Anytime someone describes sexual behavior as “dumb,” ask: Dumb in what timeframe?

In writing about the David Petraeus non-scandal, Adam Gopnik says, correctly, that “Benghazi is a tragedy in search of a scandal; the Petraeus affair is a scandal in search of a tragedy,” and, perhaps less correctly, this:

The point of lust, not to put too fine a point on it, is that it lures us to do dumb stuff, and the fact that the dumb stuff gets done is continuing proof of its power. As Roth’s Alexander Portnoy tells us, “Ven der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd”—a Yiddish saying that means, more or less, that when desire comes in the door judgment jumps out the window and cracks its skull on the pavement.

But whether lust “lures us to do dumb stuff” depends on timeframe we’re looking at: if we do “dumb stuff” that results in our genes still existing, say, 200 years from now, then what’s dumb in the context of the next month may be “smart” from the context of a couple centuries from now. We’re evolutionarily primed to propagate our genes—that’s Richard Dawkins’ point in The Selfish Gene.

We also have to ask what happens in the very short term: presumably, in the minutes to hours that Petraeus and Broadwell were doing it (or anyone is “doing it”), they were making a very smart decision for themselves over those few minutes. One might be able to look at the quality of their decision making in terms of Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd’s The Time Paradox, and as being very good for the immediate present when they were doing it, not very good in the months or years after the scandal comes to light, and, depending on conception, very good over the very long term.

Don’t read this post and the books linked, then go out and cheat on your significant other only to say that your selfish genes and hedonistic time perspective “made” you do it. But do think about the intellectual context in which Portnoy’s claim exists, and how desire can function in the very long and short run.

3 responses

  1. These authors equate good with long-term survival, which I feel is debatable, but it is a long and hard debate that I am not prepared to have. Even if we that suvival and good are the same, the good of the gene is not the same as the good of the individual. It is fallacious to say that Patraeus and Broadwell were “making a very smart decision for themselves” because they are spreading their genes. The events that followed prove that the good of the gene and the good of the man are not the same: Patraeus lost his power and the respect of the public and his government salary. Even if his actions result in the survival of his genetic information for another 200 years, they were detrimental to his survival, and therefore “dumb” is an accurate, perhaps understated, description of his actions.


    • It is fallacious to say that Patraeus and Broadwell were “making a very smart decision for themselves” because they are spreading their genes

      . . . which is why I didn’t say that: I said that, viewed through a particular lens, it’s possible to say that their decisions weren’t automatically dumb, as Menand argues.


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