The Waw effect
August 22, 2007 4:34 AM   Subscribe

Is there anything good about men? In this address to the American Psychological Association, psychologist Roy Baumeister suggests that women have historically had a much greater chance of reproducing than men, and that this has had a profound influence on the way their respective roles in society have evolved:
For women throughout history (and prehistory), the odds of reproducing have been pretty good. Later in this talk we will ponder things like, why was it so rare for a hundred women to get together and build a ship and sail off to explore unknown regions, whereas men have fairly regularly done such things? But taking chances like that would be stupid, from the perspective of a biological organism seeking to reproduce. They might drown or be killed by savages or catch a disease. For women, the optimal thing to do is go along with the crowd, be nice, play it safe. The odds are good that men will come along and offer sex and you’ll be able to have babies. All that matters is choosing the best offer. We’re descended from women who played it safe....For men, the outlook was radically different. If you go along with the crowd and play it safe, the odds are you won’t have children. Most men who ever lived did not have descendants who are alive today. Their lines were dead ends. Hence it was necessary to take chances, try new things, be creative, explore other possibilities.
posted by Turtles all the way down (130 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Clearly recognizing the charged nature of the issues he raises, Baumeister prefaced his talk with the following, which seems appropriate to post in this arena:
You’re probably thinking that a talk called “Is there anything good about men” will be a short talk! Recent writings have not had much good to say about men. Titles like “Men Are Not Cost Effective” speak for themselves. Maureen Dowd’s book was called “Are Men Necessary?” and although she never gave an explicit answer, anyone reading the book knows her answer was no. Brizendine’s book “The Female Brain” introduces itself by saying, “Men, get ready to experience brain envy.” Imagine a book advertising itself by saying that women will soon be envying the superior male brain!

Nor are these isolated examples. Eagly’s research has compiled mountains of data on the stereotypes people have about men and women, which the researchers summarized as “The WAW effect.” WAW stands for “Women Are Wonderful.” Both men and women hold much more favorable views of women than of men. Almost everybody likes women better than men. I certainly do.

My purpose in this talk is not to try to balance this out by praising men, though along the way I will have various positive things to say about both genders. The question of whether there’s anything good about men is only my point of departure. The tentative title of the book I’m writing is “How culture exploits men,” but even that for me is the lead-in to grand questions about how culture shapes action. In that context, what’s good about men means what men are good for, from the perspective of the system.

Hence this is not about the “battle of the sexes,” and in fact I think one unfortunate legacy of feminism has been the idea that men and women are basically enemies. I shall suggest, instead, that most often men and women have been partners, supporting each other rather than exploiting or manipulating each other.

Nor is this about trying to argue that men should be regarded as victims. I detest the whole idea of competing to be victims. And I’m certainly not denying that culture has exploited women. But rather than seeing culture as patriarchy, which is to say a conspiracy by men to exploit women, I think it’s more accurate to understand culture (e.g., a country, a religion) as an abstract system that competes against rival systems — and that uses both men and women, often in different ways, to advance its cause.

Also I think it’s best to avoid value judgments as much as possible. They have made discussion of gender politics very difficult and sensitive, thereby warping the play of ideas. I have no conclusions to present about what’s good or bad or how the world should change. In fact my own theory is built around tradeoffs, so that whenever there is something good it is tied to something else that is bad, and they balance out.

I don’t want to be on anybody’s side. Gender warriors please go home.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 4:37 AM on August 22, 2007


Wait, this sexist pig is suggesting that biology influences gender roles? Since that goes against my ideology, I say we lynch him and find a new president for Harvard University.
posted by orthogonality at 4:42 AM on August 22, 2007 [5 favorites]


Wow, what balls.
posted by Brittanie at 4:49 AM on August 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


"I don’t want to be on anybody’s side. Gender warriors please go home."

Yeah, nice try, buddy.

OK, so, I'm with 'guys,' chicks are all whimpy losers. Batter up!
posted by From Bklyn at 4:53 AM on August 22, 2007


Somewhat related: Criticism of a Gender Theory, and a Scientist Under Siege, from the New York Times. How these people keep a straight face while claiming to be shocked at the negative reaction to their work, I'll never understand. Obviously they know that PC academic busy-bodies are awfully predictable, and seem to have a lot of time and energy to engage in these seemingly endless turf battles.

On topic: Interesting articles.
posted by billysumday at 5:10 AM on August 22, 2007


The problem with his evolutionary argument is that you can just as easily argue that we are the offspring of men who played it safe. After all, the risk takers are more likely to have died before reproduction. You don't have a lot of children when you're on a boat full of men sailing to north america.
posted by srboisvert at 5:14 AM on August 22, 2007 [4 favorites]


Really interesting post.

Just a pity he uses Larry Summers as an example. Larry Summers was an idiot. He was doing his oh-so-terribly brave and daring taboo-breaking as the administrative head of a university that had (has) glaring, obvious "old boys network" problems with giving opportunities to women at senior levels. If you can't see that your first priority as president of Harvard is to address things like that, you shouldn't be president of Harvard.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 5:17 AM on August 22, 2007


The problem with his evolutionary argument is that you can just as easily argue that we are the offspring of men who played it safe. After all, the risk takers are more likely to have died before reproduction. You don't have a lot of children when you're on a boat full of men sailing to north america.

Except this counterargument makes no sense. It's already a given in the problem statement that playing it safe produces no children[1] for men. Therefore an adventure that has a 100%[1] chance of failing is no worse than playing safe. Any chances of success better than 0%[1], however slim, is a great improvement on that.

[1]Absolute numbers used for illustration only.
posted by DU at 5:24 AM on August 22, 2007


Larry Summers may well have been an idiot. He also may have had better things to work on. That doesn't make him wrong.

And for those who can only take their truth wrapped in ideology, why not phrase it this way: Men do better in math because men have set up all the rules in both academia and how math is presented, organized and taught to optimize it for how their brains are structured.
posted by DU at 5:26 AM on August 22, 2007 [3 favorites]


DU: Interesting...what would the "women's math" be like, then, I wonder?

afraid to give very funny but very sexist examples
posted by Turtles all the way down at 5:31 AM on August 22, 2007


I'm amused at the idea that there might people who don't have an ideology...

