Forget the Alamo. The Yucatán provides a more useful lesson.
It was early spring, 1519. Hernán Cortés and his men had just arrived off the coast of the Mexican mainland. The conquistador ordered his men to bring one of the natives to the deck of the ship, where Cortés asked him the name of this exotic place they’d found. The man responded, “Ma c’ubah than,” which the Spanish heard as Yucatán. Close enough. Cortés proclaimed that from that day onward, Yucatán and any gold it contained belonged to Spain, and so on.
Four and a half centuries later, in the 1970s, linguists researching archaic Mayan dialects concluded that Ma c’ubah than
meant “I do not understand you.”1
Each spring, thousands of American university students celebrate with wet T-shirt contests, foam parties, and Jell-O wrestling on the beautiful beaches of the I Do Not Understand You Peninsula.
But confusion mistaken for knowledge isn’t limited to spring break. We all fall into this trap. (One night, over dinner, a close friend men
tioned that her favorite Beatles song is “Hey Dude.”) Despite their years of training, even scientific types slip into thinking they are observing something when in fact they are simply projecting their biases and ignorance. What trips up the scientists is the same cognitive failing we all share: it’s hard to be certain about what we think we know, but don’t really. Having misread the map, we’re sure we know where we are. In the face of evidence to the contrary, most of us tend to go with our gut, but the gut can be an unreliable guide.
Take food, for example. We all assume that our craving or disgust is due to something about the food itself—as opposed to being an often arbitrary response preprogrammed by our culture. We understand that Australians prefer cricket to baseball, or that the French somehow find Gérard Depardieu sexy, but how hungry would you have to be before you would consider plucking a moth from the night air and popping it, frantic and dusty, into your mouth? Flap, crunch, ooze. You could wash it down with some saliva beer. How does a plate of sheep’s brain sound? Broiled puppy with gravy? May we interest you in pig’s ears or shrimp heads? Perhaps a deep-fried songbird that you chew up, bones, beak, and all? A game of cricket on a field of grass is one thing, but pan-fried crickets over lemongrass? That’s revolting.
Or is it? If lamb chops are fine, what makes lamb brains horrible? A pig’s shoulder, haunch, and belly are damn fine eatin’, but the ears, snout, and feet are gross? How is lobster so different from grasshopper? Who distinguishes delectable from disgusting, and what’s their rationale? And what about all the exceptions? Grind up those leftover pig parts, stuff ’em in an intestine, and you’ve got yourself respectable sausages or hot dogs. You may think bacon and eggs just go together, like French fries and ketchup or salt and pepper. But the combination of bacon and eggs for breakfast was dreamed up about a hundred years
ago by an advertising agency hired to sell more bacon, and the Dutch eat their fries with mayonnaise, not ketchup.
Think it’s rational to be grossed out by eating bugs? Think again. A hundred grams of dehydrated cricket contains 1,550 milligrams of iron, 340 milligrams of calcium, and 25 milligrams of zinc—three minerals often missing in the diets of the chronic poor. Insects are richer in minerals and healthy fats than beef or pork. Freaked out by the exoskeleton, antennae, and way too many legs? Then stick to the Turf and forget the Surf because shrimp, crabs, and lobsters are all arthropods, just like grasshoppers. And they eat the nastiest of what sinks to the bottom of the ocean, so don’t talk about bugs’ disgusting diets. Anyway, you may have bug parts stuck between your teeth right now. The Food and Drug Administration tells its inspectors to ignore insect parts in black pepper unless they find more than 475 of them per 50 grams, on average.2
Some estimates suggest that Americans unknowingly eat anywhere from one to two pounds
of insects per year.
An Italian professor recently published Ecological Implications of Minilivestock: Potential of Insects, Rodents, Frogs and Snails. (Minicowpokes sold separately.) Writing in Slate.com, William Saletan tells us about a company by the name of Sunrise Land Shrimp. The company’s logo: “Mmm. That’s good Land Shrimp!” Three guesses what Land Shrimp is.
