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Guess I'm a creationist now
May 20, 2005 2:51 PM   Subscribe

Guess I'm a creationist now. As a heterosexual Italian male, this issue has my full attention. Dr. Elisabeth A. Lloyd argues in the book, "The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution," has no evolutionary function at all. When I was a kid trying to learn how to play a musical instrument and get girls a wise old man told me women go out with trumpet players, but they go home with harmonica players. Perhaps I'll start a blues band in Polynesia. Friday fun perhaps?
posted by Smedleyman (69 comments total)

 
I thought that the female orgasm served to release certain fluids and adjust the balance of certain hormones in order to make it slightly more likely for a sperm carrying the "male chromozome" to fertilize a woman's egg.
posted by clevershark at 2:55 PM on May 20, 2005


I thought the female orgasm served to tighten the woman's vaginal grip on the man in order to prevent his escape as she severed his spinal cord and began consumption of his body in order to provide sustenance for the developing embryo.
posted by gurple at 3:01 PM on May 20, 2005


The female orgasm doesn't have to have a purpose in order for it to have evolved. It may simply be a byproduct of the male orgasm as a result of the shared plumbing that all humans have.
posted by Slothrup at 3:03 PM on May 20, 2005


Sorry to be juvenile, but there's a Dr. Alcock that's an expert on female orgasms? Yes, yes there is.
posted by mania at 3:04 PM on May 20, 2005


Hmm... turns out I'm just repeating what's in the actual article.

/me makes note to read links before commenting.
posted by Slothrup at 3:07 PM on May 20, 2005


women go out with trumpet players, but they go home with harmonica players

Meanwhile, a wise old man, who looked a lot like my father, told me to go out with flutists and home with cellists.
posted by Mr Bismarck at 3:12 PM on May 20, 2005


Who cares why we have 'em. So long as there's lots and lots, we don't care if what evolutionary purpose they serve. :)
posted by twiki at 3:12 PM on May 20, 2005


While a female orgasm may help a woman to conceive (the cervix dips down during the spasms, into the, ah, deposit of semen), the advantage is so slight that I can see Lloyd's argument.

But yeah, I don't care about the particulars, just as long as I get mine.
posted by Specklet at 3:14 PM on May 20, 2005


What is this female orgasm of which you discuss?
posted by AlexReynolds at 3:15 PM on May 20, 2005


Wouldn't the female orgasm have evolved in order to make females more willing to have sex with unshaven brutes who haven't bathed since the last storm? I mean, after evolution took away the periodic mating season and gave a brain to women, why would they want keep company with guys that behaved like neanderthals?
posted by nkyad at 3:17 PM on May 20, 2005


there's a Dr. Alcock that's an expert on female orgasms

That pales in comparison to Dr. Harry Beaver MD in Fairfax, Virginia. He is, of course, an OB/GYN specialist. I kid you not. He's pretty well-known in the area, although he seems to have retired recently.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 3:18 PM on May 20, 2005


I swear I read something about this during my adolescence when the most readily available books about sexuality were written in the late 60's and early 70's. I also remember relegating the concept to the "outdated science" bucked where "masturbation will make you crazy" lived. Does the scientist's claim sound familar to anyone else?
posted by VulcanMike at 3:24 PM on May 20, 2005


Geezus, is this so freaking hard?

Proto-human females who had stronger orgasms wanted more sex, thus, they bred more, passing that trait down to their offspring. This means that, unlike many species, the female is actively seeking sexual intercourse.

This is how you keep a species alive when they can think about the consequences. "Gee, if I screw this guy, I might get pregnant, and spend 18 years raising the kid." Without orgasms: "Fuck that." With orgasms: "Fuck me."
posted by eriko at 3:24 PM on May 20, 2005


It has to be more than just chemistry. I can't think of anything I'm more interested in. Perhaps it's cultural (as in the case of the Polynesians or with some of us hirsute, olive oil, Mediterranean types), but I don't see it as a side effect of culture. If I don't get a 'Battle of 1812' response (multiple, multiple orgasms) I feel I'm not virile or something. And I have gotten that response a lot, probably because it's far more important to me than my own pleasure.* So I'm thinking It has to be more than something akin to a vestigial trait like nipples.
The Bonobo use it for bonding. Given that humans are so close to them (and more matriarchal, at least in some cultures, than we think) I can't help but think it's tied in a very basic way to language and all the other trappings of civilization. Which Lloyd seems to be ignoring.
While I'm not espousing creationism of course, this does seem like one of those arguements that evolution can't fully cover.
Lloyd's assertion that women may feel inadequate or inferior or abnormal when they do not "naturally" achieve orgasm runs contrary to my experiance. Infants are well equipped to speak, but they have not formed language. In the same way I believe it is our inattention to this issue, our cultual bias, that is inhibiting what may not be a purely automatic biological mechanism, but what is certainly as "natural" a biological mechanism as language.


(*note, I'm not trying to brag or pick anyone up. I'm anonymous and very happily married. Also, we all have our focus & hobbies. Some men are good at golf. I prefer poor man's polo.)
posted by Smedleyman at 3:25 PM on May 20, 2005


Proto-human females who had stronger orgasms wanted more sex, thus, they bred more

The problem with that theory is that human females can only really breed around once per year, wheras most modern human females that I've met want sex more often than that. Having such a long gestation period suggests that caution--picking the right mate with the right genes who is likely to stick around to raise the kids--would be a smarter move than random sex. In other words, a strong sex drive encouraging frequent sex (thus, uncertainty about the father and resulting decrease in the liklihood of the guy sticking around) in females might be counter-adaptive in primitive societies.

