Evolutionary Psychology and Feminism

Have you ever suspected that evolutionary psychology – or at least some of its practitioners – are resolutely battling on the behalf of what they see as a status  quo that privileges men?  If so, Satoshi Kanazawa’s piece in his Psychology Today blog provides some confirming evidence.  Entitled “Why modern feminism is illogical, unnecessary, and evil,”  it might be meant  tongue-in-cheek,  but I don’t think so. 

So what to do?  Waste one’s time taking it apart?  Well, it might just be enough to juxtapose a passage from SK’s piece with something from Bob Herbert  of the NY Times.  Doing that might make the differences in the quality of thought behind the pieces fairly easy to discern:

From SK:

Another fallacy on which modern feminism is based is that men have more power than women.  Among mammals, the female always has more power than the male, and humans are no exception.  It is true that, in all human societies, men largely control all the money, politics, and prestige.  They do, because they have to, in order to impress women.  Women don’t control these resources, because they don’t have to.  What do women control?  Men.  As I mention in an earlier post, any reasonably attractive young woman exercises as much power over men as the male ruler of the world does over women.

Bob Herbert:

According to police accounts, Sodini walked into a dance-aerobics class of about 30 women who were being led by a pregnant instructor. He turned out the lights and opened fire. The instructor was among the wounded.

We have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that the barbaric treatment of women and girls has come to be more or less expected.

We profess to being shocked at one or another of these outlandish crimes, but the shock wears off quickly in an environment in which the rape, murder and humiliation of females is not only a staple of the news, but an important cornerstone of the nation’s entertainment.

The mainstream culture is filled with the most gruesome forms of misogyny, and pornography is now a multibillion-dollar industry — much of it controlled by mainstream U.S. corporations.

Life in the United States is mind-bogglingly violent. But we should take particular notice of the staggering amounts of violence brought down on the nation’s women and girls each and every day for no other reason than who they are. They are attacked because they are female.

Indeed.  Against the backdrop of this reality, SK’s views are just a bit weird.

25 thoughts on “Evolutionary Psychology and Feminism

  1. Those views are truly stunning, and well juxtaposed with Bob Herbert’s. But I don’t think “that evolutionary psychology – or at least some of its practitioners – are resolutely battling on the behalf of what they see as a status quo that privileges men”. People like SK don’t think that the status quo benefits men. But I also worry a bit about bashing a whole field based on what some bad practitioners say. I know you offered a disjunct restricting the claim to ‘some’, but I guess I still feel defensive on behalf of some very feminist evolutionary psychologist friends. But let me say again: wow. Thank you for calling this stunning juxtaposition to our attention.

  2. Jender, I’m not sure I’m getting the point. I think that if I had said

    status quo, which privileges men

    it would have been much closer to my intention. I don’t know what the connection between the goals of the men in it and the fact that they often rationalize stone age social arrangement – particularly as realized in current developed world countries.

    I was also trying not to tar the whole field, but I have a lot of working life contact with it, and I’m not keen on many of the basic outlooks. I routinely think, when I’ve worked through positions, that much more was confusing than clarifying. I don’t think the stuff that seems bad always comes from the field’s low lifes. Kanazawa, for instance, is a reader at LSE.

    That said, I think that evolutionary explanations can be interesting and fruitful, but looking at the homology of the number sense – as Dehaene does – isn’t what I’d consider evolutionary psychology. It doesn’t really involve conjectures about what happened in pre-history, for example.

    So maybe we disagree about what it is? It seems so filled with essentialism that I’m having trouble seeing feminists in it, but I’d love to find there’s a different way of looking at it. Not that some good feminists are essentialists, but EP’s essentialism seems strong and uncompromising.

  3. Newsweek did a great article on this very topic just a couple of months ago, entitled “Can we blame our bad behaviour on stone-age genes?”, basically arguing that evolutionary psychology is not the science it claims to be.

