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.