Looks matter and always will because they convey valuable information, and a note about the media

In “The Revolution Will Not Be Screen-Printed on a Thong” Maureen O’Connor laments that people judge each other based on looks (“Why can’t we just not obsess about bodies?”), and then kind of answers her own question:

I ask that in earnest — it’s possible that we actually can’t stop, that this compulsive corporeal scrutiny is some sort of biological imperative, or species-wide neurosis left over from millennia of treating women as chattel.

We judge each based on looks because, as Geoffrey Miller describes in Spent and others have described elsewhere, looks convey a lot of useful information about age, fertility, and health. Beyond that, women are competitive with each other in this domain because they know (correctly) that men judge them based on looks (among other things).

In addition, as Tim Harford discusses in The Logic of Life, speed dating and other research shows that women reject about 90% of those in any given speed-dating event, and men reject about 80% of women. Both men and women usually report that they want similar things—men want youth and beauty; women want height and humor. But researchers devised clever experiments in which dating pools of either men or women have changed systematically—for example, by having entirely very tall men or very short men. Yet the rate at which men and women accept or decline dates remains the same.

That implies “compulsive corporeal scrutiny” is based partially on the knowledge that any particular person will be judged based on the other people around.

I don’t bring this up merely to correct a point in an article; it’s also to observe that a lot of the stuff one reads online is based on limited knowledge. As I get older I increasingly get the impression that a lot of journalists would be better served, at least intellectually speaking, to spend more time reading books and less time… doing other things?

One thing I like about journalists or journalist-blogger hybrids like Megan McArdle and Matt Yglesias is their wide, deep reading, and their willingness to connect wide, deep reading with the subjects they write about. One might disagree with them for ideological or other reasons, but they do at least know what they’re talking about and usually try to learn when they don’t. Too much of the media—whether in The Seattle Times or The Wall Street Journal or New York Magazine—is just making noise.*

Given the choice between most media and books, choose books. The challenge, of course, is finding them.

EDIT: Maybe Ezra Klein’s new mystery venture will solve some of the complaints above; he mentions “the deficiencies in how we present information” and promises “context.” I hope so, and certainly I’m not the first person to notice the many problems with the way much of the media works.


* Granted, I may be contributing to this in my own small way by contributing a link and possibly hits to a noise-making article that should be better than it is.

Summary Judgment: The War of the Sexes — Paul Seabright

The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present isn’t a bad book, but you’ve already in effect read it if you have a cursory knowledge of the vast evolutionary biology literature—or if you’ve read books like Roy Baumeister’s Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men, or Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life, or Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s The Woman That Never Evolved. If you have read those books—especially the first—you don’t need to read this one, and that’s why I’m not linking directly to it. There are too many better books.

Given a choice between The War of the Sexes or Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, choose the latter. You’ll learn more about topics like this one, from The War of the Sexes:

Much of the elusive, infuriating, and enchanting nature of what we feel and why we feel it. Far from being a flaw in our makeup, it is a testimony to the complexity of the problems natural selection had to solve to enable us to handle sexual reproduction at all.

Although this is true, it also feel perilously close to being banal; by now, it’s well-established that emotions/feelings and “intelligence” or “logic” aren’t really separable entities in the human cognitive makeup. What we might think of as “a flaw” is actually an adaptation. Haidt discusses this in far more detail. Seabright also points, again correctly, to the way our own desires are really trade-offs and tensions rather than absolutes:

All individuals, men and women, will also want contradictory things: to be successful and to be protected, to choose our partners and to be chosen by them, to be passionate and to be reasonable, to be forceful and to be tender, to make shrewd choices and to be seduced. With such contradictory impulses, all of us will sometimes make choices we regret. Sex is about danger as well as about tenderness: the two are inseparable, and they are what has made us such a tender and dangerous species.

Our romantic lives aren’t immune to trade-offs, which might be why we find those romantic lives so frustrating so much of the time: they’re hugely important and simultaneously impossible to do perfectly “right.” But, again, this doesn’t feel like news. It feels like olds.

