Saturday, December 06, 2008

A Biological Message (by Phila)

It's interesting to see how crude, reductive theories of human behavior become more refined and thoughtful over time. As Mairi Macleod notes in New Scientist:
Men tend to score high on the sociosexuality scale more often than women, and evolutionary biologists say there are good reasons for this. Although men often invest considerably in their offspring, all they actually have to do to father a child is have sex, so there has been strong evolutionary pressure for men to be open to short-term relationships. Women, on the other hand, bear the heavy costs of pregnancy and breastfeeding, and in every culture they tend to do the bulk of childcare. So they are best off being choosy about sexual partners, or they might get left holding the baby.

Of course, it is not that simple. Women can be as sexually unrestrained as men. In fact, there is a huge overlap in the sociosexuality scores of men and women, with more variation within the sexes than between them. Some researchers are now trying to explain these subtleties in terms of biology and evolution.
One such researcher is David Schmitt of Bradley University, Illinois, who has noted that women are more likely to have flings when they're ovulating, and that their preferences change at this time from paunchy, balding, bespectacled academics, or sideshow freaks, or other women, "to men who look more masculine and symmetrical."
Women may have a dual strategy going, suggests Schmitt. "Humans infants need a lot of help, so we have pair-bonding where males and females help raise a child, but the woman can obtain good genes - perhaps better genes than from the husband - through short-term mating right before ovulation."
I look forward to explaining this "dual strategy" to the women of my acquaintance, who are sure to find it as illuminating as I do, once they overcome the charming incomprehension of science that has served them so well as a strategy for attracting alpha males.

Macleod goes on to wonder "what makes some women more likely to engage in casual sex at any time than others - and, for that matter, why is there also such a large variation among men?" Daniel Nettle from the University of Newcastle is happy to explain:
One factor is personality. According to Daniel Nettle from the University of Newcastle, UK, the classically promiscuous man will be high in extroversion, low in neuroticism and fairly low in agreeableness as well. "The extroversion gives you the desire to do it," he says, "the low neuroticism means you don't worry too much about doing it and the low agreeableness means you don't really care if you mess someone around or cheat on your wife."
Putting aside the weird claim that extroversion -- as opposed to, say, sexual desire -- gives you the desire to have lots of sex, it seems as though Nettles is implying that risk avoidance is neurotic by definition, the benefits of pair-bonding notwithstanding. His equation holds true for men and women, apparently, with one interesting distinction:
The situation is similar for women, says Nettle, although another factor, openness, comes into the mix to some extent. This makes sense since people who are open to experience are likely to want to explore new relationship possibilities.
It's strange that Macleod takes such care to explain the sole point that doesn't need explanation, and is in fact tautological. What we'd actually like to know is why openness "comes into the mix" only for women.

Remember, now...we're moving away from the facile reductionism of early sociobiology, and towards a Brave New World of complexity and nuance. As thus:
Our sociosexuality may also be influenced by early family circumstances. Developmental psychologist Jay Belsky of Birkbeck College, London, believes that when children grow up in stressful, unpredictable conditions, perhaps an absent father or marital conflict, girls in particular get a biological message to breed sooner and more often because there is no point in waiting around for a good long-term relationship.
Some of these girls will get the message that it's time to start "breeding" by being raped, of course, while others will get it through more subtle forms of coercion. I think it's fair to say that there's a lot more going on in the sexual lives of at-risk children and teens than the blossoming of a biological imperative; at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it's supremely ideological to ignore obvious external forces in favor of speculative internal ones.

From this point, the article descends into madness. Secure men tend to be more monogamous, Schmitt says. However, "men with a highly masculine and symmetrical appearance may come to realise during adolescence that they have what it takes to attract women for short-term they go for it, at least while they are young. Meanwhile, men who have more trouble attracting women for quick flings may have to settle for monogamy."

One study found that attractive women in their twenties were more likely to be promiscuous, but we're cautioned that these women "probably hadn't reached an age when they wanted to have babies" (unlike girls in "stressful, unpredictable conditions," who are blindly driven to breed early and often).

As women gain economic power, they naturally desire more attractive men -- especially when ovulating -- which means that men have to invest more in their appearance, which explains "the explosion in the male grooming industry." You can't argue with facts!

On the bright side, Schmitt believes that we can move towards a more liberal and equal society, at least as regards sexual expression, as least as regards ovulating women:
"I think if we constructed a scale to measure 'sex without commitment with someone you consider especially physically attractive and socially dominant' and gave it to men and to women, when the women were nearing ovulation, women might score higher in many countries even today," says Schmitt.
But this should not be taken to imply that biological messages (or our interpretations of them) are subject to...well, evolution:
[T]here's no escaping the fact that women are the ones who get pregnant and bear children, so it's is hard to imagine that all of the differences in what men and woman look for in a relationship will ever go away.
There may be no escaping that fact, for all I know. But it doesn't follow that every theory based on it is equally inescapable, or even correct.