Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Tierney Shows His Hand

Still suffering from a nasty cold, so another guest blog here from "i":

Well, whatever his motivations in his previous Op-Ed piece, John Tierney displayed his affinity for the “just so” stories of evolutionary psychology: men are aggressive, competitive, and dominant and women are nurturing and supportive because it was selected for by evolution.

I may not be a biologist, psychologist, or anthropologist, but I know circular reasoning when I see it. And evolutionary psychology is, to my mind, one of the worst examples of this logical fallacy masquerading as science since Medieval metaphysics. You start with a prejudicial supposition about male or female gendered behavior, attitudes, etc., you design an experiment that proves that men and women fit these stereotypes, and then you make up some story about how this stereotype was in fact selected for genetically. Never mind that, as our feminista has already noted, we aren't talking about inter-species mutations here but intra-species behavior, never mind that it hasn't been demonstrated that these traits are actually being selected for by showing a change in populations over time, never mind that these traits may just as likely be passed on by historical-cultural factors from parent to child. Men are competitive go-getters ‘cause women like it that way and will sleep with them, so their competitive domineering behavior must be genetic, “natural,” and therefore justified rather than a socially constructed role that is oppressive, has questionable social value, and might be altered for the better. As Tierney notes (in another lovely logical leap), this explains why groupies hang out looking to hook up with rock stars…they're just genetically drawn to the competitive success of the dominant male.

It's about time for the return of an important book that got a bad rap, The Descent of Woman. Whether Elaine Morgan's theories are true is an issue for anthropologists to figure out. Irrespective of the details of the theory, the single most important thing Morgan has offered to our evolutionary interpretations is the following question: what happens if you focus on the female rather than the male as the primary force of evolutionary change rather than trotting her out as simply the sexual vessel for the production of progeny for the benefit of “man” (in other words, the male)? When you try to imagine why we lost our body hair, or why females grew breasts and fleshy buttocks, or why we all possess the subcutaneous fat more common to sea mammals than land mammals, instead of focusing on the male hunter (who paradoxically has more hair than his female-gatherer counterpart), instead of assuming, just because you find T & A hot, that this must be the evolutionary purpose of this tantalizing flesh, instead of simply ignoring this strange fatty matter that keeps us warm without hair, maybe we could look to the female role between mother and child as the dominant force in evolutionary change from pre-hominid to hominid species.

In short, what continues to blow my mind is why otherwise scientific individuals (males and females alike) fall prey to evolutionary psychological theorizing of the former sort, the kind that is set up to justify the already prejudiced conclusion that the gender status quo is natural and inevitable and that the roles that continue to oppress women are scientifically and naturally justified. Tierney merely cites these scientists, but is just as guilty due to his wholesale and uncritical acceptance and affirmation of their hype.