heron61: (Science!)
Here's a nifty article on human pheromones (or more accurately, how they don't exist in humans, or in mammals). One bit that makes perfect sense to me is:
Not surprisingly, scientists do not agree on what defines a pheromone, and attempts by chemists to identify such putative agents have failed. Among the many reasons for this failure is that the basic tenet of the concept - that one or a few hormone-like chemicals, specific to each species, are triggers of social behaviour - is wrong. In mammals, chemically mediated behaviours are rarely hard-wired, and most biochemicals involved in communication between members of the same species are not specific to that species and comprise many compounds, some of them affected by diet, stress and other factors.

The two main classes of pheromones said to exist in mammals are "releaser" (biochemicals that elicit particular behavioural responses in others) and "primer" (biochemicals that alter endocrine function in others). In fact, nearly all phenomena attributed to releasers in mammals turn out to depend on learning, context, or novelty. Take mating preferences. When mice of strain A are fostered as babies with mice of strain B, they tend to prefer to mate with B mice rather than with A mice, their own genetic strain. Pheromones need not be invoked to account for this behaviour as it can be explained by the smell of the foster nest: the fostered mice mate mainly with mice that smell the same. The learning of smells can occur before birth, with adult offspring of a number of species, including humans, showing a stronger preference for foods and smells to which their pregnant mothers were exposed.

As for primer pheromones, in mammals most phenomena attributed to them turn out to reflect physiological and psychological responses to abnormal changes in the social and physical environment, such as stress. And when it comes to hormones and the endocrine system, those influences come from many sources.
What I've seen in discussions of pheromones is what I've seen in most evo psych, a desire for some way to reduce much of human behavior into simple mechanistic formulas. This is to some degree possible with hive insects, both because arthropods are very different from vertebrates, and because hive insects are exceptionally specialized creatures. In any case, I find the fact that the various theories surrounding humane pheromones are based on this desire for simple mechanistic explanations to say well more about the psychology of the people who promote them than they do about the mechanisms of human behavior.
heron61: (Gryphon - emphasis and strong feelings)
Here's an absolutely first-rate article about the problems with evolutionary psychology. It's 4 pages long, but exceptionally worth reading, in large part because it discusses various pieces of hard evidence that disprove a number of major claims prominent proponents of evo psych have made. Initially, the fact that so much of this discipline is made up of exceedingly bad science made it difficult to disprove, the article discusses why:
From its inception, evolutionary psychology had warned that behaviors that were evolutionarily advantageous 100,000 years ago (a sweet tooth, say) might be bad for survival today (causing obesity and thence infertility), so there was no point in measuring whether that trait makes people more evolutionarily fit today. Even if it doesn't, evolutionary psychologists argue, the trait might have been adaptive long ago and therefore still be our genetic legacy. An unfortunate one, perhaps, but still our legacy. Short of a time machine, the hypothesis was impossible to disprove. Game, set and match to evo psych.
However, careful (and more importantly) cross-cultural research has clearly shown that many of the claims made by evo psych proponents are not merely offensive they are also dead wrong. Here's one excellent example of utterly disproving one well known claim ) This Newsweek article is only the latest of a series of discussions of evolutionary psychology that I've seen. [livejournal.com profile] jhkim recently wrote a pair of posts about this issue that are also well worth reading. Here's his first post and here's an excellent follow-up post. These posts are an excellent examination of some of the many problems with evolutionary psychology, in response to the utterly ludicrous claim by a prominent game designer that evolutionary psychology (rather than sexism among both male gamers and male game designers) explains the reason why more women don't play RPGs.

It's long been clear that evolutionary psychology is often motivated by various personal or political prejudices, but the Newsweek article also clearly shows how much of it is also exceptionally bad science.

