07 April, 2006

Take that, Steven Pinker!

A standard trope of evolutionary psychologists is that differential mate selection between the sexes is driven by competing sexual interests. Men will seek out younger women, who can bear them many children, and women will be attracted to the men who command more resources and power, who will be able to provide for them in adversity. The fact that this theory bears out a rather misogynist view of the sexes is probably just a coincidence. I mean, this is science, right? What's sexism got to do with it?

Like a lot of evolutionary psychology, I think this is trash. Drawing conclusions about why particular features evolved is extraordinarily difficult, especially since in this case you have to assume that there was a particular selective pressure at all. Not necessarily true; not everything is adaptive, and not everything that is adaptive need have emerged. Last I checked I can't shoot stinging foam into anyone's eyes.

Evolutionary psychologists proceed by taking their cues from the real world. Observe existing human behavior and draw conclusions about our evolutoinary past. These are usually ridiculous, overblown conclusions entirely unsupported by any actual evidence. E.g. this absurd Just So story about why men like blonde women better. Socialization is never admitted as a factor.

My favorite example is of a pair of ev psychologists who attempted to raise their child in a "gender-neutral" fashion, but found, to their dismay, that little Johnny liked playing with guns anyway, and concluded this was because of an evolutionary predisposition. Yes, that's right. Men evolved to love guns. You idiots.

This is not atypical. You can open any issue of most evolutionary psychology journals to find such flatulent conclusions. As a sample, here is an abstract I pulled up from the latest issue of Evolution and Human Behavior (the same one that contains the above "blonde cavegirls" study). It concludes, on the basis of a slight difference in answer to survey questions asking about people's preferences regarding their partners' senses of humor, that:
In summary, our results augment prior studies on the sexual selection of humor. We provided further evidence that sexual selection may have influenced humor production because it is specifically preferred by women in relationship partners. Furthermore, men’s reported preferences for humorous partners may be the result of sexual selection shaping male preference for partners who signal sexual interest through humor appreciation.
There is ZERO discussion of differential socialization and its possible influence. Egad, you say? Hold your surprise. This is nothing new.

So, getting to the punchline, the same journal is going to publish a study showing that the apparent evolutionarily-determined mating preferences outlined above (guys like young hot girls, girls like rich guys and don't really give a shit about appearance) are, well, not necessarily true. It seems that they may have been the result of, um, social circumstances, and as women gain more financial independence, their attitude towards what they want in a partner changes. "Quid?" an imaginary evolutionary psychologists cries, popping his head out of the underbrush. "The patterns we're observing might be contingent on the particular culture we're observing rather than on evolutionary dynamics? Alack-a-day!"

Unfortunately I doubt publication of stuff like this is enough to shut down an entire field due to embarassment, but a boy can dream.*

* About guns, most likely.


I'm not convinced that evolutionary psych is TOTAL hogwash... just partial hogwash. How do you explain the fact that the prettier birds get more action than the not-so-pretty ones (or the ones with more elaborate bowers, or songs or whatever)? Birds don't have elaborate cultures and socialization, yet they've evolved these elaborate behaviors and structures that make them more sexually appealing to potential mates. Why can't that be true for humans as well? Why must the evolution and development of culture be totally divorced from the evolution and the development of the human species?

Posted by DearDarlingDidi

Sexual selection obviously exists, and it is likely linked to specific behaviors, as is true of evolution more generally; this is not controversial, and I'm not suggesting that it doesn't happen. But what MAY be true is not the same as what IS true, and drawing conclusions about such things is exceedingly difficult. In the case of evolutionary psychology, attempting to draw conclusions about human behavior and psychology  (the focus of the field) should give you tremendous pause (paws?) since you have no idea what the fuck you're actually measuring. 

