March 15, 2008

His biology made him do it: why evolutionary psychology says we should cut Spitzer some slack

Ryan McReynolds's recent post about prostitution has inspired me to scrutinize the Elliot Spitzer scandal a bit further.

Typical media interpretations would have us believe that this is a story about corruption, hypocrisy and arrogance. Many of the commentaries that followed in the wake of the scandal offered explanations as to why men of power often risk everything and why politicians are so prone to sleaze.

But very few pundits asked the harder questions, like, why did Spitzer go to a prostitute in the first place, and what are the cultural norms currently in place that prime men for such scandals?

And even if they did ask these questions, I doubt that many would analyze it through the lens of evolutionary psychology, sexual selection and gender differentiation.

No, it's much easier to point a holier-than-thou finger at someone and declare them to be weak and corrupt. It feeds our appetite for schadenfreude and our collective inability to question social norms.

What's the underlying story, here?

Did Elliot Spitzer break the law?

Yes.

Did Spitzer violate cultural mores and social expectations – particularly as they apply to politicians?

Yes.

Did he show lack of restraint and a possible abuse of power?

Definitely.

But further, was Spitzer behaving in accordance to his biological programming, particularly that of a man with power and status?

Yes.

Now, I’m not making excuses for Spitzer, he clearly exercised poor judgment, and it’s probably for the best that he resigned his governorship. At the same time, however, this scandal shows how many of today’s social conventions can be artificial and even suppressive.

The layers of this affair run deeper than mere political opportunism and indiscretion. Spitzer's dramatic fall from power is a telling story about our underlying needs and urges and just how much we're willing to put at stake to satisfy those latent desires. Humans are still very much gendered and sexual creatures driven by genetic imperatives. Society would have us believe otherwise, but the evidence is right there before us.

Going back to a question I posed earlier: Why did Spitzer go to a prostitute in the first place? Well, it's not because he's corrupt or evil; those are labels applied to his actions after the fact. Rather, it stems from a deeply hardwired desire to get some action on the side, for sexual fulfillment outside of marriage.

Simply put, he was being a typical guy.

The science of infidelity

The science of male-female differences is beginning to mature; it's providing us with an enhanced understanding of mate selection and sexual behavior.

Evolutionary biologist David P. Barash has noted that males of most species are sexually aggressive and apt to engage in sex with multiple partners when they can. This strategy makes sense; males who succeed in doing so simply leave more descendants.

Geoffrey Miller, another evolutionary psychologist, reached a similar conclusion in his book, The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. Fueled by Richard Dawkins’s selfish gene notion, Miller argues that humans have developed a complex psychology that encourages sexual choice.

And Robin Baker, author of Sperm Wars: Infidelity, Sexual Conflict, and Other Bedroom Battles, has shown that upwards of 10% of children are not fathered by their “fathers” and that all sperm are not produced for fertilization, but to literally fight off the sperm of other males (how telling is that!?).

Interestingly, and perhaps quite obviously, infidelity is not specific to males. Baker also shows how women have “smart” vaginal mucus that encourages some sperm but blocks others. Women are also far more likely to conceive through a casual fling than through sex with her regular partner. Other studies have shown how women are more prone to ‘cheat’ during specific stages of the menstrual cycle; women select two types of men: those they partner with and those they actually mate with.

From having wealth, status and power….to having to visit prostitutes

Indeed, one of the most surprising discoveries of the past two decades has been the extent of sexual infidelity – what scientists call extra-pair copulations. As Barash has noted, "It's clear that social monogamy -- physical association and child rearing between a male and a female -- and sexual monogamy are very different things. The former is common; the latter is rare."

Prior to the onset of the monogamous imposition, men of wealth, status and power typically acquired multiple wives and partners. Well over a century ago, a politician like Spitzer would have likely had a mistress and no one would have questioned it. Today, a successful male is likely to have a wife and a girlfriend on the side (along with the hope of not getting caught).