The article also discusses an emerging alternative to evolutionary psychology – behavioral ecology, a field which makes a great deal of sense based on my knowledge of anthropology, and the fact that learning is exceedingly important to many animals. Here are some quotes about behavioral ecology from the article: ) The links in this post provide more evidence that, at least among primates, learned behaviors are exceptionally important and in a very real sense, we should perhaps be talking about the cultures of various primate groups.
heron61: (Default)
Here's an absolutely fascinating article about homosexuality and other sexual behavior in animals. The core argument is as follows:
Consider the Eurasian oystercatcher, a shore bird that enjoys feasting on shellfish. A consistent minority of oystercatcher families are polygynous, in which a lucky male mates with two different females simultaneously. These threesomes come in two different flavors: aggressive and cooperative. In an aggressive threesome, the females are at war; they attack each other frequently, and try to disrupt the egg-laying process of their fellow spouse. So far, so Darwinian: Life is nasty, brutish and short. However, the cooperative threesome is everything Darwin didn't expect. These females share a nest, mate with each other several times a day, and preen their feathers together. It's domestic bliss.

In Roughgarden's Science paper, she uses "cooperative game theory" to elucidate the diverse mating habits of the oystercatcher. Whereas Darwin held that conflict was the natural state of life (we are all Hobbesian bullies at heart), Roughgarden sees cooperation as our default position. This makes mathematical sense: The family that sleeps together has more offspring. Why, then, do oystercatcher females occasionally engage in all out war? According to Roughgarden, violence occurs when "social negotiations" break down. Although the birds really want to get along (who doesn't like being preened?), something goes awry. The end result is risky violence, in which one female or both will end the breeding season without an egg.

The advantage of Roughgarden's new theory is that it can explain a wider spectrum of sexual behaviors than Darwinian sexual selection. Lesbian oystercatchers and gay mountain sheep? Their homosexuality is just a prelude to social cooperation, a pleasurable way of avoiding wanton conflict.
This makes vast amounts of sense to me, and fits with what I know of various forms of primate social behavior. It also nicely explains the reasons for the general dismissal of the rather impressive amount of evidence for homosexuality among animals. Part of the reason is conscious and unconscious homophobia, but I'm guessing that this is not the majority of the reason. The idea of homosexuality, just like the above example of two female birds cooperating rather than fighting goes against the entire basis of modern evolutionary theory. In addition to homosexuality being at least somewhat suspect among animals, so is cooperation. This study of cooperation in primates is impressive, but you see far more emphasis, especially in the popular press, placed on studies that reinforce a Hobbesian view of nature red in tooth and claw.

As I see it, much of this problem comes from the fact that sociobiology and its various equally foolish and pernicious descendants are widely accepted by a great many evolutionary biologists. As clearly explained in this link, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and related theories are ultimately as much about right-wing ideology as they are about science. This is hardly surprising, since these theories are the direct descendants of Spencer's Social Darwinism, and all of them share a conservative capitalist view of the world, where people and animals compete viciously over scarce resources, combined with a view that ever commodity is ultimately a scare resource, including both sex and pleasure.

Based as they are on the ideologies of capitalism and puritanism, such theories have no room for peace, cooperation, friendship, or (especially) sex as pleasure being anything other than odd human aberrations that are a departure from the grim natural world where there is only conflict, or (depending upon the researcher or science popularizer) that the only exception to such conflict is to be found among pair-bonded male-female couples raising young together. Such animal "nuclear families" are regularly depicted as something as conflict-focused as the most vicious family sitcom or as the same blissful isolation found in idealized visions of the 1950s. However, outside of such nuclear family propaganda (one, perhaps unintentional, example being march of the Penguins) conflict and suffering, not cooperation or mutual pleasure are seen as natural in the vast majority of both popular press and scientific views of the natural world.

