I recently wrote an article for The Evolutionary Review called “Finding ‘God’ in the Female Orgasm,” which is an attempt to synthesize two previously unconnected concepts from human behavior and evolution into a single new hypothesis: that the female orgasm has been one of the driving forces in the evolution of religion. Since the article won’t come out for a while and it was pretty interesting to write, I thought I’d try to summarize it in a blog post. Okay, here goes…
Idea 1: the clitoris evolved as a mate-selection organ.
This is Geoffrey Miller’s “choosy clitoris” theory from The Mating Mind: “The choosy clitoris should produce orgasm only when the woman feels genuinely attracted to a man’s body, mind, and personality, and when the man proves his attentiveness and fitness through the right stimulation.” (p 239)
Some evolutionary theorists think the female orgasm in humans is a developmental by-product, like male nipples, but I tend to agree with Miller. If you want to learn more about this debate, here’s an adaptationist account by David Barash, in response to a by-product argument.
Idea 2: there is no one-size-fits-all solution
If the clitoris evolved as an organ of discrimination or choosiness, then one of the things it ought to discriminate against is inattentiveness or disinterest. This follows from costly signaling logic and parental investment theory, and may help to explain the notorious variation in female sexual response. Some women never have orgasms, some rarely have them, some can only give them to themselves, some can only get them from intercourse with clitoral stimulation, some can have multiple orgasms during sex with no manual assistance, etc. There is some evidence this variation is partially genetic, which suggests evolution is maintaining it as a polymorphism.
Idea 3: male and female sexuality is locked in an arms race
Actually it’s more like a code-breaking and code-making race, with female sexuality growing more complicated, labyrinthine, and cryptic in order to exact the only costly signal of a man’s intentions that can be trusted: lots of time, patience, attention, etc, like a Rubik’s Cube with more and more sections.
Idea 4: female sexuality is also cryptic to women
If the clitoris is an organ of discrimination, like a gate-keeper, then it would be even more effective if women weren’t able to give away their own passkey, so to speak. This is partially based on Robert Trivers’ concept of the “Evolution of Self-Deception,” and partially based on some research that shows how female sexual response is vastly more complex than male sexual response, often with virtually no correlation between physiological response and conscious awareness. This New York Times article summarizes the research nicely: “Mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person.”
Idea 5: superstition and religiosity are partially a response to environmental randomness
This is a well-documented effect in psychology. The less your actions achieve their desired outcome, the more likely you are to associate the outcome with uncorrelated actions, including supernatural forces. If fishermen find the fish where they look for them, they tend to say it was their skill that brought in the catch. If they don’t find the fish where they look for them, they tend to say the gods were against them. Risk management or “error management theory” suggests we are more prone to false positives than false negatives when looking for causal connections, because false negatives carry greater risks. Mistake the wind rustling in the leaves for a predator, you get briefly startled; mistake a predator for the wind rustling in the leaves, you get permanently dead, etc. This may be why superstitions and religions are so persistent, because of our evolved tendency to see causal patterns and intentional supernatural agents where there are none.
Idea 6: sustained, evasive randomness intensifies superstition
Usually the kind of randomness evoked for the origins of religion are plain old environmental randomness, like natural disasters, weather patterns, finding animals to eat (like fish) or not finding them, etc. But that kind of randomness comes and goes. In the lab, you can make people more superstitious by increasing the level of randomness in the experiments, basically by evading their predictions of cause and effect. If you’re interested in how this effect has been measured, check out this article, or this one, or this one, or this one.
Idea 7: female sexual response is a constant source of sustained, evasive randomness
If female sexual response has actually evolved to be cryptic in order to impose a test of worthiness on men (measured as a combination of many complex factors, including physical attributes, intelligence, perceptiveness, kindness, creativity, patience, attentiveness, etc, potentially with a different ideal mix for each woman), then this would act as a constant, pervasive source of unpredictability in our environment, which would have promoted the superstitious, religious psychological response more consistently than luck-of-the-draw evironmental randomness in our ancestors’ daily lives.
Conclusion: the evolved complexity of female sexual response actively promotes superstition, and may be partially responsible for the origins or religion, which seems to have started with “fertility magic” over 35,000 years ago, ie check out the Hohle Fels Venus.
And how would you test this theory? Easy: it predicts that men in relationships with women who rarely or never have orgasms will be more religious/superstitious than men who reliably get their partners off, and women who are pleased well and often will be less religious than women whose bodies are more mysterious, both to their partners and themselves.
Of course, it might be hard to tell whether religious people are just having fewer orgasms because they are religious, rather than vice versa, but that’s for scientists to sort out. Fully cited article coming soon!