PART MAN PART MONKEY

Our funny little atavisms.


In the NY Post the other day, there was an excerpt from a new book by a former Kennedy White House intern, Mimi Alford. Among other details about her 18-month affair with JFK:

“He had been guilty of an even more callous and unforgivable episode at the White House” during a noon swim. Powers had rolled up his pants to cool his feet in the water. “The president swam over and whispered in my ear. ‘Mr. Powers looks a little tense,’ he said. ‘Would you take care of it?’

“It was a dare, but I knew exactly what he meant. This was a challenge to give Dave Powers oral sex. I don’t think the president thought I’d do it, but I’m ashamed to say that I did . . . The president silently watched.”

Commentators have been clucking over this as a “sordid” anecdote, but otherwise haven’t made much of it. They seem to take it for granted that men behaving laddishly will share a young woman in this way, and women behaving sluttishly will comply. But where does such behavior come from? Do we subconsciously know, so that we don’t bother to ask?

It’s easy to overdo the evolutionary psychology stuff, but I can’t help wondering if this sexual-largesse scenario (guy uses girl, shares her with his buddy, girl cheerfully complies) reflects something deep, and formerly more functional, in the human psyche — something that would surface nowadays only in an environment of near-zero inhibition. JFK’s posse certainly seems to have helped create such a permissive environment (Alford never once encountered Mrs. Kennedy).

Anyway, my speculative hypothesis (which is sort of obvious) is that kings and barons and chieftains, once upon a time, entertained male guests with such girls — after having sampled them first, no doubt — in what eventually became a standard show of hospitality, camaraderie and “bonding.” In other words, the girls were ritually shared just as food and drink were ritually shared. If memory serves, Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur — the original “Camelot” story, by the way — is full of that sort of thing, and the girls who took part were often “maids of honor” of supposed good breeding (somewhat like Alford, a debutante and a graduate of Miss Porter’s School).

In crude evolutionary terms, the impulse to girl-share would have been adaptive in the same way that a general hospitality impulse was adaptive — assuming reciprocation and a positive-feedback “network effect” as the trait spread — but its evolutionary benefit would have been even more direct, since it would have led to increased fecundity not through better nutrition, etc., but through more sex and more children (in other fellows’ castles). As for the girls who took part, their congenial bed-hopping in the chambers of the elites would have brought significant survival advantages (food, shelter, protection, etc.), for them and their offspring — and the resulting “compliance” trait may have persisted to the present, even if it now lies more or less latent beneath layers of modern morals.

So maybe that’s an easy behavior to explain — at least speculatively, as a halfway plausible story. But how about this other odd one, which I heard about once in college, and then saw again the other day on a Mad Men episode rerun: A guy gets so blotto drunk that he goes to the place where some enemy lives or works, and defecates there. I guess it isn’t hard to catch a whiff of the basic motive — but how far back does this behavior go? Pre- H. sapiens? Monkeys throw their feces when unhappy, and basic territory-marking with feces and urine isn’t even confined to primates. Was crapping on an enemy’s turf an old hominid signal to fight or submit? I guess we’ll never really know. But I notice that, even more than the girl-sharing impulse, it seems to emerge nowadays only when there’s a near-total disinhibition, in this case usually by alcohol.

I wonder what other weird stuff we have in our brains, that’s waiting to come out if the conditions are sufficiently permissive?

PART MAN PART MONKEY