If you only have to mate once per year then you don't need a very strong sex drive, nor a big reward for doing it.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 3:30 PM on May 20, 2005


note to self:municipal storm sewer post = 11 comments in 3 days, female orgasm post = 14 comments in 30 minutes.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:33 PM on May 20, 2005


Most women don't have orgasms from intercourse alone. So it's not nearly enough to say "women have orgasms so that they'll want more sex and have more babies"--masturbation is a quicker way to an orgasm, for many women, then anything that'll result in a baby.
posted by Jeanne at 3:35 PM on May 20, 2005


Proto-human females who had stronger orgasms wanted more sex, thus, they bred more, passing that trait down to their offspring. This means that, unlike many species, the female is actively seeking sexual intercourse.

This is all just armchair evolutionary biology, but I don't think it necessarily follows that more babies = evolutionary advantage. After all, you have to have the resources to raise the babies you do have -- breeding indiscriminately might actually result in weaker offspring.
posted by insideout at 3:40 PM on May 20, 2005


Saw this yesterday. Lloyd's heart is in the right place - biology's current obsession with proving every single frickin' thing humans have or do is evolutionary determined is misguided, inaccurate, and occasionally harmful - but she is entirely wrong on the particular subject she has picked, for, at the very least, the reasons brought up by eriko.

thedevildancedlightly, the assumption that humans only need to mate once a year implies that every single act of unprotected sex results in pregnancy. This is actually far from the case. For many people, it takes a lot of tries, in which case it really helps to be willing to make a lot of tries.
posted by kyrademon at 3:41 PM on May 20, 2005


Wait a second, women can have orgasms too? You mean my wife wasn't making that up to get me to do disgusting things to her?

Damn, I've gotta stop and get some flowers on the way home.
posted by fenriq at 3:44 PM on May 20, 2005


Must ... not ... make ... schoolyard ... joke ... about ... fenriq's ... wife ...
posted by kyrademon at 3:50 PM on May 20, 2005


I watched a science documentary a few years back that showed the uterus being 'dipped' into the pool of semen at the back of the vagina during the female's orgasm. It was pretty clear that it worked very well to pick up semen and get the sperm a little closer to the ready-to-be-fertilized egg.
posted by Kickstart70 at 3:55 PM on May 20, 2005


Kickstart70, I saw the same thing, but feel compelled to tell you it was the cervix, not the uterus.
posted by Specklet at 3:59 PM on May 20, 2005


No evolutionary purpose? Learn how to make it happen reliably and I guarantee you I'm more likely to have your kids than those of someone who can't ;)
posted by fshgrl at 4:16 PM on May 20, 2005


kyrademon, thanks, she was the bully!

I was sorely tempted to do the

This orgasm....it vibrates?

but figured its been done to death by now and I don't really care for zombie cliches.
posted by fenriq at 4:18 PM on May 20, 2005


If I don't get a 'Battle of 1812' response (multiple, multiple orgasms) I feel I'm not virile or something. And I have gotten that response a lot, probably because it's far more important to me than my own pleasure.

Busy this weekend, Mr. Smedleyman? *waggles eyebrows alluringly*
posted by jokeefe at 4:37 PM on May 20, 2005


And speaking of harmonicats on the make. . . .

Concerning "Magic Dick," harpist extraordinaire of the 1970s-era J. Geils Blues band, Muddy Waters pithily said:

"If that man eat pussy like he play harmonica, he a motherfucker."
posted by rdone at 4:44 PM on May 20, 2005


Possibilities, as presented by Robert Sapolsky (old lecture notes, sorry, no link):

* capacitation - change of the vaginal environment, pH, facilitation of sperm movement
* remaining prone following orgasm (tiring) - desire to lie down, helps sperm defeat gravity
* reinforcement - increased pleasurability
* orgasm causes release of oxytocin, which encourages pair-bonding (in both men and women)

Evolutionarily speaking, women wouldn't be looking for as much sex as possible, as thedevildancedlightly mentioned. They'd be looking for a partner to help care for a child.

Oxytocin is a nice, cuddly step in that direction.
posted by sellout at 4:54 PM on May 20, 2005


Well...my wife was a cellist, but if your saying you're interested maybe we can work something...
BONG!
*Frying pan hits head*

Mfffrrs sfa fds fmmnngrll. Mh whff wrssdome.
*wipes blood from eyes, applies icepack to knot on skull*

Apparently my wife is home. I'll be pretty busy mowing the lawn this weekend (metaphorically & actually)
posted by Smedleyman at 5:00 PM on May 20, 2005


I find it quite silly that some feminists assume that this theory is political.
posted by Citizen Premier at 5:08 PM on May 20, 2005


I find it quite silly that some feminists assume that this theory is political
It could have political implications Citizen Premier. Sillier things have been used to justify odd behavior.

I'm just glad we could discuss this like adults.
Now if you'll excuse me the ice cream man is coming down my street and I have to go.
posted by Smedleyman at 5:18 PM on May 20, 2005


Now if you'll excuse me the ice cream man is coming down my street and I have to go.

