Can evolutionary principles help us explain behavioural differences between men and women, and if so, to what degree?

Historians and philosophers of science engaged in evolutionary thinking, along with several evolutionary biologists, are sometimes suspicious of two purportedly scientific disciplines: evolutionary psychology and sociobiology.  Since the “scientific status” of these disciplines is, in particular, a favorite issue for many of us at The Bubble Chamber, it seemed appropriate to make it the topic of our first “debatable” post.  The post itself grows out of material recently taught by Vivien Hamilton in one of her courses at Toronto’s IHPST.  The idea behind “debatable” posts is that we will outline a contestable topic that readers will carry forward in the comments section; so please, feel obliged to take issue with anything in this post that you disagree with, and to address any aspect of the issues raised, in the comments section.

The disciplines of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology aim to explain psychological and sociological facts on the basis of evolutionary principles, and are often concerned with formulating and defending evolutionary explanations about perceived gender differences in humans.  Thus, Richard Dawkins, of The God Delusion fame, goes back to “first principles” in his early book The Selfish Gene to “inquire into the fundamental nature of maleness and femaleness” (140).  Dawkins defines “maleness” and “femaleness” in terms of the quantity of gametes produced – across species, males produce more sex cells (e.g. sperm) than females (e.g. ova).  Taking this as his starting point, Dawkins is able to “interpret all the differences between the sexes as stemming from this one difference” (141).  From the “fact” that women are more coy to the “fact” that men are more promiscuous, Dawkins uses different levels of gamete production between the sexes to explain well-entrenched views about the essential differences between men and women.

Nancy Tuana, a well known and highly respected feminist philosopher, has taken issue with this mode of “interpreting” the differences between the sexes.  For one, the evolutionary narratives Dawkins forwards are very short on evidence.  There is little anthropological data to back up his stories, and the differences he cites between men and women are by no means stable and unchangeable.  Echoing famed evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, Tuana calls Dawkins’ stories about the evolution of behavioural differences between sexes “just-so-stories.”

A “just-so-story” is an evolutionary narrative that is characteristically unfalsifiable.  The production and promulgation of such a narrative generally begin by taking some cultural or behavioural practice as given, immutable, and (potentially) biologically determined.  An evolutionary account is then developed, generally without any genetic, historical, or anthropological evidence, that seeks to explain how such behaviour would have been more advantageous than alternative behaviours.  The promulgation of these narrative occurs once they are taken as “facts.”

These sorts of narratives surround us today.  We hear about men’s “animal lust,” and women’s innate desire to be provided for as they serve their natural function of birthing children, both of which supposedly arise from evolutionary pressures.  Amy Adele Hasinoff has, for instance, done a systematic survey of Cosmopolitan articles that uncovers how many sociobiological narratives are now taken as “common sense” and used to not only excuse men’s bad behaviour as “natural,” but also justify providing tips to help women better replicate existing gender stereotypes.  In this way, just-so-stories not only begin with supposed “facts” about sex-based differences between men and women – they also reinforce them by explaining such stereotypical gendered behaviour as “natural” and “inevitable.”

Tuana’s response to sociobiological “just-so-stories” like Dawkins’s is to offer up alternative narratives, questioning the evolutionary inevitability of the behaviours Dawkins finds so universal in human males and females.  When Dawkins argues that differences in gamete production explain men’s promiscuity, Tuana responds with an alternative story that notes “evolutionary pressures” for women to be more promiscuous, and men more monogamous.  For example, males are most potent when they engage in sexual activity about once every three days; but since women are only fertile for a few days a month, it is in their reproductive interest to have sex with as many different men as possible during that month.  On this account, which effectively turns Dawkins’s account on its head, men should seek monogamy so that they can have the sole chance to impregnate a woman during her fertile period, and women should seek polygamy (especially during their short fertile period) so that they can better ensure impregnation.

In concluding that, evolutionarily speaking, women should be more promiscuous than men, Tuana is not claiming that women are more promiscuous than men.  She is not, as it were, claiming that her account is correct, and Dawkins’s alternative account is incorrect; rather, her point is that evolutionary thinking alone cannot be a useful tool for understanding sex and gender relations – such understanding must also integrate anthropology, genetics, developmental biology, feminism, and sex studies.

