Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Case of the Female Orgasm - Bias in the Critiquing of Science

The last post dealt with the moralistic outrage that some people feel towards a trait being labeled an adaptation or a byproduct, but I only skimmed the surface of the issue. Since it's such an important point, I felt it would only be proper to expand it a bit further.

Because I crave pain and disappointment, I actually read every last comment on both articles. A reoccurring theme seen throughout the comments sections is that many people seem to feel female orgasm is obviously and adaptation and anyone who comes to the opposite conclusion is probably a sexist being mislead by a male-centered society that's out to demean women. It's at this point they'll generally state female orgasm clearly has the function of [making women have more sex, drawing sperm into the reproductive tract, making women lay down to retain more sperm, reinforcing the pair bond, even - are you ready for this one - feeling good. That's right, it evolved for reasons that have nothing to do with reproduction], and why haven't people figured that out? It's all because those silly evolutionary psychologists are blinded by current cultural trends and institutions, whereas their critics presumably feel they are not similarly influenced.

                                                                     "Orgasms feel good, therefore they evolved to feel good. Duh."

In case you're curious, those possible functions have already all been explored. The only one that seems like it might - and I do stress might - have some traction is the sperm transport hypothesis, though it rests on some questionable data.

These are some pretty strong intuitions people seem to have about whether female orgasm is adaptive based upon very little evidence, if evidence is involved at all. Ironically, people who are so fond of saying, "evolutionary psychologists spin just-so stories" appear completely willing to accept even a possible scenario as clearly true (say, female orgasm encouraged women to have more sex) if it matches their view of how the world should be; female orgasm should be socially important, therefore female orgasm is evolutionarily important (an adaptation).

                                                           "If this didn't have anything to do with reproduction, I'd probably have to stop doing it" 

What I feel we do have at this point is the knowledge that people are not overtly hostile to an adaptationist research paradigm in all cases, but will tend to be when it doesn't come to the right conclusions. For instance, it'd otherwise be odd that people calling the byproduct hypothesis "evolutionary psychology bullshit" are perfectly happy to advance their own evolutionary accounts for female orgasm. You see, where evolutionary psychologists are naive, their critics are informed and knowledgable, having cast off their cultural trappings and viewed the underlying essence of human nature. I'd point out that evolutionary psychologists also proposed many of those other possible functions in the first place, but that would just totally ruin the buzz the critics have going.

Perhaps this whole debate makes more sense were we to view it as people attempting to persuade each other about something, rather than attempting to discover some historical truth. In this case, it could be that female sexual satisfaction is important; in others it could be that rape is bad, that jealousy should be minimized, or that depression has some cognitive benefits, so depressed people should feel better about their depression, thus cheering up and losing that benefit (read respectively as: rape is not an adaptation, humans haven't evolved for pair-bonding, and depression is adaptive).

Viewing these debates as attempts at persuasion might help explain why the criticisms that come from the upper levels of academia do not seem substantially different than the ones that come from your everyday internet commenter; the foundation of these debates might not be academic in the first place. It may also help to explain why people who even just suggest certain hypotheses are painted as villains and the same tired straw men are pulled out again and again.