The Natural Order of Sexuality, as if Nature Mattered

— OK, Jennifer Roback Morse is full of shit, and the National Review continues to demonstrate its status as a go-to source for scientific illiteracy.

Morse deigns to relate to us the “natural, organic purposes of sexual activity.” They are: reproduction and spousal unity. Well, OK. A more accurate term for “spousal unity” is “pair-bonding.” You can't expect to taken seriously when you come right out of the gate, in a paragraph on natural purposes yadda yadda, implying the naturalness and non-historical character of the social institutions we associate with “spouses.” But yes. Pair bonding. That's a function of sex.

In the next paragraph she name checks “evolutionary psychology” as if she's read and comprehended some.

Evolutionary psychology observes the survival value to spousal cooperation. Males and females who attach themselves to each other, have a better chance of seeing their offspring survive long enough to produce grandchildren. Science can now tell us how the hormones released during sex help to create emotional bonds between the partners.

Yes. And science can now tell us so much more. Such as the fact that promiscuity and exotic patterns of sexual relations are damn natural, too.

A Google search on “female promiscuity evolutionary” brings up such informative gems as this article, from which Morse might discover that

Less than 50 years ago, Canela women, who live in Amazonian Brazil, enjoyed the delights of as many as 40 men one after another in festive rituals. When it was time to have a child, they'd select their favorite dozen or so lovers to help their husband with the all-important task. Even today, when the dalliances of married Barí ladies in Columbia and Venezuela result in a child, they proudly announce the long list of probable fathers.

Further down, we get more technical meat:

Physiological data supports the theory that women have been sleeping around for centuries. For starters, men have evolved to compete in their partner's reproductive tract. Human males have large testicles that manufacture plenty of semen, especially when they reunite with their wives after separation. Their sperm includes coil-tailed versions that block instead of carry the ball.


Modern relationships are not all that different. High infidelity, remarriage and divorce rates may have less to do with modernity than with our collective sexual past. “It makes the variation we're seeing in modern society so much more understandable,” Hawkes says.

If the anthropologists are right, monogamy may well be counter-evolutionary or an adaptation to modern life. Or perhaps the nuclear family has always been more of an ideal than a reality.

That was the FIRST ARTICLE to come up in my search. But of course, it's AlterNet, so Roback Morse surely couldn't have trusted the science.

Now, for some reason, Roback Morse found it worth the keystrokes to tell us that “As far as I know, humans are the only animals that copulate face to face. Shakespeare described the sexual act as “making the two-backed beast.”

She doesn't know very far! A Google search on “face face copulation animal” [it takes, like, 20 seconds, Jennifer!] brings up, for instance, this page which tells us that “Orangutans engage in human like activities like face-to-face copulation, comprehension of speech, tool manufacturing, and imitation.”

Better yet, here's one with illustrations.

“During copulation sharks meet face to face. As seen in this picture the male inserts one of his claspers into the cloaca of the female.”

Apparently the Stitchbird does it, too.

Again, from the AlterNet article, this amusing bit:

“This model of the death-do-us-part, missionary-position couple is just a tiny part of human history,” says anthropologist Kristen Hawkes, who has spent years studying the foraging habits of the Aché, a Paraguayan people, and the North Tanzanaian tribe Hadza, who also celebrate a rich love life. “The patterns of human sexuality are so much more variable.”

It would be too easy to go on about the stockpile of errors that is Roback Morse's essay. Let it suffice to point out the extremely ambitious nature of her ignorance. If you're going to write such portentous things as, “Many people celebrate the uncoupling of sexual activity from both of its natural functions, procreation and spousal unity. But by doing so, we have capsized the whole natural order of sexuality,” then you might want to know some small thing about the natural order of sexuality. It's unecessary to know a damn thing about biology or anthropology to discover that Roback Morse has NO IDEA what she is talking about. Google! Yet she has the gall, the temerity, the ova to assume an air of authority as she extrapolates her ignorance into an argument for using the law to reinforce the marginalization of homsexual fidelity.

