Reader Query: “The Science of Sex Appeal”

A reader writes:

Has anyone seen the documentary “The Science of Sex Appeal,” and if so, could you please recommend academic sources that counter the claims made by this video?” While Cordelia Fine’s book is great for arguing against this evolutionary psychology bullshit more generally (sorry; maybe it isn’t all bullshit, but THIS stuff is), I’d really like to be able to point to specific claims made in the video and offer specific, scientifically supported claims to the contrary. I haven’t found anything through database searches.

UPDATE: This post has been a nightmare to moderate.  Do to many requests, I tried to confine comments to ones that really address the reader’s query, rather than dealing in big generalisations about whether feminists hate evolutionary psychology, etc. I’m now closing comments.


FURTHER UPDATE: This is being briefly re-opened.

17 thoughts on “Reader Query: “The Science of Sex Appeal”

  1. “(sorry; maybe it isn’t all bullshit, but THIS stuff is)”

    If you’ve already convinced yourself that it can’t be true, then why is any scientific source necessary?

  2. I saw that same video a couple of years ago and was skeptical. But I checked out the bits I doubted, and it seems I was wrong. I know the feeling, though. My world is still a little shaken.

  3. See my comments numbered 3 and numbered 4 to this post, including the links provided in those comments. See also Richard Boyd on “Evolutionary Theory as Methodological Anesthesia: Methodological and Philosophical Lessons from Evolutionary Psychology”. He has presented this material in a talk form for several years now (after co-teaching related material for decades at Cornell); although not yet in print so far as I know (though the argument seems basically the same as part of the (more elaborate and) published one referenced in my linked comments 3 and 4 above), you can watch it here:

    As Anne and I noted not too long ago somewhere on the blog, roughly the same arguments keep coming up (in one form or another…) and either roughly the same counterarguments keep coming up as well, or older ones are still applicable. Richard Lewontin – in Biology as a Social Weapon, for instance – (among many others – Philip Kitcher, etc.) did the job (for me anyway) years ago.
    – David Slutsky

  4. I’m afraid this really isn’t very convincing. None of these links address the material in the documentary under discussion, or even mention it. And there are good reasons to think that the radical anti-EP (evolutionary psych) position is in trouble.

    All our ancestors, with no exception succeeded in sexually reproducing, and at least one (I hope in all cases both) of those pairs of ancestors therefore found the prospect of mating with one another appealing. We can either maintain that this is a massive coincidence, or that all this can be explained in terms of social pressures, or that the average human has an innate tendency to engage in activities that lead to reproduction. It’s got to be one of the three.

    The first two explanations don’t work because the first is a miracle. So we’re down to the second and third.

    If the second explanation were true, then all of our sexuality could be explained socially. This view is not just implausible in light of the available evidence, but it would have very undesirable social consequences if it were true. It would follow, among other things, that LGBTQ people are only the way they are because of society, and that nobody is born gay or lesbian. Do we really want to go down that road?

    If we say that there is some aspect of sexuality that we’re born with, then since our desires are physically instantiated, they are a result of the way our brains are wired at birth. And it would be very surprising if the way the brains of the majority of people are wired at birth has nothing to do with evolution.

    The science in the documentary being discussed here is not far fetched. What I find sad is that the person quoted in the OP is confidently calling something “bullshit” despite not yet having any evidence against it.

    I really hope feminism will not commit itself to opposing science on general principle. If people do in fact find themselves naturally attracted to mates on the basis of non-overlapping MHCs, or with symmetrical faces, etc., then we might not like the fact that we do that, and we can learn from it, but we shouldn’t bury our heads in the sand like other anti-evolutionists of note.

  5. The reader with the query made it clear that they don’t think all evolutionary psychology is bullshit, but some commenters are not only thinking that they do think this, but also feeling it necessary to say “I really hope feminism will not commit itself to opposing science on general principle”. I’d like to remind people that (a) the reader doesn’t oppose evolutionary psych, let alone science in general; and (b) that even if they did oppose science in general, this would not mean that feminism has committed itself to opposing science. (Unless they happened to be the Super-Feminist who gets to make those decisions. But I’m pretty sure they’re not.)

    I haven’t seen the documentary, but a lot of popular science documentaries about sex differences do contain quite a bit of bullshit, and every evolutionary psychologist I’ve ever discussed this with agrees. I really don’t see why people should take frustration with one popular documentary to be anti-science.

    I think what would be most useful to the reader is discussion of particular points in the documentary that are problematic. Can I suggest that comments now be combined to those?

  6. It is absurd to suggest that “feminism” is going to commit itself to opposing science on principle because of something one anonymous commentator on a website said, or that “most feminists” believe a particular thesis about sex differences (“grudgingly”, even – really?), based on the single example of a theorist known for advocating a a radical gender performativity and fluidity thesis. The slightest acquaintance with feminist theory reveals that it is all over the map on these issues. If a particular view has become prevailing orthodoxy, I am unaware of it. What “work on innate sexual differences” have academic feminists refused to seriously engage with, specifically? I seldom see the value in sweeping, unsupported claims about what “the feminists” think, do, or say. Further, it is often a sign the writer does not engage much with actual feminist writing, because one of the first observations one finds in academic feminist philosophy is that feminism is understood in the plural: feminisms. Feminist theorists think all sorts of different and even opposing things, including and perhaps even especially about sex difference.

