Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Other Sex Debate: Which Body Part?


This Sunday is our Debate at Lolita Bar about sex, but I was surprised recently to find myself entangled in a conversation about another timeless sex debate: the relative importance of breasts vs. buttocks. My position was that the brain is so important, the other question is silly (I just take it for granted that I couldn’t date a moron).

People — especially women — are reluctant to take brain for an answer, though. There’s nothing women hate more than a man defying their expectations and focusing on something non-physical. It’s like ruining all their hard work. My friend Heather Lowe was at least careful enough once to frame the question so that I was forced to pick a non-brain body part, then insisted I pick something below the neck after my attempt to pick face (and I may even have fallen back next on “hairstyle, in cases where it’s a drastic enough aesthetic choice to reveal something about character”).

Driven to the depths, I struggled — over a decade ago — to put into words the important part of the abstract concept of “curviness,” and I swear to you that in that moment I independently invented the phrase “waist-to-hip ratio” (that’s just how rational/analytical I am).

Little did I realize that this precise phrase had been hit upon by evolutionary psychologists to describe what they contend is roughly the single most important physical attribute, as demonstrated in psych surveys, for attracting males to females. Hard as it may be for women to believe, they’ve even acquired evidence from such surveys that the waist-to-hip ratio is more important than overall weight or fat content. Men like curves, and likely for biologically-rooted reasons tied in part to an instinctual preference — even among men who, like me, don’t want children — for those women who appear able to give birth to big-craniumed babies.

So you see, we’re all brain men in some sense — some just more consciously than others. (And of course, some women have it all, thank goodness.)


All this raises questions in some people’s minds about whether the study of evolution — making us more aware of material, biological constraints and explaining some cultural patterns in the process — is a net plus politically for progressives or conservatives, if anyone cares.

Evolution has been stretched to fit the worldview of rival political factions since Darwin’s day. This sort of interpretive warfare is generally bad news for science, which ought to be conducted in a disinterested fashion. However — and here’s a radical thought — this overlooked tug of war may also offer insights for a grand reconciliation of right and left (an idea I researched under the auspices of the Phillips Foundation years ago). If right and left have both found reason to love Darwin at different points in history — and they have — perhaps this divisive figure can become a unifier instead.

The basic facts of biological evolution are not inherently political, of course. As Darwin described the process in Origin of Species in 1859, living things either reproduce or do not reproduce, and the next generation will tend to reflect the attributes of their parents, the successful reproducers. Exactly which characteristics confer survival advantage on individuals (increasing the likelihood of them bearing offspring) will vary with conditions in the environment. Sometimes environmental conditions reward speed and intelligence, but at other times conditions may as easily reward creatures for being quiet and unobtrusive, or simply for smelling as if they’d be unpleasant to eat. Indeed, the same geographic area may reward speed and size in one epoch, then reward stealth or smelliness in the next epoch if, say, new predators migrate into the area who tend to eat anything that runs noisily. Evolution is not progressive, glamorous, or “meaningful.” It’s just a fact of life.

Almost from the moment Darwin’s Origin reached the public, though, people have been trying to squeeze more out of the story of evolution, to make it reveal purpose and teleology in the universe. The results haven’t always fit easily into the contemporary right-left political spectrum. In short, now you know we don’t necessarily need God to explain why the waist-to-hip ratio matters, but you might be even more steamed about the fact that it does.

And if you have an opinion on whether we moderns have added better or worse twists to this whole saga, by all means join us for the debate and Q&A this Sunday at 8pm.


Diana said...

Well, you have to add the requisite citation and mention the illustrious Devendra Singh


Diana said...

Although I must say I am impressed that you had enough reflective power to pick apart your evolved psychology and independently come up with waist-to-hip-ratio. Just goes to show that human nature and standards of physical attractiveness are often universal even in spocklike individuals like yourself.

Diana said...

And as a last comment. Evolutionary psychologists tend to be disliked by both the right and the left. The right accuses us of saying that humans are animals, shaped by evolution and living lives devoid of meaning or spiritual essence. The left accuses us of being biologically deterministic and by association racist and sexist. This alleged determinism of evolutionary psychology undermines the left’s agenda of making everyone get along with better education, less poverty and more government involvement. I encourage you to read Singer’s “A Darwinian Left” which in addition to being very short and readable tries to square Darwinian ideas with leftist ideology.

Todd Seavey said...

And thanks for making it possible for me to see Singh lecture in person, Diana — I can now say without shame that I saw “a Singh-ful slideshow presentation about female hips.”

And Peter Singer was nice enough to e-mail me a speech on “A Darwinian Left” himself — and he didn’t try to abort me or anything — so I really need to do a full-length article on that at some point, hopefully sometime before genetic engineering and cybernetics ends evolution as we know it.