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Sexy Darwin

BY ON October 12, 2014

EvolutionI want to start this post, which is really about science and it’s various discontents, by saying: The Nation, a publication to which I am extremely loyal, does not publish enough in its regular edition, or even its blogs about LGBT people. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that it is no longer fashionable on the left, especially among radical queers, to push publications like The Nation to take LGBT people’s politics,or their lives, seriously. Despite the fact that millions of queers are homeless, poor, racially and sexually discriminated against, there appears to be a general consensus that in the hierarchy of global and national suffering, we simply do not rank.

But you do have to credit The Nation with publishing more about sex in the last few years.  JoAnn Wypijewski is doing a great job with the Carnal Knowledge feature, and no longer a backup to Katha Pollitt. Pollitt has been fighting the right (and the occasional fellow columnist, when they still let them do that at The Nation) on sex and gender for decades. Michelle Goldberg is a new utility infielder on the feminism beat. Richard Kim occasionally answers the call on queer issues but he’s been kicked upstairs to editorial. Despite these talented folks, we rarely see a feature or a cover story about LGBT people, or even the politics of sex, absent a compelling policy controversy (for example, Republican politicians pointing out a woman’s miraculous ability to not conceive if she just puts her mind on it.)

So when I stumbled upon an unread issue from earlier this fall that featured “Survival of the Sexiest: How Evolutionary Psychology Went Viral,” by Mal Ahern and Moira Weigal (September 9 2014) I had to wish queer people into it. Ahern and Weigal describe how evolutionary psychology (EP), a field with questionable methods and even more questionable conclusions has re-emerged as a respectable way of drawing conclusions about human sexual behavior. Heterosexual human behavior, that is.

In a nutshell, EP is a neo-Darwinian theory. It proposes that we are all hardwired to propagate the human species successfully: every sexual decision we make, and urge we feel, is linked to that. “We” are, of course, heterosexual in these studies. Our courting behaviors, attractions and sexual choices are all geared towards producing hardy offspring that carry our genetic material into infinity. Depending on our gender, we do this either by gaining access to young wombs or acquiring sperm from seemingly hardy, aggressive, successful males.

EPmakes me think of a middle school girls’ school joke in which, as a group, we would thrust our adolescent chests forward while chanting:

We must, we must,
We must increase the bust.
The bigger, the better,
The tighter the sweater, the more the boys depend on us.
To feed. The babies.
We must….
(Etc. Repeat until falling down laughing or begged to stop.)

The popularity of EP as an explanation for otherwise inexplicable heterosexual behavior (for example, a guy having sex with a woman he meets at a bar who he then never calls again) is also a reminder that robustly funded and seemingly respectable scientific research continues to promote the idea that LGBT people are biologically broken or deviant. Because these are stupid overdetermined theories, EP’s explanations for human sexual behavior were dismissed as recently as the 1980s. But now they are back.

So what accounts for EP’s resurgence in science and popular culture in the 21st century? “In order to understand why there is such an insatiable appetite for this kind of explanation,” Ahern and Weigel argue,

why even the readers of center-left publications like The New York Times are willing to accept the idea that gender roles and relations are hardwired—we need to investigate how evolutionary psychology itself evolved. We propose that its popular success has nothing to do with how plausibly its proponents describe the struggle to survive on the plains of the Pleistocene Era. What it does reflect is the brutally competitive economic environment today. Evolutionary psychology may just provide an ideal theory of love for the precarious age in which we live.

Here’s the other thing about this field, which is hardwired into the larger field of sociobiology: like William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the researchers who have done the most prominent work in the field are all heterosexual couples themselves, many married, or ex-married, to each other. “Given the preponderance of couples at the forefront, and their desire to win attention (and thus funding),” Ahern and Weigel write, “it may have been inevitable that the new discipline would be sex-crazed. Sex and gender differences became evolutionary psychology’s most important topics.

Does EP apply to LGBT people at all as a method for figuring out why we are attracted to each other, aside from targeting a partner who seems to have the physical characteristics necessary for curating our Judy Garland LPs? Well, it appears that these theories are themselves “naturally” selective, and are only relevant to pairings that are most obviously reproductive in nature, even though men and women often do not naturally reproduce. About 10% of women who have sex with (possibly handsome but uncertainly fertile) men require medical interventions to conceive and carry a child to term (I’m going out on a limb to say: double that number for professional women.) Gay and lesbian people don’t qualify as sexual subjects who come together over the possibility of immediate, closed circuit reproduction, although bisexual and trans people might, I suppose. However, helped along by mass culture, EP has proven itself to be a fit survivor all on its own, and I think we can be confident that the proliferation of inseminating, sperm-donating, cross adopting, surrogate-employing queers will soon provide new opportunities for a field whose only consistent interest seems to be shilling sexist stereotypes.

Cross posted at Tenured Radical.