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December 04, 2007

Sex, Jealousy and Richard Dawkins

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Michael Novak on National Review Online offers this link to an article by Richard Dawkins that rambles on about Awful, Terrible Religion, Awful, Terrible Tony Blair and George Bush and Awful, Terrible Sexual Jealously.

Here are some observations on the latter topic that caught my eye.

Returning to the original topic of sex outside marriage, I want to raise another question that interests me. Why are we so obsessed with monogamous fidelity in the first place? Agony Aunt columns ring with the cries of those who have detected -- or fear -- that their man/woman (who may or may not be married to them) is "cheating on them". "Cheating" really is the word that occurs most readily to these people. The underlying presumption -- that a human being has some kind of property rights over another human being's body -- is unspoken because it is assumed to be obvious. But with what justification? ...

Just as we rise above nature when we spend time writing a book or a symphony rather than devoting our time to sowing our selfish genes and fighting our rivals, so mightn't we rise above nature when tempted by the vice of sexual jealousy? ...

I, for one, feel drawn to the idea that there is something noble and virtuous in rising above nature in this way. I admit that I have, at times in my life, been jealous, but it is one of the things I now regret. ...

I'm not denying the power of sexual jealousy. It is ubiquitous if not universal. I'm just wondering aloud why we all accept it so readily, without even thinking about it. And why don't we all admire – as I increasingly do -- those rare free spirits confident enough to rise above jealousy, stop fretting about who is "cheating on" whom, and tell the green-eyed monster to go jump in the lake?


This strikes me as a fine example of the over-educated, concepts-trump-reality mindset stalking the quadrangles of academe.

Married people having "property rights" over one another? I could be wrong, but I thought that, in most Western societies, civil marriage is, legally, a form of contract entered into by consenting parties. Still, assuming that Dawkins is not committing sophistry, perhaps I'd better stop calling Nancy "my wife" and she should never refer to me as "my husband." Implies ownership, don'tcha know.

Although he observes that jealousy is nearly universal, he expresses admiration for those (such as himself?) who have the sophistication to rise above the muck of nature, freeing themselves to experience excitement without guilt or, apparently, concern for others. This being justified by their tolerance of other people doing similar things, perhaps with one's own regular squeeze.

Dawkins seems to be straying from his roots in nature, biology, genetics, and all that messy stuff.

Perhaps, even though he's 66 years old, he missed out on the Sixties and Seventies. Remember Open Marriage? -- it's based on the sentiments he seems to be expressing in his article. Yet he doesn't seem fully aware that the practice generally proved disastrous for couples involved. In America, at least: certain social strata in Europe are involved in the mistress game, a game with well-understood rules. But Dawkins seems to be talking about the free-form version of adultery and ought to know that it usually causes psychological wounding as well as other potential troubles.

As a scientist, he might have been curious about these related subjects: (1) why is sexual jealously (in marriage or otherwise) extremely common? and (2) what psychological or other traits hold for people who easily tolerate being cuckolded?

Why is Dawkins writing about these matters? I don't know too much about him, but will happily offer some unflattering speculation. Namely, he might have shot his wad in biology and has nothing better to do than verbally preen before like-minded, correct-thinking intellectuals.

Too bad.



posted by Donald at December 4, 2007


Dawkins is just a straight up bigot, and a boring one at that.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on December 4, 2007 11:02 PM

Dawkins has gotten increasingly embarrassing to all the causes he supposedly speaks for.

Posted by: JewishAtheist on December 4, 2007 11:39 PM

Hmm... he's married a beautiful woman (who once played Ramona on Doctor Who, I believe)... you wouldn't he'd be tempted to stray, unless... hmmm... On the other hand, he's a celebrity, not bad looking for his age... though the atheist is mostly ugly and male... but still...

Eh, it just doesn't do to speculate about the personal lives of strangers.

The probable explanation is that blokes of his age and his background largely missed out on the sexual revolution while it was going around them, and may have spent an inordinate amount of time brooding about this.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on December 4, 2007 11:40 PM

Look, Donald, and everyone else, you are being far too critical of all this.

I too would like to be less jealous in the future and would like any future relationship to contain less jealousy overall.

