Monkeys, MacKinnon & Marriage

George Tobin

Copyright (c) 1993 First Things 31 (March 1993): 8-11.

Twenty years ago, the U.S. Army directed me to help monkeys copulate. In order to carry out my mission to increase and multiply the lab animal population of the armed forces of the United States, I was placed under the direction of an eccentric old man (also named George), a civilian employee who had spent over a decade helping monkeys reproduce in that laboratory colony. In much the same way in which Luke Skywalker initially failed to discern the true identity and wisdom of his mentor Yoda, I dismissed George as an affable crackpot. I have only recently come to realize that George was in fact a world-class anthropological theorist and social philosopher. He not only anticipated some of the now-dominant theories in human sociobiology circles but identified the principles that are now the explicit basis for celebrated feminist social criticism. Had I the foresight to cultivate the insights he imparted, I could have been a cutting-edge scholar. Alas, others have long since beat me to it.

George never read any academic journals nor did he ever publish his ideas. Nevertheless, this high school graduate who spent ten years in a windowless room watching monkeys copulate arrived independently at many of the same conclusions now propounded by recognized scholars. When I first began to see George's ideas appear in print in scientific articles, I didn't know whether to marvel at George's acumen or to harbor serious reservations about the state of anthropological scholarship. When I later encountered his ideas in a leading legal treatise on the state of women under the law, I could no longer bring myself to question the significance of George's reflections or resist trying to apply them. Besides, what better use of my GI Bill education than to present what I know now to have been the intellectual high point of my military career?

George's methods were intuitive and drew largely upon his encyclopedic knowledge of monkey sexual behavior. His approach was fiercely anthropomorphic-he claimed to know the moods and idiosyncrasies of each of his charges and gave each of them names. He had a special affection for Old Joe, the senior male in the colony. At the time I was introduced to Old Joe, he was about twelve years old and would have been long past his breeding prime had he lived in the wild. He often sat back on the top floor of his two-story cage (special-ordered by George) with his legs crossed (a highly unusual pose for monkeys), casting expressive looks across the room at members of his harem. One could easily envision Old Joe in a smoking jacket with a martini, shaken not stirred. Old Joe was also the only male in the breeding colony with a foreplay ritual, however abbreviated it may have seemed to the untrained eye. Our younger, less secure males, such as Joe's heir apparent, the evil and sadistic Sultan, tended to be violent and rapid in the performance of their duties. Advancing age and a certain eccentric flair were characteristics shared by Old Joe and Old George and formed the basis of a peculiar but deep vicarious bond.

On occasions while I was scraping militarily critical specimens from various cage bottoms, George would offer terse reflections on the nature of Man and Monkey. Perhaps I didn't give much credence to George's theory of evolution because I was usually handling rhesus droppings at the time or simply trying to keep from being scratched or bitten. Presumably, had the same ideas been delivered in a college auditorium (as they now often are) they would have made a different impression.

George's central theory was that human evolution from primate ancestors was not driven primarily by brain development but by changes in sexual characteristics. He noted that females in every primate species but ours exhibit extraordinary bodily changes when fertile. In the female rhesus monkey, for example, estrus causes the face, chest, and buttocks to turn bright red and distinct hormonal odors to be emitted. There is not much room for mystery or subtlety on her part when the whole jungle knows of her condition.

George theorized that the female precursor of humans ("Eve") was a primate like Suzy, a member of the colony who not only went into heat more often than the other females but who seemed strangely receptive even when not hormonally programmed to copulate. According to George, her mate ("Adam") was a clever, stylish, sexually animated primate not unlike Old Joe. "Adam" forsook the rest of his harem for this one female who was sexually receptive far more often. George further theorized that "Eve" was unpredictably receptive, thus forcing "Adam" to think about clues to her behavior that would tell him when she would be. "Eve" in turn sought to use this mystery to her advantage by requiring various forms of positive behavior from Adam before issuing a favorable response. This rapidly evolving game created a new selective pressure that forced "Adam" and "Eve" to use their brains much more, thus forever driving human brain evolution forward.

George's model can be reduced to a formal game of competing male and female goal systems. Male goals according to this model are largely coextensive with the list of warnings typically issued by parents of teenage girls on prom night. Defining female goals is more difficult because, by definition, they continually evolve. Presumably, some relatively constant female goals would include material support and protection for herself and her offspring as well as intimate companionship. However, the order, accuracy, and completeness of this list is open to question. The fact that after eons of evolution men invariably claim not to know what women really want is itself a striking confirmation of George's theory.

