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.

I think some women on OkCupid employ the same strategy:

“Mantises are large carnivorous insects. [. . .] they will attack almost anything that moves. When they mate, the male cautiously creeps up on the female, mounts her, and copulates. If the female gets the chance, she will eat him, beginning by biting his head off, either as the male is approaching, or immediately after he mounts, or after they separate. It might seem most sensible for her to wait until copulation is over before she starts to eat him. But the loss of the head does not seem to throw the rest of the male’s body off its sexual stride. Indeed, since the insect head is the seat of some inhibitory nerve centres, it is possible that the female improves the male’s sexual performance by eating his head. If so, this is an added benefit.”

—Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, which is best read in its latest edition.

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