Reader Query: feminist critiques of evolutionary psychology?

I’m a first-year grad student and today was my first day of discussion sections for the 101 course I’m TA-ing. Given that I’m not actually assigning the readings, there’s only so much I can do to encourage participation by members of under-represented groups, though I did what I could with my own syllabus and I intend to monitor power dynamics within discussions. Today one of my more active sections went from a discussion about why we care about piety to the subject of what drives us toward excellence, and one very vocal (female, interestingly) student was pushing a pretty hard evolutionary psychological line; so hard, in fact, that she was explicit about her belief that only men need to be excellent so that they can attract mates but women mostly need to worry about nurturing! I didn’t want to be heavy-handed and intervene so I mostly let the students discuss it amongst themselves, but at least one other student appeared visibly uncomfortable with the view we were discussing, though when I asked her after class if she had felt uncomfortable she said that she didn’t and she enjoyed arguing.

I haven’t read much philosophical literature on this topic (and I think Gender Trouble might be a little bit much), but if anyone can recommend something easy (easy for non-majors at a middling state university) and short that critiques EP from a feminist perspective, I would love to bring it up next week.

We’ve gone a fair few posts on the topic, here. But what else do you all know of? I like Natalie Angier’s _Woman_ but it’s dated. Cordelia Fine of course has some excellent stuff that’s very relevant, as does Rebecca Jordan-Young.

evolutionary psychology fail: a sad story

  Prof.  Marc Hauser is a leading figure in the attempts to understand cognition in evolutionary terms.  He is particularly well know for his thesis that there in an inborn language of morality.  He had done extensive research on tamarin monkeys. 

We have had some concerns about some claims of evolutionary psychologists, but  it would be hard to be happy about the following; it is like finding out someone has cancer of the mind (this was an injudicious remark; see comments):

Marc Hauser, one of the Harvard’s hyper-professors, has been found guilty of misconduct after a 3-year investigation. 

From the NY Times:

Dr. Hauser is one of Harvard’s most visible academics, being frequently quoted in articles about language, animals’ cognitive abilities and the biological basis of morality. He is widely regarded as a star in his field.

In a widely noticed book of 2006, “Moral Minds,” he argued that a universal moral grammar is genetically wired into the human mind, similar to the universal grammar posited by Noam Chomsky to underlie the language faculty. Dr. Hauser is currently working on a book called “Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad.”

Dr. Hauser is a fluent and persuasive writer, and his undoing seems to have been his experiments, many of which depended on videotaping cotton-topped tamarin monkeys and noting their responses. It is easy for human observers to see the response they want and so to be fooled by the monkeys.

“The people who really know what’s happened are students, current and former,” said a scientist who asked to remain anonymous because of Dr. Hauser’s continuing power in the field. “They are very unhappy about how Harvard has handled this, and they feel things are being swept under the rug.”

 The details are not forthcoming from Harvard, and in particular it isn’t clear where on the list of academic sins his rank.  There is considerable concern that much work in various fields will come under question.

There’s a certain irony in his current project.

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.

Bad Evolutionary Psychology

I’ve sometimes been asked by people working in evolutionary psychology to explain why so many feminists hate the field.  It’s an understandable question, from a careful scientist doing serious work on (say) concepts, or the evolution of language, or vision. There’s a lot of completely legitimate good science done by evolutionary psychologists. But then there are the people out there giving the field a bad name:

(1) The folks making claims about innate sex-based colour preferences, based on studies of adults. 

(2) The folks making claims about innate sex-based food-finding abilities, based on a small study of shoppers at a farmer’s market.

It doesn’t take a degree in  women’s studies to make one think there might be some alternative, culture-based hypotheses to rule out in these cases.  At least make an effort– Geez, study babies for the colour preferences.  It won’t be perfect, since the girls will already have spend nearly every minute of their lives swathed in and surrounded by pink.  (I really never appreciated how strong and immediate all the colour-coding was until I became a parent and tried to not play the game.)  Maybe control for how much food-shopping individuals do for the second– perhaps with a cross-cultural study, as The F-Word suggests. Do SOMETHING!