I agree none of that means Larry Summers is automatically wrong. All I'm saying is that it was possible to see the fierce criticism of him as perfectly justifiable in the specific circumstances, so he's a bad case study to use in order to demonstrate some alleged society-wide horror at the very idea of biological gender differences.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 5:32 AM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't know, but here's an example: My oldest started going to first grade a couple years ago. In math class, they no longer call them "story problems". They call them "number stories". I think the theory is that girls/women are less "problem" oriented.
posted by DU at 5:34 AM on August 22, 2007


I'm impressed, a very nice piece of bullshit. Feminists are going to be dealing with these arguments for years to come. I love the way he pretends to be scientific but is really just setting up just so stories to explain gender differences that are entirely cultural. take this

" I suppose the stock explanation for any such difference is that women were not encouraged, or were not appreciated, or were discouraged from being creative. But I don’t think this stock explanation fits the facts very well. In the 19th century in America, middle-class girls and women played piano far more than men. Yet all that piano playing failed to result in any creative output. There were no great women composers, no new directions in style of music or how to play, or anything like that. All those female pianists entertained their families and their dinner guests but did not seem motivated to create anything new."

In fact due to cultural pressures women were prevented from publishing music and becoming famous composers. But of course these women just didn't want to go through the trouble, those frail timid things. And of course gender is the same thing as race so the fact that black men (and black women) created Jazz is proof of this. What shite.
posted by afu at 5:43 AM on August 22, 2007 [11 favorites]


Sigh. The worst thing a social scientist can do is to take a few pieces of genetic evidence and spin them into a grand theory. It inevitably involves huge inductive leaps that start: "it must have been the case" or "chances are." Since we've no way to calculate the likelihood that a single scrap of data about heredity had a particular effect, these are safe, and meaningless, hedges against the charge that the social scientist is engaging in rampant and unjustified speculation.

Forget the provocative gender politics. Evolutionary psychology and sociology is bad science, which, (surprise!) ends up recapitulating the author's prejudices, whether they be egalitarian, misogynistic, or banal.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:50 AM on August 22, 2007 [3 favorites]


There are so many slap you in the face stupid statements in this piece it should be renamed "Why Evolutionary psychology is Bullshit"

But the supposed superiority of communal relationships applies mainly to intimate relationships. At the level of large social systems, it’s the other way around. Communal (including communist) countries remain primitive and poor, whereas the rich, advanced nations have gotten where they are by means of economic exchange.

Close down all the economics departments, he has solved every problem in political economy! Differences in national wealth all boil down to the fact that men like to go out and make money, while women like to sit around at home and bake cakes for the neighbors.
posted by afu at 6:07 AM on August 22, 2007 [3 favorites]


It's already a given in the problem statement that playing it safe produces no children for men.

Now, there's some question-begging.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:07 AM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


srboisvert: so there were no female Natives in North or South America? Weird. How did they keep a population to greet the pestilence bringers?

I'll also bet Marco Polo never got laid; inventing a pool game just isn't that adventurous. And don't get me started on the unfairness of that momma's boy Ghengis' Khan getting all the girls playing it safe.

Hmmm, maybe it's arguable either way...
posted by nobeagle at 6:17 AM on August 22, 2007


The Caveman had his club,The Pimp had his Strong Pimp Hand, and The Nice guy loses.
posted by doctorschlock at 6:18 AM on August 22, 2007


It's already a given in the problem statement that playing it safe produces no children[1] for men.

Okay, but that given is wrong. Both women and men, if they're well fed and sheltered and sitting around, will start to feel a genetic imperative to screw each other. Add in a societal context that emphasizes monogamy and suddenly you have a situation where most men are going to be able to mate with women and create offspring. True, richer or more powerful men will probably fool around on the side and create more babies than average, but I think overall timid men have probably done okay in the long run.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:22 AM on August 22, 2007


The problem with his evolutionary argument is that you can just as easily argue that we are the offspring of men who played it safe. After all, the risk takers are more likely to have died before reproduction. You don't have a lot of children when you're on a boat full of men sailing to north america.

The problem with this argument is that Baumeister points to recent DNA evidence that suggests that, over the span of human history as a whole, 80% of women have passed on their DNA, but only 40% of men have done so. In other words, women have historically had a two-to-one advantage in passing on their individual DNA. Because the stakes have been so much higher for men in the past, men in earlier epochs were more willing to take extraordinary risks in order to attain resources that they could trade for getting a woman to mate with them. Bearing in mind, you are correct to some extent. It's all about trade-offs. If risks get too high, and men don't exercise some judgment about which risks they will take, then nobody will profit when all the men die off. However, Baumeister does suggest that, all other things being equal, men will have more incentives to take risks than women.
posted by jonp72 at 6:32 AM on August 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


Is there a footnoted version of this somewhere? It is full of counter-intuitive statement that I would like to know more about. At one point Baumeister makes the argument: "Most men who ever lived did not have descendants who are alive today. Their lines were dead ends. Hence it was necessary to take chances, try new things, be creative, explore other possibilities. Sailing off into the unknown may be risky, and you might drown or be killed or whatever, but then again if you stay home you won’t reproduce anyway. We’re most descended from the type of men who made the risky voyage and managed to come back rich."

But are we really? The type of man he describes is both more likely to die and more likely to be away from the females of his community during large portions of his reproductive prime. Meanwhile the less adventurous men are back home, consoling the young widows... Is there a study that backs up his claim, or is he just making shit up?
posted by LarryC at 6:33 AM on August 22, 2007


Considering that I haven't had a date in a while I'm planning an expedition to the sulfur seas of Titan in search of precious spices and/or mermaids. What say you? Who's with me lads?
posted by well_balanced at 6:41 AM on August 22, 2007 [10 favorites]


Just a pity he uses Larry Summers as an example. Larry Summers was an idiot. He was doing his oh-so-terribly brave and daring taboo-breaking as the administrative head of a university that had (has) glaring, obvious "old boys network" problems with giving opportunities to women at senior levels. If you can't see that your first priority as president of Harvard is to address things like that, you shouldn't be president of Harvard.

