Sex and Civilization

An interesting tangent emerged in my reading of Ever Since Darwin. When considering some aspects of the evolution of human beings, Gould quotes Freud. In one case it concerned the idea that we retained juvenile traits of primates in our evolution, a process called neoteny. Our upright posture is a trait found in juvenile primates, not adults. Freud elucidates another interesting facet of this development in his book Civilization and Its Discontents (which is now on my list of books to read, not knowing that much about Freud).

Freud argued that our assumption of upright posture had reoriented our primary sensation from smell to vision. This devaluation of olfaction shifted the object of sexual stimulation in males from cyclic odors of estrus to the continual visibility of female genitalia. Continual desire of males led to the evolution of continual receptivity in females. Most mammals copulate only around periods of ovulation; humans are sexually active at all times…Continual sexuality has cemented the human family and made civilization possible; animals with strongly cyclic copulation have no strong impetus for stable family structure. “The fateful process of civilization,” Freud concludes, “would thus have set in with man’s adoption of an erect posture.” (208-209)

I’ve read this paragraph over and over again, and the implications are only slowly sinking in. Freud claims that the basis of all civilization begins with the development of an erect posture which has an impact on sexuality and therefore family structure. Now, the thing you often hear about Freud is someone mocking his obsession with sex and that so much of his analysis is based on studying people with neuroses. I don’t know enough about Freud to comment on these common criticisms, but this particular argument taken at face value by a scientist like Gould appears to have some credibility.

When you think about the senses in terms of language it is clear that smell takes a huge backseat to almost all the other senses. Our sense of sight is certainly primary and we have more words to describe how something looks, sounds, feels or tastes than we do for how it smells. Just try and think of all the words related only to smell. How many are related to other senses? And the effect of this shift toward vision also moved our sexuality away from the natural cycles of pheromones to being constantly receptive and sexually active. I wonder how exactly this creates a stable family structure in the beginning. I assume it has to do with monogamy of some kind developing, but I’m not sure precisely how. The irony, of course, if this is true, that the shift toward a sexuality based primarily on visual stimulation formed the beginnings of civilization, is that the eventual effect of this shift in modern civilization is precisely the breaking down of family structures (among many other factors).

Perhaps this shift is also the beginning of the objectification of women, which makes a lot of sense, meaning that our social structures have developed unjustly based on evolving sexuality. Far from excusing this behavior based on some natural argument, the expression of genes has more to do with our environment, choices and social constructs. This is the argument Gould makes again and again in the book against scientific ideas like biological determinism that have led, and continue to lead, to the justification of racist cultural prejudices.

Of course nature is all about sex. That’s what keeps the whole thing moving and evolving (though he shares an interesting theory about the evolutionary benefits of homosexuality) swapping genes and trying to making sure yours survive. Yet Freud seems to also indicate that this fundamental understanding of our nature and relationship to the environment erodes as civilization “progresses”.

Freud argued further that as civilizations become increasingly complex and “modern,” we must renounce more and more of our innate selves…the price of civilization is individual suffering. “It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the nonsatisfaction…of powerful instincts. This ‘cultural frustration’ dominates the large field of social relationships between human beings.” (260)

As I hinted concerning the objectification and domination of women, it is possible that the “individual suffering” of civilization is partially the unfortunate result of the evolutionary traits which made civilization possible. It seems to me that the “renunciation of instinct” that seems to be required by civilization to an ever greater degree can be called neither good nor bad. In the case of the oppression of women (based ultimately on our evolving sexuality and then gradually the patriarchal institutions that grew out of that instinct) there is certainly a case to be made for renouncing this instinct. On the other hand, capitalism seems to require the suppression of more altruistic instincts that are present in natural systems and evolutionary theory. This may be an instinct that we have suppressed to our detriment.

People (most often those who oppose it, Christian fundamentalists mostly) tend to equate Darwinian theory with some form of determinism. The genius of Gould is his ability to deftly navigate between the extremes of bad religion and bad science. There are biological processes at work that shape us through evolution over generations and millenia, but genes are nothing until they are expressed. The expression of most of our genes is not like our eye or hair color, something we can’t control. Our genetic makeup only finds expression as we interact with our environment. Far from taking away our choice, this increase in knowledge places the responsibility squarely back on our own shoulders as unique creatures with the ability to make choices about how our genes are expressed in relationship to other human beings and nature. Civilization as we have constructed it is not natural because of Freud’s ideas about the influence of erect posture on its development. Genetic material is simply the raw stuff of possibility.

I’m still kicking a lot of these ideas around in my head. I find them intriguing, provocative and helpful in some ways. At the end of the day this rabbit trail once again points me to the hope that we can imagine possibilities beyond the world we’ve created.

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