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Friday, July 08, 2011

Biology isn't destiny

Saw a post at Feminist Philosophers mentioning Dan Savage, and in the comments section, mentioning Sex at Dawn

Dan Savage had given an interview to Sunday’s New York Times magazine in which he blamed the decline of marriage on feminists who dislike consensual adultery and apparently much of his belief is based on info in the book Sex at Dawn -- the idea that early humans were not monogamous .....

“The mistake that straight people made,” Savage told me, “was imposing the monogamous expectation on men. Men were never expected to be monogamous. Men had concubines, mistresses and access to prostitutes, until everybody decided marriage had to be egalitar­ian and fairsey.” In the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women “the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,” we extended to men the confines women had always endured. “And it’s been a disaster for marriage.” -- Married, With Infidelities

It's kind of strange ... in a way, I suppose evolutionary psychology can be seen as an enemy of feminism (for instance, the idea that it's natural to rape, and what's natural cannot really be said to be wrong), but I'm not sure that's true. I'm not going to contest the idea that early human were not monogamous (see this at the blog of Darcia Narvaez - What you think about evolution and human nature may be wrong).

But I will contest Savage's idea that there's more divorce now, that the institution of marriage is failing, because feminists have demanded monogamy from men who are unable to be monogamous. Aas Martha Nussbaum noted in a talk on same-sex marriage given at Cornell (see my post), the reason why there have been more divorces is not about the degeneration of the institution of marriage, but about women now having more options, about women being more able to leave bad marriages without being financially or physically ruined. And as Nussbaum mentions, this is saying something good about marriage in the now, not something bad --- marriage can now be more honest.

I also disagree with Savage's idea that men can't be monogamous now (and shouldn't be expected to be) because early humans weren't monogamous. There seem to be two assumptions made: that the way things were in the hunter-gatherer past is (1) the way they *should* be now, and (2) the way they *must* be now.

Does the fact that early humans weren't monogamous mean that's the way it should now and ever be, does "natural" = good or right? I don't think so, and I find it weirdly confusing that liberal Dan Savage seems to be using a sort of argument from nature (evolutionary ethics) to back up his beliefs ... that's the kind of argument also used by religious conservatives to back up thei beliefs (Christian natural law). But as Hume so famously opined, no ought-judgment may be correctly inferred from a set of premises expressed only in terms of ‘is' -- most evolutionary psychologists would say, I think, that evolution cannot tell us anything about what "ought" to be in a moral sense, only about what worked (sometimes) to promote survival of the species.

Are we the behavioral slaves of genetic determinism? I don't think so. As psychologist David J. Ley writes in Biology is NOT destiny .....

I've been concerned of late, when several people have written me, or approached me in my practice, feeling that biological processes have already determined the fate of their relationships. My concern peaks when these folks tell me that my writing has increased their worry.

Much of my writing addresses the underlying biological processes that run in the background of things like infidelity, mate selection, and sexual relationships. I like to explain these things, with the goal of normalizing them for people. I have seen people in so much pain, over feelings like jealousy, over the decline of their sexual relationship, etc., that I believe it helps, takes the pressure off so to speak, for them to understand that some of this is just biology, working the way it does.

But, apparently these arguments are perhaps too successful, because people approach me now, concerned that these biological indicators are actually the death knell for their relationships. One man wrote me, saying that his wife showed all the signs I wrote about, and that it must be inevitable that she would be unfaithful. After all, who can stop biology? ......

Biology may subtly influence your choices, particularly if you go through life on automatic pilot. But, if you are aware, and conscious, making thoughtful, considered decisions, it is you in charge of your life. Not your cells, genes or gonads. Biological influences on our behavior dispose us towards certain decisions or behavior, in the short-term. The blessing of being human though, is that we can make long-term decisions, and override those biological compulsions. Yes, biology and our gonads may drive us to mate with this person, now, instead of our husband or wife later. But, the ability to make long-term decisions, and to consider the lifelong impact of these different options, allows us to make decisions based upon will, ethics, love, compassion and respect. These are things not covered in biology. At least, not yet. Hopefully not ever. They reside in the existential ability we have, to make our own decisions. To decide our own fate. At least, we have this ability, when we decide to exercise it ......