    I have not seen this documentary, nor do I have time to, but it is not difficult to find criticism of some kinds of claims I gather it mentions (from the list of topics). I believe someone already noted Lewontin’s work above. Dupre’s critiques are also helpful (Human Nature and the Limits of Science, and 2012 essay, among others). Philosophers Samuels ( and Buller and Hardcastle ( have argued against the modularity hypothesis, as have soc/anthro researchers like David and Ferguson. Richard Hamilton on “The Darwinian Cage” discusses moral implications drawn from EP in a way I think philosophers would find interesting. Philosophers like Sterelny have offered criticism of some of the specific claims about preference and adaptability that seem among the best-supported, like the supposedly universal preferences for a certain WHP. Even if such preferences were universal, the interpretation of their meaning would be far from simple; see work like Cashdan’s, showing among other things that different WHPs are influenced by hormones that are uniquely adaptive in different circumstances.

    If feminists seem to be frequently at odds with Evolutionary Psychology, perhaps that is owing in part to researchers like Thornhill and Palmer purporting to show that rape is adaptively beneficial. Elisabeth Lloyd in philosophy of science has a terrific paper on this subject, in a volume that contains a variety of other critiques of that idea. Hamilton again has excellent arguments on this point; the failure of EP theories about rape adaptability to account for how rape actually occurs (victims of any age, acts that don’t involve vaginal penetration) seems like a pretty massive problem even in absence of the other disputes over evidence, and it points to a general problem with failure to incorporate powerful social causes that characterizes much EP (though not all of it).

  7. Anne Fausto Sterling’s work engages very seriously with issues about innate differences, as does the work of many of her students and collaborators. As herself a biologist, F_S is certainly aware that there are influences from our biological past. However, she in fact thinks that the sex-gender distinction is a bad one, because it leaves out the ways in which biology and culture interact. One can think that our DNA is very important, while also thinking that our biology is plastic enough to be very sensitive to culture.

    At the risk of self-advertising, let me mention NeuroFeminism, which I co-edited. One thing that shapes a lot of supposed anti-biology spirit in feminist writing is the fact that the science is often put to dreadful use, sometimes to the point that things are just made up. Bluhm’s article in the book is very good on this.

  8. Someone who has worked closely with Fausto-Sterling is Rebecca Jordan-Young. She works in the sociology of science (I think) and a discussion of her recent book makes it clear how deeply the issues go.

  9. I just watched a few segments of the documentary (the symmetry bit, the incest/scent bit, and the women are choosier bit). For the first two it is easy to find the EP studies and all you have to do is some basic philosophy of science on them. Read Lisa Lloyd’s early work (I think 1994 and 1999) in Biology and Philosophy for the problems with the evolutionary claims. John Dupre’s Human Nature and the Limits of Science is also a spritely read that is devastating to arguments of the form of those in the documentary. This stuff is also vulnerable to non feminist critiques such as Bob Richardson’s 2007 book Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology. All you need to do is look for the gaps between the contemporary data and the evolutionary conclusions. Lloyd, Dupre, and Richardson are just three examples work that highlights the problems with this work with elegance and rigour.

    There is an abundant and excellent literature critiquing the coy choosey woman and promiscuous man evolutionary claims. Don’t overlook the classic feminist science studies works by Birke, by Hubbard, and by Bleier in the 1980’s (someone already mentioned Anne Fausto -Sterling). Sarah Hrdy’s classic, The Myth of the Coy Female, is fabulous. There is an great anthology edited by Cheryl Travis, Evolution Gender and Rape (2003) that takes apart the choosey female arguments such as those in the documentary. These citations are all in the Feminist Philosophy of Biology article in SEP. There is a huge amount of work by feminist and non feminist philosophers and by feminist and non feminist scientists that dismantles these claims.

  10. I just watched three sections of this documentary (the incest/scent bit, the symmetry bit and the choosey female bit).For the first two, it is easy to find the EP studies and all you need to do is a little bit of philosophy of science on them. Lisa Lloyd’s earlier work (I think 1994 and 1999) in Biology and Philosophy makes clear the inferential gap between the data and the evolutionary conclusions. John Dupre’s Human Nature and the Limits of Science is a spritely read that is devastating to these EP claims. There is also alot of non feminist work that provides strong critiques of this work. I would recommend Bob Richardson’s 2007 book Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology.

    As for the claims regarding choosey females, there is so much literature taking this apart that it is difficult to know where to start. It bothers me that the classic feminist science studies scholarship on this is not given more uptake. Birke’s, Bleie’sr, Hubbard’s, and of course Anne Fausto-Sterling’s work in the 1980’s set the stage for much of what is currently being published. Sarah Hrdy’s classic paper Myth of the Coy Female is outstanding. Cheryl Travis’ edited volume Evolution, Gender, and Rape is a great source. These citations are all in the SEP article on Feminist Philosophy of Biology.

