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Male Scientist Chauvinist Pigs
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I finally finished From a Buick 8, and I'm now listening to The Best American Science Writing of 2000.

So far I'm four essays in, and the first three were extremely interesting. One detailed a surgeon's view of human error, and how medicine might better be systemized to reduce the factor of human error. The second was about genetic pioneer and fly researcher Benzer. And the third was about the troubled state of gene therapy research.

But the fourth, oh it was a doozy (and not in a good way).

It's called "Must Dog Eat Dog?" by Susan McCarthy.

The essay starts off provocatively:

Face facts: Men are nothing but horn-dogs, and women only want men for their money. Equations prove: No one ever does anyone a favor unless there's something in it for them. Accept the data: People are just bloodthirsty apes with a flair for spin. We're deluded puppets of our genes, and our genes like us deluded. We have met the enemy and it is our DNA.

Okay, she's going to take on the notion of genetic determinism and gender stereotypes. Sounds interesting. Let's see where it goes.

She goes on to list some of the popular works that laid the foundations for sociobiology, which proposes strong genetic underpinnings for much of human behavior.

Robert Ardrey and Desmond Morris, in books like "The Territorial Imperative" (1966) and "The Naked Ape" (1967) prepared the ground with their visions of killer apes with violent, lustful origins. But evolutionary psychology (an offshoot of sociobiology) really got rolling in the mid-1970s with E. O. Wilson's "Sociobiology" and Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene."

Then she starts setting up the straw men, in order to knock them down:

But one of the uncomfortable truths that evolutionary psychologists must face is that we are also humans, deeply enmeshed in cultures of unprecedented complexity. Not only has culture created science, but the worldviews of scientists as well.

Well, duh. Does this undermine the validity of their conclusions?

Nowhere in the work of Morris, Dawkins, or Wilson (I haven't read Ardrey) have I seen the sort of obliviousness she's insinuating here. All these authors seem keenly aware that we are "deeply enmeshed in cultures of unprecedented complexity".

The widespread assumption that dominant males sire all the infants in groups of social primates, for example, has proven remarkably shaky. Recent studies of primates from rhesus monkeys to chimpanzees have found females lusting after nerdy low-status monkeys, sneaking off with low-status guys, and even refusing to have anything to do with sand-kicking bullies.

Anthropology was my minor in college. I've never heard the view that all infants in groups of social primates are sired by dominant males. This is counterintuitive and ridiculous, just on the face of it. If dominant behavior had a genetic basis, and only dominant males reproduced, subservient male genes would be driven out of existence.

Challenges to evolutionary psychology's earlier thinking about gender were inevitable. A glance through "The Moral Animal," by Robert Wright, an award-winning science writer, not only displays widely annoying assumptions and pronouncements about how women are, but a stream of complaints about feminism (and vague, dishonest, disingenuous, intimidating feminists).

I haven't read Wright's book. Can't comment intelligently on it.

This socio-financial analysis is part of the gold-digger theory of femininity. It starts reasonably enough by pointing out that females put a larger physical investment into giving birth than males do. (In fact, the definition of femaleness isn't two X chromosomes: Biologists decide whether a bird or fish is female by determining which one produces the egg.) Sociobiological theory then explores the implications of that differing investment. At some point, however, theory often jumps tracks, and heads into downtown with whistles blowing. "You bitch!" screams the engineer. "All you ever wanted was my money!"

Again, I haven't read the book, but even without doing so, you think she might possibly be overstating this? Just a teency bit?

The notion is that the ideal strategy for men is to have sex with as many women as possible, in order to get their genes into the next generation, while the ideal strategy for women is to commandeer a man's wealth to provide the resources to keep the kid alive, and this idea has been widely ballyhooed. In this view, monogamy is a perpetual tussle between these competing interests -- if only we would admit it to ourselves.

Notice that she sets this "common misperception" up, without really debunking its facets on their merits.

Several years ago, an article by Lance Morrow in "Time" asserted that insights from animal behavior show that "females organize their lives around the getting of resources (food, shelter, nice things) while males organize themselves around the getting of females." Oddly, it does not appear that Morrow himself roams the streets, hungry and homeless, looking for women.

Cute, huh?

Could it possibly be that Morrow doesn't roam the streets, hungry and homeless, looking for women because that would be a shitty strategy for trying to get women? And shouldn't this be obvious? That a woman looking for resources isn't going to be attracted to a male that has none?

In "Woman: An Intimate Geography," by Natalie Angier, several chapters grapple with received wisdoms of evolutionary psychology. Angier casts substantial doubt on the idea that women evolved to nab rich guys. She argues that in the hunter-gatherer societies in which our tastes are presumed to have evolved, there often are no rich guys. Everyone is equally poor.

This is a gross misrepresentation of hunter-gatherers, as if they were all egalitarian, bohemian socialists.


"Everyone is equally poor"? Come on. In every human group there is an hierarchy. There are those with, and those without. There are going to be males with more resources, and those with less.

