On Darwin and free love.

On Darwin and free love.

For the moment, let’s set aside the question of why I was reading a review titled “Plants Neither Possess nor Require Consciousness.”  Instead, I’d like to share a passage from the end of the article:

Plant neurobiologists are hardly the first biologists to ascribe consciousness, feelings, and intentionality to plants.

Erasmus Darwin, [Charles] Darwin’s grandfather and a believer in free love, was so taken with the Linnaean sexual system of classification that he wrote an epic poem, The Loves of Plants, in which he personified stamens and pistils as ‘swains’ and ‘virgins’ cavorting on their flower beds in various polygamous and polyandrous relationships.

Maybe you were startled, just now, to learn about the existence of risqué plant poetry.  Do some people log onto Literotica to read about daffodils or ferns?

But what caught my attention was Erasmus Darwin’s designation as a believer in free love. 

In a flash, an entire essay composed itself in my mind.  Charles Darwin’s grandfather was a polyamorist!  Suddenly, the origin of The Origin of the Species made so much more sense!  After all, exposure to polyamory could help someone notice evolution by natural selection.  An essential component of polyamory is freedom of choice – during the 1800s, when nobody had access to effective birth control, people might wind up having children with any of their partners, not just the one with whom they were bound in a legally-recognized and church-sanctioned marriage. 

Evolution occurs because some individuals produce more offspring than others, and then their offspring produce more offspring, and so on.  Each lineage is constantly tested by nature – those that are less fit, or less fecund, will dwindle to a smaller and smaller portion of the total population.

Similarly, in relationships where choice is not confined by religious proscription, the partners are under constant selective pressure if they hope to breed.  When people have options, they must stay in each other’s good graces.  They must practice constant kindness, rather than treating physical affection as their just desserts.

I felt proud of this analogy.  To my mind, Erasmus Darwin’s belief in free love had striking parallels with his grandson’s theory.

And it’s such a pleasure when essays basically write themselves.  All I’d need to do was skim a few biographies.  Maybe collect some spicy quotes from Erasmus himself.  And I’d try to think of a clever way to explain evolution to a lay audience.  So that my readers could understand why, once I’d learned this juicy tidbit about Erasmus, his connection to Charles Darwin’s theory seemed, in retrospect, so obvious.


My essay failed.

I wish it hadn’t, obviously.  It was going to be so fun to write!  I was ready to compose some sultry plant poetry of my own.

And I feel happy every time there’s another chance to explain evolution.  Because I live in a part of the United States where so many people deny basic findings from science, I talk about this stuff in casual conversations often.  We regularly discuss evolutionary biology during my poetry classes in jail.

But my essay wasn’t going to work out.  Because the underlying claim – Erasmus Darwin believed in free love! – simply isn’t true.


Maybe you have lofty ideals about the practice of science.  On the children’s record Science Is for Me, Emmy Brockman sings:

I am a scientist

I explore high and low

I question what I know

Emmy is great. Find her at emmybrockman.com.

That’s the goal.  A good scientist considers all the possibilities.  It’s hard work, making sure that confirmation bias doesn’t cause you to overlook alternative explanations.

But scientists are human.  Just like anybody else, we sometimes repeat things we’ve heard without considering whether any evidence ever justified it.

In The Human Advantage, neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel describes how baffled she felt when she began reading scientific papers about the composition of our brains. 

Although the literature held many studies on the volume and surface area of the brain of different species, and various papers on the densities of neurons in the cerebral cortex, estimates of numbers of neurons were scant.  In particular, I could find no original source to the much-repeated “100 billion neurons in the human brain.”

I later ran into Eric Kandel himself, whose textbook Principles of Neural Science, a veritable bible in the field, proffered that number, along with the complement “and 10-50 times more glial cells.”  When I asked Eric where he got those numbers, he blamed it on his coauthor Tom Jessel, who had been responsible for the chapter in which they appeared, but I was never able to ask Jessel himself.

It was 2004, and no one really knew how many neurons could be found on average in the human brain.