The writing is competent and the research reasonably thorough, but, again, the book as a whole is only useful if you’ve read little or no evolutionary biology; as it went on, I skipped steadily more pages. It isn’t bad. I feel like I’m witnessing a guy burst into a room the day after a big game, breathlessly wanting to celebrate his team’s victory, only to find the rest of the group expunged its impulse the night before.

Evolutionary Biology and the novel: Additional directions and William Flesch's Comeuppance

Novels are arguably about two subjects: sex and death. This isn’t an original or unorthodox observation; Leslie Fiedler famously propagated it in Love and Death in the American Novel, which was published in 1960. The reasons why we’re drawn to those subjects over and over again are less well-developed, but some good answers come from evolutionary biology. Going back to Darwin and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, we’ve known that organisms need to do two things to propagate themselves: survive and reproduce. Not coincidentally, those two items map neatly onto the fascination in narrative fiction with death (and who should be killed and under what circumstances) and sex (and who it should be had with and under what circumstances).

Novels ceaselessly interrogate and illuminate both fields. I think people are drawn to those subjects because the stakes are inherently high for us, our genes, and our communities. If we die, our genes go with us, and, according to Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, we’re the result of a long chain of ancestors who managed to send out genes into the future. Viewed in one light, we’re simply vehicles for propagating those genes successfully. One could argue from there that our communities are platforms—in the sense Steven Berlin Johnson develops in Where Good Ideas Come From—that allow us to survive and reproduce successfully. Communities that are more successful as platforms tend to spread; those that aren’t, whither, or are overtaken by communities that do. Historically speaking, this has often happened in the context of violence, cruelty, slavery, and the like, especially on behalf of the west against peoples of other cultures, as Jared Diamond points out in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

But for my argument regarding the novel, I want to focus on individuals, small groups, and genres. Regarding the latter, one can essentially map tragedies onto stories dealing with death and comedies onto stories dealing with sex and sex mores. The content of those stories change—what tragedy meant to Shakespeare is probably somewhat different than what it means to, say, Cormac McCarthy. And the sex comedies of Jane Austen, with their primness, their refusal to name the act itself, and their distaste for contemplating the act of intercourse outside of marriage (how shocking it is when Lydia absconds in Pride and Prejudice!) are quite different from those in Bridge Jones’ Diary or Alain de Botton’s On Love, both of which assume sex before marriage is normal and that marriage isn’t an essential part of life. The content of the stories change while their overall thrust and the fundamental subjects remain the similar. Unless humanity reaches a technological singularity (which seems unlikely to me; as Tyler Cowen likes to say, it’s 2011 and we still have web browsers that crash), I doubt we’re going to see a shift away from novels that focus on sex and death as the greatest issues that humans face. We’re fascinated by the shifting, dialectical rules surrounding both sex and death and how they may be deployed because they have such profound consequences for us and our genes.

So why don’t more people discuss this explicitly in novels?

Evolutionary biology offers some of the tools we need to analyze what drives humans in terms of sexuality and survival. I’m surprised more literary critics don’t want to or try to cross pollinate with evolutionary biology, since, as stated in the first sentence of this paragraph, evolutionary biology gives us another set of methodological principles with which to interrogate texts. The set of tools literary critics need has started to be developed by William Flesch in Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction. But fundamental questions remain unanswered—like how individual variation functions within an amorphous system without definite boundaries. As with psychoanalytic criticism, however, we can still take overall ideas (like: “males and females differ in their average mating strategies because women bear the greater cost of childbirth and childrearing”) and work to apply them to literature.

This doesn’t mean that we should automatically assume a one-to-one correlation between any action a character in fiction undertakes, or that characters (or their authors) are even aware of their own motivations; when Emma is trying to set up everyone in Highbury, she’s partially trying to maintain the class structure of her time, but she’s also trying to maximize the reproductive success of the individuals she knows (and herself) through finding “appropriate” matches. Since Freud, the idea that people (or characters) understand their motivations has been a suspect premise anyway. And since Derrida, if not earlier, the idea that one can neatly create separate categories like “death” and “sex” has become suspect. But that both drive characters and intertwine in unusual, fractal, and unpredictable ways is true. We need to track, understand, and evaluate those ways better. Psychoanalytic criticism gives us a set of tools to do so.

