At last, a professor emerita — buried in a print letters column — has the right answer for evolutionary biologists justifying infidelity as an exclusively male biological necessity

 

roos in spring 3 postgutenberg@gmail.com

Mating season at the Melbourne Zoo — photographs by postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

For those of us who relish a sharp debate with a truthful, witty opponent, discovering someone so talented lurking in a Letters to the Editor column of a print newspaper — and not the comments section of the paper’s site — is nearly tragic.

Never mind that papers have been reproducing these columns online for at least two decades. A dazzling argument deserves a response from the widest possible audience — at the very least, a towering mound of bouquets. Online commenters do not usually debate old-fashioned communications directed to editorial ears.

The letter to The New York Times below, from Luci Paul — a professor emerita of psychology — is an example of the kind of commentary that raises the game in a well-run online comments section. It attracts other excellent debaters, and the conversation that follows can be far more stimulating and enlightening than the article or essay that is its subject. Well-established corps of comments contributors could form the core of a new economic model for media — as we have been pointing out on this site for some time.

Professor Paul’s missive was aimed at one of the oldest arguments in defence of male infidelity, a claim that evolutionary biologists have been inflicting on the rest of us — largely unchallenged — for as long as their discipline has existed. It appeared dressed up in new tat — justifications rooted in genes and hormones — in a NYT essay published on 24 May.

At the top of the letters it drew, Henry J. Friedman, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, spoke for the wilful romantics among us when he said: ‘Dr. [Richard A. Friedman] attributes power of influence to two hormones that undoubtedly have their effect on our bodies, but in extending their effect to the mind and promiscuous sexuality, he leads readers to make conclusions about sexual behavior that are unwarranted and hardly shared by the majority of clinical psychiatrists.’

Professor Paul’s reaction, the last in the column, is the argument we have been waiting all our lives to hear from someone in a position of responsibility. Do not be misled by the unimpeachable, dry, academic prose. This is a woman not merely wise but with a delectable, barbed sense of humour:

To the Editor:

Richard A. Friedman nicely characterizes the genetic and neurohormonal bases for infidelity, but I must challenge his view of its evolutionary value to the sexes. He sees male infidelity as evolutionarily rational: the more partners, the more offspring. Since that equation does not hold for women, he suggests that women’s infidelity is mere frivolous fun, likely based in sensation-seeking and activation of reward circuits by sex.

Because women’s reproductive success depends on genetic quality of offspring and resources to support lengthy gestation and rearing, there is clear adaptive value to female infidelity. The more partners a woman has, the more men she can tap for resources to help rear her children, especially in difficult times.

Second, if a woman carefully chooses extramarital partners, her offspring will carry genes superior to those of her marital partner. Third, different fathers for different children promotes genetic diversity, not a trivial matter given that genetic diversity is the main advantage to sexual reproduction. These advantages suggest not only that women would wander in the face of marital difficulties, but also that a tendency for sexual exploration has a firm adaptive value.

LUCI PAUL

Staten Island

The writer is associate professor emerita of psychology, Temple University.

 

Sorry, Schumpeter, part 2 … John Gardner could have explained why writers cannot be turned into ‘authorpreneurs’

 

Imagine a writer straining to stay immersed in a narrative unfolding in her mind, set in the Milanese mid-winter -- because she has to keep showing up on social media to tweet about spring -- photograph by MIL22

Imagine a writer straining hard to stay immersed in a narrative unfolding in her mind — a scene set in the Milanese autumn — because she has to keep showing up on social media to tweet about spring
— Statue of the Italian Unification leader Garibaldi on horseback: photograph by MIL22

[ part 1 is here ]

Not at home, yet not exactly travelling, post-Gutenberg offers in this week’s entry a few more reasons for deep bafflement by the sanguine acceptance, in some surprising places, of the idea that writers who are retiring, introverted moles — a large proportion, if not most members of the breed — must transform themselves into booming glad-handers and performers on social networks and lecture podiums, or face failure and inevitable extinction. Quoting The Economist’s Schumpeter column again:

… Last month Simon & Schuster, a publisher, announced it would sell online video courses led by some of its authors. Things are more difficult for fiction writers: the organisers of conferences and other events pay good speaking fees to non-fiction writers with a bit of name recognition, but not to the average novelist.

The 20th-century American novelist John Gardner thought more comprehendingly and revealingly about the essence of what makes a writer, and how writers work, than almost anyone else who has pronounced on this subject. Read these two sets of extracts from his wise, beautiful paragraphs on ‘The Writer’s Nature’ and do, please, post a comment here if you can work out how any of the qualities he describes fit the conformist — anything-for-a-‘like’ — thinking and harmony on social platforms:

I

… As for the quality of strangeness, it is hard to know what can be said. There can be no great art, according to the poet Coleridge, without a certain strangeness. Most readers will recognize at once that he’s right. There come moments in every great novel when we are startled by some development that is at once perfectly fitting and completely unexpected … One has to be a little crazy to write a great novel. One must be capable of allowing the darkest, most ancient and shrewd parts of one’s being to take over the work from time to time.

… If I could explain what I mean here, I could probably do what I think no one has ever done successfully: reveal the roots of the creative process. The mystery is that even when one has experienced these moments, one finds, as mystics so often do, one cannot say, or even clearly remember, what happened. In some apparently inexplicable way the mind opens up; one steps out of the world. One knows one was away because of the words one finds on the page when one comes back, a scene or a few lines more vivid and curious than anything one is capable of writing – though there they stand. … All writing requires at least some measure of trancelike state: the writer must summon out of nonexistence some character, some scene, and he must focus that trancelike state in his mind …

II

… After verbal sensitivity, accuracy of eye, and a measure of the special intelligence of the storyteller, what the writer probably needs most is an almost demonic compulsiveness. No novelist is hurt (at least as an artist) by a natural inclination to go to extremes, driving himself too hard, dissatisfied with himself and the world around him and driven to improve on both if he can.