In the process of wrapping it up, she writes:

Human sexuality has a specific nature, regardless of what we believe or say about it. We are more likely to be satisfied with the outcome, if we work with our biology rather than against it. We will be happier if we face reality on its own terms.

Indeed. Now, go read a book or shut the fuck up.

  • berger

    Yeah, I think you’ve pretty much nailed the communitarian critique of Rawls here.

  • JB

    Do you know Gerry Gaus’s critique of Rawls? Gaus probably has the best claim to a philosophy that takes the idea of public reason seriously. That is, he doesn’t use reasonably pluralism as a point to be used and then discarded in an attempt to justify a pre-conceived conclusion. He means it.

  • Don Arthur

    Rawls’ arguments are useful for people who are already inclined towards liberalism, but frustratingly unconvincing for everyone else.

    When I first read about Rawls’ theory of justice I couldn’t see how it was supposed to work. Firstly, I couldn’t see how people who were stripped of all their particular desires, culture etc could be motivated to agree to anything.

    Secondly it wasn’t clear to me why powerful egoists should care what decisions they might make in a hypothetical original position. Why shouldn’t they dismiss it the same way they dismiss utilitarianism and welfare economics — “Why should I care about other people’s satisfaction?”

    But thinking about it, I couldn’t think of any reasons for self-interest either. Despite anything Randroids might say, there’s nothing more rational about self-interest than there is about altruism or nihilism. If you don’t care about anything, reason can’t help you.

    And this brought me back to Rawls. I realised I did care about fairness. And that’s how the original position became interesting again.

  • Chad

    Hey Will, I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to invoke the original position here (I’m not sure whether you take this into account in your post or not, it’s hard to tell) but the principles of justice aren’t things that are up for “renegotiation” once the veil of ignorance is lifted, but we have to choose them not knowing our place in society, natural endowments, etc. So it’s not like we choose principles, find out we’re actually good at making money, and then get to say, “Wait, can’t we redo all this?”

    Also, I wonder if you’re reading strains of commitment too loosely, as in “strains” are the same as “annoyances.” Note that in TJ the strains point was made in context of utilitarianism — we were supposed to wonder whether the strain of sacrificing all of our good for the greater good was something we could put up with, or whether it would be too psychologically taxing. With JAF, the strain is comparatively milder. We’re only asked whether we could see our good as consistent with the good of society, given the difference principle. Of course, he abandons this Kantian reading later — this may be what you’re getting at — but even then, I’m not sure that the strains you point out are so demanding as to doom the theory (as Rawls seems to think the strains of utilitarianism render that theory psychologically implausible).

  • Chad, The OP is a tool for identifying the principles. Stability is a real-world condition the principles must meet. If broadly accepted findings of psychology and social science tell us that certain candidate principles, if actually enacted, would not inspire willing compliance, but would instead be renegotiated, then they fail the stability test. What then? Well you go back and re-rig the assumptions of the OP so that it delivers different principles until you find some that will plausibly pass the stability test, given social and psychological theory. That’s how reflective equilibrium works.

  • bt

    Your rejoinder to Chad’s comment is mostly right, I think, but remember that reflective equilibrium goes both ways. You’re stressing the on-the-ground side of the equation–the side that, as many point out, Rawls seems to grossly misunderstand–but we need to think, too, of the ways in which our normative commitments, presumably arrived at by attempting to disassociate ourselves with our position in society, *ought to* count for something.

  • Chad

    OK, that’s right; I got thrown off by the renegotiation bit. But that still doesn’t resolve my nagging worry that the “strains” must be greater than a feeling that you’d want to renegotiate the principles of justice or even that your compliance is less than enthusiastic. And I think the point by Bt is helpful, also, although I’d put it a bit differently: Rawls is asking, are the principles that are normatively desirable (in that sense, one’s we ought to desire to desire), a disaster for us? He says no. He says this more elaborately (and to my mind, more convincingly) in the neglected third part of TJ. But I don’t see what something similar could be said, post reasonable pluralism.