    Check it out:

    And here is the word from real scientists, with regards to evo psych:
    “…there is no evidence our gray matter is organized the way evo psych claims”

  4. what particularly bothers me about SK’s discussion is the way it totally obliviates everything other than heterosexuality/heterosexuals. there are some men over which women DON’T exercise that “power,” whatever it is…

  5. Well, my actual feminist friends who do evolutionary psychology don’t actually work on issues relevant to feminism in the evo psych field. But there are some who do, like Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. Fascinating to hear about the feminist evo psych group!

    And yes, with comma I now get the right reading easily.

  6. I don’t know that I’d count Hrdy as an evolutionary psychologist, so perhaps we are thinking of the field differently. And I’m beginning to think that maybe I’m not so clear about it.

    Work I’ve been doing recently provides a model of how our conceptual abilities could have evolved from those of the brutes (poor little kitties). In that sort of context, it seems to me evolution has an important theoretical place. Relatedly, a number of people today are talking about homologies, where we want to think of an organ or an ability as having descended from an earlier thing in the brutes. That seems to me very different from thinking in terms of knowable pre-historical conditions under which our psychology got set once and for all.

    Kat, I’m glad it was you, not I, who said that.

  7. doctaj, I’m sorry to say that you got sent to the spam pool. Thank goodness I could bring your comment out of there.

    I agree about the hetero-normativity of his comments. It might be better if we remain ignorant of his further views.

    I think it is pretty disgraceful that he’s a reader at LSE.

  8. A reaction to the Newsweek piece at the International Cognition and Culture Institute blog:

    Personally, I’m interested to see how the anti-“essentialism” of apparently most feminists (to judge by the remarks made above) addresses the growing empirical research on female sexuality by the likes of Meredith Chivers — and the evolutionary hypotheses raised by it.

  9. Rob, thanks so much. I’ve just had the slightest look, but it seems to me that it incorporates a problem that also arises in the exchange here. Is evolutionary psychology just a matter of incorporating an evolutionary persective in psychology. If so, that sounds good to me, but it also doesn’t sound as though it is what those claiming the label have thought is distinctive and important in the field.

  10. I’m glad you paired the Herbert column with Kanazawa’s piece. I read the latter a few days ago, finding it maddening. Herbert’s contribution is something of a salve.

    Still, I would hesitate to generalize at all from Kanazawa to anyone else in evo psych. (Especially not based upon Kanazawa’s blog posts, which are evidently deliberately over the top.) I’m strongly considering saving this Kanazawa post for use as a target assignment to be torn apart by introductory critical reasoning students.

    But more generally, I’ve been surprised at the resistance to evo psych that often seems somewhat automatic in certain feminist circles. Quite often, it’s assumed that evo psych research is motivated by a desire to naturalize and thus justify power dynamics (especially relating to gender). Hence such research must be fought.

    As I see it, even if many evo psych practitioners are motivated in that way, our best response is not to dismiss the research, but to combat that interpretation of it. Naturalizing a behavior doesn’t justify that behavior! Justification is an entirely separate matter. (The Newsweek article linked above makes this mistake, repeatedly, in somewhat spectacular fashion.) We should resist the inference from natural explanation to social justification. In fact, in some cases evo psych research can help to demonstrate exactly how certain social practices rest on unjustifiable psycho-historical origins. Those revealed origins may, in turn, motivate some otherwise indifferent folks to think critically about their own behavior.

    If anyone’s interested, I’ve written more about this here.

  11. Hi. First, I really like this blog and regularly/gratefully find lots of really great stuff on it.

    Second, although you can find sexists in all kinds of places, my reading of evolutionary psychology (monographs, journal articles), reveals no sexist agenda. Sure, people like David Buss are influential, and a visit to some portions of the publications page of his lab website might make one wonder. However, I see no sexist conspiracy, or heavily prevalent unconscious partriarchy. The quality really varies from research project to research project. I would not venture to make generalizations. By the way, regarding some of the claims/issues mentioned above in this thread, in case you do not know and are interested, you might want to check out work by Anne Campbell, especially her 2002 book titled “A mind of her own: The evolutionary psychology of women”:
    1) http://www.dur.ac.uk/psychology/staff/?id=572

    2) http://www.dur.ac.uk/psychology/staff/?mode=pdetail&id=572&sid=572&pdetail=25187

  12. sorry phil, the gods of blog are fickle, and seem to have spammed your comment. i’ve restored it and hopefully you can comment in future without this happening (i’ve no idea how the spam filter works!).