George's theory of human evolution has been restated or touched upon by a number of evolutionary biologists and anthropologists. While there are significant variations, nuances, and many open questions, such as whether to characterize the absence of estrus in humans as "concealed ovulation" or a form of "permanent estrus display," the dominant assumptions appear to be remarkably consistent with George's. The prevailing sociobiological hypothesis can be summarized as follows: Because the protohuman male never quite knew when his mate would get pregnant, and because he rather enjoyed maximizing the chances of his genetic survival through frequent attempts to insure such a pregnancy, he was more inclined to hang around on a regular basis to provide food and occasionally even help her around the cave in between couplings. This supportive behavior by sexually eager males conferred a selective advantage on protohuman females whose sexual receptivity was independent of fertility cycles. The Tool-Making Animal was thus less concerned with mastery of his environment than in looking for clever ways to impress his unpredictable mate.

In addition to confirmation by leading evolutionary biologists and anthropologists, the behavioral goal assumptions underpinning George's model are also surprisingly consistent with feminist social analysis. For example, legal scholar and leading feminist theorist Catherine MacKinnon has opined that human sexuality is "socially constructed" to maximize the perceived sexual desirability of women. According to MacKinnon, sexuality is "socially organized to require sex inequality for excitement and satisfaction," or, "to put it another way, perhaps gender must be maintained as a social hierarchy so that men will be able to get erections; or, part of the male interest in keeping women down lies in the fact that it gets men up." For MacKinnon, the all-pervasive influence of the male sex drive even preconditions scholarly efforts to analyze its effects. In yet another unfelicitously worded passage, she observes:

To list and analyze what seem to be the essential elements for male sexual arousal, what has to be there for the penis to work, seems faintly blasphemous, like a pornographer doing market research. Sex is supposed both too individual and universally transcendent for that. To suggest that the sexual might be continuous with something other than sex itself-something like politics-is seldom done, is treated as detumescent, even by feminists. It is as if sexuality came from the stork.

Evidence of the validity of MacKinnon's thesis that the overpowering male sex drive has corrupted our ability to fully recognize its pervasiveness can be found in the fact that men who read her works often find her characterizations utterly foreign to their own experience. Chronicles of unyielding male prowess may seem perversely flattering and yet tend to evoke feelings of profound unworthiness. I, for one, felt estranged from my gender after reading works of MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. If by chromosomal birthright I have been eligible to join the rape of creation at every level of being, why wasn't I notified? More troubling still is whether my wife would let me go even if the other fellows are indeed saving a place for me in the longboat. The certainty of having to ask a woman for permission to embark on missions of metaphysical rape is difficult to reconcile with my newly discovered paradigmatic status.

George's model differs from MacKinnon's variant in one very important respect. George's evolutionary model necessarily implies that male behavior must continually be modified to adjust to ever more complex female goals. Under George's model, it is therefore necessary by definition for numerous instances of consensual heterosexual intercourse to have taken place in the course of human history in order to drive human evolution. President Reagan was no doubt thinking along the same lines when he observed that but for the influence of women we would still be living in caves. In contrast, MacKinnon's model is founded on the assumption that a human male cannot achieve his sexual objectives unless the physical, psychological, and/or social context of the act is nonconsensual. Thus, non-rape is the exception, by definition.

Another way to view the difference is that MacKinnon sees Adam as someone like Sultan, whereas George envisioned the father of mankind to have been someone much more like Old Joe. More significantly, "Eve" or Suzy is largely irrelevant for MacKinnon (as are all other ardently heterosexual females, for that matter), whereas "Eve" is the sine qua non of human evolution for George. For George, the chief limitation on male goal-attainment is the expanding nature of female preconditions. MacKinnon believes that a complete male sexual victory was achieved on a permanent basis long ago. The dynamic of human evolution in her model is thus exclusively masculine. The mere sexual conquest of women was grossly insufficient to sate human male sexual ambition. Thus, she ascribes to the human male a sexual drive of truly Jovian proportions such that even the rape of cultures, nations, and planets cannot fatigue it.

