Diana Fleischman and Geoffrey Miller—Audience Q&A


Cross-posted from Pu­tanu­monit.


This is the au­di­ence Q&A with Di­ana Fleischman and Ge­offrey Miller at the NYC Ra­tion­al­ity meetup, fol­low­ing up on my own in­ter­view which you can find here.

Con­tent note: the au­di­ence com­prised ra­tio­nal­ists of many eth­nic­i­ties, ori­en­ta­tions, and gen­der ex­pres­sions and we asked ques­tions that could offend many eth­nic­i­ties, ori­en­ta­tions, and gen­der ex­pres­sions.

What are the main hy­poth­e­sized causes of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity?

Di­ana: There’s a differ­ence be­tween ho­mo­sex­ual be­hav­ior and ho­mo­sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. Ho­mo­sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion is very rare. There’s one species, do­mes­tic sheep, in which 8-10% of rams are not in­ter­ested in ewes at all. You can tie a ewe in heat in front of them and they don’t re­act at all. Ac­tu­ally, one area where ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity re­search has flour­ished is among sheep breed­ers be­cause if you buy one of these rams who’s gay, that’s re­ally bad news for the busi­ness.

So ho­mo­sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion is ex­ceed­ingly rare. Even though you see stats that it’s 10% in peo­ple, it’s about 3%. In a pa­per that I wrote I claim that bi­sex­u­al­ity is the op­ti­mal sex­ual strat­egy be­cause sex is not just used for re­pro­duc­tion, it’s also used for af­fili­a­tion. There are a num­ber of ways to af­fili­ate: you can give some­body food or you can give some­body an or­gasm. Th­ese are ways to get other peo­ple to like you. If you’re some­what at­tracted to peo­ple of the same sex but not enough to forego re­pro­duc­tive op­por­tu­ni­ties with peo­ple of the op­po­site sex, then you can ac­tu­ally en­gage with both sexes.

Is the bi­sex­ual rev­olu­tion com­ing?

Di­ana: There are places where peo­ple are much more open to it, but not many places. It’s a whole spec­trum of be­hav­ior.

In places around the world, there are men who have any­thing from af­fec­tionate to sex­ual in­ter­ac­tions with other men and they’re not con­sid­ered gay. They have ho­mo­sex­ual be­hav­ior along with het­ero­sex­ual be­hav­ior, and that’s a com­mon thing. If you look at the bell curve of ori­en­ta­tion in a so­ciety that sup­presses ho­mo­sex­ual be­hav­ior among men, you’ll find that only men who are pre­dom­i­nantly ho­mo­sex­ual will ex­hibit this type of be­hav­ior. It’s not used for af­fili­a­tion in our par­tic­u­lar so­ciety, so men don’t en­gage in it. Ho­mo­sex­ual men are ba­si­cally just the edge of this bell curve. The rea­son there keep be­ing a small per­centage of men who are ex­clu­sively ho­mo­sex­ual is be­cause bi­sex­u­al­ity is adap­tive.

The most con­tro­ver­sial hy­poth­e­sis about the ori­gin of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is Gre­gory Cochran’s idea though there’s not much ev­i­dence be­hind it, which is the ‘gay germ’ hy­poth­e­sis. Now ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is not as hered­i­tary as you may think; if one iden­ti­cal twin is gay his twin would be gay only 50% of the time. But also, iden­ti­cal twins are usu­ally in the same am­niotic sac, while fra­ter­nal twins are in differ­ent am­niotic sacs. Cochran shares some ev­i­dence that if twins share an am­niotic sac, they are more likely to both be gay. So there might be some virus or bac­te­ria that causes ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity later in life.

That’s very con­tro­ver­sial be­cause the idea is that there would then be some kind of gay vac­cine which could pre­vent women from giv­ing birth to boys who would grow up to be gay.

Ge­offrey: And the rea­son why it would make sense from the point of view of the virus is that it’s a lot eas­ier to spread since gay men have a lot more sex­ual part­ners on av­er­age than straight men.

I have a Ph.D. stu­dent study­ing gen­er­ally whether sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted pathogens evolve to ma­nipu­late our sex­ual be­hav­ior to pro­mote their spread. This could in­clude low­er­ing our mat­ing stan­dards, mak­ing us more promis­cu­ous, more sex­ual, be­ing sex­u­ally ac­tive ear­lier and later in life, all kinds of things. So it might not be us in the driver’s seat as much as we think.