But for men like Spitzer, a mistress is not possible. So instead they visit prostitutes and risk virtually everything. He is a victim of the times.

Again, this is not an apology for Spitzer. As a politician, he knew the sacrifices he would have to make and work to fulfill the public’s expectations. He clearly failed in that regard.

But we need to weigh his actions with a certain amount of understanding. Let's not be too quick to judge the guy and cut him some slack.

[Photo credit: Art of Chad]

17 comments:

Athena said...

Well, George, I'm all for polyandry myself, being a dominant female.

Seriously, though... the egg-versus-sperm dichotomy doesn't hold up as an explanation, because the gamete dimorphism is true for birds as well, where monogamy and equal parenting generally pertain. The mammalian unequal gestational investment is a more likely point of divergence.

Also, biologists who opine that men are simply following the patterns of their primate relatives invariably fail to consider the bonobos, who are as closely related to us as chimpanzees -- and are egalitarian and openly promiscuous whether female or male.

Last but not least, alpha males in primates that have them (gorillas and baboons only, the rest form unstable alliances that constantly shift in power) spend as much time defending their position within the hierarchy as mating. Non-dominant males often win females and mate successfully in all the primate species that have been observed.

Which reminds me of a cartoon I once saw of a bunch of cave men, tossing spears at a saber tooth tiger that has already mauled several. One of them is saying to another, “The beta males must be feeling pretty stupid, left behind with the women.”

Ilir said...

Quote: "how many of today’s social conventions can be artificial and even suppressive" - wonderful !

Nato said...

That he didn't keep his promises to his wife and family don't really concern me - whatever it says about him as a man in our society doesn't really mean anything about him as a head of a state's state. On the other hand, the guy was all about persecuting (no, not a misspelling of prosecuting) those involved in prostitution, apparently without compunction. That makes him a raging hypocrite, and about *that* I do care.

In any case, I think we should acknowledge biological engineering that predisposes folks to acting in certain ways given a certain environment, but it doesn't make sense to regard this as so much immutable programming. If we understand what biology is pushing us to do and how this interacts with sociology, this should increase our freedom to react in ways contrary to what the sociobiological statistics would indicate are the common strategies. If we decide that "infidelity" (what a loaded word) is bad and destructive to our own purposes (as opposed to the nominal goals of our genes, or societal mores) then I would be shocked to find that we're still doomed to it. It would undermine my perception of our free will and responsibility for our own actions.

So, I think it's good to look at what sociological and biological factors may have pushed Spitzer in the direction he went, but I don't think any absolution of responsibility can go with it without shrinking our concept of humanity.

Doug said...

"At the same time, however, this scandal shows how many of today’s social conventions can be artificial and even suppressive."

Well, that's why we need social conventions isn't it?

If it was ok just to act along with our biological programming we wouldn't need them. But it isn't. We are biologically programmed to do all sorts of stuff that is unacceptable in the modern world.

As an adult human you are expected to be able to defy your biological programming, at least some of the time.

This isn't hypocrisy, it's more, I guess, aspiration.

Roko said...

So the obvious question that a transhumanist asks himself at this point is "how can we improve things?".

Would the world be better of people could "turn off" their sex drives in situations where they didn't want them, or even tune their sex drive to only apply to their chosen life-partner?

Ilir said...

Hi Doug,

How do you suggest one can defy his biological programming ?

I would say we can defy our biological programming when we can reprogram ourselves; oppressing our desires does not qualify as "defying biological programming".

Ilir

Rasmus said...

@nato
I don't think any absolution of responsibility can go with it without shrinking our concept of humanity.

So, if Spitzer were a tad bologically programmed (which seems to be the reasonable assumption) he is less human?! Because if we accept some level of biological programming , we HAVE to accept that we are not totally in control - and then we HAVE to accept excuses. That's why we have legislative terms like "crime of passion".

@roko
So the obvious question that a transhumanist asks himself at this point is "how can we improve things?"

