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The Evolution of Human Sexuality by Donald Symons
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it was amazing

Research in evolutionary psychology has focused disproportionately on mating behaviour. Indeed, Miller contends it is the theory of sexual selection, not natural selection, which guides most research (Miller 1998).

This does not reflect only the prurience of researchers. Reproductive success is the ultimate currency of selection. Thus, mating behavior is among the behaviors most directly subject to selection.

This research traces its ancestry to ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’ by Donald Symons. Indeed, much was designed to test ideas originally formulated by Symons himself.

For example, Symons speculated that, since human mating is characterized by long-term relationships, a female would be maximally attractive, not at her age of peak fertility, but at her peak reproductive value – i.e. at the beginning of her reproductive career, such that, by entering a long-term relationship, a male is able to monopolise her entire lifetime reproductive output (p189).

Subsequent research confirmed Symons’ intuition (Kenrick and Keefe 1992).

Support has even emerged for Symons’ speculative hunches. For example, Symons speculated that concealed ovulation might have evolved to impede male mate-guarding and enable women to select a biological father for their offspring different from their partner (p139-141).

Studies have indeed found that female mate preferences vary on a cyclical basis consistent with this theory (e.g. Penton-Voak et al 1999); and that women engage in extra-pair copulations at times likely to coincide with ovulation (Bellis & Baker 1990).
Symons even anticipated some later errors in evolutionary psychology.

Thus, he warns that researchers may overestimate the importance of female choice as a factor in human mating, due to current western practices (p203).

Yet historically and cross-culturally, arranged marriages were the norm (p168).

Symons concludes:
“There is no evidence that any features of human anatomy were produced by intersexual selection [i.e. female choice]. Human physical sex differences are explained most parsimoniously as the outcome of intrasexual selection (the result of male-male competition)” (p203).
Thus, human males have no obvious analogue of the peacock’s tail, but we do have much greater levels of upper-body strength and violent aggression as compared to females (Puts 2010).

Homosexuality as Test-Case
An idea of the importance of Symons’s work can be ascertained by comparing it with contemporaneous works. Wilson’s On Human Nature was published only a year before ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’. Yet Wilson’ s chapter on sex is dated and much of the chapter is devoted to introducing a now faintly embarrassing theory of the evolution of homosexuality.

In contrast, Symons’s treatment of homosexuality is innovative. He does not concern himself with how homosexuality evolved, implicitly viewing it as a maladaptive malfunctioning of sexuality. Yet he uses homosexual behavior as a window on the nature of male and female sexuality as it manifests itself when freed from the constraints imposed by the conflicting desires of the opposite sex.

Thus, the extreme promiscuity of many gay men reflects the universal male desire for sexual variety when freed from the constraints imposed by the conflicting desires of women – a desire that, although reproductively unproductive among homosexuals, evolved because it enhanced the reproductive success of heterosexual men by motivating them to copulate with multiple females.

On contrast, women, burdened by pregnancy and lactation, have little to gain by promiscuity, since they can gestate and nurse only one offspring at a time.

Thus, lesbian relationships are more similar to those of heterosexuals.

This suggests, contrary to feminist assertions, that women exert decisive influence in dictating the terms of heterosexual coupling:
“There is enormous cross-cultural variation in sexual customs and laws... yet nowhere in the world do heterosexual relations begin to approximate those typical of homosexual men… This suggests that… heterosexual relations are structured to a substantial degree by the nature and interests of the human female” (p300)
It also suggests that most men are sexually frustrated:
“The desire for sexual variety dooms most human males to a lifetime of unfulfilled longing” (p228).
Here, Symons anticipates Camille Paglia’s description of men as:
“Sexual exiles who wander the earth seeking satisfaction, craving and despising, never content. There is nothing in that anguished motion for women to envy” (Sexual Personae: p19).
Homosexuality as a Test-Case: Criticisms
Symons’s use of homosexual behavior as a window on the nature of male and female sexuality rests on a questionable premise – namely that homosexuals are, their preference for same-sex partners aside, otherwise identical to heterosexuals of their own sex in their psychology and sexuality. Thus, Symons writes:
“There is no reason to suppose that homosexuals differ systematically from heterosexuals in any way other than their sexual object choice” (p292).
Indeed, in some respects, Symons sees even “sexual object choice” as similar among homosexuals and heterosexuals of the same sex.

Thus, he observes that, unlike women, both gay and straight men tend to evaluate prospective mates primarily on the basis of physical appearance and youthfulness (p295), and notes the similarities between gay and straight porn (p301).

In contrast, magazines featuring male nudes have failed attract a female audience (p174-5) – and nor do lesbians buy Playboy.

The similarities between gay and straight porn contradicts the feminist idea that men only enjoy such material due to the objectification of women in the media. Instead, Symons concludes:
“Pictures of attractive women are used to sell products because these pictures appeal to men (and perhaps women as well), not the other way around… That homosexual men are at least as likely as heterosexual men to be interested in pornography, cosmetic qualities and youth seems to me to imply that these interests are no more the result of advertising than adultery and alcohol consumption are the result of country and western music” (p304).
This assumption of the fundamental similarity of heterosexual and homosexual male psychology has been challenged by Buller in Adapting Minds.

Buller cites evidence that gay men are in some respects feminized in aspects of their behavior. Gender non-conformity during childhood correlates with adult homosexual orientation and some evidence (e.g. the fraternal birth order effect) suggests that the level of prenatal exposure to masculinizing androgens (e.g. testosterone) in utero affects sexual orientation (see Born Gay: The Psychobiology of Sex Orientation).

