The Sex Drive Hypothesis

Characteristically, the scientist confronts a complex interaction system – in this case, an interaction between man and opium. He observes a change in the system – the man falls asleep. The scientist then explains the change by giving a name to a fictitious ’cause’, located in one or other component of the interacting system. Either the opium contains a reified dormitive principle, or the man contains a reified need for sleep, an adormitosis, which is ‘expressed’ in his response to opium. (Gregory Bateson – Steps To An Ecology of Mind: xxvii)

This is an idea I first encountered as an undergraduate on a philosophy of science course. The suggestion here is not that opium lacks this ‘dormitive power’ but simply that citing this ‘power’ is not, properly speaking, an explanation. It simply restates an observed regularity (someone consumes opium —> they fall asleep) by imputing to the ’cause’ the capacity to produce the ‘effect’.  It ignores the underlying causal question: what is it about the properties of opium which leaves it able to manifest this effect when consumed by human beings? Behind any observed regularity (A —> B) we can assume the existence of a mechanism which explains why (under conditions C) the occurence of A leads to the occurence of B. In this case the physical structure of the human brain (the presence of Opioid Reptors) means that when a normal human being consumes a sufficient quantity of opium, it causes them to fall asleep.  So behind the ‘dormative power’ there lies a causal story waiting to be told.

Next question: what’s a ‘sex drive’? It’s a term which has increasingly bugged me since I began to study asexuality. All the explanations I have come across (an instinctual drive for sex, a physiological need for sex, the behavioural manifestation of our sex hormones etc) are fundamentally circular in the manner of opium’s dormative power. I’m not for a second denying that the vast majority of people both exhibit & experience a desire for sexual activity, I’m simply suggesting that ‘sex drive’ (or libido) is not, as such, an explanation of this sexual activity. At best it’s an invitation to tell a further causal story. There have obviously been some attempts to do this but they have tended to be either reductively biological (e.g. hormonal/neurochemical) or psychological (e.g. developmental theories of libido). Do they have to be? What would a non-reductive theory of ‘sex drive’ look like? Ask me at the end of the post doc I’m going to apply for!

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