Polyamory and evolutionary psychology

I read this article about polyamorous relationships where Michael J. Formica suggests that such relationships might be more natural than monogamous ones. I’m a very open-minded person and I absolutely believe that people should be able to enjoy any kind of relationship that makes them happy (as long as all members are able to consent). I don’t however like this obsession with trying to claim that something must be more “natural” than something else. As if nothing can possibly exist or be accepted without some kind of iron clad “scientific” justification.

Proponents of evolutionary psychology are prone to doing this. They keep trying to justify/deny certain behaviours based on some shaky idea of what humanity was like thousands of years ago. Flewellyn was able to put the short-comings of evopsych down quite succinctly right here.

1. Human brains evolved. (Right! We know that.)

2. Human psychology is a product of human neurology. (Makes sense.)

3. Therefor, human psychology must have evolved in concert with our neurology. (Okay so far…)

4. In evolution, traits which are adaptive (or neutral) tend to survive, while traits which are maladaptive tend not to survive. (Again, not controversial.)

5. Human psychology definitely counts as a trait, if not many. (Fair enough…)

Here’s where they go off the deep end…

6. Therefor, human psychological traits must, on the whole, be adaptive. (Well, hang on a second, all of them? Some might not be neutral or even maladaptive? And what about cultural influence? Hey, are you listening?!)

7. Therefor, all behaviors that we observe in current human populations MUST have been adaptive traits that carry over from our savanna-dwelling ancestors, and biologically determined! Cultural norms of today are of course adaptive traits, and therefor there’s no point in trying to change them! (Wait, WHAT?!)

Formica uses evopsych to explain how polyamorous relationships are probably more “natural” than monogamous ones. I don’t know enough about the issue to make any claims against his arguments, but as far as I’m concerned we shouldn’t need these sort of justifications.

Formica says: “Infidelity, whether actual, emotional or objective (e.g., porn, strip clubs, etc.) is almost a given within our culture.” To him this is an indication that we aren’t naturally monogamous. Maybe. But at the same time there are plenty of people who are perfectly happy being monogamous. The point to me is that we should be able to choose what works for us personally. Like Flewellyn says evopsych doesn’t make proper allowance for the effects of culture. Most people in the West are monogamous (or try to be at least). It’s probably not because of their “nature” but because that’s the norm. Religion plays a large role in controlling people’s behaviours. In other cultures monogamy is not the norm. Who’s to say which culture is right? Homosexuality, polyamory and many other “deviant” life styles have been dismissed/outlawed for centuries. Not because of “human nature”, but because they are sinful in the eyes of the church or because many people find them to be disturbing or disgusting.

All the same, Formica’s article makes me happy. Not because he’s telling me anything new or because his arguments are persuasive, but because he’s discussing the issue. Homophobes tend to argue that legalizing gay marriage will lead to polyamorous people wanting to get married. It often makes me wonder why that’s such a big deal. Why can’t three people who love each other get married?

I feel that this is an issue that needs to be discussed more. I don’t feel that polyamory (or homosexuality for that matter) is in any need of justification. What we need is a society where people are allowed to make these choices for themselves without being denied the rights granted to the “regular” heterosexuals. Why does it matter whether homosexuality is natural or not? It exists, get over it.

Image from here.

Bad science and research registration

I’ve been reading Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science lately. It’s not only incredibly informative, but also entertaining and inspirational. I usually consider myself a fairly skeptical person, but I had no idea how much of what I’ve heard around me and in the media is pure nonsense. I am now even more encouraged to be more critical about everything I hear.

But the book is not just about the media, but also the less than honest methods of some researchers, especially the ones whose work is intended to make money. One issue that really bothered me is how many of the studies conducted are never published or even registered. If the outcome isn’t what they researchers hoped for then it’s simply discarded. A negative outcome isn’t useless information. Whatever you find out, be it what you expected or not, is valid information and should be easily accessible to all. Especially when it comes to medical trials.

I have been thinking about my thesis for the last few months. I will likely study whether public health in Iceland has changed in the last few decades since globalization reached Iceland. I’m not 100% sure how I’ll go about it, but I will likely look at statistics of particular diseases and see whether they have changed significantly. I took a course last semester where for one project we had to come up with an idea for a study, plan it and then present it to our classmates. Some of them asked me “what if you find out there hasn’t been any change?” I got the feeling that they thought that if the result were no then the study were useless. I don’t think so. It would mean that something’s been done right in the Icelandic health care system and that’s important information.

In light of this I find this blog entry interesting. Larry Husten at Cardiobrief says that mandatory registration of clinical trials hasn’t worked as it should have.

They found that less than half the trials (45.5%) were adequately registered, which they defined as being registered before the end of the trial and with the primary outcome clearly specified. More than a quarter of the trials were not registered at all, while 13.9% were registered after the study was finished. In the trials that were adequately registered, the French investigators found “discrepancies between the outcomes registered and the outcomes published.” In the papers where they were able to assess the discrepancies, the investigators found that “statistically significant results were favored in 82.6%.”

So it’s clear that even initial attempts to address the problem have not been very successful. Hopefully a stricter policy will be implemented in the future.

