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June 16th, 2013

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07:41 am - Evo Psych and menstruation
I've done a few posts on this blog about Evolutionary Psychology, which I despise. I don't disagree that evolution has had an impact on our psychology, but the way that EvoPsych describes that impact is quite wrong in my opinion. And, like economics and philosophy, it is tainted by modern politics.

I've wanted to write this post for ages but the best example I can think of to illustrate my point is the social example of a menstrual taboo. And I have been inhibited because it feels too, I don't know, in-your-face feminist or something. Nevertheless, I want to post more on lj, I want to stop being so inhibited. So, below the cut, is my discussion of Evo Psych, with menstruation as an example.

In Evo Psych the mind is an information processing organ, and it is organised into discrete modules, with a measurable input and an output. These modules have arisen as the result of evolutionary adaptation, related to success in reproduction. The widespread taboo against menstruation (in sex and, from that, general social hiding and shaming) is because this sex is unlikely to result in conception. Therefore an inhibition has evolved to stop it happening.

Menstruation arose quite late in human evolution (as it is not shared with our close relatives). For this theory to work, the adaptive advantage to men of avoiding the occasional bout of unreproductive sex was so great that an innate inhibition has evolved during that relatively brief time. Though male inhibition against other forms of unreproductive sex, like (say) oral sex has not evolved. Obviously.

I find this extremely unpersuasive.

Here is my alternative explanation. Seeing, tasting and smelling blood has strong emotional associations, which go back to before mammals evolved. Sharks, lizards, wolves feel it. The drive to have sex is huge and also ancient. When human beings began menstruating (due to a change in reproductive cycle) these two massive and ancient drives clashed. Feelings were complex and contradictory. The strong and confusing feelings are the psychological effects of evolution.

Social taboos about menstruation are ways of coping with those strong feelings, bringing them under control.

That is my explanation. It is also 'evolutionary' in that it acknowledges we are evolved creatures, with evolved brains. But it presents us as confused and anxious animals. We develop psychological and social strategies to reduce our anxiety. These strategies are not always rational. Some are harmful. I think that is a more accurate evolutionary psychology.

I also think that Evo Psych, by emphasising functional reproduction and de-emphasising social and emotional issues, is itself a way that men hide their own vulnerability. It is itself a strategy to reduce anxiety.

(13 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2013 10:16 am (UTC)
The traditional Evo Psych explanation of the taboo against sex during menstruation you describe makes no sense at all. Yours does make sense, but it still seems fairly speculative. It's not too difficult to come up with others, e.g. that the possibility of consuming menstrual blood during cunnilingus associates it (and by extension sex during menstruation in general) with the taboo against cannibalism. This scientific theory took me all of 10 seconds' Deep Thought, and while there are probably good objections to it it illustrates my more general worry about Evo Psych - which is that even once you've brought in considerations of internal coherence and what sparse data we have from paleontology and present-day biology, the field for speculation seems too wide for much science to happen.

Edited at 2013-06-16 10:23 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:June 18th, 2013 06:04 pm (UTC)
My 'blood/sex' conflict theory is an overshoot of an overarching theory which is that a great deal of human behaviour is about limiting anxiety, which would otherwise overwhelm us. I think that being an intelligent animal in a flesh body is an almost intolerable state. Your mention of cannibalism is really part of the same continent of mind, I think. Flesh, meat, pain, blood, death, sex. More accurately I think we are living on top of an emotional volcano, just trying to keep it under control.

But this is not scientific. I am not sure that science has the tools to make sense of this mess.
[User Picture]
Date:June 18th, 2013 07:21 pm (UTC)
I think that being an intelligent animal in a flesh body is an almost intolerable state.

Scientific or not, this rings very true.

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