Saturday, February 23, 2008

Nasty, Brutish And Short On Foreplay

(I swiped that title from Barbara Ehrenreich, bless her heart. See "How 'Natural' Is Rape?", Time, January 31, 2000, p. 88.)

I’ve been thinking more about Aaron Gillette’s book on the nature-nurture debate, and something occurred to me.

Gillette represents the debate as involving two sides, which he calls “evolutionary psychology” (including eugenics, sociobiology, and biological determinism generally; I’ll call it EP for short) and “environmental behaviorism” (cultural anthropology, behaviorist psychology, biological non-determinism generally; EB for short). EP he presents as non-ideological, though he pays lip service to the fallible humanity of science (in an explicitly religious analogy) and acknowledges the involvement of so many early evolutionary psychologists in unfortunate social movements. EB, by contrast, he presents as essentially ideological, pretty much without scientific content, the absurd posturing of people who can’t face reality and don’t want to.

This is false, and in fact Gillette is muddying the difference between scientific and political claims. (That’s apart from his weird, probably politically motivated conflation of “environmental” and “behaviorism.”) It isn’t like he doesn’t know the difference: he’s adamant about separating the two where EP and eugenics are concerned. But behaviorism is not an ideology, it’s an approach to the study of organisms, a research program even if a very limited one. The same can be said of biological determinism. Noam Chomsky wrote in his dissection of arch-behaviorist B. F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity,

[I]t would be improper to conclude that Skinner is advocating concentration camps and totalitarian rule (though he also offers no objection). Such a conclusion overlooks a fundamental property of Skinner's science, namely, its vacuity.

While Chomsky is a Leftist, as I mentioned before, he also believes that innate mechanisms underlie such human behavior as language. He even wrote, while verbally garroting Richard Herrnstein in the late 1960s,

It is, incidentally, surprising to me that so many commentators should find it disturbing that IQ might be heritable, perhaps largely so. Would it also be disturbing to discover that relative height or musical talent or rank in running the hundred-yard dash is in part genetically determined? Why should one have preconceptions one way or another about these questions, and how do the answers to them, whatever they may be, relate either to serious scientific issues (in the present state of our knowledge) or to social practice in a decent society?

But mark those words, “a decent society.” Chomsky was under no illusion that we live in one.

Though Gillette repeatedly deplores the racism of his eugenicist heroes, he still finds it awfully unfair that they should have been criticized for the worthless scientific claims they used to justify it in their own day. But he has the situation backwards, asserting that the scientific claims of biological determinism have been criticized and rejected because of the ideology of the scientists who advanced them. In fact the critics have pointed out that, given the “poor data collection, glaring inconsistencies, and obvious statistical oversimplification” (Gillette, 65) that characterized the evolutionary psychologists’ scientific work, it is reasonable to suspect that the acceptance they achieved had more to do with ideology than science.

What the critics of biological determinism say is not “that human behavior is almost entirely molded by environment and culture, rather than instinct or heredity” (Gillette 171 note 4), but that what biological determinists hold to be controlled by instinct or heredity is affected (not necessarily determined) by environment or culture. As Noam Chomsky would say, that’s virtually a truism, and many contemporary evolutionary psychologists at least pay lip service to it. A wish to widen the gap between themselves and their opponents may help to explain why biological determinists try to confuse the issue by accusing their critics of believing that humans are a “blank slate.” Since their critics already agree that “there are genetic components to human behavior,” and the evolutionary psychologists admit that non-genetic components play a role, it might otherwise seem that their positions differ in degree rather than in basic approach.

I shouldn’t be too hard on them. These folks are simply unable to comprehend a middle ground between total genetic programming on the one hand, and a totally blank slate on the other. (Their disability might be a genetic blind spot, the result of millennia of evolution.) They also share the common human tendency to turn relative differences into absolute binary differences – going from data which indicate, for example, that girls score slightly lower than boys on math tests, to declaring that girls can’t do math, so there is no point in teaching math to girls at all. The fact that boys score lower than girls in verbal skills is never interpreted to mean that boys need not be taught to read and write; far from it. Instead they must be given more help learning these skills, and there is much lamenting the girl-friendly classroom environments that have made it impossible for boys to learn. Oh, the humanity!