Unsatisfied with the oft-repeated numbers, Herculano-Houzel liquified whole brains in order to actually count the cells.  As it happens, human brains have about 86 billion neurons and an equal number of glial cells.

Or, consider the psychology experiments on behavioral priming.  When researchers “prime” a subject, they inoculate a concept into that person’s mind.

The basic idea here is relatively uncontroversial.  It’s the principle behind advertising and paid product placement – our brains remember exposure while forgetting context.  That’s why political advertisements try to minimize the use of opponents’ names.  When people hear or see a candidate’s name often, they’re more likely to vote for that candidate.

Facebook has also demonstrated again and again that minor tweaks to the inputs that your brain receives can alter your behavior.  One shade of blue makes you more likely to click a button; there’s a size threshold below which people are unlikely to notice advertisements; the emotional tenor of information you’re exposed to will alter your mood.

When research psychologists use priming, though, they’re interested in more tenuous mental links.  Study subjects might be primed with ideas about economic scarcity, then assessed to see how racist they seem.

The first study of this sort tested whether subconsciously thinking about elderlies could make you behave more like an elderly person.  The researchers required thirty undergraduate psychology students to look at lists of five words and then use four of these words to construct a simple sentence.  For fifteen of these students, the extra word was (loosely) associated with elderly people, like “Florida,” “worried,” “rigid,” or “gullible.”  For the other fifteen, the words were deemed unrelated to elderlies, like “thirsty,” “clean,” or “private.”

(Is a stereotypical elderly person more gullible than private? After reading dozens of Mr. Putter and Tabby books — in which the elderly characters live alone — I’d assume that “private” was the priming word if I had to choose between these two.)

After completing this quiz, students were directed toward an elevator.  The students were timed while walking down the hallway, and the study’s authors claimed that students who saw the elderly-associated words walked more slowly.

There’s even a graph!

This conclusion is almost certainly false.  The graph is terrible – there are no error bars, and the y axis spans a tiny range in order to make the differences look bigger than they are.  Even aside from the visual misrepresentation, the data aren’t real.  I believe that a researcher probably did use a stopwatch to time those thirty students and obtain those numbers.  Researchers probably also timed many more students whose data weren’t included because they didn’t agree with this result.  Selective publication allows you to manipulate data sets in ways that many scientists foolishly believe to be ethical.

If you were to conduct this study again, it’s very unlikely that you’d see this result.

Some scientists are unconcerned that the original result might not be true.   After all, who really cares whether subconscious exposure to words vaguely associated with old people can make undergraduates walk slowly?

UCLA psychology professor Matthew Lieberman wrote,

What we care about is whether priming-induced automatic behavior in general is a real phenomenon.  Does priming a concept verbally cause us to act as if we embody the concept within ourselves?  The answer is a resounding yes.  This was a shocking finding when first discoveredin 1996.

Lieberman bases this conclusion on the fact that “Hundreds of studies followed showing that people primed with a stereotype embodied it themselves.”  Continued success with the technique is assumed to validate the initial finding.

Unfortunately, many if not most of those subsequent studies are flawed in the same way as the original.  Publication biases and lax journal standards allow you to design studies that prove that certain music unwinds time (whose authors were proving a point) or that future studying will improve your performance on tests today (whose author was apparently sincere).

Twenty years of mistaken belief has given the walking speed study – and its general methodology – an undeserved veneer of truth.


Erasmus Darwin didn’t believe in free love.  But he did have some “radical” political beliefs that people were unhappy about.  And so, to undermine his reputation, his enemies claimed that he believed in free love.

Other people repeated this slander so often that Erasmus Darwin is now blithely described as a polyamorist in scientific review articles.


So, why did conservative writers feel the need to slander Erasmus Darwin?  What exactly were his “radical” beliefs?

Erasmus Darwin thought that the abject mistreatment of black people was wrong.  He seems to have thought it acceptable for black people to be mistreated – nowhere in his writings did he advocate for equality – but he was opposed to the most ruthless forms of torture. 

Somewhat.  His opposition didn’t run so deep that he’d deny himself the sugar that was procured through black people’s forced labor.

