Darwin, Hookups, and the Unanswered Question


We often use the phrase “hook-up culture” to describe the millennial phenomenon of casual, meaningless and often alcohol-induced sex. We should, however, be more specific in defining our terms.  When we say ‘culture,’ we could mean “the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic.” We could also mean culture, as in, “the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties, especially by education”, or, perhaps most aptly for our purposes, culture as in “the act or process of cultivating living material (as [in] bacteria or viruses)…” (Merriam-Webster Online). A survey from the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, a group devoted to sexual health and education, calls hook-up culture a “biopsychosocial” phenomenon, a term that sounds highly specialized and yet, upon closer examination, is uselessly broad, and merely defines the hook-up as a biological, psychological and social activity amongst human beings.

The nature of hook up culture seems similarly vague.  According to the American Psychological Association it can include “a wide range of sexual behaviors, such as kissing, oral sex, and penetrative intercourse,” while the American Sociological Association insists it’s merely a matter of the criteria that young people use to choose partners.  In general, the details and specifics seem less important than the essential nature of the hookup—brief, noncommittal, with little or no pretense to romance.

Whether or not the changing attitudes towards sex are good or bad for society has been subject to much debate.  Some pronouncements are grim.  An article appeared in the New York Times last year that mused on “The End of Courtship?” Or perhaps more damning, “The End of Sex,” a book by Religion Professor Donna Freitas at Boston University.  Kate Taylor notes the reactions of “older people” in particular, who “seem to have been disturbed and saddened” by the hook-up scene as described in her New York Times article “She Can Play that Game Too.”

Part of me bristles at the response.  The shift in behavior might be noticeable, but to deem it the end of an era seems a bit extreme.  Indeed, others like Taylor appear to have embraced the new hook-up scene as a future for young people who want to focus on their careers and self-development before a relationship.  Still others view it as transitional, an effect of “courtship and relationship practices…changing”, making the so-called ‘hook-up’ culture little more than a temporary period.  Nonetheless, part of me is inclined to agree— even though we can’t know where we’re going while we’re in the midst of whatever period it is we’re experiencing–I can’t shake the worry that something is being lost.

I was struck, in particular, by Freitas’ argument, that the increasingly impersonal social interactions via text, Facebook and Twitter (Freitas, 8) might have played a role in the unraveling of ‘the relationship.’ To me, though, this seems to be part of the larger problem of the changing language we use to talk about relationships– or rather, the language we don’t use to talk about them.


After the sexual revolution of the 60s we’d like to think sex has gotten better– that people are more enlightened about what makes sex good (for men and women alike).  People aren’t punished by a strict system of absolute chastity followed by absolute fidelity.  In fact, we’ve taken away the near-unattainable standards of Chastity and Fidelity entirely.  One of the things I’ve heard all too frequently when I start to get into what I think might be a relationship with someone is, “I don’t want to put a label on it.” “Boyfriend” and “Girlfriend” carry all the weight of someone’s luggage hitting your bottom step. They imply something long term and serious. To say the least, we’ve come a long way from “getting pinned” and “going steady”. I’ve gotten into more than a few nitpicky debates with my would-be partners over terminology before realizing that we are in no way free of commitment.  In some ways it seems to me, that getting rid of the old standard of marriage, fidelity, or even monogamy hasn’t freed us to explore our relationships—it’s just helped take away our vocabulary to talk about them.

To understand this phenomenon, I want to look at a drastically different type of paradigm shift that happened in Europe during the mid-nineteenth century.  Darwin was publishing his On the Origin of Species.  Other thinkers like George Lyell, John Herschell, and John Mills were starting to come up with new methodologies—the word “scientist” was coined in this era by Darwin’s contemporary, William Whewell.  Darwin’s theory of natural selection in particular offered an entirely new theory of evolution: species with different traits either survived or didn’t depending on the conditions of their environment.  The more favorable their specific traits were to their environment, the more likely they were to survive long enough to pass them on to the next generation.