Posted by saurabh

that study about the boy who remained interested in... guns... "what's that you say? you taught your son to be a girl but he won't stop shooting his pistol? what should you do? well, well. that is  a question. ... how many... how many shots does he usually fire? maybe that is a clue as to the nature of the problem."

i have been engaging in some BS ev psychology myself lately relating to music but i don't publish it. it's sitting right on the lip of the imaginary trashbin as far as i'm concerned, because there's no way to prove that what i know about a particular thing wasn't invented by papal edict or by a sumerian with a sick sense of humor and a lot of drunk friends. 

Posted by hibiscus

But there are aspects of human behavior that obviously have a much stronger biological component than others. Hasn't the 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio thing been pretty firmly established? (Women with wider hips are more fit for childbearing than women with narrow hips. Hence the sexual appeal of "bootylicious" women with curved, shapely hips.) I agree that the appeal of blonde hair, or "dewy" skin (or broad shoulders and facial hair in men) has a more tenuous link to biological factors, but that can't be true of every  aspect of human behavior. 

Posted by DearDarlingDidi

but women "who look like women" help clear up the ambiguities of physical intimacy. if butt size was an effect (and not an exciting way to discover that wider butts were safer) then why are there so many people living in china and why are chinese women lining up for butt implants. 

Posted by hibiscus

Studying human behavior is "exceedingly difficult", so don't do it? No shit it's hard, but why does that mean you shouldn't study it? And if you're going to study it, isn't studying it through the same lens as we study the rest of biology far better than, say, Freud?! I don't understand you at all. How else do you suggest we study psychology?

Posted by Dan

Also, the study you cited seems to be a refinement of the theory you say is hogwash. (The old theory says "women prefer power"; the new theory says "women prefer power in some circumstances, good looks in others.) It was done using the same means as the original studies. (Not to mention that the new study is not unique. Search for "necessity luxury theory" on google scholar and see how widely discussed this idea is.) How is that a repudiation of the field? 

Posted by Dan

I'm still waiting for the evolutionary biologists' explanations for homosexuality, the desirability of memory foam  and necktie mandates. I saw the explanation for tree-pruning (in the book The Biophilia Hypothesis) and while I found it superficially appealing, I was disappointed that the scientists studying human aesthetics considered the UK, US and Japan to be an adequately cross-cultural study. They couldn't even be bothered to go to Kenya, where our attraction to lollipop trees supposedly evolved. 

Posted by hedgehog

Urgh. I always assume everyone shares my prejudices. The mistake is not studying psychology through the lens of biology, but the same old nature/nurture thing - evolutionary psychology haphazardly applies adaptive explanations to phenomena that are not demonstrably evolved, and indeed might not reflect more than the zeitgeist. As with the above.

As to waist-to-hip ratios and other standards of beauty, sure, yes, I'm not trying to claim that you shouldn't ascribe any of those to biology, or that EVERYTHING is the product of socialization. But good science demands that you be able to attribute to evolution what is the product of evolution, and not merely cultural happenstance. I.e., it may SEEM as if we're biologically tuned to prefer certain waist-to-hip ratios because it's widespread - maybe even universal. But that doesn't constitute a scientific proof of any sort, and we shouldn't start immediately seeking adaptive explanations for the phenomenon. Even if it IS biologically based, it's not necessarily the consequence of selection, no matter how well we can confabulate garbage about wider hips being fitter, etc. (which was established how, exactly?) 

Posted by saurabh

You're questioning the appeal of memory foam? Seriously? That shit is SO FREAKING COOL!!! I'm going to buy one of those ridiculously expensive Swedish mattresses as sooon as possible.

And a necktie is a sign that the male of the species is able to provide for his young because he has a high-paying job. Hence, his sexual appeal. 

Posted by DearDarlingDidi

okay here's a sequence that could explain girl-butts-are-hot-! (but not boy-butts-are-too-!) ...

(a) hips spread after child birth.

(b) first kids used to be born much younger, somewhere near just after sexual readiness, because of the high infant and maternal mortality.

(c) "girls" who survived their first pregnancy had wide hips.

therefore, sexually experienced women have wide hips, and wide hips become a marker for sexual availability. 

