The Score, by Faye Flam

the-score

The subtitle of The Score is The Science of the Male Sex Drive, but that’s a little misleading. Faye Flam writes a sex column—“Carnal Knowledge”—for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and I take it the material in The Score is mostly taken from these columns (though the book—to its credit—is not simply a collection of newspaper columns), which cover a wide-range of sex-related topics. It’s not all about males (I’d say it’s 60%-70% about males and 30%-40% about females), and it discusses topics well beyond just the sex drive.

The book as a whole is not about the “male sex drive” except in the loose sense that all sex-related topics have something to do with each other in some direct or indirect way, and hence can all be related to the male sex drive. On the other hand, it’s more about the male sex drive than if the matters discussed in the book were truly picked at random from the newspaper columns. So, it’s not a systematic, logically well-structured, presentation of some thesis about the male sex drive, or summary of what is known about the male sex drive, but more a kind of meandering discussion of various things that one way or another have to do with that topic.

In keeping with the “science” of the subtitle, the book is mostly about providing evolutionary explanations of certain anatomical and behavioral facts about humans. That is, answers to questions such as why sperm is a certain size, or why “nice guys” fare well or poorly in attracting women, are answered in terms of how the evidence indicates natural selection has shaped us over the course of thousands of generations.

This includes going back to before humans were humans, i.e., to the earlier species from which we evolved. There are also plenty of tangents about animals that are not particularly closely related to us and do not shed much light on how we evolved, but happen to have peculiar sexual habits or weirdly-shaped penises or whatever. A fair portion of the book, in fact, is kind of oddball animal trivia like that.

Other than the occasional passing comment, the book is really not about the philosophical or ethical implications of sex. That’s the kind of thing I find more interesting (and important). I wonder if that’s why I didn’t get into this book more. I mean, it’s not poorly written, and most of what it discusses I found at least somewhat interesting or entertaining, but it still felt vaguely like it fell short of my expectations.

That’s not really a knock on the book. It’s about what it’s about, and I would say Flam does an average or better job with the subject matter she chose. That I may have been more interested in the book if it had delved more into certain related areas than it did is a statement about me and my preferences, not a criticism of the book.

But anyway, as I read The Score, multiple times I found myself reflecting on the way people so commonly confuse the descriptive and the normative, or explanations and justifications.

For example, Flam spends a considerable amount of time describing sexual behavior in the animal kingdom—e.g., whether for a given species the animals mate for life, how promiscuous members of each sex are, if there are any transgender phenomena (like animals having some characteristics that usually are associated with males and some that are usually associated with females, or animals actually changing their sex), whether males or females tend to be the dominant sex, whether both sexes participate in child rearing, whether same-sex sex acts are common, etc.

This is the kind of information that many people think matters, in a way that it doesn’t. That is, it’s often used to determine what’s right or normal for humans. Like, people will defend patriarchy by noting how in the animal kingdom the males tend to be the leaders, the dominant animals. And then other people will attempt to refute this by seeking counterexamples where females are dominant (or as Gloria Stivic once responded an argument of this kind being made by her husband Mike, “Oh yeah? Did you ever hear of a ‘king bee’?”).

Whereas the proper response is that descriptive premises about other animals aren’t relevant to normative conclusions about humans. Or, “Who gives a fuck whether the males or females are dominant amongst lower Patagonian striped dung beetles? That tells us precisely nothing about whether Fred’s obnoxious alpha male behavior in intimidating and controlling his girlfriend is right or wrong.”

Flam notes that many religious conservatives loved the documentary March of the Penguins because they interpreted it as showing that other animal species—in this case penguins—have family structures something like what fundamentalist Christians advocate for humans. But aside from the fact that—as Flam points out—some aspects of the movie were apparently staged misleadingly, and conservatives may have misinterpreted other aspects, analogizing from other animals is an idiotic way to arrive at normative claims about humans. So what if penguins mate for life, never cheat on their mates, do a particularly good job raising their kids (read the Bible together every night, donate money to televangelists, etc.)? I mean, dogs eat cat shit at every opportunity; I notice that those who imply we’re supposed to mimic animal behavior never seem to advocate we do that.

Or conservatives will sometimes triumphantly point out that homosexuality is unnatural because animals never engage in it. It turns out that they’re simply wrong about that (Flam cites multiple examples of animals enjoying gay sex), but isn’t the more important error this very implication that what animals do is “natural,” what’s “natural” for animals is “natural” for us, and what’s “natural” for us is morally obligatory for us?

Another related source for potential errors is mistaking evolutionary explanations for justifications.