While we are right to be wary of “just-so-stories” as evolutionary explanations of sex-linked behavioural differences, there are also several scientific studies that strongly indicate sex-linked biological differences will have implications for human mating behaviour.  Some of the most famous ones look at the way a genetic complex called the “Major Histocompatibility Complex” is linked to body odor preferences.  Basically, women are asked to smell different men’s sweaty shirts and rate the “attractiveness” of the scent.  By and large, women will single out those scents which most differ from them genetically.  This study supports, at minimum, the belief that some of men and women’s behaviour could be the result of their biologically determined sex, a fact that many believe requires an evolutionary explanation.

Could similar studies finally provide a strong evidential basis for an evolutionary account of sex-based differences that would otherwise be deemed an unsupported “just-so-story”?  What would such a study look like, and could it ethically be conducted?  Why do we seek biological explanations for such things in the first place?  How can we guard against the socially problematic effects of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology?  All of this is, at this point, highly debatable.  Please discuss.


  • Michael Cournoyea
    Michael Cournoyea Reply

    A little Savage Love to add to the fire… Outspoken sex columnist and love guru Dan Savage has recently advocated for a bio-normative account of human sexuality that reaches back to our evolutionary ancestors for sexual advice. While Dan Savage does not give his followers permission to cheat or blanketly dismiss monogamy, he does advocate the view that we are ‘hard-wired’ to break the bonds of monogamy. These views seem to stem from his adoration for a recent book entitled Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, co-authored by Spanish psychologist Christopher Ryan and psychiatrist Cacilda Jethá:

    “Sex at Dawn is the single most important book about human sexuality since Alfred Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on the American public in 1948. Want to understand why men married to supermodels cheat? Why so many marriages are sexless? Why paternity tests often reveal that the “father” isn’t? Read Sex at Dawn.” (July 8, 2010; found here)

    At the heart of Ryan and Jethá’s thesis is the idea that monogamy is evolutionarily unnatural. Dan Savage allowed Ryan to respond to three questions in his popular column this summer and in responding to a woman whose avatar was DWBAH (Don’t Want to Be A Heartbreaker), Ryan answers:

    “Who are you, DWBAH? You’re a slut. (I mean that in the sex-positive sense! I’m a slut, too!). And what are you really into? Variety. And don’t feel bad: You didn’t fail monogamy, DWBAH, monogamy failed you—as it has failed so many others (Clinton, Edwards, Spitzer, Vitter, Ensign, et al.), and will continue to, because monogamy is unrealistic and—this is not a word I toss around lightly—unnatural.” (July 8, 2010; found here)

    This ‘unnaturalistic fallacy’ quickly shifts from evolutionary ‘facts’ to contemporary ‘shoulds’. Decisions about sexual partners and their commitments are reduced to speculations about our evolutionary past. One might quickly forgive Dan Savage for his ignorance of such ‘just-so’ fallacies (not to mention adaptationism) if it wasn’t for his overwhelming influence on the heart and minds of lovers. An argument for polyamory (and perhaps even an explanation for how enticing it is) needs to come from personal reflection, communication with one’s partner, and a deconstruction of societal discourses on love (see The Ethical Slut, for example). Yet legitimation is so much sweeter when it has Darwin’s stamp of approval and when so-called Science is no longer an agent of some conservative machine. In a later post, Dan Savage clarifies his position but stays true to his Darwinian enlightenment:

    “What the authors of Sex At Dawn believe—what they prove—is that we are a naturally non-monogamous species, despite what we’ve been told for millennia by preachers and for centuries by scientists, and that is why so many people have such a hard time being and remaining monogamous. I’m not saying that everyone everywhere has to be non-monogamous; the authors of Sex At Dawn don’t make that argument either. […] The point is that people—particularly those who value monogamy—need to understand why being monogamous is so much harder than they’ve been led to believe. In some cases this understanding may help people find the courage to seek out non-monogamous relationships and/or arrangements and/or allowances that make them—gasp!—happier and make their relationships more stable, not less, as a routine infidelity won’t doom their marriage/domesticpartnership/commitment/slavecontract/whatever. But understanding that monogamy is a struggle for most people, and being able to be honest with our partners about it, may actually help some people remain monogamous.”

    Whether you choose monogamy, polyamory, or something in between, make sure you do a little research before invoking a monkey’s tail of evolutionary selection. Soon enough I’ll write a letter to Savage Love – looking for some sexual advice on Gould & Lewontin.