Characters’ underlying drives can’t be ignored. Nor can what readers find most rewarding in fiction be ignored. When in doubt, ask what is at stake regarding sex, death, or both. It would be a mistake to create a reductive algorithm that merely says, “everything a character does is related to their biological reproduction or their survival.” It would also be a mistake to think that every character interprets the drive to survive and reproduce in the same way, or that evolutionary biology itself has a single, underlying set of rules: its own rules are under constant interrogation as new evidence emerges to support or refute existing claims. But the answers that emerge from asking questions about why characters are so tuned in to the sexuality of others goes beyond economic exchange, mate value, and culture, and into what a given character thinks a set of rules will do to his or her own chances at reproducing and thriving.

To use Emma again, the characters in that universally or almost universally believe that marriage is in their best interests and therefore the best interests of those around them. They do not question the value of the institution, as later writers will do; by the time we come to George Eliot and Flaubert, novelists have begun to do so in earnest (as Tony Tanner points out Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression). By now, novels are asking questions about what happens to relationships when marriage is an option, not a given, and when virtually any life course is open to people as far as sexuality is concerned. If you write a contemporary novel that deals solely with the momentous decisions around who a woman will marry (as in Jane Austen), you won’t be engaging the world in which contemporary Western characters live. You’re dealing with sex, but not in a way that resonates with the social fabric for most people. The drive (“reproduce successfully”) remains even if the means have changed. Whether you’re analyzing or writing novels, you better pay attention.

Evolutionary Biology and the novel: Additional directions and William Flesch’s Comeuppance

Novels are arguably about two subjects: sex and death. This isn’t an original or unorthodox observation; Leslie Fiedler famously propagated it in Love and Death in the American Novel, which was published in 1960. The reasons why we’re drawn to those subjects over and over again are less well-developed, but some good answers come from evolutionary biology. Going back to Darwin and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, we’ve known that organisms need to do two things to propagate themselves: survive and reproduce. Not coincidentally, those two items map neatly onto the fascination in narrative fiction with death (and who should be killed and under what circumstances) and sex (and who it should be had with and under what circumstances).

Novels ceaselessly interrogate and illuminate both fields. I think people are drawn to those subjects because the stakes are inherently high for us, our genes, and our communities. If we die, our genes go with us, and, according to Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, we’re the result of a long chain of ancestors who managed to send out genes into the future. Viewed in one light, we’re simply vehicles for propagating those genes successfully. One could argue from there that our communities are platforms—in the sense Steven Berlin Johnson develops in Where Good Ideas Come From—that allow us to survive and reproduce successfully. Communities that are more successful as platforms tend to spread; those that aren’t, whither, or are overtaken by communities that do. Historically speaking, this has often happened in the context of violence, cruelty, slavery, and the like, especially on behalf of the west against peoples of other cultures, as Jared Diamond points out in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

But for my argument regarding the novel, I want to focus on individuals, small groups, and genres. Regarding the latter, one can essentially map tragedies onto stories dealing with death and comedies onto stories dealing with sex and sex mores. The content of those stories change—what tragedy meant to Shakespeare is probably somewhat different than what it means to, say, Cormac McCarthy. And the sex comedies of Jane Austen, with their primness, their refusal to name the act itself, and their distaste for contemplating the act of intercourse outside of marriage (how shocking it is when Lydia absconds in Pride and Prejudice!) are quite different from those in Bridge Jones’ Diary or Alain de Botton’s On Love, both of which assume sex before marriage is normal and that marriage isn’t an essential part of life. The content of the stories change while their overall thrust and the fundamental subjects remain the similar. Unless humanity reaches a technological singularity (which seems unlikely to me; as Tyler Cowen likes to say, it’s 2011 and we still have web browsers that crash), I doubt we’re going to see a shift away from novels that focus on sex and death as the greatest issues that humans face. We’re fascinated by the shifting, dialectical rules surrounding both sex and death and how they may be deployed because they have such profound consequences for us and our genes.

