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Sunday, September 10, 2017

The function of the orgasm

I've never read Wilhelm Reich's famous book by this name. I don't know what he says. Probably it is a lot more complex than anything I have to say. Still, I've been thinking about this for a while and want to write it down.

Apparently there is a debate among evolutionary biologists -- or was ten years ago -- about how the female orgasm evolved. See, for example, this book review as evidence. Why only the female orgasm? Apparently the thought is that it is pretty easy to account for the existence of the male orgasm in evolutionary terms: it has an adaptive value because it encourages men to have sex ("with women" is clearly assumed) and therefore ensures descendants. But this explanation has trouble explaining why women have orgasms too. After all, they don't have orgasms every time they have sex, and an orgasm is not necessary in order for a woman to get pregnant. One theory is that they tag along as a by-product of men's orgasms, the same way men have nipples but don't use them for anything. But not everyone accepts this theory; and, speaking as a layman, I have to add that it is a pretty remarkable by-product which -- when it gets going -- is so much more powerful, more energetic, and more renewable than the primary phenomenon from which it is derived. Maybe that's not what biologists find wrong with the theory, but I think it will do for a start.

From my perspective, though, the whole approach is wrong, starting with the very first step. That first step, remember, is that orgasm is a kind of bait to lure us into having sex in order that we have lots of children who spread the desire for sex, thus having still more children, and so on. And I reply that using orgasm as a bribe to get us to do something (in this case, have children) is outrageously inefficient and unreliable. If the only point of sex were children, we could be prompted to do it a lot more often with a lot less fuss. Look at eating: it's necessary for life, and we do it because we get hungry. Look at sleeping: it's necessary for ... well, something, I'm not sure we know what but it is clearly important ... and we do it because we get tired. Any man, be he never so orgasmic, will over the course of his life eat and sleep far more times than he will have sex. So if the purpose were to encourage us to have sex (and therefore many offspring), it could be achieved with a lot less fuss by making sex an activity like eating and sleeping: one that we engage in because to avoid it makes us grumpy and uncomfortable. There would be simply no need for the ecstasy and sublime exaltation of the spirit that come from orgasm.

What's more, if the purpose of orgasm is to make us generate children, orgasm should be impossible from same-sex contact. It should be impossible from masturbation. Manifestly it is neither of these things. Therefore, mere reproduction of the species cannot be the real or ultimate purpose of sex and of the orgasm.

What is?

Let's look at how it functions. Orgasmic ecstasy doesn't just feel good; it's not just a reward. Orgasmic ecstasy makes love -- that is, creates or generates love where it didn't exist (or might not have existed) before. That is, orgasmic ecstasy binds us to our partner. This binding need not be exclusive: the history of monogamy is a very spotty one. But it is binding, all the same. And interpersonal bonds are the fundamental components that make human society possible. If we love each other, then -- other things being equal (and boy, is that a huge condition!) -- we are more likely to stick together. Note that it is possible to spin this as an argument for choosy, consensual nonmonogamy. I'm not going to push that argument but I recognize that it is possible and some people have made it.

For those who really want to ground any discussion of purposes in a Darwinian framework, the next step is to point out that humans are pretty much defenseless on our own. What gives us survival potential is our sociability, our ability to live and work in groups. Anything that sustains and encourages sociability therefore has adaptive value, and sex is surely at the top of that list. That sex is (of course) also useful in reproduction can be seen, in this light, almost as a useful side-effect, a case of nature generously giving us two benefits for the price of one. That said, though, the only plausible reason or purpose behind an experience as extravagant as orgasm has to be not merely children but love.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

"Deeply held American values"?

I bet you thought I'd forgotten all about this blog, but no such luck.

So I saw a news item last week that has me grumbling about its least important part, just because I'm like that. You may have heard about it. Some Congressman was shot in a baseball park during a practice for the annual Congressional baseball game. (Me, I didn't know there was an annual Congressional baseball game.)
The Congressman was a Republican; the shooter worked last year for the Bernie Sanders campaign and his social media suggest a strong hatred of conservatives. Anyway, Bernie Sanders commented for the news, predictably enough, "I am sickened by this despicable act. Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values."

