Friday, 13 November 2015

The science of sex - the most important recent book? Sexual selection under parental choice, by Menelaos Apostolou

Menelaos Apostolou. Sexual selection under parental choice: the evolution of human mating behaviour. Psychology Press: London, 2014. pp. xi, 175.
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The work of Menelaos Apostolou, a young Assistant Professor from Nicosia University in Cyprus - collected and explored in this recent book, turns-out to be the most significant 'paradigm shift' in the evolutionary psychology of sex since the modern field began in 1979 with Don Symons The evolution of human sexuality.

Apostolou's work means that this whole area of work - many thousands of papers and scores of best-selling books (not to mention the theoretical basis of the online Manosphere and PUA movement) - now need to be reframed within a new explanatory context.

In a nutshell, and with exhaustive documentation and rigorous argument, Apostolou establishes that parental choice is primary in human evolutionary history: for many hundreds of generations of our ancestors it was primarily parents who chose and controlled who their children would marry and reproduce-with; and the individual sexual preferences of both men and women were relegated to a secondary role.

This means that it was mainly parent choice that shaped human mating preferences - and personal choice would have been relegated to a subordinate role within and after marriage (e.g. infidelity choices; and the choice to end marriage - e.g. when to divorce).

Most of this book is taken up by the collection and discussion of a mass of empirical data - hundreds of references, and the detailed working-through of the implications; but the take home message is relatively simple and clear.

Apostolou shows that in most societies in human history, and continuing in most modern societies outside of The West, individual men and women had very little choice of their mates - and that this choice was nearly always made by their parents. In other words, marriages were arranged by the parents of the husband and wife - especially the daughter's marriage, and usually by their fathers more than their mothers.

Parents preferences for a marriage partner differ from those of their offspring. In general, parents (relatively to their children, especially daughter) prefer delaying sexual relationships until an early marriage with early onset of child-bearing and little or no extra-marital sex. And parents have been generally hostile to divorce.

The characteristics parents prefer (compared with individual preferences) include good character, ability to provide resources (especially men), coming from a 'good family' - with high status and wealth, and pre-marital chastity (especially in women).

The characteristics individuals prefer (compared with their parents) include beauty and good looks (hair, face, figure etc. in a woman; muscular physique in a man), a charming and entertaining personality, the ability to provide sexual excitement and so on.

The system of parental sexual choice seems to be unique to humans - which makes it a matter of exceptional biological interest: we may be the only species that has not evolved to choose our own mates.

More exactly, the ancestral system was probably (to simplify) that two sets of parents controlled who thier children married - the individual preferences of the prospective husband and wife may or may not have been consulted. Individual choice was probably important mostly after marriage - since there was the possibility of extra-marital liaisons (although Apostolou documents that these were extremely risky, and generally very harshly punished, up to and including death - especially for women).

But all the ancestral societies permitted divorce (while strongly discouraging it - since this undermined parental decisions) - although mainly in a context where one of the spouses turned out to be unsatisfactory from the point of view of providing grandchildren (eg. men who did not provide sufficient resources - due to their behaviour or from illness or injury, or women who were barren). Probably since women are more controlled in arranging marriage, it is mainly women who initiate divorces.

Apostolou summarizes this as: Parents decide who gets married, children decide whether they stay married.

Another way of describing this is that parents screen or filter prospective spouses - and individual preferences only work within this pre-screened and filtered population. Consequently, modern men and women are not adapted to select a partner from an unscreened population - and not equipped with the proper instincts to assist their choice; so they are vulnerable to deception and exploitation.

Therefore human evolutionary history has left modern individuals, in a world where parental choice and control has been all-but eliminated from mainstream life, woefully ill-equipped to manage their sexual lives.

This affects both men and women adversely - but in partly different ways. men and women share a common problem of not being worried-enough about the problem of finding suitable long-term mates, marrying and having children - precisely because this whole business was managed for them by parents through hundreds of preceding human generations.

Women delay and delay marriage and child-bearing, and seem unconcerned about their genetic extinction - because their deep inbuilt expectation is that these matters will be arranged for-them. men worry too much about attaining high status among men, and becoming a good provider - when these were selected for in a world where prospective in-laws wanted these attributes from men; but in the modern world they are an ineffectual strategy for getting a mate.
In sum (and in terms of their biological fitness) modern men are too worried about working hard, and not worried enough about meeting and impressing individual women.

So men and women who are apparently, in biological and historical terms, extremely well-qualified as potential husbands and wives, remain unmarried and childless in large and increasing numbers.

Modern single people therefore are much too happy about their living in a state of unattached childlessness, than is good for their reproductive success. And this (biologically) foolish happiness is at least partly a consequence of evolutionary history: people are behaving as if mating and marriage will be sorted-out by parents - but it isn't.

However, as is usual in works of evolutionary psychology - in a subject where the professionals are almost 100 percent atheists (and militant atheists at that!), in this book there is a too brief and conceptually inadequate consideration of the role of religion.

The subject gets about three pages, and religion is treated as merely a trumped-up rationalization for enforcing biological imperatives. However, it is not mentioned that in modern societies it is only among the religious that we can find biologically viable patterns of mating, marriage and family - and indeed only among some particular religions that are traditionalist in ethics and patriarchal in structure: which fits exactly with the evolutionary predictions.

My point is that religion needs to be regarded as a cause, not merely a consequence, of sexual behaviour and selection pressure; in sum, religion (more exactly, some specific religions) is the only known antidote to the pattern of maladaptive modern sexuality which is trending towards extinction.

