Sunday, 30 March 2014

Two cheers for evolutionary psychology

Content note: rape, misogyny. Some details potentially NSFW.
You guys will have figured out by now that pretty much everything I write, I write because I read something that I disagreed with and it bugged me. Well, a few months ago now I commented on a guy called Richard Carrier’s blog to tell him that yes, it’s still rape if you have sex with someone whom you’ve plied with alcohol to the point of stupor, even if it so happens that they feel aroused at the time (while being drunk to the point of stupor). He didn’t publish my reply to his reply, and the reason I’m telling you this is that ever since then, I haven’t been able to comment on dozens of blogs. I click “Submit” and the comment disappears. This means I have a lot of bottled-up rejoinders to blog posts I’ve disagreed with buzzing around in my head, and I don’t care if that’s a mixed metaphor.
And one thing that especially gets to me is when people whose politics I basically agree with, try to back them up with crappy science. Or rather, that doesn’t happen so often as when people whose politics I agree with try to back them up by denying non-crappy science. Since I’m a leftist, this generally isn’t global warming or evolution; it’s more often vaccines, fluoridation, and genetically modified food. (I don’t trust big corporations not to poison our food or the environment, but that’s because they already do; GM wouldn’t make it much worse.) But sometimes it is evolution. Especially, evolutionary psychology.
I’ll start with a general point from somebody I usually agree with, a feminist blogger going by the handle “Queen of Thorns”. The background here is that a few months ago in New Zealand there was a national scandal involving a group of teenage boys who bragged about having gang-raped a number of young women at parties, and evidence suggesting that their boasts were true in at least two or three cases. In the wake of which, a university debating society decided to entertain themselves discussing the proposition that “This House, as a parent, would tell their daughter to drink responsibly to avoid sexual assault”. Queen of Thorns rightly called this “patriarchal, privileged bullshit”. I’ve never joined a debating team myself for the very reason she puts in first place: “The point of debating is not to discover truth. It’s to win.” But that being the case, I must object at least to the wording of her second argument: “[Debating] holds ‘rationality’ or ‘reason’ or ‘logic’ as supreme.” I’m more or less of a rationalist myself, and as far as I’m concerned, if you’re not trying to discover truth, you don’t get to call what you’re doing “reason”. The word I’d use is sophistry.
In context, I agree with what Queen of Thorns is saying. I bring it up because, out of context, that paragraph looks like it means something which (a) a lot of well-meaning people would agree with but (b) is completely wrong. I’m pretty sure she didn’t mean that reason and science are, root and branch, mere tools of the Western capitalistic power structure that bear no more relation to the truth than religion or superstition, but that’s what one of my anthropology lecturers (who was firmly anti-feminist) used to mean when he talked about scientific hegemony, which he did quite a lot. So I can’t go along with P. Z. Myers’ characterization of Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate as a “straw-man”. The blank-slaters I’ve met may not have been doing “serious science” in Myers’ estimation, but they were teaching blank-slate-ism in a university, whereas no-one has ever taught genetic determinism in a university.
In what sense is science “Western”? If you think the idea of investigating the world empirically is a European innovation, go educate yourself about traditional Polynesian navigation, or the tracking techniques used by forager peoples worldwide. As it happens, Europe was the place where people first took the further step of applying empirical methods to deep cosmic questions. Europeans in the seventeenth century were particularly motivated to try new, impartial ways of settling those questions, because they were at that point knee-deep in each other’s blood from the more traditional approach. They then used science, I’m not attempting to deny it, to export their intolerance to most of the rest of the planet. But for that very reason, they took care not to export the science. Nineteenth-century Western governments enthusiastically sponsored Christian missionaries to go teach the natives how to live, but no science teachers. Women, likewise, have been part of the scientific endeavour from the beginning, though systematically marginalized and robbed of their rightful credit. Here are just a few examples. The history of science is full of dead white men not because there is anything inherently white or male about science, but because white men have actively fought to keep other people out.
Evolutionary psychology has baggage. Evolutionary psychology is years or perhaps decades away from accommodating the full range of human cultural difference. Some ideas from evolutionary psychologists have been, frankly, whacko. I’ll come to those in a bit. One big problem is, well, people like me. I get excited by scientific concepts that seem to provide simple explanations for lots of stuff at once. I like to speculate – in fact I can’t help speculating – about how much other stuff might be explained by the same scientific concepts. It’s very easy to blur the difference between speculation and established fact. Unfortunately, science journalism attracts people with the same weakness; and of course if there’s one scientific field that affects everyone’s life and is guaranteed to sell books and articles, it’s human behaviour. Flimsily-evidenced grand theories in popular media do seem to appropriate evolutionary psychology disproportionately often, compared to other sciences. So people of a leftish persuasion are quite right to be cautious about accepting evolutionary-psychological narratives they meet on the internet. What that doesn’t mean is that there aren’t evolutionary psychologists out there doing actual science. Or that evolutionary-psychological ideas are best judged by how comfortably they sit with our politics.
At the one students’ association conference I ever attended, they showed a half-hour video on women’s rights. The message was a simple appeal to common sense and fairness: women would really rather be treated equally. At the end, the guy next to me nudged me and said, “So basically, we’re not allowed to be guys any more.” He had sat through the whole thing with a radio in his brain playing feminists hate men! feminists hate men! too loud for him to hear what was actually going into his ears. I’m afraid my only response was to look at him with my mouth open, blinking. If he could screw up that clear of a message, that badly, what could I possibly say that would get through to him? But at times my fellow leftists and cultural anthropology graduates seem to have their internal radios set, equally loudly, to genes are fascist! genes are fascist!
While I was writing this a paradigmatic example swam across my Facebook feed: Pankaj Mehta’s recent opinion piece in Jacobin magazine, “There’s a Gene for That”. It repeats every slanderous cliché sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have accumulated in the last three decades. “Genetic determinism” – check. Excusing violence as natural – check. Insinuations of Nazi connection – check. Tool of neoliberal Western hegemony – check. Mehta’s article becomes unconsciously self-referential when it denounces a paragraph from a recent genetic study, modestly expressing the hope that the researchers’ work will come in useful to other people in the course of time, as “sheer hubris”. From the particular features of human behaviour that Mehta picks out, I get the feeling the target may have been Steven Pinker’s 2011 work The Better Angels of Our Nature. If so it is amply clear that Mehta has not read it.
I shouldn’t pick on Mehta. Under the name that Herbert Spencer gave it, “survival of the fittest”, natural selection became an excuse for cold-blooded policies towards people with disabilities, people from the ethnic margins, and the poor. Charles Darwin reluctantly adopted the term because it got people past the idea that “natural selection” (his own preferred phrase) required a purposeful Selector. Spencer laboured to spread a different misapprehension: progress via the worthy supplanting and superseding the unworthy. You still have to go around several twists and turns to get from there to Nazism, and on the way you leave behind everything that originated from Darwin and everything with any scientific merit, but there’s no denying Spencer’s philosophy was a step down the path. It is of course wrong-headed to the core. Natural selection just means that each generation tends to have more of the kind of creature that was best at surviving and reproducing in the environment the previous generation lived in. Whatever thrives is by definition “fit” in that environment. If people with disabilities live good lives and have children in a given society, then the only reasonable conclusion is that disability does not constitute unfitness in that context. Friedrich Nietzsche at least saw the flaw in Spencer’s formulation; he argued against “survival of the fittest” on the basis that it was the unfit – the herd, the slave types – who proliferated!
Spencer’s theory gave way, in the human sciences, to the culture-centred anthropology of Franz Boas and the conditioning-centred psychology of John Watson and B. F. Skinner. It still hangs around like a bad smell in popular culture. People who call themselves “cultural critics” blithely assume that Darwinism in humans equals Spencerism to this day, and toss them both out. The hard work of showing where Spencer actually went wrong is left to the scientists. “Genetic determinism”, that bugbear of the humanities crowd, is a straw-man. Nobody doing real science thinks genes work alone. They function in interaction with the environment. To take an exceptionally simple example, two people with the same genes for skin pigmentation may be very different colours depending on how much sunlight they’ve each been exposed to. The Nazis and similar fringe political movements do indeed claim that some ethnic groups are genetically superior to others, and that has made many leftists chary of making any references to genes at all when discussing human behaviour. As far as I can tell, the taint of racism that clings to the word sociobiology is due solely to this leftist over-cautiousness. But neoliberals, who have much more political clout nowadays than fascists sensu stricto, use quite a different theoretical justification for their oppression. They argue that contextual influences on human action, including heredity, are irrelevant; that people who face difficulties such as genetic disabilities ought to be able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and that if they can’t, well, that’s unfortunate, but it’s not the responsibility of the privileged to try and help them. Neoconservatives add that being queer is a choice and nobody is “born that way”. In neither case does denying the role of genes in human life further the leftist cause.
If personality, behaviour, and abilities are largely due to nurture, where “nurture” means the home environment created by the parents, then it follows that personality defects such as aggression or lack of empathy can be blamed on the parents. In practice, as the feminist primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy points out in Mother Nature, the blame falls on mothers. This appears to be one of the major reasons why women still so often abandon their careers when they have children. I also have to wonder how many poor working-class families have been broken up by the authorities on the basis of spurious parenting theories. What Judith Rich Harris calls the “Nurture Assumption” in her book of that title is just that: an assumption. Many studies claim that children learn this or that behaviour from their parents, when most of the time their only evidence is that parents who do it tend to have children who do it. They don’t check whether it might be because of shared genes, which, you know, parents and children usually have. My own father was adopted; his family love each other, but they’re nothing alike. He and my uncle are about as different as two men who grew up in the same time and place can possibly be. But when my aunt as an adult sought out her birth-mother, they turned out to be remarkably similar – they even shared some favourite catch-phrases and turns of language.
Every popular book and webpage on evolutionary psychology I’ve read takes pages, sometimes whole chapters, pointing out that the Naturalistic Fallacy is a fallacy. (Wikipedia tells me they’re actually talking about the Appeal to Nature, and the Naturalistic Fallacy is something else, but I’m going with the term that’s familiar.) “Natural” is not the same as “good”, they all say. “Biological” is not the same as “unchangeable”, they all say. Just because violence, rape, polygyny and greed might be part of our evolved human nature doesn’t mean we have to accept them, they all say. And, reliable as a garden strimmer, the humanities people will come and write disdainful reviews decrying the book as yet another defence of violence, rape, polygyny and greed, because if you call those things natural and biological you must mean they’re either good or unchangeable.
Commenters on this blog are hereby warned: if you repeat those misconceptions here, I will reply by copypasting that last paragraph at you. As many times as it takes.
But perhaps there’s a case to answer. All our desires and pleasures were created by our genes trying to replicate themselves, right? Then doesn’t it follow that we will enjoy maximum pleasure, and fulfill the greatest possible amount of desire – thereby achieving the greatest possible good, according to several moral philosophies – if we do what our genes are prompting us to do? Alas, it does not. Here again I venture into speculation, but I think reasoned speculation. Our genes have no interest in us feeling satisfied or fulfilled. Think of two people. One is deeply contented with everything life has to offer. The other feels an endless insatiable craving which they continually try, and fail, to fill with unprotected sex. Which one is going to end up having more offspring?
What kind of behaviour might really satisfy? Presumably (still speculating), something costly which would bring a large genetic payoff the first time we did it, but only a small marginal increment with each repetition thereafter. The action would be pleasurable, so that we’d perform it when the opportunity arose; but because of the cost, our genes would not give us a craving to seek further opportunities to perform it, thus leaving us with a warm glow of happiness quite free of aching residual angst. Since we’re a social species, generosity is a good candidate. A previously selfish person giving money away for the first time will enjoy a much greater improvement in the trust, gratitude, and admiration of their peers than will someone already known to be charitable. So on this hypothesis, the fast road to contentment would be to give without thought of reward. As of now, not being a researcher myself, the only evidence I have in hand is anecdotes like this one from a friend’s Facebook.
You can buy happiness.
I did it a few years ago. Here’s how.
I was at a school fair and there was a public announcement asking people to look for a purse dropped by a little girl who’d been given three dollars to spend by her mother. I made sure I got the right change and went to where the people with the microphone were. No, they said, no one had found the purse. So I asked them to give my three dollars to the girl.
I walked away feeling very, very happy. Was I feeling smugly happy? I asked myself. No, I concluded. I felt immensely happy because I had, in a tiny way, made a difference for the better. I fact, I’d made the two people at the mike happy as well – that’s four people made happier for three dollars. A fantastic bargain.
So just because our genes created us, doesn’t mean that what’s good for them is good for us. Therefore, even if it turns out that violence generally, or any specific form of violence such as rape, is indeed “natural” in the sense of adaptive, i.e. bred into us because it helped the genes behind it to proliferate, it wouldn’t follow that there was anything good about it. Nor would it follow that we couldn’t do anything about it. Genetically, men grow large beards, yet in my culture pretty much all men get rid of them or, at most, keep minutely trimmed remnants. (I’m a rare exception.) There is no a priori reason why we couldn’t shear away undesirable behaviours from our brains as well.
That, by the way, is a carefully-chosen analogy. It only takes a few minutes a day to shave – people without beards can substitute other culturally unacceptable growth – but if you forgo those few minutes, no matter how long you’ve been shaving, nature will start to reassert itself. The effort is minimal but it remains necessary. Your skin never gets the message and stops cultivating hair. Nature does not fade away in the face of culture.
The best metaphor is one you’ve all seen on Facebook. It’s usually dressed up as a wibbly “motivational” deepity, with pretty nature photos and curly text and a claimed Native American origin which may be real, I don’t know, but is clearly trotted out to give it a patina of romantic Noble-Savagery, all of which makes it easy to scroll past and ignore. But it displays a deeper understanding of the issue than all the angry denunciations of evolutionary psychology I’ve seen, from any political angle, as deterministic or exculpatory or whatever. Here’s the metaphor: There are two wolves fighting for dominance in the human soul. One is kindness, fairness, generosity, nobility of spirit; the other is violence, greed, selfishness, entitlement, spite. Which wolf wins? The one you feed.
I don’t blame you if the idea of natural selection doesn’t sit right with you, especially if you’re a leftist. It’s not nice that living things are what they are because of competition, greed, selfishness, hunger and death. And every so often somebody comes up with a hypothesis that they think gets the human mind off the hook. It might be “free will” or “culture”. It might be brain plasticity or epigenetics. I am afraid all of them fail. Not that free will, culture, brain plasticity, or epigenetics are necessarily unreal; but to do what they are claimed to do, they must be underpinned by natural selection. This is because only natural selection can generate a concept of value where there wasn’t one before. All other theories rely, secretly or openly, on some kind of value already existing. That feels like a good thing to have in your theory, but it isn’t, because it merely defers the question of where the value came from.
Free will presupposes an internal set of values by which we assess possible courses of action. Culture presupposes some schema of meaningful communication, and thereby some value in having others understand our intentions. Brain plasticity presupposes that neural tissue can tell function from dysfunction. Epigenetics either presupposes a molecular-level distinction between good DNA and bad DNA, or else simply augments the Selfish Gene with the Selfish Transposable Element. A truly valueless system would be like a pile of rocks. It doesn’t matter to a rock whether it stays a rock or gets crushed into gravel; it is equally happy and self-fulfilled in either state. Only natural selection among self-replicating entities, such as genes, can start valueless (molecules doing what they do) and end up with value (seeking conditions that enable replication, avoiding ones that prevent it). To reiterate what I hope is already clear, just because natural selection is the ultimate source of value doesn’t mean it’s the best standard of value. A much better standard is the well-being of conscious creatures, which is an incidental by-product of natural selection.