  • Mike Thicke
    Mike Thicke Reply

    On the other hand, some stories are better than others. I haven’t read Tuana, but her story just doesn’t seem credible to me. Given that pregnancy lasts 9 months, and assuming that a man can impregnate a woman every 3 days, a man could conceivably have a productive harem of ~90 women. A woman, on the other hand, is going to experience pretty severe diminishing returns with a harem larger than 3 men. At 9 men she’s having sex with a maximally-fertile man 3 times a day! Even if these extremes aren’t all that realistic, there is a ton of room between them.

    And Tuana’s story doesn’t show that men have incentive to be monogamus themselves; it shows that men have incentive to force their mates to be monogamus. And notably women in this scenario have less incentive to force their mates to be monogamus, as monogamus males will only affect other females’ chances of reproducitve success if there is a severe shortage of men. Once a woman is pregnant she can’t get pregnant again for 9 months, but if a man gets someone else pregnant he’ll be maximally fertile in another 3 days.

    Of course this doesn’t prove anything, but it seems credible to suppose that biological differences between men and women are likely to have social implications.

  • Benny Reply

    Really interesting discussion! I’d like to add a few more data points and discussions of these issues:

    The sociobiologist Sarah Hrdy has written about some of these issues, specifically about how, in primatology and other fields of animal ethnography, there was something of a revolution in how to understand female sexuality in the late 70s and early 80s. In particular she argues that until female primatologists entered the field, the heretofore male dominated research had interpreted all the sexual selection action and related behaviors to be with the male, what she calls ‘the myth of the coy female.’ What was determined after women entered the field and began doing field research without some of the same androcentric assumptions was that females in some primate species (and some species of birds and other animals) had a variety of strategies for managing their sexual and reproductive life, such as mating quite promiscuously so that the parentage of the offspring could not be determined, thus reducing the chances of infanticide by rival males. Part of her point is that the myth of the coy female made it easy to construct the ‘just so’ stories with an androcentric bias, and that the reality was much more complicated. It is a pretty interesting case study for how background assumptions affect scientific investigation I think. (Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, “Empathy, Polyandry, and the Myth of the Coy Female” in Ruth Bleier, ed., Feminist Approaches to Science ).

    Another interesting and relevant work is that by Liz Lloyd, in ‘The Case of the Female Orgasm.’ Lloyd argues that research into the evolutionary origins of the female orgasm has been often based around two assumptions, both of which are questionable (and which she describes and argues against in the book): first that female sexuality is analogous to male sexuality, and second, an adaptationist assumption that the female organism is the product of selection and not, as Lloyd herself favors, a biproduct of selection for the male orgasm. As such, she argues, there is no explaining the female orgasm functionally, that is, it doesn’t increase sperm retention or whatever. Instead it must be explained on evolutionary development grounds.

  • vincenzo fano Reply

    Many epistemologists have the feeling that through evolutionary psychology it is possible to explain each human character. Durwin himself in “The origin of species” was aware of an analogous problem concerning explanation of biological characters by means of evolutionary selection. Indeed in the Chapter on the “Instinct” he explains that, in order to have an evolutionary explanation, we need evidences that there is a series of ancestors of the bearer of the character that approximate progressively to it through a better and better adaptation, which favour fitness, that is the quantity of offsprings. Evidences supporting the existence of such a chain of ancestors could be of different kinds, viz. paleontological, intermediate character in exixsting species etc.
    On one side it is not possible to dismiss completely evolutionary psychology. On the other, probably it is difficult to request that its hypotheses be falsifiable, since evolutionary explanation is much different with respect to that of other theories; for it has a sort of historical character. May be we could accept an evolutionary explanation of a behavioral character when and only when it is suitable supported by evidences of the history that brought to it.