  13. Regina, what an interesting post you’ve written! Thanks so much for giving us the link to it.

    I also wanted to pick up on the thought that feminists are foes of “essentialism”. I think this is true of many, many feminists. But “essentialism” gets used in so many ways that I’m not entirely sure what this comes to. Still, I think it’s true that many (most?) feminists are at least wary of claims of innate mental sex differences. Nonetheless, it would certainly be possible to be a feminist and accept such claims. Personally, I tend to be very sceptical of such claims and also of the inferences drawn from them. But I also think it’s likely that *some* are true– it’s just incredibly hard to know which given the vast influence of culture. (I’m not saying that you were disagreeing with any of this JJ– just thought it was worth mentioning.)

  14. I am a bit green when it comes to what feminism really is, but considering that this Kanazawa is attacking, one might have expected somewhat more feasible claims about it?
    His first claim is that according to feminism, men and women are identical. I thought that according to feminism, man and women are of identical worth, which is rather different and quite holds up to his refutation.
    His second claim is about is about the necessity, meh. Well, I don’t need to say anything about that, I guess. In refuting that claim however, he also says that it also not true that women are the weaker sex. Ehm. Does feminism subscribe to that? I didn’t think so?
    His third claim is that it’s a feministic fallacy that men have more power than women. I’d like a bit of a more clear definition of power and how you’d quantify it in this case. Seems rather difficult to me. Oh, and then he then gives the example of attractive young women, how they have power. Ehm, excellent point, but the majority of the women does not fall into that category, I think, particularly not since it’s the guys determining what is attractive in a woman and it’s up to women to mould into that image. Maybe I am too cynical here.
    The claim that more boys get born because they are weaker is speculation. It is not a fact and can’t be proven in any way.
    But what struck me as the most outrageous is the claim about how feminism is evil. Apart from the fact that I would like to see evil explained, as it’s rather an impressive accusation, the evidence on which he bases this claim is truly flabbergasting, for a serious scientist.
    There appears to be an inverse correlation between the happiness of women and the money they make. The article is forthcoming, so we can’t check what the methods are, but it seems to me that the assumption is that feminism is at the root (the cause!) of this correlation, somehow, because apparently, this correlation is evil, and the conclusion is that feminism is evil.
    Darn, I want to read that article, because it’s going to be one neat trick to get from correlation to causation and then one hell of an argument to fit it all together logically and validly that it’s because of feminism.

  15. To add to Kat’s comment (number 5 above), SciAm has made similar claims about evolutionary psychology. Here’s the summary:

    The author and several other scholars suggest that some assumptions of Pop EP are flawed: that we can know the psychology of our Stone Age ancestors, that we can thereby figure out how distinctively human traits evolved, that our minds have not evolved much since the Stone Age, and that standard psychological questionnaires yield clear evidence of the adaptations.

  16. Kanazawa’s Paglia-esque premise brings to mind Mary Wollestonecraft’s description of female power (published in the late 1700’s, and no less true today). Wollestonecraft calls the sexual “power” Kanazawa talks about a “short-lived tyranny.” This power is very potent for a short time, but in the moment: after the smitten man walks away, he can be smitten by another woman, and so on. And of course, as a woman ages, the power of her immediate presence weakens. As any woman (younger or older, conventionally attractive or not ) secretly knows, claiming power by way of this “short-lived tyranny” is equivalent to life as a parasite/slave. One spends all one’s energy (consciously or unconsciously), making sure that the “short-lived” power extends as as far as it can — and that it garners ties to *real” trappings of power (money, status, property, salary, social ties) that won’t just dissolve when the power of one’s immediate presence diminishes. We can “rabbit on” all we want about the master-slave dialectic, or about how all human beings are parasites of a sort in our interdependent world — but let’s be real, please. We are still living in a world where schoolgirls are disfigured for life by acid attacks because men don’t want them to go to school. What happens to a woman’s “short-lived tyranny” when her face is gone?