Buller notes, although gay porn stars tend to be young, they are also quite masculine:
“The males featured in gay men's magazines embody very masculine, muscular physiques, not pseudo-feminine physiques” (Adapting Minds: p227).
Indeed, models featured in gay porn resemble the pop stars, models and actors fawned over by heterosexual women and girls.

One explanation is that some parts of gay male brains are feminized but not others – perhaps because different parts of the brain are formed at different stages of prenatal development, when androgen levels vary.

Indeed, gay men may be hyper-masculinized in some respects, because:
“If it is supposed that the barriers against androgens with respect to certain brain structures (notably those concerned with homosexuality) lead to increased secretion in an effort to break through, or some sort of accumulation elsewhere… then there may be excess testosterone left in other departments” (Born Gay: p80)
Thus, one study reported larger penes among gay mne (Bogaert & Hershberger 1999).

Alternatively, perhaps gay men lie midway between heterosexual men and women in their level of masculinization.

Thus, they appear feminine only compared to other men. Compared to women, they may be quite masculine, as reflected in the male-typical aspects of their sexuality discussed by Symons.

This suggests the disturbing possibility that, freed from the restraints imposed by women, heterosexual men might be even more indiscriminately promiscuous than their gay counterparts.

Porn as a Natural Experiment
Fantasy is another window onto sexuality that unconstrained by the conflicting desires of the opposite sex. Symons investigates fantasy indirectly by focusing on “the natural experiment of commercial periodical publishing” – i.e. pornographic magazines (p182).

Before the internet age, magazines featuring female nudes commanded sizeable circulations despite the stigma attached to their purchase. Their audience was almost exclusively male.

There were no equivalent magazines for women featuring male nudes. Instead, women’s magazines contain, mostly, pictures of other women, and magazines featuring male nudes sold mostly to gay men.

Symons concludes:
“The notion must be abandoned that women are simply repressed men waiting to be liberated” (p183).
Romance Literature
Symons neglects to identify any female analogue to pornography. Others have argued that romance novels fill this niche, offering insights into female sexuality analogous to those pornography provides in to men (e.g. Kruger et al 2003; Salmon 2004; Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution and Female Sexuality).

Yet, while feminists campaign against pornography because it creates unrealistic expectations of women, there is no similar campaign against romance novels for creating unrealistic expectations of men.

Female Orgasm as Non-Adaptive
A whole chapter is devoted to critiquing the notion that the female orgasm is an adaptation, contradicting the claim of Stephen Jay Gould that evolutionary psychologists view all behaviours as necessarily adaptive.

In contrast, Symons champions the thesis that the female capacity for orgasm is a non-adaptive by-product of the male capacity to orgasm. Thus, female orgasms are the female equivalent of male nipples (only more fun!).

Yet subsequent generations of evolutionary psychologists better theories of the adaptive function of female orgasms.

Geoffrey Miller argues that the female orgasm functions as an adaptation for mate choice (The Mating Mind:p239-241).

Of course, experiencing orgasm during coitus may seem to be a bit late for mate choice, as, by this time, the choice has already been made. However, in humans, most intercourse is non-reproductive (i.e. does not result in offspring). Thus, the theory is not entirely implausible.

On this view, the very factors which Symons views as suggesting female orgasm is non-adaptive (e.g. the difficultly of stimulating female orgasm during vaginal sex) are positive evidence of its adaptive function in carefully discriminating between lovers.

However, according to the criteria set out by Williams in Adaptation and Natural Selection, as well as the more general principle of parsimony, the case for female orgasm as adaptation remains unproven (see Case of the Female Orgasm).

Much of Symons' work is dedicated to challenging the views of Sixties ethologists like Desmond Morris. In place of Morris’s idyllic vision of humans as a naturally monogamous pair-bonding species, Symons advocates a cynical approach rooted in the individual- or gene-level selection championed by Williams and Dawkins.

This leads to cynical conclusions regarding the nature of romantic relationships.

For example, Symons argues marriage is an institution borne, not of love, nor even lust, but of male sexual jealousy and mate-guarding (p123).

Meanwhile, in his chapter on ‘Copulation as a Female Service’, Symons suggests that conventional heterosexual coupling may be analogous to prostitution.

Published almost forty years ago, ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’ is obviously dated.

There is now a vast body of research on the evolutionary psychology of human mating. Indeed. much of this work was inspired by this very book. The extent to which it is outdated is therefore testament to the success of the research project it helped inspire.

For the latest research on the evolutionary psychology of human mating, I recommend the latest edition of The Evolution Of Desire.

In contrast, Symons was forced to rely instead on literary allusions and a review of the ethnographic literature.

However, this latter element ensures that the work remains of more than merely of historical value, since one of the more legitimate criticisms of recent research in evolutionary psychology is that it overly relies on convenience samples of western undergraduates. For a field that aspires to uncover a psychology presumed to be universal, this is problematic.

Bellis & Baker 1990 Do females promote sperm competition? Anim Behav 40:997-999
Bogaert & Hershberger 1999 The relation between sexual orientation and penile size. Archives of Sexual Behav 28(3):213-21
Ellis & Symons 1990 Sex Differences in Sexual Fantasy Journal of Sex Research 27 (4): 527-555
Kenrick & Keefe 1992 Age preferences in mates reflect sex differences in human reproductive strategies'. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 15:75-133
Kruger et al 2003 Proper and Dark Heroes as Dads and Cads. Human Nature 14(3):305-317
Miller 1998 How mate choice shaped human nature. In Crawford & Krebs (Eds.) The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (pp. 87-129)
Penton-Voak et al 1999 Menstrual cycle alters face preferences Nature 399:741-2
Puts 2010 Beauty and the Beast, Evolution and Human Behav 31:157-175
Salmon (2004) The Pornography Debate In Evolutionary Psychology, Public Policy and Personal Decisions

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