Well, they say practice makes perfect.
posted by Ryvar at 5:31 PM on May 20, 2005


The human female is the only mammal capable of orgasm, but my nuetered male cat has multiple nipples, and I'm a man with three of them. Strange, isn't it?
posted by longsleeves at 5:33 PM on May 20, 2005


http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a1_093.html
posted by longsleeves at 5:34 PM on May 20, 2005


I hate it when Darwinian principles is used to try and explain human behaviour.
posted by docgonzo at 5:38 PM on May 20, 2005


Nowhere in the theory of evolution does it say that every last characteristic of a particular species must somehow be necessary for its survival, or even advantageous.
posted by epimorph at 5:45 PM on May 20, 2005


It could have political implications Citizen Premier.

Bad line out of a Tom Clancy novel, right?
posted by eriko at 5:46 PM on May 20, 2005


The human female is the only mammal capable of orgasm

Really?
posted by fshgrl at 6:47 PM on May 20, 2005


epimorph writes "Nowhere in the theory of evolution does it say that every last characteristic of a particular species must somehow be necessary for its survival, or even advantageous."


The advantageous part is obvious - the classical example being the male peacock's tail, which probably resulted from extreme sexual selection by the females, leading to an "arms race" among males for the largest tail. The size of the tail is clearly disadvantageous from the individual point of view, hindering the male's capacity to flee predators. But the female preference for larger tails ensure that the males with largest tails will probably pass their genes along (even though they may have shorter lives in the wild).

Now I would be hard pressed to find a characteristic in any particular species that was not (at least minimally) selected for survival at some point in time. Care to supply examples of what you thinking about?
posted by nkyad at 7:13 PM on May 20, 2005


Learn how to make it happen reliably and I guarantee you I'm more likely to have your kids than those of someone who can't ;)

Joke all you want, but that makes sense to me. Heck, when my parents tried to teach me to be a good provider, I knew well enough to add "orgasm" between those last two words...

(my wife also posts on this board, so I anticipate a gonad-crushing reply)
posted by davejay at 7:14 PM on May 20, 2005


eriko: Proto-human females who had stronger orgasms wanted more sex, thus, they bred more, passing that trait down to their offspring. This means that, unlike many species, the female is actively seeking sexual intercourse.

However, Lloyd brings up a pretty potent criticism of the desire hypothesis: it does not match the realities of sexual intercourse for the many, perhaps even a majority of women who do not have orgasms from intercourse alone. If female orgasm was so strongly linked to female sexual desire, then one would expect for it to be universal during intercourse. The same arguments also apply to "sperm dipping," oxytocin, and capacitation.

In addition, it does not appear that women who infrequently or don't orgasm during intercourse are significantly less fertile than women who do. Anorgasmic women have sex, and enjoy sex as well. This torpedoes the fertility and the desire arguments.

One of the strengths of Lloyd's hypothesis is that it provides a pretty strong reason for why both male and female orgasm involve the same structures acting in the same way modified by fetal sexual dimorphism. There is nothing in the "sperm dipping" or capacitation hypothesis to explain the role of the clitoris in triggering orgasm in most women. If orgasm is so strongly linked to fertility, then why not increase the sensitivity of the inside of the vagina, rather than use the same structures, nerves and chemicals as male orgasm?

nkyad: Now I would be hard pressed to find a characteristic in any particular species that was not (at least minimally) selected for survival at some point in time. Care to supply examples of what you thinking about?

Well, you just provided one. Traits that are sexually selected may not always be selected by survival.

But as a good example, why do most male mammals have nipples? My nipples are fun to play with, but I think it would be farfetched to argue that my nipples are sensitive and trigger the release of oxytocin because my male ancestors were more fertile as a result. The simplest explanation is that my female ancestors were more fertile having nipples, and the pathways for twin sets of nerve-loaded pectoral erectile tissue were established in the 8 weeks before the androgen surge kicked in and hurtled me down the developmental path that gave me a glans rather than a clitoris.

Almost everybody gets a bunch of erectile tissue, a lot of nerve endings, two gonads, some miscelaneous ductwork, and a rythmic nervous contractile reflex a few weeks before genetic management flips the hormonal switch that will turn us into males or females. So the question is not, "why do women have orgasms if they don't ejaculate?" The question is, "why wouldn't they given the similarities between male and female bits?"
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:09 PM on May 20, 2005


To add to earlier thoughts. Even if (in theory) a woman would only need to get pregnant once a year, or there about, if she is a good provider as well because she enjoys sex, the male is more likely to stay around and help protect/raise the kids.

On Preview. Is it possible that the female orgasm is evolving out as it isn't as important for humans that form a society and have other means to keep them together?
posted by [insert clever name here] at 8:17 PM on May 20, 2005


As for unnecessary traits "evolving" one thing to keep in mind, if a characteristic shows up in a species that doesn't hinder its survival, it can well stay in the gene pool even if it doesn't necessarily provide any advantage either.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 8:22 PM on May 20, 2005


Quite seriously. One of the more brilliant aspects of Evolution is not that it explains why species are so perfectly adapted to their environment, but it explains why many times species are less than perfectly adapted to the environment in which they live. Intelligent design can't explain quirks of development like nipples on men, or ancestral quirks like whales with hipbones.

It's a mistake to assume that every biological feature in a species is the result of a specific evolutionary adaptation.