Posted by hibiscus

I'd say the sequence is something more like:

a) girls with narrow hips have more problematic labors

b) rates of death during childbirth for narrow-hipped women are higher than rates for wide-hipped women

c) wide hips became a marker for women who are more physically fit to birth and raise a child (since they are more likely to actually be alive to raise the child) 

Posted by DearDarlingDidi

that looks valid. it also looks too clinical, compared to a timing explanation. all women who survived childbirth would have wider hips and hip width relating to proper prenatal nutrition would not necessarily come before the first attempt at bearing a kid. i can see people only wanting to lay other people who were healthy because it was more productive, but adult sexual feelings for pre-pubescents are too strong for me to accept body shape is based on built-in concerns for health rather than availability.

i'm saying all this in seriousness even though it's a little creepy and i just watched CSA: confederate states of america in which a woman is sold as being wide-hipped and well-equipped to make lots of babies. wider hips are definitely a sign of surviving to give care to children. i just don't see an obvious course to believing that males might pick breadth because of some other reason than that all the successful adult women they knew had wide hips.

Your sequence excludes the all-important final step:

d) Men with a genetic predilection for finding wide-hipped women attractive experience an increase in fitness.

That is, conventional wisdom may tell us that wide hips are more fit, but it's not sexual selection until it's ingrained in us. This assumes two things:

1) Wide hips are a good marker for child-bearing ability. Not necessarily true, since the pelvis is pretty complex, and width of your hips is not necessarily a great indicator of the width of the birth canal, etc., or ease of childbirth in general.

2) Males expressing a preference had higher fitness. This is possible, although usually sexual selection acts on males rather than females; but far from certain, again, and little more than conjecture. 

Posted by saurabh

Of all the behavioral traits that could possibly have an evolutionary explanation (regardless if whether the current explanations proferred are correct), you'd think mate selection would be pretty high on the list, don't you?! 

Posted by Dan

Yeah, I'd agree with that. (Hmm... topic for the next poll, maybe?) 

Posted by DearDarlingDidi

This discussion is making me queasy and grateful that childbearing is not one of my immediate concerns, and also reminds me to keep an eye on the mechanics of adoption. And if it wasn't bad enough anyway, Saurabh had to go and bring up pelvic complexity.Yeesh.

Dan, I think Saurabh's point is that before you go and mash-up two very very new and different fields, some more foundational work might be a better use of time and resources and publishing publicity. At least, that's what I think anyway, and it's fun to project agreement on your bloghost.

I want to shoot stinging memory foam from my eyes.


Posted by Saheli

=v= Short history of the, let us say, field: First there was Social Darwinism, a pseudo-science designed to justify robber barons robbing and, um, baroning. Then there was Sigmund "biology is destiny" Freud, some of whose theories were designed to keep women subjugated. Then there was eugenics, a pseudo-science designed to keep Jews out of college. This was picked up by Hitler, which put a chill on the prospect for a while.

The "completely socially determined" point of view was ascendant for a while, but ran into its own limits. This period has served as the straw doll for biological determinsts ever since. Pinker rails against a "blank slate" that only a very few posit.

The field next acquired the name "sociobiology" and was predominantly used to attack feminism. Its own excesses did it in, so they came up with "evolutionary psychology." This, we are told, is a more scientific version of sociobiology (itself supposedly a more scentific version of eugenics) which avoids its excesses.

Then, of course, it started pumping out idiocy. Apparently the reason we (that's right, "we," every last one of us in the entire human race) care so much about celebrity couplings is that movie stars are the pinnacle of genetic expression and we want the species to thrive. 

Posted by Jym

gee, i thought we were fascinated with celebrity couplings because brad-and-angelina-in-a-stairwell is the closest thing to porn carried on most broadcast tv stations. little did i know it was really a ruse to help the species. thrive. i am pleased to know that when people read People rather than a New Scientist, they are doing their bit to save us all. 

Posted by hedgehog

=v= When I read the evopsych "finding" about celebrities, it was when Ms. Paltrow was 'round the twist, not Ms. Jolie. They seemingly have no explanation for how fickle we (again, the entire species, which is why People  is so aptly-named) are about whom our pinnacles of genetic expression are.