Early British travelers to Australia reported that the Aborigines they met lived miserably and suffered from chronic famine. But the native people, like most hunter-gatherers, were uninterested in farming.
The same Europeans reporting the widespread starvation in their letters and journals were perplexed that the natives didn’t seem emaciated. In fact, they struck the visitors as being rather fat and lazy. Yet, the Europeans were convinced the Aborigines were starving to death. Why? Because they saw the native people resorting to last resorts—eating insects, Witchetty grubs, and rats, critters that surely nobody would eat who wasn’t starving. That this diet was nutritious, plentiful, and could taste like “nut-flavored scrambled eggs and mild mozzarella” never occurred to the British, who were no doubt homesick for haggis and clotted cream.
Good Grub. Photo: Glenn Rose and Daryl Fritz
Our point? That something feels natural or unnatural doesn’t mean it is. Every one of the examples above, including saliva beer, is savored somewhere—by folks who would be disgusted by much of what you eat regularly. Especially when we’re talking about intimate, personal, biological experiences like eating or having sex, we mustn’t forget that the familiar fingers of culture reach deep into our minds. We can’t feel them adjusting our dials and flicking our switches, but every culture leads its members to believe some things are naturally right and others naturally wrong. These beliefs may feel right, but it’s a feeling we trust at our own peril.
Like those early Europeans, each of us is constrained by our own sense of what is normal and natural. We’re all members of one tribe or another—bonded by culture, family, religion, class, education, employment, team affiliation, or any number of other criteria. An essential first step in discerning the cultural
from the human
is what mythologist Joseph Campbell called detribalization
. We have to recognize the vari
ous tribes we belong to and begin extricating ourselves from the unexamined assumptions each of them mistakes for the truth
Authorities assure us that we are jealous of our mates because such feelings are only natural. Experts opine that women need commitment to feel sexual intimacy because “that’s just the way they are.” Some of the most prominent evolutionary psychologists insist that science has confirmed that we are, at base, a jealous, possessive, murderous, and deceitful species just barely saved by our precarious capacity to rise above our dark essence and submit to civilized propriety. To be sure, we humans have hankerings and aversions deeper than cultural influence, at the core of our animal being. We don’t argue that humans are born “blank slates,” awaiting operating instructions. But how something “feels” is far from a reliable guide to distinguishing biological truth from cultural influence.
Go looking for a book about human nature and you’ll be confronted by Demonic Males, Mean Genes, Sick Societies, War Before Civilization, Constant Battles, The Dark Side of Man, and The Murderer Next Door. You’ll be lucky to escape alive! But do these blood-splattered volumes offer a realistic depiction of scientific truth, or a projection of contemporary assumptions and fears onto the distant past?
In the following chapters, we reconsider these and other aspects of social behavior, rearranging them to form a different view of our past. We believe our model goes much farther toward explaining how we got to where we are today and most importantly, why many, if not most, sexually dysfunctional marriages are nobody’s fault
. We’ll show why a great deal of the information we receive about human sexuality—particularly that received from some evolutionary psychologists—is mistaken, based upon unfounded, outdated assumptions going back to Darwin and beyond. Too many scientists are hard at work trying to complete the wrong puzzle, struggling to force their findings into preconceived,
culturally approved notions of what they think human sexuality should be
rather than letting the pieces of information fall where they may.
Our model might strike you as absurd, salacious, insulting, scandalous, fascinating, depressing, illuminating, or obvious. But whether or not you are comfortable with what we present here, we hope you’ll keep reading. We are not advocating any particular response to the information we’ve put together. Frankly, we’re not sure what to do with it ourselves.
Undoubtedly, some readers will react emotionally to our “scandalous” model of human sexuality. Our interpretation of the data will be dismissed and derided by stalwart souls defending the ramparts of the standard narrative. They’ll be shouting, “Remember the Alamo!” But our advice, as we lead you through this story of unwarranted assumptions, desperate conjecture, and mistaken conclusions, is to forget the Alamo, but always remember the Yucatán.