Re: The lure of the older woman
- Ian Mongomerie writes:
> Additionally, humans are not truly-- I see no compelling reason to say that humans are not "truly" monogamous.
One cannot say so on the grounds that there is a lot of "cheating", because
if that disqualifies us, it also disqualified the vast majority of
Nor does it matter much that "breeding pairs" of humans often separate,
especially in times of great abundance. Intentions and norms here count for
more than "success rates". Even if most of an animal's attempts to catch its
prey fail, it is still a predator. It might conceivably still count as a
predator even if it *doesn't even try* to catch its food -- think of a
domestic cat that gets all of its food from a can.
I think we adopt a too-exacting standard when we use the word 'monogamous'.
Few (if any) creatures live up to that ideal, but that says more about our
own absolute intentions and high-minded ideals than anything else. Those
intentions and ideals suggest that we *are* truly monogamous, more than our
failures to live up to them suggest the opposite.
Just because the earth isn't a perfect sphere doesn't mean it isn't round!
- On 2 Jul 2001, at 14:06, leiedoke wrote:
> Also - in certain cases mental mechanisms do not work, or someI don't think it's quite proper to call responses "non-adaptive" when
> information is given higher priority or various ontogenetic reasons,
> leading to non-adaptive responses.
they may be the product of the brain having worked within its
evolutionary hardware and environmental limits. To put it
abstractly, if a strategy fails 20% of the time even in the EEA but
reducing that failure rate would be too expensive for some reason,
the strategy isn't non-adaptive, just non-perfect (and the failures
themselves are not non-adaptive responses).
I think that makeup and the televised personas of some very good
looking, and thus in a fundamental way very young-looking, older
women is simply making yet more obvious what would have been
true thousands of years ago as well. Appearance is a very good
proxy for youth and health, and much more suited than many other
indicators for direct adaptations in the perceptual system. Since
appearance and youth and health are not perfectly correlated, an
evolutionary strategy relying heavily on them will fail, but still likely
succeed better than the available alternatives. The result is people
attracted to others based on appearance regardless of (or at least,
to a greater extent than) actual age.
> Ian Mongomerie wrote:A dozen species of successful bacteria, spirochetes,
> > Additionally, humans are not truly
> > monogamous>>>
> --- Jeremy Bowman <jeremiad@...> wrote:
> -- I see no compelling reason to say that humans are
> not "truly" monogamous.
and viruses that produce venereal disease in humans is
a compelling reason. And not to forget Pthirus pubis.
An interesting area for research: can any of these
organisms affect their host's relative polygamous
behavior to their advantage?
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- I wrote:
> > -- I see no compelling reason to say that humans areMike Plagens replied:
> > not "truly" monogamous.
> A dozen species of successful bacteria, spirochetes,-- Not on its own it isn't. The existence of sexually-transmitted diseases
> and viruses that produce venereal disease in humans is
> a compelling reason.
is a reason to think that it is common for humans to have several sexual
partners over the course of their lives. These diseases might evolve in an
absolutely monogamous species that has a long fertile adulthood and very
wide range of ages of death.
But in any case, I repeat, most monogamy (including human) is non-absolute.
Similarly, most monogamous birds are quite promiscuous -- they "cheat" --
but we still call them "monogamous", because that is the best way of
understanding their patterns of courtship, pairing, mating and raising
If we apply the word 'monogamous' exclusively to absolutely monogamous
species, then we would need another word to apply to non-absolutely
monogamous species, because "lifelong pair-bonding but with cheating" is an
explanatorily useful concept.
My original point was not that "cheating" isn't common among humans, but
rather that the best way of understanding the human "mating game" is to
understand humans as (non-absolutely) monogamous. That explains why we call
it "cheating" rather than, say, "extra-mural activity". And if the human
"mating game" is essentially a matter of finding a partner, it is hardly
surprising that human attraction is so flexible, or that there is so much
variation between what individuals find sexually exciting (as a quick surf
of porno web sites will reveal). This helps to explain why we all "go for"
partners of different weights, different degrees of hairiness, muscularity,
etc., etc. And why some men prefer older women, which is where this
It is currently fashionable to deny that humans are monogamous. There are
plenty of reasons for this, but in my view all of them are illegitimate. For
example, it's comforting to think that marital breakdown is an "inevitable
part of human life" rather than a failure. It is understandable that people
who have experienced marital breakdown get some comfort from thinking about
it this way. Unfortunately, given the intentions of people who marry, it is
better understood as a failure.