Ironically, the type of analysis Baumeister lays out in his speech could be used to explain the downfall of Larry Summers. If the purpose of a university president is to attract resources (i.e., enlarge the university's endowment), then his speech about women in the sciences and mathematics can be viewed as a stupid risk that was punished in true Darwinian style. In sheer economic terms, Summers made a very unwise gamble that risked losing much more alumni donations from women than he ever might gain by appealing to male chauvinists.
posted by jonp72 at 6:42 AM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Correction:
"John Tierney always wanted to be a scientist but went into journalism because its peer-review process was a great deal easier to sneak through."
should read: "John Tierney always wanted to be a scientist but went into journalism because it was a great deal easier to make a living writing faux-contrarian bullshit." Please correct that sentence on your screens.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:46 AM on August 22, 2007


The talk is tired stuff ("Prehistory justifies our own cultural biases and explains everything! Except the astounding human variety we still see in evidence and have throughout recorded history! But anyway, girls are passive and boys are violent and get things done and that's how God made us!") so I'm not going to bother with it. But I will address this:

In math class, they no longer call them "story problems".

And thirty years ago in math class, they didn't call them "story problems" either, they called them "math problems" or "calculations." The renaming to "story problems" didn't come about to make math girl-friendly, it came about as part of the 70s revival of the progressive educational movement that did away with the new math of the 60s and the rote math of the 50s and earlier, replacing it with language that was meant to be more child-centered, holistic, relevant, and full of meaningful narrative.

The fact that the jargon continues to change has more to do with the competing curriculum programs of educational publishers, each of which presents its own system with its own nomenclature, than with gendered approaches to teaching. IN my teaching days I sat on one committee to evaluate these math programs - each worth thousands or tens of thousands of dollars when purchased at the level of district licensing - and each is desperate to be distinctive and to have unique, copyrightable material.
posted by Miko at 6:48 AM on August 22, 2007 [6 favorites]


Evolutionary psychology and sociology is bad science

No, they aren't. What makes evolutionary psychology and sociology (and perhaps most of the social sciences) so different from the 'harder' sciences is that journalists and other people with no scientific background feel competent to report on them. Because they are easy to misinterpret, social sciences often catch a bad rap. However, when pursued with the appropriate scientific rigor, evolutionary psychology and sociology are both worthwhile pursuits.

Every time some jerk off writes an article about something he/she doesn't really understand, we get a ton of people in here slamming evolutionary psychology. That's bad science.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 7:01 AM on August 22, 2007 [16 favorites]


"I suppose the stock explanation for any such difference is that women were not encouraged, or were not appreciated, or were discouraged from being creative. But I don’t think this stock explanation fits the facts very well. In the 19th century in America, middle-class girls and women played piano far more than men. Yet all that piano playing failed to result in any creative output. There were no great women composers, no new directions in style of music or how to play, or anything like that. All those female pianists entertained their families and their dinner guests but did not seem motivated to create anything new."

In fact due to cultural pressures women were prevented from publishing music and becoming famous composers.


Yes, but you could just as easily say that middle-class women did not become pianists and composers, because of economic incentives. If becoming successful as pianist/composer requires a long period of paying your dues as a "starving artist," then an economically comfortable middle-class woman of the 19th century who was financially supported by her husband might not have much motivation or desire to devote herself to music. Think Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith, or Ma Rainey. They had incentives to create great music, precisely because they were not made economically comfortable by the men in their lives and because they had much, much less to lose.

And there is one field where the reference to "cultural pressures" as an explanation for women's low artistic output in the 19th century doesn't wash. That would be novels. If you look at publishing catalogues from the 18th and 19th century, there were often more novels written by women than men. Think of Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Bronte Sisters (in contrast to their totally lazy brother Branwell), Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Anne Radcliffe, the list goes on. Women excelled at novels, partially because the novel was unfairly devalued as a literary form (hence less "payoff" for men), but novel-writing was also an activity that women could do in between childrearing and running a household. The novels written by women in the 18th and 19th century have been unjustly devalued and forgotten at different periods in literary history, but the idea that they were totally barred from publishing is not true.
posted by jonp72 at 7:16 AM on August 22, 2007 [5 favorites]


Evolution is the last thing human psychology could be influenced by. Otherwise we would immediately need to start killing babies and removing all women from the workforce, since ought equals is.
posted by vertriebskonzept at 7:19 AM on August 22, 2007


Is there a study that backs up his claim, or is he just making shit up?
We're living in the era of postmodern punditry: Making Up Shit Compellingly is how you establish that something is True™.
posted by verb at 7:21 AM on August 22, 2007 [4 favorites]


I wonder how (or if) Baumeister voted on the APA proposal to ban its members from participating in US Government interrogations of terror suspects.

The measure failed, btw.
posted by notyou at 7:25 AM on August 22, 2007


His two premises seem to be:

1) We have more female ancestors than males ones. Lots of males don't reproduce.

2) Even though the means (for several abilities) are very similar, males are less likely to be at the mean than females are. In other words, men have larger staqndard deviations than women.

These two are fairly objective and should be easy to confirm or deny. Any argument is going to have to account for them.

From these two premises, he constructs hypothesis A, that men are rewarded (reproductively) for extremes of behaviour, while women are rewarded for staying closer to the mean. Following from this he constructs a whole bunch of socialogical hypotheses to fit "common sense" behaviours. Whenever someone relies on "common sense", I pull out my "not aceptible for publication" stamp.

Finally, he pulls out a third premise:

3) Women form fewer, but intimate relationships, men form many shallow ones (perhaps I misinterpret, but I think that's what's he's saying).

This appears to be based on Cross, Susan E.; Madson, Laura, Models of the self: Self-construals and gender, Psychological Bulletin. 1997 Jul Vol 122(1) 5-37. Note that "Madsen" in the speach appears to be a typo. I don't have access to the full text, and it seem to be buried in jargon anyway. Could someone in the field tell us if this is at all an interesting paper or not? I can't even get citation statistics for psych journals.

Number 3 is used to explain why women don't get ahead in business and why there aren't any women's soccer teams. It seems to me, someone with no subject knowledge, to be a weaker reed on which he builds his more radical conclusions.

Has he published this anywhere? Again, I don't have access to sociology indexing services.
posted by bonehead at 7:26 AM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Think of Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Bronte Sisters, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Anne Radcliffe...

