Well – I asked for it. I knew the last few posts would be controversial and so I invited comment and challenge in the hope that doing so would raise respectful challenge rather than the insulting onslaughts I’ve occasionally received on social media whenever I’ve discussed any topic that may be of interest to feminists. And it worked.
I’ve had a few comments challenging recent posts but none that were abusive in any way. I have to say that this surprised me. It’s not been my usual experience. So – in the spirit of attempting to answer those challenges and hopefully stimulate more informative discussion (remember this has always been a learning project for me) I’ve tried to answer the main points of a particular comment that appears to represent the majority of other responses I’ve had either on social media or via Email.
Please feel free to continue to comment (and to disagree or agree as you see fit) but please – don’t assume hostility where none exists and please don’t become hostile yourself. I’m really not invested in any particular theory and if I say something that you disagree with, that doesn’t make me the spawn of Satan – it merely means that my investigations of the evidence over the last 18 months or so have brought me to a conclusion that differs from your own. I’d welcome your constructive debate. I have no interest in trading insults though. If that’s your preference please go and express yourself elsewhere.
Some might interpret my rebuttals as evidence that I’m not really interested in others’ views. I understand how that could be the impression but that’s not the intention here. I’ll always put my own case but that doesn’t mean I’m not listening to others too. In particular I’d be interested to know which cross-cultural studies weaken these arguments
The comment I’m replying to – which I found particularly pleasant and reasonable – can be found at the bottom of this post. In it I talked about the Madonna/Whore dichotomy and not altogether surprisingly have courted a bit of controversy as a result. I’ve divided the three part comment into headings in an attempt to do justice to the poster. I’m posting it as a separate post rather than as a comment because I think it’s helpful to recap some of the basics from the earlier parts of the series anyway and this will be better achieved in a separate post.
Weak, untestable theory
The accusation that evolutionary psychology is a pseudoscience full of weak untestable theories isn’t new. In fact it has been levelled at evolutionary psychology ever since its dawn which I have taken as the publication of EO Wilson’s ‘Sociobiology’ in 1975. To make sense of this accusation and the reason it is so incorrect I need to talk a little about the nature of science itself.
There are several different definitions of scientific method and indeed methods vary considerably between the ‘hard sciences’ such as physics which relies predominantly upon easily controlled lab experiments (among other things) and softer sciences such as anthropology, sociology and psychology (including evolutionary psychology) which often lack the luxury of tightly controlled laboratory experiments enjoyed by the hard sciences.
One of the most important criteria for good science is falsifiability. This is the idea put forward most famously by Karl Popper which I blogged about earlier in this series, here.
Regarding the particular post (part 27) I have added a number of links (supplemented by more links in part 29) that demonstrate truly falsifiable and genuinely evidential research projects that support the points made.
The specific accusation I’m responding to here is that the ideas put forward represent nothing more than Post-hoc (AKA ‘Just so stories’) explanations that cannot be tested. Yet evolutionary science and evolutionary psychology has produced and then supported (or from time to time failed to support and discarded) many falsifiable hypotheses. Some of those research projects are linked in the posts mentioned above. Of course there have been those who failed spectacularly to follow the rules of science and did indeed rely heavily upon Post-hoc explanations such as Desmond Morris in his book ‘The naked ape’. However the field has moved on significantly since the 1970s and Morris’ views (especially upon female sexual strategy as a rather improbable mechanism for group evolution) have been largely discredited. Interestingly ideas such as this have been falsified not by the feminist movement but by good, solid scientific research. It’s falsifiability that moves any science forward and evolutionary psychology is no exception.
Denies the fact that men and women have the ability to make choices
This series is long and sporadic. It has taken around 18 months so far as I’ve taken time to learn the material before I write it. So it’s not surprising that people are reading isolated posts without really understanding the context in which they are meant. As the series becomes more complete I’ll put more and more of it into PDF format as I did with Part 1. In that way it will be easier to maintain an overall perspective.
Several of the earlier posts made the exact point that strategies are flexible and that culture and social circumstances also play a part in mediating evolved strategies. It’s not so much a hard-wired behaviour as a hard-wired continuum of behaviours that respond to particular situations in humans just as they do in other primates. To argue against evolutionary psychology because it claims inflexibility is to miss the point entirely. Evolutionary psychology says no such thing. Neither, as it happens, do I. In fact I’ve made that precise point about flexibility in earlier posts in this series here, here, here and here – and they’re only the recent examples.
I don’t make these points to stifle challenge but I do ask that challengers take the time to follow the links I’ve included in posts before making straw man arguments. The last two of the four links above are to posts 27 and 29 themselves, In both of those posts I’ve mentioned flexibility and the fact that these strategies aren’t rigid. In truth they are mediated by circumstance, culture and opportunity.