    • Curtis Forbes
      Curtis Forbes Reply

      I agree with you to a point, Vincenzo. We cannot dismiss completely evolutionary psychology, and they cannot investigate the things they want to if we force them to only forward hypotheses that are testable. But in admitting that, I think, we’ve accepted that evolutionary psychology is almost always going to be strongly “underdetermined” by the evidence – that is, there will rarely be good grounds to accept one hypothesis over an alternative. If they’re not even able to identify a most plausible narrative amongst all the evolutionary stories they could possible give, I’m worried that evolutionary psychology fails to actually produce scientific knowledge. That’s a huge worry, but an even bigger worry is that, despite all this underdetermination, evolutionary psychologists still claim that certain theories are more “well-corroborated” or “well-supported” by the evidence. This may be, but the evidence is so scant and largely homogenous that I don’t think being well-supported by it counts for much. Such talk of “well-supported” hypotheses, from people given the authoritative label of “scientist,” can also be harmful to society as it serves to reinforce social stereotypes by linking them up to the wisdom of “science.” That, I think, is very objectionable.

      Nevertheless, as you put it, “when and only when it is suitably supported by evidences of the history,” I would be willing to grant some merit to evolutionary psychological explanation. The problem here is that, if history needs to be appealed to establish the merits of competing hypotheses, we simply don’t have enough anthropological evidence to determine which narrative (e.g. Tuana’s or Dawkins’s) is better supported. It seems, from my perspective, that the evolutionary psychologists are just short on evidence, and end up writing just-so-stories to try and fill in the gaps. But, I think, that’s speculative natural history, not good science.

  • Greg Lusk
    Greg Lusk Reply

    It is difficult to see how (if one thinks that our current biological makeup is a result of natural selection + genetic drift + something else) that evolutionary principles could not help to explain the differences between the sexes (among other things). However, knowing that evolutionary principles may help to explain the differences does not mean that we are in an epistemic situation that allows us to to tell how those differences arose.

    What Dawkins seems to assert is not just that evolutionary principles have bearing on explaining the differences of sex, but also that we can read off the evolutionary track that led to our current physical state. Although one can agree with the former, and thus answer positively to the question raised in the title of this piece, one may deny the latter (as Tuana does). One may be able to tell more than one story of selection in an attempt explain any given trait, but they might also be able to tell non-selection based stories (involving drift and the like). We need a principled way to pick from these stories. Reading off a “just-so” story from our current evolutionary state is to gloss over the fact that any particular trait might have come about in different ways.

    We then shift from asking if evolutionary principles can help us explain current differences to asking how do we justify a particular “just-so” story, and do we ever have to? In the OP it is suggested that an experiment which concluded that females found most attractive the body odour of the most genetically different males demands an evolutionary explanation. This indeed may be the case, but to demand an evolutionary explanation (and only an EVO explanation) would be hasty. First, even if we grant the legitimacy of odour preferences, one needs to show that it is influential in current mating behaviour (money and beauty are popular these days). Furthermore, there is an objection to how this is evolutionary beneficial: In at least one study, the most attractive scent that males identified was actually produced by other males with very different genetics. Evolutionarily speaking, this is not advantageous. This does not mean that an evolutionary explanation is wrong to be called for, but it does question the legitimacy of relying on one just so story or assuming that the evolutionary story is more powerful than a more local explanation.

  • Cory Lewis
    Cory Lewis Reply

    from Greg: “What Dawkins seems to assert is not just that evolutionary principles have bearing on explaining the differences of sex, but also that we can read off the evolutionary track that led to our current physical state.”

    This is indeed the impression one gets from the OP. A dialectic is set up between Dawkins, the gene guy, and Tuana, who wishes to demonstrate that we need more than just evolutionary genetics to explain and understand ourselves.

    But it’s quite clear that Dawkins agrees with her. One has to read all the way to page 3 of ‘The Selfish Gene’ to find Dawkins clearly and explicitly reject the thesis that ‘it’s all in the genes’:

    “…it is a fallacy – incidentally a very common one- to suppose that genetically inherited traits are by definition fixed and unmodifiable. […] Among animals, man [sic] is uniquely dominated by culture, by influences learned and handed down.”

    Given the enormous influence of culture on human beings, Dawkins is committed to the idea that we cannot just tell evolutionary stories and think we have the human animal all figured out. And he does not just pay lip-service to this idea: the end of ‘The Selfish Gene’ is about the evolution of culture, and speculates about the interaction between genetic and memetic evolution. He actively develops and explores the idea that biology, culture and environment interact in complex ways. There are lots of things I don’t like about Dawkins’ ideas. But good god, do we really need to caricature him like this?

