Sunday, September 17, 2006

I write letters

My friend Maxine Margolis, a professor of anthropology, suggested I respond to the latest column promoting evolutionary psychology from the NYTimes. This is one by David Brooks (known as "Bobo" in the left-wing blogosphere), and he and his right-wing twin John Tierney have each written several, and so-called liberal Maureen Dowd has written some.

To better understand my response, it helps to know that Brooks's column begins:
Over the past several weeks, I’ve found I can change the conversation at any social gathering by mentioning Louann Brizendine’s book, “The Female Brain.” Brizendine is a neuropsychiatrist and the founder of the Women’s and Teen Girls’ Mood and Hormone Clinic in San Francisco. She’s written a breezy — maybe too breezy — summary of hundreds of studies on the neurological differences between men and women.

My response:
Whenever anybody discovers even the slightest male-female difference it’s pounced on by the evolutionary psychology-minded as proof of genetic destiny, and then used by the Right to argue for female inferiority.

But it takes the finely-honed mind of a New York Times op-ed columnist like David Brooks to make the leap into a sentence such as this:

“Once radicals dreamed of new ways of living, but now happiness seems to consist of living in harmony with the patterns that nature and evolution laid down long, long ago.”

Of course nobody knows which radicals David Brooks is talking about, but all the radicals I’ve ever heard of were trying to change the societies they were living in. Societies that allowed slavery, or gave monarchs absolute power, or allowed parents to arrange marriages for political or economic gain. Last I heard, “patterns that nature and evolution laid down long ago” didn’t include those things.

Certainly you couldn’t expect Brooks’s social circle to have heard of Elizabeth Spelke, the Harvard psychologist who has made a career of studying the way that babies think, and who has found almost no gender differences. And the differences that have been found are no use in making a case for the superiority of a suburban 1950s American upper-middle-class lifestyle, which Brooks and so many promoters of evolutionary psychology mistake for “nature.”

No, give the David Brooks set breezy books aimed at the ever-lucrative Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus market, and designed to promote Louann Brizendine’s hormone and mood clinics. I’m sure those books make a nice conversational break from discussing the various Brooksian ways of living in harmony with nature, like killing the estate tax or invading Iraq.