Why does pornography exist? No seriously, setting aside the self-righteously-moral-majority. The question of red dudes with pointy horns is good for art, but isn’t particularly interesting if we want to answer real questions. Why does pornography exist from an evolutionary standpoint? Without diving into minutia, there’s not much of a survival benefit to pornography. And no, masturbating as if your life depended on it doesn’t count. Which brings up an important point. Why does masturbation exist?
Despite what Christine O’Donnell might tell you, masturbation exists in other species. Bonobos get all kinds of freaky with it. What’s interesting is that the large brained apes we are have somehow figured out a way to involve psychology in sex and mating. In a sense, human orgasm is somewhat decoupled from the mechanics. If you haven’t figured out the element of imagination or fantasy that’s involved in sex, you’re doing it wrong. But as far as we know, we’re the only species that uses pornography. There’s an interesting scientific article from 2005 that’s often cited as evidence of “monkey porn”. The article does have some fascinating implications, however, it’s not about porn. The reason it’s often mistaken for monkeys indulging in pornography is that male monkeys were willing to pay (using fruit juice as a currency) to look at pictures of females. But the monkeys didn’t mix this viewing with masturbation. It appears that they were examining the photos for visual signs of fertility. That’s important information for evolution, information worth paying for.
It’s also likely that humans are using the same visual cues to make determinations about potential mates in human pornography. However, we don’t think about that when we experience porn. Humans have decoupled the cues for fertility with the concept of fertility. And in humans this makes a lot of sense because unlike the rhesus macaques mentioned in the study, human ovulation is biologically concealed. So humans use the cues for visuals to fecundity (general ability to reproduce). I’ll tackle the evolved concept of beauty and attraction in another article. What’s important to know here is that humans have a very real emotional and visceral response when beauty and attraction are witnessed. And I’ll go on a limb and assume that you get that. But still, that doesn’t answer the question of the existence of pornography. And when are we ever going to get to the part where racism is proved to be arbitrary, in the grand scheme of humanity?
Biased by Nature
The answer to both ultimately lies in the second syllable of “pornography”. Yep… the graph, or visual, part. There’s a concept within sexual selection known as “sensory bias”. Basically, we use the senses we have to make the best determination of things that will increase our chances of survival and reproduction. And to be more correct, we evolved the senses we have to give us the ability to make determinations to help with survival and reproductive success. Vision is great for judging spatial distances advantageous in hunting. It’s beneficial for a zillion other things too. Color vision is great if you’re gathering fruit and need to quickly be able to discern ripeness… especially from a few trees away. For an extreme example, we even have the colloquial phrase “eagle eye” to highlight the visual prowess of birds who conduct hunting surveillance from extreme altitudes.
But all animals don’t have the same biases. In other environments, smell or sonar or sensitivity to the infrared spectrum are more advantageous. Among our many senses, humans have a decidedly visual bias. No, this isn’t fixed. Many studies show that there is an actual heightening (or hightening of awareness) of auditory sensitivity in blind people. But in general, our sensory bias is visual. It’s because of a combination of this sensory bias, big brains, and emotional complexity that porn exists. Without any of them, porn wouldn’t work on us. And yes, hearing porn has similar impacts, but that doesn’t lead us any closer to highlighting the inanity of racism.
Racism is made possible in humans by our visual sensory bias. Skin pigmentation, and other shapes and colorations are generally irrelevant distinctions in matters not relating to vitamin D and skin cancer. While our modern civilizations pile a variety of deleterious effects because of our skin pigmentation, the differences don’t play a major role in survival or reproduction (caveat: during normal reproductive years). In other words, skin pigmentation is highlighted by the human visual bias. This is similar to the underlying reason firetrucks are painted red (or yellow).
The human sensory bias combines with another group of related human biases to really drive racism into high-gear. Our bias toward grouping, ethnocentricity, and xenophobia cause us to make extreme distinctions by grouping people based on any markers at our disposal. Humans have been shown to form emotional group ties on something as little as a coin flip. This tendency to form groups was a useful decision making heuristic for our distant ancestors. In some instances, it remains so today. However, it fires way too often in individuals living in the relative safety of modern civilization. Seth Godin has tried to make tribalism sound like a good thing in his book Tribes, but that’s ultimately just a conscious attempt to capitalize on an antiquated artifact of evolution that’s largely lost its use in our world.
Racism and pornography both spring wholly from a combination of non-logical biases we all share as humans. We can debate the merits of pornography in terms of human happiness and flourishing, but racism is arbitrary and thus, completely untenable.