Which is why from now on I am going to tell any future girl I see that she should not get jealous when I bang her sister.

Actually, I believe Roissy is quite open about his interests and it does not appear to hurt his social life.

Alright, I am no longer being sarcastic, this is the way for me.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on December 5, 2007 1:11 AM

Check out The Dangerous Passion
Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex

Posted by: Scott on December 5, 2007 2:08 AM

Don't miss Mencius' fine series on Dawkins.

Posted by: PA on December 5, 2007 7:15 AM

This type of raving in the leftist community is just the flip side of the coin of the ravings of Christian fundamentalists on the right. In both cases, the real purpose is sanctimonious display.

Dawkins' writing is rather childish. He reminds me of the "Bush ruined my sex life" crowd. You know, if only the awful "system" didn't make people feel guilty, we'd all be attending a wild orgy every Friday night and we'd never feel a tingle of guilt.

The ability to sustain a good relationship with one (or multiple) partners has nothing to do with spinning a good ideological argument. What's really required are good social skills, real concern for other people, and the ability to take care of another person's needs.

I think that we probably get just about what we deserve in this arena. While I admire Roissy's bold writing, I wouldn't want to live in the combat zone he inhabits. Nor do I want to defeat the dreaded "system" of the church and state. I'm also not really that concerned with conforming to the demands of church and state, even though I'm a practicing Catholic. I just want to get along and be happy with the people who make me happy.

While I wish that dozens of people who wanted to fulfill my needs existed, only a few have appeared in my lifetime.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on December 5, 2007 8:25 AM

"This strikes me as a fine example of the over-educated, concepts-trump-reality mindset stalking the quadrangles of academe."

Bravo! I had the same thought---and please note my office overlooks the Quad, in all its stately campus grandeur.

What makes the concept of ownership so onerous to some is that we've lost its companion concept, "responsibility." Stewardship. Husbandry. These are the proper contexts in which married people should be thought of as belonging to one another.

Ownership without accepting responsibility is bad practice at best and at worst, slavery. It has always been right to reject slavery, but it's characteristically modern to reject our responsibilities.

Sexual jealousy reflects only the common sense understanding most of us have that sex is an extremely powerful force, and that committed relationships are constantly under threat of being ripped apart by it--from outside or in.

It is commonplace now to assume we can exploit any source of energy without taking responsibility for its consequences. Examples of this fact can be found on the front page of every newspaper, every day. It is the defining principle of our age.

Working in a university is in some ways to work inside the engine of this train of thought. Here we assume all important things are potential sources of energy, and that the need for fuel is pressing and expanding. That the discovery of new fuels and burning them up cause most of the world's current problems is something for another campus department to handle. ...If it can find grant money for that sort of thing.

Here we are thoroughly and purposefully divorced from our responsibilities. I'm surprised more of our intellectuals do not follow Dawkins' line of thinking!

As Henry Chappell said, "Thank God Wendell Berry left the University of Kentucky!"

Posted by: Matt Mullenix on December 5, 2007 8:25 AM

Lack of jealousy = lack of love.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on December 5, 2007 10:02 AM

Same old-same old. The Left's endless celebration of free love: which ain't love and for sure ain't free.

Posted by: ricpic on December 5, 2007 10:25 AM

So a male celebity wants to "overcome nature" by having guilt-free sex with as many willing nubile fans as possible. Bravo. It must be very difficult indeed to rise above those powerful Darwinian male instincts to remain as monogomous as possible to your post-reproductive wife. :/

Posted by: Rain And on December 5, 2007 10:26 AM

Dawkins is embarrassing at best. A raving, intolerant fundamentalist. As an agnostic, I can't get behind that even though I agree with much of his political views.

Posted by: JV on December 5, 2007 10:47 AM

My goodness...almost all comments from men! And bravo to you! "Psychology wonding", "consequences for others", "lack of jealousy means lack of love." All of you grew up!

As opposed to the winking-nudging-chortling hey-get-a-load-of-those-headlights comments about various highly fit actresses who are in all likelihood far too young to be realistic options for many male commenters here that occasionally dominates the blog. I am sure to get tomatoes thrown at me for somehow being a feminist killjoy....sigh. Just remember what all of you just said above!!!!