Like MacKinnon's variant, George's model can be expanded beyond the confines of evolutionary biology. Indeed, the model works rather well as a theory of modern social organization. If we consider that in recent stages of our evolution, both the male and female goals defined in George's model were largely obtainable only through the institution of marriage, we should be able to test the predictive power of the model by examining how well it explains our behavior in this era of apparent marital decline.

The baby boom phenomenon offers a good opportunity to test the model in a social context. Because males generally seek marriage partners a few years younger and/or females prefer more mature husbands, each annual cohort of baby boom males had an excess of available potential mates. For example, females born between 1950-1955 significantly outnumbered males born between 1948-1953. Thus, the (George-defined) bargaining position of those males was enhanced. Therefore, it is not surprising that the 1970s emerged as the golden age of the lounge lizard. George's model clearly predicts that the rise of Hugh Hefner and the Playboy empire was a direct, even if ironic, result of two decades of stable, highly fertile American family life.

Similarly, the observed effects of the so-called baby bust fit within the model. It has been noted by astute demographers that at the time the baby bust generation began to reach marriage age, the articles in women's magazines began to depart from the "Why He Won't Commit" genre to articles about "The New Morality" and reactions to the sexual excesses of the previous decade. This can be explained under George's model as directly attributable to a demographic reverse of the sexual bargaining equation. As of the early 1960s, each birth cohort of males was followed by a smaller cohort of females, thus reducing the competitive market value of what males had to offer. The decline of disco, guys with gold chains, and the lounge lizard was thus a predictable phenomenon according to the model.

Another factor in the modern data set we must bring before the model is the mass entry of women into the work force and the erection of social policies that transfer benefits other than through bonds with particular male breadwinners. These changes would suggest that because women have alternative sources for some of their presumed goals, the male bargaining position would be weakened. Conversely, the radical development of contraceptive technology suggests that males would have more opportunity to achieve their defined objective at net lower cost. Where the investments of both parties in the exchange have thus been devalued, the model predicts that the parties would attach less value to the exchange. This prediction is consistent with the actual rise of casual cohabitation and of sexual contacts devoid of preconditions, as well as increased divorce and serial monogamy. Again, the model applies.

This glowingly successful model can be expanded further to establish predictions about the future evolution of humans and human social systems. The key, of course, is the nature of female expectations concerning male behavior. For MacKinnon, however, female expectations are forever linguistically, socially, and politically invisible barring the advent of a detumescent revolution. If we consider the volume of women's grievances that do manage to be voiced on magazine racks and daytime television, and if we also accept the weight of anecdotal evidence that wives somehow manage to articulate disappointments to their husbands, and if this is what constitutes an invisibility of female grievances, then the coming detumescent revolution will surely possess a ferocity of unimaginable proportions.

The prospect of exponentially unmet female demands, coupled with the increased ability of both sexes to obtain fundamental objectives other than through intensive involvement with each other, implies a new equilibrium with distressing implications. Unless the structure of the underlying game is dramatically altered, the species will soon exhaust the developmental momentum of previous eons. Indeed, George once observed that the primitive stasis of the rhesus monkey was largely due to the fact that once a male rhesus obtained senior status "he didn't have to do anything to get laid."

Having unlocked the mysteries of past and present human behavior with the keys left us by George, we can only speculate as to what forms a radical leap to escape our impending evolutionary stasis might take. For example, male goals of sustained affection for, and a personal connection to, women and children might be sufficient to restore and enhance the evolutionary dynamic. The possibility that such items may have always been on the male list even if historically not acted upon with sufficient vigor may be the single greatest potential flaw in George's otherwise powerful model. His model explains the behavior of cads, philanderers, and Casanovas rather well but not that of men who appear to remain faithful to their wives and children. It is plainly unsatisfying to try to characterize the family lives of numerous apparently faithful husbands and fathers as extraneous coital interludes or coital inducement rituals. (The MacKinnon model is simpler in this respect; since there is no need to make distinctions among rapists, the issue does not arise.)

I hesitate to draw definite conclusions about the scientific value of pursuing an impertinence such as marital virtue, especially given my obvious lack of qualifications having spent only one year in a windowless room watching monkeys copulate. Then again, an entire year of processing scraped monkey droppings may have been the best possible preparation for engaging the great social and anthropological paradigms of our time. The heretical question as to what men and women ought to offer one another may be worth pursuing if for no other reason than it prevents us from stepping in the paradigmatic alternatives.


 GEORGE A. TOBIN is an attorney in Washington, D.C.