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This review appeared in Volume 1 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

The Meaning Of Sex

by Scott Findlay

Darwin, Sex and Status: Biological Approaches to Mind and Culture, by Jerome H. Barkow. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (1989) 453p. ISBN 08020-5773-X Paperback: ISBN 0-8020-6855-3

The recipe for a cinematic box-office success is straightforward. Sex sells. So does intrigue. Sift the two together, add a dash of violence, and watch the profits roll in. Rather than attempting to persuade the audience that these components somehow flow naturally from a more cerebral story-line, a resent release, "sex, lies and videotape" features sex and lies as the story-line. The main male protagonist is both irresistibly attracted to and intimidated by female sexuality, a potentially volatile combination, but -- oddly enough -- his outlet is not physical violence. Rather, he persuades women to appear on videotape, recounting the lies and deceit they resorted to in their search for sexual satisfaction and personal prestige. Not pretty, but superbly compelling. And, we suspect, highly therapeutic, both for the interviewer and the interviewee.

The same candour is evident in Jerome Barkow's Darwin, Sex and Status: Biological Approaches to Mind and Culture, an ambitious attempt to probe the biological foundations of (among other things) sex and lies. As the title suggests, Barkow believes that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is the key to understanding human nature. This is not, of course, a novel idea, having been around long before it achieved notoriety in 1975 with the publication of E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology: The New Synthesis and his subsequent (and still more controversial) work On Human Nature. Not one to mince words, Barkow makes it clear right at the outset where his heart lies: "The evolutionary perspective, the adaptationist paradigm, is here assumed, and no attempt will be made to challege it" (p.8).

The book is in five parts. Part one is a review of classical evolutionary theory. Variation -- the key to biological evolution -- is generated through mutation; the process is blind in the sense that mutations are random with respect to their phenotypic effects. Natural selection weeds out deleterious mutations while retaining those that increase reproductive success. So evolution by natural selection is what Donald Campbell (1960) referred to as a process of blind variation and selective retention.

In this first section we are also introduced to the controversial question of the levels of evolution and the units of natural selection.

Darwin originally conceived of evolution proceeding via the differential reproductive success of individuals. But there is nothing sacred about the individual; as has been pointed out many times (most recently, and most eloquently, by Wilson and Sober (1990)), evolution via natural selection can occur within any population of self-replicating entities, so long as they differ in attributes contributing to biological fitness. Consequently, selection can -- at least in principle -- operate at the level of chunks of DNA to individuals, to groups, to entire species. The current debate centres not on whether selection at levels other than the individual can occur, but rather if indeed it does occur.

Group selection has been advanced to explain the evolution of traits that reduce individual reproductive success. Detailed mathematical analysis (reviewed by Wilson, 1983) suggests that the condition under which group selection can override individual selection are rather restrictive. Consequently, group selection is regarded by many researchers, including Barkow, as a mechanism of little importance in evolution. To explain traits such as altruism, sociobiologists usually resort to kin selection and inclusive fitness -- a measure of an individual's total genetic contribution to subsequent generations. On average, you share 50% of your genes with your parents, 50% with full siblings, one-eighth with your first cousins, etc. If by giving up personal opportunities for reproduction you increase the reproductive success of close relatives with whom you share genes, your inclusive fitness may actually be greater than if you hadn't. Since evolution acts to increase inclusive fitness, it is entirely possible that altruism can evolve through inclusive-fitness effect, that is, by kin selection.

According to Barkow, individuals have competing fitness interests. So some biological advantage accrues from deceit and the detection of deceit in others. Barkow argues that this biological imperative lies at the core of the conflict between the sexes. In humans, copulation puts at risk much more of a female's reproductive potential than it does a male's. Selection favours females who are discriminating, who withhold sexual favours until they have evidence that the male is willing and able to invest in offspring. So females are attracted by male qualities that give evidence of control of resources (recall Henry Kissinger's comment that "...power is the ultimate aphrodisiac"), while males are more interested in sexual availability, youth and health (evidence -- so the argument goes -- of ability to produce healthy offspring). Both sexes are capable of, and indulge in, deceit to produce the desired appearance.

With a review of basic sociobiological theory in hand, Barkow then moves into a discussion of what he calls the "intra-individual" system, the mind as mediator between genetic and cultural information. Of principal concern -- not surprisingly -- is that venerable chestnut, the mind-body split. Barkow's solution to the mind-body problem is straightforward. All organisms possess a cognitive map (mazeway), an internal representation of external reality. Over evolutionary time, natural selection has built maps that incorporate principally information that affects the organism's fitness. Included in this information is a representation of the self. Any organisms with such a representation in place experiences consciousness, and "when that internal representation of self becomes sufficiently complex, it will subjectively experience selfconsciousness or awareness" (p.102). The critical point is that "self-awareness extends only to aspects of the self that in our evolutionary past have strongly and directly influenced inclusive fitness" (p.95).

