Joe Quirk is a bestselling novelist and science writer. His novels are Exult and The Ultimate Rush. His science book, It’s Not You, It’s Biology: The Science of Love, Sex and Relationships has been called “hilarious” and translated into seventeen languages. He is a humor columnist at h+ Magazine, a publication dedicated to improving the human condition through biotechnology, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. His Pixar-illustrated Powerpoint presentation, “Sperm-Spreaders Vs. Egg-Protectors” will show college students how to use biology in their dating lives.
James Warner: It’s Not You, It’s Biology is a book about relationships based on contemporary science, but [it’s] intended to go in the relationships section rather than the science section of the bookstore. This makes me think of that Gary Larson cartoon of animals browsing in the self-help section, with a deer reading a book titled something like Trust Your Instincts. I love that cartoon because first it makes you laugh at the idea of animals needing a book to tell them to trust their instincts–then you remember, wait, we’re animals, why do we read those books? Anyway, you make the case for trusting our instincts, these being an accumulation of life strategy techniques from those of our ancestors who succeeded in reproducing–
Joe Quirk: I love Gary Larson, too, because he is a science geek who finds funny ways to popularize ideas, which is what I try to do. The reason we question our instincts is that we have a large frontal lobe that is in charge of questioning our instincts. Have you ever asked yourself the deepest philosophical question that drives all introspection, which is: Why am I so neurotic and screwed up? Well, stop blaming your mother. It’s because you have three brains, and they have never once agreed on anything.
The lizard brain is in charge of the five F’s: Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing, Flocking, and Fornicating.
The mammal brain is in charge of cuddling, nursing, sociality, empathy, revenge.
The point of the neocortex is literally to inhibit instinct, and strategize to satisfy the other two brains in a context of social consequences. The more social the mammal, the more inhibitions required. The job of the neocortex is to neurotify: “Maybe I should apologize to Rick for that thing I said, but maybe I should second-guess what he’s really thinking, but what if he tells Jane what I said before.”
The Three Brain Problem is why mating involves scratching, biting, and invading somebody’s personal space, while socializing involves conversation and smiling, and it’s rude to invade somebody’s personal space–because lizards mate, mammals socialize, and only humans use syntax, which is a tool for making sentences, which allows for self-recursive thinking, which allows you to make something as simple as mating so complicated.
What’s sublime about evolutionary psychology is that evolution accounts for much that is eternally human about us: our instincts as well as our instinct to control our instincts.
JW: Another powerful idea you use is that evolution has selected for two alternative or else complementary male reproductive strategies–one involving low-to-non-existent parental investment, the other involving high parental investment. That probably explains what women find so profound about the whole “He’s Just Not That Into You” concept: it figures that a key problem for women would be determining whether the [his] high-parental-investment strategy has kicked in.
JQ: Among mammals, you find a loose correlation between the length of the childhood dependency and the length of the male-female pair-bond. We have the longest childhood in the animal kingdom, so we have the most lasting pair-bonds. Homo Habilis guys who invested in their offspring raised more children to breeding age than their buddies who didn’t.
But since males don’t get pregnant, there’s no biological investment when they spray sperm. Just because Grok invests his love and labor into one woman’s offspring, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have spare sperm. Can’t hurt to toss a couple extra out there and see if they take!
Some of my ancestors succeeded at the fathering strategy. Some of my ancestors succeeded at the fornicating strategy. They’ve passed on their desires to me, and that’s why I have a Madonna-Whore complex, which I’m convinced is biological. Men want to have sex with fertile bodies, but they want to fall in love with an entirely different set of qualities.
JW: Do you notice differences in men’s versus women’s reactions/questions when you talk about these kinds of ideas?
JQ: So far I have detected no difference. I expected these ideas to be much more controversial, but I find audiences to be very open to these ideas and full of questions and stories. The only folks resistant to evidence confirming the biology of behavior are social science academics. Men and women, gays and straights, seem equally interested.
JW: What the social science academics presumably fear is that evidence of this kind could be misused to further discriminatory agendas–are these fears misplaced?
JQ: Hard science academics, college students, parents, and mainstream folks are all interested in what the research tells us about how men and womens’ emotions and cognitive styles are, on average, measurably different. The only place where this is controversial is among social science academics. In the seventies, these scholars set up a tremendous ideological bulwark against biological explications for our behavior, because they were afraid of sexism. This fear is goodhearted but wrongheaded. Even social science academics who challenge these ideas go home and try to deal with a four-year-old son who can’t stop his obsession with projectiles and a seven-year-old daughter who won’t shut up about horses. Most of us operate in the world with the assumption that there’s something different about males and females, but we can’t quite put our finger on it. Science is putting our finger on it, and it’s time to talk about it.
This research has illuminated my relationships with men, women, gays, and transgender folks. I had confusing relationships until I came to see my own primal emotions as instincts that evolved, and realized that those emotional instincts will be different if you have a womb. The biology of human behavior will foster understanding.
Besides, we should learn the facts first then chose our ideologies. We shouldn’t chose our ideologies, then try to suppress facts that don’t support what we want to be true. I always ask my college audience, “Are you interested in what’s politically correct, or what’s correct?” Nobody ever says, “Politically correct.” Students want to hear the facts, and make their own decisions about how to interpret it, not be protected from the facts by well-meaning professors.