Think of A.M. Barnard, Cotton Mather Mills, Currer Bell, Acton Bell, Ellis Bell...
posted by naomi at 7:41 AM on August 22, 2007 [3 favorites]


And here's the reason for my pretty pink bedspread. Think hominids - women gatherers - the colour of ripe fruit. Just so.
posted by jennydiski at 7:42 AM on August 22, 2007


What makes evolutionary psychology and sociology (and perhaps most of the social sciences) so different from the 'harder' sciences is that journalists and other people with no scientific background feel competent to report on them.

If only that were true. Journalists with no scientific background report inaccurately on all kinds of science all the time. Journalists frequently misreport politics news as well. Spot news is not really known for accuracy.

The biggest problem with evolutionary psychology is that so many people conflate it with evolutionary biology, and consequently the general public think of it as being more scientific than ordinary psychology. In reality, this is exactly backwards. An evolutionary psychologist starts with psychological observations and conclusions which may or may not be supported, and then projects them out to evolution by adding assumptions. They assume that the psychological traits concerned are both heritable and the result of natural selection. Neither of these assumptions are usually supported, which is why the psychologist had a better claim to science before making them.
posted by grouse at 7:44 AM on August 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


Well, this would explain why (unless you think this is just another myth) a lot of women are attracted to "bad boys" instead of nice sensitive men.
posted by kozad at 7:46 AM on August 22, 2007


I'm really thinking that Baumeister's lesson here is that the optimal reproductive strategy is to console widows of adventurous men.

Men weren't trying to ensure they reproduce by being "adventurous." They were trying to ensure they don't starve to death or live in squalor because they couldn't make a living where they were.

For something which might back up Baumeister's reasoning, here's an article in the Financial times about young Albanian men who go abroad to make a living and then return home to find a bride. Their means of attracting a wife is to return home with ostentatious displays of the wealth they acquired while working abroad.
posted by deanc at 7:47 AM on August 22, 2007


Interesting theory, but men and women share the vast majority of their DNA, so most changes in men would still be reflected in their daughters. Only genes that are only expressed in men, or were on the y chromosome would really be able to change.

The other problem here is that his hypothesis is totally untestable. It explains something we already know, and does not really make any new predictions.

People can theorize all day about why people are the way they are, but at the end of the day, it's just wankery.
posted by delmoi at 8:02 AM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Think of A.M. Barnard, Cotton Mather Mills, Currer Bell, Acton Bell, Ellis Bell...

P.L. Travers, J.K. Rowling... Not much has changed on that score. That still doesn't mean women in the 18th and 19th century were barred from publishing novels. Two premises can be true at the same time: (1) women wrote many novels because they were relatively few de jure legal or institutional barriers (as opposed to familial or social barriers) stopping them from writing novels, (2) the novels that women did write were unfairly devalued.
posted by jonp72 at 8:03 AM on August 22, 2007


In many cases, polygamy is the answer to more women procreating, with less men. The societies of the East were polygamous, the Chinese, the Mongolians, The Thais, for a long while, this has been the case in the Middle East, and in certain tribes of Africa.

Lots of women who procreate, to this very day, don't have the option of playing it safe or nice, when Daddy says you are marrying the guy down the road, in exchange for a couple of goats, that is what you do. This is the marriage scene, in India, parts of Africa, and certainly the case in the Muslim world. There is no "playing it safe", there is obedience.

There wasn't birth control, in the nineteenth century, not reliable birth control, and life was less easy than it is today, for North Americans, and Europeans. Child birth, and child rearing, were all consuming occupations, as they still are in poorer societies currently.

If women played it safe, it was for their descendants. Often the wayfaring strangers, were just that because society had no other role for them, and they were by choice, or devious economic design, unmarriagable. Still, there were those widows walks on New England houses, where women waited years, and years for the seafarers, to come home.

There other statistics that show how different the world was, in regards to now. For instance, I once read, that the average life span, for the 19th century factory worker in Britain was 17 years of age. I wonder if any of them, had a chance to reproduce at all.

I can't help but intuit that guys like this psychologist, are only talking about white North Americans, of European extraction. Isn't that all he really knows, or cares about?
posted by Oyéah at 8:03 AM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


P.S. Until very recent history, women have had little choice but to reproduce. Saying no isn't a reliable form of birth control.
posted by Oyéah at 8:06 AM on August 22, 2007 [5 favorites]


However, when pursued with the appropriate scientific rigor, evolutionary psychology and sociology are both worthwhile pursuits.

No, I'm sorry, but I have to stop you here. Evolutionary advantage is not a causal mechanism. The scientific project can only succeed when it looks for efficient and material causes, not teleological ones. As you say, what's needed is methodological rigor, which is precisely true. Psychology and sociology both require a living population in order to make the sorts of claims they make, because the subject of their study is behavior. The chain of inference that moves from genetic data to historical behavior and back to contemporary behavior has too many leaps to be valid.

Look: we know things about the relationship between testosterone and behavior that make Baumeister's arguments moot. Since his arguments fail to cohere with the results of our rigorous study of contemporary humans, we need not go too far afield in our criticisms of evolutionary psychology.

This isn't a critique of evolutionary biology in any way. The worst thing about evolutionary speculation in the social sciences is this tendency to discredit the really valid conclusions reached in the hard sciences. We can certainly learn things about, for instance, the geographical origins and distribution of blond hair. But the leap that assumes a causal relationship between genetic survival and blondness, for instance, leads us into the unfalsifiable realm of speculation. It surpasses the threshold of evidence, where the data is no longer helpful and we fall back on our prejudices, generally without realizing it. Like intelligent design, the critiques of these arguments are as old as modern science itself, but it's necessary to bring them to bear early rather than allowing such hogwash to capture the popular imagination.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:08 AM on August 22, 2007 [6 favorites]


To reiterate earlier comments -- the zeitgeist in Psychology, pretty much ALL subfields, is to make ties to evolution theory and this is one more example of this trendy approach. The problem, as was pointed out earlier, is that nearly all psychological explanations for X (fill in the blank) that rely on evolution are simply 'just so stories'. These are unconstrained speculations that could just as easily be turned on their head (using the same evolutionary principles) and really explain nothing. Interesting speculation? Yes. But scientific explanation leading to novel and testable predictions? No.
posted by bluesky43 at 8:10 AM on August 22, 2007


Oh god. *bangs head against desk*

I am so sick to death of evolutionary so-called psychology.