Scientists who criticize evolutionary psychology often say that the typical standard of papers in the field is terrible; that instead of properly investigating whether traits are adaptive, they come up with half-baked reasons why they might be adaptive, and call it a day; that they leap to conclusions about all of humanity from findings based on questionnaires handed out to American psychology undergraduates. What they don’t do, that I can find, is put links to these bad studies on their websites where bloggers like me who aren’t in the scholarly system can find them. Without that information I’m going to have to take their assertions on trust. I do trust them, because evolutionary psychologists themselves make similar admissions when they review the field.
Evolutionary psychologists have certainly been caught saying indefensible things from time to time. Geoffrey Miller, author of The Mating Mind, got into a (deserved) hole last year when he tweeted: “Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.” He then dug it deeper by claiming, falsely it appears, that the tweet was part of a research project.
Miller, however, is nothing to Satoshi Kanazawa, who had a blog over at Psychology Today called “The Scientific Fundamentalist” until they fired him. I’m mostly here to defend evolutionary psychology, but Kanazawa has cured me of any suspicion that the feminist critique of it is only a straw-man. I’m not going to link to his blog; if you go Googling, be warned that it is both triggery and stupid, stupid, stupid. In one from 2009 entitled Why Modern Feminism Is Illogical, Unnecessary, and Evil – this is subtle, for Kanazawa – he tells us that women have it better than men because they live longer and have more babies. These are the only “biologically meaningful” measures of success, he says, which apparently excuses him from considering non-biological ones like happiness or well-being. Oh, no, wait, he does get to happiness at the bottom of the post. According to Kanazawa’s reading of one article which hadn’t been published at the time, money makes women unhappy, so by bringing them more of it feminism has ruined their lives. Yes, really. No, not that money merely fails to make women happy. His actual words (my emphasis) are
Now women make as much as, sometimes even more than, men do. As a result, today women are just as unhappy, or even more unhappy than, men are.
He also says that women have always had more power than men. Why? Because, according to a 2008 post, a woman walking into a bar looking for sex can always find it, which a man can’t. In this context he makes one revealing remark – his own emphasis, this time:
In reality, however, women do often say no to men. (In my experience, they always do.)
Presumably Kanazawa intends this as a joke, but given his attitude to women and the anger seething just under the surface of everything he writes, I have a sneaking feeling that this really is how things tend to work out in his life.
Another 2008 post tells you everything you need to know about Satoshi Kanazawa, and this one is quoted on his Wikipedia entry, where I found it. In Why We Are Losing This War, having lumped together as “World War III” every conflict worldwide since September 2001 that happens to involve Muslims, Kanazawa asserts that America’s problem is insufficient hatred. He opens with the ritual exorcism of the “naturalistic fallacy”, but by the end it is undeniable that he thinks hatred good as well as natural:
Imagine that, on September 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers came down, the President of the United States was not George W. Bush, but Ann Coulter. What would have happened then? On September 12, President Coulter would have ordered the US military forces to drop 35 nuclear bombs throughout the Middle East, killing all of our actual and potential enemy combatants, and their wives and children. On September 13, the war would have been over and won, without a single American life lost.
Yes, we need a woman in the White House, but not the one who’s running [later that year Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama].
Kanazawa is an exception. He was repudiated in a statement signed by 68 other evolutionary psychologists, in response to his blog post Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women? But the fact that he could work professionally in a field dedicated to understanding human beings, and munt it up that badly, is not a good look for the field.
No branch of science should be blamed for its misrepresentation by pseudoscience, pop culture, or advertising. Yet it behooves popular science writers to set the record straight whenever myths arise. Evolutionary psychology rises only lopsidedly to this challenge. Rebuttals to the academic consensus of the late twentieth century, to postmodernism and social constructionism and “critical theory”, are easily found. But on the daffy notions sloshing around in pop culture – on “Men are from Mars”, on “Girls evolved to shop”, on “Warm climates make people lazy” – there is almost silence.
Sometimes the myths and misunderstandings can be traced back to things evolutionary psychologists have actually said. Steven Pinker devotes nine pages of The Blank Slate to possible ways real gender differences might contribute to the income gap. His reminders that discrimination is still happening take up at least two of those nine, but since then his ideas have surfaced on the internet with all the cautions excised:
Most fundamentally, men and women tend to gravitate toward different industries. Feminists may charge that women are socialized into lower-paying sectors of the economy. But women considering the decisions they’ve made likely have a different view. Women tend to seek jobs with regular hours, more comfortable conditions, little travel, and greater personal fulfillment. Often times, women are willing to trade higher pay for jobs with other characteristics that they find attractive.
Men, in contrast, often take jobs with less desirable characteristics in pursuit of higher pay. They work long hours and overnight shifts. They tar roofs in the sun, drive trucks across the country, toil in sewer systems, stand watch as prison guards, and risk injury on fishing boats, in coal mines, and in production plants. Such jobs pay more than others because otherwise no one would want to do them.
First of all, we have found discrimination in hiring. What you do is, you send out a bunch of fake job applications, all identical except for the characteristic you’re interested in testing, to different organizations in the same industry. Corinne Moss-Racusin did just that, using names to code for gender, for lab manager jobs. This is what she found:
Secondly, there’s stereotype threat. This is one of the good points in Rebecca Watson’s much-discussed presentation on evolutionary psychology at Skepticon 5, which you’ll find embedded below. Stereotype threat is the anxiety people feel when they’re being tested on something that people of their social category – race or gender, in particular – are believed to be bad at. The skewing effect stereotype threat has on test results, thereby confirming the stereotype and creating a vicious circle, is considerable. Fortunately, there are ways to combat stereotype threat, including positive role models and simply making people aware of the phenomenon.
I was very much in a gender minority in my anthropology classes; when I studied IT later on, very much in a gender majority. This wasn’t a reflection of the power hierarchy. The anthropology lecturers were mostly male, while the IT teachers were split about 50-50. In my current job I’ve seen similar imbalances in social work and physics lectures. In no case did the minority gender seem to be disadvantaged by being the minority, but of course the people you’d have to talk to to make that kind of judgement would be the women who didn’t study IT or physics, and the men who didn’t take anthro or social work.
Thirdly, Lukas (echoing Pinker) says men get better pay because they take riskier or harder jobs. But while female-dominated industries do tend to be more relational, that doesn’t make them safe or easy. Think of the pathogens that nurses must dodge daily, or the potentially violent home situations that social workers walk into unarmoured. For emotional toll – especially for the gender alleged to be more sensitive to others’ feelings – you can add teaching to those two. And these are notoriously underpaid professions. Sex workers, whose job is nastier yet, can make big money, but at the expense of any of the prestige that money would normally buy, and, in too many jurisdictions still, of any legal protection from harm in the course of their work.
I don’t know whether home-makers and full-time parents show up in Lukas’ figures or not, but they’re still mostly women, and their work goes entirely unrewarded in our capitalist economy because it doesn’t generate profit. They have to depend on someone else’s work for income, unless they’re so poor that they’re on the dole, and then of course they get the same prejudice as everyone on the dole except that it’s especially undeserved in their case. Women are frequently denied jobs, or promotions, or equal pay, because they might go off and get pregnant. Lukas neglects to transmit Pinker’s apt remark:
One ought not to assume that the default human being is a man and that children are an indulgence or an accident that strikes a deviant subset.
Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate p. 358
Would the gender differences disappear entirely if we could eliminate prejudice and stereotype threat, and value “women’s work” more highly? Might there be some residual tendency for women to prefer relational career options even then? Well, there might. That doesn’t mean that the pay gap is reducible to those differences, nor that it wouldn’t still be worth narrowing even if it was. Also curiously unmentioned in Lukas’ article is the fact that it’s largely men who take positions of high power – executives, politicians, judges, who scoop in high pay because they set it themselves. Aggression is a special case; I’m open to the hypothesis that there are statistically more ruthless, domineering, status-driven men than there are ruthless, domineering, status-driven women, so that, on average, men will fight harder for the top spots. But surely that’s exactly the kind of personality trait you want to weed out of your leadership?
Suppose that we surveyed a couple of hundred thousand adults, chosen at random, for various physical parameters – their height, say, or their hip to shoulder width ratio, or their vocal range, or their amount of body hair – and plotted them on graphs. For many such parameters, you wouldn’t get a simple bell-shaped “normal” curve, you’d get a double-peaked curve like a Bactrian camel. For some parameters, there would be lots of people falling between the two humps. For others, very few. And you’d also find that you could predict, not perfectly but much better than a coin-flip, which peak a given person would be closest to on any one particular graph, once you knew which peak they were closest to on any other particular graph.
If these people consented to let you measure their genitals, you would probably find a much sharper distinction. That’s in part because we’ve specified that they’re adults; genitals that don’t fit either norm tend to get cut up in infancy to make them fit. Even were that not so, the number of “in-between” cases would never be more than a fraction of one percent. And, interestingly, there are three or four different measurements you could make – the tightness of the folded area, the volume of the erectile organ, the size and position of the opening – yet they are still highly predictive of one another. Genitals that are halfway-between on any one of those dimensions tend to be halfway-between on all of them.
You all get what I’m talking about, right? Most of us, looking at those double-peaked graphs, would say “It’s because one peak is the women and one peak is the men.” We would be wrong about the word “because”. One peak is the women, and one the men, more or less, but this merely sticks a label on each peak. It doesn’t explain anything. The clusters don’t appear because of the gender categories. The gender categories are what we do, in our minds, to cope with the clusters.
So if some psychological features also fell into a two-cluster pattern that correlated with the physical ones, it would be neither surprising nor indicative of any fundamental, essentialistic divide between the genders. Equally, we would expect most of the psychological differences – like most of the anatomical ones – to be subtle and of little consequence. We would not expect an appreciable gap in intelligence, for instance, and there isn’t one. We would not expect women and men to eat different diets. Based on the behaviour of scores of other animals, the main places we’d look for clear gender distinctions are in sexuality and aggression.
Two facts that are often marshalled separately as evidence that gender differences are purely cultural turn out, when put together, to support the opposite conclusion. First, people subconsciously treat babies differently according to what gender they perceive them to be, as Phyllis Katz documented. Second, some people are transgender. If gender identity were a product of the gendered expectations society demonstrably places on us, then everyone’s gender identity would meet those expectations. This is not the case; therefore, gender identity comes at least partly from something internal to the individual. A friend of mine gave her son a gender-neutral name, grew his hair long, and dressed him androgynously. At the age of three he told her one day, “Mummy, everybody think me a girl, but me a boy.” Out of respect for his gender choices, she says, she gave him a masculine make-over. It’s worth noting that the gender-is-learned theory in its heyday was used to enforce the gender binary, not to challenge it.
While gender markers and expectations vary widely across cultures, there are some pretty dependable common elements. “Extra” genders aren’t unheard-of, but they’re always clearly perceived to be “extra”. No culture that I know of organizes things like Mark Rosenfelder’s fictional Ezičimi. The content of our gender roles must be learned, but there do seem to be two slots waiting in children’s minds to receive that content. It’s my niece who’s instructed her parents, not the other way around, that boys can’t wear nail-polish. When her brother was small, he once told their grandmother that girls have blue eyes and boys have brown eyes. This holds true for all but one of our local family group, and I guess he hadn’t looked in a mirror that day. To my fellow humanities graduates, the idea of ready-made slots in the mind may seem threatening, but the mind is not stuck with what it starts out with. If it can add “Furniture” and “Vehicle”, neither of which existed in the Pleistocene, to its list of object categories, then it can add “Transgender” or “Intersex” to its list of gender categories.
Needless (or should be) to say, if someone’s gender identity happens not to correlate with their anatomy, it is basic courtesy to address them and refer to them by the former. Minds merit more attention than genitals in polite society. Nor is there anything “wrong” with them. If genes could think, of course, they would presumably consider it a mistake to construct a body that is less likely than many to procreate. But then a male body is a mistake, in precisely the same sense, to a mitochondrial gene, since sperm leave behind the few mitochondria they have at fertilization. For a mitochondrion, a sperm-producing host is a reproductive dead end – more so than a queer host is for a chromosomal gene, because not all queer couples are unable to reproduce. That fact by the way is much closer to the real reason why human, and most other animal, bodies fall into two clusters than any essentialistic wibbling about “animus and anima” or whatever. I’m afraid the details are too interesting to let them sidetrack us here. Let me repeat what I said above: the genes’ point of view is informative when we’re talking about evolution, but irrelevant when we’re talking ethics or justice.