There’s an excellent critique of the colour preference study at the Guardian’s aptly-named Bad Science column.  (Note, by the way, that the Guardian itself is what I linked to for breathless reporting of the study. Though I could have chosen from hundreds of options.) Bad Science points out, among other things, that pink was considered the boy colour until the 1940s.  A quote from Ladies Home Journal, 1918:

“There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” 

Come on, people, stop making your field look bad. And science journalists– what is wrong with you, giving a study like the colour preference one such huge press? The flaws are so obvious that one wonders how this could happen. Gives good support to claims by feminist philosophers of science that it is much harder than one might think to correct for pernicious biases.

Prinz on social VS evolutionary explanations for male violence

He does an awesome job. A couple of examples:

A historical explanation of male violence does not eschew biological factors, but it minimizes them and assumes that men and woman are psychologically similar. Consider the biological fact that men have more upper-body strength than women, and assume that both men and women want to obtain as many desirable resources as they can. In hunter-gatherer societies, this strength differential doesn’t allow men to fully dominate women, because they on the food that women gather. But things change with the advent of intensive agriculture and herding. Strength gives men an advantage over women once heavy ploughs and large animals become central aspects of food production. With this, men become the sole providers, and women start to depend on men economically. The economic dependency allows men to mistreat women, to philander, and to take over labor markets and political institutions. Once men have absolute power, they are reluctant to give it up. It took two world wars and a post-industrial economy for women to obtain basic opportunities and rights.

In response to a recent article supporting the evolutionary “male warrior” hypothesis:

The authors claim that men are more xenophobic than women, because they are wired to wage war. But this is also predicted on the historical account, because men control governments and handle foreign relations. It follows too that men start all wars.
The authors contend that, compared to women, men prefer social dominance hierarchies, which testifies to their innately competitive nature. But this is easily explained on the social story: in male dominant societies, men gain from dominance hierarchies, and women lose.
The authors note that men are more prone to cooperate when under threat than otherwise, which may suggest an instinct to form armies. But a simpler explanation is that, having obtained power, men are reluctant to cooperate except under pressure.
The authors cite a disturbing study in which men endorse war after being primed with a picture of an attractive woman, which suggests that male violence has a sexual motive. But the link between sex and violence may derive from the fact that sex is often coercive in male dominant societies.
The authors link the male warrior hypothesis to racism: white men, they say, show greater fear responses to pictures of black men, than do white women. But this is difficult to explain on any evolutionary hypothesis, since there would have been little ethnic diversity in our ancestral past. Racism is more readily linked to the social history of slavery, an industry run by men.
The authors also remark that women become more racist at times of peak fertility, suggesting fear of impregnation by foreign invaders. A different explanation is that menstrual peaks also bring out strong emotions, which lets latent racism come to the fore.
The male warrior hypothesis makes many predictions that don’t pan out. There is no evidence that men prefer foreign women–the Western ideal is Barbie–and women often like effeminate men: David Bowie would not be sexier with an enormous beard. On the male warrior hypothesis, women should fear foreigners as much as men do, because foreign men are hardwired to attack them, but women are actually more sympathetic to foreigners. This may stem from their firsthand knowledge of discrimination.

(Thanks, R!)

Follow-up on evolutionary psych fail

(We noticed the story earlier here.) 

The Chronicle of Higher Education has made public the substance of a document provided to Harvard.  The author was a research assistant in Hauser’s labs.  CHE is reporting the assistant’s version as though it is established truth.  Perhaps there is another side.  As things are now, it is not a pretty story.

An internal document, however, sheds light on what was going on in Mr. Hauser’s lab. It tells the story of how research assistants became convinced that the professor was reporting bogus data and how he aggressively pushed back against those who questioned his findings or asked for verification. …

The former research assistant, who provided the document on condition of anonymity, said his motivation in coming forward was to make it clear that it was solely Mr. Hauser who was responsible for the problems he observed. The former research assistant also hoped that more information might help other researchers make sense of the allegations. …

The experiment [which led students and research assistants to come together over the issues] tested the ability of rhesus monkeys to recognize sound patterns. …

 Researchers watched videotapes of the experiments and “coded” the results, meaning that they wrote down how the monkeys reacted. As was common practice, two researchers independently coded the results so that their findings could later be compared to eliminate errors or bias. …

They then reviewed Mr. Hauser’s coding and, according to the research assistant’s statement, discovered that what he had written down bore little relation to what they had actually observed on the videotapes. He would, for instance, mark that a monkey had turned its head when the monkey didn’t so much as flinch. It wasn’t simply a case of differing interpretations, they believed: His data were just completely wrong.