And, when Erasmus Darwin sired children out of wedlock – which many upper-class British men did – he scandalously provided for his children.

In British society, plenty of people had affairs.  Not because they believed in free love, but because they viewed marriage as a fundamentally economic transaction and couldn’t get a divorce.  But good British men were supposed to keep up appearances.  If a servant’s child happened to look a great deal like you, you were supposed to feign ignorance. 

Even worse, the illegitimate children that Erasmus Darwin provided for were female.  Not only did Darwin allow them to become educated – which was already pretty bad, because education made women less malleable spouses – but he also helped them to establish a boarding school for girls.  The contagion of educated women would spread even further!

This was all too much for Britain’s social conservatives.  After all, look at what happened in France.  The French were unduly tolerant of liberal beliefs, and then, all of a sudden, there was murderous revolution!

And so Erasmus Darwin had to be stopped.  Not that Darwin had done terribly much.  He was nationally known because he’d written some (mediocre) poetry.  The poetry was described as pornographic.  It isn’t.  Certain passages anthropomorphize flowers in which there are unequal numbers of pistils and stamens.  It’s not very titillating, unless you get all hot and bothered by the thought of forced rhymes, clunky couplets, and grandiloquent diction.  For hundreds of pages.


While reading about Erasmus Darwin, I learned that some people also believe that he was the actual originator of his grandson’s evolutionary theories.  In a stray sentence, Erasmus Darwin did write that “The final course of this contest between males seems to be, that the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species which should thus be improved.”  This does sound rather like evolution by natural selection.  But not quite – that word “improved” hints at his actual beliefs.

Erasmus Darwin did believe all life had originated only once and that the beautiful variety of creatures extant today developed over time.  But he thought that life changed from simple to complex out of a teleological impulse.  In his conception, creatures were not becoming better suited to their environment (which is natural selection), but objectively better (which isn’t).

I’m not arguing that Charles Darwin had to be some kind of super genius to write The Origin of the Species.  But when Charles Darwin described evolution, he included an actual mechanism to rationalize why creatures exist in their current forms.  Things that are best able to persist and make copies of themselves eventually become more abundant. 

That’s it.  Kind of trivial, but there’s a concrete theory backed up by observation.

Erasmus Darwin’s belief that life continually changed for the better was not unique, nor did it have much explanatory power. 

In the biography Erasmus Darwin, Patricia Fara writes that,

By the end of the eighteenth century, the notion of change was no longer in itself especially scandalous.  For several decades, the word ‘evolution’ had been in use for living beings, and there were several strands of evidence arguing against a literal interpretation of the Bible.  Giant fossils – such as mammoths and giant elks – suggested that the world had once been inhabited by distant relatives, now extinct, of familiar creatures. 

Animal breeders reinforced particular traits to induce changes carried down through the generations – stalwart bulldogs, athletic greyhounds, ladies’ lapdogs.  Geological data was also accumulating: seashells on mountain peaks, earthquakes, strata lacking fossil remains – and the most sensible resolution for such puzzles was to stretch out the age of the Earth and assume that it is constantly altering.

Charles Darwin thought deeply about why populations of animals changed in the particular way that they did.  Erasmus Darwin did not.  He declaimed “Everything from shells!” and resumed writing terrible poetry.  Like:

IMMORTAL LOVE! who ere the morn of Time,

On wings outstretch’d, o’er Chaos hung sublime;

Warm’d into life the bursting egg of Night,

And gave young Nature to admiring Light!

*

Erasmus Darwin didn’t develop the theory of evolution.  You could call him an abolitionist, maybe, but he was a pretty half-hearted one, if that.  By the standards of his time, he was a feminist.  By our standards, he was not.

He seems like a nice enough fellow, though.  As a doctor, he treated his patients well.  And he constantly celebrated the achievements of his friends.

Patricia Fara writes that,

After several years of immersion in [Erasmus] Darwin’s writing, I still have a low opinion of his poetic skills.  On the other hand, I have come to admire his passionate commitment to making the world a better place.


And, who knows?  If Erasmus Darwin was alive today, maybe he would be a polyamorist.  Who’s to say what secret desires lay hidden in a long-dead person’s soul?