Many find a point of controversy between the arbitrary force of natural selection and the monotheistic creation story that God created the world through his intelligent design.  More than this theological problem, I’m interested in the philosophical problem Darwin’s theory posed: according to On the Origin of Species, survival, and adaptation of a species comes partly out of randomness.  This is what explains the continual existence of what Darwin calls “polymorphic” (Darwin, 35) traits—those within a species that continue to vary, because their state neither inhibits nor advances their ability to reproduce.  Essentially, the question isn’t, why do these traits exist?  But rather, why not?

The question itself is anti-philosophical.  It doesn’t move us in the direction of further understanding the abstract nature of the species’ existence.  Indeed, Darwin makes no claims to be able to uncover the mystery behind why traits in species vary so much in the first place– how those variations came into physical being.  The essential point of On the Origin of Species isn’t to ask the question, ‘why do species exist?’ but rather, to focus on the material quality of their existence.  He can’t give us a philosophical explanation for the absolute origin and nature of our being but he can ask and answer the more manageable question, why do the appearances of species change in certain ways over time?

This shift, as Jonathan Hodge and Gregory Radick suggest in their paper, “Darwin’s Theories in the Intellectual Long Run,” is a fundamental shift away from philosophy, away from thinking about the connection between something’s abstract meaning and its physical expression, to thinking solely about the nature of its physical expression (258).  And since the 1850s, science has made remarkable progress on these purely material grounds, advancing not only our health and prosperity as a society but advancing itself, through the production of technology that allows us to see even more, whether it be orbiting planets or microscopic species living in arctic pockets.

Ironically, the same technology that’s given us insight into some aspects of our world has had a role in taking away insight in others.  Along with high-powered microscopes come smartphones, and iPads, and Twitter and Facebook; a world in which human faces are seldom seen, and language is stripped to a bare minimum of winking faces and LOL’s.

In many ways, our generation’s shift from thinking about sex as part of an abstractly defined relationship to “hooking up” is like the Western world’s shift away from philosophy towards science as a primary mode of thinking.  We tend to dismiss the elaborate legal, emotional, religious, and socially constructed labels for relationships—wedded, wedlock, chaste, cheating, whorish, steady, girlfriend, boyfriend– as archaic, outdated, but its not because our generation has come up with a better vocabulary.  In fact, I don’t think we’ve come up with a vocabulary at all.  We’ve plunged into the physical mysteries of sex without a second thought to their abstract, emotional implications.  The question ‘why have sex?’ hasn’t gone away.  We’ve just stopped trying to answer it.

Indeed, perhaps the question is unanswerable on a grand philosophical scale: sex is so complex and distinct for individual people, the various personal significances are likely limitless. Like Darwin’s theory of natural selection, sex involves so much ambiguity, so many unknown variations.  Not just variations in people, in their personal preferences– but variations in a specific smell, in a certain moment, the way the light is hitting them, or a song that’s playing at the time or a conversation just had.  A particular way of touching, holding. Why does it feel that way? We’ve inherited a language of sex that we can’t speak– we know it and yet it feels like it has been lost to us for millennia.   Translation seems impossible; the prospect of parsing out the numerous, endlessly varying meanings of physical touch into neat, philosophical definitions not only laborious but foolish to attempt. How can you attach a fixed meaning to something that’s so vast and constantly in flux?

No wonder we don’t talk about relationships. The impossibility of coming up with a new name to define our intimacy, or rather to define the intimacy that we want is too daunting.  At least if you’re going steady, you have someone else to try and figure things out with. In this millenium we move alone, in throngs on the dance floor.  We don’t have definite words—right or wrong—that tell us what sex is, or what a relationship is.  Sometimes we don’t even have a full person– just a handful of cryptic texts, an accumulation of disparate and fleeting impressions, random grinding and groping and kissing and caressing that ultimately leaves us grasping for meaning in the dark. We turn the lights off so we don’t have to look, we turn the music up so we don’t have to talk, so we can dance a little longer distracted from the question that continues to go unanswered.

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