The New York Review of Books

Volume 26, Number 21 & 22 ů January 24, 1980



By Clifford Geertz

The Evolution of Human Sexuality
by Donald Symons
Oxford University Press, 358 pp., $15.95

Higgamous, Hoggamous, woman's monogamous;
Hoggamous, Higgamous, man is polygamous.
ˇOld Saw

This is a book about the "primary male-female differences in sexuality among humans," in which the following things are not discussed: guilt, wonder, loss, self-regard, death, metaphor, justice, purity, intentionality, cowardice, hope, judgment, ideology, humor, obligation, despair, trust, malice, ritual, madness, forgiveness, sublimation, pity, ecstasy, obsession, discourse, and sentimentality. It could be only one thing, and it is. Sociobiology.

Sociobiologists who concern themselves with human beings tend to divide into one-animal men and two-animal men. (Virtually all the leading figures in the movement are maleˇWilson, Hamilton, Trivers, Maynard Smith, Morris, Dawkins, Tiger-Fox.) Symons, a physical anthropologist whose previous involvements have been with rhesus monkeys, is emphatically a two-animal man. "There is a female human nature and a male human nature and these natures are extraordinarily different, though the differences are to some extent masked by the compromises heterosexual relations entail and by moral injunctions." Nor is it only the stark reality of sexual estrangement that stands out when one is not beguiled by "proximate" mattersˇculture, history, thought, social structure, and so on; so too does the hardly less stark "ultimate," that is, Darwinian, reason for this estrangement.

Men and women differ in their sexual natures because throughout the immensely long hunting and gathering phase of human evolutionary history the sexual desires and dispositions that were adaptive for either sex were for the other tickets to reproductive oblivion.

When it comes to fitness, and it finally does, one sex's meat is the other's poison.

Given an axiom, Symons builds a world. First, he argues, various characteristics of the human psyche, itself a product of natural selection "via mind's effects on behavior," lie at varying "distances" from our genes; that is, are governed by them to differing degrees of tolerance. In particular, emotions are "closer" than thoughts, thus more universal in man, more uniform, and more "ultimate." "The intellect is how, the emotions why." The evolution of human sexuality is thus, primarily at least, the evolution of an emotional economyˇor, given Symons's his-and-hers view of things, economies. Behavior varies widely, and so do customs and ideas about what sexuality is or ought to be. But sexual feeling, adaptively shaped in the hard school of paleolithic knocksˇhunting, gathering, and doggedly avoiding oblivionˇis, if not fixed, the next best thing to it: a set of "invariant motivational/emotional neural systems."

The nature of these "profound differences in psyche" between men and women (which at base are genetically determined differences in brain structure), their evolutionary "scenarios," and their expression in our lives as we try somehow to get on with the mating game, are the book's subject. Inter an enormous lot of peculiar alia (at one point he doubts whether Erica Jong really feels as strongly about her famous "zipless fuck" as she does about the Germans; at another, wonders whether Playgirl wouldn't sell better if its centerfold men had erect penises rather than flaccid ones), this is what Symons says:

ˇ The female orgasm is not in itself an adaptation on the part of women but a "byproduct of selection for male orgasm." "Like agriculture, the wheel, and indoor plumbing" (he has a gift for simile), the female orgasm is an artifact, something a certain portion of the human raceˇin world-historical terms rather smallˇhas discovered by tinkering around.

ˇ The pair-bond view of marriage (i.e., that it is the permanent sexual receptivity of the human female that keeps the male hanging around and so underlies human family structure) is incorrect. Spouses stay together in spite of erotic sentiment, "the major source of marital misery," rather than because of it.

ˇ Estrusˇa distinct mating periodˇhas disappeared in the human female because among ancestral, hominids it was to the woman's advantage to conceal ovulation and "advertise continuously." That way she would attract only the more intelligent and "discriminating" malesˇthose able "to be sexually aroused by other indices of female reproductive value," such as beauty, health, etc., than crude smell.

ˇ Hunting and fighting were the primary means by which pleistocene men competed for women. Indeed, "competition over women probably is the single most important cause of violence" in human society and (this from G.C. Williams) "at every moment in its game of life the masculine sex is playing for higher stakes."