And that's fine. I'm with him right up to the last six words. Only, … what does he mean by the words "our most deeply held American values"?

This is what I mean by niggling over the least important thing in the whole article. I'm not griping about anything substantive. I totally agree that violence against Congressmen is a terrible thing: bad in itself, bad as precedent, and ineffective to boot. Charles Sumner was nearly killed on the Senate floor for opposing slavery, but in the end slavery was abolished anyway.

But, speaking purely as an anthropologist … can anyone seriously argue that nonviolent political action is one of our most deeply held American values? The archetypal stories we tell ourselves about who we are, all focus on violence: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, maybe World War Two … and Westerns. Think how important the mythology of settling the frontier is to our identity … but the frontier didn't settle itself. In what other country could a lone man identify himself as "The only law west of the Pecos"? Nonviolence? Us? We're the country that coined the poker aphorism, "A Smith and Wesson beats four aces."

Or consider that the gun debate in this country never goes anywhere because the anti-gun lobby won't — can't — mention that we are the most heavily armed country in the world. And I'm talking about private weapons, not the military. What possible difference can it make to fiddle with the rules about who can buy new guns when there are so many old ones already out there? But the anti-gun lobby knows with certainty that any proposal to change that status quo is a nonstarter. It has no chance of being heard. Who does that say we are?

I'm not saying any of this is good. I totally agree with Sanders that this is not the way to improve a Congress you don't like. That's what voting is for. But I am saying that it represents a deeply held American value. Am I crazy? Or is this something that everybody knows, but nobody wants to say in public?

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Damn near the best article on ethics I have ever read

Joan Didion's classic essay "On Self-Respect".

Makes the point, among others, that what is critical is not that you avoid this or that misdeed -- she is clear about saying that people with self-respect still screw up, or screw around -- but how you deal with it, and with yourself.

Nothing else matters half as much.

The consequence of this is that ethics isn't really about doing good deeds or avoiding bad ones. It's not something you can do with a checklist. It's about who you are, at the deepest level.

You can find it here: http://www.vogue.com/3241115/joan-didion-self-respect-essay-1961/


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Being enlightened doesn't make you right

The last few days I've been reading Mark Richardson's Zen and Now, a retrospective and commentary on Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Actually I bought the book a while ago but never finished it; and lately I've been browsing through it at random when I have a few minutes.

This morning I lighted on a paragraph where Richardson describes Pirsig's hospitalization for schizophrenia, an episode which Bob Pirsig himself described as "hard enlightenment". His wife Nancy commented that no-one who knew Bob -- besides Bob himself -- confused his mental illness with enlightenment. But she went on to say that she understood why he did. After all, once he had decided that he was enlightened, he no longer had to take seriously anybody else's contrary opinions. If she ever disagreed with him about anything he would no longer argue ... just stare her down and then walk away, because after all he was enlightened and she wasn't. So of course she couldn't be expected to understand why he was -- inescapably -- right.

Yeah, I get it too. It's a great solace to tell yourself that you are deep enough and smart enough to see into the true nature of things, while the trolls around you toil away in muddy confusion. But that's just a story ... one more of the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world, one more of the stories which enchant us and intoxicate us if we take them too seriously. It's just one more form of delusion, subtly masquerading as freedom from delusion.

The point is that enlightenment is an experience. It can be a profound experience. But it doesn't make you God. Though you see deeply into the nature of reality, that everything changes, that attachment brings suffering, and all the rest ... none of that helps you remember any more clearly whose turn it is to take out the garbage. None of it helps you know what to say to your kid's teacher, who has called a conference because your kid is acting up in class. None of it makes you a better husband, or father, or employee, or friend. None of it makes you right. It's just an experience.

There are ways to build on it, of course. There are ways to build on all our experiences. If you wake up one morning to find yourself enlightened, there are libraries full of advice on how to live now: how to be compassionate, how to tell the truth, how to pick your way through the day without stumbling or falling back asleep. But, like anything, it takes practice.