  • Curtis Forbes
    Curtis Forbes Reply

    I don’t think we’re caricaturing Dawkins here. Dawkins does have a multi-faceted view of human behaviour, that sees it as affected by both genes and culture. At the same time, he has a particularly genetic account of gendered behaviour, rather than a culturally-based one, and I think that’s a particular failing regardless of his over all understanding of genes, culture, and human behaviour.

    And while Dawkins may not fall into fallacious arguments about the immutability of human behaviour, Michael brings up a good point about those that invoke the “monkey’s tail of evolutionary selection.” While Dan Savage and the Sex at Dawn crowd may be able to problematize monogamy through appeal to evolutionary selection pressures, they often slip into condemnation of monogamy as “unnatural” as well. Even those who acknowledge the mutability of human behaviour can use their evolutionary narratives to moralize for humanity.

    The title of the original post asks whether we can use evolutionary principles to explain human behaviour. I think we can use evolutionary principles to do this, if only rarely, and that we may even find good explanations if we insist on testability and strong support from a variety of kinds of evidence as the marks of credibility. So, now I wonder if I shouldn’t have made the question “Should we seek evolutionary explanations of behavioural differences between men and women, and if so, how, why, and when?” I’m not sure how to answer: on the one hand, we don’t know what such explanation-seeking might lead to, and we might be optimistic that such inquiry would lead to something positive. But, on the other hand, I’m not sure what that “something positive” could be, and I do see the real social danger in endorsing evolutionary psychological explanations of the kind that, for example, Dawkins sometimes proffers.

    Janet Kourany has argued, quite well I think, that when it comes to this kind of theorizing, which has the potential for damaging social consequences, scientists need to actually raise their standards of evidence. While it doesn’t hurt anyone if physicists speak over-confidently about the merits or truth of string theory or loop quantum gravity, or if molecular biologists discuss an untested hypothesis about hormone function as if it were already established, talking about human behaviour is different in terms of its social impact. If scientists note that there is an evolutionary explanation for some stereotype (e.g. of why “asian people are smarter than white people,” or why “women are coy and men are sexually aggressive”) this actually functions so as to further entrench that stereotype – after all, if scientists not only accept it as fact, but have actually claim to be able to explain it, how could it not be true?

    Kourany, sometimes, has actually argued that we should actively ban research that is socially dangerous in this way. Though I do something question their motive, I wouldn’t necessarily want to ban researchers that want to investigate the behavioural linkages between things like race, gender, culture, and genetics. What I do want is for them to be more cautious in their construction of hypotheses, more willing to engage broad criticism, more stringent in their evidential standards, more self-conscious of the effect their own prior beliefs have when they assess the credibility of their hypotheses, and, most importantly, more aware of the social impact their hypothesizing can have.

    In many ways, that’s exactly what the female primatologists Benny mentioned were doing – questioning hypotheses more than their contemporaries had, forcing the uptake of criticism, raising the standards of evidence then in place, and uncovering the unquestioned hidden assumptions that informed primatology at the time. Such efforts had greatly positive effects on the discipline and society, not the least of which included a more honest and complicated picture of humanity. I hope similar efforts will plague evolutionary psychology for centuries to come.

  • Cory Lewis
    Cory Lewis Reply

    If you can find some references in Dawkins to support your assertion that he sees human sex-roles as particularly gene-influenced, I would be interested to see them. He’s one of those authors that is constantly being taken to be saying something completely other than what he wrote (probably because he’s not a very good writer). But quotes like the following seem pretty clear to me:

    “Many human societies are indeed monogamous. […] On the other hand, some human societies are promiscuous, and many are harem-based. What this astonishing variety suggests is that man’s [sic] way of life is largely determined by culture rather than genes.” p. 164, The Selfish Gene (1989 ed.)

    On the basic thesis you’re putting forward, that evo-psych explanations are difficult to prove and dangerous to put forward, I totally agree. I think we have a lot of work to do in clearing up the relation between genetics and biology in general before it even becomes possible to do such work in a reasonable and responsible way. Lewontin suggests that in the minds of many, DNA has become the modern bearer of the bad old ideas of ‘blood and race’, with a thin patina of scientific respectability. This strikes me as true, and disturbing.

    But none of that, as you’ve said, goes to show that human behavior and evolutionary biology should never be allowed to meet. First and foremost, we are biological creatures – the idea that biology should have nothing to say about our existence seems indefensible.

