Saturday, 24 August 2013

Sex and Relationships

Sam Harris' book The Moral Landscape
goes into detail about how science is
better equipped to answer moral and
ethical questions than religion
When Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins argue that science has an answer to ethical and moral questions they were quite right.  There is no doubt that the more we investigate not only social science but also neuroscience, we find a lot of evidence that human behaviour relies on many factors that traditional moral teachers (clerics and philosophers) are not aware of - and the answers from science of course always outweigh any other answer due to its reliance on observation and evidence rather than ideological biases.

Be that as it may, I'm going to argue for two opposing points in this post pertaining to sex and relationships.  The first point are opinions I held for a while reinforced by some research but mainly philosophers and logicians while the second is purely scientific that a recent discussion on Reddit has brought to my attention.  Further investigation into this scientific view that seem to oppose my initial opinions shows it to be quite a large subject in itself that I thought deserves a blog post - especially as I haven't written anything here for a while - to not only share the information, but also help structure and solidify it in my own head.


The Argument

What is sex and how does it relate to relationships?  In its basic form sex is nothing more than an activity carried out with two or more individuals.  Looking at sex from a neutral stand point, there is absolutely nothing else to add to this activity in terms of emotions, responsibilities or consequences.  However the value of sex seems to vary with different people as some will practice it quite liberally with many people, some will only practice it with individuals they feel an emotional connection with, some will only practice it when a certain marriage ritual is carried out and of course some choose to remain celibate and not practice it at all.  Thus it seems the value sex holds is very subjective, it depends on the individual in his or her religious views (a major point to be expanded on later) and in his or her upbringing and opinions as well as social views and practices.  One thing that can definitely be taken from a basic observation that sex and love do not necessarily go hand in hand. 

I like to use a hypothetical scenario to bring the point home.  For the sake of brevity I'm going to assume I'm talking to a male in a heterosexual relationship.  The point however still stands with opposite genders and/or sexual orientations replaced.  Remember, before you think this is absolute nonsense, I'm going to provide the counter argument afterwards which I only recently learned.

The scenario requires an assumption that you know as an indisputable fact that your partner is straight and will not commit to a relationship with someone of the same gender (remember the assumption is that I'm talking to a male in a heterosexual relationship simply for brevity - the argument still applies with genders/sexualities reverses).  Now what if you come home one day and you find your wife sleeping with another woman (homosexual flings amongst the straight community happen quite often and do not necessarily entail committed relationships).  How would your emotional state at this moment compare if it was another man your wife was cheating on you with?  The common response is that the feeling of distress and jealousy will be larger where your wife cheated on you with another man rather than a woman as this research argues.  The reason behind this is the man poses a greater threat to your relationship than a woman would, and in addition to that, evolutionary speaking, the opposite sex will further pose a reproductive threat.  So it's not so much the act of sex that causes emotional distress, since sex occurred in both instances whether another woman or another man was involved - but rather it's the competition and the threat of you being replaced within the relationship which truly causes the distress.

Bertrand Russell
This opinion is further enforced by Bertrand Russell in his book Marriage and Morals (1929) where the first few chapters describe the differences between a patriarchal society and a matriarchal one.  Before I go into that however, I should just briefly introduce the gene centred view of evolution where the driving force of reproduction is considered to be passing on your genes.  Richard Dawkins wrote an excellent book on the subject aptly named The Selfish Gene (1976) where he shows within different species the objective of passing on your genes are a priority in life and your body is merely a tool for those genes to survive different generations.  And this broadly relates to what Bertrand Russell views the very reason a patriarchal society and marriage itself has developed.  Evolutionary, men within societies common in the world today, have an intrinsic need to pass on, not only their genes, but their belongings, wealth and way of life in an attempt to possibly survive death (in a metaphysical sense I suppose).  This desire amongst men would obviously require procreation and obviously the tool towards that is women.  But how would a man ensure that the children of the woman they chose to procreate with are truly theirs?  That those children truly have his genes?  According to Bertrand Russell, it's marriage.  Marriage (monogamous or polygamous - as long as only one male is in the picture - the number of women is irrelevant in the patriarchal society) ensures that the children bred by a female will only carry the male's genes and thus his property, wealth and culture following the individual male's death.