Like John Bowlby and Karl Pribram, Barkow sees the intra-individual system as a hierarchically structured set of plans, subplans, subsubplans and so on, each of which is associated with a goal. Goals are biologically hard-wired, whereas subgoals and subplans are culturally and experimentally determined. Because natural selection was the driving force behind the evolution of the intra-individual system, it is inherently biased towards goals that confer an enhanced fitness; for example, maintaining physiological homeostasis, attracting mates, protecting offspring, and maintaining an accurate representation of physical reality through exploratory behaviour.

What about pain? Barkow argues that natural selection has led to the association of activities that enhance fitness with pleasure, fitness reducing activities with pain: "The neomammalian brain has been programmed to maximize pleasure and minimize pain and in this way tends to cause the organism to enhance its fitness" (p.133).

But since there are undoubtedly fitness enhancing activities that nonetheless cause pain (as in, for example, fighting over mates), selection has favoured a limbic-system override which we experience as emotion and which makes us behave in an "irrational" (i.e. non pleasure maximizing/pain-minimizing) manner.

Barkow next turns to culture, inquiring after the relationship between the goals, subplans and plans of the intra-individual system, the primary level goals, plans and deep codes are where the evolutionary history of man shows through (in E.O. Wilson's terminology, this is where the system makes contact with "biological bedrock"). As we move up the hierarchy to subgoals, subplans, subcodes and so on, we move away from biological bedrock into the cultural soil horizon: the higher the level, the more pervasive the influence of culture. Different cultures have distinctive and recurring subgoals and subplans, or in more prosaic terminology, distinctive "values and themes". Social norms represent an integral part of the individual's cognitive map. Here Barkow distinguishes two types of norms: obligate norms, whose violation automatically entails a reduced biological fitness; and facultative norms, those which we disregard whenever it is in our fitness interests to do so.

In virtually all societies, cultural success (prestige, power, affluence, etc.) is actively sought by many, if not most, members. Why? Barkow argues that human social rank is largely symbolic, having evolved from the largely agonistic primate dominance via sexual selection. This implies that there should be a positive correlation between social rank and reproductive success. Barkow then goes on to review the available data, suggesting that "In every case for which the data are adequate (with the important deferred exception of industrial society), cultural success -- whether defined in terms of power, prestige or wealth -- is correlated with reproductive success, at least for males" (p.207).

Part four is a summary of previous work on the relationship among genes, mind and culture, including the cultural materialism of Marvin Harris, Laughlin and d'Acqulli's biogenetic structuralism, Lumsden and Wilson's gene-culture coevolution, Boyd and Richerson's dual inheritance, and Alexander's more classical sociobiological approach. I found this a particularly useful section. Barkow goes to considerable trouble to articulate clearly the real (as opposed to the imagined) differences in the approaches.

He also devotes an entire chapter to what many consider to be the major stumbling block to sociobiological explanations of cultural traits: the problem of maladaptation. If indeed cultural traits have evolved via selection, then (so the argument goes) we should expect the most prevalent traits to be those that enhance (or at least do not decrease) biological fitness, while biologically maladaptive traits should be rather rare. This applies not only to cultural traits, but also to individual behaviour. But there are many traits that do reduce fitness, and many more behaviours- like intercourse while practising contraception. Why? Barkow lists four possibilities, most of which have been advanced before, including: (1) the idea that previously adaptive traits have become maladaptive owing to a change in environment; and (2) that owing to the rapidity of cultural transmission, maladaptive traits and behaviours can accumulate before natural selection really gets going.

Barkow devotes the final section to that perennial favourite, human sexuality. We are told why human males have long penises (at least, relative to other primates), scrotums and forceful ejaculation; why females have hymens and orgasms (nothing about men here), why male and female jealousy are different (are they?); and why some cultures practice female claustration and infibulation (a genital operation in which the labia majora are joined). Also included is a discussion of some rather more conventional subjects, including rape, homosexuality and incest. Here Barkow borrows heavily from previous work by other investigators, notably Donald Symons (1979), Robert Smith (1984), Martin Daly and Margot Wilson (Daly and Wilson 1978; Daly et al. 1982), and Bill Shields (Shields and Shields 1983). As a summary of earlier investigations it is useful, but I was disappointed to see little, if anything, new.