But did Darwin, during his own lifetime, advocate for free love?  Nope.  He did not.  No matter what his political opponents – or our own era’s oblivious scientists – would have you believe.

Header image from the Melbourne Museum. Taken by Ruth Ellison on Flickr.

On sexuality and freedom of choice.

On sexuality and freedom of choice.

Among worms, there is equality.  When worms entwine, each could become a mother, a father, or both.  Neither worm has grounds to bemoan the fundamental unfairness of our universe – not while fooling around, at least.

Later, the worms might drown, or be eaten by birds, or be mutilated and held captive by a mole.  That all must feel horrible.  But while mating, each worm should feel as though it’s been given a fair deal.

Among emperor penguins, both parents make huge sacrifices for their young.  Each parent will huddle over the egg for months without food, staving off the Antarctic chill.  When it’s time to trade places, the parents must pass the egg using only their webbed feet – if they make even a small mistake, the egg will roll away and freeze, killing the chick inside.

Because each parent puts forth such a huge amount of effort to raise a chick, each must feel quite choosy during the mating season.  When a pair of penguins flirt, neither seems to have the upper hand.

Most animals’ reproduction is more asymmetric.  For them – for us – differing roles can feel unfair.

Often, one partner gets to be pickier than the other. 

Among smooth guardian frogs, fathers are deeply invested in raising their young; mothers hop away after mating, providing no help.  Female smooth guardian frogs seem as though they’d be perfectly happy to make babies with anyone.  They can always have another fling while a past paramour is protecting the last batch of eggs.

For a male, mating is a serious commitment.  He’ll carefully consider his options. And so each female sings to woo him.  A common strategy: knowing that males are choosier when it comes to sex, she’ll sing her heart out, hoping to sway his decision.

Among many other species of frogs, males’ songs serve the same purpose.  Hoping to woo womenfolk, male bowerbirds build.

Female ducks raise their young.  They have the freedom to choose their mates.  Male ducks would have more leverage during courtship if they planned to contribute as parents.  But they don’t.

Male ducks are the natural world’s equivalent of violent incels.  Aggrieved by their lack of choice, they rape.  This has been going on so long that female ducks’ anatomy has evolved – they can trap unwanted sperm with labyrinth passageways inside their bodies, and are able to straighten the path to fertilization during consensual sex – allowing them to maintain mate choice despite the constant threat of assault.

From an evolutionary perspective, animals that put forth an effort as parents have earned their choices.  They generally get to indulge their desires … and, even more importantly, should be safe from those whom they do not desire.

Among many species, we can see evidence of this push and pull between devoted parents and the absentees who loudly sing, “Choose me!  Choose me!”

For instance, we can learn a lot about the sex lives of our closest relatives by comparing the males’ genitalia.  No, not your uncle – that’d be weird.  I mean the great apes.  A traditional comparison of gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans is shown below.

Male gorillas claim a territory, and then the dominant male within each territory feels reasonably certain that every female living there will mate with him and only him.  Although he makes minimal contributions toward parenting – which means the females should feel free to shop around for sexual partners – he sways their decision through physical violence.  Mostly he’ll direct aggression at other males, hoping to stave off their competition, but he’s occasionally rough with “his” females as well.

For male gorillas to control female sexuality without helping as parents, they had to become huge.  As it happens, this evolutionary pressure caused their brains to shrink.  They have almost 90% fewer neurons than we’d expect for a primate of that size.  If gorillas were egalitarian, they would’ve been more intelligent than humans.  But there simply weren’t enough calories for gorillas to have large brains and sufficient brawn to indulge in violent sexual coercion.

Image by Ryan Poplin on Flickr.

There’s less difference in size between male and female chimpanzees, but male chimpanzees also use violence to sway mate choice.  A male chimpanzee might attack and kill a mother’s babies in order to impregnate her … but he won’t if he thinks that they might be his own children. 

The safest plan for a mother, then, is to distribute her sexual favors widely.  Her children will safe from everyone with whom she shared a dalliance.  Maybe she’d like to be choosier, but each male will only last a few seconds, so the cost must not seem like too much to bear.

