Let's Talk About Sex

In a world with confused sexual norms, evolutionary psychologists want to offer simple guidances: Men are programmed to impregnate many women, and it’s in the female genome to remain faithful. It’s time to dispel these misconceptions. We cannot draw on age-old reflexes to excuse present behavior.

Why are feminists so opposed to evolutionary psychology? Because scientists argue that our gender roles, our sexual drive and love life have been passed through the generations since prehistoric times. According to evolutionary psychologists, we are the offspring of a 2.5 million year-old Pleistocene creature, programmed to roam the Savannah as a hunter and gatherer in small groups. It is only natural, these psychologists argue, that men are dominant and women care for children. Male ejaculation, promiscuity, sexual violence – all are seen as innate facts of human nature.

What these scientific speculators fail to see is that the subjects of their inquiries are not today’s cultural gender norms, sexuality, love and the idea of subjectivity and individuality, but rather the biological processes of procreation and species conservation. We have yet to find a fossil that has preserved emotions in its layers. All claims about our lives as hunters and gatherers are unsubstantiated assumptions.

Why are evolutionary explanations so popular? I believe that contemporary sex and gender relations irritate many of us. Since we lack binding cultural and moral codes, men and women must decide for themselves what to do and what to avoid. We are still conditioned – through our upbringing, our friends, the media, et cetera. But ultimately, it is up to each of us to decide whether to embrace the idea of sexuality, how to do it, and with what gender.

In light of the individualizing, liberalizing but also strenuous conditions that I have described as the “neosexual revolution”, it was only logical to seek guidance in innate features. Suddenly, complexity could be reduced to a few simple truths: Men are genetically programmed to be polygamous impregnators while women are similarly programmed as monogamous caretakers. What a calming, anachronistic, psychological reductionism.

But what is wrong with explaining our sexual behavior and gender norms with reference to prehistoric instincts? There’s a simple answer: We cannot draw a continuous line from the Stone Age to postmodern capitalism. For centuries, we have lived in a sexual age, we have fought for or against birth control, free love, sexual emancipation and gender tolerance. Procreation and sexuality are no longer synonymous. We are social beings, hence our sexual lives are part of the social realm as well.

Without the process of social progress, mankind would not exist in its current state. Hence we cannot simply detach the natural element of sexuality from the social element. We cannot say that the former is primary, natural, or correct, while the latter is secondary, artificial, or incorrect. The economically and experimentally driven culture of science has questioned or voided existing boundaries more quickly than most evolutionary scientists can imagine. Today, it has become normal to add new elements to existing nature: The synthetic element Hassium, genetically modified plants, cloned animals, human “test tube babies” or artificial insemination.

Read more in this debate: David Schmitt.

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Nature and Nurture

Taking Science Seriously

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Serious science cannot deny the importance of evolution. We are not determined by nature - but understanding our nature can provide the brightest path towards creating a world where all can see their potential realized.

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by David Schmitt
25.01.2012
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