Into the Ring of Fire


This is my fourth essay on sexual behavior and morality.  The first, is not specifically about sexual morality, rather, among other topics, it developed the thesis that we were moral before we were civilized – that our chemo-hormonal morality was developed in millions of years of evolution and forms the basis for our moral systems.

In the second: I developed the concepts of sex drive, or better, sex compulsion.  I then placed sex drive in the context of, first, a Hominid Model of Sexual Behavior, and second, a putative Model of Human Sexual Behavior which is substantially different from the hominid model: primarily the pair bond which is the rarest primate mating behavior.

My third effort examined the pair bond in more detail – its evolution due to our development of exceptionally large brains and heads; and the function of the pair bond and partial monogamy to ensure sufficient resources for offspring to develop and have offspring of their own.  I also developed the concept of transfer for one group to another to avoid in-breeding.  This is a critical function, particularly in small-scale groups that do not inherently have sufficient genetic variability.  Female transfer, the choice of a group, is a core of female choice of potential mates.  It also underlies female bonding within the group in the absence of genetic relatedness.

In this essay, I have returned to sexual desire and the pair bond to propound the notion of the paleo- and neo-brains, their cooperative and conflicted relationships, and the problems of the control of human sexual behavior. 

Ed Ricketts

“One look into his mild but goatish eyes,” and you knew that “he loved women in any way, shape or form.”  They were extraordinary eyes, “…an auburn color that radiated with life and otherworldliness.”  Women found them irresistible.  He was a party animal, sometimes partying for days with all sorts of Monterey and Pacific Grove denizens wandering in and out of his biological laboratory.1  He took liberal advantage of those eyes surveying and assessing his.

He was John Steinbeck’s best friend.  After Ed’s untimely death in an automobile accident, John destroyed all evidence of Ed’s “sexual indulgences” claiming to protect the reputation of half of Monterey’s matrons.  Women flocked willingly to Ed, engaged in risky extra-pair copulations, otherwise known as ‘cheating.’  We do not know how actively he pursued these willing women, but there was no compulsion or force on his part.  It is entirely possible and quite probable that women took the upper hand and offered themselves.

How would his eyes signal his love of women?  They are just eyes, not specifically connected to anything sexual.  How would they convey such a powerful signal?  Clearly, he had a quality that women desired to have for themselves and for any children born of these affairs.2  His eyes and demeanor were inherent signals that triggered a sexual response in many women.  What did they see?

Dick Oliver

Ed Ricketts was married and Dick Oliver also.  Oliver, a United States Air Force pilot and member of the Blue Angels aerobatic team, died in a crash.  At his funeral “… more than thirty young women stood weeping behind his wife.  …women adored him.  They couldn’t keep their hands off him. … Women were just attracted to him.”3  No doubt many of those women were also married. Dick Oliver, like Ed Ricketts had something, some inherent signaling, that women found irresistible despite his and their marriage vows.


Her name tag said Ashley.  She was a talker and told me a story and I’m not quite sure why.  All I did was to load 6 ea. 50 lb. sack concrete onto a cart and trundle ‘em over to her check-out stand which was in full view of my labors.  As she entered the UPC into the register she said “If you had asked, I would have called for help for you.”  I said “I may be old, grey and decrepit, but I refuse to give up.”

That kick-started something in her and she started in telling me about her sister.  She told of her nieces and nephews and her sister got started early and had her first child at 15 and on and on.   There was no one in line and she kept going for awhile, animated and smiling.

I was puzzled by this bit of family history offered as if she was my new-found best friend.  Why would she tell it to me?  At a guess there was a difference in our ages of around 40 – 45 years.  I should not have been of any interest to her at all.  All I did was load some Sakrete and give her a few words on how I handle getting decrepit.  Fifty lbs is getting to be my limit for one pick and six of ‘em in a quick row tested my resolve.  I refuse to give up until I absolutely have to and I didn’t have to that day.  She saw that and heard my thirteen words, that is all.

As I left the store I thought of inherent and behavioral signaling of quality.  She had effectively told me that she was single and wishing she wasn’t.  Perhaps, despite the difference in age, for a short time something in my behavior and/or appearance signaled some quality that she desired for herself.  Probably the “refuse to give up.”   Chuckle, never thought that would have been a pick-up line.