Here's another reason why it is fashionable to think humans are not
monogamous: we tend to extrapolate from our own rather narrow experiences to
human life in general. Most of us in the West live in conditions of
extraordinary and unprecedented affluence, quite unlike the conditions of
most humans, in most places, most of the time. Where there is a great
abundance of resources, or where childhood is unusually short -- such as in
the United States following the Second World War -- divorce rates tend to go
up, and "serial monogamy" becomes a common alternative to true monogamy.
There are probably good evolutionary reasons for this. My guess is that in
such societies, the reproductive issue for women is not "How can I bring a
child to viable adulthood?" but rather "How can I bring genetically varied
children to viable adulthood?" For most humans, most of the time, the real
question was the former, and the answer was monogamy.
To repeat, extrapolating from our own parochial experiences to human life in
general is a bit like looking at a pampered domestic cat, which gets all of
its food out of a can, and saying that domestic cats in general are not
If extrapolating from an uncharacteristic sub-class is bad, extrapolating
from an entirely distinct class altogether is even worse. I've noticed that
evolutionary psychologists are ridiculously eager to draw conclusions about
humans on the basis of the behaviour of other, very different kinds of
Q: What kind of biologist makes claims about species X by observing members
of species Y? A: A bad biologist, unless members of species X are very hard
to observe. The above is perhaps the best we can currently do with giant
squid, say, but it's a poor second to observing the real thing. With humans,
It can sound unpleasantly moralistic to say that humans are monogamous. To
the semi-educated, it has a whiff of the "religious right", or even of
Creationism. That's another reason why the fashion-conscious don't like
Apologies for the length -- but I would like to make one final point that I
think goes right to the very foundations of evolutionary psychology.
I have noticed a great reluctance on the part of psychologists to posit
mental states such as beliefs, desires and intentions as genuine *causes* of
human behaviour. If we don't posit these mental states, it is much easier to
say humans are not monogamous. Unfortunately, if we don't posit these
states, it is also impossible to genuinely *explain* human behaviour.
Dennis McBride writes:
> Jeremy--It sounds as though there is some-- By "intentions and ideals", I mean *actual* mental states, the sort of
> judgment-calling in your thoughts:
> > Those intentions and ideals suggest that we
> > *are* truly monogamous, more than our
> > failures to live up to them suggest the
> > opposite.
things that cause human behaviour. No moral judgement of any kind is
involved in saying what these states are.
For example, a person who puts on his coat and calls his dog, saying "c'mon
Max -- walk!" has the *intention* of taking his dog for a walk. The only
"judgement" involved here is that of (what Dennett calls) the intentional
Later, when they get to the beach, Max jumps into the water over and over
again to retrieve "sticks" that his master has thrown (actually, they're
stones, and Max retrieves none of them). Max has the *ideal* of catching and
retrieving everything his master throws. Again, there is no moral judgement
involved here at all.
Mundane "intentions and ideals" such as these surround us wherever we are in
the company of creatures that have minds. (Even creatures that don't fully
have minds have inchoate intentions and "proto-"ideals, such as a spider's
"determination" to weave its web.)
The dominant tradition in psychology -- i.e. behaviourism, with its
attendant operationalist definitions -- neglects these mundane mental
states. But these very mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, ideals,
etc.) are an *essential* part of the casual chain in all human action.
Perhaps this neglect is considered "savvy" in psychological circles, but
among halfway-decent philosophers it is considered hopelessly naïve, for the
simple reason that proper explanation always involves the laying bare of
If the intention of doing something is part of the cause of a human (or
animal) act, then failure to take account of that intention is a failure to
explain it. If an "ideal" -- i.e. a long-term habitual intention to achieve
something -- is part of the cause of a human (or animal) behaviour, then
failure to take account of that ideal is a failure to explain.
- Rob Quinlan asks for references on monogamy. Here are some recent ones:
MacDonald, K. B. (1995). The Establishment and Maintenance of Socially
Imposed Monogamy in Western Europe. (This article was the subject of
commentaries by Laura Betzig, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, James A. Brundage,
Ulrich Mueller, Frank Salter, John M. Strate, and David Sloan Wilson.)
Politics and the Life Sciences, 14, 3-23.
Kanazawa, S., & Still, M. C. (1999). "Why monogamy?" Social Forces
Sanderson, S. K., Explaining Monogamy and Polygyny in Human Societies:
Comment on Kanazawa and Still. , Social Forces 80(1), September, in press
MacDonald, K. B. (2001). Theoretical Pluralism and Historical Complexity in
the Development and Maintenance of Socially Imposed Monogamy: A Comment on
Kanazawa and Still. Social Forces 80(1), September, in press.
