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a bonobo world, and other impossibilities 14

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graph showing the rising number of PhDs in neuroscience compared to other sciences

is it all about sex? a few thoughts on sex and behaviour

When I was young there were always a lot of books around, fortunately. My mother was a psych nurse who went on to be a teacher of nursing, so psychology textbooks were plentiful, and I learned with some fascination early on about the id, the ego and the superego. But my greatest excitement was reserved for two other Freudian terms, sublimation and polymorphous perversity. They allowed me to think of sex in a kind of superior way. 

Sublimation refers to the process of transformation from a solid to a gas, without the intermediate step of melting into a liquid. You can observe it simply by opening your freezer door, especially if you have an old-style freezer caked with ice. But Freud’s use of the word was much hotter, to my teenage self. To Freud, there were two driving instincts, eros, the sex drive, and thanatos, the death drive. That’s enough about thanatos. Freud proposed these two opposing drives in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and other essays, but I probably got them from pamphlets floating around the house, summarising Freud’s ideas in a few paragraphs. As I understood it, eros was life-affirmative, but it needed to be harnessed, reigned in, sublimated to a more general, civilising and creative (rather than procreative) force. So it was all just sex diverted to science, technology, empire-building and the like. Sounded perfectly cromulent to me, even before that word was invented. So everything was polymorphously perverse; church spires, slippery-dips, kindergartens and business schools, they all manifested the perversity of our drive, in an infinitude of stop-thinking-about-sex-but-do-this-instead ways. Having discovered the secret of civilisation thanks to Meister Sigmund, I took great secret pleasure in upending said civilisation by masturbating like there was no tomorrow. 

I realise now of course that sublimation isn’t always about channelling out the sexual impulse, it’s about any equally unacceptable impulse, such as murderous rage. But being me I wanted to keep the sex, and stuff all the civilisation. Or couldn’t we somehow keep both sex and civilisation, and dispense with the murderous rage? 

Many anthropologists would agree that bonobos have a culture, but none would say they have a civilisation. So what exactly is the difference, and does civilisation require the degree of sexual repression that we generally suffer from? Though there are the odd erotomanic subcultures, in no established nation is it acceptable, or legal, to walk about naked, let alone have sex, in public. It’s generally called indecent exposure. A loincloth, and some extra bits of cloth for females, might protect you legally if not socially, but what precisely is so upsetting, currently, about those parts we’re obliged to hide, and will we ever socially evolve out of this condition?

Freud believed we were born polymorphously perverse, little libido capsules, and some of his observations – such that we’re all born bisexual, seemed obvious to me from the get-go. However, Freud knew nothing about bonobos, who were barely known to humanity at the time of his death. His theories of masculinity might have benefitted from such knowledge, and in fact the incredibly rapid pace of our neurological knowledge from the beginning of the 21st century – as the neurologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky points out in his monumental book Behave – has wrought havoc with psychoanalytic and other theories that seek to understand human behaviour without attending to their detailed neurological underpinnings. The shaping of masculinity and femininity by culture has been a problem that psychologists, feminists and all other interested parties have long wrestled with. Which culture, after all? And are there differences beyond culture? Can culture be separated from biology?

I don’t think so. Our brains function the way they do because of the environment in which they were nurtured since conception – every environment different of course. And there’s also evolution – what might be called pre-conceptual, or historical, or prehistorical influences. Researchers have often tried to pinpoint essential differences between the male and female brain in humans. They’re far less concerned to pinpoint such differences between male and female cats, dogs or mice, presumably because their overall catty, doggy and mousey natures tend to overwhelm minor gender differences. Recent research has found statistical differences only, rather than categorical differences between male and female brains. In other words, female brains don’t have a vagina and male ones don’t have a penis. Even if you’ve devoted a lifetime to neurological research, studying the brain in all its white-and grey detail, you wouldn’t be able to state categorically that the warm, disembodied human brain placed in your hands to somehow keep alive and probe its electrochemical circuitry and its hormonal flow, belonged to a male or a female. Researchers who want to find key differences between Venus and Mars will find them, but the differences among female brains are greater than those that separate them from male brains. 

And yet, statistics are important. Statistically speaking, males are more violent than females, regardless of nation, culture or time period (going back to the first days of statistical data). It seems to have to do with hormones, and group behavior. Young males often join gangs – bikie gangs, street gangs, crime gangs, ethnic gangs, white supremacist gangs, nogoodnik gangs, whatever. Females, not so much. The largest cause of violent death and injury in long-peaceful countries such as Australia is a young male aged 15-24 or so behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. This is about risky and show-offy behaviour – they kill and injure themselves as much as others. Such behaviour is seen too in male chimps, in young bull elephants during musth, and in male dolphins – all very smart and social animals. Does all this relate to sex? Apparently, in more or less roundabout ways. For chimps it’s not so roundabout. It’s called the sexual coercion hypothesis, for which much evidence has been collected from various East African field sites:

Males who directed aggression at certain females mated more often with those females than did other males. Moreover, these aggressive males were actively solicited for mating by those females at the time of peak fertility. Critically, aggression over the long term had a greater effect than violence in the immediate context of mating. 