Would it offend people more if he was spinning these arguments in favour of racial difference? For example: "[w]hy was it so rare for a hundred Africans to get together and build a ship and sail off to explore unknown regions, whereas Europeans have fairly regularly done such things?" Sound any better?
posted by jokeefe at 8:11 AM on August 22, 2007 [5 favorites]


but the idea that they were totally barred from publishing is not true.

Obviously not. No one's arguing that.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:14 AM on August 22, 2007


Has he published this anywhere? Again, I don't have access to sociology indexing services.

It was an address to the national convention of the American Psychological Association, which has not yet been published. Footnotes probably won't be added until the address is published in an APA publication.
posted by jonp72 at 8:16 AM on August 22, 2007


They assume that the psychological traits concerned are both heritable and the result of natural selection. Neither of these assumptions are usually supported, which is why the psychologist had a better claim to science before making them.

I'm no expert, but I just finished reading Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker's "Blank Slate", and I think he'd strongly disagree with this statement. I guess it depends on which specific traits you're refering to, but, for instance, I believe he pegged about 50% of the variance in intelligence as due to heredity. I'm afraid you'll have to consult the book for his sources.

(on preview: From the way the comments are going it looks like Pinker might not be a popular figure around here. Like I say, I'm no expert...)
posted by erikgrande at 8:17 AM on August 22, 2007


To recap:

In the sciences generally, including the social sciences, the goal is to achieve certainty, and to reduce the number of demonstrable falsehoods in your publication to zero.

In the evolutionarily-influenced social sciences, the goal is tell a nice story, and to abuse ambiguity and uncertainty so that none of your claims are demonstrably true or false.

Thus do they hire you at Harvard.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:22 AM on August 22, 2007


I feel the same way towards Baumeister that I feel towards most proponents of "evolutionary psychology" - I agree with many of his findings, but disagree strenuously that they have any basis in mendelian genetics.

We believe in natural selection because you can do things like cross a brown cow with a white cow and get two brown cows, a white cow, and a cow with spots. You cannot do anything even remotely similar with psychological traits. Evolutionary psychology is the new social darwinism.

However, his main conclusions - that men and women are different, have different motivations, and that the relationship between the sexes is the result of a series of basic tradeoffs - no argument there. I would argue, however, that these differences are driven largely by culture, as well as the very fact that women have babies, and men do not.
posted by Afroblanco at 8:28 AM on August 22, 2007


An equally compelling argument is that via mechanisms like polygamy, aristocrats and the wealthy had a greater chance of reproducing. Even without polygamy, wealthy men who became widowers could easily marry a much younger woman and have more children. It was in their reproductive interest, then, to acquire more wealth by sending other men off on adventures to make them richer, which had the benefit of killing those other men off, leaving more women around for them.

Thus, men have been genetically selected for being devious, Mr. Burns-like aristocrats who are charismatic enough to portray going on dangerous adventures as being an attractive thing for other people to do, in order to have more access to women at home.

Wow. This game is fun!
posted by deanc at 8:29 AM on August 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


Today's XKCD comic is oddly appropriate.
posted by the jam at 8:30 AM on August 22, 2007


I'm not saying it's done as frequently as it should be, but surely it's not impossible in principle to get testable predictions from evolutionary psychology? I mean, it's possible in evolutionary biology, and not just from the fossil record, but for example by comparing observed physical traits with engineered solutions to the same problems.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 8:33 AM on August 22, 2007


For women, the optimal thing to do is go along with the crowd, be nice, play it safe. The odds are good that men will come along and offer sex and you’ll be able to have babies.

Obviously, this guy has never watched an episode of Meercat Manor, in which the optimum strategy for female meercats is to kill the litters of other females.

DU: The basic problem is that "men are better at math" ammounts to just about 3/10ths of standard deviation on standardized tests. Not enough of a difference to justify the levels of discrimination that we see.

solipsophistocracy: However, when pursued with the appropriate scientific rigor, evolutionary psychology and sociology are both worthwhile pursuits.

*Listens to the sound of crickets chirping.*

The fundamental problem with much of evolutionary psychology is it is currently framed is that it tries to explain modern human behavior as a function of neolithic and paleolithic social environments where we have fragmentary evidence. A secondary problem is that it proposes that most of our psychology is still neolithic, in spite of the fact humans have evolved, and continued to evolve to fit new socio-economic contexets until the present day. Three examples: skin pigmentation, lactose tolerance, and tropical disease resistance.

Contrary to Pinker's polemic straw-man, psychologists can and have talked about schema that appear to be wired in "mind organs" that influence diverse aspects of human experience such as language, risk assessment, and developmental changes over the lifespan without telling "just so stories" about the paleolithic.

erikgrande: I'm no expert, but I just finished reading Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker's "Blank Slate", and I think he'd strongly disagree with this statement. I guess it depends on which specific traits you're refering to, but, for instance, I believe he pegged about 50% of the variance in intelligence as due to heredity. I'm afraid you'll have to consult the book for his sources.

Well yeah. Contrary to Pinker's claims in Blank Slate cognitive and behavioral psychologists have explored the sources of variance in regards to intelligence in depth. But the first half of the Blank Slate (I couldn't stomach much more) is fatally flawed because his attempt to set himself up as the savior of the behavioral sciences demands some blatantly dishonest character assassination of the people who came before him. He yanks Watson's "infants" quote out of historical and textual context to put it in opposition to ev. psych. rather than Galton's social darwinism-inspired eugenics, and then pulls back in the rest of the quote a few pages later and dismisses it with a single sentence. A few months after publication, one of the Skeptic mags ran an article dismantiling Pinker's arguments about Skinner (which fundamentally amounts to an ad hom. that Skinner was a leftist) pointing out that Skinner did, in fact, believe in a human nature, but demanded that quantifiable behavioral evidence be the gold standard for building theory about it.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:36 AM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ultimately he is making an essentialist argument which is just a very, very iffy when dealing with a phenomenon as complicated as human culture. Such extraordinary claims require simply extraordinary evidence. This is why evolutionary psychologists will always be relegated to the stables along with the other social scientists and won't be let in until they produce some concrete, irrefutable evidence and experimental processes that can be safely replicated. At this point they're still in a state where psychology was last century: spinning grand narratives off the most minimal of evidence.