  • nobody.really

    I’m out of my depth here. But I was intrigued to read Wilkinson saying that Rawls acknowledges diversity but then assumes away any real consequences of diversity. I’ve always thought the same thing about Hayek.

    Hayek seemed to espoused a view of social organization that maximizes individual autonomy by minimizing government coercion, but then acknowledges that this system requires individuals generally to conform to social conventions. In other words, government coercion in the interest of social goals was to be replace by self-coercion in the interest of social goals. Nice system if you can get it. But if we start with the assumption that men are angels, doesn’t the discussion become moot?

    Many people bemoan the US’s large prison population. But arguably it’s a necessary component of a society that minimizes collectivist indoctrination, in which the spirit of rebellion is alive and well and can only be restrained by force.

    Dump hypocrisy. Rather than social convention, let’s have the Republican National Convention: unapologetic dissent and, where socially necessary, state repression of that dissent by unapologetic force!

  • LarryM

    I do think, on the other hand, that public choice theory is too harsh when applied to the average bureaucrat. Mind you, this is less than a full throated defense of bureaucrats (insert here every libertarian critique of the state intervention), but explains why sometimes we do get regulation which at least achieves its stated purpose (i.e., regulatory capture is a real problem but not by any means universal).

    • Rob

      Public choice theory isn’t too harsh for bureaucrats – all it implies is that like any other individuals they, on balance, respond to incentives.

  • meelar2

    Think of it this way–I don’t think this critique need be limited to politicians. I’d argue that, say, a tobacco CEO who goes on working despite being worth millions is just as alien to the average person. So even in the absence of government regulation, we’re going to be led by people with outsized ambition and less conscience than is optimal. I think this goes a long way to explaining why liberals are more fond of technocracy–it’s an attempt to avoid the rule of those who really, really want to rule.

    • Hunter

      Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Procedural and institutional liberalism (like, you know, the way the US gov’t was set up in the first place… checks and balances and such) are exactly attempts to solve that problem. Glibertarians’ (not including our host in that number) refusal to see/admit that it even is a problem is one of the major things that so infuriates those of us slightly to their left.

  • CraigMcGillivary

    A lot of people spend time criticizing the moral behavior of politicians, but I think that this is vastly overstated. They do lots of bad stuff, but its usually because they are deluded and think they are indispensable. Often times the bad things they do are just an expression of the public’s will. I actually think that it is political commentators who are the real scum of our system. Some of these people on both sides seem to have no regard for the truth. Why would you become a political commentator other than to try to help people understand politics better?

  • navigator

    To me, the broader implication of the idea, “we’re fated to be ruled by the sort of people who are really desperate to cling to power” is twofold:

    (1) The powers of any government at any level should be severely restricted, and never go beyond what is explicit in its constitution. If an additional role or power is needed because of changing times, that constitution should be amended by an orderly public process.

    (2) In a representative government, every elected office, along with its staff and top level bureaucratic appointments, should have a two-term limit. We should always be governed by amateurs and never by experts. Political expertise is part of the problem.

    As long as any public office is able to easily expand its power and long enough in duration for moneyed interests to get a long-term return on investment from office-holders, we exacerbate the problem inherent in the political mindset.

  • J R


    at first read, i couldn’t help but think that you were being somewhat coy in this post. you live and work in DC. is it really that difficult to look at the crop of fresh-faced twenty-somethings who come here every year ready to change the world and then envisage the process that takes them from naive and idealistic to older and pragmatic, and eventually takes some of them to a place where they are so caught up in this world that they really begin to believe that their own well-being and that of the general public are one in the same?

    obviously this is something that would be quite difficult to empirically model, but if i am reading your post correctly your problem is not with the modelling but with the underlying psychology.

  • It’s probably w waste of time trying to get inside people’s heads and wondering what “really” motivates them. Like Robin Hanson, I think rational choice economics does a good enough job explaining behavior even if people find it unrealistic with respect to their subjective experiences.