To me that entire viewpoint is both sick and badly misguided. This is not to say that the proponents of these ideas are vile people, some definitely are. However, I've read quite a number of E.O. Wilson's essays and he ultimately struck me as a deeply humane and thoughtful individual whose worldview made him profoundly sad, just as it would make me profoundly sad. Thankfully, it's not true.
heron61: (Default)
Here's an excellent article on sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and the politics underlying these theories. I applaud the author for clearly demonstrating the right-wing racist and sexist biases inherent in these theories and in many of their proponents. The idea that science (especially social science) is (or could ever possibly be) independent of politics is both foolish and dangerous. The article comes from the Science as Culture site, which looks to be both excellent and very interesting.
heron61: (Default)
Here's an interesting article on evolution, jealousy, and genetics which purports to demolish the idiotic "evolutionary psychology" that has been accepted by far to many people. Even if genetics has a significant influence on our behavior blind speculations involving guesses about life in the paleolithic, followed by even more guesses about how such a way of life would affect evolution seems utter nonsense (and certainly seems to be).

OTOH, there is no guarantee that the studies described in the above article are any better. These days, I'm regarding all studies on race and gender as unfounded mythology, since I'm not at all certain that sufficiently objective research on these fields is possible. However, I do know that I strongly prefer the myths described in this article to the myths of the sociobiologists :)

I definitely believe that objective physical and natural science is possible, but in true (if fairly mild) postmodern fashion, I don't believe that any of the "social sciences" are anything resembling sciences. Neurology is a science, psychology, anthropology, and sociology are all disciplines that are far more like literature or history (highly subjective, purely descriptive fields that have far more to do with the creative arts than with any concept of objectivity). Not that this makes these fields in any way inferior (heck I almost have Ph in Anthropology). Objective knowledge is not the only useful form of knowledge, but confusing objective and subjective truths leads to much foolishness.
heron61: (Default)
I was looking for something else in the rather vast number of files I have accumulated and found this essay that I wrote a couple of years ago. I'm fairly proud of it, so I decided to post it here to stir up trouble.

Gay Genes or Learned Behavior

First off, let me state that I do not believe in genetic determinism of human behavior. At most, I would be willing to admit that there might exist genetic predispositions in some direction or another (perhaps some people become alcoholics easier than other due to genetic factors). However, a predisposition is not the same thing as a genetic mandate to act in a certain way. Also, while the following essay is about sexual preference, I suspect that the same point may also apply to gender identity and likely many other qualities about people.

Anyway, could sexual preference be learned behavior? Clearly this learning takes place at a very young age, and is not learned or taught at a conscious level. Let us examine what other behaviors are similar. One which comes to mind, is food preference. While this seems a highly trivial example, I believe that it is not. Certainly, many people have fairly broad food preferences, as well as a number of foods which they prefer not to eat but will eat if little else is available. However, everyone also has a large list of items which are not considered to be edible.

In most of the First World, this list includes insects, worms, arachnids and other similar creatures. Most US residents are utterly repulsed by the idea of eating a large well-cooked spider, and are even more disgusted with the thought of eating a living, squirming grub. I would like all First World resident reading this piece to consider how they would feel if they were confronted by such a creature and told to eat it. Having studied anthropology for many years, I know that most US residents honestly cannot bring themselves to eat such fare and that many of those who attempt to do so will rapidly vomit. A significant number of people will honestly starve to death rather than eat such a meal. Other cultures have similar limits. In most of Asia eating a rare, juicy hamburger is a disgusting thought. Various Amazonian tribes consider peanut butter about as appetizing as human waste (which they feel it strongly resembles). However, these limits are purely cultural. In the jungles of South America, roast spider is a part of many meals, and large live grubs are regarded by many societies as a special taste treat. Similarly, many Americans love peanut butter, and very few consider it to be completely inedible.

That does this discussion have to do with sexual preference? Perhaps these preferences are comparable. Many people also are disgusted at the idea of having sex with someone they consider to be the inappropriate gender, and a few will even become physically sick if they attempt to do so. Both food preference and sexual preference are powerful imperatives (starving to death rather than eating an item that another culture considers to be food seems to me to be as strong a drive as anything involving sexual preference). No one has ever claimed that food preferences are in any way genetic. Certainly some people are lactose intolerant or allergic to a some foods, but the physical limits still don't explain why many US residents literally can't eat live bugs or why most Amazonian natives literally can't eat peanut butter.