As word of the problem with the experiment spread, several other lab members revealed they had had similar run-ins with Mr. Hauser, the former research assistant says. This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. There was, several researchers in the lab believed, a pattern in which Mr. Hauser reported false data and then insisted that it be used.

I’ve omitted many of the details, which can be found on the CHE website.  One of the important features is that they were investigating the capacities of monkeys to recognize sound patterns.  That’s thought to be a component of language learning.  The extent to which cognition is language based or language involving is right hugely important.  IMHO.

“The Psychology of Beauty”

It is hard to say what is more to dislike about some evolutionary psychologists’ declarations about beauty:  their stark simplicity or their ignoring the possibilities of cultural influence.  One result of these factors is that the connection between their dictates and one’s own experience can be slight.  One is left with the uneasy feeling that philosophy professors just aren’t the sort of being anyone would have thought worth studying.  Nor are their friends.  All with some notable exceptions, of course.

The blog named in the  title of this post is an antidote to the simplifying confidence one too often finds.  The poster, Wayne Hooke,  picks up on topics that do show the issues to be more complicated.  For example, are judgments of attractiveness really just based on facial symmetry?  Isn’t smell suppose to be important?  He also seems to have a good eye for the latest research:  for example, hip to waiste ratio  has a competitor: adominal depth.

The research discussed is also assessed in terms of  its internal integrity, and so on.

There’s lots more; see what you think!

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.

Could the content of philosophy be gendered?

I always caution students and colleagues in other departments that philosophers often ask questions that they cannot answer.  I think, though, that the material below, however simplistically put, might make us take the question more seriously than perhaps we may do ordinarily.

There is a starting point in this reflections, and it comes from Jenny Lloyd’s The Man of Reason.  Lloyd argued that, among other things, the role of the isolated ego in philosophy (e.g., the Cartesian Ego) reflected and may have been supported by philosophers’ own removal from any of the material duties in life.  All those were left to the women (or, in Oxford colleges, one’s scout).

We now have nearly four decades of feminist critiques of mainstream philosophy as embodying a bio-social position that places women as outsiders.  Furthermore, if we look at the differences between mainstream philosophy and feminist philosophy, we can see some remarkable differences that may reflect different social settings for many men and women. The human being in today’s philosophy of mind appears to spring into existence fully formed at about 25 years of age. He has acquired his concepts by relatively solitary causal interactions with the world, and much of the results of his interactions are fully contained in his head. It may be, as some have argued, that mind contents can be found outside his head in records he keeps in a diary or even indeed in his ways of moving in the world. Nonetheless, he is by and large alone.

The self of feminist philosophy is largely very different. She often knows that Descartes was wrong, as Annette Baier has argued, to hold that the human mind is whole and entire unto itself. She cannot be the whole respository for the normativity that is needed for a theory of concepts, for example. Her intellectual thriving is dependent on social inputs, corrections and co-constructions. She is going to be less worried by books such as The Invisible Ape, that argues that individuals by themselves are much less good at getting truths than we have thought, because the idea of individuals going it alone was not her idea.

Finally, when the NY Times announces a new theory of reason as inherently social, she can say that she’s been there and done at least quite a bit of that. She may, however, resist the accompanying trope that we need knowledge of other minds because we want to control others and protect ourselves. That thought is much more common in mainstream philosophy than feminist philosophy.

As the NY Times tells us, “Darcia Narvaez, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame and a contributor to the journal debate, said this theory “fits into evolutionary psychology mainstream thinking at the moment, that everything we do is motivated by selfishness and manipulating others, which is, in my view, crazy.””