This blog first appeared on my Sentientist blog a few years back.
Since then, Geoffrey Miller, developed these ideas more and gave a talk on how sexually transmitted pathogens could influence behavior at the Ancestral Health Symposium in 2016, check it out here.
Could sexually transmitted infections be trying to make you… sexier?
We have not yet begun to scratch the surface of how pathogens and other bugs can manipulate behavior. This is a major cost of infection that people rarely consider; our personalities are no doubt shaped in part by our current and past infections and our microbiome.
In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins speculates that sexually transmitted infections, in order to spread as far and wide as possible, could increase the libidos of their hosts.
I do not know of any direct evidence that sexually transmitted diseases increase the libido of sufferers, but I conjecture that it would be worth looking into. Certainly at least one alleged aphrodisiac, Spanish Fly, is said to work by inducing an itch . . . and making people itch is just the kind of thing viruses are good at.
(Dawkins 2006 pg. 247)
Recently I came across an amazing example of syphilis doing just that in Oliver Sacks’ “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” where a 90 year old woman who had a primary but suppressed syphilis infection tests positive for neurosyphilis in her spinal fluid: A bright woman of ninety, Natasha K., recently came to our clinic. Soon after her eighty-eighth birthday, she said, she noticed ‘a change’. What sort of change? we queried.
People often ask me for evolutionary psychology reading recommendations. Below see my seminar welcome email plus highlighted readings for the four topics, foundations of evolutionary psychology, sex and sex differences, emotions and mental health and morality.
Sex is consistently underrated as a driver of innovation. Yes, space exploration helped us develop the technology for things like cochlear implants, powdered (machine) lubricants and scratch resistant lenses. Lust has furthered the development of cash transfers, point-of-view filming and video chat. I predict that historians of the development of artificial intelligence are going to see sexual gratification as one of the phenomenon’s great motivators. Evolutionary psychology can give us insight into how sex robots are going to develop and the ramifications they’ll have on society.
Last month I had this discussion on free will versus determinism with Gena Gorlin, a clinical psychologist who expressed a great deal of skepticism about an evolutionary approach to clinical psychology and mental health in our conversation. I was reminded that, in the therapeutic community, an evolutionary perspective is often considered wrongheaded, counterproductive and offensive to human dignity.
Good Reasons for Bad Feelings is essential reading for anyone interested in how an evolutionary perspective improves our thinking about mental health. And skeptics will appreciate that it’s honest about stuff we really don’t understand.
I have a chapter coming out on animal ethics and evolutionary psychology for the third volume of the SAGE Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology edited by Todd Shackelford. This volume on applications of evolutionary psychology will cover a wide range of topics that are rarely tackled from this perspective, like artificial intelligence, climate change, dangerous driving behavior, incarceration, meditation and cyberwarfare.
Animal Ethics and Evolutionary Psychology (read the whole chapter here) attempts to untangle some of the evolutionary reasons why have such inconsistent attitudes towards animals. Below I quote parts of the chapter- for full references, check out the original.
In John’s April 21st blog he talks about 8 possible moral revolutions that could come out of this pandemic: hyperutilitarianism, the end of work, a renegotiated social contract, the new death of privacy, the uncertain fate of universalism and cosmopolitanism, a return of disgust based morality, an increase in concern about animal ethics and an increased concern with existential risk. In our conversation, John specified that moral revolutions don’t necessarily mean societies are becoming more progressive, moral or civilized; Moral revolutions can cut both ways.
Sudden progressive changes in moral ideals are pretty rare. When they do happen it’s because the change in morality conferred some status, reputational or economic benefit, or at least prevented punishment from a high status moral minority. Civil rights for Black people in America was a moral revolution and the acceptance of gay marriage, gay relationships and trans identity was a much faster American moral revolution. But, in part because meat eating is so normal and animals (especially farm animals hidden from view) are not generally capable of conferring a moral revolution for animals has really never taken off, as I describe in a forthcoming chapter (and I’ll be writing a few blogs on this chapter).
So, is Covid19 going to have an effect on morality? Here are my thoughts about the intersection of Covid19 and a popular idea in evolutionary psychology, the parasite stress theory. I conclude by discussing the possibility that Covid19 will change our susceptibility to existential risk. There are two follow up blogs, one on how Covid19 might change attitudes towards animals and another on how Covid19 might change our attitudes to government and work.
I wrote this paper for an evolutionary psychology seminar run by David Buss back in 2007 when I was working towards my PhD. Around that time David had published many papers and The Murderer Next Door, a book that outlined his thesis that murder is an adaptation. This was contrary to Martin Daly and Margot Wilson’s thesis that murder is a byproduct as outlined in their masterful book, Homicide. David’s papers both on homicide and on conflict between the sexes had a big influence on my thinking here.
A couple of months before I wrote this paper I had only ever heard Skinner strongly criticized by evolutionary psychologists and social psychologists, who made up much of the department at UT Austin. When I picked up Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, I expected that I’d write a strong critique. It ended up being one of my favorite books. Reading it was so rewarding that it’s probably caused me to read more stuff I thought I would disagree with over the years. Meta. I assigned the first chapter, A Technology of Behavior (you can read it here), to over a thousand undergraduates in the UK over the years, with pretty polarized responses.
I don’t agree with everything in this essay anymore, of course I hardly knew anything about behaviorism at that time and had only read Skinner on behaviorism. By 2007 behaviorism had dealt with many of the critiques I lay out here, for example, equipotentiality. But this is a good insight into the origins of the book and other projects I’m working on now. I’ve edited it a bit and added commas, which I’m terrible at using now, and was even worse about using then. I’ve added a few links to clarify some concepts and save the reader a google.