Also, consider an analogy... Someone from the US is lost in a jungle; they have no food and are very hungry. They know that they are likely to starve to death if they don't find food, and all they can find is grubs. In this situation some people (but not all) will eat the grubs and survive. However, almost no one then returns to civilization having developed a taste for grubs.

Similarly, in isolated single-sex environments, like single sex boarding schools, prisons, or most naval ships before the 1990s, a significant number of people engage in homosexual behavior. When faced with no other access to sex, these people choose to have sex outside their normal range rather than remain celibate. When such people leave this single sex environment the vast majority cease this behavior and go back to having sex with the folks they had it with before. These two cases seem to me to be comparable. It is interesting to note that frequent exposure to strongly non-preferred foods or sexual partners almost never changes someone's preference, even if the preferred foods or members of the preferred gender are unavailable for several years. Clearly, both preferences are quite resilient.

So, how can something which is learned and not in any way genetic or otherwise innate in us be so durable? Consider another analogy, language. My native language is English, in college I studied two tonal languages, Mandarin Chinese, and Thai. I have heard from every instructor of these languages I have ever known that native speakers of non-tonal languages can never be as proficient with tonal languages as native speakers if they start learning the language after the age of 9 or 10. While this evidence is merely anecdotal, it is supported by two facts:

1) Speakers of tonal and non-tonal languages use different portions of their brains to process speech. According to our (admittedly rudimentary) knowledge of the brain, the speakers of tonal languages process speech in the same place that their brains processes music. If a speaker of a non-tonal language attempts to learn a tonal language, in almost all cases their brain will continue to process that language in the region which it processes other languages. Lacking the way to process the language,
fluency is impaired.

2) Until 1999 most Westerner assumed that perfect pitch was a rare (1 person in 10,000 in the US has it), likely inborn quality which a few people were blessed with. This proves to be completely untrue. Most speakers of tonal (largely Asian) languages have perfect pitch (it quite shocks me that no Western researcher discovered this fact earlier than a couple of years ago). Least anyone attempt to add genetics to this situation, people of Asian ancestry who learn a non-tonal language as their first language are no more likely to have perfect pitch than anyone else, and they process language in the same place as other speakers of non-tonal languages.

The only known genetic component to language acquisition is the ability of young humans learn any language easily. However, the particular language that is learned has profound and possibly permanent affects on the structure of an individual's brain. Perhaps sexual preference has similar effects.

The only remaining question is if sexual preference is learned behavior why do homophobic cultures produce homosexuals and bisexuals? There does seem evidence that sexual preference is affected by overt cultural programming. Ancient Greece glorified male homosexuality and denigrated heterosexual sex for any purpose other than procreation. Most Ancient Greek men were bisexual and many of them preferred homosexual relationships. In contrast, most of the modern First World is moderately to strongly homophobic and homosexuality is much rarer than it was in Ancient Greece.

However, some people are gay and bi despite culture programming to the contrary. Why? Food preferences are also somewhat variable. Many Westerners are disgusted by sushi, while many other Westerners love it. I have met people who literally could not eat raw fish, the idea disgusted them. However, I and many others love it. We were not taught this preference by our culture. Instead, for some reason we developed this preference despite cultural programming to the contrary.

Clearly cultural programming is clearly never perfect on any subject, and sexuality is one of the areas where the results appear to be moderately variable. In any learning of this sort, which is both early and unconscious, numerous subtle and often seemingly trivial factors can influence the learning process. I have no idea of the exact circumstance which make some people straight and others gay or bi, we may never know the exact reasons. Being able to deconstruct culture at that level is a task that no one has managed for any topic, much less one as complex and controversial as sexual preference. However, it does seem possible that sexual preference falls belongs on the list of highly durable, unconsciously learned behaviors. It also seems equally possible that other factors like gender identity could also fall into this same category.
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