    • Neel Krishnaswami

      Robin Hanson does not believe rational choice explains behavior, since he’s a strong proponent the idea that signaling is pervasive — and signaling models are incompatible with rational choice.

      If you go back to your Schelling, you’ll see that signals are credible only when they are costly — that is, the cost of sending the signal must exceed its benefits for it to be credible. This means that a reputation is something that is valuable to have but imprudent to buy, and so to the extent that you accept costly signaling as an explanation for a behavior you are rejecting the idea that it is rational optimization at work.

      Robin is probably right about irrationality being pervasive, though I am more skeptical about signaling being a comprehensive explanation of it.

      • Costly signals are not incompatible with rational choice. Being costly does not means that costs exceed benefits (on an individual basis). If they did, nobody would engage in them! Robin actually believes that when costs for some forms of “irrationality” like overconfidence exceed benefits, we act more rationally.

        • Neel Krishnaswami

          Costly signals are not incompatible with rational choice. Being costly does not means that costs exceed benefits (on an individual basis). If they did, nobody would engage in them!

          This is the fallacy of assuming the consequent. The rationality of this behavior is precisely what is in question.

          Signals are not credible unless their costs exceed their benefits. If the benefits of a behavior exceed its costs, you have an incentive to engage in this behavior regardless, and so your opponent cannot infer anything about your true intentions from it. That’s why talk is cheap.

          Signaling is precisely a way to escape the Nash equilibrium: if you give credible evidence that you are not rational, then the common knowledge assumption fails, and so the theorem that says you can’t do better than a Nash equilibrium now no longer holds. Of course, to send such a signal requires…not being rational about costs!

          This is why Schelling was not a particularly mathematical game theorist. His idea of strategy made heavy use of manipulations of perceptions of rationality — things which mathematical game theorists had to assume a fixed form for (common knowledge of rationality) in order to get viable solution concepts at all. This is also why many of Schelling’s suggested strategies are not reflectively stable. For example, he suggests that a winning strategy in the Chicken game (drive two cars straight at each other, with the loser being the one who swerves first) is to remove your steering wheel, so that you have credibly committed to being unable to swerve away. If you do this, and your opponent is rational, then you win the game. However, if both sides do this, you get a crash, which is worse than the Nash equilibrium.

          Seriously, read Schelling’s The Strategy of Conflict. His prose is elegant and clear.

          As an aside, this also gives a handy heuristic for judging policy debates: if someone starts talking about “credibility”, that’s basically an admission that their policy’s costs exceed benefits.

        • Have you read much evolutionary theory? Animals evolve to give signals. If the costs of those signals exceeded the benefits, the mutations responsible would be weeded out. Then there’s the question of why anyone believes the signals. Signals are not noise, they give actual information, generally because the costs DIFFER depending on how accurate the signal is. If I DON’T signal overconfidence, that indicates that I probably have unusually low confidence. The experienced are more overconfident, so it is rational for observers to infer greater experience on the part of the more confident.

        • Neel Krishnaswami

          Have you read much evolutionary theory? Animals evolve to give signals. If the costs of those signals exceeded the benefits, the mutations responsible would be weeded out.

          Yes, I have. Evolutionary models describe a form of bounded rationality, not full rational choice — for example, evolutionary processes can get stuck in local optima, whereas perfectly rational agents will not. That is, an evolutionary model is an explanation based on a deviation from rational choice.

          If I DON’T signal overconfidence, that indicates that I probably have unusually low confidence. The experienced are more overconfident, so it is rational for observers to infer greater experience on the part of the more confident.

          This is plausible, but actually establishing that this is a true explanation is very, very difficult. The problem is that this is not a stable solution concept — you’re assuming that the observer is rational, but the counterparty is not acting strategically.