A bit more on religion

It amuses me that one post about religion gave me more hits than ever before. Not a lot of hits, mind you, just more hits. I even got a comment! People are so adoringly predictable. :)

It surprised me, when I was writing that bit of text in my last entry, how angry I got. It really irritates me that I’m considered arrogant for daring to say that god doesn’t exist. I simply have never seen a reason to believe that he does. Everything I’ve read and all my thoughts on the matter have led me to the same conclusion: he doesn’t. It makes no sense that a god could possibly exist. And like my father has pointed out: what does “god” even mean? The concept makes no sense.

I think it’s arrogant of religious people to tell me that my atheism means I lack morals and that my life is pointless, meaningless. I have a strong sense of morals and I am happy. I find meaning in my family, my friends and my studies. There doesn’t need to be an ultimate purpose.

Religion and morality – no link!

I was supposed to write this thing for school the other day…about…something. So I chose to write about religion and morality. Basically, that I don’t think religion has anything to do with morality. I figured I might as well share it. It’s probably crap, but whatever. :P

Religion, Atheism and Morality
It is a common misunderstanding that religion and the existence of god are the basis for all human morality, and that without god life is meaningless, and all sense of what is right and what is wrong will be gone. For this reason, many religious people view atheists as amoral and untrustworthy. Religion is fast becoming less and less important in modern Western society, and many religious people worry that this will lead to moral decay and that society will fall apart. I disagree. I believe that morality is a natural human phenomenon, and based on very fluid social mores and expectations, rather than any particular religious texts.

Too many different religions and cultures exist for us to pick one as the ultimate right one. Humans have been roaming the Earth for a long time and we know very little of the social behaviour of early humans. We have developed many different religions and different sets of social rules, and gone through many stages of development technologically and socially. Despite this there are millions of people who believe their religion is the only true one and that the rules laid down in their religious texts should apply to all. There is no way to determine who is right and which moral code should be the one followed. There is clearly no proof that the way we behave in our daily lives and the laws and regulations we follow can be attributed to one religious or cultural source.

Human social rules and conventions for the most part probably have no particular source. They have developed and evolved as needed. Many of the rules we follow are never written down or discussed. I believe most have risen as a way to maintain peace and balance. We behave the way our environment dictates because it is the only way to function properly. Those who do not are social outcasts. These rules are not set in stone either. Things that once were considered bad are now normal, such as interracial marriage. Things that once were considered right are now wrong, such as slavery. Society will therefore not fall apart without religion. Some of the richest, happiest nations of the world are also the least religious, such as in Northern Europe. I believe that by putting less emphasis on religious attainment these nations have been able to move on from prejudice and old ideas that no longer apply, and put more focus on human rights, equality, and general wellbeing.

Rules do however not exist independently; they can be created and changed by powerful people and social groups as a way to control the masses and further their agenda. Religion has often been used in this way through the ages. Many of the rules listed in religious texts have likely been written for that purpose, but are today outdated. Much of what is written in the Bible for instance has been deemed wrong or inapplicable in today’s society. If it is no longer right to treat women as men’s property, why is it still considered right to discriminate against homosexual people? How can we look to the Bible for moral guidance when even Christians do not fully believe in it? I suspect that this same question applies to many other religious texts. If the word of god were absolute, then human behaviour would not be so varied. Religion is a human construct, used to control and lead the public.

This is changing today. We understand ourselves better and have come to see that there is for instance also a physical component to our sense of morality. We are not born with full knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. It is something we learn. And yet there are people who never learn. They were once thought evil, today however we know that they are sick in some way. Empathy is a strong part of why we do what we do. Most of us do not hurt other people, not because we would get in trouble or because the law says we are not allowed, but because our sense of empathy and our conscience stop us. Psychopaths lack empathy and a conscience. It is not because they do not believe in god but because they are sick. Even healthy people can lose their sense of right and wrong due to brain damage. In other words, morality is a social and physical phenomenon.

While religion and religious texts have no doubt had a great influence on society, they are not the basis for humans’ sense of morality. Social rules and mores have evolved with the human race, both socially and physically. They are not constant or based on any ultimate truth, rather simply a way for humans to live with each other peacefully.

Alien abductions

Alien abduction stories always amuse me. I was watching Penn & Teller’s Bullshit episode on alien abductions and a few things came to mind. None of it makes any sense and it’s just amazing that so many people believe this nonsense. I believe that there are probably some planets out there with life on them, but I have a hard time believing that they’d ever come here. Especially just to experiment on us.

  1. There are never any witnesses. I read a story once of some people who apparently were chased by a space ship and they drove a long distance trying to get away. Apparently they even drove through a little town on the way. How come no one noticed?
  2. If they have the technology to fly out here and abduct people with no witnesses, they should be able to properly remove memories and leave no marks.
  3. The aliens are never described the same way. Therefore, if alien abductees are to be believed, there are hundreds of different alien species circling the planet. I find that hard to believe. They would be easier to believe if their stories all matched, they never do.
  4. There’s always a very strange sexual component to the stories. Anal probing anyone?
  5. People who believe that authorities are in contact with aliens and/or testing their technology always seem to be able to tell everyone about it…but they can never reveal their sources. If they can’t reveal sources and it’s all top secret, then why are they talking about it at all? Why wouldn’t the authorities just take them out?
  6. If there are aliens amongst us, posing as humans and we can’t see it…then how come there are people who know about it? They’re not supposed to be able to see it, right?
  7. There’s never any proof.

People are stupid. Sometimes I despair for humanity.