In your earlier comment you wondered about evopsych's insights on homosexuality. The amazing thing about that is how thoroughly the topic has been examined by the social sciences; how, despite differences in age, sex, race, culture, levels of oppression, and any other socially-constructed variable imagined, homosexuality and bisexuality persist at pretty much the same levels everywhere. The theory that it's based in nature rather than nurture has overwhelming support from the social sciences, while evopsychos can do little more than shrug. (Well, there was that LaVay hypothalamus thing, but it was a dud.)

I'll have to check out that biophilia book, though I have to say I'm no fan of the way most people prune trees in these parts. Does it say anything about hedgehogs? 

Posted by Jym

No, hedgehogs say things about it. One-way critique, I'm afraid. We on-line creatures are as mosquitos pestering the great enduring slow-moving rhinoceri known as books.

In other ev-psych questions: This thing about females digging "funny" guys could be backwards. Maybe the statement "I think he's hot because he made me laugh" is a prudish way of saying "I laughed at his jokes because he's hot." It's testable. I suspect that the same funny statements told by ugly and good-looking guys would get different laugh responses. Maybe have two people deliver some funny lines. Have women pick the most and least attractive photos from some line-ups. Tell them, "Now I will play you a tape of that person talking." Randomly play them one or the other comedy routines while they're looking at the pretty boy, the other routine with the photo of the ugly boy. Monitor women while they listen. Record their reactions carefully using video, pulse response, and other biometrics to track laughter. See whether attraction increases laughter. Also check whether they still consider the unattractive one to be so unattractive afterwards. 

Posted by hedgehog

Eh, I think funny and cute coexist in a non simple relationship. Here, let me bullshit for you:

Hotness = F(h, c) s.t. for c < 0, F = (h^(1/a))/(-c)
for c = 0, F = (h^(1/a+d))
for c > 0 F = c*(h^b)

where a,b and d are positive constants depending on the attractee. (yes, I know I'm using F for Hotness and h for funny (humor), but I'm sure it's obvious why that's actually a sensible letter choice.)

Which, btw, I think, could be adaquately modified for men to women and even less heteronormative calculations. (Hence the neutral term attractee). I certainly hope men care about funny, though perhaps my greater vanity about my sense of humor is somewhat misplaced. Note that we're leaving out entirely important variables like intelligence, sweetness, skill, admirability, enthusiasm, and the all important bounciness.

Then again, maybe Saurabh is wrong, and it's all about how blonde you are. The rest of us are just screwed. (Or not, really.)

other biometrics 

Uh-huh. Rrrrrrright. 

Posted by Saheli

Woops I forgot the cases where h <=0.

h < 0 -> F = 0
h = 0 -> F= (c^(1/g))*(e^(-t/c))


Posted by Saheli

Is bounciness like entropy? 

Posted by hedgehog

=v= Call me Roger Rabbit, because I get the "he makes me laugh" thing all the time. Does that mean I'm actually hot? I have no idea. Therefore I have no idea what variables to plug into Saheli's formula.

Plus, where's the blond variable? I'm blond, but not much. :^) 

Posted by Jym

nobody has said the awful thing. that "nature" took its course and stole the lives of women with problematic birth canals, and now wider structures are the most common. i heard the "complicated pelvis" story from someone else while chatting this material around over the weekend. it was just one more reminder that, from the point of view of someone trying to prove the innate superiority of humans over nature, girls are icky. 

Posted by hibiscus

I think they are closely related, hedgehog, in that high-entropy individuals are often very bouncy.

Jym---I don't know of any evo-psy commentary on blonds (vs. blondes), but my equations are in 3d only, and neglect all other factors including hair color. You would appear to be operating in the positive h, positive c regime. Most people I know are.

hibiscus--well, boys have cooties, so there. :-p

Posted by Saheli

oh yeah? well, impoverished people living in close conditions without regular access to clean water for washing have cooties too, so there!  

Posted by hibiscus

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