As the sociologist Martha McCaughey points out in The Caveman Mystique (Routledge, 2008), the evolutionary psychologist David Buss

tells readers in his Evolution of Desire, … that his cross-cultural study found the predicted sex differences in human mating preferences universally. Internationally, men tend to value physical attractiveness and youth in a mate more than women, who are more likely than men to prioritize resources in a mate. Reading about the study, one would think that all men prioritize good looks in a mate above all else, and that looks don’t matter to women at all.

However, if you go back and read Buss’ boring old academic article, published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 1989, you will see that the picture is more complicated than that, and he readily admits to several limitations of his study. For example, he did not have a random sample. He also concedes that self-reports are limited and must be checked by other studies. (A man may say beauty in a woman is highly important, for instance, but then will actually pair up with someone who is rich and not very good looking.) Buss also notes that male and female preferences overlap significantly. Not only do women also express a preference for good looks in a mate (just not as strongly as men), both men and women prefer, first and foremost, kindness and understanding in their mates. … [115-116]

Buss took relative differences between the sexes and turned them into absolute differences for a lay audience. Where sex is concerned, evolutionary psychologists have a crucial blind spot. As Gillette put it (pp 87f),

Though evolutionary psychologists discussed women’s mating strategies from time to time, they were less concerned with women’s mating desires than with men’s. There are several possible reasons for this. For one, their patriarchal society felt most comfortable considering men’s sexual aggressiveness as opposed to women’s. Also, since most of the leading evolutionary psychologists were men, or in a few cases were female students under the supervision of male professors, the focus on male sexuality might simply have reflected a male fascination with their own sexual behavior.

Gillette was referring here to the biological determinists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but things have changed very little since then. What gets the most attention, both from researchers and from media and popular culture, is work which claims to explain male sexual behavior in terms of our evolutionary heritage.

And as the biologist Marlene Zuk showed in her book Sexual selections (University of California, 2002), even the study of sexual autonomy in females of non-human species makes male scientists very nervous indeed. In 1990 a Canadian scientist, Lisle Gibbs, published a paper on his work with red-winged blackbirds. DNA testing revealed that “many, if not most of the chicks in a given blackbird territory were fathered by a male other than the territorial one” (68) – the results of what are now called “extra-pair copulations”, or EPCs. And, Zuk adds, “EPCs are now known to occur in every avian family. That means ducks, warblers, woodpeckers, wrens, orioles, the lot. This is that same group held up as a model of monogamy just a few short years ago. It was a real revolution, and it took place within less than a decade” (70). Zuk comments that “Telling my animal behavior students about this research triggers the strongest reaction they have to anything I teach them in the course. … They are horrified … Then comes anger. … When they do express it, it seems to be directed at the female blackbirds, a bit like Olin Bray’s denouncing the females as promiscuous while indulging the males in their sexual excesses” (68-9).

Terms including “adultery,” “infidelity,” “betrayal,” “cheating,” “fooling around,” and more have been applied to findings like those of Lisle Gibbs in the popular press, and sometimes the scientific literature is not far behind. … Either males were roaming around and taking advantage of hapless females waiting innocently in their own territories for the breadwinner males to come home with the worms, or else females were brazen hussies, seducing blameless males who otherwise would not have strayed from the path of moral righteousness. Bray’s “female promiscuity” label is just one example. A paper published in the prestigious journal Nature refers to young in warblers as “illegitimate,” as if their parents had tiny avian marriage licenses and chirped their vows. That some scientists in our society take this view should come as no surprise to us; after all, it was Hester who wore that scarlet letter, not her partner, and the double standard of judging adultery in humans has received much attention from sociologists and feminist scholars [70-71].

This double standard obtains in work on primates, especially human beings. Evolution apparently has affected men almost exclusively, making us a sex of horndogs, a pair of giant goggling eyes that swivel after every nubile female that comes in range, and if we can’t win her heart by heartfelt cries of “Hubba-hubba! Oh, you kid! Does your mother know you’re out?” – well, then, we will very likely take her by force. (Taking other males by force is generally not on the agenda, except among insects. The straight boys who study evolutionary psychology would mostly prefer not to go there.) At most, evolutionary psychologists have conceded that women have evolved to prefer wealth in their (male, of course) partners, and to be “coy” (a word that rightly annoys feminists no end) so as to inflame their/our ardor more. Aside from that, women apparently have no agency whatsoever: they just sit around, filing their nails and eating bonbons, until Alley Oop sneaks up behind them, clubs them over the head, and slips it in.