ˇ As selection favors those who contrive to copulate with the fitter members of the opposite sex, women, whose "parental investment" far exceeds that of men, because they bear and nurse children, are choosier than males. In fact males are, at heart, rather like the hero of My Secret Life who "despite his lifelong dislike of red hairÍonce went home with a red-haired prostitute simply because it meant a change."

ˇ Physical attractiveness is more important in sexual choice with respect to women (that is, their own attractiveness, which for Symons seems to come down mainly to youth, cleanliness, and a clear skin) than it is with respect to men, in whom looks don't matter much because they turn on women with their status, power, strength, and the like.

ˇ As a man may benefit reproductively from copulating with any woman, the more he beds the merrier adaptively; since a woman can only produce a limited number of children, whether she sleeps with "one, ten, or a thousand men," the same is not true of her. In fact, female promiscuity may be maladaptive because "the more men a married woman copulates with the more likely she is to be abandoned or harmed by a jealous husband or angry brothers [and] the more time and energy are diverted from reproductively significant activities such as nursing, gathering, arranging children's marriages," etc.

ˇ Men intensely desire sexual variety, women could care less; men incline to polygynyˇhaving two wives at the same timeˇwhere women, "more malleable in this respect," may be "equally satisfied" with polygyny, polyandry, or monogamy as long as they are treated decently and have access to a fit man.

ˇ "Among all peoples" copulation is considered to be "essentially a service or favor that women render to men, and not vice versa," regardless of who is thought to enjoy it more. Saul Bellow's "I never yet touched a fig leaf that didn't turn into a price tag," is, for Symons, who quotes it as an epigraph, not a personal lament but a natural law.

The image is clear: wayward man is trapped in the sorrows of Priapus ("The desire for sexual variety dooms most males to a lifetime of unfulfilled longing"); the sensible woman keeps her skirts down so that the vagaries of passion, to which admittedly she is occasionally subject, don't interfere with her role as the great stabilizer of familial life ("It would generally be maladaptive for women to be able to be 'blinded' by lust"). Neither comprehend how the other feels about things ("One of the most persuasive evidences of sex difference isÍthat men and women find it intuitively difficult to understand one another"). And this image has the advantage of being what a lot of people, Phyllis Schafley, for example, already believe in. But a few questions do arise: what is the evidence for all this? Is this headlong biologism really the way to get at the "typical differences between men and women in sexual behaviors, attitudes, and feelings"? And what implications does it have for the way we love now? It has to be said for Symons that he faces all these issues squarely. It also has to be said that they all defeat him.

So far as evidence goes, virtually none of it derives from any research Symons himself has done. Aside from some "modest efforts" at assessing which way Playgirl's readership swings by interviewing clerks at newsstands he has made no direct inquiries into human sexuality, and as he does not regard analogies with nonhuman animals as revelatory of what human beings are like, his work on rhesus play is involved only incidentally. (This thoroughly admirable principle, one which if it were widely imitated would bring a good part of human sociobiology to a halt, is not extended, however, to chimpanzees, every sociobiologist's favorite apeˇSymons calls them "model hominids"ˇwhose behavior is cited frequently to explain things about people ranging from male promiscuity to the dominant role of men in politics.)

The main sorts of material discussed are anthropological reports (and summaries of anthropological reports) on sexual behavior; the findings of various sorts and conditions of sex researchers in our own societyˇMasters and Johnson, Kinsey, the Redbook survey, and especially the Hite report, which he puts to uses the author may not wholly care for; odd bits of literatureˇaside from Bellow, Jong, and "Walter" of My Secret Life (something of a hero of Symons's), Colette, Mark Twain, and Ingrid Bengis, author of Combat in the Erogenous Zone, are brought on stage to speak appropriate lines as the occasion arises; scattered physiological findings of one kind or another (cervical electrical activity during copulation, androgen effects on clitoral size); plus a great deal of what one can only call idle observation, much of it, he says, gleaned from his students:

A woman who has experienced orgasm is likely to want to do so again. A male might want his partner to orgasm for many of the same reasons he might want to give her a giftÍto be gratified by evidences of her pleasureÍto make her think well of himÍto create an obligation.
ÍThe fact that most men in modern Western society wear more drab or conservative clothing than women does not mean that men are uninterested in being sexually attractive to women; on the contrary, this mode of dress is attractive to most women.
ÍMany young women "girl watch" as much as or more than they "boy watch"Í. But women's interest in other women's bodies is not evidence for lesbianism [as comparable behavior is for homosexuality among men].

