Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Dec/08

7

Sexuality and human nature

A friend emailed me in response to my post below:

Interesting example with homosexuality, both because the choice of sexual behavior, pretty much the sort of thing that one would expect the strongest biological constraints on, was apparently needed to make the point about limited flexibility AND because we know historically that homosexual behavior HAS been normalized in many world cultures. The combination of these two points seems to argue strongly for human nature being flexible indeed.

I would say that the problem is precisely what you have diagnosed. We do little social engineering and much shamanism. Shamanism doesn’t work. From that you can’t conclude that engineering doesn’t work. Unsurprisingly, when people try to create large social changes or flying machines through force of will they fail. Doesn’t mean they would fail if they actually figured out how to do it.

That said, we largely don’t know how to do it, at least with respect to building utopias. Building dystopias seems to be much easier and I would say that we do know how to build fairly respectable dystopias.

On the point about homosexuality being “normalized” I think there is value in introducing biological terms such as facultative and obligate.  Most of the societies which we think as “normalizing” homosexuality, such as ancient Athens, had a role for facultative homosexual behavior. Why does facultative homosexual behavior emerge?  Athens was a very patriarchal society, and set the tone in ancient Greece for norms whereby elite females were excluded from public life and placed in purdah.  The Athenian influence on elite Greek norms (as opposed to Spartan sexual egalitarianism  necessitated by the role of women as economic managers while most men were away at war) was brought home to me when I read that in Late Antiquity one of the differences between the old Roman senatorial class and the new nobility which emerged in Constantinople was that elite women among the latter veiled themselves, adopting Greek custom.  

In any case, there are other analogs for what I’m talking about.  Homosexual behavior in Saudi Arabia must be framed by the fact that young heterosexual men must delay marriage due to economic vicissitudes, and pre-marital relations with women are operationally impossible.  Similarly, I once lived with a general contractor who employed persons who had spent time in prison.  At one point it came out that one of my roommate’s employees was bisexual, but his bisexuality was manifest only during stints in prison.  Again, this shows the facultative nature of human sexual orientation. As an empirical matter our flexibility is shaped by a set of particular conditions for many traits.

Note: And yes, I do believe there are obligate homosexuals.  But I generally would hold that most homosexual behavior across history was due to the type of circumstances I allude to above, and so facultative.  The eliding of the differences between these two classes results in confusion in contemporary analysis.

· ·

11 comments

  • raft · December 7, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    but how does this relate to your example in your previous post? it seems to me you were suggesting that when heterosexuals in the anarchist commune were “psychologically damaged” when they engaged in homosexual behavior, that was an inviolable fact of human nature. But it was only because they were grown adults and not had previously been socialized into homosexuality–in societies where homosexuality was normal, they weren’t any such problems. and how is that an argument against the efficacy of the power of social influences to effect behavior?

    If your point was that there are very strong biological drives driving people to have sex with the opposite sex and have babies, well, duh.

    i’m also interested to see how you would respond to your friend’s argument that we know how to “engineer” dystopias. i never thought of it that way, but it seems true.

  • Author comment by David Hume · December 7, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    But it was only because they were grown adults and not had previously been socialized into homosexuality–in societies where homosexuality was normal, they weren’t any such problems. and how is that an argument against the efficacy of the power of social influences to effect behavior?

    Social influences ARE VERY powerful. But, their power comes at a cost. It may be that you can obtain a natural emergence of a suit of behaviors x, y and z, but only at the cost of conditions a, b and c. In a society where men and women are kept separate widespread facultative homosexuality will naturally emerge, and result in no great psychological trauma (I suspect that there’s a time sensitivity toward these norms as well, just like with food taboos, which crystallize between years 5-10). But, the nature of societies where it emerges (I include prisons as such societies) isn’t optimal, IMO, for human flourishing in other ways. I believe that facultative homosexuality, like other cultural artifacts like arranged marriage, are strongly shaped by the particularities of mass human societies which arose after agriculture and greater population density. They’re cultural kludges.

    If your point was that there are very strong biological drives driving people to have sex with the opposite sex and have babies, well, duh.

    Many people among the “intelligentsia” would not say “duh” 🙂 In fact, some such as Joan Roughgarden (former John Roughgarden) try to develop biological theories that offer non-reproductive rationales for sex.

    i’m also interested to see how you would respond to your friend’s argument that we know how to “engineer” dystopias. i never thought of it that way, but it seems true.

    Well, what do you think Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the North Korean regime are? I don’t oppose social engineering necessarily on a priori grounds (though the personal disposition to ask “why?” exists within me), but it seems that generally they are often very problematic, often due to a lack of acknowledgment of the parameters of human nature.

    I think the biological concept of norm of reaction is useful here to get a clearer sense of where I’m coming from.