… By the nature of the work it is important that one way or another the novelist learn to depend primarily on himself, not others, that he love without too much need or dependency, and look inward (or toward some private standard) for approval and support. Often one finds novelists are people who learned in childhood to turn, in times of distress, to their own fantasies or to fiction, the voice of some comforting writer, not to human beings near at hand. This is not to deny that it also helps a novelist finds himself with one or more loved ones who believe in his gift and work.

John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, 1983

Sorry, Schumpeter, Ivan Doig could not have been a great literary mage and an ‘authorpreneur’

 

for Ivan Doig -- postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

for Ivan, who as a small boy tagged along after his father to ‘hire on haying crews’ in saloons
— postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

The Economist should have credited the Australian author Hazel Edwards for her neologism, ‘authorpreneurship,’ in her book published three years ago advising mere scribblers on the importance of turning themselves into scribbler-salesmen to save their skins in the post-Gutenberg transition. In its Schumpeter column on 14 February, the magazine made exactly the same point:

Publishers are increasingly focusing their efforts on a few titles they think will make a splash, neglecting less well-known authors and less popular themes …

Authors must court an expanding variety of “influencers”—people whose opinions can determine a book’s success. … a host of bloggers and social-media pundits …

The trouble with many budding writers is that they are not cut out for this new world. They are often introverts, preferring solitude to salesmanship …

Three years ago, this blog made the identical observation about the mismatch between temperament and the shallow new conventional wisdom about requiring writers to start leading an intensely social existence on digital media. Not, however, about ‘budding’ scribes, but some of the greatest of the great, including Beckett, Wittgenstein and Kafka — at any stage of their careers.

It is surely not beyond the wit of Schumpeter at The Economist and clever-clogs elsewhere, handing out the same prescription — that inwardly-oriented writers must hurry up and turn themselves inside-out — to devise alternatives to it. Alternatives that use the flexibility of digital technology and the net to let the mountain come to Mohammed. That is, adapt the medium for the idiosyncrasies of this category of user.

People leave footballers to be as dim as they wish, never mind how great a leap it would be for humanity if — for instance — David Beckham himself, and not a team of Japanese mechanical engineering experts, had been able to tell us that when he kicks the ball, he is ‘carry[ing] out a multi-variable physics calculation in his head to compute the exact kick trajectory required, and then execute it perfectly,’ or that his brain ‘must be computing some very detailed trajectory calculations in a few seconds purely from instinct and practice’.

Why shouldn’t writers be allowed the incapacities that, for so many, come with doing what they can do?

In its affectionate obituary ten days ago, the Great Falls Tribune — a Montana newspaper of record roughly a hundred miles from his birthplace in White Sulphur Springs, in ranch country — quoted an acquaintance of the literary mage Ivan Doig explaining that he ‘preferred “old school” technology over the instantaneous communications of the Internet age.’

It is impossible to imagine this sublimely modest man, who described himself as an introvert reared among the ‘lariat proletariat,’ writing as he did between tweets and Facebook updates. When not actually writing, in the years that shaped his unique style, he spent hours and days talking to his father and grandmother in variants of a Scots dialect that crossed the Atlantic with their ancestors — conversations that were crucial to bringing richly alive on the page the extraordinary existence they had led together, in his childhood.

What delighted him in 1977, when his breakout book earned him the critical acclaim he deserved, was not the flattering adjectives it collected but what should matter most to a writer — reviewers paying closest attention to his poetic, clear-eyed, all-seeing prose in reviews dominated by ‘long, miraculous patches of pure quotation from This House of Sky’.

This is how that book opens:

Soon after daybreak on my sixth birthday, my mother’s breathing wheezed more raggedly than ever, then quieted. And then stopped.

The remembering begins out of that new silence. Through the time since, I reach back along my father’s telling and around the urgings which would have me face and forget, to feel into these oldest shadows for the first sudden edge of it all.

It starts, early in the mountain summer, far back among the high spilling slopes of the Bridger Range of southwestern Montana. The single sound is hidden water — the south fork of Sixteenmile Creek diving down its willow-masked gulch. The stream flees north through this secret and peopleless land until, under the fir-dark flanks of Hatfield Mountain, a bow of meadow makes the riffled water curl wide to the west. At this interruption, a low rumple of the mountain knolls itself up watchfully, and atop it, like a sentry box over the frontier beneath the sly creek and the prodding meadow, perches our single-room herding cabin.

Alone here on our abrupt tiny shelf, the three of us eased through May and the first twenty-six days of June secure as hawks with wind under our wings. Once a week, the camptender from the home ranch would come the dozen miles of trail to us. The blaze-faced sorrel he rode and the packhorse haltered behind would plod in from the shadows which pooled in our valley under the shouldering slopes, until at last the rider stepped off from his stirrups into the cabin clearing and unknotted from the packsaddle the provision boxes, dark-weathered in their coverings of rawhide, which carried our groceries and mail …

… This post originally stopped at the end of the extract. Then this blog’s most essential reader complained, understandably, about feeling abruptly abandoned by the blogger. But who would interrupt magic, unfolding? Slipping away on tip-toe seemed right …