• Sex, Love, And Life's Self-fulfilling Prophecies

  • Source: Image by PollyDot from Pixabay

    Midwives and hospital staff have long known that babies are delivered fresh to the world with a number of reflexes that can be used to assess the physical and neurological health of newborns.

    Since the behavior of individuals in species other than our own often comes across to us as similarly reflexive and predictable, seeing what our own babies can and cannot do as soon as they start to deal with things outside the womb easily nurtures an idea still believed to be true by many.

    This is the notion that humans, too, are mostly instinctive creatures when it comes to our primal ways of dealing with the world. Perhaps we are not as fixed in our ways, say, as other social animals such as ants, bees, and wasps. Even so, surely it is obvious that we, too, are strongly ruled by genetically inherited "instincts" or "mental modules."

    Despite the intellectual endorsement by some in evolutionary psychology, however, this conviction has little basis in fact. Perhaps no better example of the fallacy of such a notion is the old idea that sex is not just about the birds and the bees, but is also about how we all must behave on a daily basis as human beings.

    Source: Image by predvopredvo from Pixabay

    Sex, love, and "No, thank you!"

    Just as babies come into this world with certain reflexes on call, so too, with the onset of sexual maturity, there is no denying that Mother Nature has rewards to offer those who respond to what is popularly called the sex drive — the so-called "need to have sex."

    However, the claim that such a drive exists in humans is harder to pin down than most of us realize. It can even be argued that such a claim is what I like to call a "placeholder explanation," a notion that really isn't an explanation, but which is just an idea that serves well enough for most purposes as if it were.

    Another example of a placeholder explanation would be the ever-popular claim that people do stupid things because they are stupid — a non-explanation that turns a good question ("Why on earth did you do that?") into a poor answer ("Obviously because you are as dumb as a post," "about as clever as a clam," "not the sharpest knife in the drawer," etc.).

    Although someday I may write about sex and why we do it, my colleague Robert Martin has already covered this territory. Instead, I want to jump immediately to the main point of this installment of The Human Animal.

    There is no getting around the obvious fact that if some of us didn't engage in sexual behavior leading to pregnancy and birth, our species would soon vanish from the Earth. The same is obviously true also for all other sexually reproducing organisms, although it is not true that sexual reproduction always entails getting down and dirty. Sometimes it is just good enough to cast thy pollen, both literally and figuratively speaking, upon the wind.

    Granting that sex and reproduction go hand-in-glove, so to speak, what's the point I want to make here and now? I have absolutely no idea whether any other species on Earth experiences anything at all comparable to what we humans call love. But I do know that one thing we do that others don't is to co-opt sex for other purposes (although there are notable exceptions).

    Source: Image by esudroff from Pixabay

    Society's self-fulfilling prophesies

    You don't have to be addicted to pornography or a radical feminist, say, to appreciate how good we are as a species at weaving the "facts of life" into so much of the rest of what we do as human beings.

    Take, for example, the insistence around the world — in often radically differing ways — that sperm-producers (who are commonly labeled in English as "men") should be assigned by society with certain roles in life that sperm-receivers (a.K.A. "women") shouldn't perform, and vice versa. Although sometimes it isn't too far a stretch to justify such "gender assigned" roles on biological grounds (say, because men may often be taller than women), as an anthropologist I know firsthand from my own fieldwork experience in the South Pacific that biology often has little to do with such "gender stereotyping."

    There is no question, of course, that as a social species, having people play differing roles in life can be an extremely effective way of collectively getting a job done. What really gets under my skin, however, is when we take things like this too far.

    Take, for instance, the two pictures of babies I have included in this installment. In one, a newborn of no discernible gender has a little bow so we know through this symbolic "gender reveal" that this child is going to be raised as a "girl," whatever this means to those in the family, and the village, raising this child.

    Similarly, the other picture unmistakably identifies this infant as a future "man," maybe even a someday-to-be decisive and commanding "boss."

    Obligate social learning

    Am I reading too much into these two pictures? I don't think so, but if that is what you think, I won't argue with you. Why not? Because the thought I want to leave you with is this one. As humans, we have large and skillful brains for a good reason. Thus endowed by biology, we are able to make it through life because most of what we need to know to survive we can learn from others of our kind. Therefore, we don't need to be extensively programmed by our genes because we do not have to face the challenges of life alone. The downside of our commitment as a species to social learning, however, is that we may not see how much of what we do in life is arbitrary, not fixed in our genes.

    Next up — Please Check Your Assumptions at the Door

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