Ohh, another problem I've always had with the "sperm dipping" hypothesis. If my female partners are going to have an orgasm during intercourse, it almost always happens before I ejaculate, not after. After 15 years of sexual activity, with enough partners to have a reasonable anecdotal sample, the timing of female orgasm and ejaculation is completely wrong for it to work.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:35 PM on May 20, 2005


Hmm. You seem to be focused in the individual, not the species. Both the peacock's tail and the man nipples are a result of a environmental pressure on the species. Somehow, the woman's nipples became a selected characteristic. If selecting for this characteristic meant men would end up with useless nipples, so be it, natural selection couldn't care less (this last sentence shouldn't be read as if Evolution somehow chooses to select something - it doesn't).

As for unnecessary traits "evolving" one thing to keep in mind, if a characteristic shows up in a species that doesn't hinder its survival, it can well stay in the gene pool even if it doesn't necessarily provide any advantage either.

I can agree some minimal and irrelevant characteristics fall on this category. They must be minimal or otherwise they would suffer selection pressure. They must be irrelevant, for the same reason. But I can't really see something major like an organ or a sexual behavior pattern appearing out of nowhere and being kept around "just for the fun of it".
posted by nkyad at 8:48 PM on May 20, 2005


Bah! First we give them orgasms, then it's what they want to hear on the stereo, then it's us making them a meal or two, then they want the keys to the Geo, and then a diamond ring and a wedding, then it's control of the checkbook to put my finances in order...

It's a slippery slope, fellas.
posted by Balisong at 9:11 PM on May 20, 2005


Oh, this might be interesting fuel for the debate:

An exchange between Pinker and Gould that mentions an earlier iteration of the argument regarding female orgasm. The more I read Pinker, the less I like of him overall, so I would suggest scrolling down to Gould's response. Lloyd's vision of female orgasm would fit well with Gould's idea of spandrels.

nkyad: Hmm. You seem to be focused in the individual, not the species.

Of course. Because the primary driving force of evolution is whether a trait enables the individual to reproduce. Natural selection has nothing, nada, nichts to do with survival of the species, only with the ability of individuals (and in some ways of viewing the theory, just genes) to reproduce themselves. (Hence Dawkin's phrase, "selfish genes.")

Both the peacock's tail and the man nipples are a result of a environmental pressure on the species.

No, no, no, no, no, NO!

Get species completely out of your head in this discussion. It will just mislead you and you won't understand what the heck is being said here.

Somehow, the woman's nipples became a selected characteristic. If selecting for this characteristic meant men would end up with useless nipples, so be it, natural selection couldn't care less (this last sentence shouldn't be read as if Evolution somehow chooses to select something - it doesn't).

Begging the question in a big way. Of course natural selection resulted in both men's nipples and peacock's tails. That's not what the debate is about, the question is, what specific mechanisms are at work here.

One such specific mechanism is sexual selection. The peacock does not have a long tail because it enhances his "survival." He has a long tail because it enhances his access to peahens, leaving lots of peachicks with his long-tailed genes.

And then, some features are "non-adaptive." By themselves, they do not enhance or hinder reproductive success, but they are required by other developmental mandates. For example, the webbing between our fingers and toes is an artefact of the developmental process by which we get separated fingers. Our visible belly button exists only because it was needed at a specific stage of development, and yet, nobody points to "innies" and claims that it is an evolved trait for collecting lint and sweat. Likewise, men have "useless" nipples because human fetuses have a complete anatomy before sexual dimorphism.

But I can't really see something major like an organ or a sexual behavior pattern appearing out of nowhere and being kept around "just for the fun of it".

Well, that is Lloyd's point. Neither the organs or the sexual behavior pattern "appeared out of nowhere." Both male and female fetuses develop exactly the same organs up to 8 weeks. At this point, both men and women have exactly the same organs, connected by exactly the same nerves. Penis/clitoris, it's exactly the same thing. You tickle it for long enough, and you get rythmic contractions of the pelvic floor, an intense feeling of pleasure, and a flood of the same hormones.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:57 PM on May 20, 2005


but feel compelled to tell you it was the cervix, not the uterus.

Because I can't ever pass up an opportunity to be pedantic in reference to female reproductive organs, I feel compelled to say that the cervix is part of the uterus.

Is it possible that the female orgasm is evolving out as it isn't as important for humans

Bite. Your. Tongue.
posted by jesourie at 10:20 PM on May 20, 2005


Is it possible that the female orgasm is evolving out ...Traits don't "evolve out." They are selected or not selected. If enough males eschewed orgasmic females for some reason, or if orgasms were somehow maladaptive, then it would "evolve out" in the sense that the trait would become less likely to get passed on (assuming that inability to have orgasm is inherited). Otherwise, like male nipples, they're here to stay.
posted by QuietDesperation at 10:56 PM on May 20, 2005


kirkjobsluder, I'm usually very with you on the evo-bio threads, but you're making statements here that just aren't right.

"... Lloyd brings up a pretty potent criticism of the desire hypothesis ... If female orgasm was so strongly linked to female sexual desire, then one would expect for it to be universal ..."

Well, no. One wouldn't. Why would you?

Just because a trait is evolutionarily linked to survival or reproduction, even a strong link, there is no reason whatsoever to expect it to be universal. Expecting it to be so is a vast oversimplification of the way evolution works.

Let's take good eyesight. Obviously, good eyesight improves ones chances of surviving long enough to bear offspring. That doesn't mean one should expect everyone to have good eyesight. In the real world, some people have good eyesight, some people have poor eyesight, and some people are blind.