  • J. Burks Reply

    I read your post. I have not had time to read the others. I wish I had a more time for a proper or careful debate. But unfortunately I can, on expedience, only offer something quite general and perhaps too oblique.

    There is some irony to a philosopher of science, not a scientist himself even, suggesting that two entire (but overlapping) academic disciplines are “purportedly scientific” (disciplines which themselves are actually propped up, in part, by many, many other scientific disciplines, thus implicating a huge chunk of academia).

    Given the volume of research churned out, and the massive diversity of it—even in relation to sex differences only—it would by quite ‘just so’ of you to rule most of it out as unscientific, unfalsifiable, or socially problematic. The most academic position, in my mind, and the best you could do, is say this study by so and so, on such and such, is not scientific, or is crude, or what-have-you.

    What is even more interesting is the degree to which many scholars in the humanities accuse evolutionary views on sex differences as being ‘just so’ while their own research or favored positions are quite soft on research triangulation. For example, Georgio Agamben has a thesis that western democracy, by its nature, produces bio-politics, which in turn produces totalitarianism. The current political paradigm of the west is “purportedly” (he claims) the concentration camp. He makes this claim without reference to social science; he draws no explicit distinctions between say North Korea and what we see in the west, or between various eras of concentration camps; etc. I actually find his idea interesting. Perhaps (after some comparative looking around) we are even warranted to say the ‘West’ has done lots of bad things, or capitalism tends to be evil, and so on. But the emotional or intuitive appeal of this thesis doesn’t make it plausible.

    You miss an important aspect of Dawkins (who is not the guy you should actually be attacking here as it is not his specialized area of interest and he is preceded by far bigger guns). Gamete size is relevant (which you miss): one is nutrient rich; the other not. Moreover, one sex incurs far greater [or different] costs through reproduction, which starts the ball rolling toward different emphasis on ‘problem solving’ and thus different psychology, anatomy, biochemistry, etc.

    Tuana’s alternative just-so-story does not stand anything or anyone on its head—other than itself maybe. Male ‘most potency’ is irrelevant because all males need to proceed is ‘potency.’ And so males, in an unconstrained ecology, could impregnate many females and be ‘biologically successful.’ They are limited by real-life availability and sometimes (often?) care-taking. The possibility of females engaging in sex outside her short ‘fertile period’ is not really relevant either. How could it be in a females “reproductive interest” to have sex when she is not fertile those other twenty some off days of the month? What’s in her interest is sex for other reasons—whatever they may be, e.g., it feels good. But getting this exactly correct is not always easy to do—as teenage (and other) pregnancy attests (and males–gorillas and humans, etc–appear possessive on occasion: a problem). And then there is always the cost of at least 9 months (in an ancestral environment) if women don’t quite get the timing right—that is to say, when they want sex for non-reproductive reasons, but reproduction happens anyway. What is really relevant is the comparative bottom line limits on reproductive choice—in this instance anyhow.

    Look at the way scientists triangulate on this matter: other species sexual dimorphism/coloration etc (why?); comparison of behavior to organisms whose ecology, diet, etc, matches are own; frequency of masturbation; frequency of sex in same sex relationships (male homosexuals vastly have more partners]; differential biochemistry; production of oxytocin through natural childbirth and breast-feeding and aspects of non-conscious bonding; testosterone surges or falls according to specific perceives loss or success—and how it undermines the impact of oxytocin; differential life-span; the impact of testosterone on building muscle (why?) differential illness (e.g. autism versus stroke); differential brain anatomy; differential rates of homicide; differential participation in high risk activity; differential body types, e.g., relatives sizes of canines, hands and feet; differences in body fat, height; the growth of brow ridges; etc; differential interest in paying for sex or types of pornography; differential types of arousal and speed of arousal; differential speed of and number of orgasm; seemingly differential preferences to leisure activity, entertainment, rough and tumble play; etc.; differential rates of reaching puberty (why?); etc., etc., (Much of this merely statistical, and bell-curved, meaning there are always outliers). I don’t need to argue that this is all conclusive, only that it is very suggestive and provocative. So why sweep it under the rug?

    Socially problematic? It doesn’t need to be. In fact, it could be the opposite. We accept there are constraints on how individuals organize information, good decision-making, and so on. For example, it is helpful if I want to run a marathon, to accept the constraint I have asthma; or that a horse is an organism that won’t have to face the limits I face as an organism. I can use this awareness to create a better plan to achieve this goal. Surely we can do the same with social justice issues. For example, what are the constraints on why humans (in certain ecologies) don’t attend to the environment the way they should? Which aspects of the problem are evolutionary or ecological—which are other than this.

