Brian Cox, in case you don't know who he is, is a film critic for the Guardian. He's a very bad film critic; it's not that he doesn't know enough about film, but that one never gets to find out if he does, because he basically never writes anything about the films he's "reviewing". He just uses them as jumping off points for all kinds of incredibly retrograde screeds.
This week's victim is Creation, the new Paul Bettany flick about Charles Darwin. If I'm honest, first impressions had already not disposed me to try and catch it at the premiere, not that it matters in this case, because Cox says remarkably little about the movie, or even about Darwin.
Instead what he takes away from the film is the realisation that because Darwin was devastated by the loss of his young daughter to illness (surely not something it would take either filmmaking or critical insight to intuit he would be), then that means religious people are happier than atheists. He uses the "fact" that religious people are indeed happier than atheist to support his assertion that it stands to reason that religious people would of course be happier than atheists. Because of evolution. Or because evolution is bad. Something.
Like I said, it's a rubbish piece of writing, and I don't propose to engage with the preposterous and circular claim that having an imaginary schoolmarm in the sky makes you less miserable than knowing where the dinosaurs came from. But Cox also takes the opportunity to get in the following dig at his non-believer colleagues. Even atheists, he claims, don't really believe in evolution, because
"[E]ven some of the Guardian's hyper-rationalist readers balk at the idea that evolutionary biology might play a part in the human mating process. Male promiscuity, they insist, mustn't be linked to natural selection. That would let men off the hook. It must continue to be seen entirely as sinful departure from the path of righteousness."
Well, that's an original criticism. Not. And nobody has ever used it as a straw man against evolution. Er, also Not. But let's assume for the moment that Cox is quoting this in earnest, not as an easy point scoring device against imagined humourless and inconsistent atheists, but because he's genuinely concerned with the apparent gap in rationalist thinking.
OK. There are two ways of responding to the argument that men are predisposed by evolution to be unfaithful (promiscuous is a separate thing): ethically and scientifically. The more common, ethical one, is often deployed by feminists in response to claims that men "can't help" staring at women's chests, objectifying them, seeking status by bedding a large number of attractive women etc.: that just because it's "natural" not only doesn't make it right, but it doesn't even make it logical behaviour. It's "natural", feminists point out, to go to the toilet where and when you please - but you don't do that. It's "natural" to engage in unrestrained violence, to eat raw meat, to have bad teeth and to die in your thirties from malnutrition or disease. But you don't do any of that, either.
In fact the whole of human history has been one long struggle to get as far away from the natural as goddamned possible, thankyouverymuch. The invention of ethics, and the constant updating of them as societies changed and human groups grew and diffused, are part and parcel of this trajectory. To cherry pick a behaviour that the dialectic of your society is coming to regard as unethical and defend it on the grounds of being natural is not only idiotic, it's unethical - because it's an attempt to justify your prejudices by amoral (as opposed to immoral) means, giving yourself a free pass from thinking about the ethical implications of your actions.
The fact that many atheists, whom it is oh-so-clever to accuse of immorality (Cox does), can see this flaw in the male infidelity argument and point it out does not make them weak acolytes of the church of Darwinism. It makes them smarter than you, asshole. Also, better feminists. Hooray for rationalism!
However. The whole natural-is-not-ethical cooky crumbles extremely well, and far be it from me to deny that rhetorical tool to the many clever rationalists, humanists, feminists and plain ole decent folk doing battle against the forces of fuckwittery up and down the Internet, BUT. That only holds if the fact being touted as natural really is, and the claim is essentially true (i.e., the problem is with the interpretation).
In the case of male infidelity though, what always gets under my skin is not the poor understanding of ethics, but the nonexistent understanding of biology. Because the true honest to goodness fact is, ladies and gentlemen, that human males, far from being inherently and immutably promiscuous, are, from an ethological point of view, not nearly promiscuous enough.
Human fathers have by far the largest paternal investment in offspring of any primate. Even the fun loving and peaceable Bonobo dads don't really have terribly much to do with their offspring. Gorillas, chimps, and of course the solitary Orangs pretty much ignore their progeny, while many other species of primate are so oblivious to whose young are whose that when a new alpha male takes over a pack, he kills off all the young and starts his genetic empire from scratch - without reference to how many of those he killed might have been the result of a sneaky shag of his own in his pre-alpha days.