So, what was she signaling?  What did she want?  Was she just bored and words poured out of her, or was she more serious?  Could I have parlayed that quick exchange into an extra-pair copulation or an affair?  Was she looking for a permanent pair bond?  Pair bond equals chance of a child and clearly, she wanted some of her own.  She was signaling her availability to me.  She had hope.

There is a denouement to this story.  The next time I went through her check-out station I greeted her cheerfully and received the coldest shoulder possible, hostile even, as if telling me “I am absolutely not interested in you.  Don’t even think of being interested in me.”  I pass through her register now and then, but all further transactions have been properly formal.  I’m no longer signaling quality to her.  I am the same.  She changed.

So, what happened between her warmly gushing and frozen rejection?  I may have barely pushed that loaded cart through the exit and she might have been castigating herself “what the hell was I doing, talking about my sister starting early and getting pregnant at 15?  He picked up the Sakrete, but I am not going to pick him up. That scrawny grey-haired old man is not for me.  What was I thinking?”  She first attempted to entrain me in her reproductive needs and later rejected me for those needs.  An emotional inversion and two different brain functions or states.  First an immediate desire and later something more critical, careful, and measuring won out.


Bob Shaw wrote the science fiction story “Light of Other Days” about an unusual shopping trip.  His wife is pregnant, unwanted and unhappily pregnant, and is taking it out on her husband.  He is trying to get her enthused about a large purchase but is failing.  He wants to please her and she is remaining unhappy and uncooperative.  He rues:

“we … had fallen into the same biological trap as every mindless rutting creature which ever existed.” … I just had to be a fool to marry you.  A prize fool, a fool’s fool – and now that you have trapped part of me inside you, I’ll never ever, never ever, never ever get away.”

The female has to entrain the male, trapping part of him inside her, what a marvelous double vision of cause and effect, penis and fetus, within the pair bond.  And once again, the binary mental states, this time of the male: first a mindless rutting creature and later a prize fool.4

“And it Burns, Burns, Burns”

Johnny Cash released the song “Ring of Fire” in 1963 but it was written by his lover June Carter a few years earlier when the they were both married to other partners.  June said “there is no way to be in that kind of hell, no way to extinguish a flame that burns, burns, burns.”

“Love is a burning thing

And it makes a fiery ring

Bound by a wild desire

I fell into a ring of fire.”

“Ring of Fire”5 is her brain interpreting the tumultuous emotions of love and sexual desire, our evolutionary chemo-emotional morality, a love that was forbidden in those times.6

M and Dan: “Fell Into the Ring of Fire”

I no longer remember when I first became aware of her.  Only that she sat next to me in Chemistry class and I named my daughter after her.  I thought that she was…well, never mind.  You know by now that I thought of her often, of her blue eyes and glossy blond ponytail that curled inward at the end.  She was far beyond my reach, and my desperate signaling “here I am, choose me” was in vain.  While I had eyes for her, she had none for me.  Her eyes were for a higher target of better quality, Dan, the Latin teacher.

Dan was about 27 years old at the time they met, good looking, medium height and solid build.  He was an ex-Army paratrooper, quite probably in the Korean War.  The girls, that is, some of them, competed to sit on his table at the front of the classroom and chat him up.  They also had eyes for Dan.  But he only had eyes for M.  They would have met in her freshman year in Latin 1.  She would have been about 14.  She turned 18 during her senior year and they immediately married.

It is probable that Dan and M initiated some kind of relationship when M. was 14 and D about 27.   What shall we say about Dan?  Did he violate the age of consent laws?  Was he a criminal, a sexual predator taking advantage of the teacher/student relationship, or a human male under the thrall of a very attractive young woman who actively courted and signaled to him?   She won out over all of the other girls who sat on his desk.  She entrained Dan and gained the benefit of his qualities.  I and the rest of us bidding for her notice did not have even the slightest chance.

It is a simple story, but its point is pertinent.  The girls had assessed his probable quality, found it to be greater than the rest of us guys, and signaled their availability to him.  They sat on his desk and chatted him up.  They initiated the process.  This is consistent with the basic hominid model of female signaling: females initiate sex.  Dan simply took the pick of the litter.

U and Ken: And the Flames Went Higher

“When she first walked into my classroom, everyone noticed her.  She had a presence, a way of carrying herself, that was unlike any student I had taught.”  She radiated quality, inherent and behavioral, broadcast in full spectrum.