  17. Great comments, great links! I’m very glad to learn of Campbell’s work, and I’ve just bookmarked your blog, Regina.
    Some quick points:
    1. It turns out that “evolutionary psychology” is a contested term/phrase, at least in the sense that there are two ways of understanding it.

    The term “evolutionary psychology” is sometimes used simply as “a shorthand for ‘psychological theorizing informed by modern evolutionary theory'” (Daly & Wilson 1988, p. 7), … Many researchers in this field often deliberately resist the “evolutionary psychology” label, however, preferring to classify their work as, for example, human sociobiology, human ethology, human behavioral ecology, or evolutionary anthropology. The reason is that the term “evolutionary psychology” is increasingly being used to designate only work conducted within a specific set of theoretical and methodological commitments shared by a prominent and influential group of researchers (most notably the psychologists David M. Buss, Leda Cosmides, and Steven Pinker and the anthropologists Donald Symons and John Tooby).

    I think most people commenting here are using it in the first way, while I’m using it in the second. I probably fall under the phrase in the first sense.

    2. Regina, I’m not at all sure about the connection between naturalizing and normative conclusions. We had a sustained discussion of that here. There seem to be some ways in which empirical enquiry can seriously affect normative conclusions. One is through the old “ought implies can.” That can get us close to justification.

    3. Essentialism in this context: One of the standard claims of the second sort of evol psych is this:

    Describing the evolved computational architecture of our brains “allows a systematic understanding of cultural and social phenomena”.

    There are a significant number of people who call themselves feminists and who do ascribe to this tenet. Consequently, they take what many of us see as unjust situations and claim they are simply reflective of natural, inborn trait differences between ‘the two’ sexes. I think their use of the label ‘feminist’ is at best confusing.

    4. Hippocampa, I think there was a book, which SK mentions on the same page, that suggests that as women have become more economically independent, their self-reports of happiness go down. This is not even a correlation between economic power and happiness. It would be interesting to see if they try to move beyond that to an ‘objective’ test of happiness.

  18. My comment above was written before I saw R and Rachel’s interesting comments.

    Rachel, Thanks for the link! Scientific American’s article is clearly about “evol psych” in the second, restricted sense. I haven’t read the Newsweek.

    R: I agree, though I’ve often thought some women’s tyranny was more effortless. :)

  19. I agree that there are many different kinds of theories that use evolutionary explanations for human societies, and some of these are better than others in terms of their emancipatory potential. But I do want to add my experience, which I think shows why this research can be dangerous.

    I began my undergraduate studies in Biology. I really wanted to become a researcher in human biology, and I was particularly interested in HIV and genetics. As part of my program I had to take first year psychology, where we learned evolutionary psychology as one unit. I also had to take first year biology where we learned behavioural biology as one unit. Both were pretty basic, and looked at Buss and had very anti-feminist implications in my view. I took both of these classes in the same year, and remember being miserable about the way women were discussed. I brought it up with my professors a lot, but I was not given much uptake.

    I remember one multiple choice test, in particular, where the answer to one of the questions about female sexuality was that females are ‘coy and choosy.’ I knew that I had to pick that answer if I wanted the marks, but I also felt that if I picked that answer I would be failing myself and my principles. Even though the tests were marked by a scanner, I would write comments beside my answers and in the test booklet about the questions. It was the only way I could reconcile the feeling that what I had to do to ‘pass’ would be to fail myself.