Men, however, not only know and recognise their offspring, they mate in long term pairings with the offsprings' mothers, help provide for future joint children and protect them from resource scarcity or violence, protect and support their mates while they are gestating, tend to share food and shelter in times of scarcity etc. etc. Somewhat tautologically, this must be the best evolutionary strategy for them - human children are vulnerable, human gestation is long and labour is dangerous. A widespread tendency towards paternal involvement ensures more young survive to propagate.
It's also a strategy that is hostile to, or at best neutral towards, male promiscuity. If, in order to best assure the survival of his young, a man needs to invest a lot of his resources in caring for them, then we would expect it to be profitable for him to have them well spaced an one at a time, with one partner at a time. Funnily enough, that's pretty much the system that humanity evolved towards. The promiscuous scattering of seed is not completely ruled out by this system - gambling a few chromosomes on the side is not costing a man terribly much by way of resources - but the high sociability quotient of humans has meant that over the eons mechanisms evolved to curtail that to levels that are supportable within a close knit and not very large group, with little privacy and a high degree of social knowledge about peers.
So biologically the whole "I can be an asshole because Darwin" thing doesn't really stand up. But even more interestingly than that, what gets missed time and time again in even progressive discussion about the links between biology and norms of fidelity is what a strong incentive the paternal involvement thing is to female promiscuity.
Think about it: once a man has made a baby, he can go ahead and make lots more babies straight away. It happens to be in his best interest not to risk making too many though, or they might all die. So once he's knocked up his partner, the best thing he can do is keep it in his pants for a while. She, on the other hand, is gifted by nature with the magic ability to not risk her genetic inheritance on another pregnancy for years after the moment of conception, and so can go out and have plenty of sweet, sweet lovin' with pretty much whomever she likes at no cost. Hmm.
Not to mention the fact that once a man has committed to a child as his own and continued to have sex with its mother, she can still go out and have all the sweet, sweet lovin' she wants with whomever she fancies and pass of the kids as his and he will never know. Not ever. It is positively a woman's Darwinian duty to test-drive a man as provider, and once he's hooked to that important function, go out and solicit as wide a range of Grade A genetic contribution for her future pregnancies. Marry the accountant, cheat with the pool boy: it's not a soap cliché, ladies, it's your natural, biologically driven survival instinct, and you just can't help it, because Darwin. Remember that one in divorce court.
Joking aside, there really is a strong imperative towards promiscuity in many species that form long term bonds. It's been observed in all kinds of animals - birds, canines, and of course humans. In fact the false paternity rate in the UK is something like 4% - and that's in a world with contraception and abortion. Imagine what it used to be like.
When you look at it that way, so much begins to make sense: why patriarchal societies always insist on virginity of the woman at the time of marriage; why female freedom of movement and expression is curtailed, as in the case of purdah or sequestration; why female sexuality veers between being seen as rampant and dangerously voracious (Europe in the Middle Ages, ancient Egypt) and non-existent (Victorian England through to today). The whole Madonna/Whore complex is in this light just a reflection of the fact that men understand that women have both the desire and the capacity for luscious, decadent, exuberant sex with lots of men, and really, really don't want them having that sex with anyone but themselves.
In fact, we have been so successfully indoctrinated into that idea that it doesn't even occur to us to say "hang on, from an evolutionary point of view it makes sense for women to shag around too!" - not because we don't want to engage with evolutionary theory, but because it doesn't even occur to us that women shagging around is something that happens, which it does, and that lends itself to pseudo-scientific evo-psych explanations - which it also does.
But female promiscuity is always discussed in terms of social failure, not science: the ignorant Essex Girl, the working class slag, the booze sodden, violent ladette, the benefits mom expecting "Society" to pay for the offspring of her uncontrolled sexual urges. But what has been punished most severely, most cruelly through the ages is not simply promiscuity, but infidelity in women; and that can only be because a strong deterrent was seen to be needed to an equally strong biological pull.
Not to mention that women actually, you know, enjoy sex. Shh. Don't tell.
So, David Cox, ladies and gentlemen: bad at film reviewing, bad at logic, and bad at science. Still, a hat tip to him for giving me a chance to expound on one of my favourite hobby horses!