Other traits can offset the deficit. Cultural set-ups or technological advances can make good eyesight less essential for survival. Perhaps it's only a minor advantage instead of a major one. Some people's eyesight may change over time, meaning they've already reproduced by the time it became a problem for them. Etc., etc. NONE of that means that good eyesight is not an evolutionary trait. The same can be said of pretty much any survival- or reproduction-enhancing trait you can think of.

Arguing that the female orgasm is not an evolutionary trait because it is not universal makes no sense whatsoever.

In fact, I consider that point of view to be even somewhat a dangerous one. It's a short leap from there (assuming something must be universal to be an evolutionary trait) to the unfortunate excesses of oversimplified biological determinism (assuming all evolutionary traits are universal) which declare that all women are nurturers and all men must cheat, etc.
posted by kyrademon at 11:49 PM on May 20, 2005


That doesn't mean one should expect everyone to have good eyesight. In the real world, some people have good eyesight, some people have poor eyesight, and some people are blind.

It seems that there are both environmental factors affecting the decline of eyesight in the world (theories about nightligths in kids rooms, etc) as well as a general lack of evolutionary pressure right now. For the last 200+ years there has been very little evolutionary pressure, and for the last 2000+ it has been greatly weakened. Basically anybody can reproduce now, and 99% of kids generally survive to reproduction. It used to be a lot lower (I don't have stats handy, but 1-in-5 seems about right for middle ages, probably less before then) and kids with bad eyesight, etc would be selected against.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 12:36 AM on May 21, 2005


kyrademon: You are right, "universal" is a poor choice of words. Good catch on that.

Lets step back a bit. Lloyd, Symons and Gould are arguing against a specific set of evolutionary hypothesis. That is, orgasm plays a specific role in regards to sexual intercourse. By comparison with another trait about 90% of modern Europeans are lactose tolerant. But with female orgasm, which is claimed to originate with "proto-humans", less than 50% of women regularly orgasm during intercourse. 90% may be compatible with an early homonid origin but 50% is not. This is a major challenge to the alternative theories.

And there is an easy test for this. Do women who frequently orgasm during intercourse have more offspring than women who don't? If Lloyd is correct (can't tell from the article) and they do not, then we must reject the theory that natural selection favors orgasm during intercourse.

Note that Lloyd, Symons and Gould do not claim that evolution did NOT affect female orgasm. However, given that female orgasm more frequently happens from activities other than intercourse, it seems to be a safe bet to look in other directions for a rationale. And looking at the fact that male and female orgasm appear to be variations of the same reflex involving organs with the same fetal origins seems to be a more potent explanation than "sperm dipping" that comes too early in the sexual act and "desire" that ignores that a majority of women don't fly to the moon on intercourse alone.

In fact, I consider that point of view to be even somewhat a dangerous one. It's a short leap from there (assuming something must be universal to be an evolutionary trait) to the unfortunate excesses of oversimplified biological determinism (assuming all evolutionary traits are universal) which declare that all women are nurturers and all men must cheat, etc.

Well, I agree "universal" is a poor choice of words. However, we do have a good idea for how late a trait evolved by looking at how ubiquitous it is. The fact that >99% of humans can understand language grammar to some degree is a pretty strong rationale for it's early origins. 50% without any obvious geographic distribution is really hard to explain in evolutionary terms. I can't think of how such a distribution came about unless it's either not genetic at all (in which case, evolution doesn't matter) or almost neutral having no effect on reproductive fitness (in which case, evolution didn't matter.) On second thought, even genetic drift (the same phenomena that permits us to track humanity back to a handful of common ancestors) would whittle down a 50% distribution.

So really, the distribution of orgasm during intercourse should really punch a hole in the idea that female orgasm evolved as a mechanism to encourage or aid intercourse.

I also don't see how the observation that some things are ubiquitious in humans has squat to do with biological determinism. We all have hemoglobin for example. And I would think that a theory suggesting that female orgasm is a happy accident of development, would be less deterministic than a theory in search of a rationalization for Freud's view of the issue.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:26 AM on May 21, 2005


"I also don't see how the observation that some things are ubiquitious in humans has squat to do with biological determinism."

It doesn't. Arguing that survival traits must be ubiquitous does. This isn't something you said, but I saw your argument leading down the garden path to it. You've since corrected the word "universal" in your line of reasoning, so it doesn't anymore. Thanks for that.

However, moving on - I think your statement that "50% of women regularly orgasm during intercourse" is misleading. In fact, the statistics in the article state that about 10% of women never orgasm during intercourse, and the rest lie along a distribution (20% rarely, 45% sometimes, 25% almost always.) To me, that means 90% of women experience orgasm during intercourse - comparable with your lactose tolerance early hominid origin rate. True, for part of the spectrum it doesn't happen all the time, but if we're positing that part of the drive is the chance of orgasm with a partner, it doesn't need to. It just needs to happen often enough to be worthwhile. Not to mention that the article makes no mention of whether or not these studies track changes over time, only touches on whether the differences are at all related partner choice, which would be an evolutionary function (and it indicates they are - the objection raised there was that the study in question wasn't broad enough, not that it was inaccurate), and a host of other matters which make me wonder if even the 90% statistic is deceptively low.