Now might be the best time to introduce Rebecca Watson to you. Rebecca Watson is probably most famous now for calling out a guy who hit on her in a lift at a sceptics’ conference, for which she received a lot of scorn from supposedly enlightened people – including Richard Dawkins, to my lasting disappointment. Here she is, talking about evolutionary psychology:
Much of what Watson has to say here is good. I’ve already mentioned stereotype threat, which I first heard about in this video. Most of the “studies” she ladles sarcasm onto, richly deserve it. Less fair is her lumping all of evolutionary psychology in with them. At 16:34, she mentions that V. S. Ramachandran once got a hoax evolutionary psychology paper published, but not that it was in a magazine called Medical Hypotheses, which, it turns out, publishes anything anyone sends to it anyway. A few minutes later she tells her audience that Satoshi Kanazawa’s egregious nonsense is “not unusual”. A couple of times (37:14 stands out) it’s not clear that the misogyny Watson rightly derides has anything to do with biology at all.
At 32:31 Watson makes the good point that a certain study relied entirely on data from students at one university. This is a common and frequently justified complaint, but it should be applied to all of psychology, not just evolutionary psychology, and somehow no-one seems to. The studies of stereotype threat which she praises later on, also used only American college students for subjects. Evolutionary psychologists at least do occasionally open anthropology texts; I’ve never heard of Freud or John Watson or B. F. Skinner or Abraham Maslow or Carl Rogers making a cross-cultural comparison before drawing a conclusion.
There is a very simple reason why evolutionary psychologists go on about the Pleistocene (see 12:46), and it’s not because we’ve “finished evolving”. The Pleistocene goes back from about 12,000 years ago to about 2.5 million years ago, which makes it roughly two hundred times as long as the time since it ended until now. It’s therefore reasonable to expect about two hundred times more evolution to have taken place during it than after it. We know from fossil evidence that our ancestors’ brains were little bigger than chimpanzee brains when the Pleistocene began. We know from population genetics and archaeology that humans had covered most of the globe, and were about as diverse as we are today, by the time it ended. Any new trait that has evolved since then, such as the ability to digest milk as adults, has only reached part of the world.
This matters. The country next door to mine is home to two-thirds of a million people whose ancestors arrived there about 50,000 years ago, well back into the Pleistocene. Europeans in the nineteenth century held that they were not proper humans – first that they were one of God’s lesser creations, later that they had evolved separately from apes. I know people who were taught in New Zealand schools in the 1950s that racist stereotypes, while false everywhere else in the world, were true of Aboriginal Australians because they’d been out of touch with the rest of humanity for so long. I’ve had internet arguments with white Australians younger than me who still believe that. I would never accuse Rebecca Watson of thinking such a thing; but it’s either that, or she hasn’t thought through the implications of major post-Pleistocene evolution.
While there’s much we don’t know about the Pleistocene, there’s also a lot we do know. We know that Earth had dry land, oceans, a breathable atmosphere, and was warmed by the Sun. We know that our ancestors walked upright on land, ate a mixture of plant and animal foods, and couldn’t fly. We know that the female ones got pregnant, gave birth, and breast-fed the babies, after mating with the males. (There may have been others who steered clear of all that, but those individuals didn’t become ancestors.) We know that they didn’t have governments, police, armies, metal tools or weapons, domestic animals except for dogs right at the end, or crop plants. Many further inferences follow from these facts: for instance, sugary and fatty foods must have been rare and hard to come by, and worth eating as much of as you could if you did find some.
A few people today continue to live in societies without governments, metal technologies, or domesticates. They are our best model for what life was like at least in the late Pleistocene, during the 50,000 years or so when we were already fully human in our anatomy and mental capacities, but hadn’t yet started farming. If we find particular social or cultural conditions amongst foragers in widely separated parts of the world, it’s a good bet that our ancestors lived in similar conditions. But only a bet. We must be cautious about making assumptions. One feature all foraging societies today have in common is that they live on land which is no good for agriculture, because agricultural societies have taken over all the rest. Another is that they all live within the influence of modern state societies, whose attitude to them is generally colonial; though a few of them – the New Guinea Highlanders and some Amazonian groups – only began to feel that influence in the twentieth century.
That doesn’t mean, as Watson alleges at 14:52–15:23, that contemporary foraging cultures can tell us nothing about the Pleistocene. We must be cautious, but we don’t have to throw up our hands in despair. An experiment described as “especially elegant” by Less Wrong blogsite quizzed Canadian adults about how much grief they imagined they would feel about their children dying at various ages, and found that it correlated astonishingly highly with the reproductive potential of children of those ages in, not modern Canadian society, but the !Kung forager society of the Kalahari Desert. (The coefficients of correlation were .64 and .92, respectively – out of a maximum of 1.) It’s hard to explain this finding unless anticipated grief is an adaptation to !Kung-like conditions, its function presumably being to prompt adults to protect their children. That was in 1989; I don’t know how many later evolutionary psychology studies have reached that gold standard.
Watson is bemused by how big of a deal ovulation is to evolutionary psychologists (29:05–34:07); she suggests any fool should know women don’t “give off some kind of clues that they’re ready to reproduce”. But the point of science is not just to find out things we didn’t know, it’s to find the explanations for things we do know. That women don’t advertise their fertility cycle, is a fact in dire need of an explanation. However obvious it might be to a human, it divides us from most other mammals and especially sharply so from our closest relatives among the primates. Google “chimpanzee ovulatory swelling” some time when you’re in private and haven’t just had your dinner.
It’s a good guess that hidden fertility in humans is an adaptation to something. Having said that, before I go any further I had better discuss adaptation and when we should and shouldn’t invoke it. An adaptation is when some heritable trait causes its carriers to have more surviving offspring, on average, than those without it, and in consequence the trait spreads through the population until it becomes “fixed”, which is to say that everyone has it. There are complications. Sometimes two or more alternative traits can survive alongside one another not because there’s no adaptation happening, but because each one does better when it is in the minority, so that if any of them starts to take over the others push back. Blood groups are a potential example in humans. I’ll let you follow that up in your own time if you want to.
But there are other ways traits might become “fixed”. One is by happening to be a consequence of another adaptation. I’ll bet stereotype threat isn’t adaptive, for instance. I’d guess it’s a combination of categorical thinking – once we have placed an object in the “Furniture” category, we have settled the question of how often it needs to be fed – plus the human habit of forming interest groups. We assign ourselves to a category so we know who to ally with, and conclude that what we believe about the category (“Women are bad at maths”, “People with ASD don’t understand metaphors”) is true of ourselves. That’s just one of my speculations, in case you were wondering. Another possibility is genetic drift: genes disappear from time to time simply by the luck of the meiotic draw, and you might end up with just one trait left. This is only plausible in a small population, and Homo sapiens is not a threatened species nowadays, but one of the things we know about the Pleistocene is that, at some point, we went through a population bottleneck, possibly due to a volcanic super-eruption.
You can’t simply conclude that any trait which happens to benefit its carrier in some way is an adaptation, even if you are careful to define “benefit” from the genes’ point of view. Random mutations are usually either neutral or harmful, but every so often one comes along that is beneficial. Far from contradicting natural selection, this is a necessary prerequisite for it. With no beneficial mutations, there would be nothing to select! Nor is complexity as such a sign of adaptation, at least not for that specific trait. Taking bits off a working system is more likely to do serious damage than adding bits, so living things tend to accumulate bits gradually over time. But if a trait is complex and reproductively beneficial and fixed in the population, then it’s looking good to be an adaptation.
We still need to be careful about the “beneficial” part. One good sign of an adaptation is paradoxically when a trait that is fixed in the population appears to impose a reproductive cost on the bearer. Sometimes a trait might persist in a minority by conferring some advantage to one particular gene without helping the whole organism very much. For instance, some mice have a gene which poisons sperm that lack it in their testicles; the mouse has fewer sperm and therefore fewer offspring, but nearly all the offspring (instead of the usual half) carry the gene. But a costly trait can only spread to the entire population if it produces some kind of benefit that offsets the cost. On the face of it, the first female in a primate troop to conceal her ovulation isn’t likely to have babies, because the males will all pass her by for the females who advertise. She may or may not feel this to be a problem in her personal life, but she won’t become anyone’s ancestor. So when ancient humans began hiding their fertility, this must have improved their chances of having surviving children in some other way, or it would never have caught on.
There have been many different hypotheses. Some researchers proposed that when male proto-humans started hunting, the females would offer them sex in exchange for meat, and those who were ready for sex all the time got more meat than those who only did it a couple of days a month. Another suggested that when we first kinked our pelvises to stand upright and later expanded our skulls to hold our big brains, childbirth became so painful and dangerous that females actively avoided it, and only those who couldn’t tell when they were likely to get pregnant ended up reproducing. You have thirty seconds to guess the gender of the people who came up with each of those ideas.
Some of the theories do make sense. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy discovered that when a male Hanuman langur invades a troop and ousts the reigning alpha male, he will kill all the infants so that their mothers cease lactating and become fertile again. This behaviour had been documented before in lions and other species, but Hrdy was the first to observe it in primates. However, a male langur will not kill any infant whose mother he mated with when she was fertile. Infanticidal behaviour has been a pattern historically in human wars waged to kidnap women. Hrdy suggests, therefore, that concealed fertility is an adaptation to protect infants by raising the possibility in each potential marauder’s mind that they may be his.
Another theory comes from the ecologists Richard Alexander and Katharine Noonan. When male primates know which females are fertile, they try to mate with all of them. When they don’t, it’s a better bet to stick with one female through her cycle and mate with her repeatedly. As a bonus, the two can then form a co-operative team to gather food, find shelter, and keep an eye out for predators. When the female gets pregnant, the male can bet much more confidently than male mammals usually can that it’s his offspring. It pays his genes, therefore, to keep on helping out with the foraging. And the same logic applies when the infant is born. So this hypothesis predicts that humans will form long-term pair bonds, and that men will help out with childcare to a degree that would seem bizarre to most mammals. Both predictions turn out to be correct.
Alexander and Noonan’s idea is much nicer than Hrdy’s, but unfortunately that’s no guarantee of truth. Jared Diamond in Why is Sex Fun? compares a number of primates with similar traits. It turns out that if a species has pair-bonding, you can safely predict that the females conceal their fertility, but not vice versa; whereas if a species has concealed fertility but not pair-bonding, you can safely predict that the males are infanticidal. It would appear, therefore, that humancestors – can I call them humancestors? – went through an infanticidal phase some time after splitting off at the end of the Miocene from the group which later became the chimpanzees and bonobos, that the females evolved to conceal their ovulation in response to that, and that romance and marriage came later still.

