In principle, evolutionary psychology, which seeks to understand our behavior in light of the fact that we are products of natural selection, can give us deep insights into ourselves. In practice, the field often reinforces insidious prejudices. That was the theme of my recent column “Darwin Was Sexist, and So Are Many Modern Scientists.”
The column provoked such intense pushback that I decided to write this follow-up post. Alt-right pundit Steve Sailer described my column as “science denialism.” Psychologist Jordan Peterson deplored “the descent of Scientific American.” Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer called me the “PC police of the [Scientific American] web site.”
Political scientist Charles Murray complained that Scientific American “has been adamantly PC since before PC was a thing,” which as someone who began writing for the magazine in 1986 I take as a compliment. Murray, famed for contending in The Bell Curve that biology underpins racial inequality, has proposed similar arguments to explain female inequality.
Critics of my column see themselves as courageous defenders of scientific truth, and yet they prefer “truth” that confirms their conviction that inequality reflects biology. If you question these claims, you are a “social justice warrior.” So what does that make them? Social injustice warriors?
Now let’s take a closer look at a claim advanced by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, whom I cited in my previous column. In his 2000 book The Mating Mind, Miller argues that sexual selection can account for differences between males and females. Darwin proposed sexual selection to explain puzzles like the tail of the peacock, which from a practical point of view seems to diminish fitness. Darwin hypothesized that females have chosen to mate with, or selected, peacocks with large tails, thus propagating this trait. Miller suggests that sexual selection can help explain why males dominate women in many realms of culture. Here is how he puts it in The Mating Mind:
Men write more books. Men give more lectures. Men ask more questions after lectures. Men post more e-mail to Internet discussion groups. To say this is due to patriarchy is to beg the question of the behavior's origin. If men control society, why don't they just shut up and enjoy their supposed prerogatives? The answer is obvious when you consider sexual competition: men can't be quiet because that would give other men a chance to show off verbally. Men often bully women into silence, but this is usually to make room for their own verbal display… The ocean of male language that confronts modern women in bookstores, television, newspapers, classrooms, parliaments, and businesses does not necessarily come from a male conspiracy to deny women their voice. It may come from an evolutionary history of sexual selection in which the male motivation to talk was vital to their reproduction.
Anthropologist Richard Wrangham presented a similar argument in his 1996 book Demonic Males (co-written with a journalist). Wrangham asserts that male aggression and even group aggression, or war, are innate tendencies that we share with chimpanzees, our closest relatives. Females have selected these “demonic” traits, according to Wrangham. He writes:
Many women would prefer it otherwise, but in the real world, the tough guy finds himself besieged with female admirers, while the self-effacing friend sadly clutches his glass of Chablis at the fern bar alone. The individual men and women who make up our species are extraordinarily ready to admire, to love, and to reward male demonism in many of its manifestations, and that admiration, love and rewarding perpetuates the continuation, for generation after generation, of the demonic male within us. Women don’t ask for abuse. Women don’t like many specific acts of demonic males. But paradoxically, many women do regularly find attractive the cluster of qualities and behaviors—successful aggression, dominance and displays of dominance—associated with male demonism. Both men and women are active participants in the very system that nurtures the continued success of demonic males; and the knot of human evolution, with the demonic male at the center, requires an untying of both strands, male and female.
Miller and Wrangham insist that they are trying to understand the roots of harmful behaviors, not to excuse them. They don’t say patriarchy is inevitable, let alone good. Wrangham argues in Demonic Males that female empowerment is the best way to create a more egalitarian, peaceful world.
But there are a couple of problems with the sexual-selection theory of male dominance. First, the theory is poorly supported by anthropological evidence. Studies suggest that our pre-civilization ancestors, who were nomadic hunter-gatherers, were relatively peaceful and egalitarian. War seems to have emerged not millions of years ago but about 12,000 years ago when our ancestors started abandoning their nomadic ways and settling down. [See war posts in Further Reading.]
In her 2009 book Mothers and Others anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy writes that “hunter-gatherers almost everywhere are known for being fiercely egalitarian and going to great lengths to downplay competition.” When I interviewed her in 2009, Hrdy speculated that the emergence of war at the end of the Pleistocene era diminished the status of women and boosted the status of males, especially those who excelled at fighting. War and patriarchy, in other words, are relatively recent cultural developments. A recent paper in Science corroborates Hrdy’s claim that hunter-gatherers displayed “sex egalitarianism.”
In his new book Behave, anthropologist Robert Sapolsky concurs that war “seems to have been rare until most humans abandoned the [nomadic hunter-gatherer] lifestyle.” Sapolsky also argues that culture might contribute more than biology to modern differences in male and female cognitive performance. He cites a 2008 paper in Science, “Culture, Gender and Math,” which found that “the gender gap in math scores disappears in countries with a more gender-equal culture.”
Another problem with the sexual-selection theory of male dominance is that it suggests women have been complicit in their own oppression. We live in a hyper-competitive, male-dominated culture because women prefer the “tough guy” to the “self-effacing” guy. Women are bullied into submission by loud-mouthed, domineering men because, historically, women have “selected” men who are loud-mouthed and domineering, thus propagating these traits. Women dig mansplainers.
And remember that women’s preference for domineering men is supposedly instinctual, rather than a rational response to a male-dominated world. The sexual-selection theory of male dominance is a form of victim-blaming. It is an especially insidious just-so story, because it feeds the male fantasy that women want to be dominated.
Proponents of biological theories of sexual inequality accuse their critics of being “blank slaters,” who deny any innate psychological tendencies between the sexes. This is a straw man. I am not a blank-slater, nor do I know any critic of evolutionary psychology who is. But I fear that biological theorizing about these tendencies, in our still-sexist world, does more harm than good. It empowers the social injustice warriors, and that is the last thing our world needs.