The Worst Self-Justifying Column You’ll Ever Read

800px-Man_and_woman_undergoing_public_exposure_for_adultery_in_Japan-J__M__W__Silver.jpgIs here. Romana: immediately contact your divorce lawyers! (I hope she retained the copyright on her illustrations.) Seriously, though, is anyone meant to be convinced by silly arguments like these?

“From a Darwinian perspective, sexual jealousy is easily understood. Natural selection of our wild ancestors plausibly favored males who guarded their mates for fear of squandering economic resources on other men’s children. On the female side, it is harder to make a Darwinian case for the sort of vindictive jealousy . . . No doubt hindsight could do it, but I want to make a different point. Sexual jealousy may in some Darwinian sense accord with nature, but “Nature, Mr. Allnutt, is what we are put in this world to rise above.” Just as we rise above nature when we spend time writing a book or a symphony rather than devoting our time to sowing our selfish genes and fighting our rivals, so mightn’t we rise above nature when tempted by the vice of sexual jealousy? I, for one, feel drawn to the idea that there is something noble and virtuous in rising above naturein this way. I admit that I have, at times in my life, been jealous, but it is one of the things I now regret. Assuming that such practical matters as sexually transmitted diseases and the paternity of children can be sorted out (and nowadays DNA testing will clinch that for you if you are sufficiently suspicious, which I am not), what, actually, is wrong with loving more than one person? Why should you deny your loved one the pleasure of sexual encounters with others, if he or she is that way inclined? The British writer Julie Burchill is not somebody I usually quote . . . but I was struck by one of her remarks. I can’t find the exact quote, but it was to the effect that, however much you love your mate (of either sex in the case of the bisexual Burchill) sex with a stranger is almost always more exciting, purely because it is a stranger. An exaggeration, no doubt, but the same grain of truth lurks in Woody Allen’s “Sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go it’s one of the best.””

Ladies and Gentlemen, meet biology’s version of Richard Posner, minus any sense of how people actually think or act. What’s the argument here? That jealousy is a legitimate emotion because it is genetically based (for men, but not for women) or that regardless of the Darwinian pull, it is something that women should must now rise above, because Dawkins wants to step out?

(Image Source: A japanese couple being shamed for adultery, wikicommons).

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15 Responses

  1. Nate Oman says:

    I thought that it was quite wonderful in its own un-self-awareness. It is as though Richard Dawkins set out to write a parody of Richard Dawkins. He has succeeded.

  2. Calvin TerBeek says:

    I’m confused. The column is by Dawkins, but you link to Posner’s “Sex & Reason” (which is, IMHO, a fascinating book) and ask us to “meet Richard Posner”. Mix-up or intentional???

  3. dave hoffman says:

    Calvin: I meant that Dawkins’ arguments sounds quite a bit like an impoverished version of Posner’s S&R (itself a book much criticized).

  4. dave says:

    I’ve clarified the text by adding some additional words in italics.

  5. Margaret says:

    Monogamy is overrated. I’ve been out of the monogamy habit for years, and it’s made me a healthier, happier woman.

    I can’t meet all of my partner’s needs, and he can’t meet all of mine. When he finds someone to scratch an itch that I can’t scratch, I’m not jealous at all — I’m very happy for him! And he feels the same for me.

    It’s not an arrangement that works for everyone. But I have more love in my life right now than I ever had in the relationship that led to my marriage.

    I think people tend to think of the amount of love (or passion) they can give as a pie: it’s finite, and the more you give, the less there is for everyone else. I think the pie paradoxically expands, the more you give, the more you can give, because giving love creates more.

  6. just wondering says:

    “Margaret’s” response has the aroma of a narcissistic male striving to be a rose by some other name. If you really feel that way, why not be proud enough to use your real identity?

  7. Stokie says:

    I don’t know about “the worst.” Strikes me as standard-fare, college professor drivel, no better or worse.

  8. Bruce Boyden says:

    I think Dawkins’s argument is that monogamy is irrational and only supported by jealousy. The problem with Dawkins’s argument is that the latter bit is just wrong. There may be a genetic component to jealousy, but even if that’s true, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t all sorts of non-jealousy-related reasons to be angry at a spouse who is having a secret affair (e.g., the breach of trust). Or, put differently, jealousy may in some cases serve a purpose in protecting an individual’s legitimate interests, just like anger at rule-breakers does generally. His reaction to the woman who hired the private investigator seems to be completely oblivious to the real impact a *secret* affair–or even a non-secret affair, for that matter–might have on her life.

  9. jtb-in-texas says:

    Full disclosure: I’m divorced and remarried. 1st time was 15 years of fighting every day. 2nd time I was older, wiser, and figured out most of the fightwere because I was a selfish twit who didn’t give a damn about anyone other than me.