First, the underlying idea that men have been subjected to greater sexual selection pressure is pretty dubious. Given any population exhibiting a surplus of penises it just doesn't follow that such "extra" men would mindlessly turn on each other or engage in extreme risks all in a desperate attempt to pass on their genes. It's pretty doubtful that even the most prehistoric societies would long tolerate such an inefficient "winner take all" system. (Call me an optimist, but I think men are a bit more intelligent than dogs.) If women were indeed such a rare, precious resource it would make much more sense for the men to band together and create a system for carefully controlling the production and distribution of said resource. Again, the presence of human intelligence and culture raises major questions about the kind and degree of evolutionary pressures on humans once language developed and real cooperation became possible.

And if we do adopt the (similarly dubious) notion that cultures themselves are subject to evolutionary pressure then the essentialist argument definitely has to be thrown out the window. While "nature" might indeed have initially selected for cultures that reduce women to baby making machines by this time and at this level we are no longer talking about selecting genes or, indeed, any kind of biological phenomenon. Really, this is why people who try to adapt evolutionary theory to complex, non-biological phenomena are already on the well paved road to error. (That special bit about "communist" states being selected against is probably among the dumber things I've heard all year.)

But even if we do accept the notion that evolution would encourage men to take big risks -- and note this is a much deeper claim then simply saying evolution would encourage men to be aggressive and employ violence, there's already a good deal of sleight of hand going on here -- it's pretty difficult to see just how such an imperative would do anything to suggest a stronger "creative streak" in men. This is the sort of category error that just plagues all this kind of thinking: does anybody seriously believe that the risk involved in sailing off across an unknown sea is meaningfully comparable to the "risk" of writing a novel or composing music or doing science? I could just as well suggest that writing a truly great novel and composing music requires the enhanced empathic abilities of the female mind. This is really why all the great novels have been written by women and homosexuals.

The entire "Can't vs Won't" section of the speech just falls flat and takes with it the entire speech, some of which is even interesting. But these things take time and I'm actually a bit optimistic that someday evolutionary psychology will provide real insights into ourselves and the world.
posted by nixerman at 8:37 AM on August 22, 2007


I just finished reading Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker's "Blank Slate", and I think he'd strongly disagree with this statement.

Yes, he probably would. And prominent evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould would strongly agree with it. They had a public debate on the subject. So?

I believe he pegged about 50% of the variance in intelligence as due to heredity.

I don't know about this specific example, but there is a reason I said the assumptions were usually unsupported. You certainly can find examples where the heredity assumption is supported. The problem is that psychologists do not always bother to do so. The other assumption about the role of natural selection is much harder for a psychologist to prove.
posted by grouse at 8:42 AM on August 22, 2007


"Would it offend people more if he was spinning these arguments in favour of racial difference?"

Yes, it would. Why? Because the differences in physical characteristics between the sexes are much greater than those between races. It is risky, time consuming and labor intensive (ha-ha) for women to reproduce...not so for men. It makes loads of sense for men and women to play different gender roles in their social groups, particularly in earlier epochs when human beings were more subject to the harsh whims of the natural world.

And as for this question, "[w]hy was it so rare for a hundred Africans to get together and build a ship and sail off to explore unknown regions, whereas Europeans have fairly regularly done such things?", Jared Diamond does a tolerably good job of providing an answer in Guns, Germs & Steel.
posted by taliaferro at 8:46 AM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


I suppose it comes as no great surprise: statisticians say gender studies generally have poor statistical controls.

This kind of sociology really needs better data and less stories. Hypotheses are meaningless without good data.
posted by bonehead at 8:48 AM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Contrary to Pinker's polemic straw-man, psychologists can and have talked about schema that appear to be wired in "mind organs" that influence diverse aspects of human experience such as language, risk assessment, and developmental changes over the lifespan without telling "just so stories" about the paleolithic.


KJS - the psychology you speak of is much more highly constrained than the drivel by Baumeister. If the research you are referring to is what I am thinking of, evolutionary psychology plays much less of a role than neuroscience. This kind of cross pollination of ideas (neuroscience and psychology) is IMHO much more productive in developing important and testable ideas than evolution/psychology.

As for Pinker, his books have brought psychology to the public discourse in a generally useful way but nobody I know (research psychologists) looks to Pinker's books for rigorous scientific arguments. To make the research accessible, he glosses over major controversies of interest only to those scientists working in the field.
posted by bluesky43 at 8:50 AM on August 22, 2007


Jonp72, can you explain how novel writing fits into a housedrudgery schedule better than symphony writing, poetry writing or picture painting? Isn't your cultural pressures explanation for all the women novelists (everybody thought novel writing was bitchwork) the more logical of your two explanations?
posted by Don Pepino at 8:51 AM on August 22, 2007


Yes, he probably would. And prominent evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould would strongly agree with it. They had a public debate on the subject. So?

Just trying to present another point of view...

But the first half of the Blank Slate (I couldn't stomach much more) is fatally flawed because his attempt to set himself up as the savior of the behavioral sciences demands some blatantly dishonest character assassination...

Yeah, he spent a lot of time on the internal politics of psychology. That stuff doesn't interest me much, and I can't say I really care whether Skinner was right or left. The main thing I took from the book is that it is possible to put forth an evolutionary psychological argument that's based on more than just idle musings. There are twin studies, adoption studies, cross culture comparisons, etc., with real data to be interpreted. As with anything else, the conclusions are only as good as the initial data.
posted by erikgrande at 8:57 AM on August 22, 2007


Oh god. *bangs head against desk*

I am so sick to death of evolutionary so-called psychology.

Would it offend people more if he was spinning these arguments in favour of racial difference? For example: "[w]hy was it so rare for a hundred Africans to get together and build a ship and sail off to explore unknown regions, whereas Europeans have fairly regularly done such things?" Sound any better?