From an evolutionary perspective, then, male chimpanzees are not competing to be the most beautiful.  Nor to be the greatest artists.   They don’t sing.  They do battle, but they tend to battle in cooperative gangs, with the outcome being that each male among the upper echelon will have the chance to get it on.   A friendless, low-ranking male might be chased off every time he attempts to mate, but many others will have an occasional opportunity.

That’s why male chimpanzees produce so much sperm.  The chance to fertilize a mother’s egg comes down to probability.  If a chimp ejaculates prodigiously, he’s more likely to sire offspring.

Several human cultures believed that babies are formed from sperm, and that mothers required repeated infusions during pregnancy in order for the child to form correctly.  Among the Bari of Venezuela, each man who contributed sperm was treated as a biological father – the child was presumed to inherit virtues from each.

Under these beliefs, polyamory was the best strategy for raising a capable child.  A mother needed to consider which qualities would help her children most in life, then spend time astride the men who possessed each.  The best singer, the most nimble climber, the most astute tracker – each trait was an evening’s lay away.

And her strategy surely worked.  Fooling around with the best singer would probably lead to singing lessons.  If the best hunter also shared an orgasm with this child’s mother, he’d make an effort to explain the sights and sounds and rhythms of the forest.  Honestly, it makes no difference whether talents come from nature or nurture if fathers are willing to teach every child that their sperm might’ve helped create.

The Bari culture, like that of most other human hunter gatherers, was quite egalitarian compared to our own.  But even among hunter gatherers, human fathers were typically shabbier parents than mothers.  For instance, fathers who hunted typically claimed to be the ones feeding their families, even in places where the “women’s work” of gathering fruits, nuts and seeds provided more nutrition than meat.  But an occasional dead deer confers more bragging rights than a sackful of nuts each day, and human males have long loved to brag.

As humans began to practice agriculture, our societies became less equitable.  More and more of the childrearing was done by women.

According to the basic principles of evolution, this means that women should have had more and more leverage during courtship.  More and more control over their sexuality.  In cultures where mothers do basically everything – feeding the family, teaching children, cuddling them through the night – women should have had close to free reign in choosing their partners.

And there’s biological evidence that human women used to be in control.  For instance, many women’s sexual preferences seem to cycle rhythmically.  Relatively effeminate, helpful partners are favored most of the time, but ultra-masculine brutes suddenly seem sexy during temporary bursts of hormones.  In the past, human women probably made out with multiple different men each year.

That’s why human males – unlike gorillas or chimpanzees – have a strong incentive to provide a rollicking good time in bed.  Or in the back of a cave, on the forest floor, alongside the riverbank, wherever.  Although there’s been intense debate about the degree of correlation between male penis size and female sexual pleasure, most people seem willing to admit that there’s a link.

When women buy sex toys … well, usually they buy external vibrators.  These don’t always resemble the genitalia of any biological organism.  Many are designed to look like lipstick tubes or other innocuous objects, for modesty’s sake.

But toys that are designed for penetration?  These tend to be much longer and thicker than either a gorilla’s inch-long erection or a chimpanzee’s three-inch, slender shaft.  Human males tend to be well endowed because it’s a way to sway women’s choices.  By giving her a good time, a man might have the chance to fool around again.

But in addition to huge cocks (relative to other primates – as Jeffrey Yang wrote in his poetry collection An Aquarium: The barnacle has the longest penis / of any animal in proportion / to its body size.  Happiness / and proportion: / never be ashamed of evolution), humans also have huge brains.  Instead of evolving better and better ways to deliver consensual pleasure, human males invented stories to subvert female mate choice.

Human males aren’t as horrible as ducks, but we’re close.

Around the world, human males have used religion as a tool to constrain female choice.  We teach that the natural inclination toward polyamory is evil.  A woman needs to devote herself to one man.  In many cultures, women are not even allowed to choose who that man will be.

Even in contemporary experiments on U.S. college students, the presence of sexual competitors leads people to espouse more strident religious experiments.  If you can’t win with your looks, or with your charming personality, why not tell her that it’d be immoral to make eyes at that other guy?