McCarthy's oversimplification is simply an idiotic idealization.

In the hunt for data to support the idea that men only care about sex and women couldn't care less, there have been many idiot surveys, including the classic, endlessly reported one in which two charming experimenters, male and female, approached people of the opposite sex on a college campus and asked them to have sex. None of the women agreed to have sex with the male experimenter. Three quarters of the men said they would have sex with the female experimenter. Therefore, men are naturally sexually indiscriminate and women are naturally "coy." We have our proof!

Well, she's pretty dismissive of such results, but do they tell us nothing?

Experimenters can't know if people would really have had sex with them until they actually put down the clipboard and try, and that's apparently a test few researchers follow through on. Or if they do, they're not telling.

Well no, they haven't verified that the subjects would actually follow through, but such a survey does indicate a stated willingness to engage in sex with a stranger. Again, is such a survey totally devoid of meaning?

As more and more researchers are pointing out flaws in the views of gender originally presented by evolutionary psychology, it's annoying to note that the revisionism is mostly coming from women. This is supposed to be science, tested with actual data. Why do the women have to be the ones to point this stuff out? Significantly, a lot depends on where you stand, and sex roles appear more inevitable to the male evolutionary psychologists who first propounded their genetic immutability.

In other words, women are apparently more objective than men, who basically see what they want to see and reinforce their own gender bigotry. See? It makes perfect sense.

There's lots of talk of rhesus monkeys and stump-tailed monkeys, then she moves on to Dawkins:

The increasing focus on peacemaking and cooperation bears on one of the most perennially vexing areas of evolutionary psychology, that of selfishness and altruism, especially as expounded in Richard Dawkins' 1976 book, "The Selfish Gene." Unending confusion has been caused by Dawkins' use of the word "selfish," which switches between applying to individuals and meaning just what you think it means, you egotistical greed-head, and a very specific and different meaning invented by Dawkins and applying to genes -- being an entity subject to natural selection.

I don't know where this "unending confusion" comes from. Dawkins draws the distinction very clearly. When he talks about the selfishness of an organism, he's talking about the self-interested behavior we're all familiar with. When he's talking about selfish genes, he's talking about genes that exhibit properties meant to insure their continued survival. McCarthy makes the distinction herself here, so I don't know what she, or others, are confused about. Who has difficulty distinguishing between animal behavior and the properties of organic molecules?

Partly as a result of this confusion, and partly because of the old fondness for uncomfortable truths, it has been widely announced that there is no such thing as altruism: The thing is genetically impossible.

Again, I don't recall Dawkins saying anything of the sort. Altruism is very real, but behaviorally it has strong genetic underpinnings.

This confusion about altruism and selfishness is odd, considering that Dawkins can write with marvelous clarity. Why use metaphorical language that is so confusing and makes so many people upset? Well, it's certainly catchy. Perhaps there's also amusement in confronting people with the Uncomfortable Truth that everything they do is selfish. Andrew Brown, in "The Darwin Wars: How Stupid Genes Became Selfish Gods" (published in the UK, but not yet in the U.S.), suggests that when Dawkins was born "The good fairy gave him good looks, intelligence, charm and a chair at Oxford ... The bad fairy studied him for a while, and said 'Give him a gift for metaphor.'"

Again, more cuteness, but she doesn't ever refute anything Dawkins says directly. Instead, she simply states that he's "confusing", but she doesn't really say how. Instead, she just takes a cheap shot at him.

Throughout recorded history people have denigrated animals as other and inferior, soulless, mindless instinct machines. Evolutionary psychology alarms people by putting us in the same despised category as animals -- with the exception of those who go with the program, who understand and accept the uncomfortable truths of evolutionary psychology and thereby make an intellectual leap that places us above the genetic battleground. If we didn't place animals down so far, it wouldn't take such a vast leap to distinguish ourselves from them.

I suppose I agree with a bit of what she's saying here. I don't think self-awareness and higher-level cognition really distinguish us all that much from other animals. But I think she's more interested in revering animals, rather than hunkering down with them. It's not that they're operating at a higher level than they are. We're just operating on a lower level than we thought.

As befits a field that can't resist telling you what you're really doing when you think you're doing something else, the controversies of evolutionary psychology involve the motivations of scientists to a remarkable extent. Of course you think that, you're a liberal! Of course you think that, you're a man! Of course you think that, you want to drive me crazy! (Of course you think that, you're a human!) It's a bad sign for objectivity when knowing someone's political party, age or sex is likely to tell you where they stand on the issue of stump-tailed monkey destiny.

And there it ends, thankfully, not having actually made anything resembling a coherent point. She spends the entire essay denigrating scientists who take a strong genetic behavioral view seriously. But in this last paragraph I can't quite tell who or what the hell she's talking about. Is she poking fun at stereotyping, or reinforcing it?

And this made the Best American Science Writing of the year?

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