And note, incidentally, that I said "with a partner". I'm a little baffled by your statement that "given that female orgasm more frequently happens from activities other than intercourse, it seems to be a safe bet to look in other directions for a rationale". Why? Male intercourse does, too, and very few would argue it plays no role in the reproductive process. True, its role is more obvious, but if there was no difference between doing it alone and doing it with a partner, many wouldn't bother to date - finding a sex partner is a lot more bother than jacking off. The realities of sexual relationships make pretty clear that people find a difference between an orgasm alone and an orgasm with a partner, and that many find the latter worth pursuing ... so why would the fact that it can be achieved in other ways as well indicate we should look for a function and origin unrelated to a role in sexual intercourse? That makes no sense to me.

Look, I'm neither a Freudian nor a slave to doctrinaire evolutionary biological theory, but when you whittle it down what this is saying is that the female orgasm plays no important role in the human sexual (and therefore reproductive) dynamic. Are you kidding me? Really, seriously, think about that for a moment.

It's an absurd argument. It's essentially: some women don't have orgasms, but still have sex. Therefore, we can conclude that if no women had orgasms, women would still have sex. Therefore the female orgasm has no function in sex, and is a happy accident. The first statement is clearly true, the second probable, and the third ludicrous.

Parallels, and I know they're inexact: some people are color-blind, but still draw. Therefore, we can conclude that if everyone was color-blind, people would still draw. Therefore, color vision has no function in art. Some people can't throw well, but still play baseball. Therefore, we can conclude that if everyone threw poorly, some version of baseball might still exist. Therefore, throwing well has no function in baseball. You see what I'm trying to get at, here?

The comparisons to the male nipple just don't hold up. Even comparisons to things which do seem likely to be happy accidents rather than evolutionary traits, such as the placement of the male prostate gland bringing pleasure during anal sex, don't hold up. The desire to have an orgasm during sex with a partner is a pretty strong and basic drive among women, and trying to assert that this really has nothing to do with sex is pretty far-fetched.
posted by kyrademon at 3:01 AM on May 21, 2005


(Oh, and a coupla quick ways it could affect things off the top of my head:

1) Women are somewhat more likely to select as a longer-term mate, and therefore more likely to bear children with, someone who can give them lots of good orgasms. Strange but true!

2) Women are more likely to have orgasms with men they find arousing. Cool fact!

3) A whole trunkful of studies have indicated that many traits which are arousing are also survivability and reproductive traits, meaning

4) Orgasms are one method women use to select men with better genes, thus strengthening the species through individual choice. It works, and it's fun!

Or how about this other one, perhaps a little weaker, but not mutually inconclusive with the first:

1) Long-term relationships, as a result of partners learning each others' quirks and preferences, can result in more and better orgasms for the women. Really, it happens.

2) Women like orgasms. Honest. Therefore,

3) Orgasms are one reason women encourage their partners to form long-term relationships with them, with the attendent benefits for offspring survival. Yay!

Both of these possibilities actually *hinge* on the idea that women do not have orgasms at every single sexual encounter, rather than being invalidated by it.)
posted by kyrademon at 3:27 AM on May 21, 2005


For the last 200+ years there has been very little evolutionary pressure, and for the last 2000+ it has been greatly weakened.

no, i'd say that what the evolutionary pressure is selecting for has changed ... instead of selecting for getting along in a primitive world, we're selecting to get along in a civilized one
posted by pyramid termite at 5:55 AM on May 21, 2005


nkyad said: Now I would be hard pressed to find a characteristic in any particular species that was not (at least minimally) selected for survival at some point in time.

What about masturbation? Evolutionary argument in favour of masturbation: teaches us the joys of orgasm, leading us to desire intercourse. Evolutionary argument against masturbation: teaches us that we can have orgasm without intercourse, reducing the amount we have intercourse.

Or: why do so many people pick scabs? I can't imagine that was ever selected for survival. Why do we enjoy popping bubble wrap? Is that from back in the days when our primary source of food was found inside little plastic globes, and we developed an attraction to the sound of them opening?

Seriously, though, I think it's a big mistake to believe every behavioral characteristic of every species exists due to selection. Biology is so fabulously complex - sometimes things just end up a certain way.
posted by louigi at 7:28 AM on May 21, 2005


On reading further: of the things I've mentioned, masturbation seems like the only one of my examples that fits your criterion of being "important" in some sense. But I think it holds up as an example of something that significantly changes how we approach sexual reproduction, yet probably wasn't selected for. Once humans ended up with the ability to orgasm, we were just clever enough to figure out masturbation (as many other primates have been).
posted by louigi at 7:49 AM on May 21, 2005


kyrademon: The desire to have an orgasm during sex with a partner is a pretty strong and basic drive among women, and trying to assert that this really has nothing to do with sex is pretty far-fetched.

I'm a bit frustrated here, because it seems that you are arguing against something that has not been claimed. No one is claiming that female orgasm has nothing to do with sex or with evolution. You make some pretty powerful points that female orgasm shapes mate selection. However, none of your points explains how female orgasm evolved in humans to start with. You make some really great points, but they all assume that orgasm is here to start with. Once orgasm got here, it certainly had a profound effect on human evolution.