Kanazawa and Still have a reply to Sanderson and MacDonald in the same issue
of Social Forces.
Besides thinking in terms of social control at the cultural level, it is
also important to think about adaptations for monogamy at the psychological
level. My view is that humans have mechanisms that facilitate both monogamy
(the human affectional system which correlates with long-term, intimate
relationships, pair bonding, and high-investment parenting) and polygyny
(the behavioral approach system--attraction to sexual reward, status
seeking). This is based on the data from personality psychology. See:
MacDonald, K. B. (1998). Evolution, Culture, and the Five-Factor Model.
Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 29, 119-149. Individual differences in
these systems and social controls at the cultural level (which typically
reflect the interests of different groups) are critical in whether monogamy
or polygyny will actually occur.
My papers on these topics are on my website:
Department of Psychology
California State University-Long Beach
Long Beach, CA 90840-0901
562 985-8183; fax: 562 985-8004
- Dear all,
I am prepared to change my mind -- and to start believing that humans are
*not* monogamous -- IF anyone can show me:
1. that some observable consequences can be derived from the hypothesis that
"humans are not monogamous";
2. that as one such consequence, a particular event (of a surprising but
repeatable sort) was actually predicted to occur;
3. that the event did in fact occur. (In other words, the prediction proved
true, and the hypothesis was "confirmed".)
I am unprepared to call anything "science" that does not involve
confirmation, as in 1 - 3 above. Without such confirmation, we have very
poor grounds for believing that a hypothesis is true.
It seems to me that psychology doesn't involve much of that sort of thing.
Instead, it uses methods well-suited to *discovery* (surveys, statistics,
and so on) but treats the results *as if those methods justified belief in
those results*. In psychology, the context of discovery and the context of
justification seem not to be distinct. But in every branch of science that I
am aware of, these "contexts" are very distinct.
For example, it doesn't matter how Kekulé got the idea of the shape of the
benzene molecule (it was supposed to have been a dream of snakes biting
their own tails). Its ring shape is confirmed countless times in the
everyday practice of chemists who deal with aromatic compounds. Similarly,
it doesn't matter whether an apple dropped on Newton's head or not -- his
laws are confirmed day-in day-out by most human machines, from children's
toys to interplanetary probes (and they are found to be very nearly exactly
But it *does* matter how surveys are conducted, and it *does* matter how
statistical samples are chosen.
Many supposedly "scientific" results in other disciplines (than psychology)
are equally doubtful, because the contexts of discovery and justification
are as indistinct as they seem to be in psychology. For example, it's anyone
's guess whether global warming is really happening (to say nothing about
whether carbon emissions are the cause, or whether it's a bad thing, or
whether the supposed cure is worse than the disease). Similarly, no one
knows for sure whether saturated fats cause heart disease. (My guess is:
maybe, but then again, probably not.)
The contexts of discovery and justification are so merged together in
psychology that it cannot claim to have any more credibility than "global
warming science" or "cholesterol studies", both of which, frankly, are
bullshit. That's why "studies" in psychology seem so untrustworthy -- the
question is always "is the researcher politically biased?" And that is why
the question of the personal integrity of a researcher is relevant. (In
disciplines where the contexts of discovery and justification are distinct,
an ad hominem argument is fallacious -- a real *mistake* in reasoning,
likely to lead to error -- rather than a breach of good manners.)
I don't know what to make of the findings about monogamy based on the
"standard sample" from the "Ethnographic Atlas". How does anyone count
"societies"? Does every single little tribe (or extended family) in the
trailer parks of Utah count as a separate "society"?
Another, gigantic problem with this discussion is that we all seem to mean
to different things by words like 'monogamy' and 'polygamy'. How are we to
count "polygamy"? -- The having of many (legal) wives, or the having of many
lovers, with no special attachment to any of them? Was the sultan who loved
Scheherazade polygamous? If a man visits a prostitute for "special
services" -- sexual acts that his beloved wife is too squeamish to
perform -- does that make him polygamous?
For what it's worth, when I use the word 'monogamy', I'm thinking about
long-term "possessive" attachment, the sort of thing that makes European
fairy tales end with "happily ever after", the very same thing that directs
the plot of every single Bollywood movie... (By the way, did the British
bring true love to India, or did they have it already? -- My guess is --
they had it already!)
I'm *not* talking about legal (or legal-type) arrangements for the expansion
of an extended family, which legal (or legal-type) marriages often or
usually involve. I'm talking about love. Almost everyone knows what *that*