But the most comment-worthy part of Watson’s talk goes from 22:43 to 29:05, where she talks about what I always think of as the Would You Come To Bed With Me Experiment. Sexologist Elaine Hatfield sent students out to walk up to strangers of the opposite sex on campus and say the following words exactly: “I have been noticing you around. I find you very attractive. Would you come to bed with me?” 75% of men approached, and precisely no women, accepted the offer. The experiment has been repeated multiple times in different places with very similar results.
Watson’s opening words in discussing these studies are not promising.
There are a number of studies that are based on this idea that men appear to enjoy casual sex way more than women do. And women, of course, again tend to only want sex when they get a husband out of it, or babies, or money. So they take this as a given, and they do studies like this, in which they set out to prove it as a fact, and then make up a story about how our Pleistocene-era brains are somehow responsible for this.
“Taking something as a given” and “setting out to prove it as a fact” are two incompatible activities. It is true that the researchers had pre-existing theoretical reasons for expecting the experiment to go as it did; we can charitably take it that that’s what Watson meant, but it doesn’t have the damning force of “they take this as a given”. So let’s look at what those theoretical reasons are.
Those in the know will have been waiting for me to drop Robert Trivers’ name, and here he is. His theory of parental investment has yet to be superseded as a tool for interpreting animal mating patterns. If one of the two sexes in a given species invests more time, risk, and metabolic resources in producing offspring than the other does, then choosing the best partner possible is going to make more difference to that sex than to the other one. The second sex’s reproductive fitness will then depend on being the best partner possible for members of the first sex. Since both sexes want to reproduce, the high investors won’t often be stuck with no-one to mate with, but many of the low investors will fail to meet their standards and miss out. In mammals, the females are high investors and the males are low investors. It’s females who carry the offspring in their marsupial pouches or wombs, and females who breast-feed.
Now in humans this pattern won’t be as crisp and clear as it is in many other species, because men do take part in childcare. Men invest much more than most male mammals, so we can expect to see women sometimes competing over men and men sometimes being picky. However, men still invest less than women do. It’s almost entirely women who get pregnant and men who don’t – the exceptions are not to be dismissed as individuals, but there are too few of them to have had an evolutionary effect. A woman having sex with a man is taking much more of a risk than the man is. If she gets pregnant, he has the option to up and leave. She doesn’t. Even if he stays, he’s got the easier end of the deal. Therefore, assuming an equal subjective desire for sex, we should expect the men to be more eager to act on it, because of the unequal risks.
Additionally, if a man has sex with five women in a week, up to five pregnancies may result, but if a woman has sex with five men in a week, up to one pregnancy may result. That means that sex with multiple different partners in a short time confers a massive reproductive benefit on men which it doesn’t on women. That’s not to say that there is no motivation for women to mix it up, just that that one particular motivation is missing. In environments where men often don’t come back from hunting trips, it may pay for a child to have more than one provisioning father; Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in Mother Nature notes the example of the Canela people of the Amazon in this connection. In environments where infectious disease is a major hazard, I speculate, it may be better to give your progeny a variety of immune-system genes than to put all your eggs in one basket. And of course if the best child-minder or provider and the man with the best genes for strength or brains happen to be two different people, a woman can get the best of both worlds by marrying the first man and getting pregnant to the second one. But the big, simple numerical advantage men get by sowing their oats wider doesn’t apply to women.
Sexual behaviour doesn’t fossilize, short of a very unlucky couple being caught in flagrante delicto by a landslide or a flash flood. We have to look for indirect evidence of humancestor mating patterns in the marks they left on our anatomy. Among primates, testicle size in males correlates pretty strongly with what I’m afraid is technically called “promiscuity” in females. Male gorillas and baboons, who are mostly celibate because one in each troop monopolizes all the females, have tiny testicles, as do male gibbons, who pair up monogamously. Male bonobos, chimpanzees, and muriquis (woolly spider monkeys), of whom half a dozen might mate with the same female in a given day – literally queuing up to do so, in the muriquis’ case – have enormous testicles. It’s not the anatomy that controls the behaviour, but the behaviour that controls the anatomy. The sperm that reaches the egg is most likely to have come from the male who put the most in there, which exerts selection pressure on males to produce more and more sperm and therefore grow larger and larger sperm-making organs. Where do human testicles fall on this scale? Correcting for body mass, we’re a whisker below the middle. So female humancestors did have sperm from more than one male in their uteri from time to time, unlike gorillas or gibbons, but it wasn’t a daily norm for most of them as it is for bonobos and muriquis.
It’s often said that humans are the only species that “mate for pleasure instead of reproduction”. This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation, which is also apparent in Watson’s sarcastic suggestion that, to evolutionary psychologists, women “only want sex when they get a husband out of it, or babies, or money.” Of course sex is fun for women. No-one’s denying that, at least not in this debate. The question is why it’s fun. On one level of explanation, the level of personal subjective experience, we have sex for pleasure, and so do other animals. On another level of explanation, the level of natural selection, other animals have sex for reproduction, and so do we. Evolutionary psychology is the attempt to bridge the explanatory gap from natural selection to subjective experience. I have never been a woman, and therefore I cannot speak to women’s sexuality on the subjective level, except to ask questions. But what Watson says at 26:38 makes me certain that she and I, at least, experience desire quite differently.
In fact, to me the most surprising thing about this study – all these studies – is just how stupid the men are. A stranger, a beautiful stranger, walks up to you on the street and says “Let’s go back to mine for sex,” and you don’t think it’s a scam? What is wrong with you?
When I was single, if a young woman had come up to me and asked straight out if I would have sex with her, I would have said “Yes” without hesitation. I mean, worst-case scenario, what could go wrong? She might change her mind, sure, or I guess she might not have been serious in the first place. So pretty much the same outcome that happened every few weeks anyway. That would leave me no worse off than I was before. Why not say yes, just on the off-chance? What’s stupid about that?
Watson interprets the Would You Come To Bed With Me Experiment as an investigation of sexual desire per se, and on that basis her criticisms are justified. The alternative hypothesis she raises at 27:52 might be well worth testing: that women asking openly for sex are seen as confident, while men asking openly for sex are seen as pathetic. It seems plausible and, if true, it’s a fair-sized confounding factor for what the researchers are trying to study. Her other objections, however, are defused by an alternative reading of the experimental results: suppose that what they measure is not the subjects’ general level of sex drive, but sex drive in real life interacting with an instinctive recognition of risk. Far from contradicting evolutionary psychology, as Watson seems to suppose, this interpretation confirms it nicely.
At 27:18 Watson describes a speed-dating experiment, in which the women controlled whom they talked to. The women were more confident, more forward, and (Watson’s word) “sluttier”. In the classic Would You Come To Bed With Me Experiment, as she rightly points out at 25:21, women approached by strange men for sex have to be very cautious about the possibility of rape, especially since people still actively seek to pin it, far more than other violent crimes, on something the victim did “wrong”. In short, women feel a strong need to be in control of when and with whom they do or do not have sex. Male rape survivors suffer the same horrors that female ones do, as far as I can tell from what they say, but the possibility of being raped does not cross the mind of a man entering what you might call the negotiation phase of a potential sexual encounter.
Much feminist anger towards evolutionary psychology can be traced to a 2000 book by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, entitled A Natural History of Rape. The authors are impatient with feminist perspectives on their subject and the book does contain a few consequential and easily avoidable errors. I think it’s what Watson is referring to at 38:23:
It’s also used to excuse predatory behaviour. Like “Men evolved to rape,” maybe you heard of that one. Newsflash, it was bullshit. But it was used as a sort of, “Well, you know, it’s natural for men to rape, therefore we don’t really need to look into ways that we can change our culture to stop men from raping. It’s natural.”
If I’m right in guessing that she’s talking about Thornhill and Palmer, Watson has got it wrong. They declare in the very first sentence of the book that they would like to see rape eradicated. They belabour the fallaciousness of the naturalistic fallacy over an entire chapter, which makes it seem particularly unfair that Watson’s PowerPoint slideshow has a line reading “Used to excuse predatory behaviour via the naturalistic fallacy” just here. They then spend the next couple of chapters emphasizing how deep women’s need for sexual autonomy is, and continue throughout the book to debunk the odd popular myth such as—
...Sigmund Freud’s thinking about the mind’s structure that led to the widespread adoption of the myth that women subconsciously desire to be raped. That myth was widely accepted in law and medicine from the 1930s to the early 1970s. In reality, any desire to be raped must always have been selected against in human evolutionary history, since it would have interfered with the fundamental reproductive strategy of females – i.e., to choose mates on the basis of the benefits they are likely to provide.
Randy Thornhill & Craig Palmer, A Natural History of Rape p. 183
Thornhill and Palmer distinguish, unhelpfully I think, between rape strictly so-called and “sexual coercion”, based on whether or not the victim chooses to give in rather than fight. Feminists of course use the word rape for both, as do I. But the authors don’t hang any moral arguments on this, it’s purely a matter of terminology. At one point they cite a single study to the effect that 41% of rape complaints are false. They don’t make anything of this preposterous statistic – they’re there to talk about real rape – but I can imagine the glee any misogynistic reader would feel to find his prejudices validated.
To my mind, Thornhill and Palmer’s biggest fault is recommending (among other things) that women avoid dressing sexily in risky public situations, so as not to give potential rapists ideas. But I think I reject this suggestion for a different reason than most feminists do. Rape is indeed “about power and control” in the most important sense, namely that the perpetrator lays claim to the victim’s body for his own personal use. Where I reluctantly agree with Thornhill and Palmer is that the personal use he’s after is usually sexual gratification. I must endorse their warning that some men, having heard the theory that rape is not prompted by sexual desire, may conclude that whatever they do to fulfill their sexual desire cannot therefore be rape, regardless of the other person’s consent. A lot of the rapists quoted on Project Unbreakable expressed feelings of lust or even love for the survivors who are calling them out.
No, I reject Thornhill and Palmer’s recommendation for two reasons. The minor one is that it’s not very well argued. The studies they adduce in evidence explore women’s motivation to dress sexily, in terms of the anticipated male response. In other words, their main argument for teaching women the surmised effect of sexy clothing on men is that women already know about it. The major one is something feminists have known for a long time, recently confirmed by – who’d have thought? – evolutionary psychologists: there is literally nothing a woman can do to avoid “giving men ideas”.
Men... are notorious for making judgement errors when it comes to gauging women’s romantic interest. As many women can attest, men are often delusional – a guy may think a woman is romantically interested in him when nothing could be further from the truth. If an attractive woman does so much as look a man’s way, many men may think: She wants me.
Douglas T. Kenrick & Vladas Griskevicius, The Rational Animal p. 87
Kenrick and Griskevicius showed men photographs of women’s faces and asked them what they thought the women were feeling. Again and again the men said they could detect subtle hints of sexual attraction, when in fact the photos had been chosen for their completely neutral expressions. Women presented with photos of men showed no such bias. So far no-one seems to have run equivalent tests for same-gender orientations.
Many men believe they can read signs of sexual interest in women’s demeanour which the woman herself is hiding or perhaps even unaware of (another depressingly common theme at Project Unbreakable). Men in patriarchal cultures through the ages, including several Bible writers, have preached against wanton women seeking to ensnare men with their sinful lusts. Conservative men echo them to this day. Sigmund Freud argued that repressed sexuality was the mainspring of the unconscious mind on the grounds that all his young female patients harboured sexual fantasies about their fathers which they then, one after another, transferred to him. Men who fancy themselves bad-boy rebels routinely seek to “liberate” women from the societal dogmas which they’re convinced are all that stand between themselves and a 24/7 orgy. Can all these men be wrong? This experiment says yes. Yes they can.
Oh, I’m sure someone will find a way to wangle this into an excuse for men’s behaviour. They’ve done that with everything else, including feminist ideas like the hypothesis that porn leads to rape. But the idea that men “can’t help it” is as false here as it always is. Once you become aware of a persistent misperception, you can learn to adjust for it. An analogy might be the visual illusion called “looming”; objects coming directly towards your face look like they’re moving faster than they really are, because you, and ultimately your genes, have so much more to lose by making the opposite error. This is why children just starting to play sports are so “scared of the ball”. Yet millions of people self-motivatedly and successfully train their motor systems to attack the ball further away than where it seems to be, thus hitting it where it actually is. A man dedicated to respecting women should have no more difficulty training his social cortex to compensate for the “She wants me” illusion.
That’s assuming that the hypothetical rapists here are reading sexy clothing as a signal of the woman’s intentions. I imagine Thornhill and Palmer might reply that it’s simpler than that, that sexy clothing attracts men by displaying the woman’s body – after all, the thing about rapists is they don’t much care about women’s intentions. I would still be sceptical. The proportion of a woman’s body that her culture requires her to cover in public varies globally from 0% to 100%, and yet none of those cultures has become extinct due to failure of male heterosexual desire. Granted, straight men everywhere are aroused by seeing women’s bodies; in no culture do people cover themselves up for sex. But male heterosexuality is not reducible to this external visual cue. Straight men also get aroused imagining women’s bodies. Merely noticing that another person is a woman is sufficient material for a man to do that, if he chooses. I don’t think anyone needs to educate women about that. However common rape and attempted rape are, lesser acts of sexual harassment such as groping and catcalling are much more common. Every woman I know well enough to talk to about these things has at least a few stories like this. And if you’re a guy reading that and thinking “Wow, women are hyper-sensitive,” guys who pretend to be women on dating sites to see what happens have found the same thing.
Regardless of social perceptual flaws, rape is not something anyone does by mistake. Any man cognitively capable of carrying out a plan to have sex with a woman is cognitively capable of noticing whether she’s resisting him. Thornhill and Palmer themselves do not conclude that men are adapted specifically to rape; they find insufficient evidence to decide between that and the hypothesis that men are adapted both to want sex and, separately, to use force to get things they want. Clean contrary to Watson’s insinuations, the main remedy they recommend is cultural change.
The modern understanding of how phenotypes are inherited through the replication of both genetic and environmental conditions suggests that male cultural traditions – behaviours copied by sons from their fathers – are likely to be crucial in creating socialized inhibitions against committing rape.
Randy Thornhill & Craig Palmer, A Natural History of Rape p. 176
One small error in detail: cultural traditions are mostly passed down through peer groups, not from parent to child. Noting in The Better Angels of Our Nature that the per capita incidence of rape has fallen some 80% since the 1970s (using a metric which won’t capture all rapes, but the kinds the studies miss are unlikely to have risen in the same time to compensate), Steven Pinker suggests that the major reason for the change is the growing prevalence of feminism. Absolutely, we need to keep on changing the culture to stop men from raping. Sloppy misreadings of evolutionary psychology texts aren’t likely to help.