If you feel like you need to improve yourself, you are donning a set of values that are un-natural, if we go by George's argument. Now, where do those values come from? How is it that these "truths" become so self-evident when transhumaists begin discussing how to control (human) nature? Is it disinterest in discussing the under-lying moralistic or idealistic assumptions that seem to "show the way"?

Anyhow, I think there is a real problem in dismissing and conceptually seperating biological mechanisms from the project of self-improvement or human technological progress. It seems like a relapse into cartesian dualism. The mind needs no body - in fact, the mind is hampered by all those glands and animalistic cravings, let's get rid of that body altogether. Then we can really start thinking clearly. Bollocks.

Anonymous said...

Hmm...

Let's not conflate biology and morality. Common chimps often rape, murder, fight wars, and do all sorts of nasty stuff. It's "natural". Part of the social/cultural reaction to Spitzer is that we're creating social norms to combat the worst sides of our nature.

Lots of our evolved psychology probably primes us for zero-sum game like competition (lots of meaningless rutting and killing). I'd rather not play in that kind of world, and I'd rather emphasis evolved aspects of our psychology that lend themselves toward more altruism and ethics.

The choice to modify our own nature has been around ever since we invented language (it's not new to transhumanism, but is being made much more powerful by current technologies) It's a funny thing about being human.

Rasmus said...

we're creating social norms to combat the worst sides of our nature.

I really think this sums up a specific line of thinking.

What if, to the contrary, our societal norms and ethics evolved as a part of the same competition? I think that's much more in line with Darwin - the idea that our human nature must be suppressed in order for us to act civilised and intellectual is really old-school freudianism. I think nature has shown that social behaviour IS advantageous for certain groups of individuals, humans being just one.
But this does not make it any more "true" to distance human biology from human culture. Or say that one is more valid than the other. It's as if people are ashamed of their biological selves...thurst, hunger, anger, lust and a lot of feces.

"Make it go away - I'm trying to be civilised here."

Roko said...

Rasmus Said: "If you feel like you need to improve yourself, you are donning a set of values that are un-natural, if we go by George's argument. Now, where do those values come from? How is it that these "truths" become so self-evident when transhumaists begin discussing how to control (human) nature? Is it disinterest in discussing the under-lying moralistic or idealistic assumptions that seem to "show the way"?"

- this is a good point. I'll be doing a blog post/series of posts on this issue at some point

Roko said...

@Rasmus: "What if, to the contrary, our societal norms and ethics evolved as a part of the same competition?"

- sure, human ethics evolved as a layer on top of our (more primitive) drives. That's why humans are the only animal in the known universe that can have large societies of unrelated individuals. And I think that we would do well to complete the victory of memes over genes by getting rid of the last vestiges of beastial tendencies in ourselves.


"I think that's much more in line with Darwin - the idea that our human nature must be suppressed in order for us to act civilised and intellectual is really old-school freudianism"

Calling an idea names doesn't make it any less true! The idea that people going around raping, murdering and fighting as their animalistic instincts would have them behave is perfectly sensible, and is not (to my knowledge) full fledged freud. (I think he went a lot further, but it's irrelevant anyway. The idea stands or falls on it's own merits, not by virtue f who came up with it).

Nato said...

"Because if we accept some level of biological programming , we HAVE to accept that we are not totally in control"

"The mind needs no body - in fact, the mind is hampered by all those glands and animalistic cravings, let's get rid of that body altogether. Then we can really start thinking clearly. Bollocks."

Rasmus, are we, as people, defined by the particular matter that instantiates us? If I replaced all my biological parts - including my brain - with functionally and dispositionally-equivalent mechanical versions, would the result be some other person? I think the answer is no, in terms of the morally-relevant definitions of "me". Conscious life is a dance, and what exactly is doing the dancing isn't really germane to the dance's identity. The doesn't mean there's some special dance essence that's mysteriously transferred to whatever feet are in play, or that the feet are, pituitary-like, the locus of dance-transduction. It just means that we are as we do, not as we are constituted.