Posted by: annette on December 5, 2007 11:02 AM

Man alive. When did this blog jump the shark?

"I don't know too much about him, but will happily offer some unflattering speculation."

Or, based on what I just read, maybe he's just speculating himself. Apparently this man has a lot of enemies perfectly willing to ignore the text and throw shit at him for what they think is the subtext.

I don't know, maybe you all HAVEN'T speculated in that same way. "Why's it called 'cheating?'" However, that speculation does not mean, "You know, if it weren't called cheating, maybe I could do it. Maybe if I re-frame the thing and call it something other than that it'll suddenly be okay..."

It's just a question.

Posted by: i, squub on December 5, 2007 11:25 AM

Dawkins really does seem to have given himself license to pontificate about whatever he feels like, doesn't he? I wonder if he's having a better time pontificating and provoking than he had as a scientist ... Oh well, he's getting away with it for the moment, good for him. I look forward to being a much-noted windbag myself when I get to be his age.

I do marvel that Dawkins seems to see the goal of right-thinking people as overcoming the basics of human nature. Evo-bio hit me very differently. It confirmed me in my hunch that it makes much more sense to work with (rather than against) human nature -- to build on it (or just plain enjoy it) rather than pave it over or wall it up, let alone triumph over it. But maybe I don't have the crusading-heroic gene in me, or it hasn't been expressed, or something.

On the other hand, where jealousy and the sex drive is concerned ... I think I'm with most of you about two-thirds of the way. Sexual activity and the sexual emotions are dynamite, of course, and if you're too irresponsible with 'em they'll blow up.

On the other hand, that's true too of food, alcohol, drugs, and art, all of which can be over-indulged-in and can turn on you. That doesn't mean they aren't there to be enjoyed, or even played with a little bit. (What "enjoyed" and "playing with 'em" means will vary by person, of course ...)

I think the American-style pattern -- dating-around-a-bit and then longterm monogamy -- is probably a sensible way of arranging sexual matters for many people, but I'd hesitate to prescribe it for everyone.

Life's complicated, people come in many different forms. There are sexual freelancers of both sexes ... There are people who are natural libertines ... Exhibitionists ... People who really don't like sex of any kind ... Couples who make their own arrangements ...

And some people move through phases over time too: women who marry, have kids, then leave to "become" lesbians, for example. Or people who are addicted to marriage but can't stay in a single one. Or people who marry young, live square, get the kids on their feet and out of the house, and then turn into swingers ... I mean, where I live all of these kinds of people can easily be found. And that's not just OK by me, it's kinda fun.

And there's the imagination too. Movies wouldn't be movies if people didn't enjoy the fantasy of being intimate with the people onscreen, for instance. I suppose porn can be become an addiction and for all I know it's generally a social corrosive. On the other hand, there it is -- clucking over it isn't going to make it go away. And the millions of good and loyal hubbies who, er, surf the web for a few minutes after the wife goes to bed don't seem to me to be doing the world (or their wives) any harm. At an extreme: Japan's the classic example of a culture where people routinely permit themselves the most extreme kinds of rape and underage-sex fantasies, yet who in real life behave in remarkably organized and law-abiding ways. Something wrong with a culture that's low in *actual* rape and violence?

My own beef with the sexual-liberation thing has less to do with a general dis-inhibiting (which I'm all in favor of) let alone with basic enjoyment (which I'm even more in favor of). It has to do with its therapy-style, theological claims, that we'll all be transformed for the better if only we'll attend orgies regularly. Obviously we won't be. It's a bad and destructive political-social prescription. So screw those claims, sez I. Let's not fall for 'em.

But as for giving ourselves permission to learn how to enjoy the sexual urge? No one has to, of course. But why shouldn't people explore the erotic domain a bit, even if only in fantasy? It can be -- doesn't have to be but can be -- a life-enricher. Think of food. If we confine ourselves over-rigorously to the basics, we'll have a very boring eating life. And even if meat-and-potatoes day in and day out works for many people, I don't see anything wrong with the fact that there are oddballs out there trying out new and different recipes and experiences. Without 'em, life would consist of nothing but meat and potatos and I at least would find that very boring.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 5, 2007 11:43 AM

Well, one can safely assume that Dawkins shares few traits with Menelaus, and certainly would never have undertaken to participate on a siege of Troy. The green-eyed monster has been with us all a long long time. Perhaps we are hardwired to be prodded by its indelible presence among our many human traits?

