Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Commonplace blog: rebellious puppets

Before I got into the journaling that led to this blog, I thought about doing a blog-as-commonplace-book. Like the idea of a typed-up diary, though, I realized that a blog version of the underlining and marginalia in my books would be too cramped and fussy. But I still want the blog to have some of the marginalia concept. So without further ado...

I've been reading Robert Wright's The Moral Animal -- about how evolution shapes human behavior. As with many books, I set it aside when I was midway through it, but I plan to finish it eventually.

And, well, it's changed how I think about people! One thought that especially made an impression on me: Explaining human behavior as the result of natural selection doesn't mean justifying the behavior. This seems so obvious to me now that it almost doesn't even seem worth pointing out, but I don't know if I had realized it before reading this book. And this is what really got me:

we're all puppets, and our best hope for even partial liberation is to try to decipher the logic of the puppeteer.
And he goes even further:

Just because natural selection created us doesn't mean we have to slavishly follow its peculiar agenda. (If anything, we might be tempted to spite it for all the ridiculous baggage it's saddled us with.)*
People tend to assume that if want to effect social change, you need to somehow show that nature is on your side. Thus, if you're for gay rights, you need to argue that homosexuality is inborn, not a choice.

But the problem is that we don't know that. To my knowledge, we haven't solved the mystery of homosexuality. It doesn't seem to fit very well with natural selection: why haven't gays died out as a result of their distaste for procreation? Wright (a liberal and a supporter of gay rights) raises that question and admits the answer is unclear.**

The reason we respect gays isn't that they have a well-defined place in the natural order of things. We simply respect them because they're not doing anything wrong.

I wish everyone could agree to stop equating "nature" with good, and instead adopt the view that, "Look, of course the world is a terrible place. There are huge problems intrinsic to the world itself. Some of them might be fundamental defects in human nature" -- in this case, aversion to homosexuality, distrust of outside-the-mainstream behavior, etc. -- "and we should try to solve them using human ingenuity. Those solutions might just as well come from rebelling against nature or tradition rather than returning to nature or tradition."

But it's hard to make this kind of argument and win over many people. One problem is religion: if you believe that God is good and is the creator of the natural order, then the natural order must be good. Maybe that's why we're going to keep getting sidetracked by "issues" that shouldn't be issues, like "Is homosexuality a choice?"

Speaking of human tendencies that are natural but evil, I also want to highlight what Wright says about rape on pages 52-53 -- and, relatedly, what he says about tall men -- but that will have to wait till later.

On the negative side, there is one little issue that I was disappointed to see Wright failed to address.*** He makes the familiar point that male animals typically have bright colors or other features designed to attract women. This is because females are "choosier" than males when it comes to sex,**** so their preferences are more influential than males' on which traits get passed down to future generations.

But this is the opposite of what we observe in humans. Women are the ones who wear visible makeup, not men. Women have much more leeway to wear clothes with bright colors and ornate patterns. [UPDATE: This might have been too simplistic if we're talking about human beings in general rather than merely our own culture and era. See the comments. Also, this intro to one of Wright's diavlogs suggests that he himself may be an exception to the rule.] Throughout the book he explains how human traits and behavior parallel those observed in animals, but then there's this one discrepancy that seems to contradict how you'd expect the sexes to behave based on natural selection.

If men are the ones who want to have as much sex as possible (because that will maximize how many of their genes get passed on), then what's the point in women getting all dolled up?

If anyone knows the explanation for this, or has a guess, please let me know in the comments. I can't be the first person to notice this. (I tried Googling for it, but that didn't work.) Maybe it's just one of those "I'm not going to point this out because it would contradict the whole theory of this book" things. That's a big problem with books.

So, apparently this is going to be a blog with footnotes. I didn't plan that -- it just happened. I'll try to cut down on them in the future.

* This used to be a paraphrase, but I've now replaced it with the exact quote, thanks to this complete searchable text. I originally said I would delete this very footnote, but I'm going to leave it in so that I preserve this point: That's how I want to do this blog -- make it a constant work in progress in which I'm allowed to go back and revise old posts as long as I think it improves them, not being bound by the definition of a "blog" as something that's always in reverse-chronological order.

** He wrote the book in 1994, so it's possible that more recent research provides the answer. But something like this 2007 study offering various highly speculative theories suggests that not a lot of progress has been made since then. For example, one theory -- mentioned by both Wright and the linked study -- is that gays contribute to the survival of their own genes by caring for their family members. As Wright points out, it follows from this theory that we should be able to observe gay people being extraordinarily devoted to their nephews and nieces, far more so than heterosexuals. There doesn't seem to be any evidence that that's the case. (384-6)

*** Since I haven't read the whole book yet, I don't know if he addresses it in a section of the book I haven't gotten to yet. But I have reason to think that's not the case given the way the book is structured.

**** This is a huge theme of the book, and he certainly thinks it applies to humans as well as other animals.

5 comments:

Ann Althouse said...

Nice post.