She can’t be named and her name will have to be U, for Unknown.  She was 14 years old, same age as M and a similar story ensued with a very different ending.  He was the same age as Dan, also a school teacher, but in biology.  He was an exceptional teacher and science camp counselor/manager.  He too fell in love with one of his students.

In four paragraphs Ken tells the story that ended that same summer.  “What I felt inside me had brought dimension to my life in the same way that shadows give form and depth to featureless things.”7  He was in love, but he was married with children. The couple decided to run away together.  They were window shopping in a resort town in Colorado when he was arrested.  She told the officers that they were going to start a new life together.  The pair bond: to start a new life together to then begin a new life.  She had assessed his quality and requisitioned it for herself as he sought her qualities for himself.8

Ken spent 12 years in prison.  What are we to say of Ken?  He wrote essays to explain himself to himself and to us.  He quoted Kahlil Gibran: “reason is the rudder while passion is the wind that fills the sails.”  But “after meeting her, my ship became a rudderless wreckage as it was swept into the hurricane.”  Out of control behavior as the flames went higher.  Ken never stood a chance.  He never knew what hit him.  I read two of his books.  I’m not sure that even now he understands what happened to him.  What was once excited happiness became personal wreckage, once again an emotional inversion – two different experiential states.

The Triune Brain

Paul McLean propounded the triune brain in the 1960’s.9  His thesis was that there were three basic functional parts or levels in the human brain: the reptilian brain with its aggression, dominance and territoriality; the paleo-mammalian brain responsible for, among other things, reproduction and sexual behavior; and the neo-mammalian brain with its language, abstraction, planning, and decision – each built upon the structure of the next lower brain.

This model is no longer viable – brain imaging and comparative anatomy has shown that it is too simplistic.  That being said, the model may provide useful images and concepts.  The paleo-and neo-mammalian brains may be subsumed into this rubric: The paleo-brain tells the neo-brain what to do, when to do it, and how to justify and explain it.  The paleo-brain: the Ring of Fire, the drive and compulsion, the need and desire, and the hurricane.  The neo- brain measuring, calculating, evaluating and on that basis attempting to control the paleo-brain and the overall behavior.  And doing that with mixed success, variable in an individual and between individuals.  It is likely that the paleo-brain controls the neo-brain in many engagements, as some guys ruefully comment, “my little head (of my penis) was thinking for my big head.”

With the concepts of paleo- and neo-brains, I have a useful heuristic that makes it easier to think about emotion, morality, immorality, and behavior controls.  It is a broad picture rather than detailed brain science.  It is a way of knowing, of managing data, of arranging stories in an order, a platform upon which to build new and better stories.

The women throwing themselves at Ed and Oliver: the paleo-brain in operation.  The first Ashley telling gray-haired decrepit old me stories: the paleo-brain.  The second Ashley giving me the cold shoulder, the neo-brain with its executive, calculating, planning, measuring evaluating, and deciding no.  M and Dan: the paleo-brain triumphant over the cultural and legal prohibition of their relationship, yet the neo-brain retaining enough behavior control to keep the relationship secret and Dan out of jail.  Ken and U: the paleo-brain telling them to run away, run away from Ken’s wife and family, clearing the obstacles.  Ken and U shopping for necessities: the neo-brain doing what it was told to do, explaining that they were making a new life together and it would be wonderful.  Bob Shaw set out the conflict between the paleo- and neo-brains, the mindless rutting creature now regretting the rut.  Evolution and reproduction have not a whit of interest in whether sexual behavior makes us happy.  Only that a new life is formed and sustained until it too forms a new life.

Why is our neo-cortex with its executive behavioral control functions, be so unable to control the ‘lower’ sexual and reproductive functions and behaviors?  There are neural connections between them.  It tries.  It fails.  Why what was once excited happiness sometimes becomes agonizing regret?10

The simple observation is that under some conditions, the paleo-brain tells the neo-brain what to do, how to think about it and what to say, and how to rationalize behaviors, completely bypassing the executive socio-cultural behavior control function of the neo-cortex, which is reduced to expeditiously executing instructions from the paleo-brain, wind both filling the sails and turning the rudder.