Posted by: GEM on December 5, 2007 11:51 AM

squib -- Gee, I guess I wasn't clear in my post. But I tried to make the point that this Open Marriage sort of thing was tried decades ago and flopped. Badly. One usually speculates about things unknown, so I'm not sure one can call Dawkins' ramble such. Unless, as I tongue-in-cheek suggested, he was oblivious to the 60s and 70s.

Nevertheless, all the reality in the world doesn't prevent some rag-tag apologists from contending that communism really is workable and a few idealists from setting up their pathetic, communal households. Dawkins comes close to this reality-denial, I think.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 5, 2007 11:59 AM

Micheal, I think that people are enjoying sex in all sorts of ways... and staying true to their spouse or mate.

What do you think Las Vegas, cruises, and adult themed vacations are about?

And, it's not ideologues or great thinkers who are doing this. It's plain old redneck America.

People are finding ways to explore their sexuality, have fun and keep the thrill alive. In general, it's not a very good idea to talk about these things in a very specific way. That's why everybody takes a jet plane to someplace several thousand miles away from home to enjoy these adventures.

Everybody wants both sides of sexuality... the play/lust side and the romance/love side. The first thing you need is a partner who understands and wants to work with you to find the balance.

It's happening. You've got to be blind to fail to see it.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on December 5, 2007 12:09 PM

Dawkins really does seem to have given himself license to pontificate about whatever he feels like, doesn't he?

What? Like a blogger? One that self-proclaims "a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations"?

I also find it funny that the words "over-educated" would be used in any post on a blog that discusses lousy educations (to be fair, that hypocritical accusation gets put out quite a lot on this blog, not just this particular post.)

Now, the specific question: Why are you assuming that because Dawkins is questioning the silly practice of monogamy (a relatively recent human invention, BTW) that he's looking to cheat? Perhaps the concept goes beyond simpl cheating? Why are marriages limited to one man and one woman? Because some book that says the world was created in 6 days says so? Why, then, are the authors entitled to so many wives?

Beyond that, the concept of multi-party marriages has been floated around in SciFi for years (again, to be fair, Heinlein's the worst, but it has been discussed by others). This would be a "marriage" in which multiple men and women share not only partners, but resources. Marriage, in these instances, are more about survival than sex. When over 50% of your income is taxed out of your pocket (as we are in the States now), it helps to have more than one income.

Dawkin's point, simply, is "why"? Why do we just accept the premise of one man/one woman without even thinking about it? Why do we as a society get freaked out because two men want to get married or two women want to adopt a baby? In Japanese culture, for example, it's perfectly ok for married people to have sex outside of the long as its paid for. The Japanese manage to get long just fine without sexual jealousy, why can't the West? It's because of the stupid western religions that make a point of proscribing anything that even might be remotely human nature. As someone who writes about the stupidity of religions, I'd say his question fits squarely into his purview.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on December 5, 2007 1:27 PM

"It's because of the stupid western religions that make a point of proscribing anything that even might be remotely human nature."

I am not a fan of Western religions, but I don't think you should point a finger at them in this case. At the very basic, polyandry will never work on a large scale because a sexually capable guy will usually not want to support another guy's kids. Polyandry makes it impossible for a guy to know which kids are his. The woman is always certain that the kid she produces is hers (exception for modern reproductive technology noted), but there is only a probability for a guy that the kid "his woman" produces is his.

Polygyny still works because the (big chief) man who has multiple women is usually able to support them and the kids he is fathering through them. The women don't need to get overly jealous as long as he is supporting her and her kids.

I am not sure if this has been researched, but is the common aversion to taxes and the welfare state among men arising from the same area as the anti-cuckolding response? Could make a good thesis: welfare state == forced cuckoldry?

Posted by: JM on December 5, 2007 2:52 PM

Why are we supposed to rise above some parts of our nature but not others? If we are supposed to rise above 'the green-eyed monster', then why not also rise above the lust for sex in the first place? Why give in to one urge but repress the other?