Human men could have made art like bowerbirds.  We could’ve sung like frogs.  Hell, we could’ve capitalized on the promise of our large genitalia to deliver such sweating shaking shuddering good fun that our sexual partners would remain dazzled forever.

Instead, we invented deities, spirits, and purity laws.  We taught that women who dallied should be stigmatized, or stoned, or murdered by God with a rain of burning sulfur.

If emperor penguins learned about our sex lives, they’d be appalled.  “Dude,” a penguin father might say, “you don’t need to coerce her with a sky ghost!  Just be a good parent.  Then you’ll get to choose, too.”

That’s sound advice, Mr. Penguin.  I am trying to be a good parent.  Even when the kids are fussing, I try.

Featured image by Property#1 on Flickr.

On the future of sex (& Emily Witt’s ‘Future Sex’).

On the future of sex (& Emily Witt’s ‘Future Sex’).

During our freshman year of college, I was in a long-distance relationship with a young woman who accompanied her self-pleasure by looking at pictures of Rodin’s sculpture.  Our own physical intimacy had progressed no farther than kissing whilst stripped to our skivvies, so Rodin’s art was appropriately titillating.  He depicted situations more intense than anything she’d experienced, but not so explicitly as to make the mystery seem gross or threatening.  There is no softer focus than smooth swells of marble.

Paris - Musée Rodin: L'Eternelle Idole

Leopold Bloom from James Joyce’s Ulysses has significantly more sexual experience than did my collegiate romantic partner, but he lived in a different world, less saturated by erotically-charged imagery than our own.  Feeling frisky at the sight of a young lady’s full-coverage undergarments, he decides to masturbate in a public park.  Which seems shockingly bold & innocent, simultaneously, that he would do such a thing then and there, but also that underthings far less risque than modern outerwear would compel him to such behavior:

And [Gerty, the young lady whose frillies have Bloom feeling all hot and bothered] saw a long Roman candle going up over the trees up, up, and, in the tense hush, they were all breathless with excitement as it went higher and higher and she had to lean back more and more to look up after it, high, high, almost out of sight, and her face was suffused with a divine, an entrancing blush from straining back and he could see her other things too, nainsook knickers, the fabric that caresses the skin, better than those other pettiwidth, the green, four and eleven, on account of being white and she let him and she saw that he saw and then it went so high it went out of sight a moment and she was trembling in every limb from being bent so far back he had a full view high up above her knee no-one ever not even on the swing or wading and she wasn’t ashamed and he wasn’t either to look in that immodest way like that because he couldn’t resist the sight of the wondrous revealment half offered like those skirt-dancers behaving so immodest before gentlemen looking and he kept on looking, looking.  She would fain have cried to him chokingly, held out her snowy slender arms to him to come, to feel his lips laid on her white brow the cry of a young girl’s love, a little strangled cry, wrung from her, that cry that has rung through the ages.  And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively!  O so soft, sweet, soft!

Ulysses was published in the early 1900s, and passages like this one seemed shockingly pornographic.  But by 1973, when Kurt Vonnegut published Breakfast of Champions, the idea that a man would be inspired to masturbate to pictures of women in lingerie, as opposed to fully unclothed, seemed somehow suspect.  Kilgore Trout, a mostly-unheralded writer who was unexpectedly invited to an arts festival, purchases a soft-core men’s magazine that one of his own stories was printed in:

When he bought the magazine, the cashier supposed Trout was drunk or feeble-minded.  All he was getting, the cashier thought, was pictures of women in their underpants.

. . .

I hope you enjoy it,” said the cashier to Trout.  He meant that he hoped Trout would find some pictures he could masturbate to, since that was the only point of all the books and magazines.

Now, however, even the purchase of men’s magazines featuring full nudity or explicit displays of sexuality might seem old-fashioned.  The editors of Playboy, having realized that they could never compete with the plentiful imagery of nude women available instantaneously – and seemingly gratis, since consumers are paying by subjecting their eyeballs to advertisements & their search histories to statistical scrutiny – decided that their magazine would print only racy images of clothed women.