That part is less exciting, of course. But without it, enlightenment is just another intoxicant.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

"McFarland" again, or, The unrecognized virtue of poverty

There’s another point to make about the movie “McFarland USA”. It’s about poverty.
From time to time rich folks get sentimental about poverty. There’s plenty of literature that celebrates the poor man as nobler and more virtuous than the rich man. And like all deliberate sentimentality, it lies. There is no ipso facto virtue in being poor, and plenty of poor men through the years have been blackhearted scoundrels. One might almost think that some rich man invented this trope in hope of buying off the poor man with praise, to avoid being murdered in his bed or having to part with real cash.
But that’s not the whole story. While the trope of the virtuous poor is false, I think that at root it is not so much cynical as unskillful. There is something real that the trope is trying to say; it says the thing badly – it says the thing falsely – but the thing is real all the same. It’s just hard to put into words.
“McFarland USA” probably still oversimplifies, but it puts a part of this elusive fact into pictures. And what it shows is this.
On the one hand, poverty does nothing to inspire personal virtue. The school is right across from the jail, and we are told that plenty of the school’s graduates end up in jail before too long. One runner’s father is released from jail during the story. He comes home to find his unmarried teenaged daughter pregnant, and throws a violent tantrum. Another character admits he is a reformed gangbanger – his term, not mine. Some guys who are hinted to be his former gang members come looking for him, and there is a fight – offscreen – which leaves blood all over the street. And we see all manner of pettier vices across the community. There’s no more personal virtue in the town of McFarland than in any richer town.
What else do we see? Coach White’s wife is driving through town and her car overheats – or, well, something’s wrong with it that involves clouds billowing out from under the hood, we’re not told more than that. One of their neighbors runs a beauty parlor across the street from where the car stops; she brings Mrs. White into her shop, gives her a manicure, and gets her boyfriend to fix the car. Coach White had bought the team running shoes out of his own pocket – the cheapest shoes he could find because that’s all he could afford. The community families put on a tamale sale and car wash to raise money for better shoes and decent uniforms. Coach White forgets his daughter’s fifteenth birthday; but the community mothers band together to put on a quinceañera celebration for her.
None of this is about personal virtue. All of it is about helping each other – about social virtue. And this is what’s true about poverty. It doesn’t make anybody better. But it makes everybody need help. We have, deep inside us, a social instinct to help each other. Poverty calls it into action, gives us an occasion to use it. Poverty allows us the chance to help each other, and therefore – oh, so indirectly! – it nurtures an environment in which social virtue can grow. This is why Mrs. White – who hated the town at first (as did the whole family) – finally says that nowhere else has ever felt so much like home. McFarland, because it is so desperately poor, is a healthier community than any richer town could ever be.
Nothing is guaranteed. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison writes in “Women and Blacks and Bensonhurst” that in her childhood in Bensonhurst (nobody’s idea of a rich community) people made a virtue of minding their own business. If everyone in the building heard a gunshot from the apartment directly above yours, nobody would investigate and nobody would call the police because “We mind our own business.” A girl in her class had only one eye because her father had knocked out the other one while beating her with a broomstick, and nobody did anything. Poverty doesn’t guarantee that people will help each other. Poverty doesn’t guarantee a healthier community.
All it can do is to provide the environment in which a healthy community might grow, if not stunted by other forces. And there is deep inside us, somehow, a voice calling us to help each other. That’s the most we can guarantee in the real world. But even that little is good.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"McFarland USA" or Revisiting "Ancient politics vs modern"

Last year I wrote a post in which I argued that modern political entities are by nature stronger than ancient ones: "Set up a modern state and an ancient one side by side, and the first will conquer the second as soon as it wants to." But now I'm not so sure. Does the rich power always vanquish the poor one?