My own sense that traditional approaches to sex, with their double standards, elaborate hypocrisies, and muddied rationalizations were based on a clearer understanding of the power of sex and emotion than all of these, well, a priori attempts to come up some clean, clear set of commandments on how to do things.

Sex makes people do stuff. So does emotion. Jealousy, for example. None of that is going to go away any time soon.

I am intrigued, however, by an earlier poster's claim that the Japanese do without sexual jealousy. Any cites?

Posted by: PatrickH on December 5, 2007 4:53 PM

As a (struggling but faithful) adherent of one of the Western religions that Upstate Guy attacks, I want to point out to him that his comment is every bit as prescriptive as the kind of people Michael excoriates in his comment, the ones who go on as if alternative sexual arrangements are not merely a possibility for brave or intrepid individuals, but something that the whole society we live in ought to consider.

Why should we be monogamous? Well, perhaps because it's the best way to get men to invest in their children. Perhaps it's because male children who get raised without much paternal involvement turn socially dangerous. Perhaps it's because wives in polygamous societies become very jealous not so much on their own behalf, but on behalf of their children, where paternal time and inheritances are concerned. Perhaps it's because the occasional messiness Michael speaks of as the outcome of experimental sexual arrangements would turn into one vast, society-wide messiness. Perhaps it's too painful to extemporize or ad lib our sexual arrangements all the time, and we need to be certain we understand each other.

Perhaps it's because all the alternative arrangements have already been tried at some earlier point in human history, and found wanting.

I know many people whose sexual pasts are libertine, to put it mildly, and I don't dislike or run from them. My impression is that they don't usually choose their "alternative lifestyles", but have these thrust upon them by circumstance or by their own natures. Often they would be different if they could be. What I think is a mistake is to choose experimentation just for the fun of it, or to pursue some ideal vision of sexual freedom. It's the people who do it in this spirit who make the worst messes, partly because they tend to combine idealism, naivete, and vanity in large doses.

Posted by: alias clio on December 5, 2007 5:51 PM

He's 66, you say; I shouldn't be surprised if his contractual retirement age at Oxford is 67 - perhaps he's noticed. As for ""Why's it called 'cheating?'" the answer is easy. The Americanism "cheating" has visibly arrived in British English only in the last generation or so, so the cause of its use is too much watching the telly.

Posted by: dearieme on December 6, 2007 6:01 AM

Yes - the old euphemism for "cheating" in educated circles was "deceived": "Have you deceived me with that man?" was the cry of the, well, deceived husband.

Posted by: alias clio on December 6, 2007 10:28 AM

Dawkins' disapproval of jealousy seems strange to me. He must understand how it is rooted in evolution as a means to improve the male's or female's genes' chances. Does he really suppose that he can rise above that by simply thinking about it? Why should he believe that any more than he believes he can rise above evolution's drive to mate with females or even just to go on living?

Posted by: Robert Hume on December 6, 2007 10:33 AM

We rise above a lot of what comes from our genes.

Posted by: i, squub on December 6, 2007 11:01 AM

Well, i,squib , I'm not sure what you are thinking about when you say we can rise above our genes. There is altruism in ants and primates. And there is sexual selection. Some think that males drive for knowledge is a drive to make girls say that if we can waste our powers on that, then there must be lots more power in reserve to support their kids. Those "positive" traits have selection value. Darwin knew all this.

Posted by: Robert Hume on December 6, 2007 2:03 PM

yes, there are competing "values" coming from our genes. Your initial statement that because something (jealousy) is "rooted in our genes" it follows that we would be foolish to try to "rise above" it is a ridiculous statement, is my point. If the drive to procreate is in our genes, and we make a decision not to procreate, what are we doing? Arguing that there's also a drive against procreation doesn't answer anything -- it only indicates that one drive or the other has to take precedence. Basically the way I read what you wrote is that we are foolish to try to do ANYTHING "by simply thinking about it," and I think that's a silly statement. Unless you're arguing that the only things we can consciously steer in our lives are things about which our genes are mute. If so, I'm kind of curious to see such a list. I wonder if Darwin made one.

Posted by: i, squub on December 6, 2007 4:17 PM

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