As McCaughey shows repeatedly (and as anyone who’s read books like Buss’s will recognize), male sociobiologists insist that men can’t help ourselves, that we’re driven by our genes and our evolutionary heritage to sow our seed wholesale. Take this revealing bit from Robin Baker’s Sperm Wars:

Some things, of course, will never change. Nothing – short of castration, brain surgery, or hormone implants – can remove a person’s subconscious urge to have as many grandchildren as they can. So, nothing will remove a man’s subconscious urge to have as many children with as many women as his genes and circumstances will allow.

I think that last sentence shows that the initial gender-neutral “person” with the “subconscious urge to have as many grandchildren as they can” is male, not female. What about women? Well, they don’t have sperm. Presumably they have a complementary urge to replenish the earth, but their desire not to wear themselves out with childbearing, and to enforce that desire with contraception and abortion, must be conscious and of no evolutionary account. In any case, what if a woman doesn’t want to be inseminated by all those roaming males with their subconscious urges? Tough luck, it appears.

Craig T. Palmer and Randy Thornhill, authors of an infamous (and hot-selling) EP book on The Natural History of Rape (MIT, 2000), “see their policy solutions – such as having the state teach boys, before they get their drivers’ licenses, about their biological propensity and teach girls not to incite that propensity with provocative clothing – as superior because their theory of rape is scientific” (McCaughey, 69). In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker dismisses this idiocy but defends Palmer and Thornhill against their evil feminist critics – they are so not justifying rape! (Pinker, 371) – before quoting Camille Paglia on the subject, which discredits him more effectively than anything I could say. Pinker forgets that feminists are, like, women, and women’s distaste for being raped is every bit as well-founded as men’s supposed “subconscious urge” to commit the deed. But women simply don’t register on these boys’ scientific radar, except as targets in a Sperm-Gets-Egg video game.

In general the EP boys are understandably defensive about rape – after all, they won’t get to perpetuate their own genes if women think they’re soft on rapists. Apparently they believe that if they condemn it vehemently enough they can then throw up their hands helplessly – What can you do? it’s in our genes – and their fatalism doesn’t constitute a justification. Which only shows how dumb they are, not just in terms of social policy, as Pinker assumes, but scientifically as well. Men have always condemned rape, though traditionally it’s as a crime against (their) property and by extension against themselves: the rapist has trespassed on and polluted another man’s property, his virgin daughter or his faithful wife, and therefore virtually raped them. The EP boys can’t seem to recognize that women are people, with interests of their own.

McCaughey also quotes (32) Naomi Weisstein, who points out sensibly enough:

evidence from hunter-gatherer societies suggests that deep into our prehistory women knew who the fathers of their children were, and aborted, neglected, abandoned or killed those infants they did not want to raise. Children conceived by rape may have been highly valued in some cultures. Most likely, they were snuffed out before they could reach the gene pool.

Interestingly in this connection, Marlene Zuk tells us about a biologist named Nancy Burley, who found that among zebra finches, males

often forced copulation on females with which they were not paired; in fact, 80 percent of all extra-pair copulations were aggressive, which she defined in a rigorous and repeatable way. These matings never resulted in any offspring, which is interesting by itself. Even more interesting, though, was that 28 percent of chicks in the aviaries were from the remaining 20 percent of EPCs that were not forced, an astounding success rate. What were the females doing to influence the fate of sperm from different males? No one knows. The cloaca of female birds is clearly capable of some sophisticated maneuvering; in several species, females have been observed ejecting sperm after a copulation. The organ’s structure and function has, however, been relatively little studied by scientists [84-5]

That’s male scientists, I bet, and those female zebra finches must be a bunch of man-hating pro-abortion feminazis, with their brutal disregard for the evolutionary heritage and subconscious urges of their males. There are other possible ways to prepare girls to deal with rapists besides putting them in burqas. Self-defense classes, for example. Martha McCaughey also has written a book on women’s self-defense classes, which I’m hoping to get to before long. But Nicola Griffith’s novel Always features a powerful account of the whys and wherefores of women’s self-defense, well worth reading.

So, maybe it isn’t an ideological bias that leads male evolutionary psychologists to ignore women. Let’s just say it’s a flaw in their science, which by their lights is even more damaging.

More on this next time; or if not, the time after that.