The paleo-brain has no words.  The neo-brain is filled with words.   Words (and images) are the tools of the neo-brain.  The paleo-brain is filled with emotions.  The neo-brain is tied directly to the paleo-brain’s emotional system, that is, words and images of the neo-brain can easily generate emotional responses, and the paleo-brain emotions can generate word and image responses (not as efficiently), but the neo-brain cannot always control either the paleo-brain’s emotions or the ones it generates itself.  Little is known about how our ancient chemo-hormonal morality is transliterated by our neo-brains into explanatory and exculpatory stories and how the socio-morality of the neo-brain affect the ancient chemo-morality of the paleo-brain.

Like the paleo-brain, the neo-brain has an evolutionary history, rather different, much shorter and more dramatic.  If I turn to look at the chimpanzees and bonobos for information on their paleo-brains and morality, and then turn to look at the human neo-brain and our morality and immorality, I must traverse a vast neural and behavioral chasm.  Hormones, neurotransmitters, neurons and behaviors do not fossilize, so I am left with an astonishing puzzle: is it possible for any other animal to be immoral?  No!  Have humans always been fundamentally immoral, tainted with original sin?  No.  Immorality has an evolutionary history.

I have in these essays set out two entirely different visions of human morality: ‘we were moral before we were civilized’: the chemo-hormonal evolutionarily morality of our paleo-brain.  Against that is the commonplace observation that within civilization the paleo-brain has become the seat of immorality and the neo-brain the locus of morality and behavioral control.  We are frequently immoral and in need of external behavioral controls.


One of my granddaughters, one of those laughing kids that I once played with, now holds a BS in Brain and Cognitive Science.  Early in my essay writing I became interested in how words arrive unbidden in my brain11 and I asked her about it.  One of her comments is pertinent here: cognitive scientists may study what happens when the brain is damaged by physical accident, stroke, or other events.  Various regions of the brain have been identified by this method.

What I have suggested in this essay is analogous: the human paleo-brain may be studied by examining ‘moral failures’, they are microscopes into our ancient evolved chemo-hormonal-morality.  Moral failures, immorality, and their subsequent rationalizations, explanations, and exculpations are also microscopes into the dynamics of the paleo- and neo-brain: how they cooperate and conflict.  That they conflict is entirely unexpected from an evolutionary point of view.  Should they not be wired cooperatively together?  Were they once wired cooperatively together and have become disconnected?  I suggest that the disconnect is a function of being civilized.

The stories Ken and Dan, M and U, matrons and Ed and Oliver, are, in our civilized moral calculus, moral failures, and are solid honest pointers to the operation of the paleo-brain and the difficulties faced by the neo-brain.

The great philosopher Immanuel Kant announced that “Out of the Crooked Timber of Humanity, No Straight Thing May be Made.”  While crooked timber is an apt metaphor for the commonplace observation of failure to control behavior, it is his two previous sentences that are of greater interest, for Kant proclaims that that an inherently just ruler needs be set upon and over the individual to enforce compliance with the laws.12

Our neo-brains are insufficient to resist our paleo-brains.  We require external moral force.  And whence, pray tell, is the just ruler and source of the laws?  Is not a ruler himself made of crooked timber?  Has any set of laws ever been made either sufficient or perfect?  A lawyer told me that one force driving the evolution of the law is that humans will spend a lot of effort figuring out how to circumvent existing law.  Kant’s law and its enforcement by a perfectly just ruler illustrates the presence of a fundamental need and a social problem.

A puzzle is the time line of human development.  Female puberty begins at about 10 years of age13 and is complete by 14 or 15 with full sexual maturity.  The executive control system of the neo-cortex is now thought to mature in the mid-twenties.  There is a full decade between sexual and control maturity in which the neo-brain has reduced control of sexual and other risky behaviors.  It is not entirely clear14 why evolution has not closed that gap.

M and U, both about 14 years old, would have been at or near their full sexual development.  In an earlier essay I recounted a first estrous female chimpanzee who was being driven crazy with raging hormones, and the story of a 14-year-old human female lip-locked with her boyfriend.  M and U have lots of company.  Dan and Ken would have been at the end of the full development of their executive control functions of their neo-brains.  But that was inadequate to prevent falling into their ring of fire.15

I’ll make two suggestions.  First, during our foraging hunter gatherer tenure and after the domestication of fire, human population increased at a higher rate.  Social group fissioning and subsequent dispersal became more necessary.  ‘Making a new life’ together is not solely the function of the pair bond, it is equally a function of the social bond.  A newly fissioned social group must have tight bonds formed under an emotional impulse that sends them literally into the wilderness together to make a new life.16

Second, female transfer between groups is accomplished some time after full sexual maturity.  It is an emotionally difficult and complex  operation. Transfer is accomplished under the chemo-emotional control of the paleo-brain.17  A fully developed neo-brain could interfere with transfer with its executive control, measuring costs and benefits, weighing emotional levels, etc.  The decade of reduced executive control is then a functional element in human demographics.