Most of the critics scold evolutionary psychologists for ignoring culture as an alternative explanation for the phenomena they explore. Few go on to suggest a pathway by which culture achieves its effects. It’s straightforward enough to show that differences in language, artistic idiom, manners, and diet are learned, not inherited genetically. That’s all very well, but it doesn’t mean you can conclude everything else is cultural too. Many psychological patterns do not vary between populations, at least nowhere near as much as they vary between individuals within populations. What’s more, not all variation is learned by imitation. The human brain contains a rich repertoire of responses to a wide range of circumstances, only some of which will occur in any individual’s life. For instance, people everywhere are much more likely to use violence to settle personal grievances if they happen to belong to ethnic groups whom the local police mostly ignore or harass. The distinctive behaviour is a response to the distinctive social environment, not inherited or traditional. I’m not saying genes aren’t involved – they built the repertoire in the first place. I’m saying it’s not genes that determine which response is chosen. The guy who calls the police when someone runs off with his wallet might well have a greater genetic propensity for violence than the guy who chases the thief, smacks his head against a wall, and pulls a gun on him. It’s just that the first guy doesn’t need it.
People usually act intelligently, or we wouldn’t make such a fuss when they don’t. The solutions they devise to the problems facing them are close to those that an ideally rational observer, given their values and state of knowledge, would propose. This at first sight doesn’t sit well with the idea that many of the mind’s operations are pre-programmed in the genes. Isn’t it more likely that the brain evolved as a sort of generalist problem-solver? Well, first of all, reason isn’t the only process that homes in on solutions to problems. Natural selection does that too. When a fact remains stable over evolutionary time, animal brains that have to deal with it will have it hard-coded. Chicks which have been raised with the only light coming from below still peck at images of small rounded objects with the lit side on the top. In other words, they know instinctively that light comes from above. What plausible selection pressure would dismantle such a reliable piece of knowledge, just so the brain could have a go at deducing it from experience?
The same applies to at least some conditions that have arisen since humans split off from our nearest relatives. Five-year-olds do not know that when you tip a glass of juice into a taller, narrower glass, the amount of juice remains the same. But if they’re English-speaking five-year-olds then they can distinguish the correct usage of the English words a, the, and some with 100% accuracy – a feat that most adult learners never quite reach. Now you try writing a brief explanation of both of those problems, without using jargon like “definite article” that a five-year-old wouldn’t know, and see which one gives your cognitive systems more of a workout. Evidently young children have a purpose-built brain circuit which makes learning language, if not effortless, at least a lot less painful than it is for adults. (Oddly, the one nuance in that list of words that does still give many five-year-olds trouble is the one that’s easiest to explain, namely when to use an instead of a.)
The human brain is an impressive generalist problem-solver, indeed the best we know. But if I may put on my IT hat for a moment, the way you build a software platform to solve many different kinds of problems is you write lots and lots of functions to solve specific problems and deploy them as needed. The more built-in functions you have, the more versatile the software. Developers using the platform will write new functions and subroutines and methods, but they’ll use the existing ones as building blocks, because that’s faster, cheaper, and more reliable than reinventing the wheel. If there were a system that could reprogram itself in response to incoming data, which is edging a little beyond what computers can do and towards what brains do, it would do the same.
The dodgiest “culture” hypotheses tend to be the ones that crop up to explain away disreputable things, such as violence, greed, or gendered sexuality, as peculiarities of Western hegemony. If the society in question is indigenous, the out is usually that the behaviour stems from disruption by colonizing influences. That broad of an escape clause renders any hypothesis simply unfalsifiable. It’s no more telling or suspicious that evolutionary psychologists haven’t met the “culture” proponents’ challenge than it is that palaeontologists haven’t proven that fossils weren’t created by God in situ. Western colonization has caused massive disruption to indigenous societies all over the world, but it has failed in its attempt to erase their cultures and history. The marks it left behind are not synonymous with “practices which well-brought up Western leftists don’t like”. Since the publication of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, colonization has become the excuse de mode for the observation (attested even in Jared Diamond’s admiring portrait The World Until Yesterday) that people in non-state societies kill each other more often, by orders of magnitude, than state-dwellers do. I do hope the people making these claims just haven’t thought through the implications. Otherwise, they’re envisioning people who’ve lived in harmony for millennia suddenly deciding they hate their neighbours because there are threatening strangers about, and fabricating whole oral histories of grievances and repercussions overnight.
Margaret Mead says in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies that the Arapesh of New Guinea know nothing of rape “beyond the fact that it is the unpleasant custom of the Nugum people to the southeast of them.” “I know of no cases of rape,” declares Colin Turnbull of the Mbuti people of the Ituri Rainforest in Wayward Servants: The Two Worlds of the African Pygmies. Humanities graduates claiming that rape is solely a product of culture cite both. So do Thornhill and Palmer, at rather greater length. The fact that both Mead and Turnbull were writing before the 1970s proves to be very significant indeed. Both use a definition of “rape” which no feminist, and indeed a declining number of non-feminists, would now accept.
Turnbull’s actual statement reads as follows: “I know of no cases of rape, though boys often talk about their intentions of forcing reluctant maidens to their will.” [In] the same book, Turnbull reports that during the elima (a female initiation ceremony), although the rules state that a male “has to have [the girl’s] permission before intercourse can take place,” in reality “the men say that once they lie down with a girl, ... if they want her they take her by surprise when petting her, and force her to their will.”...
Mead... offers the following: “If a man [of the Arapesh] carries off a woman whom he has not won through seduction, he will not take her at once, in the heat of his excitement over having captured her. Rather he will delay soberly until he sees which way negotiations turn, whether there is a battle over her, what pressure is brought upon him to return her. If she is not to belong to him permanently, it is much safer never to possess her at all.” Though this is intended to support her claim that the Arapesh males find rape incomprehensible, the behaviour Mead describes is rape; Arapesh males forcibly abduct non-consenting women for sexual intercourse, and they complete the rape whenever the consequences of the act are not expected to be severe.
Randy Thornhill & Craig Palmer, A Natural History of Rape pp. 141–142
For the gender differences observable in human sexuality to be due solely to culture, there must first have been a massive wave of natural selection that somehow cancelled out the different reproductive conditions female and male mammals face – we’re talking male pregnancy becoming the norm, or something equally radical – followed by an equally massive wave of indoctrination, all around the world, that just happened coincidentally to nudge gender differences in sexual priorities most of the way back to the ancestral mammalian state. In between, we would have had to evolve to allow social mores to control our sexuality, in the teeth of some heavyweight selection pressures:
Any gene predisposing a male to be cuckolded, or a female to receive less parenting help than her neighbours, would quickly be tossed from the gene pool. Any gene that allowed a male to impregnate all the females, or a female to bear the most indulged offspring of the best male, would quickly take over... For human sexuality to be “socially constructed” and independent of biology, as the popular academic view has it, not only must it have miraculously escaped these powerful pressures, but it must have withstood equally powerful pressures of a different kind. If a person played a socially constructed role, other people could shape the role to prosper at his or her expense. Powerful men would brainwash the others to enjoy being celibate or cuckolded, leaving the women for them. Any willingness to accept socially constructed gender roles would be selected out, and genes for resisting the roles would take over.
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works p. 467
None of which means that sexual behaviour or identity will fall into a strict binary. It just predicts that the scatter-graph of human sexuality will have a couple of stable, dense clusters in it, with many people in or near one or the other and relatively few further away.
Now it will be evident to the casual blog-surfer of moderate education that culture can modulate sexuality at least to some extent. The current preference for hairless pubic regions would seem bizarre to most non-Westerners and to most Westerners before about 1990. If you’re a Westerner and so blinded by familiarity that you don’t see the point, then consider foot-binding, or neck-stretching, or tooth-sharpening, all body modifications considered attractive in other cultures. Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man attributed human “racial” variation to differing cultural standards of attractiveness, via a particular flavour of natural selection which he called “sexual selection”. How do evolutionary psychologists account for this?
For a start, we mustn’t exaggerate the power of culture. I enjoy singing English folk songs from around the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, socially, with my friends. I have that kind of friends. Many of the songs are bawdy. Quite a few are anatomical. Some focus on male bodies (Me Husband’s Got No Courage In Him, Never Wed an Old Man), some on female ones (Whip Jamboree, The Cuckoo’s Nest). All of them fixate below the waist. Not until the twentieth century do breasts become a matter for ribaldry. To a cultural studies graduate, the explanation is obvious: men only began to “fetishize” the breast a hundred years ago, before which they were indifferent. But this interpretation falls foul of the facts. The more poetic folk-songs do mention breasts. Writers of the period attempting to appear high-minded often draw the reader’s mind’s eye to women’s breasts. The most hilarious example, in view of modern sensibilities, is this pompous 1799 work of “scientific” racism by one Charles White.