Sticking with the homosexuality example, one section of the book is about speculative evolutionary explanations for homosexuality, since on the surface it seems obviously disadvantageous in terms of natural selection for an organism to engage exclusively in non-procreative sex acts.

OK, maybe it is disadvantageous, and maybe homosexuality will never be more than an occasional statistical aberration—where 2% or 4% or 7% or whatever of the population is homosexual—or maybe over time natural selection will eliminate it. On the other hand, maybe there’s some indirect or convoluted way that it’s actually advantageous in terms of evolution (not on the individual level, but on the group level, i.e., groups that include a certain percentage of homosexuals tend to fare better in passing their genes along than do groups that lack homosexuals).

In either case, so what? Is homosexual sex morally wrong because it’s disadvantageous in terms of natural selection? Does it become morally right if it turns out it’s not disadvantageous in terms of natural selection?

In both cases, no. Evolution is like gravity. It helps us to understand what is, not what ought to be. If you want to know why we tend to find humans on the ground as opposed to floating around in the air, gravity is the reason. But it doesn’t follow from this that the invention of the airplane was morally wrong in that it unnaturally defies gravity.

I’m sure we do plenty as a species that does not fit a policy of ensuring that the most fit survive and the least fit don’t. But that’s fine, because evolution—a descriptive theory—doesn’t imply any kind of normative obligations like that.

Though evolution by natural selection is sometimes held up as (or really condemned as) an alternative moral system to, say, religious “divine command” moral systems, it simply isn’t. The principle of natural selection tells us nothing about what we ought or ought not do. It doesn’t somehow tell us that it’s wrong to use any resources to extend the life of a handicapped person who will not live long enough to reproduce, or would pass along genes that are disadvantageous to survival if he or she did. No doubt there are many ways to approach an allocation of resources question like that, many factors to consider. But what you can’t do is answer it with evolution.

We are conscious, rational beings capable of making decisions on moral grounds. That those decisions will be consistent with natural selection is true (in the rather trivial sense that it’s true that flying in an airplane—or not—are both consistent with the law of gravity), but that doesn’t mean we should be somehow guided by our ideas of natural selection in making them.

Think about this in terms of dating, relationships, sex, etc. Flam opens with a discussion of a “boot camp” for pickup artists, and returns to the subject off and on throughout the book. (Much of this material was familiar to me because I have a friend who was a “dating coach” for a few years and learned a lot of the conventional beliefs and tactics of this field.) She talks about it in terms of evolution. That is, what is it about the history of our species, and even the various species from which we evolved, that has resulted in women being receptive, or not, to such-and-such a tactic?

Which is fine as far as it goes. Those are interesting questions to speculate about. Interesting descriptive questions, that is. The problem arises when, again, the distinction between the descriptive and normative is missed.

For even if it were hard-wired into women for evolutionary reasons to be attracted to guys who look like this and not that, or behave like this and not that, that wouldn’t be a justification for purposely pushing those buttons. I mean, alcoholics have certain predispositions, as do kleptomaniacs. They aren’t self-justifying.

It might be that a female is more likely to reproduce if she pretends to be a bimbo, and a male is more likely to reproduce if he makes a huge amount of money as an executive in some multinational fossil fuels corporation that’s gradually rendering the planet unlivable. Or maybe not; I don’t know. But it’s certainly possible (I’d say 99.99999% likely) that egregious behavior of one kind or another is advantageous in passing your genes along. But let’s make the point yet again: Behavior that natural selection favors is not necessarily right, and behavior that natural selection does not favor is not necessarily wrong.

There was a hullaballoo a few years ago when some evolutionary biologist or whatever speculated that rape is as common a behavior as it is because natural selection favored it for much of human history—that is, when you impregnate someone through rape you pass your genes along to another generation.

Well, feminists and others were all up in arms about how this is a horrible thing to suggest because it would justify rape by explaining it as natural behavior.

Except that it doesn’t. Even if it’s true, it’s a descriptive claim, not a normative claim. To interpret it as some kind of justification is fallacious.

The same thing is true of the pickup artist boot camp stuff. Whether it “works” (i.e., makes it more likely you’ll be able to sleep with some woman you sexually desire) to do x, y, or z doesn’t tell us whether doing x, y, or z is the right thing. For that you’d have to look at other factors besides effectiveness. Like, is it honest? Is it respectful? Is it kind? Is it nonviolent? Is it non-exploitative? Is it non-manipulative? Etc.

The Score got me thinking about a lot of interesting stuff, even if that’s mostly not the stuff it explores in depth.

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