Last month Walt Disney Pictures released "McFarland USA" in which a school teacher with nowhere else to go starts a cross-country team at one of the poorest high schools in California, and they sweep the CIF championships. It's a good movie: if you haven't seen it, stop reading philosophy blogs and go rent it. But it calls into question the seemingly natural victory of rich over poor. Before one race (on a course with a lot of hills) the coach tells his runners,
Just remember: when you start to feel pain going up those hills, so does the guy next to you and the guy in front of you. This race is going to come down to who can handle more pain. My bet is on you guys. [The quote is inexact.]
The rest is history.

Does this attitude translate to the battlefield? James Fallows recently wrote about why the American military -- the richest and most powerful army in the world by a very large margin -- keeps losing. In particular, we lose to poorer forces that are willing to engage in non-stop non-traditional warfare, particularly guerilla warfare. The North Vietnamese were very good at this; more recently, so were the Afghans. Armies like that nibble away at us until we just don't care any more, and call it a day. As Ho Chi Minh famously said, "You will kill ten of our men, and we will kill one of yours, and in the end it will be you who tire of it."

This suggests that maybe there is a breathing space, after all, in which ancient political forms could flourish. The city would have to be one like Sparta, oriented entirely around making war. It would help if it were located somewhere remote and inaccessible: Afghanistan and northern Pakistan are actually perfect in that regard, but they are already taken. But it's not impossible.

Even so, the margins in which such a city could prosper are narrow. When I summarized McFarland's victories by saying "The rest is history," it is instructive to look at all the history. McFarland's winning streak came to an end when the California Interscholastic Federation reclassified the small school into Division I, so that they had to compete against the largest schools in the state. No matter how good they were, they couldn't dominate against that deep a field and they began losing. Likewise, an ancient city transplanted to the modern day could probably hold out for some time against a larger power if they dedicated themselves heart and soul to guerilla combat. (I leave for another time the question whether such dedication would be consistent with the spirit of ancient cities in other ways.) But ancient cities were small. The city in Plato's Laws had 5040 families. If the larger power is sufficiently determined, sooner or later it can kill every last family and extinguish the city. And in the meanwhile, the city would have lived every minute as an armed camp. It's hard to think of this as the Good Life.

It may not be impossible to achieve ancient political ideals today, but there is no question that the attempt would be difficult on many levels.   

Saturday, September 6, 2014

What is "reality"?

I was reading an article this afternoon, a piece written 37 years ago by Robert Pirsig called "Cruising Blues and Their Cure".  He writes about people who love sailing – on weekends, at any rate – who plan for years to spend their whole retirement sailing and then give it up after a few months because it's not what they thought it would be.  The complaints vary, of course, but most say that they just want to "get back to reality."  And Pirsig asks, reasonably enough, what that means.  He answers:

As best I can make out, reality for them is the mode of daily living they followed before taking to the water; unlike cruise sailing, it is the one shared by the majority of the members of our culture. It usually means gainful employment in a stable economic network of some sort without too much variance from what are considered the norms and mores of society. In other words, back to the common herd.

Plato characterized exactly the same way of life – making allowances for the differences of time and place – by using his famous image of the Cave:

Imagine men [says Socrates] to be living in an underground cave-like dwelling place, which has a way up to the light along its whole width, but the entrance is a long way up. The men have been there from childhood, with their neck and legs in fetters, so that they remain in the same place and can only see ahead of them ….  Between [the light] and the prisoners … a low wall has been built … [where] performers … show their puppets above it…. Do you think, in the first place, that such men could see anything of themselves and each other except the shadows which the fire casts upon the wall of the cave in front of them? – How could they?

And is not the same true of the objects [puppets and other things] carried along the wall? – Quite.

If they could converse with one another, do you not think that they would consider these shadows to be the real things? – Necessarily.

Pirsig goes on to discuss how odd it is to think that jobs and bank accounts and keeping up with the Joneses are all real, while sun and wind and waves and storms are unreal; and he has some valuable things to say about how to handle the blues.  But what interests me is this very word real itself, and the remarkable fact that these depressed weekend sailors and Plato use exactly the same word to describe exactly opposite things.  Pirsig's depressed sailors want to "get back to reality" by returning the the very world of social conventions and familiar opinions that Plato says is most strikingly unreal.  What gives?