    In seems to me, knowing the kinds of organisms we are, is essential to moral and political problem solving, to being more creative than simply moral didacticism or consciousness raising. (PS. Many evolutionary psychologists would NOT say that men are simply promiscuous and women not).

    Does biology really stop at the neck? (The brain is the most metabolically expensive organ in the body making it most likely to be subject to strong sexual selection).

    I don’t mean this in an unflattering way. I think it’s merely interesting. Look at Drew Westen’s research on politics and emotions; check out Haidt on morality and affective primacy, or even Gigernezer, Hauser, or R. Burton. Reason appears to be post hoc when it comes to morality. (Or look at the way neuromarketers capitalize on the findings of evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists studying sex differences. I think we can only beat them, in part, by attending to these studies).

  • K. Valentine Reply

    I completely agree with J. Burks’ statements on the matter. I myself am in my first year of a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology with a focus on mate selection and attraction, so I have been struggling with these issues in my head lately. I am a female and a feminist, and my field can be admittedly androcentric and status-quo promoting at times. However, evolutionary psychology does offer a useful paradigm from which to generate and test hypotheses about human behavior, preferences, and cognitions. I would say that Dawkins is not the one to attack though; perhaps David Buss. More recent work in evolutionary psychology has shown that women have different preferences in men at different points in their menstrual cycles, suggesting that women too are not entirely monogamous. This still assumes that the main purpose of sex is procreation, which I think may not be the case and plan on looking into at some point in my research.

    However, I will defend evolutionary psychology. It gets a bad rep and it needs to broaden it’s outlook a bit, but it often uses triangulation of methods: anthropology, archaeology, primatology, field experiments, and quasi-experiments (admittedly true experiments cannot be done on sex differences; to attempt to assign sex would be unethical). I also agree that intrasex differences are as significant if not moreso than intersex differences and this needs to be further explored.

  • Curtis Forbes
    Curtis Forbes Reply

    Thanks so much for taking the time to offer you’re assessments, J. Burks and K. Valentine. I suspect we have a lot of agreement on these issues. My concerns primarily surround the social consequences of the evolutionary psychological/sociobiological approach to understanding humanity, and the impetus for attempting such an understanding of ourselves in the first place. While such an approach can be noble, and could be used to help promote equality and justice by uncovering biological difference, I do worry that these approaches can serve instead to help justify and apologize for social injustice along gender and racial lines. With that in mind, I am mainly concerned with the methodology of these disciplines, and determining how best to integrate social concerns with the theoretician’s need for evidential standards.

    In no way did I mean to imply that historians and philosophers, unlike evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists, do not offer up ‘just-so’ stories. Agamben is a good example of someone who consciously doesn’t even care that he is telling just-so stories; I find it troubling, though, that many evolutionary biologists are resistant to the idea that they are doing anything remotely similar.

    Ultimately, the post is aimed at generating debate, a standard against which it seems to be a success. The titular question, after all, was aimed towards finding the limits of evolutionary explanations of sex differences, not at ‘sweeping under the rug’ all the extremely relevant and interesting statistical and experimental data about behavioural sex differences. In no way do I think that ‘biology really stops at the neck.’

    What philosophers of science such as Nancy Tuana, and evolutionary biologists like Stephen Jay Gould, mean to imply by drawing attention to the fact that ‘just-so’ stories are often promulgated as scientifically established facts in these disciplines is a) that gaining scientific status is insufficient for objectivity and the proper evidential grounding of hypotheses, b) that we should, for important social reasons, be specifically wary of the evolutionary stories told to us about our immutable human nature, and c) that researchers should be careful about what sorts of interesting ‘working hypothses’ they portray as scientifically credible or evidentially supported, for both theoretical and social reasons.