And the sort of pornography that contemporary viewers are enticed by?

In Future Sex, Emily Witt describes her experience attending contemporary pornographic film shoots, but these filmings were sufficiently violent that I won’t describe them, felt queasy reading about them, and strongly wish that they did not exist.  This despite perceiving myself to be a pro-pornography feminist and agreeing with Elen Willis, whose views Witt pithily summarizes by writing that:

Willis criticized the attempts of anti-porn feminists to distinguish between “pornography” (bad for women) and “erotica” (good for women).  She wrote that the binary tended to devolve into “What turns me on is erotic; what turns you on is pornographic.”

I accept that different people consider different sorts of pictures, literature, and film to be titillating, but I dislike the existence of art that blends violence and sexuality.  Many of the men in our poetry classes in the jail have difficulty separating various strong emotions – which I am sympathetic to, since the trauma they’ve experienced give them very good reasons to feel as though these neural wires are crossed – but also means that they have to work hard to separate loving and violent impulses.  They can do it, I’m sure.  Our brains are plastic, and people of any age can learn.  But our world’s saturation with violence makes it harder.

Consider this: by analyzing internet search terms (that data so many of us blithely give away), researchers can predict epidemiological outbreaks in real-time.  I believe this works with flu symptoms, domestic violence, even potential clusters of suicide.  But the search term “rape” is useless for this sort of epidemiological analysis, since so many people typing this word into their browsers are searching for pornography.

It hurts the world to convey that this is reasonable to find titillating.

Or there’s the fact – elided almost entirely by Witt, who mentions only that she eschewed “chaturbate” channels that seemed to originate from a brothel in Colombia – that violent pornography is still filmed using kidnapped women, described by Lydia Cacho in her book Slavery, Inc. (and which description has subsequently led to numerous attempts to murder her).

Thankfully, the company that Witt observed includes brief interviews after each shoot to demonstrate that participation was consensual, but the violence still squiggs me out.  I’m totally fine with pornographic films depicting adult-looking adults engaged in a wide variety of consensual activity, but I hate the normalization of violence.

Although the progression, over time, toward the most extreme depictions of sexuality allowable by a nation’s laws is totally expected.  Despite their plethora of nerve endings, human genitalia aren’t very complicated – even if you include nerve endings throughout a person’s body, there are only so many signals that could be conveyed during sex.  And if all you wanted was to optimally stimulate the physical nerve endings, interpersonal contact could never compete with the pleasures afforded by a vibrator or electrode-lined bodysuit.

(Some goofy trivia, offered up as an apology that this essay has been so bleak so far: human males lack a penis bone, likely because they evolved to be bad at sex.  Males belonging to related species – particularly those in which females have more control over whom they copulate with – have these bones, allowing tumescence and sexual activity to go on longer.  By offering a better ride, males increase their chance of propagation.  Whereas the evolutionary precursors to human males were lazy lovers: if you’re an optimist, you might think that this is explained by their traditional face-to-face mating style, ensuring that women form emotional bonds with specific partners, or if you’re a pessimist / realist, you might think that human males, gorilla-like, employ brutal oppression rather than sexual prowess to keep their partners faithful.)

(Actually, was that any less bleak than what came earlier?  Ooops!  Back to your regularly scheduled essay!)

Most of the pleasure of sexuality occurs in the mind, by stimulating our emotions and imagination.  That’s why we’ve failed to proceed to a future of satiation by Woody Allen’s Sleeper-style machines.  The thought that another human is willing to share certain experiences with you excites the mind.

In a world where Leopold Bloom so rarely espied women’s thighs, Gerty’s undergarments could push him over the edge.  In a world of Playboy and Penthouse, Kilgore Trout could be thought feeble-minded for a similar interest in scoping women’s skivvies.  And in our world, young men must want to see pre-pubescent-looking women degraded and abused, else why would so many companies go to such expense to produce that content?