Gender conflated with sex
This is fair comment. I haven’t particularly bothered with the variations of sexuality and gender we know in the modern world. There are two reasons for that…
I suspect that it’s impossible to come up with falsifiable hypotheses relating to Pleistocene era notions of gender as we understand it in the 21st century. Indeed, if evolutionary psychologists did get into those issues I suspect they’d be accused of Ad-hoc (Just so) explanations – the very thing that I was accused of in the comments to part 27. Actually the implications of criticising the blog for failing to include unfalsifiable stuff suggest a fairly classic double bind that I’m happy to avoid.
I have no way of knowing how early hominids and their early human descendants thought about gender. So I’m happy not to witter on about it. That really would constitute pseudoscience in my opinion. I’m pretty sure I’d be (quite rightly) attacked for doing so too – not least by those interested in gender politics.
Recommendation to read Alice Eagly
I’ve never heard of this lady before. I note that she’s a social psychologist and that she describes herself as a feminist psychologist. I must say that strikes me as odd. To my mind any scientist who prefaces their scientific field with a statement of ideology runs the risk of being biased by that ideology. It seems no more reliable that ‘creation science’ or ‘marxist biologist’. In the most extreme cases it could even be the same as ‘Aryan anthropologist’.
However I was heartened to read this:
Eagly’s work does not fit within either of the typical feminist research programs on gender differences. Generally, these research programs have either minimized or maximized these differences: “So there’s the minimizing and liberal feminism – [the position] that we’re all the same and we all have the same opportunities, and we’re all equal. But the maximizing [position] is to say that women have special gifts, they have special skills, and women are different and that should be celebrated… And I’m for neither one of those. I’m for accuracy”. By this, Eagly means that she believes neither position to be inherently good for equality, feminism, or science: “I think that’s the point of science, to provide answers that are less polemical”. In other words, science can contribute directly to social and political issues, but practicing scientists should aim to minimize the influence of ideology on their work. This is not to say, however, that feminist psychologists should simply research and report the ‘facts’. These findings should always be placed within a theoretical framework. Without that, there is no way to understand and interpret the results. To carry out her research program in such a way, Eagly relies heavily on meta-analytic tools and other quantitative methods, believing each to have their own strengths and weaknesses. She integrates her results within her continually developing social role theory.
The quote from Eagly (below) reassures me in spite of the fact that she blends an ideology with a scientific discipline (a blatant oxymoron in my opinion):
“So that’s the effort, to understand that, and not to deny that there would be direct genetic influences on psychological dispositions or [that they could be] hormonally mediated. No doubt there is some [influence], but to bring in another set of causal influences, and then to try to understand how they all work together. So not to be just a nurture psychologist, but a nature-nurture psychologist”
On the strength of that passage I’ll have a look at her stuff. However I will say that previous readings of feminist writers have brought me to descriptions both of my society and my motivations that seem fundamentally opposed to everything I actually know about myself, my male friends and my society. So I’ll have a look – but I’ll be wary.
Remember that feminism is the ideology that brought us the nonsensical notion of a man’s ‘female side’ and the oft-quoted assumptions that all men wish to control and rape all women. Speaking as a man I absolutely know that to be false. That’s the problem when ideology contaminates science. So I’ll read some of her stuff and see what I find but I’m sceptical.
Argument weakened by cross-cultural variation
I’d be really interested to know of examples of cross-cultural variation that weakens this stuff. I’m aware of now discredited assumptions from earlier anthropologists (and even from Darwin himself) who misunderstood the sexual and hierarchical natures of many less developed societies. However I’m not aware of a single society that falsifies (or even weakens) the basic notions discussed in part 27 or indeed anywhere in the series.
One objection was that by accepting the idea of evolved sexual strategies we need to embrace the strategy itself. But this is not the case. It’s a common assumption and one that is often levelled at evolutionary psychologists. It’s an assumption known as The Naturalistic Fallacy and I blogged about it in part 4 of hard-wired precisely because I do not believe that we need to be slaves to evolution – but if we are to overcome our less than pleasant natures we need to know the enemy. Interestingly I made that point in part 13. There is no benefit in pretending that evolutionary processes that evolved in a very different environment from our own don’t exist just because we don’t like their implications. Arguably that just makes us more vulnerable to our instinctive drives.
In my view knowledge is power and if we truly wish to improve human behaviour we need to understand where we’re starting from. Self-knowledge is vital in that regard. That’s why I invite challenge here (it’ll help me learn) but not out of hand dismissal.
What fuels men’s wish for whores in the bedroom in the context of marriage?
To make sense of that in a way that may satisfy I need to refer you to ‘The Moral Animal’ by Robert Wright. It’s a fascinating book and the chapters on sex and sexuality are way too long and involved for me to reproduce it properly here.
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