Friday, January 1

Repeat: That was a weird book

This post is borrowed from my old journal of years past. I liked/wanted the content enough to carry it over and bring it up to date.

I picked up a copy of "The Cognitive Neurosciences" Third Edition from the MIT Press garage sale by chance, which was a damn nice find (its a fatty and probably would cost about a hundred bucks new - I paid ten); one of those texts I see often on the shelves of grad students, post-docs, and profs in Course 9. When glancing through it, I found that Sapolsky contributed a section for it called "Stress and Cognition," which sums up much of his own academic research, plus that of others, and is pretty much exactly the research I am talking about when I attack MIT student life circumstances. Plus, its quite a well written piece. It unfortunately isn't available for public consumption on the web, but here are a few articles that talk about the same issue to a less complete degree.

However, my desire is to talk about an entirely different book. My 9.20 professor urged me to try reading a book he had mentioned to me entitled "Sperm Wars." Its about the underlying science (I can't stress this enough, the author is a professor of Biology at Manchester, and has spent years running carefully regulated studies involving thousands upon thousands of samples) of human sexual behavior. So I'm interested in this sort of stuff, and the book seemed pretty cool (and if you examine the back cover, already mildly shocking), so I gave it a read.

The stuff in there is really weird. Downright boggling. Also fascinating, for a number of reasons. For example, one of the scientific findings highlighted in the book is that 10% of all children born to married couples do not possess the genes of their "father." Another: male and female homosexuality exists as a genetic balanced polymorphism. Because of the very real reproductive advantages given by bisexual genes, homophobia probably developed in heterosexuals because the others were a threat to reproductive fitness, plus there is that unfortunate problem of the spreading disease. Its worse in industrial societies; secluded populations with less disease exhibit much higher rates of bisexual behavior and little taboo exists. There's a lot more where that came from, too.

The primary goal of the book is to discuss the anatomy and physiology of human reproduction, leaving all aspects of societal influences out of it. The anatomy and physiology is certainly enough to fill the book since there is some weird weird shit that does make sense from an animal behavior perspective, but is stuff I would not dream of on my own. It is a strange strange thing we've got going for ourselves. I'm not sure I always agree with his uses of "scenes" to illustrate examples of behaviors. Some of it is pretty shocking, which is probably the author's intention, since without presenting the reader with realistic shock value, the legitimate points he is trying to get across simply wouldn't set in.

Perhaps the author's primary takeaway point is that naturally, human reproduction is not innately cooperative. To our Freudian Id (Actuality: Hypothalamus, lower brain areas, endocrine organs, etc.), tis an everlasting conflict against the opposing gender. The male "shotgun" approach is often viewed derisively as crude and stupid, but there is a lot more intelligence in these behaviors than it appears. Its quite unsettling how much simple hormones and unconscious planning/scheming are able to manipulate our actions without our conscious understanding. Due to the drastic difference in "how stuff works down there," the science says males should spread their genes to as many people as possible, minimizing personal risk, and women should try to collect the strongest genes possible (again minimizing risk) while maintaining supportive relationships with at least one male. What does it mean to be the strongest? Well, that's always changing and fluctuating, but that unconscious machine happens to know damn well what's "best," and its often not what our minds are seeing.

In one of Sapolsky's published essay collections, he wrote a little piece about the neurophysiology of escalating arguments amongst people: where they come from, why the develop, how they end up exploding, and at the very end of the piece, what we can consciously do to take advantage of our own physiology and stop ourselves from being stupid. This book is not that. To the author's credit, he explains that he wanted to present the bare facts, unclouded by bias or agenda. To alleviate small arguments is easy, but to take a stance on what people should or shouldn't do sexually involves many questions of morality and ethics, issues we've been seriously debating for hundreds of years. To delve into that would needlessly distort what the book means to do.

Which is to provide fair and balanced view of both genders and the various behaviors and structures involved. He does a relatively good job. After all, the guy knows his ethology and sociobiology, and he's in no way just pulling this out of his ass. I'd have liked to see more data, but that's not what this book is for. Hundreds of additional articles exist for that purpose. Plus, the book really does only touch on one side of human behavior. If we were talking about dogs, bears, monkeys, or any other animal, then this would be it. But, we're not that, and the author recognizes this from the outset.

I'm not sure if this a book that I really think everyone ought to read. The information contained within is important, but its presentation is perhaps not ideal, which is unfortunate because people really should be aware of how we actually work. Some stuff in the book should probably be viewed with skepticism, but many of the results have been shown to be reproducible... Ha. Ha ha.

I think what it really boils down too is, as those silly G.I. Joe cartoons used to say, "knowing is half the battle."

1 comment:

  1. I wish I hadn't been sick the day we covered human sexual behavior in 9.88.