  • Author comment by torrentprime · December 7, 2008 at 7:03 pm

    I’m trying to parse your use of the terms here (facultative/obligate), and you seem to be boiling it down to “It was too hard for the men in question to be with women,” or “The women weren’t around,” or other such situational constructs that all translate to: the males were really horny and made due with what they had: each other. And in the cases of institutionalized homsoseuxality, or homosexuality being worked into the cultural norms, that may be the case. Such things happen in today’s society all the time (fraternities, militaries, etc); it’s simply not talked about or accepted in most Western societies.
    However, that is most definitely *not* the same as what you said here: “But I generally would hold that most homosexual behavior across history was due to the type of circumstances I allude to above”
    “Most homosexual behavior”? No, what you mean is most homosexual behavior on record, or that was talked about, written into cultural data, and survived to be discussed today. You admit the existence of obligate gays: do you think they simply weren’t, say, exhibiting homosexual behavior for their entire lives simply because the society they happened to be born into, whenever and wherever it was, hadn’t happened to build a social construct to allow for it? You seem to be trying to shove the majority of gay life off the map if it doesn’t pop up in a paper somewhere in the Sexual History section of the library. If gays get caught having sex as Baptist preachers in 2008, then I’m fairly confident “obligate” gays were being gay throughout human history whenever they were born, regardless of whether their society made allowances or not. To say otherwise would seem to postulate that obligate gays sprang forth recently, or only when it was safe or accepted for them to do so, something that wouldn’t seem genetically likely (or possible).

  • Author comment by David Hume · December 7, 2008 at 7:48 pm

    @torrentprime

    Word of advice: DO NOT DO MY THINKING FOR ME, STATE MY POSITION, AND THEN RESPOND. I DO NOT APPRECIATE THAT. Now, as to your contention, no, I do suspect that most homosexual acts in history did not occur between two obligate homosexuals. This is an empirical question, I may be wrong. My point is that there are on the order of 50 men for every obligate homosexual. Even if only a minority of those 50 ever engage in homosexual acts, and all of the latter do engage in homosexual acts, it may still be that most homosexual acts were due to the intent of heterosexual actors. This makes Bayesian sense.

  • Author comment by David Hume · December 7, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    More explicitly, consider a society where

    2% are obligate homosexuals, 98% are not. Assume that 10% of the 98% who are are not obligate homosexuals engage in homosexual behavior at any given time. 98% X 10% = 9.8%. At any given time only 17% of those engaged in homosexual acts would be obligate homosexuals.

  • raft · December 7, 2008 at 7:56 pm

    i’m thinking out loud here: i guess what i am saying is that skepticism about (active) social engineering is also a form of (passive) social engineering. so Pol Pot takes over, and then the rest of us take a look at Cambodia and say “well, let’s NOT do things that way,” let’s not give one guy all the power. or we look at the ruins of Nazi germany and say, let’s avoid that. maybe you could reject totalitarian governments on a priori grounds. OTOH, Communism was a perfectly respectable–and plausible–theory of social engineering back in the 19th century. sounded great on paper. It just turned out to, you know, result in immense human suffering instead of the promised utopia. So we don’t try that anymore.

    the analogy would be to scientific trial and error. physicists had a end objective–truth, figuring out the laws of nature. Then they came up with theories and performed experiments to see which theory was closer to the truth. in the same way political scientists/social engineers have an end–the best human society (obviously there’s a dispute about what’s “best,” but generally most of us agree it includes happiness, peace, prosperity, stability, etc.). then these engineers performed a bunch of experiments to test out their theories. A lot of them resulted in dystopias, but some resulted in better societies. and just like physicists learned from their mistakes, so it seems to me that social engineers have as well.

    At this point i think we’ve learned a lot about how NOT to engineer things–what kinds of societies and political systems don’t, as an empirical fact of the matter, actually work. If we know to engineer dystopias, then we also know to avoid them. We also seem to know quite a bit about the kinds of systems that do work. Democracy and individual rights work well. Mass education works well. Capitalism works well–we know that oftentimes the most effective “engineering” is simply just to sit on your hands and let a properly structured free market take its course. it would’ve hard to know that five centuries ago, but we learned it through trial and error. But the point is that sitting on your hands is itself a choice, and no less a conscious attempt at creating a better society than nationalizing the means of production. (i suppose you could object that you have a prori, principled ideological reasons for doing this or that, but in general most people are utilitarian pragmatists, i.e. milton friedman)

    a further point: doesn’t it seem that there’s been a big convergence in the past couple decades towards liberal mixed-capitalist democracy? i don’t want to get too sanguine and declare The End of History or anything like that. but the ideological debates nowdays (which certainly still fierce) occupy a much narrower spectrum than they did, say, in the 19th and 20th century. monarchy is discredited; timocracy is discredited; theocracy is discredited; communism is discredited; totalitarianism is discredited; radical libertarianism is discredited. It’s like, what’s left, you know?

    i don’t know, maybe i’m being too sanguine. i hope not.

  • Author comment by David Hume · December 7, 2008 at 8:11 pm

    But the point is that sitting on your hands is itself a choice, and no less a conscious attempt at creating a better society than nationalizing the means of production.