The basic question that Symons and Lloyd are addressing, is why do women have orgasms at all? Orgasm in humans is hugely complex, involving organs, nerves and brain structures specialized for the purpose. Much of this specialization is shared between males and females. To me, this seems like a pretty darn important fact. In fact, to me this seems to be the strongest point of of the Symons-Lloyd theory. Evolution tends to work by adapting rather than creating de novo, the idea that female orgasm evolved as an adaptation of male ejaculation explains the shared anatomy and chemestry of both. It is also a more powerful theory theory than "sperm dipping" or "desire for intercourse" because it suggests that other aspects of human sexuality are shared between males and females.

You make a claim that 90% of women have orgasms during intercourse "often enough to be worthwhile" however this is with the caveat of with additional clitoral stimulation. The theories that link orgasm to intercourse fail to explain why this should be the case.

"Selecting mates for fitness" argument is rather weak because there are dozens of factors that go into mate selection. (And wouldn't it make sense to do this after risking conception?)

Going back to this: The desire to have an orgasm during sex with a partner is a pretty strong and basic drive among women, and trying to assert that this really has nothing to do with sex is pretty far-fetched.

Well, this seems to be a circular argument. Women evolved orgasm because they wanted orgasm?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:48 AM on May 21, 2005


Well, I'm a bit frustrated, too. You now seem to be arguing something which isn't remotely related to what is stated in the article.

I have no problem with the idea that the female orgasm may have *orginated* as a happy accident of parallel structure, which was gradually selected for and incorporated until it became an important part of human mate selection processes and reproductive practices. But that's not a particularly novel or interesting statement - that's how evolution simply works. Random mutation proves to be some kind of slight advantage for survival or reproduction, and therefore is selected for over time, gradually refining itself as more useful mutated variations on it are selected for further. Fine. No creature has *ever* yet said, hmmm, an eye will be useful - I think I'll evolve one from scratch!

But that's not what the article is claiming at all. Some quotes: "The female orgasm, she argues ... has no evolutionary function at all ... That theory holds that female orgasms are simply artifacts - a byproduct of the parallel development ..."

Not that they originated that way, but that this is still the case. And that strikes me as, well, a pretty unlikely idea.

You say, "once orgasm got here, it certainly had a profound effect on human evolution ... The basic question that Symons and Lloyd are addressing, is why do women have orgasms at all?"

No, it isn't. That's not what they're claiming, and I think you've misunderstood them if that's what you believe. They are claiming it still serves no evolutionary function, and never did. Your point, that the female orgasm may have been *adapted* from a product of parallel structure, sounds perfectly reasonable to me, but, well, so what?

A few other points:

"90% of women have orgasms during intercourse ... however this is with the caveat of with additional clitoral stimulation"

I haven't bothered to address this much because, in all honesty, I don't even understand why it's an objection. Why is this a roadblock to the idea that orgasm is linked to intercourse? As I've stated, there is a strong desire to achieve orgasm during intercourse. It doesn't matter if, while that's going on, they need to be digitally stimulated, whacked with a paddle, or smelling a shoe, as long as a drive exists to figure out ways to make that happen during intercourse. And I think there's a pretty strong case that this is true.

"Well, this seems to be a circular argument. Women evolved orgasm because they wanted orgasm?"

Well, I think I see what you're saying here, assuming we're talking about selection effects rather than origins (which neither I nor the article were discussing) - selection effects are usually determined by the mate - large muscles, big breasts, etc. - not the person with the trait in question. If you want to go down that route, I could put together an argument about male preference for partners who orgasm during sex pretty easily. In fact, look to this very thread for some evidence.

"'Selecting mates for fitness' argument is rather weak because there are dozens of factors that go into mate selection."

Not at all. Why can't it be one factor among many? There are plenty of redundancies and backups built into the human body.

"(And wouldn't it make sense to do this after risking conception?)"

Note that I specifically was talking about the formation of long-term relationships, which increases chance of child-birth and child survival. So, yeah, no reason the whole thing can't occur after sex, and even procreation, has happened with a bunch of other people. Remember, it doesn't have to be the sole factor, just one factor among many that gives a bit of an advantage.
posted by kyrademon at 12:16 PM on May 21, 2005


Well, here's a thought.

Having sex with a woman is a lot more fun if she has an orgasm while you're doing it.

So rather then making the woman want sex more (which it does) it also makes men want her more. The ability to orgasm is just one more trait that makes women attractive to men.
posted by delmoi at 1:44 PM on May 21, 2005


Once humans ended up with the ability to orgasm, we were just clever enough to figure out masturbation (as many other primates have been).

Lots of other animals masturbate, not just primates: horses, dogs, cats, cattle.
posted by fshgrl at 5:15 PM on May 21, 2005


kyrademon: Well, it seems the source of the conflict appears to be differences of interpretation about Lloyd's thesis. I don't think the SF Gate article is a good review, primarily because I've read a better review of this in New Scientist. A large chunk of the SF Gate review seems to be cribbed from a NYT review. The summary of her book from from Harvard University Press seems to make it clear that she's not talking about origins, and the exerpt makes it clear as well. She is not discussing effects, she's discussing origins. Specifically, she's talking about why human women have orgasms, while most female mammals do not.

To me, in seems that you don't understand her argument, in part because you are trusting a hacked-down version of a review from a reporter trying to translate a technical book written by and for biologists down to a 4th grade reading level, and partly through creative use of ellipsis.

Her introduction lays down her claim clearly. Something has an adaptive evolutionary function if and only if you can show that it results in an increase in reproductive fitness. Most of the existing theories have failed to provide evidence that orgasm results in an increase in reproductive fitness, or have provided only flawed evidence.