So why don’t more people discuss this explicitly in novels?

Evolutionary biology offers some of the tools we need to analyze what drives humans in terms of sexuality and survival. I’m surprised more literary critics don’t want to or try to cross pollinate with evolutionary biology, since, as stated in the first sentence of this paragraph, evolutionary biology gives us another set of methodological principles with which to interrogate texts. The set of tools literary critics need has started to be developed by William Flesch in Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction. But fundamental questions remain unanswered—like how individual variation functions within an amorphous system without definite boundaries. As with psychoanalytic criticism, however, we can still take overall ideas (like: “males and females differ in their average mating strategies because women bear the greater cost of childbirth and childrearing”) and work to apply them to literature.

This doesn’t mean that we should automatically assume a one-to-one correlation between any action a character in fiction undertakes, or that characters (or their authors) are even aware of their own motivations; when Emma is trying to set up everyone in Highbury, she’s partially trying to maintain the class structure of her time, but she’s also trying to maximize the reproductive success of the individuals she knows (and herself) through finding “appropriate” matches. Since Freud, the idea that people (or characters) understand their motivations has been a suspect premise anyway. And since Derrida, if not earlier, the idea that one can neatly create separate categories like “death” and “sex” has become suspect. But that both drive characters and intertwine in unusual, fractal, and unpredictable ways is true. We need to track, understand, and evaluate those ways better. Psychoanalytic criticism gives us a set of tools to do so.

Characters’ underlying drives can’t be ignored. Nor can what readers find most rewarding in fiction be ignored. When in doubt, ask what is at stake regarding sex, death, or both. It would be a mistake to create a reductive algorithm that merely says, “everything a character does is related to their biological reproduction or their survival.” It would also be a mistake to think that every character interprets the drive to survive and reproduce in the same way, or that evolutionary biology itself has a single, underlying set of rules: its own rules are under constant interrogation as new evidence emerges to support or refute existing claims. But the answers that emerge from asking questions about why characters are so tuned in to the sexuality of others goes beyond economic exchange, mate value, and culture, and into what a given character thinks a set of rules will do to his or her own chances at reproducing and thriving.

To use Emma again, the characters in that universally or almost universally believe that marriage is in their best interests and therefore the best interests of those around them. They do not question the value of the institution, as later writers will do; by the time we come to George Eliot and Flaubert, novelists have begun to do so in earnest (as Tony Tanner points out Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression). By now, novels are asking questions about what happens to relationships when marriage is an option, not a given, and when virtually any life course is open to people as far as sexuality is concerned. If you write a contemporary novel that deals solely with the momentous decisions around who a woman will marry (as in Jane Austen), you won’t be engaging the world in which contemporary Western characters live. You’re dealing with sex, but not in a way that resonates with the social fabric for most people. The drive (“reproduce successfully”) remains even if the means have changed. Whether you’re analyzing or writing novels, you better pay attention.

Life: Failing to understand ourselves, part 387

“Humans don’t seem well-designed for dispassionate intellectual discourse about domains that have profound personal relevance.”

—David Buss, from the preface of The Evolution of Desire, which holds up surprisingly well. I think Buss gives too much credit for the design of human beings for dispassionate intellectual discourse in general, but the thought stands.

The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind — Melvin Konner

I want to write a long post about how impressive and detailed Melvin Konner’s The Evolution of Childhood is, but to do so I would have to read it at least a couple times more and delve deeply into the bibliography. It ranks with The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality by Randy Thornhill and Steven Gangestad in terms of its thoroughness and the density of its information. The Evolution of Childhood discusses, among other things:

  • how the environment shapes childhood
  • how group behaviors work
  • how group dynamics work
  • how life in evolutionary times differs from the present
  • problems with the Freudian interpretation of childhood
  • sexual play or expression among children is common (“Contrary to some claims of cultural historians, anthropologists find that liberal premarital sex mores are not new for a large proportion of the cultures of the ethnological record and that liberal sexual mores and even active sexual lives among adolescents do not necessarily produce pregnancies. In fact, a great many cultures permit or at least tolerate sex play in childhood (Frayser 1994)”).
  • why parent-child conflict is effectively inherent in the relationship