Granted, our lives are heavily inflected by the biology that brings us into being, and refusing to acknowledge that is a recipe for disaster. I don't think that's what transhumanism suggests, however. It consists of a refusal to define the future by the past and identify ourselves with received accouterments.

Rasmus said...

Nice discussion - I am learning more on these topics for each posting :)

@roko

- sure, human ethics evolved as a layer on top of our (more primitive) drives.

Ah, well - this "layer on top" thing is what strikes a discord in me. You're indicating a normalistic hierarchy which I do not buy into. Those ethics are still very much intertwined with the primitive drives - how much we have to eat, how stressed we are, our family structures, and so on.
I am probably nitpicking here - but I resent those small ounces of discourse that keep seperating mind and matter. We are organisms, not layered chips of silicon transistors.

The idea stands or falls on it's own merits, not by virtue f who came up with it

It does but its own merits are defined by context - my reference to Freud had more to do with the attribution of inherent conflict and guilt in the human subject - and the negative vibe this brings to the term "natural". I don't agree with this...and I think it a superficial (in many cases techno-fixated) way of viewing what we are as humans.

And I think that we would do well to complete the victory of memes over genes by getting rid of the last vestiges of beastial tendencies in ourselves.

I think this is a dreamy illusion, to be honest. I do not believe you can ever dislodge the cultural essence of a human being from its physicality and the whole physio-chemical emotional package. The human package includes some kind of beastiality, I assume. At least until environmental conditions change for long enough for natural selection to get rid of it. Of course, you may have as a goal to technologically and actively nuture the human genome from all things aggressive, delinquent, individual, defensive. But the ethical justification of this course of action is quite murky, I'd say.


@nato

Rasmus, are we, as people, defined by the particular matter that instantiates us?

Why yes, that is precisely what we are. Not wholly, of course. We are systems of matter, chemicals and electricity. There is no inherent cultural soul that "conducts" our feet - it is a construct that instantiates itself in unison with our physicality and sociality.
I am not sure what your point is, the metaphors stack up a bit at the end - I am just convinced that the concept of humanity is not per se a rational thing - and I doubt (and hope not) it ever will be. I guess I feel that self-improvement should take a practical approach with more immediately productive goals - rather than seek to perfect moral, altruistic and ethical behaviour.

Nato said...

"Why yes, that is precisely what we are. Not wholly, of course. We are systems of matter, chemicals and electricity. There is no inherent cultural soul that "conducts" our feet - it is a construct that instantiates itself in unison with our physicality and sociality."

Rasmus, you might say I'm something of a realist* with respect to abstracta. Dennett describes the self as the narrative center of gravity, but does not regard this as an eliminativist position because there are important respects in which centers of gravity, selves, and other abstracta exist.

I think, when you say "the concept of humanity is not per se a rational thing - and I doubt (and hope not) it ever will be" you mean that there is no objective standard of "humanity" in the same sense that there is an objective standard of concreta like, for example, an electron. This is, however, a fairly precarious position, as everything on which we place much importance quickly slips into the same vortex. "...self-improvement should take a practical approach with more immediately productive goals - rather than seek to perfect moral, altruistic and ethical behaviour" you say, but what of those things are objective realities requiring no construction? Is "immediately productive" really so much clearer than the ethical self-improvement over which we wrangle, or is it merely a more comfortably 'received' a concept, amenable to projection in numerical terms? That's not to dispute power and utility of quantitative representation, the engineering value of tradition, or the wisdom of solving tractable problems first. I simply want to point out that we can hardly have any meaning without allowing for the reality of 'things' with constructed ontology.

