Not Against Human Sexual Selection

Piotr Stojanow

July 2, 2019

The Lovers II by Rene Magritte

Tanner Greer posted recently Against Human Sexual Selection on his insightful blog. In it he takes issue with evolutionary psychology for explaing “female mate preferences and male phenotypes (…) through the frame of sexual selection”.


LATER PASTE THIS QUOTE SOMEWHERE. HE MAKES THE SAME MISTAKE. “human history” is merely an eyeblink on evolutionary scales, and the article has nothing to say about mate choice in prehistory.

the model they posit for female mate selection does not reflect how human mate selection actually worked for most of human history.

Greer first problem with the accounts of human sexual selection is “mate choice”. Or rather the lack of it:

Humans are not frictionless, autonomous mate calculators on two legs. They live embedded in a social organization that has immense control over everything they do—including who they mate. (…) For most of human history, marriage was an arrangement between families, not individuals. Married children were generally expected to live with one of the families from which they sprung. Parents and grandparents had a veto of matches they did not like, and usually had the authority force a match the principals did not like, especially if the principal in question was a woman.

He is right saying that humans don’t exist a vacuum. We are a social animal. Yet, we also didn’t evolve in a vacuum. Homo sapiens didn’t suddenly appear and started arranging marriages. We are but a blink on the human timeline. And we carry in us a heavy evolutionary baggage.

Moreover, as we learn from Evolutionary History of Hunter-Gatherer Marriage Practices:

Arranged marriages are inferred to go back at least to first modern human migrations out of Africa.

That’s just 70,000-60,000 years ago1. If that wasn’t enough, the jury is still out on whether earlier marriages were arranged:

Reconstructions are equivocal on whether or not earlier human marriages were arranged because several African hunter-gatherers have courtship marriages. (…) Put simply we do not yet know whether or not mitochondrial Eve’s marriage was arranged. (…) arranged marriages probably have an evolutionary history going back at least 50,000 years2.

To be fair the Scholar’s Stage quotes Buckner who relies on Sexual Selection Under Parental Choice. It has “data from 190 hunting and gathering societies”. It concludes that:

Because daughters’ preferences can be expected not to fully coincide with those of their parents, research to date may thus have simultaneously overestimated the contribution of female preferences to processes of sexual selection and underestimated the contribution of parental preferences to such processes.

I don’t dispute this claim. In fact, the research in Evolutionary History of Hunter-Gatherer Marriage Practices supports it:

Our reconstruction of the evolutionary history of hunter-gatherer marriage practices indicates that parents and other close kin likely had a significant influence on mate choice. (…) At present, it is probably safe to conclude that an important selective pressure on the evolution of human mate choice, certainly more than any other species, has been the direct, deliberate, and conscious intervention of parents and other close kin on the sexual lives of their descendants.

That said, it doesn’t negate female mate preferences.

Even assuming that women didn’t choose their mates doesn’t mean that there is no selection pressures on male traits. At the very least the arrange marriages would lead to women preferring high-status males, which seems to be the case:

Several standard sex differences replicated across cultures, including women’s greater valuation of social status and men’s greater valuation of physical attractiveness

Evidence of selection for men’s status was also confirmed by other studies3 4.

Women are also attracted to testosterone dependent traits even though

Men with low testosterone (feminine men) invest in relationships and offspring more than men with high testosterone (masculine men).

Moreover, do women not choosing mates mean that sexual selection is possible only in marriages? Surely adultery exist at least as long as marriages do. Or as Laura Betzig puts is “throughout history men married monogamously, but mated polygynously if they could afford it5.”

We find confirmation for this in the Optimal Number of Fathers: Evolution, Demography, and History in the Shaping of Female Mate Preferences:

Across cultures, formal polyandrous marriages are indeed exceedingly rare (few-er than 2% of human cultures are so classified). But informally, polyandrous arrangements are far more common due to extramarital affairs, to a shortage of women or inability of one man to provide security, to a husband’s “sharing” his wife with kin, age-mates or allies (which by some estimates is found in one-third of all human cultures), or due to women’s taking up with sequential matesover a lifetime. Because so little attention has been focused on these topics, however, it can be difficult to learn from the ethnographic record whether a woman was seduced, raped, complicitous, or the initiator, or whether the husband was dupedor supportive. For husbands are not always prohibitively jealous of their wives6

We have to keep in mind that marriages are not set in stone. As well as the fact that women could have children with more than one man:

