In her book tai-chi as a path of wisdom, Linda Myoki Lehrhaupt writes:
The moments just before sunrise are magical. A faint glow appears in the eastern sky. The light increases slowly but steadily as the world hovers between night and day. There is a stillness that stretches to infinity. Nothing is lacking in the moments before dawn.
I’m here to report that this doesn’t seem to be the case on Queen West at 6:40 on a Monday morning. My street is already full of dull looking people dragging themselves to work, and old men fishing for change. Streetcars rumble around mostly empty, but it sure isn’t still. What is lacking is not infinity (which I feel assured is always everywhere) but a damn coffee shop that’s open. What is magic in these pre-dawn moments is an emptied bladder, a cold glass of water, and this terrible convenience store pre-ground espresso coffee that I’m drinking.
I’m getting myself wound up for today’s task, which is think up a lecture on a different book, Elisabeth A. Lloyd’s The Case of the Female Orgasm. This will definitely be a fun lecture to give, so long as I can keep the jokes appropriate. The subject of the book is an intersection of my professional and personal interests; the evolutionary biology of the female orgasm in humans. Llloyd looks at 21(!) different evolutionary explanations of the phenomenon in question, and gives reasons to reject 20 of them. The ones she finds unacceptable are all adaptive explanations, meaning they tell some story about why having orgasms would mean that the orgasmer would, on average, leave more offspring than a non-orgasmic woman. That is, female orgasms have been specifically selected for. Her preferred account is that the female orgasm is an evolutionary by-product, like male nipples. In men, nipples serve no clear purpose – the most likely explanation of their persistence is that it is so very important that females have nipples, that the way we develop as embryos just provides men with them as a side-effect.
I don’t know what I think about the evolutionary origins of the female orgasm, and I regard that as a kind of intellectual accomplishment on my part. The most interesting thing about writing this lecture has been talking to other people about it, who universally have strong opinions about the subject. Virtually everyone has had some favourite theory or other, which they regard as obviously true. Everyone, it seems, is an expert. But in cases like this, obviousness is an enemy of reason. I’m reminded of the best definition of ideology I’ve ever seen, which comes from Zizek commenting on none other than Donald Rumsfeld:
In March 2003, Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns,” the things we don’t know that we know-which is precisely, the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself,” as Lacan used to say. (from here)
The Unknown Knowns of the past are easier for us to spot, so they make a good way of teaching the idea. Older adaptive accounts were based on the sure knowledge that, for example, men were hunters, and women stayed home and looked after babies. Or that female sexuality = heterosexual reproductive intercourse, which happens face to face without manual assistance. Because these were such obvious facts, they got slipped into evolutionary accounts of the female orgasm as unsupported premises. Researchers didn’t even know that they knew these things. It was only after critical reflection unearthed the ideology that science could even begin to deal with them.
The problem of Unknown Knowns is probably exacerbated in this case, because nearly everyone has some personal experience with the phenomenon in question. We’ve mostly all either been in the same room when it was happening, or had one ourselves. People don’t get as opinionated about the evolution of the appendix, or the existence of the Higgs boson.
But the adaptationist framework also makes it difficult. Lloyd gives 20 different, partially overlapping adaptive accounts. The most familiar are probably the pair-bonding accounts, where orgasm induces females and males to have nice feelings about each other, and therefore stay together longer, and therefore work together to raise their kids. There are also strictly female-centered accounts, where the orgasm is just physiologically helpful. Or strictly male-centered accounts, where the female orgasm signals satiety, and therefore the unlikeliness that the female will wander off to find another mate. A different account tells it the opposite way, where because the female orgasm takes longer than the male, the authors speculate that women would be driven to look for a series of males in order to get her to the finish line.
Lloyd goes through each of these stories, and carefully shows why the evidence doesn’t support any of them. This isn’t difficult, because we have piss poor evidence about the sexual behaviour and social organization of early humans. But what strikes me about these accounts is that it could easily have been the case that most or all of them were true at one time or another in our history. Maybe some sub-populations of humans were full of angry, infanticidal men who killed babies who they thought weren’t theirs, while others raised children communally, in blissful tribal harmony. The degree of cultural transmission we’ve seen in higher primates makes this, to my mind, not a terribly unlikely scenario. The different adaptive pressures could easily layer on each other, waxing and waning relative to each other as circumstances shifted. Further, the genetic results of such mixed selection would themselves be mixed, almost certainly resulting in non-additive phenotypic effects. So I see no reason to assume that our history provided as clear narrative of the form ‘Humans evolved female orgasms because X’. And yet, it could still be true that the female orgasm is an adaptation, despite our inability to ever reconstruct in detail how it came about.