This aggressive disposition apparently leads directly to reproductive success. So male domestic violence isn’t all bad?

Elephants in musth – which literally means ‘drunk’ – have very highly elevated testosterone levels, but how this links to aggression is unclear. Sapolsky has much to say about cause-correlation between testosterone -and androgens generally – and aggression in humans, which is relevant here. Social learning appears to play an important role in male aggression, which raises testosterone levels, and so we have a chcken-and-egg issue. As to elephants, the aggression they display during musth makes close scientific analysis a bit problematic, but it’s known that the secretion of temporin from the temporal glands in this period, and the accompanying swelling of those glands, causes irritation, which can be acute in some cases. This extreme irritation may cause aggressive behaviour, as when Dad kicks the cat after Mum has berated him for the previous two hours. Interestingly, aggressiveness, sometimes murderous, in young bull elephants, most often happens in the absence of older males. Their presence has a tempering effect. In any case, the violence displayed during musth, which is the male reproductive period, seems more of a side-effect than a ‘turn-on’ for females. Older males learn to use this period effectively, becoming more energetic in moving around and increasing territory in search of females, and preserving their energy during the warmer, non-musth months. 

Dolphins are not generally the fun-loving joyful creatures of contemporary myth, and male dolphins often gang up on females and rape them, to use a term humans like to reserve for themselves. I could go on, but the general point is that we, as humans, might want to learn how not to behave as well as how to behave from other species, especially those most like us – not just in their closeness genetically, but in their smarts, and in their negative or positive treatment of others, of their own and other species. 


R Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst. Bodley Head 2017

Written by stewart henderson

November 27, 2020 at 12:44 pm

Did Freud ever pass his orals?

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Freud died of epithelioma from sticking too many cigars in his mouth, but he doesn't strike me as the orally-fixated dependent type

Freud died of epithelioma from sticking too many cigars in his mouth, but he doesn’t strike me as the orally-fixated dependent type

A young person I know is studying psychology probably for the first time and she informed me of the stages of early childhood psychological development she has been told about – oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. I’d certainly heard of the first two of these, but not too much of the others. A quick squiz at the lists of Dr Google led me to Freudian psychosexual theory, which naturally raised my scepical antennae. And yet, despite my limited parental experience I’ve noted that babies do like to put things in their mouths a lot (the oral stage is supposed to extend from birth to 1 -2 years), sometimes to their great detriment. So, personality-wise, is the oral stage a real thing, and does it really give way to the anal stage, etc? I’m using the oral stage here to stand for all the stages in the theory/hypothesis.

These stages were posited by Freud as central to his hypothesis of psychosexual development – though how the phallic stage is experienced by girls is an obvious question. His view was that our childhood development was a matter of fixation, at various periods, on ‘erogenous zones’. After the oral stage, children supposedly switch to an anal stage, which lasts to 3 years of age – presumably on average. These switches might be delayed, or brought on earlier, in individual cases, and sometimes an individual might get stuck at a particular stage, denoting psychosexual problems.

So how real are these stages? Are some more real than others? What is the experimental evidence for them, do they exist in other primates, and if they exist, then why? What purpose do they serve?

It seems that Freud, and perhaps also his followers, have built up a whole system around these stages and how individuals are more or less influenced by any one or a combination in the development of their adult personalities, and since the degree of influence of these different stages and the way they’ve combined in each individual is pretty well impossible to recover, the theory looks to be unfalsifiable. There also appears to be the problem that psychologists can usually only track back from the adult’s personality to speculate about early childhood influences, which looks like creating a circular argument. For example, if an individual presents as an overly trusting, dependent personality, this may be cited as evidence of fixation at the oral stage of development, because children fixated at this stage are believed to develop these personalites in later life. The only way out of this impasse it seems to me is to define this oral stage (or any other stage) more carefully, so that we can accurately identify children who have experienced a prolonged or fixated oral stage, and then return to them to observe how their personalites have developed.

Of course there are other problems with the theory. There needs to be a clearer explanation, it seems to me, of how these apparently erogenously-related stages are marked into personality traits in later life. The relationship between an obsession with putting things in your mouth, or sucking, licking or otherwise craving and enjoying oral sensations, and a dependent, trusting personality, is by no means obvious. In fact, some might go as far as to say that, prima facie, it makes about as much sense as an astrologically-based account of personality.