Aſcending the line of gradation, we come at laſt to the white European; who being moſt removed from the brute creation, may, on that account, be conſidered as the moſt beautiful of the human race. No one will doubt his ſuperiority of intelleƈtual powers; and I believe it will be found that his capacity is naturally ſuperior alſo to that of every other man. Where ſhall we find, unleſs in the European, that nobly arched head, containing such a quantity of brain, and ſupported by a hollow conical pillar, entering its centre? Where the perpendicular face, the prominent noſe, and round projeƈting chin? Where that variety of features, and fulneſs of expreſſion; thoſe long, flowing, graceful ringlets; that majeſtic beard, those roſy cheeks and coral lips? Where that ereƈt poſture of the body and noble gait? In what other quarter of the globe ſhall we find the bluſh that overſpreads the ſoft features of the beautiful women of Europe, that emblem of modeſty, of delicate feelings, and of ſenſe? Where that nice expreſſion of the amiable and ſofter paſſions in the countenance; and that general elegance of features and complexion? Where, except on the boſom of the European woman, two ſuch plump and ſnowy white hemiſpheres, tipt with vermillion?
Charles White, Account of the Regular Gradation in Man p. 135
Artists in the West and elsewhere have always paid close attention to the breast, and the simplest explanation is that most artists have been men (because you need autonomy to become a proficient artist, and men have historically enjoyed more autonomy than women), and that the majority of men are heterosexual. What’s changed is not men’s feelings about breasts, but people’s feelings about men’s feelings about breasts.
So some features of sexual desire respond to cultural cues, as the critical-theorists would expect, while others are stable, as the biologists would expect. Is that the best we can do? Ethology and neuroscience give us further materials for a framework. Goslings and ducklings are programmed by their genes to latch onto the first big moving thing they see upon hatching. Thereafter, they follow around and snuggle up to only that specific big moving thing, not any old big moving thing; geese and ducks tend to be hostile to infants that are not their own. It’s called “imprinting”, you’ll find it in any animal behaviour textbook. Don’t be fooled into thinking that all imprinting happens at birth. Some cues kick in later on. I haven’t done an experiment, but if my observations are not coincidental then cats seem to have a “stranger” cue which becomes active around one year of age. Kittens are unfazed by unfamiliar people up to a point; then one day in their adolescence a scarier-than-average visitor comes to the house – with one cat it was an Irish band come to practise, with another it was a friend’s seeing-eye dog – and from then on every knock at the door sends them behind the sofa.
Human sexuality appears to operate on imprinting, which in this context is called “cued interest”. For instance, it’s long been suspected that people become sadomasochists if, at a critical age, their chief source of human touch is corporal punishment. Neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, extend the logic to explain the cultural variance we see in sexual attraction. The adolescent human brain is biologically pre-programmed to seek out a particular set of features in people of the desired gender(s). What specific configuration of those features they latch onto depends on what they find in the world, which will usually coincide with the ambient culture’s aesthetic. If true, this would help explain the belief many American Evangelicals hold, that you can protect your teenage children from having “impure” thoughts by eliminating explicit or risqué media content from their lives. They remember what cued their own sexual awakening and imagine that if they just hadn’t seen that, they would have been free of troublesome lusts until their wedding day.
So now I have to talk about A Billion Wicked Thoughts, because it’s another of these problematic evolutionary psychology texts. Ogas and Gaddam captured two million anonymous internet users’ search terms and analysed them to determine their gender and their porn- or erotica-related interests. The book has drawn the usual ire from the culture crowd; this time it’s partly deserved. Ogas and Gaddam certainly fall into the trap of over-enthusiastic adaptationism, and I won’t defend most of their conclusions. At least one of them is evidently also an adherent of the Twee Pop Culture Reference Metaphor school of science communication. But their dataset is legit. And even if we’re more cautious than them about interpreting that dataset, Ogas and Gaddam have made an important contribution to the study of sexuality. That’s what I think, anyway. Some people disagree. Here’s Andrew Ladd critiquing the book for The Good Men Project:
For instance, Gaddam and Ogas say, cavewomen who carefully chose who they had sex with were most likely to find reliable “husbands” and hence pass down their genes. Because of that evolutionary heritage, women today are still harder to get into bed than men.
And yes, a reliable husband can make having a child easier if you’re a pregnant woman in 2011, living in a big city far from your family and lacking any other sources of support. But critics have pointed out that if you were a woman living in a small hunter-gatherer society 70,000 years ago, where you always had relatives nearby and where food got shared among the community anyway, there’d be very little benefit to having a monogamous partner. Actually, it might have been better to have sex with lots of men, so that more would be willing to help.
Here Ladd has skipped a step. It was him, and the anonymous critics he mentions, who brought up monogamy. Having high sexual standards is not the same as monogamy, and the reason female mammals have higher sexual standards than males is not because they need a helpmeet. It’s because they need the best-quality genes for their offspring, in whom they invest so much more time, energy, and risk than males do.
Some of Ladd’s arguments are reasonable. I would certainly not conclude that people’s online porn searches sum up the whole of their sexual desire. However, to have quantified the overhang between desire and fulfilment is no small thing. Nearly all men admit, given anonymity, to having used porn at least some of the time, which implies that very few men manage to get everything they want from real-life sex. It’s also true that internet search analysis captures only people with internet access, thus systematically excluding the global poor – especially people in forager societies, which is a rather significant omission if you’re trying to draw evolutionary conclusions. But Ladd displays his own prejudice (and failure to read critically) when he concludes that
In a lot of ways – and this is a common criticism of evolutionary psychology – A Billion Wicked Thoughts is using science to try to justify cultural stereotypes: men are horny, women are emotional, gays are weird, etc., because our genes make us this way.
One out of three isn’t good. “Men are horny”, yes, you can certainly find that in A Billion Wicked Thoughts. “Women are emotional” is stretching what Ogas and Gaddam say to the point of misrepresentation; they state at one point, as a fact already known, that women are better at controlling their emotional reactions than men. And one discovery they make much of is that “gays” are surprisingly not weird, at least surprisingly to them. There turn out to be very few systematic differences between gay and straight men, apart from the definitive one, obviously. Gender preference is determined from birth and is not sensitive to culture or childhood experience, the authors argue, on the grounds that the proportion of gay men in our homophobic society is pretty much the same as in the Sambia of New Guinea, who expect teenage boys to have oral sex with one another as a normal part of development.
Ogas and Gaddam relied on third parties and circumstantial evidence to determine their subjects’ gender. Where they make essentialistic pronouncements about “men and women”, I will more cautiously talk about female-typical and male-typical searches – be thinking again of those clusters on the scatter-graph. Ladd alleges that they are trying to justify cultural stereotypes, but in fact they make no bones about challenging a couple. Fat shame, for one. Male-typical preferences peak at a particular body weight, but they decline more gradually on the heavy side of the peak than on the slim side. Far more male-typical internet users want to see chubby bodies than skinny ones. The idea that only hyper-thin bodies are attractive is a fiction created by the beauty and fashion industries, which make money by preying on women’s body image insecurity.
Male-typical porn searchers wanted to look at four body parts in particular. The first two were those summed up in the scornful acronym “T & A”, chests and buttocks, where the former included searches for male pectoral muscles as well as for breasts. So far, so stereotypical. The third, however, was feet, despite the fact that Western culture regards this particular turn-on as a sick-weird-gross “fetish” (legs, the more “acceptable” interest, were way down the list). The fourth, regardless of general gender preference, was penises. Specifically, large penises. From which it follows that, when heterosexual men claim to be disgusted by penises, as many do even on anonymous surveys, they are either lying or reacting moralistically to their own desires. If it’s paradoxical to call a man who likes penises “heterosexual”, then we have to conclude that male heterosexuality as understood by our culture is a myth. Ogas and Gaddam found cultural variation in male-typical anatomical preference, but not so strong that those four were ever deposed.
As I’ve already said, I can’t talk about female desire from a position of knowledge. For all I know, what Ogas and Gaddam say might be laughably false to anyone who’s actually experienced it. Shorn of the cutesy analogies their fundamental premise is that while male-typical sexuality operates on or logic, female-typical sexuality operates on and logic. An or statement is true if any part of it is true, but an and statement is only true if every part of it is true. So, according to Ogas and Gaddam, people with female-typical desires would not feel sexual desire towards another person if there was any one thing clearly “off” about them or the context, even if everything else was OK; whereas to a person with male-typical desires, as long as even one unambiguously attractive feature is present, that little light in the brain stays on. For the most part, anyway. Most guys have at least a few instant turn-offs, which seem to be entangled with cultural beliefs and associations – they’re sadly often racist or transphobic in content. The authors further claim that bisexual women fall more towards the male side of the spectrum, including on this metric, than either lesbian or heterosexual women.
Apart from those little wrinkles this is an elegantly simple idea. I find I keep having to remind myself that science requires solid evidence as well as elegant theory, and that Ogas and Gaddam have not traced the logic links from their evidence to their conclusion very well. I will content myself with pointing out how very neatly it explains the findings of the Would You Come To Bed With Me Experiment without having to posit that women don’t like sex or are naturally monogamous (or that men are constantly horny or emotionally numb). Notice in particular how it accounts both for “just how stupid the men are”, as Rebecca Watson puts it, and for her incredulity at them. To Watson, the fact that the invitation is likely to be a “scam” is enough to kill any feeling of desire. Since it clearly hasn’t killed the men’s desire, she figures they must not realize it’s a scam. But to a male-typical person, even if you know your suitor is scamming you, that doesn’t erase their basic attractiveness. It takes self-control to say “No” and you say it with regret.

