August 21, 2008

In one of his best TAC columns, Fred Reed took issue with the kind of contrived story telling engaged in by many of the practitioners of so-called “€œevolutionary psychology,”€ including one fellow, whom Reed came across, who”€™d just written an article expanding on the subject of why guys like the girls with big knockers. It’s all about the reproductive strategic signalling, you see: “€œ[M]en like big-breasted women because big ones sag at an early age, warning that the gal is too old to have healthy progeny.”

Reed’s response:

This is wonderfully silly. If big hooters discourage further reproduction, the evolutionary benefit to the woman would seem exiguous, and big boobs ought to vanish.

An assumption underlying most discussions of the subject is that mating is entirely physical. The man takes the woman with the biggest breasts and bluest eyes. Perhaps this could be demonstrated with water buffalo. It isn”€™t what I see among people.

Sociobiology has been one of the more groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting scientific specialities of the past half-century. But, alas, like most every successful intellectual movement”€”American conservatism, for instance”€”it was destined to become a racket. And now mediocre minds grasp for tenure by essentially doing science backwards: they start with a cool new theory they”€™re sure must be true (or at least that’s what all their colleagues are sayin”€™) and then yarn and yarn until they”€™re able prove how the attraction of big tits is all about a theory of reproductive strategies that seems better suited to explaining the dating life of rodents. These are hypotheses of love and sex made by people with little experience in the subject.

Of course, scientific theories have always revealed just as much about the man in the lab coat as they have about objective reality. Take, for instance, the quarrel between Stephen J. Gould and Richard Dawkins, one of the great academic debates of the past 50 years. As an outside observer to things scientific, I definitely come down on the side of Dawkins. Yes, I know, most Takimag readers don”€™t want to take Dawkins’s side on anything, and to the extent that the author of The God Delusion argues, along with Christopher Hitchens, that “€œreligion poisons everything,” I”€™m with you. However, vis-à-vis Stephen J. Gould’s version of evolution, Dawkins’s work is positively life affirming. 

In a useful essay, Tim Flannery boils down the debate to two competing scenarios of who reproduces and what gets passed down. First, there’s Gould’s account of the survival of the individual being best suited to its environs.

Suppose that a wondrously optimal fish, a marvel of hydrodynamic perfection, lives in a pond. This species has been honed by millennia of conventional Darwinian selection, based on fierce competition, to this optimal organismic [individual] state. 

Another species of fish”€”the middling species“€”ekes out a marginal existence in the same pond. The gills don’t work as well, but their structure varies greatly among organisms. In particular, a few members of the species can breathe in quite stagnant and muddy waters.

Organismic selection favors the optimal fish, a proud creature who has lorded it over all brethren, especially the middling fish, for ages untold. But now the pond dries up, and only a few shallow, muddy pools remain. The optimal fish becomes extinct. The middling species persists because a few of its members can survive in the muddy residua. (Next decade, the deep, well-aerated waters may return, but the optimal fish no longer exists to reestablish its domination).

Yuck!”€”Gould’s vision of the triumph of the most mediocre is truly depressing. Only a leftist would ever come up with such a conception of the world, and it’s no surprise that Gould was a die-hard egalitarian and leveller, and throughout his career was rivalled only by Richard Lewontin as the chief enforcer of academic PC (see Chapter 6 of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate for more details.)

And then there’s Dawkins’s version:

Pressure’ from choosy females drove the evolution of male pheasants’ sumptuous feathers. What this means is that a gene for a beautiful feather is especially likely to find itself riding a sperm into a female’s body.

Poetic!”€”not only is this a vision in which evolution leads to the propagation of greater beauty”€”as opposed to the victory of the “€œmiddling”€ bottom feeder”€”but Dawkins’s “€œchoosy females”€ get us closer to the kinds of vain, irrational, sometime narcissistic, sometime capricious reasons why men and women pick out mates. One doesn”€™t become captive to an all-consuming violent love for another simply because her non-sagging breasts indicate she has a functioning uterus. Nor does a man develop a passion for female breasts because they act as a good reproductive signifier. Even the pheasants, it seems, choose a mate based on his ruffling of feathers colourful, sumptuous, and divine.

Returning to Gould’s paean to mediocrity, one could point out that the Harvard Don, in many ways, overestimates the importance of survival. Only on rare occasions does a mammal concern himself with merely surviving”€”and then only when he faces the immediate prospect of perishing, such as when the middling fish’s pond dries up or Dawkins’s pheasant flies into a patch of quick sand. Throughout the rest of its life, all creatures great and small are driven towards flourishing, towards triumphing“€”expressed by the wild, bone-crushing collisions during the mating ritual of the mountain ram, or even by your average beaver, who builds the elaborate architecture of his damm so as to house his clan. The human animal is the most distanced of all from any mere “€œsurvival instinct,”€ as man is actually very willing to sacrifice life itself for the gods, glory, or a cause”€”look at the great religious leaders and martyrs, the great explorers, the great warriors.

There is much more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in sociobiology. 

Besides, judging from the psychological studies that have been making news recently, the latest academic fad is to publish a 30-page white paper on what everyone already knows and has knownn for centuries”€”science that makes you go “€œduh!”€ Take, for instance, the University of Glasgow study proving that “€œbeer goggles“€ are for real. Yes, it seems that women actually do look more beddable when you”€™re really drunk. The same scientists are also theorizing that tomorrow the sun might rise in the east. This work, which I”€™m sure was tax-payer funded, contributes about as much new knowledge as the The Onion article about how “€œfat cells have been linked to depression.”€

Then there’s the slightly more complicated and intriguing University of Lausanne paper on how taking The Pill might actually lead young women to chose poor mates. It seems that there are these “€œaromatic molecules”€ produced by the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes, which are involved with immune response or some such thing.  Anyway, a man and a woman with different MHC smells actually make a better match, and are, apparently, more likely to remain faithful to one another and thus raise a proper family. It’s naturally to gravitate to someone with a different aroma, and indeed, these MHC hormones might just be that “€œj”€™ne sais quoi“€ that leads to inexplicable allure. When girls are on The Pill, however, they become attracted to a MHC aroma much like their own”€”leading to bad partner choices and relationships of cheating and divorce.

This study must give some solace to that guy (you all know him, maybe you are him) who walks into the local bar and sees “€œJulie,”€ that pretty girl from his workplace who”€™d be perfect for him, but who’s on the arm some obnoxious buffoon with tattoos and a criminal record. The Pill’s to blame, The Pill’s to blame. Of course, the study also seems to prove that deep down, or at least on some MHC hormonal level, the beautiful Julie and her horrible brute are one and the same. 

I doubt many young researchers could secure tenure at a major university by publishing on how birth control might, just maybe, have something to do with the declining birthrates in the U.S. and on the continent… Or as John Zmirak remarked to me yesterday, “€œThe Pill probably isn”€™t a sinister plot to destroy the peoples of America and Europe, but would it look any different if it were!?!

I”€™d like to see a major study on the possible connection between birth control and the fact that so many 20- and 30-somethings go to bars with the explicit objective of meeting new guys, but then spend the whole evening incessantly chatting with their roommates and then dancing blithely in an impenetrable circle of all girls! How this functions as a “€œreproductive strategy”€ is beyond me, and why so many modern girls act like this will probably forever remain a scientific mystery.


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