Thanks for linking to my first post on "marginalia concept."

"As with many books, I set it aside when I was midway through it, but I plan to finish it eventually."

Ha ha. I have books going back 20 years that I feel that way about.

"But it's not possible to successfully advance this argument -- partly because of the tight grip that religion has over so many people. If you believe that God is good and is the creator of the natural order, then the natural order must be good. Maybe that's why we're going to keep getting sidetracked by "issues" that shouldn't be issues, like "Is homosexuality a choice?""

But within religion, there is the idea that we have a sinful nature and that God challenges us to conquer it. I always remember the line from "A Glass Menagerie," when Tom says something is in his nature. Amanda says (not an exact quote): "Nature is what we were put on earth to rise above." So a traditional religionist might say, people with homosexual urges ought to overcome them. But you could just as well say, people with hateful feelings toward others ought to overcome them. The key within religion is to find the moral values of God and distinguish the sins. Obviously, if God made the world, he put many bad things it in. They can't by creation alone be good (except in a very strange religion).

As for makeup and fancy clothes for women... it's fairly recently that this pattern became so pronounced, and it is not world-wide. So perhaps the question should be more focused. Why did Western women and men adopt this extreme and reversed pattern in the 19th and 20th centuries. It could be viewed as part of the emancipation of women (and the reaction to that).

John Althouse Cohen said...

But within religion, there is the idea that we have a sinful nature and that God challenges us to conquer it.

Well, that is the standard Christian answer to why there's evil if God is good. But it's too glib. It can't be a complete explanation of why there are terrible things in the world. I was just using anti-gay prejudice as an example, but it doesn't need to be the result of human action. Other examples would include hurricanes and floods. Or the suffering of animals before humans even existed.

So a traditional religionist might say, people with homosexual urges ought to overcome them. But you could just as well say, people with hateful feelings toward others ought to overcome them.

Yes, the sin might be prejudice ... but that presupposes that anti-gay beliefs are prejudiced rather than well-founded. And how do we reach that conclusion? Well, based on a lot of the commentary, you would think that it's a correct conclusion if and only if homosexuality is inborn rather than chosen. So it comes right back to the same problem.

I always remember the line from "A Glass Menagerie," when Tom says something is in his nature. Amanda says (not an exact quote): "Nature is what we were put on earth to rise above."

This might be a great line in The Glass Menagerie (and The African Queen!), but that doesn't mean it sums up a generally accepted belief -- it could just be a striking juxtaposition. The sentiment is certainly out there to be believed if people want to believe it or even consider it, but in practice, it's so much easier to fall back on the old bromide that natural = good.

As for makeup and fancy clothes for women... it's fairly recently that this pattern became so pronounced, and it is not world-wide.

Great point, and I see now that I was too simplistic in my question about aesthetic standards for men vs. women. I should have thought about all those images you always see from centuries past where the men wear flashy clothes and powdered wigs.

Why did Western women and men adopt this extreme and reversed pattern in the 19th and 20th centuries. It could be viewed as part of the emancipation of women (and the reaction to that).

How is it part of the emancipation of women to put a higher burden on women than men to attract the opposite sex?

Ann Althouse said...

"And how do we reach that conclusion? Well, based on a lot of the commentary, you would think that it's a correct conclusion if and only if homosexuality is inborn rather than chosen. So it comes right back to the same problem."

But it's still a response to your point, which was (I think): there's no way to even have a conversation with these people. I think you are conceding that you can. Isn't that a good in itself?

"This might be a great line in The Glass Menagerie (and The African Queen!),"

Yeah, am I mixing them up? I'm too tired to look in my copy of TGM right now.

"How is it part of the emancipation of women to put a higher burden on women than men to attract the opposite sex?"

It's a way for the woman to be the sexual aggressor... the passive aggressor.

John Althouse Cohen said...

But it's still a response to your point, which was (I think): there's no way to even have a conversation with these people.

I didn't quite mean to suggest that there's some group of people out there who are so dogmatic that they can't be reasoned with. I just meant that this particular line of argument (that what's good isn't necessarily natural) is sufficiently counterintuitive that it's a bad strategy to bring it up (assuming your goal is to convince as many people as possible). It could be a problem convincing Christians or Buddhists or secularists or anyone. I myself am hardly immune from this fallacy.

"How is it part of the emancipation of women to put a higher burden on women than men to attract the opposite sex?"

It's a way for the woman to be the sexual aggressor... the passive aggressor.


Ahh, good point. But even if so, that's been something of a mixed blessing for women, to say the least!

But wait -- I thought you rejected sex-positive feminism!

John Althouse Cohen said...

But it's still a response to your point, which was (I think): there's no way to even have a conversation with these people. I think you are conceding that you can.

I actually went back and edited a bit of the language in this paragraph (almost a year later) to soften it up (as you can see by noting the discrepancy between your quote and the post itself). Reading the old post of mine, I felt that I wouldn't write it so definitively or judgmentally today.