Marriage is further attacked as a patriarchal and oppressive institution by George Bernard Shaw who said:

The stupidity is only apparent: the service was really only an honest attempt to make the best of a commercial contract of property and slavery by subjecting it to some religious restraint and elevating it by some touch of poetry. But the actual result is that when two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part. And though of course nobody expects them to do anything so impossible and so unwholesome, yet the law that regulates their relations, and the public opinion that regulates that law, is actually founded on the assumption that the marriage vow is not only feasible but beautiful and holy, and that if they are false to it, they deserve no sympathy and no relief.
What Shaw argues is not necessarily an abandonment of monogamy, but rather the view that people marry for life (or until death do them part) is illogical.  He rather espouses a serial monogamy since you cannot possibly reason that it's possible to find one person and love that person for the rest of your life just as you have the day you decided to get married.  There will always be someone else you will meet that you might relate to more than the person you have decided to chain yourself to.  Thus the very institution is viewed as not only oppressive, but also unnatural.

As for the matriarchal (or rather matrilineal) society that Bertrand Russell spoke of, he describes the inhabitants of Melanesia and in particular the Trobriand Islanders.  A common belief amongst these communities is that pregnancy occurs through spirits entering the female body.  Sex and the role of men in a relationship has been completely divorced from pregnancy and procreation and thus a father in the sense people in the modern world view is absent.  Children are raised by the community, men are less competitive and there is no jealousy when women have sex with men other than their partners.  This clearly shows the emotional distress that men in the modern world feels when his partner 'cheats' on him is something that is not intrinsic to our nature as humans, but rather programmed within our minds.

The Counter Argument

There are many arguments in support of a life long monogamous relationship, but I found two arguments only deserves serious consideration, the welfare of children and the neural processes and hormones released by the brain when in a relationship and especially during sex.  

As for children, there are opposing researches on both sides of the spectrum.  According to one research, children raised in a traditional nuclear family do much better than those in a blended family (step-parents) or single-parents.  However, another research shows that children raised by communities with several adult supervisors rather than a nuclear family tend to be more emotionally stable and caring.  Whatever the best lifestyle raising children is, in terms of relationships, children aren't a necessary product.  With modern day contraceptions during and after sex as well as the safety of abortions, having children is now a choice that a couple can plan for if they really want one and wont be forced on them in normal circumstances.  

The neurological changes, however, is where this argument gets interesting.  Vasopressin is a hormone that plays an important role in social behaviour in particular amongst monogamous species.  To quote from the Wikipedia link:

There are consistent differences between monogamous species and promiscuous species in the distribution of AVP receptors, and sometimes in the distribution of vasopressin-containing axons, even when closely related species are compared. Moreover, studies involving either injecting AVP agonists into the brain or blocking the actions of AVP support the hypothesis that vasopressin is involved in aggression toward other males. There is also evidence that differences in the AVP receptor gene between individual members of a species might be predictive of differences in social behavior. One study has suggested that genetic variation in male humans affects pair-bonding behavior. The brain of males uses vasopressin as a reward for forming lasting bonds with a mate, and men with one or two of the genetic alleles are more likely to experience marital discord. The partners of the men with two of the alleles affecting vasopressin reception state disappointing levels of satisfaction, affection, and cohesion. Vasopressin receptors distributed along the reward circuit pathway, to be specific in the ventral pallidum, are activated when AVP is released during social interactions such as mating, in monogamous prairie voles. The activation of the reward circuitry reinforces this behavior, leading to conditioned partner preference, and thereby initiates the formation of a pair bond.

So Vasopressin is responsible for the feeling of jealousy and aggression towards other males.  It is also responsible for feeling a reward when forming a bond with a mate.  So this hormone is clearly a way our body tries to instil  a monogamous relationship within our social lives.

The second chemical is also a hormone that is fairly known; Oxytocin.  The following video from TED gives a very engaging introduction to Oxytocin and how it effects our mentality.



So briefly, Oxytocin creates a feeling of love and emotional attachement to a fellow human being.  I'd like to add that Oxytocin is released by the brain at certain events, one of which is at sexual orgasms in both men and women.  I suppose that puts into question an earlier statement I made in this post that sex and love don't necessarily go hand in hand.  Furthermore, similar to Vasopressin, Oxytocin was also found to be responsible for feelings of jealousy and aggression around individuals seen as a threat to a relationship.

So there you have it.  Two hormones our body releases that seem to favour a monogamous relationship.  Is it only an evolutionary conclusion forced on our neural biology due to a long history of monogamous relationships?  The philosophy behind open relationships, or at least, serial monogamy still holds logical sense, but the bio-chemistry of our make-up suggests otherwise.  In the end we're constantly learning about ourselves and who knows what will neuroscience discover in the future.  More importantly though, we are constantly evolving and I imagine our logical thoughts will help us change our environment to that we see better for the specie and thus carve out our evolutionary path.  It's an interesting subject either whatever opinion you hold.