Blogger Matthew said...

I agree that Savage's all-or-nothing assumptions are bad, but Ley has similar problems. In the bit you quote, he makes all sorts of assertions without any arguments at all:

>But, if you are aware, and conscious, making thoughtful, considered decisions, it is you in charge of your life.

>The blessing of being human though, is that we can make long-term decisions, and override those biological compulsions.

>They reside in the existential ability we have, to make our own decisions.

>At least, we have this ability, when we decide to exercise it.

Circular assertion after circular assertion, without a hint of justification. =(

10:43 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:13 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:15 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


I fixed the post - put a little more of Ley wrote.

1:49 AM  
Blogger Mike L said...

When people write about what they believe they generally do not bother to prove there assertions unless they are writing a text book. I seems to me that Ley's statements quoted here fall into that category.

Personally I think it is obvious that some genetic traits cannot be overcome, we can't grow wings and fly.

Nor do I believe that humans are perfectly free to make arbitrary decisions, either because of genetics or upbringing. I do not believe homosexuality is just a "choice" although it may be for some.

On the other hand if a man is aware he might well make a choice of whether to be faithful to a marriage or or to play the field.

I think that a lot of people do not think critically, are not aware of what they are doing and the decisions that they actually make and lead to certain outcomes.

I do believe that we have some capability of making a decision to overcome both nature and nuture - I believe that is what makes us human.


Mike L

8:20 AM  
Blogger Carnival said...

Interesting post. I have thought a lot about homosexuality. Biologists say that hmosexuality may have a genetic component but does that justify the behavior? Take alcoholism for example. Alcoholism often has a genetic component but that does not justify alcoholics. It does mean that a person with a genetic history of alcoholism is more likely to be an alcoholic but it doesn't mean that the person should or must become an alcoholic. After years of pondering over this issue (because I do have homosexual friends) I have come to see that genetics, while it defines other species of the world, does not have to always define a human person because a person has the ability to make logical choices. A person with a genetic history of alcoholism should logically choose to avoid alcohol altogether or drink in great moderation. While homosexuality (as the sexual orientation) may be genetic, the behavior is certainly a choice.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Ley says this:

"Biological influences on our behavior dispose us towards certain decisions or behavior, in the short-term. The blessing of being human though, is that we can make long-term decisions, and override those biological compulsions."

What Ley is explicitly asserting, in the case of sexual fidelity, is that we can step back, rationally examine the thing we're about to do, and make a decision contrary to our immediate desire. But he's begging the question, because that's exactly the thing that is at issue.

If person X is a virtuous person to the degree that he can step back and make those judgments, then yes, person X can indeed step back and make those judgments. But is person X really the average person, or some saintly ideal? Because if X is not really anything like most human beings, then Savage is sort of right, because the system we've created doesn't work for the average person. Virtue formation is great, but if our systems aren't forming virtue to the point that most people actually /can/ make the choice that Lay describes, then he's wrong, because "we" actually can't behave that way.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Mike L said...

Carnival, an interesting post but I am not sure that alcoholism and same sex attraction can be compared. Even if alcoholism is based on genetics, one is not necessarily drawn to alcohol and not to soda. If he/she doesn't drink they may never know they are an alcoholic.

Those who have SSA seem to me to be in a different category. I think most of us are drawn sexually to either women or men, maybe a few to both. Irregardless of what action we take, the attraction is still there driving them.

I have known a few cases where people with SSA have tried hetero marriages, and they have been disasters, both for the marriage and for the children. More than once suicide has been the result.

To cuddle with my wife, or have sex, does much to relieve tensions and build relationship. I cannot imagine doing that with another male. I would imagine that SSA people would have the same problem trying it with a person of the opposite sex.

I also have no doubt that some SSA people have the control to make a hetero union work, but I would think that such action would be most difficult.


Sounds like you are saying this is a statistical problem. What percentage of the population can make "virtuous" decisions in a given situation. Which kind of agrees with what Ley said, namely that the person who is aware can make these decisions. Many take their awareness from the local TV news and therefore may not be able to make choices. Certainly I have to be aware of what my choices are and to some extent what the results of making a choice are. I am not sure which is the most difficult to determine: what my choices are or what the results will be.