    So, I wholeheartedly agree with you guys that these disciplines aren’t necessarily socially problematic. But, it’s also clear that they can be socially problematic, especially when hypotheses are formulated according to prevalent social stereotypes about the ‘nature’ of the sexes and then backed by evolutionary narratives that have no grounding in the available evidence. There are a lot of studies with pertinent information about biologically determined sex differences, but it is often not that easy to interpret this data unambiguously, especially not with a substantial amount of social theory. K. Valentine is right that, at it’s best, evolutionary psychology is a place for all these different disciplines and methods to meet and interact; at it’s worst, however, it can be an apology for injustice, and that, I think, needs to be explictly acknowledged in the discipline’s methodological discussions.

    So, as someone in the humanities studying the sciences, I’m curious about how methodologies might be (or already are) drawn up to help nuance the social and theoretical difficulties that inevitably crop up in the study of human nature. K. Valentine, I’d be very interested to hear what sorts of methodological tactics your discipline gives you for dealing with these issues – just ‘thinking’ about them is great, but it may not be enough to secure the objectivity of the discipline generally. Not all evolutionary psychologists are female, or feminists, and some of them may therefore be more inclined to accept, and publicly defend, incredible hypotheses that validate their prior conception of women’s nature. Buss may be an example of that (I don’t know his work). But what I’m really interested in is how the rules and standards of your discipline serve to ensure that a) alternative hypotheses are always explored, b) that incredible hypotheses aren’t portrayed to the public as established facts, and c) that all the results from the various studies J. burks listed are interpreted so as to give us a truer picture of human nature, rather than to simply reinforce prevalent stereotypes and gender identities. Do disciplinary standards function that way, or is it, de facto, simply left up to socially conscious individuals to make sure they aren’t just telling just-so stories that will be gobbled up by anyone looking for an apology for certain forms of biologically-correlated social injustice?

  • J. Burks Reply

    Once again, I never seem to have any time to properly connect with the debate.

    However…with what generalizations/purported fact is abuse preventable? If there is variation in a population, as critics say, then the impact of any fact/generalization are variable. For an aspiring artist, among others artists, ‘madness’ could be a badge of honour signifying commitment to one’s art. It could also be a stigma. So-called ‘male promiscuity,’ could be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in some sub-cultures and indirectly complimentary to women in some cultures (suggesting they are comparatively self-disciplined etc); or it could be indirectly compromising of women’s opportunity to be promiscuous themselves, etc, etc. When most generalizations are not explicitly normative (i.e., such-and-such is evil), how do you control ‘abuses’ of so-called facts? (If you argue that facts create valence, you cannot do so without assuming some ‘human nature’ and then you are engaging, to some degree, in what your don’t like about EP).

    Also, how does science progress without the possibility of error (on-going and almost never ending refinement)? Surely, most scientists (evolutionary psychologists) want their studies to hold up–they don’t want to be proven wrong–so they are likely to imagine they have conducted studies as good as most other ‘science.’ (Read the studies in social psychology how intentional harm is attributed to accidental events purely in terms of the damage they do, e.g., a car’s breaks going, and the car and driver crashing into your house–the more damage, the more you will attempt to find moral fault).

    How do you measure the abuse, or the impact of some ‘politically regressive fact’ against the abuse of ‘wheel spinning’ on solving problems? Perhaps, if we understood our ‘nature’ better than we do now, e.g., ethnocentrism would be a problem going extinct, but we don’t know, for sure, because of the insistence on some very particular ideas about what science is progressive and what is regressive?

    When do certain unhappy facts get washed out in the balance of other positive facts? Young men commit homicide more than women. This is about as stable and eternal a fact as you can get. Why aren’t men plagued by this more? Or are they? If they aren’t as bothered as they should be, perhaps every ‘negative fact’ is not always as depressing as it may seem–or at least in certain contexts.

    Lastly, read the aims of evolutionary psychologists. Wilson, Dawkins, Pinker, etc. are as Left as almost anyone else can claim to be. Pinker speaks of his desire for ‘biologically informed humanism.’ Singer and his ‘Darwinian left’ is surely a good enough candidate for ‘progressive’ (all his animal rights)? Wilson and his environmentalism? None of them want unequal, unfair distribution of resources, racism, etc., etc. Do we just presume they don’t mean what they say, they are more naive than the rest of us? Isn’t that condescending?

    I think one faction of the Left wants a world without any ‘biological determinism’ whatsoever; the other faction of the Left says, it exists, so how do we create progressive change knowing this. Interestingly the political Right gets up in arms about determinism too, e.g., a gay gene, or psychopathy as a medical condition. Hmmm….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *