In response to:

Sociosexology from the January 24, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

I was sorry to read Clifford Geertz’s alternately snide and condescending review of Donald Symons’s Evolution of Human Sexuality [NYR, January 24]. My feeling stemmed not from any connection with Mr. Symons, for I do not know him except through his book, though I am always sorry when any author’s work is subjected, as I think his was, to unfair treatment. My principal concern, however, is for your readers, who, because of the nature of Mr. Geertz’s review, could have gained no reasonable idea of the book’s character. The book undoubtedly has flaws—and perhaps more than many books one could name. At the same time it does address itself in a serious and sustained manner—contrary to the impression created by Mr. Geertz—to some large questions about the nature of human beings.

Mr. Geertz did set forth the major points discussed in the book, but he did so in such a manner as to trivialize all of them, including the fundamental ones they sought to uncover and grapple with. Let me briefly try to suggest some of the broad questions Symons raises so that your readers may know what I mean when I accuse Mr. Geertz of obscuring rather than clarifying the nature of Symons’s book.

In discussing the evolution of sexuality, Symons’s purpose was to place the biological character of human sexuality into an evolutionary model of explanation. His aim was to account for the nature of sex among modern human beings through neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory (natural selection). Central to his argument, contrary to Mr. Geertz’s characterizing in that way the chapter on homosexual behavior, are two chapters on the evolution of the female orgasm and the loss of estrus in the human female. The centrality of these subjects to Symons’s book derives from two facts about female sexuality today. The first is that women experience orgasms though the females of almost no other animal species do, so far as is presently known. The second is that human females, unlike the females of any other species, are sexually receptive at all times, that is, that sexuality has been separated from reproduction, as it has not been in human males. The experiencing of orgasms by human females virtually alone among mammals seems to suggest that the sexuality of women and men may not differ substantially. But the fact that sexual arousal is necessary for reproduction by males and not for females seems to suggest that from the standpoint of natural selection the sexuality of human males and females does indeed differ. Males would be selected for sexual arousal inasmuch as it was necessary for reproduction. Surely the explanation for, and the implications to be drawn from these evolutionary developments, are of interest to anyone who wishes to understand the nature of human beings in general and of human sexuality in particular.

In seeking to explain these developments, Mr. Symons also examines, within an evolutionary model, other differences between male and female sexuality. Sociobiologists have recently argued that male and female animals have, in effect, competing reproductive strategies, which derive from their quite different costs of reproduction. Males, given the relatively low cost of sperm and the absence of any responsibility for bearing or rearing young, gain a survival advantage (maximize their surviving offspring) if they mate as frequently and with as many females as possible. Females, on the other hand, given the costs they incur in creating eggs and, especially in mammals, in having to carry and then nurture the young, gain survival advantage by being discriminating or careful in their choice of mates. Symons applies this principle, cross-culturally, to human societies in an effort to test its applicability as an explanatory model for human behavior. I think he makes a case worth considering, for he does report on a variety of ethnographical studies at considerably greater length than a single paragraph, contrary to Mr. Geertz’s review. See, for example, the discussion of the Kgatla, pp. 117-120, the ghotul, pp. 114-116, the Mangaian, pp. 110-112, and the Sirino, pp. 67-70.

But it was not Mr. Geertz’s failure to be convinced that bothered me; the subject which Mr. Symons has tackled is too little studied or even discussed up to now for a thesis about it to be conclusively argued. Other readers than Mr. Geertz will disagree with the book. It was the out-of-hand dismissal of Symons’s effort to place human beings within the explanatory framework of evolutionary theory that troubled me. For behind Symons’s argument stand even broader questions such as what is human nature, what does it mean to say that we are animal and human, and how do we fit into the animal kingdom? In the review, Mr. Geertz says that placing human beings in an evolutionary context involves “stripping away history, culture, and social structure,” and, of course, he is right. But does that mean, as he implies by his rhetorical questions, that it cannot be done, or that it ought not be done? The intention is not clear, because he does not confront the question. Does he mean that there is nothing about human beings that underlies history or culture, even though we constantly distinguish ourselves—across all cultures—from the so-called animal world? Or are we, because of culture and history, free from the influences of our evolution? The question of what it means to be human is neither a new one nor an easy one to answer. Perhaps some people, among whom I suspect Mr. Geertz would place himself, do not care to raise the question. But surely the matter deserves more than the implication that our modern nature is entirely historical and cultural, that there are no behavioral patterns among human beings that have been shaped or influenced by our remote ancestry. After all, are not human beings a product of natural selection, too?

From what I have read of Mr. Geertz I gather that he thinks the search for such universals, as I think he would call them, is perhaps at worst dangerous, and at best empty. But if that personal view was at the root of his cavalier assessment of Symons’s book then he did your readers a disservice. It would have been much more helpful, I think, if he made a reasoned critique of what he thought was at issue between himself and Symons instead of mocking the book’s argument. Surely a few reasoned paragraphs, a joining of the important issues, would have been superior to those closing two paragraphs he did include, in which he suggested that Symons’s book is either a disingenuous effort to make nature the norm, or to hype a gullible public with a new pseudo-science.

Carl N. Degler

Center for Advanced Study

in the Behavioral Sciences

Stanford, California

Clifford Geertz replies:

Professor Degler is confused: it is not Charles Darwin’s work of which I disapprove but Donald Symons’s. One of the many difficulties in criticizing the large pronouncements of sociobiologists (aside from the fact that they are so very large) is that each time you do so they reply with the accusation that you do not believe in natural selection, that you are an idiot Lockean environmentalist, that you regard humans to be so radically different from all other animals that nothing can be learned about the former from the latter, that you are uninterested in or even hostile to scientific generalization, and that you are afraid to raise “hard” questions about humans because to do so would damage our moral stature—positions no one clothed and in his right mind has held for quite some time. This wrapping of oneself in the mantle of the departed great and assimilating your opponents to their opponents—replaying the Scopes trial with yourself as Darrow and doubters as Bryan—is apparently one thing Professor Degler has managed to learn from the sociobiologists. But it won’t do: Charles Darwin was a very great man whose work has profound implications for our understanding of “what it means to be human” (a question I have explicitly addressed, in explicitly Darwinian terms, in my own writings); Donald Symons is not, in The Evolution of Sexuality at least, even a competent man and his work (again so far as that book is concerned) is a barrier to understanding not an aid. As for the rest, I don’t see anything in Professor Degler’s letter that wasn’t stated, more concisely, if in less geewhiz tones, in my review.

This Issue

April 3, 1980