lifespan is so short and because when we evolved our environments were changing so slowly, that being more or less conservative culturally ensured survival: Once you find what works, you keep it.

Also remember a key part of evolutionary theory, which seems to also apply to culture/meanings: adaptation does not select for the best possible answer. Rather, it selects for the merely good enough. This seems to be true both biologically and socially.

And what’s the reader’s digest version of how you make that evaluation? Is it simply a matter of whether it’s constructive or destructive?

John Dewey argued that you make the evaluation based on outcomes. What is the consequence of believing such a thing (or doing such a thing) and is that the outcome you want? Then there’s the meta-level where you have to argue about what you *should* want in the first place (what kind of society/physical environment do we want to establish or maintain)? That, in simple terms, is the method of evaluation.

Finally, for Joseph Smith and True Believin Mormons nowadays (and I understand those are 2 vastly different mindsets from a social scientific or any other perspective) is the “meaning” of the plan of salvation simply an adaptive meaning to give “purpose” to life and give us comfort knowing that things are fucked up on earth but everything will be perfect in the next life (if you follow the rules of course)?

To answer this question, I would stand back and think about this scientifically. JS lived in a particular time and place in America, where there were many open questions and huge problems in the environment. The U.S. was still quite young, and it was not at all clear what it would mean to be free, what a democracy was, who was a citizen, who had power and who not, etc. Further, the older folk magic of the agrarian peoples (i.e., Smith’s magic hunting) was coming into direct conflict with the explosive 2nd Great Awakening and the increasingly influential Moral reform movements; so people all over rural America were unsure about their cultures, because there was conflict within the social environment. On a broad scale, the industrial revolution was causing major disruption to the social and economic lifeways of the entire nation, displacing 10s of 1000s of people and forcing them to radically change the way they lived their lives. I cannot understate the upheaval this caused during the first 100 years of America’s existence as a nation. Finally, even though it had been 200 years since the Euroepans had started colonizing north america, the question as yet had not been answered: Where does America fit in spiritually? is it the “city upon the hill” as the Puritans thought? And if so, what exactly does that mean? Combine all this with the growing ideas of manifest destiny and westward expansion, and you have a social and cultural environment rife with the need to be explained.

JS’s ever-changing mode of understanding Christianity and his place in it was both one man’s efforts to become powerful, and an entire people’s efforts to make sense of that world. JS was an innovator, in the terms I laid out above.

As it happens, mormonism was so outside the bounds of the environment as it was, they were harried to and fro for 75 years.

I think that contemporary mormons have carried into the present all those beliefs that still manage to fill in the wholes in the environments they live in, but it’s more complicated now: Mormons today have to survive in both the American social environment (they’re no longer isolated) and among each other. And all of these meanings are circulating again in a time of great upheaval, primarily in the form of massive technological changes and globalization, which have thrown into question every fundamental belief of every culture on the planet. TBMs reactions and retrenchments now are on the conservative side (although they are adapting at break-neck speed, as we see in the major doctrinal changes occuring in the past 25 years). Mormon belief systems are pretty adaptive in our current social environment: TBMs function mostly well in society, gain prominence in general (although not the presidency), are economically stable and reproduce at an alarming rate, both sexually and proselytically.

Naturalism and the Meaning of Life 11 May 2007

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Biology, Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Religion.
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Many people who lose their religion or who through education have to radically change their world view find that they are afloat without mooring. The cognitive dissonance leads to a time of searching for something new. I read recently (can’t find the original, sorry) where a theologian said something to the effect that even if we know scientifically that there is no god, it doesn’t change the experiences that make us look for a god in the first place. We still experience awe, wonder, confusion, love in the face of our daily lives. What do those experiences mean?

One of the things that cognitive scientists always insist on is that we can scientifically understand the how and why of qualia (the phenomenological experience of sensing, thinking, feeling), but it doesn’t change the fact that they are qualia. In other words, we still have to figure out (because we have overly large brains) what the qualia *mean*. (I like Antonio D’Amasio on this point.)

I’m not an anti-reductionist, and I do not argue that the meaning discussions are or should be separate from the scientific ones. My social science is naturalistic (which is that social theory and research must account for the research and theory of other sciences (I would also argue the inverse, but since I’m not an ethologist, i have less of a stake in the inverse debate). But naturalism actually leaves us with that pesky problem of meaning:

The need for meaning is generated by our evolved brains and is an evolutionary adaptation that has made us the most successful (and dangerous) species on the planet. [Some argue that our need for cognitive meaning is an unintentional side effect (an evolutionary spandrel) of our cognitive, problem-solving, time-projecting brains).  So scientifically, we are beginning to understand why our brains need meaning and how our brains produce meaning; and social scientifically I can even explain why a particular individual or a group produces a particular meaning in a particular time and place. Combining social science with biology (biologists here need to take social science more seriously), I can even evaluate whether or not a particular meaning is adaptive, maladaptive, or a spandrel (i.e., neutral).

But I can’t use science to tell me what it *should* mean. On the other hand, I believe that scientific mindset can/must be used in our cultural conversations about what meanings we chose. In other words, we should be asking ourselves, what kind of world and society do we create when we believe X or Y? We have the ability as humans to evaluate our meanings and reject, modify or change them out. We need to do so more carefully. Since we know, for example, the general geological history of the planet and where it came from, our discussions of “god” must necessarily change. Etc.

Discussing the meaning of life is a defining characteristic of being human. Most of us settle on an answer early, usually adopted from our parents and society, and cling to it throughout our lives. The modern world, at least in industrialized societies, makes that incredibly difficult. Evolutionarily, it looks like our brains are designed to figure out what “works” in our environment and stick to it; changing world views is difficult, becuase having a world view that “works” in a given environment is adaptive.

The trick is finding the new meaning or adapting our old ones to our new knowledge of the world as it is, as that knowledge develops, in such a way that our lives still feel meaningful and fulfilling.