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Our Brains Weren't Made For This: Pt. 1 - Sex, Biology, & Culture
If you don’t believe in evolution — and specifically, evolutionary psychology — it’s really hard to make sense of how absolutely outmatched we are by the current progress of technology, and our society along with it. How human brains that evolved over thousands of years to respond to a comprehensible world that interacts with us through our five senses while optimizing our propensity to survive have not had time to adapt to the unfathomably rapid changes that have compounded following the industrial revolution.
If you aren’t familiar with the term “evolutionary psychology,” here’s a quick and dirty definition, taken from Psychology Today:
The human body evolved over eons, slowly calibrating to the African savanna on which 98 percent of humankind lived and died. So, too, did the human brain. Evolutionary psychology is the study of the ways in which the mind was shaped by pressures to survive and reproduce. Findings in this field often shed light on "ultimate" as opposed to "proximal" causes of behavior.
There are a number of ways in which the human brain — which is used to slow adaptation over long periods of time to incremental change in our environment — is simply not made for modernity. I thought it might be worthwhile to explore, in the form of an open-ended series of posts connected by this theme, some of the challenges we are confronted with because of this reality.
This is the first installment in that series. And today we’re going to talk about sex.
Let me start by saying that the thoughts that I will lay down on these topics are not intended to be definitive in any way. I’m not a doctor or a psychologist, or even particularly amazing at problem-solving. But what I am unusually good at is problem-identifying. This series represents my own attempt to slow down and think through the phenomena we are encountering, to better understand how it is crippling our ability to function in a way that can ever truly seem normal. Perhaps in the process, we might all gain some insights that can help us make better-informed decisions as we muddle our way through.
Technological progress in a number of key areas will be the primary focus of my attention. Why? Consider this definition of the word “technology”:
The application of scientific knowledge to the practical aims of human life or, as it is sometimes phrased, to the change and manipulation of the human environment.
Technology is an applied science that affects the way we interact with the world around us. And as such, it changes how we act, and how we relate to each other. Technology is, in a very real sense, changing the very people who have created it as much or more than it is changing the world they have applied it to.
Depending on how old you are, and how much of the exponential acceleration of technological progress you’ve witnessed in your life, your perspective on what we are experiencing will almost certainly be different. People who remember life before television will not have the same view as people who arrived just before cable news. People who remember life before the internet are not the same as those who arrived after the advent of social media. People who remember life before the AI revolution that is currently unfolding will not see things the same way as those born after it has already changed the way we do everything, and so on. Each major, paradigm-shifting iteration of change brings with it a whole new host of complex interactions, changes in behavior, and new problems as well. Bullying in school may not be new, but cyber-bullying is - and it’s much more potent. Teens having sex may not be new, but teens sexting and using those sexts as blackmail to extort, manipulate, or shame certainly is. Self-image problems in young women aren’t new, but the kind of ego-destroying self-consciousness created by scrolling through a feed filled with Instagram models is taking it to new, destructive levels.
You get the point.
Perhaps many of you will identify with this: I often find that in this new landscape, I feel completely overwhelmed by the decisions I have to make in a world is always complexifying. There never seems to be enough information to bolster your confidence that any given choice is really the right one, extended over time. I look back over the past 20 years since I’ve been out of college, and I see a mosaic of choices, many of them failures, some of them rather lucky, and feel strongly that I should have gleaned more actionable wisdom from the experiences. Instead, it all-too-often seems that what was learned before is no longer applicable now, because “that’s not the world we live in anymore.” We are iterating “worlds we live in” not in centuries or even in generations, but in decades or even less.
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One of the hardest things to do in this environment is raise children, and my wife and I have eight of them. Determining how to help them navigate an outdated-and-broken-but-still-kind-of-necessary primary and secondary education system, the collapse of an insanely overpriced college industry, a job market that overpays for unskilled jobs but leaves many specialists feeling frustrated, an emerging need for people trained in the trades at a time where manual labor has never seemed less appealing, volatility and pricing rollercoasters in the housing market, an uncertain future filled with prospects of de-globalization, economic volatility, demographic collapse, increasing instability, and the looming prospect of global conflict….feel free to take a breath here, because I just had to.
This stuff is daunting.
