This is our truth, tell us yours
This blog entry is dedicated to Arthur C Clarke, who wrote a short story that I read as a child which posited that the original inhabitants of Earth fled to another planet to avoid a pandemic of a disabling illness. The story focussed on their return,and ended with the line ‘If any of you are still white, we can cure you.’ Whatever Clarke’s faults, he shaped my thinking in ways I cannot avoid.
Remember the ascent of man diagram?
It’s a powerful reminder of the evolutionary significance of posture, but it’s also a powerfully deceptive image.
I remember when I was a child absorbing, from an old Plebs League history written by Patrick Gordon Walker, the idea that we walked upright to better exploit our strongest senses; touch, vision and hearing. It was a very Whiggish version of history, that could almost imply that we chose to walk upright for those reasons.
Even when I encountered Freud’s slightly odd ideas about the primacy of vision over smell in human breeding rituals, with all the impact that Freud assigned to that difference, I didn’t stop and think about it too much.
One of the things I know about evolution is that it isn’t about inexorable progress. It’s as much about contingency and chance as it is about progress, and the notion of the selfish gene is nothing more than a metaphor that has been abused beyond the point of utility.
Let me give you an illustration. Let’s think about upright posture and the primacy of sight, touch and hearing over smell and taste. Did we really, as a species, adapt to make the best use of our hearing and vision? Or is there another explanation?
I don’t know, but I’m more than willing to give house room to the idea that we evolved to walk upright not because it was better, but because it was a way of coping with a limited range of senses. What if, in fact, our upright posture is the only way a species without a working sense of smell and taste can survive? We’ve all seen the TV wildlife programmes where an animal scents the predator upwind of them, and the herd bolts. In the absence of that early warning system, you need to be in a posture that makes the best use of the senses that don’t work.
It’s important to me to see evolution from that contingent viewpoint; erect posture was not a matter of inevitable progress, but a variation between creatures that had an evolutionary impact; amongst primates with a weaker sense of smell survival was more likely if they were more upright so that they could deploy their eyes and ears.
I know, we often do sex here, but here’s the sex bit.
Freud assumed that upright posture shifted the focus of sexual stimulus from scent to eyes. If the shift from crouching to upright posture was a result of a lack of a sense of smell then you don’t need to search for a complex cause for the switch of the locus of attraction from scent to something else; the only members of the species breeding would be the ones who could find an alternative stimulus to the olfactory.
Now, that’s all very interesting, but here’s the bit where I speculate that being a smugsexual is not an accident of modern society, but actually a powerful evolutionary trait.
In many mammalian reproductive strategies, the scent produced by a female in season is obvious, and arouses the male. Take it from me, I’m a dog owner. So what if you can’t scent if a female is in season?
There are several possible options. Vision isn’t an option, since the same survival strategy, standing upright, that means you can escape predators means your genitals aren’t on show. So, males aren’t going to be able to pursue you knowing that you are in season. So why would mating happen?
I may be a novice at this, and wrong, but I can suddenly posit a situation in which sexual pleasure, and a desire for sexual contact, might have a positive evolutionary impact. Simply put given that males didn’t have a clue whether the female they were having sex with was fertile or not, the females most likely to reproduce would be the ones who enjoyed sex and took every opportunity to have sex. Not because of any special reason, or ideological complexity, but because the available males had a defective sense of smell, which meant that the ones most likely to reproduce were the ones who’d shag anything with a pulse.
Suddenly, taking pleasure in sex makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.
I hope I’m not the first person to work this out, or work out what it means.