    It is worth noting that this kind of work has been published by feminist and non feminist philosophers, and also by feminist and non feminist scientists, as well as members of other disciplines.

  11. For some references and links that some readers may find useful, please see the two blog comments reprinted below (and linked in comment 5 above). Those looking for additional references and links may find useful the collection linked at the very bottom of this comment.

    From August 24, 2012:

    Stacey G.’s comment #1 above nicely characterizes, I think, a criticism of evolutionary psychology that several others seem independently to have developed and converged upon, such as Paul Sheldon Davies, Todd Grantham and Shaun Nichols, and Richard Boyd (references provided below). These authors discuss two different methods/approaches to research that evolutionary psychologists explicitly use. The first of these two methods focuses on using evolutionary considerations and historical speculations about past selection pressures to predict the existence and nature of mental modules and psychological capacities/dispositions. Stacey G. briefly but importantly clarifies above, I think, how many explanations based on or reached by this method are arguably both flawed and dangerous. In contrast, the second of the two methods focuses on independently identified mental modules and psychological capacities/dispositions discovered and confirmed by nonhistorical sciences/studies, and then proceeds to provide evolutionary explanations for them (if appropriate/if we can find good reasons for accepting any). The authors listed above concede, and even argue, that we can have in certain cases compelling arguments for using/accepting the second method, from which we can learn a great deal. On the other hand, these authors argue, I think like Stacey G., that the first method/approach is prone to develop unjustified inferences and Panglossian forms of adaptationism. Interested readers may wish to see:

    Davies, P. S. 1996. Discovering the functional mesh: On the methods of evolutionary psychology. Minds and Machines 6: 559–585.

    Grantham, T. & Nichols, S. 1999. Evolutionary psychology: Ultimate explanations and Panglossian predictions. In Hardcastle, V. G. (Ed.) Where Biology Meets Psychology: Philosophical Essays. MIT Press, 47–66

    Boyd, R. 2001. Reference, (In)commensurability and Meanings: Some (Perhaps) Unanticipated Complexities. In Hoyningen-Huene, P. & Sankey, H. (Eds.) Incommensurability and Related Matters. Springer, 1–63.

    Also from August 24, 2012

    On page 30 in section 2.3.1 (and also on page 36) in his paper referenced in comment #3 above, Boyd converges on the same point about cowardice that Stacey G. makes in comment #1 and the related point about complacency that beta makes in comment #2 – especially as regards Boyd’s account of the influence of social ideology in scientific practice and how the (alleged/argued) depth of malignant embedding of ideology in the conceptual meanings of terms in evolutionary psychology (perhaps more so in the sociobiology literature pre-1987 or so?) “is often so substantial that the normal internal workings of scientific methodology prove insufficient to overcome the malignancy or to establish commensurability between mainstream scientific research traditions and those which are formed by ideological critiques”.

    Readers can find the parts of Boyd’s essay that address reasoning in evolutionary psychology as an example of “incommensurability in the making” on pages 23-41. However, in order really and fully to understand Boyd’s charges of fallacious reasoning/inference patterns, and malignant meanings (with respect to commensurability), in evolutionary psychology, readers will certainly not waste their time by reading the entire paper – including, for instance, Boyd’s “benign” conception of scientific meanings.

    Readers can find arguably good examples of (variations on) the cowardice and complacency charges in, for instance, Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, on the one hand, and in contrast to the essays collected in Cheryl Brown Travis’ volume on Evolution, Gender, and Rape, on the other hand.

    Readers can find previous posts on related matters here:

    Prinz on social VS evolutionary explanations for male violence

    Prinz responds to critics

    Evolution produced monogamous women, but men

    Evolutionary Psychology and Feminism

    In case anyone wants some additional/decent introductions to, and references for, these matters, I provide some here:

  12. Evolutionary psychology literature itself over the past two decades or so is also an excellent source for debunking the “coy choosey woman and promiscuous man” cliche. As for “the symmetry bit [and] the incest/scent bit,” dimensions on which the empirical and cross-cultural research is only proliferating, perhaps Carla Fehr could elaborate on what is meant by doing “some basic philosophy of science on them.”

  13. I started to watch the film but found I couldn’t get very far through it without finding myself right on the precipice of boredom on one side and irritation on the other, so I sympathize with the reader who sent in the query! I don’t have much to add beyond David Slutsky’s excellent references above, but I’ll just add this because it’s a light and interesting read (even if only preliminary):

  14. Hi: I’m in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Women’s Studies, and my research is both feminist and evolutionary. I also teach a course on sexuality and Science and actually use a few clips from this film, mostly to characterize problematic science, problematic science journalism, and misunderstandings of evolution. One of the classes in this course is about Bateman’s gradient, which is the underlying theoretical structure for much of what’s portrayed in the movie. I have a number of readings to recommend about cross-species sexual diversity, new studies about Bateman’s gradient, and such. Feel free to email me. Alternatively, look for work by Patricia Adair Gowaty, Zuleyma Tang-Martinez, Brooke Scelza, Ellen Ketterson, Laurette Liesen, and so many more (these are all evolutionary biologists or evolutionary anthropologists). This is in addition to the many great suggestions above. Happy reading and teaching!

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