Take the Aché of eastern Paraguay. At any one time, the majority of marriages are monogamous. Yet each of these unions at some point is likely to be polygynous or polyandrous. For marriage among foragers is inherently unstable, especially when unions are passing through a polygynous or polyandrous phase. The marriage dissolves from internal tensions due to male jealousy or to intolerance between co-wives. Sixty percent (11 of 18) of Aché men spent some (typically brief) amount of time in polyandrous marriages. Over their lives, most Aché women have children with two or more men7

It’s important that we don’t succumb to presentism and give moral judgements on the past when we lack the full picture. Animals evolve mating systems that minimize inbreeding hazards. From Ancient genomes show social and reproductive behavior of early Upper Paleolithic foragers we know that at least 34,000 years ago humans formed sophisticated social and mating networks to avoid inbreeding8. Arranged marriages were most likely used to cultivate the network. This gave homo sapiens an advantage over Altai Neanderthal groups who didn’t develop such a network and inbred instead9.

He even go as far as stating:

This is a problem for sexual-selection theories of male behavior. If the girls were not choosing their matches, what selection pressures on male traits could there be? Perhaps instead of speaking of the psychology of sexual selection, we should be speaking of the psychology of parental selection instead.

The same paper also agrees that:

How regulated marriage affected sexual selection on human mate choice preferences depends on several factors. One factor is the extent to which parental (and other senior kin) choices overlapped or diverged with that of offspring mate choice. Another factor is the extent to which marital partners chosen by parents were the actual genitors of the descendants. Worldwide extra-pair paternity rates have been estimated at around 9% [26], although there is much variation between as well as within populations [27]. Regarding the first issue, parent-offspring conflict over mate choice in contemporary Western populations has been found to contain considerable conflict of interest, as well as some expected overlap, in preferred attributes [28]–[31]. However, environmental novelty may render these findings unrepresentative of ancestral situations and a systematic examination of parental and offspring mate choice preferences among hunter-gatherers and other small-scale societies is warranted.

  1. A dispersal of Homo sapiens from southern to eastern Africa immediately preceded the out-of-Africa migration by Teresa Rito, Daniel Vieira, Marina Silva, Eduardo Conde-Sousa, Luísa Pereira, Paul Mellars, Martin B. Richards & Pedro Soares, Scientific Reportsvolume 9, Article number: 4728 (2019) 

  2. Walker RS, Hill KR, Flinn MV, Ellsworth RM. Evolutionary history of hunter-gatherer marriage practices. PLoS One. 2011;6(4):e19066. Published 2011 Apr 27. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0019066 

  3. Apicella, C.L. (2014). Upper-body strength predicts hunting reputation and reproductive success in Hadza hunter–gatherers. Evolution and Human Behavior, 35, 508-518 

  4. Jonason, P. K., Li, N. P., & Madson, L. (2012). It is not all about the Benjamins: Understanding preferences for mates with resources. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 306-310 

  5. Laura 

  6. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, The Optimal Number of Fathers: Evolution, Demography, and History in the Shaping of Female Mate Preferences, Volume 907, Issue 1, Evolutionary Perspectives On Human Reproductive Behavior, April 2000, pp. 75-96, p. 82 

  7. Ibid., p. 85 

  8. Ancient genomes show social and reproductive behavior of early Upper Paleolithic foragers, Sikora M, Seguin-Orlando A, Sousa VC, Albrechtsen A, Korneliussen T, Ko A, Rasmussen S, Dupanloup I, Nigst PR, Bosch MD, Renaud G, Allentoft ME, Margaryan A, Vasilyev SV, Veselovskaya EV, Borutskaya SB, Deviese T, Comeskey D, Higham T, Manica A, Foley R, Meltzer DJ, Nielsen R, Excoffier L, Mirazon Lahr M, Orlando L, Willerslev E, Science 03 Nov 2017 : 659-662 

  9. Ibid. 

On Sexual Purity Taboos and STIs

Piotr Stojanow

July 2, 2019

Lot And His Daughters by Meester van de Verloren Zoon

Scott Alexander in his latest sequence on cultural evolution speculates that “STIs played a role in the cultural evolution of taboos against promiscuity and homosexuality”. I doubt this claim.

From the History of sexually transmitted infections, we learn that:

In ancient times they [STDs] were taken for an individual punishment for a blasphemic conduct of life or as a consequence of low sanitation and hygiene.

And only in the medieval ages:

the relation to sexual activities was recognized, but the diversity of clinical symptoms was seen as variations of one disease, depending on the stage of the disease and the general health condition of the diseased person.

This is crucial because sexual taboos in the Western world have their origins in the Bible. This means that they evolved well before the relation between STD and sex was discovered. History of venereal diseases from antiquity to the renaissance confirms this time frame:

During the Middle Ages, numerous physicians and surgeons from Europe as well as from Arabic countries wrote on local diseases of the genitals, describing chancres, condylomata, erosions, pustules, urethral and vaginal discharge, and their treatment. Some were aware that the alterations were connected with sexual activity.