Mike L

11:24 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


I agree with you - about Ley's statements being about his beliefs, and that's why he didn't try to prove them. Savage's remarks are about his beliefs too, and he really has no proof either (about feminism causing the decline of marriage).

Also agree with you about our ability to make decisions contrary to our genetic impulses.

12:17 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


I don't think homosexuality and alcholism can be compared. Homosexuality is like heterosexuality - just somrthing telling us who were attracted to. Alcoholism is a disease - a genetic mishap that negatively changes the way alcohol is responded to by the body.

I don't think alcoholics are bad people, and I certainly don't think gays/lesbians are bad people. It would be a good idea for alcoholics to avoid drinking because the result is pohysically harmful to them (and also to others). But I see no reason for gays/lesbians to avoid living full lives as same-sex attracted people - their behavior harms no one.

12:26 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


The way you describe people either stepping back and reflecting on their choice, or not, seems to leave out any free will at all - either people are strong (and then can be thought of as virtuous) or they are not (and are thought of as moral failures) but social and genetic determinism rules .... they really have no choice at all, the choice is made for them by their genes.

Because the subject is about sex and marriage, it has taken on a moral tone, but this doesn't have to be about "virtue", about who can be saintly and strive sucessfully against their genes to live a good (but basically miserable) life without true satisfaction :)

First, I think people are really not just either genetically predisposed to (1) want to have many sexual encounters or (2) be momogamous. I think people are somewhere along a continuum between thsoe extremes ... some men do like monogamy, some women like to cat around, some could go either way depending on the circumstances. So I think there are actually very few people who would fall into the catagories where they either couldn't care less, or where they had no free will. at all

Second, I don't think it's about being saintly or virtuous. If you are genetically predisposed to gain weight more easily than the average person, you might decide to exercise to keep your weight lower. That wouldn't mean that being over-weight was "evil" or that you were a bad person if you didn't exercise.

And it wouldn't make you a saint if you decided to exercise either. It would mean that to you, being slim had some value that you thought was worth a bit of effort. You might wish you could instead be lying on the couch, but alternatively, you might find you like to exercise.

But either way, you have some choice about how your life will play out, even given your genetic disposition, and the choice you make isn't really made for others, isn't a test of your moral worth, it's a choice you make to make yourself, in the long term, happier.

12:50 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


Or maybe I misunderstood you. Do you mean that none of us really have free will at all, that whatever we choose to do is really pre-determined, and even when we believe we're making choices, we're just making the only choices we "could" make, given our genetic predisposition? Believing that obviates any discussion.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Crystal (and Mike),

Dropping the language of virtue and vice:

I'm not a hard determinist. (Although if I were, I don't think that would make discussion moot.) I think it makes sense to talk about people making choices, and to hold people responsible for the choices they make, if only for practical reasons.

At the same time, the idea of radical freedom makes no sense to me. Sentences like "we have this ability, when we decide to exercise it" strike me as mildly ridiculous. We have the ability to choose ... but we have to choose to choose? At what point do we choose to choose to choose?

While it seems obvious to Mike that, in certain situations, he "could have chosen otherwise", I am not at all convinced that this is actually the case. It seems just as likely to me that, in the large majority of these cases, Mike merely /felt/ that he could have chosen otherwise, which is not the same thing as actually having been able to do so. To me, the only thing that is obvious is that the question of whether human choice is significantly "free" is still up in the air.

So while my primary complaint about Savage is that he is attributing a single bizarre cause to a huge (and disputed) phenomenon, my primary complaint about Ley is that he doesn't take the problem of choice seriously. He doesn't see what a hard problem it is. If he did, I think he would be a little less willing to use the rhetoric he uses.

1:42 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Yes, I think Levy was trying to emphasize the opposite view from determinism. there really are no proofs for either stance, I guess.

I remember Paul having a discussion about this once on his blog - I think he was a determinist? There are a couple of interesting posts about this once at the NYT's philosophy blog - The Limits of the Coded World
and Your Move: The Maze of Free Will

2:23 PM  

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