You may recall that sad comment by Scott Aaronson on his blog, Shtetl-Optimized, in which he deplored the way no respect is given to men’s biological imperative to have sex with all the women. Or more recently, Paul Elam’s bizarre appeal to badly interpreted biology and duck rape to justify MRA entitlement. It’s all of a piece, and it’s annoying: it’s reductive nonsense, in which people see a well-established set of scientific principles, and see their own complex situation, and imagine out of whole cloth a clear, simple path from one to the other. And suddenly, they’ve portrayed their messy life as the outcome of a purely determined, clockwork series of inevitable interactions, and they find refuge in the lowest common denominator of possible explanations. “It’s not my fault,” they can say, because of the way electrons interact, because biochemistry and thermodynamics, because genes, because everything follows from astronomical impacts and geology and Chicxlub at the end of the Cretaceous.
As it turns out, that’s what Scott Aaronson (with seemingly little comprehension on his part) was discussing in that notoroious comment section, in part, with someone named Amy. What started as a discussion about a grab-ass professor losing his job evolved into a lot of denial and defensiveness, and of course whenever a lot of nerds try to defend the status quo, they ultimately try to bring up Human Nature and Behavioral Science and This Is How We Evolved. I struggle myself to avoid falling into that trap, and sometimes I do anyway, but a whole gang of male nerds tends to inevitably drift into gross reductionism. Because of thermodynamics, I think, or maybe van der Waals forces.
Anyway, the provocateur behind all that argument, Amy, has now beautiful essay on all the phenomena in the middle that get ignored.
But as a primary explanation for who takes whom to bed, and when, and why, which is how these biological-imperative guys use it… I wonder why these guys don’t see that it’s dumb, what they missed along the way. It’s dumb for lots of reasons, not least of which is that even if you know what you’re talking about (and you won’t), it’s on the wrong level: it’s as dumb as trying to explain your divorce in terms of your husband’s biochemistry (which even Dawkins would say is stupidly reductive), only you’ve flipped the dumbth from the very tiny to the very big side of biology, population-scale biology. Both ignore the scale that involves lying naked next to your husband and listening to him say appalling things about his last-boss-but-one, again, and then watching him pick his nose like an eight-year-old, and realizing you’re going to divorce him, even though at that very moment you have no idea how, and life after marriage is a blank, in your imagination, nothing there at all.
It’s freedoms on that level, not the inhumanly tiny or the inhumanly large, which keep lawyers in business. That you’re lying down, that you’re naked with a man you recently had sex with, that he has a nose to pick and wants to pick it, that the room is heated to 69 degrees Fahrenheit and has a window facing west, all of this finds reason in the way that humans are made. That you married, that you’re married to this man, that you know this is temporary, that there is or is not a child to fight over, that you will simply move into a comfortable if anonymous rented condo that suits your salary, that you’ll work as an accountant for a military contractor involved in the development of a new generation of nuclear weaponry, all of this belongs to decisions taken by you and millions of others, living and dead, within the wide, wide field granted by the human genome, as far as anybody knows.
It’s like seeing the conclusion of a billiards game, and not knowing anything about the rules, but having an elementary grasp of physics. You see the last ball go in the pocket, and you imagine that you can explain everything in terms of angles and velocities and inevitabilities, because after all, eventually the balls end up in pockets. But you completely miss the contribution of the beer that was drunk and that stupid dare to make a ridiculously difficult shot and that it was all in fun as a social event so they tried it, or that one of the players is having trouble keeping his mind on the game because of anxieties about work, while the other hasn’t played in years and is rusty on the details.
Similarly, when someone tries to explain why Modern Men Do X by rolling the scenario all the way back to the Paleolithic and imagining a set of conditions and imagining a series of purely adaptive events that occurred between that fantasy starting point and today, I just want to say…you can’t do that. That’s all wrong. None of that is justifiable. You’re abusing science to justify doing what you want to do.