Thursday, March 16, 2006

Book report: Adapting Minds

Just got Adapting Minds, Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature by David J. Buller, and so far so good.

Unfortunately, but not suprisingly, it hasn't captured the public's imagination the way many of the works of the Evolutionary Psychologists (Buller capitalizes the term) have but then that's always the advantage EP had - telling the public, in simplified "scientific" terms what it already believes about the true natures of men and women.

But what Buller lacks in user-friendly presentation he makes up for in his solid examination of the claims of evolutionary psychologists. I've only read a few chapters and already found refutations of EP that I hadn't considered, like the fact that much of the results of the celebrated female desire for males with status actually boils down to "status homogamy" - the tendency of people to mate with those in their own status group. He points out that it's very likely that studies have shown that women prefer high status men because the women studied, invariably white upper-class women in college, have high status themselves.

He criticizes the methodology of David Buss and confirms what I suspected but hadn't yet researched - that David Buss ignores cultural restrictions on female choice of mates. As Buller says: a well-documented study, the anthropologist William Irons found that, among the Turkmen of Persia, males in the wealthier half of the population left 75 percent more offspring than males in the poorer half of the population. Buss cites several studies like this as indicating that "high status in men leads directly to increased sexual access to a larger number of women," and he implies that this is due to the greater desirability of high-status men (David Buss 1999 "Evolutionary Psychology the New Science of the Mind").

But, among the Turkmen, women were sold by their families into marriage. The reason that higher-status males enjoyed greater reproductive success among the Turkmen is that they were able to buy wives earlier and more often than lower-status males. Other studies that clearly demonstrate a reproductive advantage for high-status males are also studies of societies or circumstances in which males "traded" in women. This isn't evidence that high-status males enjoy greater reproductive success because women find them more desirable. Indeed, it isn't evidence of female preference at all, just as the fact that many harem-holding despots produced remarkable numbers of offspring is no evidence of their desirability to women. It is only evidence that when men have power they will use it to promote their reproductive success, among other things (and that women, under such circumstances, will prefer entering a harem to suffering the dire consequences of refusal).

The fact that Buss can't be bothered to account for virtual female slavery when proclaiming female choice is typical of the Evolutionary Psychologist approach. Their belief in the power of biology to control human behavior is so reflexive that they can't be bothered to consider even the most glaringly obvious cultural factors impacting their claims.

And those who claimed that all Lawrence Summers was doing was expressing an interesting theory on human nature are so incredibly short-sighted. Because Summers suggested "to provoke you" that women are mentally inferior to men in math and science, and that's the primary reason why women have lesser math/science careers than men.

This isn't just interesting scientific speculation. He was the president of Harvard and had some say in its hiring policies. That made it political, and feminists would be fools to refrain from fighting tooth and nail to prevent the flimsily-backed claims of Evolutionary Psychology from being allowed to excuse gender-based discrimination.