What about developmental questions? How much should their diets be altered to avoid grains, gluten, glyphosate, phytoestrogens, hormones, antibiotics, nitrates, carbs or sugar? How do we deal with the inexplicable rise of peanut allergies and celiac disease? How much screen time is too much? How much screen time is too little? How can they both learn to live in a world where knowledge work is done on screens but live a luddite life on the way? Does underexposure as children lead to dangers once they grow up and flee the nest? Does overexposure as children suppress initiative and ambition and affect the development of the brain? How do I tell them to get off their computers and read a book when all the work I do is on my computer and I’m notoriously too ADD-riddled to finish many books I start, most of which are on my iPad anyway?
How do we, as parents, figure out how to keep them from getting caught up in the pervasive ideological snares all around them: neo-socialism, or neo-fascism, or woke culture, or rabid anti-woke reactionary culture, or gender ideology, or the ubiquity of porn, or the normalization of guy-or-girl-next-door “sex work” through outlets like OnlyFans? How do we train them to dodge the ravages of feminism that makes men hate men and women hate men and women hate themselves? What about teaching our girls to manage the dangers of men masquerading as women, showing up in their sports or their locker rooms? What of the relentless, inescapable normalization of aberrant sexual behavior that seems to appear in every show, movie, and book?
Is going off-grid, Amish-style even an answer? How does that help anyone accomplish anything?
These considerations are all in addition to the normal parenting questions and mistakes that mostly didn’t consume our parents thoughts at all. Back then there were gender roles and spankings and Archie Bunker-style dads and low self-awareness when it came to long-term ramifications of poor parenting techniques. I mean, that’s how you got the cynicism of Generation X — they were raised by people who were self-absorbed and did not give a shit. Back then, there weren’t a thousand psychology books on the market about toxic parenting and generational trauma and the detrimental qualities of shame and self-actualization and how you’re f***ing up your kids if you do X,Y, and Z, while other psychologists are in your Instagram feed saying kids’ personalities are just an amalgamation of familial DNA and there’s not much you can do in any case to change who they’re going to be. Then again, if you make them entitled and give them participation trophies and tell them they’re special snowflakes every five minutes, that’s also really bad.
By the time you get done sifting all of this, trying not to repeat the mistakes your parents made and working through your own childhood trauma while putting together an a-la-carte parenting approach that seems like it mike actually do some good, your kids are grown up and out of the house and some of them probably hate your guts and are having that resentment affirmed in therapy.
So yeah, it’s not just you. This stuff is really hard.
Tossed about as we are on these various waves, my wife Jamie and I were having a conversation yesterday about our parenting so far. Mistakes we’ve made, things we would do differently if we’d only known better, and so on. We got to talking about having kids young, and how long it takes to mature even when you’re technically an “adult,” especially when you’re trying to unlearn the destructive behaviors you picked up from your own childhood. I said something about how I just wasn’t as ready as I thought it was when we got married, and that while having babies forced the issue, it still took me a long time to grow up.
“How does that effect your whole theory about people being wired to have babies young?” she asked.
“Well, there’s evolution, and there’s culture,” I started. She had officially pulled my string, and the rabbit hole was deep and inviting.
Our Brains Are Wired For Reproductive Success
My wife asked the question in part because not long ago, I made the rather controversial argument that despite public controversy, Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t really so weird simply because he notoriously dates women half his age. I asserted that personal opinions aside, what he’s doing is just textbook biology. I made the argument that it’s not odd for men in their 40s to find women in their 20s desirable, since men (who, it should be remembered, have no clear time limit on fertility) are instinctually attracted to physical manifestations of reproductive fitness, which tend to be most obvious in women of prime childbearing age. (In fact, some data shows men somehow detect and find women most attractive specifically when they’re ovulating.)
This isn’t rocket science. In case you’re raising an eyebrow at me, this 2018 desirability study makes clear that “the average woman’s desirability drops from the time she is 18 until she is 60. For men, desirability peaks around 50 and then declines.”
There’s something interesting going on here that the study doesn’t bother to explain, but it seems straightforward: women are more desirable to men when they are most likely to give him healthy offspring; men are more desirable to women when they are most capable of provision and security for those offspring. Whatever today’s social norms may be, thousands of years of evolutionary psychology have their own opinions about gender roles. Women are the ones who physically bear the highest cost of sex, since they’re the ones who get pregnant. It makes sense, therefore, that their highest evolutionary instinct is tailored to ensuring that they and the child are cared for. Men are adapted differently: they look for genetic diversity and reproductive fitness to ensure the health and survivability of children they sire — which is detected by the set of attributes we collectively think of as “beauty.” Good hair, good skin, beautiful eyes, curves in all the right places (and not in the wrong ones) all signal to a man that a woman is ready and able to give him healthy babies, and that’s a turn on when you’re wired to survive and pass on your genes.