Now, one could say that 'humanity' is not a particularly useful category, or that popular usage of the term is illegibly fuzzy. Certainly any discussion that deals with our common future will have to do a little work on what we mean when we say "human" and why we want to use the term that way. Many visions of the future say, comfortingly, "like this, but more so," a Jetson's for each era. It would seem to behoove us, on the eve of vast expansions in our power to self-modify, to decide what it is about ourselves that we want "like this, but more so" and what we'd rather not be so much. We decided in the 50s that we'd all like to drive ourselves everywhere, and then discovered that maybe that wasn't so efficient or fun, sitting in our smoggy traffic jams five decades later. When changing ourselves rather than our environment, I would suspect that the regrets engendered by not carefully considering what we really want would be correspondingly greater.


*In the philosophical sense of the word.

Rasmus said...

@nato

Whoa, careful on the curly language, Nato :)

we can hardly have any meaning without allowing for the reality of 'things' with constructed ontology.

"Allowing" is one thing. These ethical and altruistic "presuppositions" , however, seem to lie underneath many arguments in favour of this or that course of action. As such they have ceased to be a debatable entity and are instead "necessary" in order to be deemed a "true progressive". As you see, I speak in quotation marks - mostly because I am relating feelings and observed trends. I may likely be wrong...my only goal is to relay these observations and question them - you decide if there exists any merit :)

the wisdom of solving tractable problems first.
While I acknowledge the academic debate on the impact of big issues, it also seems clear that ethics and morals bounds of technological tinkering are very much at the mercy of the mundane, practical technological achievements. Dolly the Sheep happened while everyone was debating whether it should happen. I am fairly analytical myself and I like to think things through. However on this topic I remain a cynical realist - I do not believe that academic discussions of ethical and altruistic purposes have any big impact on the way policies are actually effected...unless they happen to support the big bucks or established altruisms anyway.
So, consequently, the tractable problems are often the ones that end up defining policy...and thus choosing the "right" tractables may actually be a better way of defining overall strategems.

The decisions on what we want are of course a part of this - but it seems quite the Juggernaut...rambling along, accelerating in those bends where subsidising and specific research projects provide momentum, decelerating in the face of recession or lack of capitalist motivation. As such there is no coherent "we" deciding anything - this is another common part of the discourse that seems so enormously wrong (not that there's anything wrong with the ideal, I'm all for "We").

Nato said...

Sorry about the "curly" language - I'm an egregious user of philosophical jargon because it's vastly more parsimonious than attempting to achieve exactitude with colloquial (and thus necessarily ill-defined) signifieds. Of course, that can make things inexcusably dense, but I am more worried about avoiding ambiguity. Not that I succeed, but, you know, I try.

"I do not believe that academic discussions of ethical and altruistic purposes have any big impact on the way policies are actually effected...unless they happen to support the big bucks or established altruisms anyway."

The service that the academic discussions provides are, I think, somewhat like policy detail for a politician - only a vanishingly small portion of the electorate pays enough attention to tell the difference, but those people tend to be movers and shakers with a disproportionate ability to establish the terms of the public debate. Very few people will have watched Obama's recent speech, but many more will hear *about* the speech, and even more will note that someone or other they respect supports Obama (or doesn't). The actual reaction may be small, but the shockwaves ripple out.

Or so I tell myself.

As for the received values of progressivism, well, I grant that transhumanism has some of that, but in its defense, I'd say it's far less than in other "progressive" communities. I'm a (life) member of NOW and the HRC, give regularly to Planned Parenthood, NARAL and Lambda Legal Defense - in short, I'm very much socially left-wing - and I've certainly been alienated by the groupthink in a lot of the organizations of which I'm a nominal supporter. When folks complain about it, I can only shrug and agree. On the other hand, it seems most organizations with an explicit political stance are like that to some extent. I've also been alienated at Libertarian gatherings when I've expressed skepticism regarding the real-life applicability of Austrian school economic models. I suspect there's no escape, if one gets involved.

Nato Welch said...

First, I never thought I'd see "Nato" on the same blog I find interesting. I'm also known as "Nato", but, as you can see, we're quite different people. Make note for future reference.

Secondly, how did I miss the reference to the [[http://venganza.org/ Flying Spaghetti Monster]] in the graphic included in this post? ;p