Actually, the racial question you pose was earlier posed by Jared Diamond in the book, Guns, Germs & Steel. Diamond's answer was that the difference in Europeans' and Africans' propensity for exploration had to do with the Europeans exploiting their access to minerals to make weapons to subjugate Africans and other indigenous groups and with the Europeans' higher average levels of resistance to diseases that Africans were not exposed to. And although Diamond has been accused of insensitivity and racism for that book, Guns, Germs, & Steel can actually be an effective intellectual weapon in refuting the scientific racism associated with Charles Murray of The Bell Curve.

If I'm banging my head, I'm banging it because so many MeFites have probably failed to read the original version of Baumeister's speech, let alone the bastardized and abridged version you are going to get on a New York Times blog. Yes, evolutionary biology and psychology has been misused for sexist and racist purposes, but to imply that the entire discipline intrinsically leads to sexist and racist premises is nonsense. In fact, unless you do have some working knowledge of biology and evolution, you can't really refute the worst of the pseudoscientific racists and sexists like Charles Murray.
posted by jonp72 at 8:59 AM on August 22, 2007


game warden to the events rhino: I'm not saying it's done as frequently as it should be, but surely it's not impossible in principle to get testable predictions from evolutionary psychology? I mean, it's possible in evolutionary biology, and not just from the fossil record, but for example by comparing observed physical traits with engineered solutions to the same problems.

Well, the problem here as I see it is that evolutionary psychology is a fundamentally different beast from evolutionary biology. Evolutionary biology is actually rather weak when it comes to narratives about single features in single species. There are often multiple hypothesis about how something like mimicry can develop, and validating one theory over another theory requires evidence that is hard to come by due to the rarity of fossil events, and the difficulty in placing singe individual fossils into a lineage. Evolutionary biology is at its strongest when it tells stories over entire families or orders. For example, how all of the diversity of birds sprang from a family of theropod dinosaurs. But even then, you can't name Archaeopteryx as the progenitor.

Just about everyone and their cousin admits that there are aspects of human cognition that are best explained as evolved organic structures. Language learning, depth perception, and the "gambler's fallacy" are three phenomena that draw lots of attention because they appear to involve some sort of pre-primed organic structure. We can look at people with genetic disorders or brain injuries to say that, yes, these forms of cognition are situated in brain structures. And obviously those structures must have evolved sometime during homnid evolution.

What most of evolutionary psychology does is situate the origin of those structures in the paleolithic, that period in history when humans became humans. They then go on to make a mythical model of how humans must have behaved in the paleolithic. Then they go on to make profound statements about the mate selection behavior of men in New York City in the 21st century based on that mythical model.

This is where it becomes circular? What did the paleolithic look like? Like modern hunter-gatherer groups (ignoring the fact that modern humans have radically diverse mating strategies mostly dependent on local economics). Why do modern humans do what they do? Because the paleolithic humans must have done it the same way!
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:03 AM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Why would anyone take seriously anything that comes out of the American Psychological Association? They are not a scientific or medical organization. They are merely a commercial trade organization like that for optometrists that advocates for the business interests and profit of their members.

Take for example this story about how the APA buckled under to the military establishment by refusing to bar their members from participating in torture. This is in sharp contrast to the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association's position denouncing torture.

The military is largely responsible for the establishment of psychology as a technical trade, using it as a tool for screening aptitudes, for developing interrogation and torture techniques and for psychological warfare. The APA is reluctant to bite the hand that has lent credibility and feeds so many of their members.
posted by JackFlash at 9:04 AM on August 22, 2007


Jonp72, can you explain how novel writing fits into a housedrudgery schedule better than symphony writing, poetry writing or picture painting?

Certainly. "Housekeeping" for a 19th-century upper class woman like Jane Austen wasn't about getting down on your hands and knees and scrubbing the floors, but about supervising the servants who did those chores, as well as overseeing the household finances. These women had to have basic literacy just to do the finances, so it would be comparatively easier to fit in writing a novel, because some 19th century women already had to do a lot of writing just to keep the household running. Painting and music composition would not be as applicable to running a household. I don't know about the output of men vs. women with respect to poetry in the 18th or 19th centuries, but it's possible this theory could explain why more women wrote poetry, but I don't know if that's empirically true or not.

Isn't your cultural pressures explanation for all the women novelists (everybody thought novel writing was bitchwork) the more logical of your two explanations?

Certainly, I'm willing to admit that it's the more logical of the two explanations. Personally, I think that explanation is partially a testament to how the nature of risk-taking changes culturally in different eras, because culture changes how different things are valued in different eras. If the rewards of novel writing are low, fewer men will get accolades for the "risk" of writing one, but if novel writing suddenly becomes something more than "bitchwork," suddenly men will see value in taking risks to write the Great American Novel.
posted by jonp72 at 9:10 AM on August 22, 2007


men are bees, women are flowers.

bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!
posted by bruce at 9:14 AM on August 22, 2007


Don Pepino: Jonp72, can you explain how novel writing fits into a housedrudgery schedule better than symphony writing, poetry writing or picture painting? Isn't your cultural pressures explanation for all the women novelists (everybody thought novel writing was bitchwork) the more logical of your two explanations?

Well, at least in regards to symphonies, most of the "great composers" made a living through music lessons and patronage. In addition, actually having a symphony or opera performed costs quite a bit of money. So having a fair quantity of social capital and political power was necessary to get your symphony performed.

Painting is a bit similar. There is no lack of women who painted, but female artists had no access to the formal exhibitions that drew the kinds of patronage that were the bread and butter of many artists.

It should be noted that the novel had a hard time gaining respect in literary circles. I remember that A Cultural History of Masturbation spent a good chunk of an early chapter talking about how early anti-masturbation screeds lamented the novel which women "read with one hand." I think that in many cases, women were able to publish novels where they couldn't publish concertos or get comissions for artwork because the novel was not considered to be "art" just "trashy populist entertainment."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:25 AM on August 22, 2007


His two premises seem to be:

1) We have more female ancestors than male ones. Lots of males don't reproduce.