Di­ana: There are also ideas about en­docrine dis­rup­tors and things of that na­ture. This is all very con­tro­ver­sial. I was at a con­fer­ence with other peo­ple, like me, who study ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. And there was a guy there who wasn’t will­ing to ad­mit that gay men are more fem­i­nine than straight men on av­er­age, that they’re more likely on av­er­age to have fem­i­nine in­ter­ests. And if there’s con­tro­versy about some­thing as ba­sic as that, it’s very difficult to talk about any­thing in this sphere.

Or, for ex­am­ple, if you give a fe­male rat testos­terone while she’s in the womb she’s go­ing to mount other rats when she’s older. And in the 1980s some women took a mis­car­riage drug that mas­culinized their daugh­ters and made them more likely to be les­bi­ans. That kind of stuff hap­pens as well and peo­ple re­ally hate talk­ing about it.

Is there quan­tified data on gay men be­ing more promis­cu­ous?

Ge­offrey: There are some stud­ies about the av­er­age num­ber of sex­ual part­ners, the typ­i­cal re­sults are that sex­u­ally ac­tive gay men in their 30s or 40s have had sev­eral dozen part­ners, while the av­er­age for straight men is closer to 10. The av­er­age for women is closer to 10 but they may be ly­ing. And it’s lower for les­bi­ans than for straight women.

But there’s a bit of a taboo around men­tion­ing these re­sults be­cause promis­cu­ity is heav­ily mor­al­ized. Polyamorous peo­ple also tend to have more part­ners than monog­a­mous peo­ple. And then con­ser­va­tives say that poly peo­ple are all sluts. Now we are, but in a good way!

Why do men not have a prefer­ence for tall women? Women pre­fer tall men, and tall women have tall chil­dren, some of whom will be sons. So it’s weird that tall women aren’t uni­ver­sally preferred.

Di­ana: Dutch peo­ple are tall and peo­ple in Spain and Por­tu­gal are short, and there’s ev­i­dence that it’s not by ac­ci­dent. There is mixed ev­i­dence that there has ac­tu­ally been pos­i­tive se­lec­tion for short­ness in Por­tu­gal and Spain (which is why I’m short). There’s ev­i­dence from across the world that men pre­fer smaller women. Some of that has to do with smal­l­ness be­ing as­so­ci­ated with youth and neoteny, some of that might have to do with less sa­vory hy­pothe­ses about ex­ploita­bil­ity and con­trol­la­bil­ity.

It’s prob­a­bly also as­so­ci­ated with fer­til­ity. I think that Randy Thorn­hill said that 5’2” is the op­ti­mal height for fer­til­ity. Women par­lay some of the so­matic effort of grow­ing into re­pro­duc­tive effort.

Ja­cob: In an­cient Greece, men preferred tall women. In The Odyssey, Ca­lypso is be­wil­dered that Odysseus wants to go back home since she’s taller than Penelope. And Odysseus ad­mits that she’s taller and more beau­tiful, but says that he’s still loyal to his fam­ily even though they aren’t tall like the gods.

You said ear­lier that it’s im­por­tant for peo­ple to be con­scious of their mo­ti­va­tions, and I’ve re­cently heard two crit­i­cisms of that idea. One is Robin Han­son’s idea that if you know your mo­ti­va­tions, you’re worse at do­ing some­thing and con­vinc­ing peo­ple that you’re do­ing it for the right rea­sons. The more in­ter­est­ing one is Jonathan Haidt’s idea of di­v­inity, the moral di­men­sion that puts an­i­mals be­low you and the gods above you. The less like an an­i­mal you are the more you can make mean­ing out of your life, or act morally and com­mu­nally.

Do you think that think­ing about mo­ti­va­tions like try­ing to get laid takes away from that?

Di­ana: To Robin Han­son’s view, it’s an in­ter­est­ing idea that you’re worse at things if you know the mo­ti­va­tions. But I can also make my­self hap­pier if I’m aware of what’s driv­ing me. I used to date an Effec­tive Altru­ist who made a lot less money than I did. At the be­gin­ning of an evening, I would give him cash so that he could pay for ev­ery­thing through the course of the night. And I would try my best and of­ten suc­ceed in for­get­ting I had given him cash so that I would feel like he’s tak­ing me out. And that was awe­some, but it re­quired be­ing quite cyn­i­cal about my mo­ti­va­tions.

As for Jonathan Haidt, I don’t iden­tify with that no­tion at all. I can feel very much that I have higher mean­ing and pur­poses in my life and still be a mam­mal, a shit­ting, ges­tat­ing, weird body.

I’m cu­ri­ous why you con­sider al­tru­ism a pos­i­tive sig­nal. I’m ask­ing be­cause I have no morals and no prin­ci­ples and I’m liv­ing a very happy life. Po­ten­tially the hap­piest life I could imag­ine liv­ing. Why is al­tru­ism so ap­peal­ing to other peo­ple? To me, it seems in­effi­cient.