The scientific evidence is in. Race differences are not significant. Sex differences are significant. Watch my YouTube video and see if you think something about that research illuminates your personal experience of dating and attraction.
JW: I like the chapter where you discover that your own brain is feminine. Has this trait proved advantageous for you?
JQ: When I was in the first grade, I had female friends. That made me the laughing stock of all my buddies. I continued to have female best friends throughout my life. Interestingly, when I took a test that measured attitudes and priorities, it scored ultra-male. But when I took the cognitive tests, I scored perfectly on the test that most women are supposed to be good at, and I scored badly on the test most men are supposed to be good at–in fact I scored like an average female.
I think it’s that tension, the fact that I chat like a girl with the girls, yet am attracted to females, yet have typically male priorities (to whatever extent these things can be measured), that led to an interest in what is the cause of this continuum between male and female human natures. For years I thought it was purely cultural, and that if we lived in a gender-blind society, men and women would behave indistinguishably. When I discovered the biology of behavior, I realized that’s just not true. Girls and boys come into the world with measurably different interests and talents.
I’m not sure I would have pursued this interest if I wasn’t a typical straight man with a girly brain.
JW: I want to talk about your novel Exult now. This story really blew me away; it’s so physical and lyrical and obsessive and unafraid–the hang-gliding book Hemingway never got to write. But first off–how does an evolutionary psychologist explain the phenomenon of hang gliding? Is it all about men exhibiting fearlessness in order to attract women?
JQ: Science Quirk speaking: Correlations have been established between testosterone in your blood and your propensity to risk-taking. Women engage in extreme sports, but not at the same rate as men. Men in their fifties engage in extreme sports, but not at the same rate as men in their twenties. Most winners of the Darwin Awards are male, and every member of Jackass has a penis. I’m convinced displays of fearlessness in social mammals are about winning status among males. Status won becomes apparent in bearing and scent, which females detect, and are attracted to.
Artist Joe speaking–hang on while I switch to the other side of my brain: Since the dawn of awareness, humans have longed to fly. Now we can do it. It’s exactly like your dreams, only better. Getting to know hang gliding enthusiasts, who generally have deeply philosophical frames of mind, made me realize the whole enterprise resonated with the primal myths we store in our nervous system . I had to write about my experiences flying in a community of hang gliders because there was something very deep going on.
JW: Laura is a great character. I felt her motivations for hang gliding were even more profound than those of the male characters in the book. How do male-female differences play out in the hang-gliding realm? What inspired the character of Laura?
JQ: Laura is not just the most renowned flier but the spiritual leader of the group, and all the guys aspire to “ascend’ to her level. For Jack, the main character, this admiration gets mixed up with romantic love, and his love of the skies is mixed up with his love of her. Her complex motives for flying become increasingly apparent as the book progresses.
Though hang gliding is a male-dominated sport, I flew with lots of women, and I never detected tensions or sexism, but you’d have to ask a woman.
I have no idea where Laura came from. She flew in straight from the muse.
JW: Exult packs all the universal themes of love and death and sacrifice into a storyline lasting a couple of days. I understand one publisher told you that women weren’t interested in hang gliding, and that the book was too emotional for men–now I find myself connecting this with how you say you were treated in first grade. I would see your being “attitudinally male yet cognitively female” as one of your strengths as a writer…. It’s ironic that an expert on gender differences would be accused of not marketing [himself] specifically enough to a single gender.
JQ: I’m tempted to quote directly from the letter the editor sent my agent. He literally suggested I tone down the action to make it appealing to women, or make it less lyrical and relationship-based to appeal to men. He said if I did either of these dumbing-downs, he would look at a re-write. I told my agent I don’t want anything to do with an editor who thinks in these male-female polarities.
In my personal life and political convictions, I bristle at these asinine generalizations about men and women. Yet in my nonfiction, I specialize in elucidating how men and women, are, on average, emotionally and cognitively different. What the data shows is that there is broad overlap between the genders. If you meet a person with a penis, you can’t be sure he will be better than the average woman at turning mental Lego sets around in his head, but you can bet that he is. Some women will be better at that skill, but most will not.
And most women better not even try to take me on in matching flowers to their appropriate fruits. Once, when my ex-girlfriend and I were between our sixth and seventh breakups, I let her arrange the table setting. The centerpiece? Complete disaster. Just because cherry and crabapple blossoms match in their colors doesn’t mean they match in their themes. Honestly.
JW: I’ll have to take your word for it about table settings!
The tragedy of male-female communication failure is central to your story. And Jack’s inner battles–is he about action or relationships? does he ultimately want to be a regular, grounded guy, or a celestial mystic?–are part of why he’s such a compelling character.
JQ: His struggles with storms and wind currents mirror his struggles with relationships on earth. Any artist–or anyone with a consuming passion–can appreciate how your vocation can detract from your life. Some character in a Bergman film said something like “I can live in my art. I just can’t live in my life.” Jack’s struggle in Exult is to apply the virtues he’s cultivated in the sky to his relationships on earth.
Joe Quirk’s novel Exult is currently available as an e-book through Scribd.com. A paperback version is set to be released by Numina Press in July 2009.