Another omission is the role of intoxication by alcohol and drugs. Much of modern sexual behaviour is initiated in parties, bars and nightclubs; and occurs more-or-less under the influence of intoxicants - and this in itself deranges delicate brain functioning and destroys the benefits of behavioural adaptations that may have taken centuries or millennia to evolve.

An intoxicated person is maladaptive.

So, from a biological perspective, I would contend that there is no reason to suppose we can solve the biological problems of modernity outwith religion (especially since the social system of religion has in practice been replaced by... the mass media - see my book Addicted to Distraction). Biological knowledge can diagnose the problem - but science cannot provide a solution nor the motivation to implement it; since humans are not evolved to structure their sexuality according to biological principles.

We are 'set-up' to seek our own gratification and try to avoid suffering with reproductive success as a by-product - we do not seek directly to achieve optimal personal/ or tribal/ or national/ or species-level reproductive fitness.

Such omissions and other imperfections do not detract from the exceptional originality and importance of this book and the empirical research and theoretical discussion which it summarizes.
In a world where actual scientific achievement was the primary determinant of professional success; Menelaos Apostolou would be among the most prestigious, most cited, and most intellectually influential people in evolutionary psychology.

I hope that this deserved outcome will, sooner or later, come to pass.


Nathaniel said...

(Please delete if inappropriate)

You've stated elsewhere the idea that not everyone can be devout, active Mormons. Though of course, this is one healthy option to combat all of these ill effects of modern atheism. However, we know *most* people historically didn't have progeny - that survival was limited to a biological elite. Both could then overlap in this case, as is apparently necessary.

Bruce B. said...

You mentioned this recently and I’m glad to see work being done on this. A very important topic. Thanks for posting this.

Did he mention geographic differences? Did he concentrate on surrounding Near East societies? I wonder if Europe, particularly Northwest Europe shows less parental selection? There are lots of ancedotes about young European couples running off into the woods to get married in ancient times and the Middle Ages and this is something the Church had to deal with.

Heaviside said...

Science isn't concerned with "saving the appearances" of lots of strange things, like anomalous excess heat and nuclear reaction products in electrochemical systems, or Felix Ehrenhaft's discovery of fractional charges.

Steve Setzer said...

Membership in a traditionalist, patriarchal religion can sometimes act as a complete substitute for the parental guidance. When my wife and I first met at a Mormon social event (a dance for high school aged youth), we were both recent converts. Our parents mattered very little in our courtship, but shared LDS membership meant a lot as a sign of compatibility.

It's not perfect, of course -- in Pride and Prejudice terms many Mormons are like "Mr. Darcy" or "Elizabeth Bennet" but a few are more like Wickham or Collins. But most people who show up to a strict religion's social and sacred activities will share the same general approach to life. A Mormon girl who plans only to marry in the temple has at least as good a filter as ever Mrs. Bennet could have provided her daughters.

I suspect the same is true among Southern Baptists and similar groups.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nat - It depends what you mean by *cannot* - I merely meant that in practice anything approaching 100 percent active CJCLDS church membership is vanishingly improbable - this is also the stated view of General Authorities, as I underatnd it - they try to propare members for long term minority status (rather than assuming that at some point within the medium term the church will 'take over').

@BB - The focus is on historical societies especially those of a simple kind such as hunter gatherers, pastoralist herders and small scale farmers. But illustrations and evidence are drawn from all over the place. With evolutionary theory there are always exceptions - small and modifying factors, but the question is what had the biggest influence.

With putative medieval couples running off to the woods to get 'married' - the big question is whether they would be likely to raise any children to adulthood, and the answer is: almost certainly not.

@Steve Yes, this is exactly the kind of thing which the book neglects, but which I find so interesting. The Mormon system of marriage replicates most of the evolutionary features of parental choice in terms of pre-screening, while allowing personal choice within that framework.

On the other hand, even Mormon marriages are shockingly fragile nowadays, compared with the past since the broader surrounding secular culture offers an escape from the legitimate negative group sanctions against frivolous and selfish divorce - indeed, among left-secular people there an approving attitude to divorces among religious people, since they are felt to be, and may actually be often a victory against religion (proving that religious people are 'hypocrites' - and bringing more people into the embrace of mainstream secular hedonism).

ajb said...

"modern men and women are not adapted to select a partner from an unscreened population - and not equipped with the proper instincts to assist their choice; so they are vulnerable to deception and exploitation."

This seems very important, and is analogous to a lot of other things in the contemporary world.

ajb said...

It seems to me high quality relationships with children become much more important in a situation like contemporary Western civilization. If parents can't simply decide, they have to influence, and to do that typically requires a good relationship.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - Yes, that's a shrewd insight. Of course wanting and having are not the same - but the importance means that good family relationships must be made a priority in life, something well worth making other sacrifices for.

Adam G. said...

This is remarkable! Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Bruce C. Really interseting and lots of potential insight there.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam G. Thanks. Sometimes it takes a while to recognize a paradigm shift - but this is one. (I mean within the sub-field - not like Newton or Einstein rewriting a whole subject!)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Steve S - I have thought further about your remarks - and I agree that the society of active Mormons is as good a screen or filter as parents could provide; but is nonetheless deficient in that the marriages are not actually arranged, but depend upon individual initiative which is often lacking (presumably for evolutionary reasons).

Parental control has to be replaced by a high level of within-church social encouragement of marriage, early marriage etc - the difficulty being to balance the message between advocating the need for *early* marriage, and for *careful choice* of (an *eternal*) spouse.

So, the modern LDS system - relatively excellent though it is compared with secular alternatives - does not replicate *all* the key biological aspects of the traditional arranged marriage.