What does evolutionary biology have to do with semiotics? If you are a decontructionist or strict methodologist, nothing. But if you believe that semiotics has as its object the study of meaning structures as natural phenomena, potentially quite a lot. For, as Jean Petitot noted in the first issue of SRB, this approach includes the search for an explanation of the origin and evolution of meaning structures. Any way you slice it, behaviour is interpreted -- by someone or something, and evolutionary theory provides a potential explanation or set of explanations for the origin and evolution of this class of meaning structures. But potential explanations are a dime a dozen: the key question is whether contemporary evolutionary theory provides a necessary and sufficient explanation for those meaning structures that are interesting and/or important to semioticians.

Under what circumstances can evolutionary theory -- at least in principle -- deliver the goods? In my view, it will not if it serves only as what Popper called a "metaphysical research program", simply because semiotics is already overflowing with metaphysical research programs. To warrant serious consideration from semiotisians, evolutionary biology must provide testable theories of meaning structures. The charge of untestability has been levelled against sociobiological explanations of behaviour so often (see Kitcher 1985 for the latest instalment) that I am reluctant to bring it up again. Sociobiologists are -- not surprisingly -- highly sensitized to this criticism, and Barkow is no exception. On page 327, he tries to justify "evolutionary scenarios" (or in the critics parlance, "evolutionary just-so stories"), but ends up shooting himself in the foot by admitting that they "should never be taken too seriously". This troubles me, because a good portion of the volume is devoted to exactly that -- the construction of evolutionary scenarios. We are told, for example, that human self esteem and prestige may have evolved from primate agonistic social dominance; that female orgasm and uterine contractions may have evolved in response to male sperm competition, to provide the female with some control over who fertilizes her; that the hymen may have evolved as a result of males seeking evidence that females provide high paternity confidence. These are clearly evolutionary scenarios; should we therefore not take them very seriously? If not, what should we take seriously?

Barkow has been sufficiently sensitized to the charge of unfalsifiability that in the final chapter of the book, he devotes an entire section to listing the testable hypotheses following from his arguments. I turned to this section immediately, eager with anticipation, but my enthusiasm waned rapidly. Many of Barkow's hypotheses, while viable in principle, in practice suffer from one of two major deficiencies: either they make assumptions that are well-nigh impossible to verify empirically, or the resulting predictions are identical to those of competing explanations, and therefore provide at best only weak tests of the hypotheses.

In the first category we have things like, "Let us assume the severity of child-training may be taken as indicative of general unhappiness in human populations. This assumption permits the testing of the following hypotheses: hunter-gatherers should be the happiest of peoples..." and "If youth and physical condition are held constant, then males should prefer the more intelligent, skilled (including socially skilled), resourceful, confident females when choosing partners for long-term relationships". In the second category, we find "Subplans capable of serving more than one goal should be preferred to subplans serving only one goal. A subplan that yields both insome and prestige, for example, should be preferred over a subplan yielding either alone" and "Smith (1984) interprets the hymen as the result of males selecting females for virginity, in an effort to avoid sperm competition and enjoy high paternity confidence. Smith's interpretation would be strengthed by a cross-cultural survey that supported the hypothesis that, in most of the world's peoples, the presence of a hymen at marriage is valued". Barkow himself acknowledges that some of his hypotheses which are in principle testable, may not be so in practice. Fair enough. But in my view, the challenge to sociobiological theory is to come up with hypotheses that are both (1) testable in practice, and (2) of sufficient power to be able to discriminate among competing alternatives. It is also my views that sociobiology is quite capable of meeting this challenge and I fully expect Barkow to be leading the pack.


Campbell, D.T. (1960) "Blind variation and selective retention in creative thought and other knowledge processes" Psychological Review 67: 380-400.

Daly, M and Wilson, M.l. Sex, Evolution and Behavior. North Scituate: Duxbury.

Daly, M.,Wilson, M.l. and Weghorst, S.J.(1983) "Male sexual jealousy" Ethology and Sociobiology 3: 11-27.

Kitcher, P. (1985) Vaulting Ambition: Sosiobiology and the Quest for Human Nature. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Shields, W.M. and Shields, L.M.(1983) "Forcible rape: an evolutionary perspective". Ethology and Sociobiology 4: 115-136.

Smith R.L.(1984) "Human sperm competition". In Sperm Competition and the Evolution of Animal Mating Systems, Smith R.L. (ed.),pp.601659. New York: Academic Press.

Symons,D.S.(1979) The Evolution of Human Sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wilson,D.S.(1983). "The group selection controversy: history and current status" Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 14: 159-189.

Wilson,D.S. and Sober,E. "Reviving the superorganism"Journal of Theoretical Biology 136; 337-356.

Wilson,E.0.(1975) Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

---.(1978) On Human Nature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Scott Findlay is an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Ottawa and a Section Editor for SRB. His major research interest is the relationship between biological and cultural evolution. He is with Charles Lumsden the author of the Creative Mind: Toward an Evolutionary Theory of Discovery and Innovation (1988).

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