          Now, what happens if the counterparty decides to project confidence strategically? And what happens if the observer decides to take into account the possibility that the counterparty is acting strategically, and so on? If you treat the degree of mutual information as a parameter to the model, then the model can predict either that the signal is meaningful or that it’s not meaningful, depending on the degree of common knowledge — if you don’t iterate, you get the solution you propose, and if you do, then you get the Nash equilibrium. In between, you get a transition depending on exactly how you’ve formulated the game.

          This means that you need a method for measuring the degree of common knowledge before you can decide whether this is a true explanation or not. Without out, you have to remember that there’s a word for models that can be tuned to predict anything, based on a hard-to-observe parameter with many plausible values: non-falsifiable.

        • That it is possible to get stuck on a local maxima doesn’t mean you are, so evolutionary explanations are not inherently dependent on bounded rationality.

          Furthermore, bounded rationality can explain why one animal might BELIEVE a signal, but not why the mutation to send out the signal spread. The benefits for signalling must have exceeded the costs.

          Hanson’s theory is that it is more costly for the inexperienced to signal confidence than the experienced. The experienced learn how to signal credibly. Because they actually are more experienced, it is rational for observers to consider it credible.

  • This was an interesting post. However, perhaps the focus on politicians’ psychology is misguided, and we should focus instead on what determines their success of staying in power, i.e. on the voters’ psychology (the way Bryan Caplan does). I’m thinking that the psychology of successful politicians is probably a consequence of voters’ psychology (by means of a natural selection process that favors certain types of politician).

  • uknowbetter

    But, but those power-mongers often say stuff like ‘they care’ and that gets Yglesias off.

  • uknowbetter

    The House should be chosen by lottery every 5 years and each person gets a salary of $400,000 adjusted for inflation. Let the power-mongers aspire to the Presidency, Senate, and local school boards. The purse strings of the country should be in the hands of the people.

  • “So I’m curious what Matt takes to be the broader implications of the idea that “we’re fated to be ruled by the sort of people who are really desperate to cling to power.””

    This may seem libertarian-trite, but it seems to me that the implication would be “let’s give them less power where possible.” I’m sure the response to his original post was condescending (I certainly was) but when you say “gosh I just noticed that politicians are horrible, immoral power-mongers!” and then attempt to draw no conclusions about how this might impact the many policies that you endorse that increase that power, I suppose you should expect it.

    There wasn’t even a “yeah, I can see how this power might be abused, but here’s why I think policy X was worth it.” Many extremely smart people on Yglesias’ side seem to pretend that policies will be executed precisely as they imagine them, with no abuse or scope creep. I’m trying not to portray those who disagree with me as stereotypes, but this is making it difficult.

  • DMonteith

    I’m sure the response to his original post was condescending (I certainly was) but when you say “gosh I just noticed that politicians are horrible, immoral power-mongers!” and then attempt to draw no conclusions about how this might impact the many policies that you endorse that increase that power, I suppose you should expect it.

    Yes, but when you say “gosh, politicians are horrible!” and then fail to note that robber-barons and generals and popes, etc., are also horrible then you’re left sounding libertarian-trite. I think it’s safe to say that institutions that concentrate power are a permanent fixture in human societies. Reducing the power of “horrible politicians” just gives other horrible people in positions of power that much more freedom to operate and provides that much more incentive to power-mad assholes to move into alternative institutions and do their thing there.

    Given the high barriers to entry into politics, the various advantages that incumbents enjoy, and the preponderance of assholes seeking entry, elections are far from ideal, but they do present a superior way to separate horrible people from power than exists in many other institutions that concentrate power such as religious organizations, corporations, the military, etc.

    Many extremely smart people on Yglesias’ side seem to pretend that policies will be executed precisely as they imagine them, with no abuse or scope creep.

    Well, many extremely smart people on Wilkinson’s side seem to pretend that “smaller government” won’t lead to a game of whack-an-immoral-power-monger with a mallet even smaller than the one we currently have. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is trite, too, but a utopian elimination of concentrations of power isn’t one of its prerequisites. I also think you’ll find that most of the smart people on Yglesias’ side are on board with the eternal vigilance bit.

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