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17.5.05

Anthropology Infringing On Biology

Orgasmic Science

... He went on to suggest that the clitoris, and by extension the female orgasm, also had no purpose in evolutionary terms. In a situation exactly analogous to the male nipple, [Stephen Jay] Gould wrote, the clitoris and the female orgasm were simply developmental echoes of the male penis and orgasm, whose importance to reproduction is obvious.

Gould's article (later reprinted under the title "Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples") ignited a war in the letters column of Natural History, though he was not the first to make the argument that the female orgasm serves no evolutionary purpose. After the anthropologist Donald Symons made the same point in his 1979 book "The Evolution of Human Sexuality," the feminist anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy noted in a review that "a gentlemanly breeze from the 19th century drifts from the pages." The argument that the male orgasm was a naturally selected miracle and the female one a wan copy, she thought, smacked of sexism.

... "If the clitoris is an irrelevant organ," asks the Emory University psychologist and primatologist Frans de Waal, "why in cultures that want to control female sexuality do they have it removed?"

-- via feministe


I'm no biologist, so I can't offer an opinion on the scientific validity of the claim that the female orgasm is a by-product of the evolution of the male orgasm rather than being directly selected for*. But I can comment on the two bits of anthropology that show up in the bits of the article I quoted.

First, Hrdy's contention that Gould's thesis (drawn from Elisabeth A. Lloyd) is sexist has some merit but doesn't go deep enough. It's true that there is a long history of evolutionary and sociobiological explanations being used to justify sexism. It's easy enough to see how a sexist bias could lead a person to conclude that the female orgasm is derivative, and that that conclusion could easily be used to justify sexism. These are good reasons to be suspicious of the Gould-Lloyd thesis and to give careful scrutiny to the evidence and arguments offered in its favor. But that suspicion can't itself be a refutation of the Gould-Lloyd thesis. They could be correct despite a coincidental agreement with the conclusions that sexists would illegitimately arrive at. And if further examination upheld the Gould-Lloyd thesis, we would be in a tough spot -- either accept a scientific finding that seems to justify sexism, or suppress the truth in order to stabilize social equality. This shows that what we need is to also undercut the use of design arguments in ethics. Whether the female orgasm was directly selected for by evolution has no bearing on whether the orgasms experienced by women are important. It's not where it comes from that's important, but what we can do with it from here on out. If we can free our society of the wrongheaded idea that what evolution "designed" a feature for tells us anything about how we should use it, then the Gould-Lloyd thesis will pose no threat to sexual equality.

De Waal's argument starts off with a misreading of the Gould-Lloyd thesis that is exactly the kind of thing that Hrdy fears will be done with it. He interprets "not directly selected for" as "irrelevant" -- a move that only makes sense under the incorrect premise that natural selection can be interpreted as indicating some sort of binding will of nature. Nobody is denying that females today (often) experience orgasms. That fact is a sufficient explanation for why certain societies would see fit to remove the organ responsible. Clitoridectomies are equally useful in controlling female sexuality if the clitoris is the direct result of natural selection, or if it's a happy side-effect of the evolution of the penis. It's the origin of this undisputed empirical fact that's at issue, an origin that occurred over a much longer time scale than the development of the practice of clitoridectomy.

*Though I think I can offer some reassurance to Lauren, who thinks that if Lloyd's theory is correct, women may gradually lose the ability as evolution goes on. While the female orgasm may not make a positive contribution to survival and reproductive success (and hence isn't selected for), I have trouble seeing how it would have a negative influence (and thus be selected against) -- and it seems like a pretty big negative influence would be necessary to justify the substantial changes in how sexual differentiation develops that would be necessary to deprive females of orgasms without similarly depriving men. As an evolutionarily neutral feature, I would expect the female orgasm to be dragged along by the evolution of the male orgasm.

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