The first thing to clear out of the way – because it's a red herring – is the notion that real means "physical" or "solid" while unreal means "insubstantial" or "dreamlike".  Pirsig's depressed weekend sailors don't think the seafaring life is a dream.  They know perfectly well that the ocean is physical, and that if they fail to keep their boats in good repair they could drown in a storm.  In the same way, Plato might call our conventional lives "unreal" in some sense; but even Plato would admit that if two thoroughly conventional guys get into a fist fight in a bar, they'll both come out of it with bruises and maybe broken bones.  So much for "unreal".

But if the distinction between real and unreal isn't about physical perceptibility, what's it about?  Consider the example of a mirage in the desert.  You look at the horizon and see it shimmering in a way that you normally associate with pools of open water.  You're thirsty so you are about to run towards it, but your experienced guide puts a hand on your shoulder and tells you, "Stop. It's not real."

What's not real?  The water?  If there's no water there, then how can he be talking about it?  Or does he mean the shimmering isn't real?  But of course it is – you can see it!  You know for a fact that the shimmering is there!

No, what he means is a third thing.  What your guide is trying to tell you, in fact, is:

I know you see a shimmering on the horizon. So do I. But it doesn't mean what you think it means. You are used to thinking that shimmering on the horizon means 'water' … that the value of shimmering on the horizon is that it is a sign for where you can find water. But I tell you now that in the desert things are different. In the desert, that shimmering has a different value from what you expected. It doesn't mean what you think it means. It's not important as a sign of water. It's not real.

And that's what is going on here.  When Pirsig's weekend sailors talk about "reality" what they mean is "the stuff that matters, the stuff that's important, the stuff that has value."  So does Plato.  Pirsig's sailors don't want to get away from the conventional lives of their neighbors for too long, because they are afraid they'll lose touch and never be able to go back.  They are afraid they will become permanently unable to play the subtle social games that they mastered long ago, that they now play unconsciously.  And they have no idea what life could look like outside those games.  All they see is an Abyss opening beneath their feet – an Abyss of bickering or misery or hardship or loneliness or destitution or any other nightmare they could care to name.  Whatever it is that they see stretch out before them, it's not the familiar game of chasing the shadows on the cave wall, and so to their way of thinking it's not important.  It's not valuable.  It's not real.  And they want no part of it.

Ironically, Plato and Pirsig agree with these people exactly about what they are facing, only they don't think it's all that bad.  In the rest of his article, Pirsig talks about the changes you go through if you just face up to the depression and live through it.  You come out the other side as a different person.  Your whole frame of reference changes.  You don't see things the way you used to.  And that means that if you ever do decide to go back to living on land, it won't be the same as it was before: you won't relate to your friends the same way, you won't relate to yourself the same way … you won't have the same life.  You can't go back.

Plato says the same thing more graphically.  When one of the captives in his picture gets free from the Cave and climbs out into the sun, he's dazzled at first by the bright light.  But gradually his eyes adjust, and he can see for the first time what the world truly looks like.  Then when he tries to go back into the Cave, he's almost totally blind.  The Cave is dark, all there is to see is a series of shadows flitting on the wall, and he stumbles around uselessly.  Even the village idiot sees the shadows more subtly than the fellow who escaped, because the idiot's eyes have never adjusted to regular daylight and therefore are attuned to the cavernous dark.

So Plato agrees completely with the weekend sailors that getting away from their conventional lives means losing touch with that way of life – probably for good.  The only place he differs is that for Plato it is the conventional lives that are unreal, because for him that way of life is the one that is unimportant and valueless.  And for Plato it is the life of deep insight – into your own nature and that of the world around you – that is important, that matters, that is of value.  For Plato, it is the life of insightful contemplation that is real.

Plato never spent his retirement sailing alone across the sea, but he and Pirsig would clearly have plenty to talk about.