We may find confirmation on when purity taboos occurred in the Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism:

The rabbis’ interest in the matter may be seen in the massive body of legal materials on purity, their working out in precise detail just what is impure and what is pure. Ordinary folk certainly believed sexual taboos were valid and obeyed them1

And here is Jacob Neusner on what was considered clean and unclean:

Uncleanness served as a metaphor for sexual misdeed, idolatry, or unethical behavior. Cleanness was compared to sexual purity, service to one God alone, and correct action2

Purity taboos didn’t restrict coitus to one partner. Laura Betzig in Medieval Monogamy notes:

in the Middle Ages, as in other ages, powerful men married monogamously, but mated polygynously. Both laymen and church men tended to have sexual access to as many women as they could afford3

This is in line with what we know from the Bible. Even though there are warnings against venereal diseases in the Old Testament4, it’s full of powerful men with more than one woman. For example, Abraham or Solomon with his modest harem of a thousand women. The “punishment” for raping a virgin was payment5 and a shotgun wedding. That’s God’s morality for you.

In the New Testament, Jesus didn’t care that much about sex as Paul the Apostle, who claimed that your body belongs to God6, premarital sex is immoral7 on an equal level as adultery (homosexuality included)8.

If purity taboos were established before the discovery of the relation between sex and STIs, then what was their purpose? Let’s bare in mind what Laura Betzig writes:

besides being young, virgins have at least two advantages with respect to fitness: They are unlikely to be carrying sexually transmitted diseases, and they are unlikely to be carrying other men’s children9

We could equally argue that purity taboos are a way to:

  • prevent false paternity (Scott agrees with this)
  • secure a legitimate wife, heir for financial and political reasons10
  • restrict women’s sexual access by powerful men to just themselves11

While purity taboos are evolving, the relation between them and STIs is absent in the Bible. Yet, the link between power and sex is noticeable.

powerful men-patriarchs, judges, and kings-have sex with more wives; they have more sex with other men’s women; they have sex with more concubines, servants and slaves; and they father many children. Bible authors knew that sex and power went together (…) Throughout the Old Testament, people act on a mandate to reproduce12

Christian Rome “outlawed bigamy, restricted the legal grounds for divorce, and made it legally impossible to keep a wife and a concubine at once”13. Later the medieval physicians recognised the link between STIs and sex. Yet men kept mating polygynously as long as they could afford it. Purity taboos failed to stop the spreading of STIs.

Sara Moslener in her book Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence proposes a different hypothesis. Analysing the history of purity movements in America she observes:

sexual purity is most compelling at points in history when evangelical beliefs and values appear the most viable explanation for and solution to widespread cultural crises.

Relying on the work of historian Angela Lahr, Moslener argues:

the cultural and political influence of evangelicals is directly related to their ability to effectively address widespread fears. For nineteenth-century purity advocates, it was the ability to address the fear of declining Anglo-Saxon privilege; for twentieth-century fundamentalists, threats of nuclear destruction and communist invasion; and for later evangelicals: the excesses of the sexual revolution coupled with lingering Cold War fears. In each case, sexual purity rhetoric proved an asset to evangelicals seeking to maintain political and cultural influence. By asserting a causal relationship between sexual immorality, national decline, and apocalyptic anticipation, leaders shaped a purity rhetoric that positions Protestant evangelicalism as the salvation of American civilization.

The lack of STIs from the above list cannot go unnoticed. Proposing that sexual purity is compelling whenever there was a large-scale cultural crisis may prove to be yet another hypothesis on the evolution of sexual purity taboos.

Scott also claims that it’s “pretty likely” that STIs influenced the cultural evolution of taboos against homosexuality:

It wasn’t until the rise of Christianity that homosexuality became definitely taboo in Europe (mostly around 1000 or so), and not until Europeans took over other places that those places became equally strict.

I have to mention that the history of the Catholic Church and homosexuality starts with the Church Fathers and early Church Councils. Christian Rome passed laws condemning homosexual men to public burning and later public castration and execution. And it was, in fact, Justinian I who introduced the concept of divine punishment for homosexual acts14. In the Late Medieval Period, homosexuality was indeed considered a “sodomy”15, the most abominable of sins.