    Well, I think the argument is relatively easy if you bin it into two stark choices. But, for example, one might be much more skeptical of changing a society nation-wide basis by fiat than a locality. The risk is much lower. This is a standard federalist argument. But humans have strong cognitive biases, and utopianism and the end-of-times are invariant. We just don’t learn. The Paris Commune after all was the first communist experience, and it perfectly prefigured the chaos which resulted in the emergence of “Democratic Centralism” to dampen the anarchy.

  • Author comment by torrentprime · December 8, 2008 at 1:06 am

    David,
    Both because I’m new here and because any reading of the offending sentence in question shows I put words in your mouth, I apologize. Clumsy wording from me, at best.
    However, you do seem to have fallen victim to a false dichotomy, some belief that males can be classified into homosexual and heterosexual camps cleanly. This type of simple binary of expression simply isn’t the case, in nature generally or in human sexuality; this point was the true thrust of my earlier comment.
    Whether or not you accept the Kinsey scale of sexuality or not as the “true” measure, it and other tests all point to a continuum of sexuality: unadulterated homo- and hetero-sexuality are more concepts than, say, blood types or genetic markers. There are bisexuals, and then people who slide on the scale in between all three points (hetero, homo, bi).
    The point of all of this is that your carefully constructed mathemathics assume the 2% of “pure” gay in a population, and 98% of “pur” hetero, but that doesn’t mean that a very large number of straight-identified males aren’t a point or two along the sexual line towards bi/homosexuality and may have homosexual experiences in their lifetimes. This is natural (obligate) for them, and didn’t, doesn’t, and never will require social constructs to allow for it.
    All that said, I’d like to return to my earlier objection to your statement about “most homosexual behavior across history” being due to those historical exceptions and again (much more respectfully) call a foul. These men, wherever on the sexual continuum they lie between not-100%-straight and 100%-homosexual, have had, are having, and will continue to have homosexual experiences regardless of society’s permissiveness and whether or not they marry the opposite sex or ever identified as homosexual.
    Your math seems to assume clean lines of demarcation not present in nature.

  • Author comment by mrsdutoit · December 8, 2008 at 9:30 am

    Your math seems to assume clean lines of demarcation not present in nature.

    Depends on what lines of demarcation you’re attempting to define. If you are attempting to define that men can only have sex with men or women, then I would agree (as the physical act can occur, regardless of preference, since we can override reality with fantasy). If you are attempting to define that men can be sexually attracted to only women or only men, then it does exist in nature.

    Outliers don’t disprove it. They only complicate it.

    Some people are deaf, others can hear. That is a demarcation that exists in nature. The fact that there are people who are hearing-impaired (not completely deaf) doesn’t invalidate the demarcation of most.

    Our survival as a species would have been short-lived if sexual attraction wasn’t both specific to opposite sex and same species (humping rocks or elberberry bushes when women weren’t around wouldn’t have helped either).

    Sexual relief isn’t the same thing as sexual attraction.

  • Author comment by David Hume · December 8, 2008 at 9:38 am

    Your math seems to assume clean lines of demarcation not present in nature.

    I believe that the distribution is bimodal. The larger mode is obviously those with strong heterosexual inclinations. In any case, even if you assume a continuous frequency distribution across the spectrum, I would still bet that the the raw number of homosexual acts in a society as a function of heterosexual inclination (on a continuous spectrum) would show a curve that increases as the latter increases. The mode will likely be somewhere to the “right” of the theoretical maximum heterosexuality. But then again, it’s an empirical question.

  • Author comment by torrentprime · December 8, 2008 at 10:50 am

    Hi David,
    In any case, even if you assume a continuous frequency distribution across the spectrum
    I’m relieved to see even the acknowledgment of the spectrum, really, as that was the only point I was trying to make. The existence of the spectrum, and that the spectrum exists without social constructs either requiring, allowing, or encouraging it, was all I was attempting to draw attention to.

    mrsdutoit,
    No, you’ve mistaken my point. I didn’t say that there was no such thing as pure hetero or homosexual men (or women). I said that not all males (as in, every living example in the species) can fit into those categories. They exist as concepts, points on a spectrum, with some males sitting on them (although it’s rather impossible to prove) with many/most sitting in between those theoretical points.

    Just to tie all this back to the OP, so we don’t get to hung up on sexual spectra: I took issue with David’s statement that “most homosexual behavior across history was due to the type of circumstances” he wrote about in the OP. I took issue with that because given the normal expression of homosexuality in men, (which isn’t just 2% of the male population, for the reasons stated in my comments above) I don’t think that throughout all of human history counting the, what, trillions upon trillions of sexual experiences that human males have had since we came down from the trees that the majority of the gay ones were magically restricted to the relatively few human societies that normalized male homosexuality. Male “relief”, male attraction, male sex wouldn’t have held itself in abeyance for generations, across continents! waiting for a societal outlet.

<<

>>

Theme Design by devolux.nh2.me