    I lasted through three years of the bio program, but eventually decided to leave because I really hated the lack of examination in the program. We were taught these things as fact, but whenever I questioned them, I got these responses that drove me crazy. I would come in to complain about something, and the prof would generally not take me too seriously at first. Then he or she (but mostly he) would look at my test scores and say that he did not understand why I was complaining because I had gotten an A.

    I also complained to the chair of the biology department about the program in general (just before I decided to drop the program), and its portrayal of women and how frustrating I found it. Same thing, the chair did not take it seriously, then looked at my marks, and said I was doing well, so what could be the problem? I was then told that I could be excused from the calculus requirement if that would make it easier for me! But I wasn’t even complaining about the calculus requirement! It just seemed like he was assuming the math part was too hard, and that is why I was coming to talk to him. But I actually liked the math part best, because it was not sexist! It was during this meeting that I decided to drop out of the bio major and find something new to study.

    There were lots of reasons that I left bio, but the view of women that was either stereotyped or served to make us invisible was really annoying to me, and pretty high on the list. I was actually pretty good at my bio courses, in terms of marks. So one thing that I think is dangerous about these kinds of theories, is that they can (possibly) negatively affect retention of female students in the sciences.

  20. Perhaps in the world of anonymous blog posts, people need to rely on past (or really personal) experience. Still, I do not understand why people are giving institutionalized, dumbed down, propaganda machines like “Newsweek” or “Psychology Today” the time of day over work like the book by Anne Campbell that I provided links to (a book whose discussion of essentialism regarding sex, gender, and evolutionary psychology, in my opinion, is possibly more helpful than many things discussed/referenced in this thread). I understand that this blog is essentially anonymous, but sometimes it seems to me that this blog often consists of one or more “ingroups” who primarily only discuss each other’s comments. Perhaps my comments are not so good and do not warrant attention. In any case, more than once I have tried to make a constructive, helpful comment on this blog, only for it to be ignored, sometimes until days later when an “ingroup” blogger independently makes roughly the same comment (apparently having totally ignored the roughly same and previous comment from me) and then other members of the “ingroup” responded. Maybe I’m just having a bad day and feeling left out. On the other hand, I have observed the same thing happen to posts by others besides myself. In any case, peace to you all.

  21. Phil, I’m VERY sorry. I actually meant to concede all your points and to say that my negative attitude was directed toward Evolutionary Psychology in a much more restricted sense. Nonetheless, it’s important that it didn’t seem like that. My best guess at what is going on is that indeed some of us do know we share some references and concerns, and these are just easier to address, since there’s an understood common agreement.

    It is true that looking at Campbell’s work will take some time and so on. However, most of us complain a lot of just the same thing as you have remarked on. If it is due to acknowledge shared backgrounds, we certainly need to be more careful. In fact, whatever it is due to, we need to take note.

    Speaking for myself, of course.

  22. Phil,

    You write, “Still, I do not understand why people are giving institutionalized, dumbed down, propaganda machines like “Newsweek” or “Psychology Today” the time of day over work like the book by Anne Campbell that I provided links to (a book whose discussion of essentialism regarding sex, gender, and evolutionary psychology, in my opinion, is possibly more helpful than many things discussed/referenced in this thread).”

    On one hand, I completely agree with what you say and am interested in taking it further. There has been some pretty serious work in philosophy of biology about evolutionary psychology, but most of it focuses on the bad work in the field regarding gender. As a philosopher of science, this gets boring, because you can set an undergrad, with a basic understanding of falsificationism and under determinism, on that work and they can take it apart. I think that it can do both feminist and non feminist philosophers good to focus on the strong research rather than the weak. We don’t get uptake when we focus on the sexist bad science anyway–which is a whole other barrel of fish.

    However, the reason to focus on Newsweek and Psychology Today, is because those are the sources that get to the public and are likely to play a very damaging role reinforcing dangerous gender stereotypes. I think that if we are to do philosophy and science that is socially relevant it is crucial to attend to the routes that work take into public discourse. What would make me jump for joy would be to see Campbell’s work in the New York Times.

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