Despite the impression I’m sure I’ve given thus far, I think both cultural relativism and social constructionism can provide insights into social and political problems. Some other time I’ll argue for them, this post is getting a bit wordy already. I do think both operate within the constraints of human biology. And with the partial exception of Michel Foucault, I have pretty much no time for postmodernism, which both of them shade into at the far end. It is, as Daniel C. Dennett says, the most reactionary philosophy ever known. You can’t speak truth to power if there is no truth but power. Thankfully up till now no government has adopted it, although there was that Vietnam War officer who said that Vietnamese people wouldn’t miss their slain children the way Americans might because their culture didn’t value individuals. It certainly isn’t a philosophy of the masses – postmodernist writing is notorious for its obscurity, you have to belong to the academic élite to know what postmodernism even is. Effectively it makes the critical theorist the arbiter of truth, reality, and meaning, which I suppose is why it appeals to would-be critical theorists.
Does evolutionary psychology undermine the feminist concept of rape culture? Well, I think they’re both valid, but of course that puts me in a minority. I’ve told this story elsewhere to illustrate what rape culture means to me. One evening, circumstances beyond my control required me to ride a bus full of drunk young men fresh from watching a rugby match. Half a dozen of them started a song which at first was merely boring. Once they had all joined in, they came to a set of lyrics which got edited out of the article I just linked to, and fair enough. I’m going to repeat them here, but I must warn you to skip past them if explicit objectification of women is a trigger for you.
I wish that all the ladies were buns in a bakery,
And if I were a baker I would cream them all myself.
I wish that all the ladies were potholes in the road,
And if I were a tractor I would fill them with my load.
If that’s not rape culture I don’t know what else to call it. It dovetails perfectly with Thornhill and Palmer’s theory that rapists see their victims as mere objects to be used for the purpose of sexual gratification. Let me once again emphasize: that does not mean that this is how all men feel, that nothing can be done about it, or that culture isn’t involved. Emotions are not blind hydraulic pressures steaming away in the brain until they boil over, as Steven Pinker explains in How the Mind Works. They are tactics developed by our genes, but deployed strategically in response to expected challenges or opportunities. Those expectations are intimately tied to the meanings we put on the world, and meaning is the sphere of culture. To these young men, at this moment, that song was both an acknowledgement and a reinforcement of their common knowledge that a woman is nothing but a sex toy. I sincerely hope that it was fictive common knowledge to most of them, like the “knowledge” that a unicorn is a horse with a horn on its forehead, not something that applied in the real world. If there were any real rapists present, however, the song would have justified and normalized their predatory attitude – All guys do what I do, that’s how the world works. Rape culture feeds the bad wolf.
What about patriarchy? Does evolutionary psychology mean there’s no such thing as patriarchy? Not at all. It’s not inevitable that men should think of women as objects or resources to be possessed, but if they do then evolutionary psychology predicts fairly neatly what happens next. We’ve already seen why male mammals find themselves lacking a willing mate far more often than females do. From this it follows that males will compete with each other for sex. One option would be to make the female herself the referee of the competition, so that a rejected male simply has to accept her judgement, swallow his pride, and turn to someone else another time. There’s no reason in principle why humans can’t manage things that way, but in point of fact historically we haven’t. The alternative is intermale aggression with the potential for violence that that entails. Members of social species seldom fight to the death, at least not against members of their own community. More often they weigh up whether they are likely to win, and if not they back down. The two main ways of pre-empting fights are dominance, where the individual which knows it is subordinate backs down, and territory, where the individual who arrived latest backs down. In human politics these two become, respectively, power structures and property claims.
I’ve argued for this model of patriarchy before. Here are some of the key points. Patriarchal societies, including ours, generally have a tradition of harsh and violent punishments for rape – as they define rape, which has nothing to do with consent and everything to do with ownership. Patriarchies are not concerned about the suffering of the survivor; they are extremely concerned about purity, and (if she’s female) the property rights of her husband or father. And male property rights in women have everything to do with racism and war. When some groups are seen as racial Others, part of the fear is predictably that “Their” men will defile “Our” women. The same trope reliably turns up in war propaganda. Meanwhile, rape is as much part of war as killing, and it’s only in extremely recent times that war-mongering governments have pretended otherwise. At the executive level wars are waged for wealth and power, yes. But recall Aristotle Onassis’ assertion that “without [sexual access to] women, all the money in the world would have no meaning.” To him as an aggressive seeker of wealth, the point of wealth was the sex it bought him.
I may say that this competitive model of patriarchy fits my personal experience better than the more traditional feminist idea of a conspiracy or collusion between men to keep women subordinate. I remember once in a pub going to talk to someone who I hadn’t seen since high school, only to have the guy she’d come in with roar “She’s my chick!” in my face. Patriarchy, as they say, hurts men too. I don’t want to claim that it hurts men anywhere near as much as it hurts women, who are reduced to the status of livestock to be owned, corralled, and traded, nor that it mainly matters because of its effect on men. I tend to focus on men’s experience mainly because I’m a man myself and can’t go around telling women what their experiences are, and also because it’s primarily men’s behaviour that needs to change and you can’t change someone’s behaviour unless you speak to their real motivations. This model would predict that male death rates from violence will correlate inversely with the social empowerment of women, and a recent evolutionary psychology study has found exactly that.
And that, in case you were wondering, is why I’ve been focusing throughout this post on gender issues while calling it a “leftist” perspective. There’s been quite a bit of bickering within the New Zealand Left in recent months over whether gender and sexuality issues are really a priority, what with it being election year. Various feminist bloggers have pointed out the most important thing that’s wrong with this attitude, which is that not all working-class people are straight cisgender men. I just thought I might stick my oar in and add another consideration. What are the core concerns of the Left if not inequality, power, racism, and war? Well, if these insights from evolutionary psychology are correct, then those things are ultimately the product of patriarchy, of men’s claim to own women’s bodies. Feminism is central to the Left, and the Left will flounder until it realizes that.
This post is now far longer than I ever meant it to get, so I shall wrap it up here. Next time I’ll talk about culture and social constructions, and gather some ideas about how to feed the good wolf. In the meantime, as I hope I’ve demonstrated, I think cultural theorists would have much to gain by keeping an open mind on the core claims of evolutionary psychology – not least, a more searching critique of its frequent missteps and excesses.