Even Scott himself admits that the evidence that STIs lead to homosexuality taboos is pretty circumstantial. Strong taboos against homosexuality existed before the first recorded outbreak of syphilis in Europe (1494)16. He speculates:

One plausible story is that there were relatively weak prohibitions on homosexual intercourse (as long as there was limited role versatility) during the period when STIs were rare and weak. Once syphilis started spreading in the late 1400s, these became much stronger. But honestly the strengthening of taboos in Europe was closer to 1000 or 1200 than to 1500, so I don’t know.

The Catholic Church had much better reasons for creating sexual taboos. While the Old Testament is stacked with polygynous men, Jesus disapproved of adultery and divorce17. The Church discovered that by following the teachings of Jesus they can control marriages and by proxy have political power and authority in the medieval feudal society.

From this point of view establishing sexual taboos against homosexuality is just the extension of controlling all sexuality to gain the power that comes from being the highest moral arbiter. After Anna Clark:

By persecuting sodomites as well as heretics, the Church strengthened its authority and credibility as a moral arbiter18

The accusations of sodomy and homosexuality proved to be useful when dealing with political opponents. That was the case in 1307 during the Trial of the Knights Templar19 - the world’s first multinational corporation20.

It’s worth repeating as Scott himself admits that prohibitions on homosexual intercourse happened before syphilis started spreading. What we instead observe is the correlation with the Catholic Church gaining political power. To list just a few events: the Investiture Controversy in 1076, the rivalry with the Holy Roman Empire, Crusades, the formation of the Inquisition in the 12th-centuary.

The above relation is echoed in Christie Davies’s conclusion of Sexual Taboos and Social Boundaries:

on the basis of a comparative examination of a large number of Western societies and institutions, it is clear that the strong taboos that exist against homosexuality, bestiality, and transvestism in the West are the result of attempts to establish and defend strong ethnic, religious, or institutional boundaries. Where such pressures are weak or absent the taboos against these forms of sexual deviance are also weak or absent. (…)

if religious, military, or political leaders decide out of ideological commitment, organization necessity, or a sense of external threat to strengthen the boundaries of their group, people or institution they tend in consequence to impose harsh penalties on forms of sexual behaviour that breach social or symbolic boundaries. In many cases this is because they are seeking to maintain the identity and boundaries of their group by instilling in its members a code of belief and conduct that emphasizes the need to maintain boundaries of all kinds, including those between humans and animals and males and females. In the case of rigidly hierarchical all-male political, military, or ecclesiastical organizations, homosexual relationships are banned because they might be formed between a person within the organization and another outside or between persons of markedly different rank. Sexual relationships formed across crucial social and organizational boundaries in this way are seen by the leadership as subversive of morale and discipline. (…)

in any particular social situation deviant sexual behavior or relationships may be seen as threatenig more than one social boundary. In these circumstances the severity with which infringements of the taboos against such behavior are regarded will reflect the sum of the perceived threats to various boundaries which a breach of the taboo produces21

I cannot but agree with Scott that the evidence that STIs played a role in the cultural evolution of taboos against promiscuity and homosexuality are circumstantial. As of now, there is no evidence that serious STIs predate sexual purity taboos (apart from maybe gonorrhea)22. I remain unconvinced especially since there are competing explanations that are yet to be falsified.

  1. Jacob Neusner, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Mar., 1975), pp. 15-26, p. 22 

  2. Ibid., p. 24 

  3. Betzig, L. (1995). Medieval Monogamy. Journal of Family History, 20(2), 181–216, p. 181 

  4. Willcox, R R. “Venereal disease in the Bible.” The British journal of venereal diseases vol. 25,1 (1949): pp. 28-33 

  5. Exodus 22:16-17 NIV 

  6. 1 Corinthians 6:13 NIV 

  7. 1 Corinthians 6:18 NIV 

  8. 1 Corinthians 6:9 NIV 

  9. Betzig, L. (1995). Medieval Monogamy. Journal of Family History, 20(2), 181–216, p. 192 

  10. Sex, succession, and stratification in the first six civilizations: How powerful men reproduced, passed power on to their sons, and used power to defend their wealth, women, and children by Laura Betzig 

  11. Betzig, L. (1995). Medieval Monogamy. Journal of Family History, 20(2), 181–216, p. 183 

  12. Betzig, L. (2005). Politics as Sex: The Old Testament Case. Evolutionary Psychology 

  13. Betzig, L. (1995). Medieval Monogamy. Journal of Family History, 20(2), 181–216, p. 192 

  14. Michael Brinkschröde, “Christian Homophobia: Four Central Discourses,” in Combatting Homophobia, p. 166 

  15. Haggerty, George E. (2000). Gay histories and cultures: an encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis, pp. 470-471 

  16. Origins of syphilis and management in the immunocompetent patient: Facts and controversies by David Farhi and NicolasDupin 

