Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

Genes and Names

I've been reading articles that discuss evolutionary biology this week. One theory that comes up again and again concerns the supposed imperative that males feel to pass on their genetic material as widely as possible. Because of its explanatory power, this particular theory has often made the passage from a theory that is acknowledged as such to a fact taken for granted. People who have read very little of the science behind this theory, even some who are supposedly opposed to the concept of evolution itself, will nevertheless invoke it in order to make sense of human behavior that they are unwilling or unable to ascribe to conscious deliberation. If men pursue sex outside of the pair bond legitimated by their social milieu and the state, they are said to do it because of an instinct they fail to master.

Now, whatever the merits of this theory, it's pretty obvious to me that it blatantly fails to account for the sexual behavior of females who presumably would have an interest in passing on their own genetic material. While it's obviously possible for a male to be responsible for a great many more offspring than a female, given the human beings' nine-month gestation period, that doesn't mean that women have no stake in the long-term results of their sexual reproduction.

One of the tricky aspects of theories like this one, whatever their strengths and weaknesses, is that they presume a split intention. Men might seek out multiple sex partners in search of pleasure, but whatever consciousness they have of their desire is only part of the story. The part of them that seeks to guarantee a genetic legacy is supposed to do its work whether they are aware of the ends it pursues or not. In other words, it is imagined to manifest a will that exists independently of the mind.

This takes us into the terrain of psychoanalysis and the huge influence it had on disciplines like anthropology in the first half of the twentieth century. Any time an "it" comes into play, the specter of Sigmund Freud looms large. Whatever the failures of the psychoanalytic method he pioneered, which has taken a severe beating over the last few decades, its core premise, that human beings consistently act on the basis of motivation that is not readily accessible to reflection, remains a sine qua non of most theories of human behavior that are unwilling to reduce our doings either exclusively to instinct or exclusively to reason.

Maybe I'll write some more about the concept of a split intention later. For now, I wanted to share the "A-ha!" moment I had yesterday while reading about the sexual reproduction of primates. Historically, men have preferred to have male offspring. In some cultures, even today, this preference has been taken to such an extreme that the birth of a girl is regarded as a curse that justifies infanticide. The reasons for this preference are no doubt more complex than is generally believed. But it's clear that one important factor is the way in which a society manages property relations. So long as the passing on of one's property requires, either via primogeniture or some other form of patrilineal descent, the preservation of the male's name in order to maintain an unbroken chain of ownership, it makes sense for men who care about their financial legacy to prefer male offspring.

Where things get complicated, though, is when we bring the supposed imperative to pass on one's genetic legacy back into the picture. Because it is clear that, if a man wishes his genes to be passed on, it makes sense to prefer female offspring. It is far easier for women to find a mate for the purposes of bearing a child than it is for men. Granted, they might not be pleased with the choices available to them. But it is still the case that a woman who wishes to become pregnant will find it easier to reach her goal than a man who wishes to find someone to become pregnant by him.

What this means, I think, is that the intention said to be at work in the imperative men feel to pass on their genetic legacy is actually at odds with the social imperative they feel to pass on their financial legacy. The easiest way for a man to resolve this impasse is to find a way to have both male and female offspring. However, in societies where having multiple children is either monetarily or legally threatened, Communist China being the classic example, this resolution may not be an option. It's interesting, then, that the social imperative seems to win out, even though it is pitted against the power of what is presumed to be instinctual behavior.

From a woman's perspective, naturally, the tension that men feel between these conflicting imperatives will look quite different. If the theory of a genetic imperative were to account for their stake in sexual reproduction, other considerations might emerge. For my part, I'm most interested in the relationship between names and patriarchy on the one hand and the idea of passing on a genetic legacy on the other. If the genetic imperative men supposedly feel serves to undermine patriarchal social structures, rather than reinforce them, then the attempt to regulate sexual reproduction through legal and social sanctions could be regarded as an attempt to preserve patriarchy in the face of instinct. And that, in turn, would suggest that the moralities developed within the world's great religious traditions are inextricably bound up with the maintenance of a social and political order that is founded on patriarchy.

Mind you, I realize that this line of thinking is hardly original. Aspects of it have been expressed in many different ways by both natural scientists and social critics. But I'm still happy to have come to see the tension between names and genes in terms of patriarchy and its discontents.
Tags: nature, theory
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