The result is a pastiche more than a study, a nervous assembling of data of all sorts, degrees of precision, and levels of reliability in the hope that, rather as in a lawyer's brief, if there is enough of it some of it may contrive to convince. There are abundant citations, ten or twenty to the page, but not a single piece of research is discussed for more than a paragraph or so and most get but a line, a clause, or, all too often, a blank reference.

Also, it is a selective pastiche. Symons quite openly chooses what serves him from the ethnographic literature (he accepts what Margaret Mead says in Male and Female, dismisses what she says in Sex and Temperament), from sex research (Masters and Johnson have an "enthusiasm for marriage" that must be discounted before their data can be correctly interpreted, Linda Wolfe can't see the forest for the trees in her own research), or whatever. With this sort of approach, a case for anything, except perhaps universal sexual indifference, is fairly easy to make. When the fact that "an advertisement in a swingers' magazine placed by a woman who was thirty pounds overweight and not pretty received five hundred responses" is invoked in support of the thesis that rape is more sexual in motivation than aggressive, or a "finding" that in a sample of middle-class women, 15 percent of those who regarded their marriages as very good had had extramarital sex as against 67 percent of those who regarded them as very bad is made to lead on to the suggestion that revenge is a primary motive in female adultery, one knows one is in the presence of a relaxed view of what a scientific argument is.

This sense that anything goes so long as it goes in the right direction becomes overwhelming in the proclaimed center-piece of Symons's book, a chapter called "Test Cases: Hormones and Homosexuals." The hormone part is an extremely brief and fragmentary review of endocrinological work concerning the effects of excess androgen on female fetuses, which may or may not support, as Symons claims it does, the view that male patterns of sexual responsiveness are more "innate"ˇthat is, developmentally fixedˇthan female ones are. A few glancing references to dream eroticism, autonomous clitoral erectility, and initiatory sexuality among "andrenogenital" women would hardly seem sufficient to show this degree of innateness.

But it is the homosexual case that Symons considers the "acid test" for his Great Divide view of sexuality because homosexual men, freed of the need to worry about what women really want and try to give it to them, display more clearly the "undiluted," "species-typical" patterns of male sexuality than do heterosexual men, who must so worry and, haplessly, try; and the same, on the flip-side, for homosexual women and female sexuality. Gays are pure, or anyway purer, specimens of "ultimate" erotic identity, undisguised by the social demands and cultural hypocrisies of straight life: "Sexual relations among homosexuals are not constrained by the necessity to compromise male and female desires and dispositions, hence the sexual relations of lesbians should differ profoundly from the sexual relations of homosexual men."

And so Symons, freewheeling his way through dozens of studies, from a Times review of a Hugh Hefner biography to Laud Humphreys's famous observations in a public toiletˇnearly 150 citations in a dozen pagesˇfinds they do differ. For male homosexuals "the most frequent form of sexual activity is one night stands in which sex occurs, without obligation or commitment, between strangers." They are intensely interested in pornography, find it difficult to form long-term stable relations, see physical attractiveness as the overwhelmingly important element in sexual desirability, distinguish sharply between friends and sexual partners, are genitally focused in the extreme, are intensely romantic, continually falling in love with an idealized fantasy and continually being disappointed, and are plagued throughout with "the male tendency toward sexual jealousy."

As for female homosexuals, though like male ones they "tend to place a great deal of importance on sex and sex-related activities," they are not genitally focused, form "lasting, intimate, paired relationships," associate sex with "enduring emotions and a loving partner," do not cruise or have anonymous sex in public places, and rarely pick up partners for one night stands. That lesbian life more resembles (middle-class?) heterosexual life than gay male life Symons takes as evidence that, contrary to feminist male-conspiracy theories, it is the nature and interests of the human female that give structure to family life, more than the nature and interests of men. In the straight "compromise," men get the short end of the arrangement, women the long.