  17. Matthew 5:31-32 NIV 

  18. Anna Clark, Desire: A history of European Sexuality, p. 74-75 

  19. G. Legman “The Guilt of the Templars” (New York: Basic Books, 1966): 11 

  20. Ralls, Karen (2007). Knights Templar Encyclopedia. Career Press. p. 28 

  21. Christie Davies, Sexual Taboos and Social Boundaries, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 87, No. 5 (Mar., 1982), pp. 1032-1063, pp. 1060-1061 

  22. Gerd Gross, Stephen K. Tyring (2011), Sexually Transmitted Infections and Sexually Transmitted Diseases, pp. 3-4 

Ask for forgiveness and radiate intent

Piotr Stojanow

June 27, 2019

Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son

Elizabeth Ayer in her great post takes issue with the common advice attributed to Grace Hopper: “It’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission”.

She proposes that one should instead “radiate intent”. Signaling to everyone what our intentions are:

The idea is that if the subordinate reliably signals intent, it removes the supervisor’s inclination to micromanage, while still allowing them to intervene if really necessary.

I agree that “radiating intent” is a viable strategy. Yet, I wouldn’t go as far as dismiss “asking for forgiveness”. Furthermore, I don’t see them as being exclusive.

I hope the following isn’t interpreted as a nitpick. Grace Hopper actually said that “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission”. This changes the meaning. Especially when looking on it from the permission-giver side because:

It’s also easier to give forgiveness than permission.

If the “offender” accomplished something that is beneficial for the organisation or the higher-ups and in the process avoided the status games, politics, making the superiors take responsibility etc., then all is well that ends well.

Imagine forgiveness being a currency, then:

  • Higher-Up: is willing to pay with forgiveness for having the job done hassle-free.

  • Offender”: is willing to take an interest-free “forgiveness loan” to do the job without a hassle.

Granted sometimes the “offender” screws up so much that the “forgiveness loan” is too big to pay off. He must then pay with his position or other assets. That’s why the loan while interest-free always has implicit collateral. From this point of view “asking for forgiveness” levels the playing field and guarantees that the “offender” has skin in the game.

Elizabeth gives four reasons where radiating intent is better than begging forgiveness.

Radiating intent gives a chance for someone to stop you before you do a thing, in case it’s truly harmful

Sometimes the best remedy is harmful in the beginning. Neither radiating intent nor seeking permission would make people agree to take it. In those situations asking for forgiveness gets the job done.

Radiating intent gives people who have information, or want to help, an opening to participate

It also brings aboard people we don’t want to participate with. By opting for asking for forgiveness, we can covertly recruit people we want.

Radiating intent leaves better evidence of your good will

I can’t argue with that. But, keeping a decision journal will help document your intent.

Radiating intent shows others that adventurous behavior is acceptable in the org.

This is true for asking forgiveness as well.

Elizabeth notes that we should take responsibility for our choices:

Radiating intent also has the advantage over asking permission that the “radiator” keeps responsibility if things go sour. It doesn’t transfer the blame the way seeking permission does, which is good.

This is exactly what asking for forgiveness does too. The collateral in the forgiveness loan guarantees that the “offender” has skin in the game. It stops him from going on a rampage breaking all the rules all the time to have his way.

An advantage of radiating intent is that it builds trust. As well as “a track record of openness and predictability, even as I take risks or push boundaries.” Asking for forgiveness builds trust only within a small circle of in-the-know people. It gives you the reputation of a person that gets things done. It’s not an all-purpose tool. It’s a strategy that works where speed is crucial, the culture is complacent or nobody wants to take risk and responsibility.

In the military, “explicit intent” (publicly stating: capture the flag!) is different than “implicit intent” (publicly stating: capture the flag… Non-verbalized expectation: with no casualties!). Both need different approaches.

We can use “radiating intent” and “asking for forgiveness” depending on the situation. Operate in “radiating intent” mode by default. Switch to “asking for forgiveness” where a surgical strike demands it.

Our brains are hardware that run on culture - software

Piotr Stojanow

June 25, 2018

Historic Growth by Alesha Sivartha

Our brains (hardware) run culture (software)1.

Humans dominate because our software is easier to upgrade than our hardware. We can solve problems not solved by genetics alone.

Culture and memes move faster than genes.

Culture is transmitting information from one member to another. As our technology and communication got better and better, our culture upgrades became more and more frequent.

We moved from standard releases of culture (versions like 1.0 etc.) to a rolling release (continuous delivery of frequent small updates).

(link to tweetstorm)

  1. Hat tip to Bret Weinstein