Now, when it comes to the ages mentioned in the study, your mileage may vary, and the ages mentioned certainly aren’t hard and fast rules and don’t take into account more nuanced factors (like the fact that many women become noticeably more regal and beautiful as they age, while their younger selves simply had more raw sexual allure), but as I said, when you peel back the stigma and look at the science, there doesn’t seem to be anything truly controversial in these ideas.
But then there’s culture. Culturally, we see a very different story. Culture is where the “creepy” label as applied to DiCaprio starts to gain traction.
And this is where things get complex.
It seems to me that a culture that has made sex more about recreation than procreation is going to see all this biology stuff very differently. Sure, there might be some tacit acknowledgement that we have developed evolutionary responses to fertility stimuli that we categorize as, “attractive,” but only begrudgingly. After all, we’ve jettisoned sexual teleology and biology reality is merely an annoying reminder that it still happens to be imprinted in our physical selves. That’s not who we are anymore. We now live in a world where some people actually believe that if you’re a straight man who won’t sleep with trans “women” because they have penises, you’re transphobic.
The point is, if sex and babies are no longer seen as necessarily connected, then sexual attraction and fertility aren’t going to be seen as connected either. We live in a world that is both obsessed with beauty and treats it as though it should be entirely irrelevant. Without a hint of irony, many women who argue that men shouldn’t care about how they look and should find their minds most attractive nevertheless wear makeup (which some claim simulates characteristics of sexual arousal), low-cut necklines, and figure-revealing clothing. There are a lot of mixed signals. So while I certainly appreciate the argument that it’s weird for a man to date someone young enough to be his daughter, an older man who feels his heart beat a little faster at the sight of a nubile younger woman with a fertility-indicating waist-to-hip (or waist-to-height) ratio may not be comporting to social convention, but his psychophysiology is working normally.
Of course, culture is not universal, whereas human nature is. Strip away the stigma, and you wind up with very different results.
To give a brief example, the National Institutes of Health reports that:
Two countries (Saudi Arabia and Yemen) do not set a minimum legal age of marriage for girls or boys. Based on the general legal minimum age of marriage, an additional seven countries (5 percent) set the minimum age below 18 for boys. Boys may be married as young as 13 in Lebanon, at 15 in Iran, at 16 in Andorra and the United Kingdom, and at 17 in Israel, Kuwait, and Timor-Leste. Significantly more countries set a minimum age below 18 for girls. One country (Lebanon) allows girls to be married as young as 9, one permits the marriage of girls at puberty (Sudan), one sets the minimum age for girls at 13 (Iran), two set it at 15 (Chad and Kuwait), and 16 countries set it at 16 or 17. The majority of countries, 168, set a general minimum age of marriage of at least 18 for girls.
Add in exceptions for marriages with parental consent, and child marriages broaden even further.
This is not to argue that people should be doing this. As a father of three daughters, one of whom is in her mid-20s and another in her late teens, I don’t think marrying young is a fantastic idea in many cases. I would certainly argue against it being done younger than 18.
But for much of history, we know that people married quite a bit younger than we approve of today, and many of us have family members, particularly from the older generations of our relatives, who were married in their teens. Americans and Europeans may have mostly moved on from this, but certain artifacts of the practice remain. The current code of Catholic Canon Law, which was revised in 1983, states:
1083 §1. A man before he has completed his sixteenth year of age and a woman before she has completed her fourteenth year of age cannot enter into a valid marriage.
The Blessed Virgin Mary is widely believed to have entered into marriage with St. Joseph at around the age of 14. The fact that it is a matter of Catholic teaching that they did not ever consummate the marriage does not mean that other Jewish girls of the time weren’t marrying at that age and bearing children. Can we say definitively that every one of those situations was exploitative, especially when 20 was roughly middle age? I don’t think I’m qualified to say. Today’s ephebophile may just be, in a strict historical sense, yesteryear’s average and dutiful husband. It feels very icky to us based on our current context and what we know of teenagers in the 21st century, but I don’t make the historical rules.