Di­ana: Ok, I’m go­ing to talk to you like you’re an alien.

That’s right, I’m an alien.

Di­ana: Let’s say you’re in a small group and you want peo­ple to ex­change with you. You need to sig­nal cer­tain qual­ities to them that mean that in the long term you’re a good ex­change part­ner. One of those would be loy­alty to the group; an­other is con­sis­tency over time. This is very in­ter­est­ing: peo­ple change a lot over time but they like to sig­nal that they’re very con­sis­tent so they’ll be re­li­able part­ners in the fu­ture. Altru­ism sig­nals that you’re will­ing to be gen­er­ous to those who are pow­er­less. That is a good and vir­tu­ous sig­nal be­cause it also means that you’re a bet­ter ex­change part­ner. If some­one’s down and out and no longer use­ful to you, for ex­am­ple, you would still be will­ing to help them out.

Ge­offrey: I have a whole chap­ter on this in The Mat­ing Mind, which Di­ana should read some time *grins*. What I ar­gue there is: imag­ine that you have two tribes. In one, you sig­nal traits in ways that don’t bring benefit to oth­ers, like show­ing off only by singing which doesn’t bring evolu­tion­ary benefits like food or pro­tec­tion to the group. In the sec­ond tribe you’re do­ing co­op­er­a­tive hunt­ing, for ex­am­ple, and bring­ing back tens of thou­sands of calories in mam­moth meat and dis­tribut­ing it con­spicu­ously within the tribe. Which of these tribes is go­ing to do bet­ter in com­pe­ti­tion?

Ja­cob: Depends. Is the com­pe­ti­tion Amer­i­can Idol?

Ge­offrey: The con­cept is that we’re de­scended from the sec­ond tribe. We’re de­scended from many gen­er­a­tions of an­ces­tors that sig­naled al­tru­ism within the group and had these ex­change part­ner benefits within the group but also had net benefits in com­pe­ti­tion with other groups.

This is not a strict group se­lec­tion ar­gu­ment, it’s an equil­ibrium se­lec­tion ar­gu­ment in the game-the­o­retic sense. That’s what I ar­gued in The Mat­ing Mind, that we’re an un­usu­ally al­tru­is­tic species be­cause at the tribe v. tribe level the co­op­er­a­tive al­tru­is­tic sig­nalers did bet­ter. And in fact, that was ex­actly what Dar­win ar­gued in 1871.

Given evolu­tion­ary ac­counts of re­la­tion­ship ac­tivi­ties and strate­gies, the cyn­i­cal ap­proach tends to have a mor­al­iz­ing effect. Cal­ling what women do ‘shit-test­ing’ makes it sound like a morally bad thing to do to your part­ner. But of course, a lot of what we’re do­ing is good: it strength­ens bonds, cre­ates a sense of se­cu­rity, etc.

I won­der, in your per­sonal life or from an aca­demic per­spec­tive, how do you choose when to in­dulge your evolu­tion­ary prefer­ences and when not to?

Di­ana: I don’t have as much con­trol as peo­ple may think. I’m very aware when I’m shit-test­ing, and Ge­offrey will say as much to me, but I still carry on. I can also pre­dict how long I’ll be feel­ing an­gry and how long I might feel like shit test­ing.

Yes, call­ing it that makes it sound bad be­cause it gen­er­ally is bad, not just be­cause it’s a red pill term. When I was shit-test­ing to­day I rec­og­nized that I was tak­ing the thing that he had done most re­cently as an in­di­ca­tor of his over­all com­mit­ment rather than ag­gre­gat­ing. It’s much eas­ier for a woman to ag­gre­gate all of her grievances than to ag­gre­gate all of her joys. It’s be­cause of this er­ror man­age­ment, it’s much bet­ter to err on the side of be­ing doubt­ful about some­body’s com­mit­ment. It can be good to play around with these emo­tions, but it’s hard to han­dle them.

Ge­offrey: It might be bet­ter to use a more neu­tral term. Amotz Za­havi called it ‘test­ing the bond’ in his 1975 book The Handi­cap Prin­ci­ple.

You men­tioned giv­ing a talk about how kink spaces are out­lets for evolu­tion­ary urges. How would kink be rep­re­sented in days of yore?

Ge­offrey: There are carved images that look like the Venus of Willen­dorf fer­til­ity figures that have in­di­ca­tions of rope and bondage go­ing back at least 30,000 years. It’s hard to in­ter­pret, but ty­ing women up is what you would do when you raid an­other village to kill all the men and steal the women.