Christian morality, particularly sexual morality, frequently uses the trope ‘the lower and higher man’, or ‘our animal nature’.  I commend this to your attention: for the conflict of the lower and higher human natures.  Repeatedly, over cultures and generations, humans have complained of their lower natures “now why the hell did I do that!”  That is most certainly, in their retrospective ruminations, a cry for more effective sexual behavior control.  In Kant’s memorable words, we are crooked timber.  Timber warps as it dries.  Humans warp as they are driven from their ancient demographics, from foraging hunter gatherer in which our ancient chemo-hormonal moral controls evolved, and into the dense demographics of fixed villages and cities.  Human immorality is coterminous with sedentism and civilization.


John Steinbeck eulogized Ed Ricketts: and added more dimensions to my portrayal of him.  Another source:  adds more.  These accounts of Ed do not vitiate my portrayal of the women who were in his bed willingly.  Theirs was a dance of mutual desire.

For John Steinbeck:

For the triune brain hypothesis:,The%20Triune%20Brain%20in%20Evolution.

A week after I published this essay, I was reviewing an earlier essay:  and noticed that I had used the concept set of fast and slow systems.  Our danger perception system is characteristically fast, and our evaluative system is slow.  These may be re-conceptualized in terms of paleo- (fast) and neo-brains (slow).

About four months after publishing this essay, I was reviewing earlier work and came across a different example and conceptualization of the paleo and neo-brains:

“As I considered the voice I heard talking to me in my own head, it suddenly occurred to me that what was happening was, more or less, a later development of the brain talking to a more basic and earlier level of consciousness, one which was not verbal itself but which was capable of understanding ideas that either did or didn’t use a verbal form, and which was, in fact, the actual seat and locus of my real awareness. In other words: the prefrontal cortex was like a separate being….”

Eric Coates, while describing his schizophrenia, nailed my conscious verbal mind and its unconscious substrate.  I have read and reread that quote, and marvel at how well he describes what I have been writing about.  While trying to understand schizophrenia he clearly perceived the cross-connections between the word conscious and the pre-word conscious animal minds: a later development of the brain talking to a more basic and earlier level of consciousness.18


  1. He was a marine biologist doing cutting edge research in the shoreline marine ecology of the west coast of the United States and Canada. 

  2. This is the essence of the ‘sexy son hypothesis.  Cf.  

  3. Sherwood, John Darrell, Fast Movers: Jet Pilots and the Vietnam Experience, p. 189. 

  4. He was, at that time angry, and this may dissipate revealing a happier relationship than that depicted here.  I used the quote for its illustration of binary emotions within the pair bond. 


  6. June Carter later married Johnny Cash.  They were married for 35 years till her death. 

  7. Lamberton, Ken, Time of Grace: Thoughts on Nature, Family, and the Politics of Crime and Punishment, p. x – xi 

  8. I wish we knew who first suggested running away and how the partner responded. 

  9. I know this model as the tripartite brain, because the three parts are not quite unified, instead may be conflicted. 

  10. For this essay I have omitted the many successful pair bonds for they do not illustrate paleo/neo-brain conflict. 

  11. Do I here also see the paleo-brain telling the neo-brain how to think?  I wrote, in my first essay “How does my life experience transliterate into words?  I write as self-revelation, as archaeology of my mind, to create meaning via words. 


  13. A quick web-search turns up an age range from 8 – 12 years.  Boys are about 1 – 2 years later. 

  14. I like this trope and its expression of hope that intellectual activity will overcome current ignorance. 

  15. Ken tells stories of risky behaviors including grabbing a 4’ rattlesnake behind its head, so his level of executive control of behavior may have been low. 

  16. The second chapter of James Michener’s Hawaii, “From the Sun Swept Lagoon” is a marvelous depiction of fission and dispersal, of a flight into a watery wilderness. 


  18. Turn the Words Off – Carl Wilson ( 

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