I found the other chapters of Witt’s Future Sex to be far easier to read.  She is writing about the contemporary sexual mores of the wealthy Bay-Area employees of Facebook and Google.  She sets the tone of the book early, describing an older man in line with her at the airport:

He seemed like the sort of man who would pronounce himself a minimalist and say that everything he bought was selected for its extraordinary craftmanship and beautiful design.  But [his] computer bag was a cheap thing with netting and buckles that said GOOGLE on it.  The person in front of him in line wore a Google doodle T-shirt with Bert and Ernie where the Os would be.  In front of him was a Google backpack.

Until I left San Francisco, it never went away.  It was embroidered on breast pockets, illustrated with themes of America’s cities, emblazoned on stainless-steel water bottles, on fleece jackets, on baseball caps, but not on the private buses that transported workers to their campus in Mountain View, where they ate raw goji-berry discs from their snack room and walked around swathed, priestlike, in Google mantles, with Google wimples and Google mitres, seeking orientation on Google Maps, googling strangers and Google-chatting with friends, as I did with mine, dozens of times a day, which made the recurrence of the logo feel like a monopolist taunt.

This extreme focus on the sexuality of tech company employees is humorous, especially to somebody who recently moved away from Menlo Park.  Her characters are clever, and used that cleverness to become rich, but mistake cleverness for being intelligent or wise.  Their collective mindset is so insular that they remain blithely ignorant of most human experience.

For instance, Witt devotes a chapter titled “Polyamory” to a long description of one pair of her friends’ non-monogamous relationships, including this musing from one of the males involved:

He saw [“hyperbolic optimism”] in the “nontrivial” number of his co-workers who genuinely believed there was a reasonable chance they would live forever, who read the works of Ray Kurzweil and made plans for the singularity.  He saw it in his friends, who saw no reason not to try going beyond sexual traditions that had governed societal behavior for thousands of years.  Few people, he noticed, bothered with the question of whether one would really want to live forever.

Sometimes mocking Bay Area people feels a little cheap, since they often are simply naive, having been totally sheltered from reality throughout their rubber-stamped lives, but many act so outrageously entitled (& indeed are often extremely wealthy) that I don’t feel bad about a little ribbing.  I personally would not want to share a world with a cadre of such internally-motivated people granted eternal life.  And the idea that a single set of sexual traditions have “governed societal behavior for thousands of years” is misguided.

In Sanskrit mythology, an elderly king might ask his favorite traveling monk to spend the night frolicking with his (the king’s) wife in order to produce an heir – since the pair will have copulated with the king’s consent, he accepts the child as his own.  In the BBC documentary Human Planet, we see footage of a Wodaabe “Gerewol,” a fertility ritual during which both married men and women are permitted remorseless flings.  One of the most forlorn shots in the documentary depicts a woman consoling her husband, braiding his hair, after he failed to lure a sexual conquest during his decorated bird-like Gerewol dance.  And despite their kapu system of stringent social control, pre-Christian Hawaiians generally approved of non-monogamous sexuality as long as none of the relations were conducted in secret.

More tellingly, Witt includes a chapter describing a trip she and several friends took to Burning Man.  An artist friend of mine, a writer who composed a much-loved guide to creating beauty despite depression, attended Burning Man in the 1990s and said it was the first time in her life she felt at home.  The people there had the same interests as her: DIY culture, extreme frugality to allow plenty of time for art, environmentalism, and social advocacy.

Witt also thinks that the people attending Burning Man have the same interests as her, but these interests differ slightly from my friend’s:

I wanted to go to Burning Man because I saw the great festival in the desert as the epicenter of the three things that interested me most in 2013: sexual experimentation, psychedelic drugs, and futurism.  But everyone said Burning Man was over, that it was spoiled.  It was inundated with rich tech people who defied the festival’s precious tenet of radical self-reliance by their overreliance on paid staff.

. . .

I would decide for myself.  I rented an RV with six other people, a group organized by a friend in San Francisco.  I think if someone were to draw a portrait of the people who were “ruining Burning Man,” it would have looked like us.

Do-it-yourself, artistic, activist, maker culture … or sexual experimentation and psychedelic drugs?  I mean, don’t get me wrong, sex & drugs are fun and all… but I know which world I’d choose.