Dom­i­na­tion/​sub­mis­sion dy­nam­ics run re­ally deep in pri­mates, gen­er­ally. Pri­mates have been do­ing dom­i­na­tion and sub­mis­sion sig­nals for at least 60-70 mil­lion years. The idea of en­g­ineer­ing situ­a­tions that bring that out seems like a nat­u­ral thing for so­cial pri­mates to do.

And as for role play, kids like to pre­tend to be some­one they’re not. And sen­sa­tion play like spank­ing and flog­ging… there’s a spec­u­la­tive the­ory.

The stan­dard form of cop­u­la­tion for mam­mals is dorso-ven­tral rear en­try — ‘doggy style’. What that tends to do is put a lot of re­peated im­pact on the fe­male’s back end. So, what you’re get­ting with flog­ging is a su­per­stim­u­lus of pro­longed ex­tra-hard cop­u­la­tion. It’s a fit­ness in­di­ca­tor be­cause that would be hard for a male to sus­tain.

Di­ana: There’s an­other thing about kink, which is that when you’re aroused you have arousal-in­duced anal­ge­sia — you don’t ex­pe­rience pain as much. If you can take a lot of pain, you’re ac­tu­ally giv­ing an hon­est sig­nal of how aroused you are.

The top three sex­ual fan­tasies for women are: num­ber one, hav­ing sex with their main part­ner *mimes yawn­ing*, num­ber two, sex with a strange man, and num­ber three, be­ing taken against their will, which is now called “rap­ture play”. So these are things that women have ex­pe­rienced over evolu­tion­ary his­tory many, many times. It’s a con­tro­ver­sial thing to talk about but if you look at any ro­mance novel there are of­ten in­ter­ac­tions where women are taken against their will.

Ge­offrey: I did give a talk in Am­s­ter­dam on the evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy of BDSM and kink. What I pointed out there is that a lot of what hap­pens in kink in play­ing around and rit­u­al­iz­ing a lot of evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy stuff. Like­wise, a lot of what hap­pens in role-play — let­ting those in­stincts out to play. And that can be won­der­ful and cre­ative and re­ally re­ally good for a re­la­tion­ship.

I don’t know how many other ev psych peo­ple have this view, we don’t re­ally talk about it at the HBES con­fer­ence. I do think that in the fu­ture there will be more open­ness about it. There will be a view that we can keep these dark in­stinc­tual se­crets when we go out to our cor­po­rate jobs and be­have in so­ciety, but you can still make space for them to come out and play in pri­vate life in safe and cre­ative ways.

While we’re on the sub­ject of kink and strange de­sires, I found that I have a de­sire as a woman that makes no evolu­tion­ary sense at all. I won­der if you have a the­ory about it. I have a fan­tasy about find­ing a shitty loser that no one likes and have him dom­i­nate me.

Di­ana: So util­i­tar­ian! But would he even know how? It’s ac­tu­ally a very util­i­tar­ian ac­tivity to have sex with all the men that no one else will have sex with. It would make their year!

Ge­offrey: Nor­mally hy­per­gamy works a lit­tle differ­ently. Nor­mally a woman would take an ex­ist­ing part­ner and do some men­tal trick or role-play to build him up as a kind of su­per­hero. So the sta­tus differ­en­tial be­tween them gets am­plified un­til she feels like Leda and the swan (who’s ac­tu­ally Zeus) and that’s ex­cit­ing. Tak­ing a to­tal loser and then push­ing your­self way be­low him… I don’t get at all.

Di­ana: I’ll just make up a story here. You want to find some­one that no one else wants, so you have no com­pe­ti­tion for him, and then elicit in him the high­est sta­tus and ac­com­plish­ment he can have. So you have an ideal situ­a­tion where you can to­tally mo­nop­o­lize him be­cause no one else has an idea that he’s good. Women of­ten choose men based on how many other women are at­tracted to them, but if you choose some­body that you have spe­cial knowl­edge about you never have to share them with any­body.

Ge­offrey: I have an idea. If you’re a teenage girl in an age-strat­ified school sys­tem where you’re only al­lowed to date and in­ter­act with guys your age, they’re all losers rel­a­tive to ac­tual ma­ture adults. So in or­der to feel any at­trac­tion to these guys you have to be able to see the lit­tle bit of promise and po­ten­tial in them and be able to feel the hy­per­gamy by mak­ing your­self even lower than they are. That would be adap­tive if that’s all the choice you’ve got available.

So I think that some women are in a po­si­tion where the best they can do in terms of find­ing a part­ner that they think is a catch, given the con­straints that you’re all in 9th grade.