The evaluation of these characterizations may be left to those more competent to judge them. They seem to me at about the level of descriptions of the Irish as garrulous and the Sherpas as loyal. But that this hectic piling up of undigested, fragmentary, surface observations gleaned from anywhere and everywhere can lead to the establishment of the proposition Symons so desperately wants to establishˇthat male-female differences in sexuality are "profound," "straightforward," and "relatively innate"ˇseems at least questionable. There is still a difference between testing a hypothesis and embroidering it.

The deeper question, however, is whether this general strategy for determining what "men" and "women" are really likeˇstripping away history, culture, and social structure to reveal a raw hominid naked to naked observationsˇis a practicable one. Are Symons's driven Man and circumspect Woman real, if masked, beings, out there in bars and bedrooms struggling to get together in spite of what phylogyny has made them? Or are they one more archetypically flawed originative pair inhabiting one more magical garden?

The latter may just be the case. Symons justifies his approach by claiming that contemporary human environments are "unnatural" and that human sexuality was shaped in "natural" environments long since disappeared, though those of contemporary hunter-gatherersˇBushmen, Eskimos, Amazonian Indiansˇto a degree approximate them. The concept of adaptation is an "onerous" one, he says, one which must be used sparingly lest evolution become an all-purpose explanation for anything and everything that human beings do. (This is another admirable view that Symons honors more in the breech than the observance: before he is through, he is relating recent increases in our body height and the fact that "feminism and anti-sexuality often go together" to adaptive mechanisms.) "The nightmare of the [prehistorical] past" made us what we are. What we have built on top of what we areˇromance, sex roles, and the orgasmic womanˇis something else again.

The result of such a view is to divide the biological dimensions of human existence from the sociological in such a way that to explain the one is to explain away the other. Either, like Symons (who regards "a substantial science of human society" as probably impossible), you attribute as much as you can manage, and perhaps a little bit more, to ancient adaptations to vanished environments and leave the rest to itself, or, like a good many social scientists, you relate social facts to social facts and reduce biology to a passive background. Either way, the path between what biologists know and what social scientists do (not as much as they pretend, in either case) is effectively blocked. What finally does Symons in, aside from singleness of mind and an easy way with evidence, is his failure to understand that in human beings sexuality is not, like the opposable thumb, a biological fact with some cultural implications, but, like speech, a cultural activity sustaining a biological process. To explain it, "ultimately" or otherwise, by looking through rather than at its meaning is rather like trying to understand language armed only with aural acoustics and the anatomy of the vocal tract.

The social implications of this sort of approach have, of course, been much discussed, not always very rationally. So far as Symons is concerned, however, the question is moot: his work has, he says, no social policy implications of any kind whatsoever. Is is Is and Ought is Ought, and the attempt to derive normative standards from natural facts is a fallacy largely induced by Judaeo-Christian theology, Romanticism, popular superstition, social science theory, and other collective aberrations.

There is a certain breathtaking charm in this view: the natural may indeed not be the good, but to write a book that says men and women are radically mismatched in their basic sexual natures, that sex is a major disruptive force in marriage and a primary obstacle to human happiness, that copulation is a female service provided to men for an appropriate return, that men want sexual novelty and women sexual constancy, that male sexuality is rigidly channeled and female highly "malleable," that sexual desire is the major motive for rape, that men are drawn to women because they are good-looking and women to men because they are important, and that among homosexual men the very ease of sexual satisfaction "frustrates the satisfaction of other desires, such as those for intimacy and security," and expect it all to be taken, at this time and in this place, as "just the facts" is so wildly unrealistic as to suggest a highly uncertain grasp on the ways of the world.

Or (a darker thought) a grasp all too certain. An author is not responsible for the praise he receives, even if he solicits it. But when E.O. Wilson, the founding father of sociobiology, submits a testimonial that "Symons's book [is] the most thorough and persuasive account on [sic] human sexual behavior thus far that incorporates a professional understanding of sociobiologyˇand hence the ultimate meaning of sexuality," and when the president of the American Anthropological Association claims that "this is the most important book on human sociobiology that has yet been written" (that, alas, may just be true), and G.C. Williams, professor of "ecology and evolution" at Stony Brook, writes excitedly to Symons, "I hope you are prepared to become a celebrity. At least you will be regarded as the founder of a new 'ology'Í," one senses one is faced with science in a hurry. The moral equivalent of fast-food, Symons's book is not artlessly neutral, it is skillfully impoverished.




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