Sex and Evolution?

I like Michael Stoddart’s books in general–he has some great contributions to make and is one of a few popular scientists promoting olfaction. While reading his most recent book, I have been a bit frustrated by the simplistic view of human evolution and behavior. A recent Guardian piece by him “Smell evolution and the sex brain: Why we’re monogamous and use perfume” captures the source of my frustration. As a biological anthropologist, I find it hard to read the following sentence:

To keep male and female together to provide protection for babies, a suite of anatomical and physiological features evolved to promote the constant availability of sex throughout the year – irrespective of the monthly ovulation cycle.

The argument is that a suite of traits evolved (e.g., reduced sexual dimorphism, hidden estrus) to render human females receptive to sex at any time and this has led to monogamy–meanwhile male receptivity to sex is used as an explanation for purported male promiscuity. Huh! The constant male bias in science is at the heart of taxonomy–our class is called mammal because male scientists felt the key trait of mammals was the use of mammary glands to feed offspring.

Increasing the diversity of voices in academia has allowed us, slowly, to move away from teleological explanations for human behavior based on western society. In biological and evolutionary anthropology, human reproduction is a hot topic and more complicated. Stoddart does qualify his statement a bit:

Yet Homo Sapiens is the only species among the 5,500 kinds of mammal to maintain monogamous family relationships – or at least serially so – and to live in densely populated areas. This combination is extremely rare in nature.

Marriage, as an institution is barely thousands of years old (our species is 200,000 years old) and the concept of marrying for love younger still. Divorce is higher today partly because there are fewer economic and political structures keeping people together–religion is what is left and that doesn’t appear strong enough for most people–divorce was central in Henry the VIII’s split with the Pope. Most cultures are polygamous even if most end up practicing monogamy (mainly due to financial and/or political constraints–not enough money or power to gain more spouses). Perhaps the clearest statement we can make on pair-bonding is that humans can, and often do, come together in a pair-bond for a period of time with a goal of child rearing but this shared interest isn’t immediately linked to sexual monogamy–they are separate issues. The period of shared interest (if it occurs) enables the child to reach a point where the ‘village’ can take on some of the burden through formal and informal education. But, even western society regularly abandons its children–part of the year, I live next door to a youth shelter and drop-in center so I see it daily.

I suppose most humans are humanists–Jon Marks is a biological anthropologist who has written many books on the subject from an evolutionary perspective with a goal to distinguish us from all the other primates. I am not a humanist even if I do appreciate what we have accomplished as a species (there’s a lot to be ashamed of too…). I think there is an inherent fallacy in not recognizing that we are animals and that we cheat and lie and love and, yes, react to odors just as animals do. We may be enculturated to curb instincts but the instincts that we are enculturated to curb and how we do so vary cross-culturally. The goal to overcome our instincts with reason is a cultural one, not a biological or evolutionary one.

And, contrary to this blanket statement:

Today we have a global fragrance market equal to the GDP of a medium-sized country. But because our nose (unlike the VNO) ultimately sends all smells for rational analysis by the brain, we do not slavishly respond to sex smells in the way dogs or mice do. An alluring perfume may help a relationship, but no perfume comes with a guarantee!

odors are first processed in the areas of the emotional center of the brain where memories are also deal with–we react to odors before the frontal lobe (where reasoning attempts to modulate instinct) gets the data and formulates a response. Maybe we wear perfume because it smells good–it takes us to places we want to be or reminds of us of memories we love or smells like things we love to eat–maybe wearing perfume is about sensuality not mating. Why is so much academic work reductionist? But, perhaps that is why I am a biological anthropologist, rather than a biologist. Still, I take the point that we may not react to odors with the full behavioral response other animals might, but we react nonetheless. The closing statement of the piece is perhaps the strangest, and to an anthropologist, the most off-putting:

And so we can live in at least relative harmony with our fellows, benefitting from the long-term genetic and evolutionary advantages provided by monogamy, while participating socially in everything society has to offer.

There probably should be more biological anthropologists writing popular press books on human evolution and this gives me even more motivation to get my long overdue book Smell of Evolution out!

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Filed under anthropology, Anthropology and Evolution, Olfaction, primate social life, religion, Science, Senses, sex

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