I lack the time to discuss what Konner says about each topic; here’s an example of the subtlety of his thinking:

Most explanations of behavior occur at one level only. But as pointed out by Tinbergen (1963), the question ‘Why did the animal do that?’ can be answered at different levels, four of which were immediately identified in his classic paper: phylogenic, ecological, developmental, and eliciting. These can be exemplified by categories of answers to a question about a short flight of a bird—say, a jay rising from a holly bush up to a longleaf pine. It flies because it is a bird; because flight gave it an advantage […] in its environment of evolutionary adaptedness; because its ontogeny gave it light bones, wings, feathers, and a motor neuron circuit oscillator for flight, through a genetically determined maturation pattern shaped by nutrition, exercise, and practice; and because a fox is chasing it.

This goes on to his own development of how the “causation” behind any given behavior might work. Arguments about the root causes of behavior often boil down to people arguing at different levels:

Levels 1 – 3: Remote or Evolutionary Causation

  • 1. Phylogenetic constraints: “Because an organism of a certain broad taxonomic type, it is constrained to some extent in the way it can solve the problems posed by its environment [. . .]”
  • 2. Ecological/demographic causes
  • 3. Genome

Levels 4 – 6: Intermediate or Developmental causation

  • 4. Embryonic/maturation process
  • 5. Formative early-environment effects
  • 6. Ongoing environments: “These are factors such as nutrition, stress, and reinforcement contingencies [. . .]”

Levels 7 – 9

  • 7. Longer-term physiology: “Though mainly hormonal, longer-term physiology also accounts for other metabolic effects [. . .]”
  • 8. Short-term physiology.
  • 9. Elicitors or releasers: “The immediate external causes of behavior, elicitors are the events in the stimulus envelope that precipitate the behavior; ethologists call this the releasing mechanism, and to the learning psychologist it is the conditions or unconditioned stimulus.”

I’d never consciously realized how levels like this work before. And I’d never consciously realized many of the subtle arguments Konner makes. The Evolution of Childhood is almost oppressively thorough; the woman I’m dating mentioned that I complain about books that are long magazine articles or that gloss their topics, and in doing so she implied that I should be thankful for The Evolution of Childhood’s move in the opposite direction. But I also came to the end, with the 100+ pages of citations, and felt that I’d come a long way since I began. Very few books feel like an intellectual journey in the most positive sense of the word. This one does.

The dangers of over-reliance on evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, courtesy of Ernest Gellner and Henry Farrell

Primitive man has lived twice: once in and for himself, and the second time for us, in our reconstruction. Inconclusive evidence may oblige him to live such a double life forever. Ever since the principles of our own social order have become a matter of sustained debate, there has been a persistent tendency to invoke the First Man to settle our disputes for us. His vote in the next general election is eagerly solicited. It is not entirely clear why Early Man should possess such authority over our choices.

That’s from Henry Gellner’s Plough, Sword, and Book: The Structure of Human History. Today, we wouldn’t call the primitive man the primitive man because “primitive” it prejudicial and “people” usually used instead of “man” because it explicitly includes all humans. We would instead call “primitive man” the “pre-agrarian world” or “evolutionary times” and then continue from there. But the point Gellner is making about our habitual “reconstruction” of what that looked like, in large part for the prejudices of the present, is well-taken and worth remembering in the light of books like Sex at Dawn, The Mating Mind, or the entire oeuvre of evolutionary biology and psychology, which have undergone tremendous revision over the past three decades and will no doubt continue to undergo tremendous revision under the next three and beyond.

How we reconstruct that time and “invoke the First Man” should be remembered as a reconstruction and not as the last word; he shouldn’t necessarily “possess such authority over our choices” today, because what was good for people living before agriculture or before the Industrial Revolution may not be good for us now.

It helps to understand the kinds of things that influence us, but we need to be wary of cherry picking evidence to support whatever kinds of social views we already hold.

I’m reading Gellner thanks to Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber.

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