There are probably any number of sociological and anthropological reasons for why such things were acceptable then and are not now. Biology hasn’t changed: many girls were capable of conceiving and bearing children at 14 then, and still are today.
Something else must have been different. And while yes, women were treated very differently in those days (and quite often, not in a good way), I don’t think that fully explains it, either.
The World Atlas tells us that
Throughout history till the 20th century, child marriages were the norm in most parts of the world. With the average life expectancy during such times being only 40 to 45 years of age, child marriages were the faster way to reproduce. Girls were usually married off as soon as they reached puberty or sometimes even prior to that. In the 20th century, however, as countries started developing, women started receiving education, voting and other rights and entered the workforce, their economic conditions improved, and there were massive improvements in average life expectancy due to advanced medical practices, the practice of child marriages began to be questioned. Soon, this practice nearly disappeared in the developed economies of the world. In many other countries of the world, however, child marriages continue to be practiced in spite of global protests and resistance against this act.
It’s impossible to know for certain if “back then,” teenagers were sufficiently more mature to the degree that entering into marriage at such a young age made sense. It does seem likely that a harsher world with a lower life expectancy would have forced children to grow up sooner, in exactly the opposite way that our softer world of today seems to protract adolescence well into our 30s. In fact, the 30s is where the average marriage age is today — that is, when people get married at all. Fewer people are doing so than ever. Some blame men for this change. Some say it’s women. I don’t think anyone actually knows.
Historian Nicholas Syrett, in his book, American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States, says that the way people used to look at marrying young had a lot to do with the way they saw childhood itself:
If early marriage has been a part of everyday life for millions of Americans, why have we have come to think about it as a bizarre exception to the rule? The answer lies within the history of childhood itself. In order to think it strange for a child to marry, we must see “childhood” as a stage of life separate from adulthood, cordoned off from adult rights and responsibilities. Although earlier Americans did recognize this, the precise line of when childhood ended and adulthood began was much fuzzier for them, emerging in something close to its current form only by the end of the nineteenth century. In part this was because both chronological age and our own ages—the numbers we call ourselves—were far less important to early Americans. Many people in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and indeed nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not know when they were born and had only vague understandings of how old they were. For many, precise ages were not an important part of their self-understanding. Marrying at younger ages in such a world would be far less noteworthy than it would be for us. But earlier Americans also reckoned age differently than we do. They did not believe, for instance, that there were particular ages at which a person should go to school (especially if there were no schools), start working, or get married. These things happened when a person was large enough or able enough or financially prepared enough, and those moments might come at different times for different people.
For most of American history there was no distinction between the marriage of two minors or that between one party who was older (sometimes considerably so) and one who was younger. Once contracted, marriage has been, and largely remains, a one-size-fits-all institution. Culturally and socially, however, observers may react very differently to these phenomena, understanding the former as perhaps foolhardy, whereas the latter could be dangerous or exploitative. Contemporary observers may recoil when an older man marries a girl below the age of eighteen because they suspect him of pedophilia. Marriage, in this analysis, is simply a back door to that which is illegal outside of it, especially when divorce is widely available; the man can simply divorce the underage girl when he tires of her (or when she ages). These concerns are not invalid, but they were usually not shared by Americans before the twentieth century, who were far more concerned that premarital sex led to the ruin of girls who would be unable to marry and might thus be destined for lives of prostitution. Before the 1920s, most people also did not share our understanding of pedophilia, the sexual predilection of some adults for children. Because of this, most objections to the marriage of girls (or boys) would not have been framed around the issue of sex or sexual exploitation. Instead, early critics of youthful marriage worried that it robbed girls of girlhood or that it might lead to divorce. Although I never dismiss the very real imbalance in power that characterized marriages with great age disparities, in this book I also explain why earlier Americans did not necessarily see this as a problem and offer historical context for how and when Americans came to see man-girl marriage as sexually suspect.
Of course, anyone who has ever been a teenager knows that even if the maturity or cultural context isn’t there to get married and start a family, the desire to engage in the sort of activities that lead to babies… certainly is. In the old days, the risk of unwed pregnancy and shotgun marriage put something of a damper on such activities, and incentivized marrying younger than is common today.