Perhaps if we look at the oral stage, or claims about it, more closely, we’ll find something of an explanation. In this description, we learn that the libido, or life force, gets fixated in the oral stage in more than one way, leading to an ‘oral receptive personality’ and an ‘oral aggressive personality’. The first type, which is a consequence of a delayed or overly fixated oral stage, is trusting and dependent, the second is dominating and aggressive, due largely to a curtailed oral stage, apparently. Those who experienced a longer oral stage in childhood are supposedly more likely to be smokers and nail-biters as adults, though I’m not sure how this relates to being a dependent or trusting personality.

In any case this hardly takes us further in terms of evidence, and it’s worth noting that the site in which this is mooted is described as ‘integrated sociopsychology’. Dr Steven Novella, in the most recent episode of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, warned about the use of such terms as ‘integrative’, ‘functional’ and ‘holistic’ used before ‘medicine’ as a red flag indicating a probable bogus approach. I suspect the same goes for psychology. Obviously the website’s author is a Freudian, and he makes this statement as to evidence:

What is undoubtedly disturbing to the ‘Freud-bashers’ is how much evidence has accumulated over the years to say that, in broad terms at least, if not always in detail, Freud’s observations pretty much stand up so many years later.

However, other psychology sites I’ve looked at, which don’t appear to me to be particularly Freud-bashing, have pointed to the lack of evidence as the principal problem for Freud’s stages. Of course the major problem is how to test for the ‘personality effect’ of these stages. Again I think of astrology – someone dedicated to astrological causation can always account for personality ‘deviations’ in terms of cusps and conjunctions and ascendants and the like, and this would surely also be the case for the confounding influences of our various cavities and tackle, so to speak.

Some 20 years ago a paper by Fisher & Greenberg (1996) suggested that Freud’s stages and other aspects of his early childhood writings should be scientifically examined as separate hypotheses, in a sort of piecemeal fashion. Unfortunately I can find little evidence that evidence has been found for the oral stage as a marker for later personality development – or even looked for.  This is probably because most scientists in the field – experimental psychologists – have little interest in these Freudian hypotheses, and little funding would be available for testing them. They would surely have to be longitudinal studies, with a host of potentially confounding factors accounted for, and the end results would hardly be likely to convince other early childhood specialists.

I’ve said the theory looks to be unfalsifiable, but I’m not quite prepared to say outright that it is. It seems to me that the oral stage, with its obvious association with breast-feeding, and the obvious association between prolonged breast-feeding and dependence, at least in popular culture, is the one most amenable to testing. The later Oedipus/Elektra complexes, associated I think with the phallic stage, seem rather too convoluted and caveat-ridden to be seriously testable. I must admit to a residual fondness for some of Freud’s theories of development though, however unscientific they might be. Though I was never interested in the strict form of the Oedipus complex, because my father was by far the weaker of my parents, I felt it offered some insight into relations with the dominant parent – struggle, rivalry, attempts to overthrow. I also agreed with his general view that early childhood is absolutely crucial to our subsequent psychological development, and I found his ego, id and superego hypotheses enlightening and fascinating. Polymorphous perversity, sublimation and the pervasive influence of libido also tickled my fancy a lot.

I think it’s fair to say that Freud has had a greater influence on popular culture than on science, but it has been a profound influence, and overall a positive one. The term ‘observations’, rather than theories, seems better to describe his contributions. In writing about the libido and the pleasure principle, inter alia, he accepted our instinctive animal nature, and gave us ideas about how to both harness it and overcome it. Notions like the id and the superego seemed to give us fresh ways to think about desire, discipline and control. His ideas and concepts tapped into stuff that was very personal to us in our individual struggles, and his universalising tendencies helped us, I think, to look sympathetically at the struggles of others. Libido itself was a banner-word that helped release us from the straight-jacket of earlier sexual thinking – or avoidance thereof.

It’s also probably unfair to expect from Freud’s pioneering work anything like the scientific riguor we expect and really need from psychology today. Certainly he was far too firm about the rightness of his most speculative work – I read The Interpretation of Dreams as an ideas-hungry teenager and was impressed with its first-half demolition of previous dream theories, but the second-half presentation of his own theory struck me even then as ludicrously weak, though it had the definitely positive effect of putting me off dream-interpreters for life (a dream that can be interpreted is a dream not worth having, and that’s their greatest gift to us). It’s more what he drew attention to that counts. His concept of the unconscious doesn’t really cut it today, but he made us start thinking of unconscious motivations in general, and much else besides. I’ve never been to an analyst, but I think one benefit of the psychoanalytic movement is to help us realise that there’s no normality and that we all carry baggage of guilt, anger, fear and frustration. For all its failings, his was a humanising enterprise.

Written by stewart henderson

July 10, 2016 at 5:34 pm