    Monogamy, if both parties approach it maturely and with more concern for each other than themselves, is a higher plane than NarcissismSelf Actualization.

    Dawson, opening paragraphs marked him as pooh-poohing religions that label his sexual fantasies as sin–merely because he feels the right to pursue his appetites as would any other lower form of life. Hardly the sort one would have wanted Lalla Ward to marry.

    The Bible tells in great detail about how humans ran away from God and yet he continually tries to bring us back, even to the point of dying in our place so all we have to do is accept the Gift of Forgiveness.

    For some, apparently, admitting any fault is too much of a sacrifice.

  10. Kaimi says:

    Well, Dawkins isn’t _entirely_ wrong to note that there’s a fair amount of relatively good writing on problems of monogamy.

    Writers like Jared Diamond suggest reasons why humans look, biologically, like a creature designed for a “mixed reproductive strategy” (in other words, monogamy plus cheating). There are some interesting biological arguments and analyses out there, such as in Diamond’s book _Why is Sex Fun?_ (which is an interesting book, but is purely scientific and is not a sex manual like the title might suggest).

    And, there have been interesting religious arguments in this area. The mid-nineteenth century Christian free-love commune known as the Oneida comunity drew on Biblical teachings (as I recall, mainly about sharing all of one’s possessions and not coveting) to justify their (kinda weird) society: If one is required to share all that one has with one’s neighbors (and it’s bad to be jealous about sharing minor possessions), then clearly one should not establish monogamous, non-shared sexual relations. It sounds like a logical stretch, but it drew a few hundred followers before ultimately going under after the charismatic leader dies.

    But then, Dawkins’ post is pretty simplistic and axe-grindy, with neither the dry scientific evenhandedness of Diamond, nor the religious chutzpah of the Oneida folk. It also lacks the funny over-the-top-ness of Heinlein’s various discussions of free love, which are usually set on a distant planet somewhere.

  11. Margaret says:

    just wondering:

    I notice that you’re posting anonymously as well.

    I’m a law student on the East Coast, a single mom, and a non-monogamous person with even more aspects of my personal life that I don’t want associated with my real name. (I would call myself “polyamorous,” but my partner and I aren’t that formal about it.) In short, I’ve been using the Internet for 20 years and know better than to use my real name when I start talking about how my “primary” and I handle my other boyfriends.

  12. anon says:

    The posts seem to be a mixture of substantive comment (Margaret and Kaimi), various forms of “genetic argument” (Oman, Just Wondering, Hoffman), and the seemingly pervasive call to (re)discover god (jtb-in-texas). One would have expected more from a learned audience (Margaret and Kaimi excepted of course) Dawkins is somewhat strident no doubt (Phillip Kitcher, “Living With Darwin” makes the same arguments but has a much nicer tone), “Darwin’s Rotweiler” in Richard Simonyi’s memorable phrase, though less so than Christopher Hitchens. But he also is a major 20th century evolutionary biologist and intellectual, whose work has had influence the likes of which is rarely realized by legal academics. One gets the sense that many of you ought to get out more (or rise above your envy).

    I too post anonymously, mostly for the same reason I wouldn’t get into a mud-wrestling contest with a pig. We’d both get dirty, but the pig would like it.

  13. Dave Hoffman says:

    “Anon,” I have a hard time squaring taking Dawkins’ seriously with approving the extremely odd (to put it kindly) voices that have appeared on this thread. Dawkins argues that jealousy has genetic roots (for men, not women) and (perversely) so does the male “need” to be polygamous.

    Don’t these contrasting extrapolations from evolutionary pressures that we can’t directly measure seem a trifle, well, convenient? And how do they track, at all, onto the view that society should encourage cheating on spouses, which is Dawkins’ ultimate position. I’m also a little struck by your willingness to buy into genetic explanations for pretty complicated, and historically contingent, cultural attitudes toward sex. As a commentator at Protein Wisdom suggested: “I seem to recall Sullivan making similar arguments against fidelity not that long ago. This, like that, reads more like a confession than anything else. I did wrong, and rather than live up to that, lets redefine what right is.” Yup, that hits it exactly.

    As for “Margaret,” I agree with “just wondering:” you are clearly a beard. I’ve never met a woman who said “scratch an itch I can’t scratch” in this context, and I think the reference to “pie” and maximization sounds, frankly, delusional and a little sad. It’s worth noting that the analogy was so odd it sparked a terrific thread at PW, where some wit observed: “I have those same thoughts… but I tend to think in terms of a Haggis …”

  14. comment deleted says:

    [ Comment Deleted: Silly to continue a discussion with anonymous, off-kilter, voices, making unprovable claims about who they are. All future comments on this thread must be attributed (or I’ll delete them.) -hoffman.]