But in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the expectation that a person would have an education and a decent job and more or less have their life together before even thinking about getting married created an inescapable tension between the youthful sexual appetite and the cultural propriety of satisfying it. They say that “America invented the teenager,” and as rites of passage into adulthood in the early teens became increasingly passé, being a “kid” grew more and more protracted to the point where we routinely refer even to recent college graduates by that term. The sexual revolution brought contraceptives and the (false) notion of consequence-free sex; the de-stigmatization of pornography and hookup culture helped to widen the gap between the average person’s first sexual experience and the age when they got married, if they bothered getting married at all. If child marriage was seen as exploitative, teen sex was seen by many as natural and praiseworthy, and in college it was practically expected. By the year 2000, being a virgin in your twenties was like having some kind of terminal disease. People who found out either mocked you or looked at you like you were from another planet.
In their 2021 song, “3 O’Clock Things,” the Millennial pop band AJR has a verse that goes:
It's kinda funny how I keep debating
If someone's shy or if they hate me
I feel like everyone I know right now
Is hooking up and getting wasted (without me)
And maybe sex is overrated but we're too shy to ever say it (say it)
So we pretend we're all amazing
It's three AM I should be sleeping (sleeping)
But everyone isn’t hooking up. If they’re saying that, they’re probably lying.
Because despite — or perhaps because of — a sex-drenched cultural landscape, people aren’t having sex much anymore:
A recent study evaluating what is happening in the U.S. has added to the pile of evidence, showing declines from 2009 to 2018 in all forms of partnered sexual activity, including penile-vaginal intercourse, anal sex and partnered masturbation. The findings show that adolescents report less solo masturbation as well.
The decreases “aren’t trivial,” as the authors wrote in the study, published on November 19 in Archives of Sexual Behavior. Between 2009 and 2018, the proportion of adolescents reporting no sexual activity, either alone or with partners, rose from 28.8 percent to 44.2 percent among young men and from 49.5 percent in 2009 to 74 percent among young women. The researchers obtained the self-reported information from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior and used responses from 4,155 people in 2009 and 4,547 people in 2018. These respondents to the confidential survey ranged in age from 14 to 49 years.
Whereas it would have stood to reason that the shunning of sexual taboos should have led to widespread sexual licentiousness, something nobody quite understands yet happened instead: young people weren’t getting married, but they weren’t having sex either.
In a 2019 opinion piece in Canada’s National Post, Tristin Hopper breathlessly reported:
The numbers are in, and it’s official: The Millennial generation, my generation, are having less sex than any other cohort of homo sapiens that has ever lived. Go all the way back to primordial man, and chances are good you’ll find people who are hooking up with greater frequency.
According to research published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour, Millennials are having less sex with few people than their parents did at the same age. A recent British study found that one in eight 26-year-olds is still a virgin. One third of American men aged 18 to 29 didn’t have sex once in all of 2018. And the sexlessness is even seeping into the generation coming after the Millennials: Nearly 60 per cent of modern teenagers are staying virgins until after they graduate, a complete reversal of the 1990s, when a majority of teenagers had had sex by prom night.
The reasons given for avoiding the only human drive that may be more powerful than hunger seem sort of anemic to a 90s teen like me: living with parents for longer, not getting married, the de-socializing effects of dating apps, ubiquitous porn use leading to sexual dysfunction and the avoidance of the real thing, and the addiction to woke outrage culture.
And it’s especially hard to believe at a time when OnlyFans — an online platform where people can subscribe to pay for content, including explicit sexual content (the link is safe for work) — has exploded to 150 million users and billions in revenue. This is a platform that became very popular during COVID lockdowns as a “side hustle,” turning women you may work with or see at a PTA meeting into racy “adult” stars raking in serious cash for private memberships. A place where it’s apparently ok for young men to pimp their own moms.
But what if Hopper is right? We are finally starting to get the message that porn is destroying our brains. What if despite all of this libertinism, the overly-sexualized culture is changing, and it’s changing because of…the internet, of all things?
What if the younger generations are spending so much time looking at screens, and have become so bored of watching other people doing the deed, that they’re short-circuiting even their most primal evolutionary psychological drives, like having real sex themselves? Sex that should cement long-term relationships like marriage. Sex that should make the babies we need to keep civilization afloat?
In the next installment, I’ll be looking at what all this screen time is doing to our brains.