They made us this way for what they can never say… Descriptivist normativity in philosophy of sex

Oooooh, big words.  Fortunately, they mean something interesting.

I had a bit of a snark at Family First for their normative view of the family: children ought to have a mother and a father.  I rejected it based on the need for the ‘correct’ kind of mother and father, suggesting we should replace this with ‘Children ought to have a loving environment’.

I could have attacked the statement in a way more similar to the fashion of the time: assert that there is something fundamentally flawed about normative statements regarding lived experience.  There’s an article in the Sydney Morning Herald regarding sexual morality and why monogamous relationships are somehow the worst possible things we could do to ourselves.

Using anthropology, anatomy, archaeology and primatology. Ryan takes aim at what he calls the “standard narrative”, the idea that men and women evolved in families in which a man’s possessions and protection were exchanged for the women’s fertility and fidelity. This notion, what the anthropologist Helen Fisher calls the ”sex contract”, has long dominated our thinking about sexual evolution.

But it is a myth, according to Ryan, who points out that for 2 million years our ancestors lived in small, interdependent, highly egalitarian groups who shared everything, including sex. “Evidence suggests that our pre-agricultural ancestors would have had several ongoing sexual relationships at any one time,” Ryan says. “These overlapping, intersecting sexual relationships strengthened group cohesion and could offer a measure of security in an uncertain world.”  — Source.

While it’s difficult to analyse something based on the media release (and science journalism in Australia is woeful (though there might be a reason for that) think about precisely what’s been written here.  Ryan has attacked the ‘standard narrative’ based on how our ancestors lived for 2 million years.  It’s a weird comment to make, not least because Ryan isn’t an archaeologist or anthropologist, but because hominids haven’t existed as a single, continuous species for that amount of time.  Two million years ago, there were no domesticated animals.  Therefore, is it a myth that domestication affected the evolution of dogs?  Clearly, it’s not.  Did we domesticate ourselves?  Probably.  Could that have included an evolution of monogamous relationships?  Possibly.  So ‘2 million years ago, we were different’ isn’t an argument about our current behaviour.

But also consider the assumptions behind the statement.  In describing our ancestors, Ryan is alluding to a normative framework of how we should be.

“Since Darwin’s day we have been told that monogamy is natural, that it’s the way we evolved,” Ryan says. “But this is not true, and never has been. Monogamy is a choice, not a default position for our species. And it comes with social costs that have to be recognised.” […]

The British archaeologist Timothy Taylor agrees, writing in The Prehistory of Sex that “hunter-gatherer sex had been modelled on an idea of sharing and complementarity”.

All that ended, however, with the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago. When humans started farming, they organised themselves around hierarchical political structures, private property, and a radical shift in the status of women, who, Ryan writes, “went from occupying a central, respected role in foraging societies to becoming another possession for a man to earn and defend, along with his house, slaves and livestock.”  — Ibid.

Except, of course, we see hierarchical social frameworks in our primate cousins, so it’s not necessarily something we invented when we started farming.  The fully fleshed out concept of private property also came significantly after the agricultural revolution — redistributive communities were the norm, not the exception (why do you think there are so many city-state feasts in the ancient world?).  Further, this idea of ‘Woman as Property’ in the ancient world is pretty much debunked and only works if you ignore the social role of ancient women and the ‘Other Men I Own as Property’ idea.

Without explicitly stating so, the article advanced an evolutionary psychological view of sexuality: we evolved in a way that we’re supposed to be.  Unfortunately for people who keep getting research grants, evolutionary psychology doesn’t make any sense and it’s barely a science.  Adaptive psychological mechanisms do not equal psychological content.  Until somebody can Avada Kedavra that inconvenient fact away with the blackest of magics, evolutionary psychology is in trouble.

But back to the central idea of the article.  Apparently, monogamy is a recent invention and we’re not supposed to be this way.  We can rustle up an intuitive refutation using pure anecdotal evidence.  I know of several polyamorous relationships.  All of them are painful drama mills.  I know of significantly more monogamous relationships.  Only some of them are painful drama mills.  Regardless of how we were 2 million years ago or 10,000 years ago, polyamorous relationships don’t work right now.  Further, there’s growing evidence about its impact on children of the relationships.

So the big caveat is that I’m responding to the article and not the research itself.  Australia has a poor track record of citing research

But it does seem particularly weird to damn monogamy and praise polyamory with the statements made.

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One thought on “They made us this way for what they can never say… Descriptivist normativity in philosophy of sex

  1. Cool story, bro.

    No, actually, very good post. Especially the point on evolutionary psychology.

    I’d have to say, though, that monogamy doesn’t work right now either. See, levels of adultery and divorce. Also, polyamorous relationships aren’t the only alternative to monogamy. A primary relationship which acknowledges that either partner might occasionally have safe sex with someone else, and it needn’t be seen as a terrible thing, isn’t really polyamorous, for instance.

    Mostly I think the whole argument is silly. If human beings are “supposed” to be anything, perhaps we’re supposed to be diverse, not all the bloody same.

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