  1. This is a tour de force. I'm baffled why there isn't a crowd responding enthusiastically to this compassionate, scholarly article. I came at these issues with similar experiences -- interest in evo psych, degree in humanities and a later career in software -- but with a somewhat more essentialist bias. You have strongly influenced my thinking with this and your other thoughtful essays.

    1. That's simple enough. There isn't a crowd because I don't blog often enough to attract a following. Pieces like this take a long time to write. I'm seriously reconsidering my blogging style at the moment. I don't intend to stop writing things like this, but I should have shorter pieces to go with often enough that people have a reason to come back.

    2. I've been giving some thought lately about the proper unit of idea-sharing. Your long essays may limit your audience, but I'd hesitate to call that wrong. Actually, I'd argue that you're doing it far better than most people, whose blogs are stuffed with ephemera. Your essays won't quickly become dated, and you might collect them into a book. Consider Nicholas Gurewitch's Perry Bible Fellowship cartoon (which my friend from Cambridge, England, turned me onto years ago). It's been a slow burner, infrequently updated, but it must have a huge audience by now. I'll do my part to promote your blog.

  2. In your discussion of the university study where students were approached by attractive strangers and offered sex, you don't quite tackle the question of whether women's risk assessment is culturally determined. I debated a woman who was very hostile to the study, and she insisted that cultural context was wholly at issue. I countered that the studies were cross cultural, at which point she said that all the cultures mentioned were patriarchal and most of them strongly Western-influenced. That brought us to an impasse, because we couldn't agree on a sufficiently matriarchal or non-patriarchal control group. We both find each other's perspective overly convenient and non-parsimonious. There must be a study to break this deadlock.

    1. I haven't found one. It's hard to think what one would look like. If my counter-hypothesis is that any contact with the Western worldview can have whatever effect on people's sex-drive my argument happens to require, then it's unfalsifiable and I'd say the onus of proof is on me.

      My own guess would be that women have a natural instinct to assess risks posed by people soliciting sex from them, but that they take in social and cultural information as part of the assessment.

    2. I suspect you're correct. It seems preposterous that women would not be naturally more reluctant given the investment of pregnancy and child rearing and the fact that the pattern holds for all other animals that bear the greater cost of reproduction, but argument from incredulity isn't science. Maybe neurology and fMRI imaging will help us break down the influence of culture. I would think that a dedicated circuit or module would have a different signature than conscious risk-assessment.

    3. "Maybe neurology and fMRI imaging will help us break down the influence of culture. I would think that a dedicated circuit or module would have a different signature than conscious risk-assessment."
      I doubt it. I don't think we'll find a principled difference between "natural" and "cultural" behaviour at the neurological level, simply because all "cultural" behaviours are assemblages of "natural" components. Certainly behaviours that were "instinctive" would look different from behaviours that were "conscious", but conscious behaviours can become instinctive with sufficient practice. For me recognising and reading typed English is as effortless and "instinctive" as seeing the 3D scene represented by a flat picture, but I'm pretty sure the latter is biologically programmed in a way that the former is not. Not that it wouldn't be very informative to look at something equivalent to the Hatfield experiment in a brain-scanner; I just don't think you'd find a distinction between culture and nature that way.