We can mentally masturbate about game scenarios until the cows come home, but without hard evidence to support the claim that more orgasms lead to more babies, we can't claim an evolutionary function.

It doesn't matter if, while that's going on, they need to be digitally stimulated, whacked with a paddle, or smelling a shoe, as long as a drive exists to figure out ways to make that happen during intercourse.

A lot of people have a strong desire to be whacked with a paddle during sex. Does this mean that the capability to whack each other with a paddle evolved to increase reproductive fitness?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:05 PM on May 21, 2005


demoi: So rather then making the woman want sex more (which it does) it also makes men want her more. The ability to orgasm is just one more trait that makes women attractive to men.

Certainly. However in order to show this is the case, you need to caugh up hard evidence that this leads to more offspring. Lloyd's primary claim (and here, I will admit to misunderstanding her, but the SF Gate review does also) is that in spite of a lot of theories and research being kicked around, no one has supported the claim that orgasm->more babies.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:08 PM on May 21, 2005


KirkJobSluder -

It's entirely possible I've completely misunderstood what she was saying. I was going by the article. My ellipses were not intended to be creative, just to save space. Sorry if they seemed so.

But -

If 90% of the world's population across all known cultures and throughout recorded history demonstrated a strong desire to be whacked with a paddle during copulation, then I would indeed think it far more likely to be or have at one point been a mechanism of increasing reproductive fitness than not.

And I do want to take issue with -

"Something has an adaptive evolutionary function if and only if you can show that it results in an increase in reproductive fitness"

Not really. Something has an adaptive evolutionary function if and only if it results in an increase in reproductive fitness. Whether or not you can show that it does is completely irrelevant. (Also, an increase in reproductive fitness does not necessarily mean more babies, per se. If you only have one baby, and it eats all the other babies except for its mate, that's an increase in reproductive fitness - your genes win.)

But that's kind of beside the point. I look at the research and see a ton of stuff indicating that more orgasms leads to an increase in reproductive fitness. The objections that were raised to the research - at least in the article - seems fuzzy, nondemonstrative, and at times nonsensical.

But I will happily admit that, since I'm going by the linked article, I may simply have no idea what she's actually trying to get at.
posted by kyrademon at 7:41 PM on May 21, 2005


kyrademon: Not really. Something has an adaptive evolutionary function if and only if it results in an increase in reproductive fitness. Whether or not you can show that it does is completely irrelevant.

Well, that is the problem. If I make a claim without evidence to support it, then that really isn't good science. Lloyd's argument (which I'm more and more interested in reading) is that most of the claims have either no evidence, or flawed evidence. As an example listed in the introduction, "sperm retention" is supported by a sample size of one.

Also, an increase in reproductive fitness does not necessarily mean more babies, per se. If you only have one baby, and it eats all the other babies except for its mate, that's an increase in reproductive fitness - your genes win.

True, but when we are talking about orgasms, the specific hypothesis is that orgasms result in more offspring. Certainly, this could be the case. But I have by doubts.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:57 PM on May 21, 2005


Fair enough. But one of the problems is, on evolutionary time scales, minor differences can have huge results. If even, say, one percent of men prefer women who have more orgasms during sex, and the rest don't care (that is to say, nothing is selecting against it), than that's going to become a trait that's adapted for and will spread to a huge extent. (This is looking at it as a 'peacock's tail' or 'large breast' phenomenom, rather than from the sperm retention standpoint, which you'll notice I've never particularly argued for - although I do think that my arguments that women who have a good orgasm mechanism will be driven to exhibit social behavior resulting in more surviving offspring are valid.)

So anyway, determining whether or not it's being adapted for can be tricky, if it turns out to be relatively minor on small time scales. But, even so, I think some of the evidence Lloyd argues against is not so much flawed as incomplete. I'd be happy to see all of these things tested further, and I'll happily eat my words if my predictions (that orgasms are selected for, and for several good reasons) prove wrong. Heck, I'll volunteer to be a test subject for any of those studies, such is my dedication to science.

Honestly, I think the fact that most female mammals don't have orgasms is actually more evidence for my point. If it's a fairly lately introduced trait among primates, why has it spread so far throughout the population if it hasn't been selected for?
posted by kyrademon at 8:11 PM on May 21, 2005


Just a side note: Would you all please stop confusing evolution with natural or sexual selection? One is a process, the other two are mechanisms that we use to explain how and why the process takes place. If you are discussing the process, say "evolution". If you're discussing details about the mechanism, say "selection". I know simply saying evolution for both is a fairly common way to talk about things, but if we're citing Sepolsky and Gould I expect better from the lot of you.

Thanks.

Ok. Back to the orgasms. Please, continue.
posted by caution live frogs at 8:25 PM on May 21, 2005


I apologize. I plead that I am merely an interested amateur, not an expert.

I will now return to my regularly scheduled orgasm.
posted by kyrademon at 8:32 PM on May 21, 2005


kyrademon's post a few above makes perfect sense to me. This is all good and true, and the most sensible contribution here so far, which is saying something because the standard is high as usual on MeFi.

However, my general view is that the "it's all culture" and the "it's all genetics" gangs both need to accept a middle view. Some things are one (preference for a four-piece rock'n'roll band) and some another (having red hair). Some are both (musical ability). I now await someone telling me that classic rock has survival value.
posted by imperium at 5:51 AM on May 22, 2005


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