Without footnotes, I can't be sure, but it looks like Baumeister is taking this premise from the book, Adam's Curse: A Future Without Men, by the geneticist Brian Sykes. It provides lots of data about how women are more likely to reproduce than men, and Baumeister's anecdotal material about the genetic success of Genghis Khan also appears to have originated from that book. Anyhow, there's a lot of data from animal behavioralists and sexologists that backs this up. In the animal kingdom, sex is not equally distributed among males, but instead a narrow group of alpha males (or sometimes only one male) gets a disproportionate percent of opportunities to mate. In addition, if you look at sex survey data, you have much higher percentages of men who remain lifelong virgins than you have among women.

2) Even though the means (for several abilities) are very similar, males are less likely to be at the mean than females are. In other words, men have larger standard deviations than women.

From what I could skim of Adam's Curse, this is explained by the greater vulnerability of the Y-chromosome to mutation. Sperm cells divide much more frequently than egg cells. Because sperm cells divide more frequently, sperm cells are much more likely to mutate than egg cells, because the greater number of cell divisions also allows more opportunities for mutation to occur, including mutations that produce both desirable and undesirable genetic traits. Since only men can get the Y-chromosome, this means that more genetic mutations and more genetic variation in general will occur among males. In addition, a lot of the genetic variation in human males can be accounted by sex-linked chromosomal disorders (e.g., hemophilia), which disproportionately afflict males more than females.
posted by jonp72 at 9:47 AM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Huh. I thought this was fascinating.
posted by muckster at 9:56 AM on August 22, 2007


Every time some jerk off writes an article about something he/she doesn't really understand, we get a ton of people in here slamming evolutionary psychology. That's bad science.

I would agree. You can't intellectually defeat the pseudoscientific sexists and racists without engaging some scientific arguments about biology and evolution. Evolutionary psychology and sociobiology have some usefulness when they are properly limited to explaining cultural universals, but are less useful in explaining variation across cultures. The problem is when biological universals are used to explain cultural traits that are not universal. However, in just about every culture in the world, men are more likely to take risks than women. The women of one culture might be less risk-averse than the men of another culture, but within cultures, generally the men are more willing to take risks than women. (For example, there's research that shows women are more religious than men in most world religions, because women are less willing to "risk" their afterlife for a potentially pissed-off godhead who may or may not exist. In addition, experimental data on men and women placed into Prisoner's Dilemma-type situations has generally found more risk-taking behavior among men.) I think Baumeister has a plausible theory that explains some largely universal gender differences in risk-taking, even though the definition of "risk" and "reward" is notoriously culturally pliable from society to society, epoch to epoch.

By the way, few people in this thread have mentioned that Baumeister said in his speech that men and women have equal ability; instead, he argued that women and men have different motivations and incentives for doing what they do, which does go a long way to explaining gender differences. On the other hand, I think Baumeister's main flaw is that he equates patriarchy with a straw-man definition of male conspiracy (i.e., if it isn't a male conspiracy, it isn't patriarchy), which makes him too quick to dismiss institutional barriers set up against women as a causal factor in gender differences.
posted by jonp72 at 10:21 AM on August 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


When evolutionary psychology and gender studies meet, sparks usually fly. While Baumeister may have been a trifle provocative, those fuming against evolutionary psychology should however consider the following facts:

In many animal species, and certainly in all mammals, the burden of reproduction is unevenly shared: if impregnated, females run more risks and require more resources than males. Because of this, natural selection causes, via rather complicated genetic mechanisms, clear physical and behavioural differences between genders (think aggressive male competition and wooing of females, peacock feathers, etc.) Males have a better chance of transmitting their genes if they impregnate as many females as possible, whereas females stand better chances if they are impregnated by the right male, as well as if they persuade somebody (not necessarily the actual father) to help nurture the offspring.

This uneven distribution of the reproductive burden is especially acute in the human species. Homo sapiens combines an extra-long pregnancy, a messy (and, until the arrival of modern medicine, often lethal) birth and a ridiculously long infancy into a particularly female-unfriendly package.

However, curiously enough, the physical differences between human males and females are comparatively subdued. Men don't have antlers or multi-coloured feathers. Indeed, in our species, paradoxically enough, the gender which makes a noticeable physical display of reproductive fitness is the female, with wide hips and (from the point of view of comparative anatomy) rather weirdly located breasts.

I'd say that the conclusion that the really big differences must then behavioural is pretty much obvious. Humans have the most elaborate mating displays known. We call them culture...
posted by Skeptic at 10:53 AM on August 22, 2007 [3 favorites]


Ridiculous. It's all cultural. If women had always, forever, been treated as equal to men, the outcomes would be very different. That has not been the case, nor is it now. It's always been insane to me that people make such cases over how men and women are different - men and women are FAR more similar than they are different.
posted by agregoli at 11:01 AM on August 22, 2007 [3 favorites]


Humans have the most elaborate mating displays known. We call them culture...

A psychologist I know attributes almost all intellectual activity, art, science, math, academia, to sexual display. We have antlers, we just call them the Mona Lisa and Boltzmann's formulation of Statistical Mechanics.
posted by bonehead at 11:03 AM on August 22, 2007 [4 favorites]


I don't think it is just a human thing, I think it is an animal thing. A male animal can more easily mate with many females than a female animal can mate with many males. This will be truest in the circumstances in which the period of pregnancy is longest relative to the total period of fertility for the female. Now behavior is determined by both the nervous system and the endocrine system. And the sexual organs in both males and females are part of the endocrine system. The sexual organs themselves inform behavior.

Now because of the very nature of the biological process it seems logical that there will be many more males that will go without mates than females. These things don't tell us anything about what males are like relative to females, but it does point to an important difference in the game that males and females are playing and a mechanism through which these differences can affect behavior.

The question then is this; if you are a male how do you be one of the 20% to pass on your genes? Is there something about the all or nothing stakes of the male game relative to the female game that will push male behavior in a certain direction? I think there is. If every man "played it safe" the men who possesed some quality which was not tied to behavior would be the ones who passed on their genes. I don't think this is an equilibrium because if you are one of the super-majority of men who will lose this game you have a powerful incentive to do something. Doing nothing would be the worst thing you could do because it would render you irrelevent. So what do you do?

I think the answer is something those lucky ones in the top 20% can't/won't do in the hope that you can take ones place. The can't has to do with finding a way to be exceptional, and the won't has to do with risk aversion and agression. This also seems be a question that is much more important to males than females.

But wait there's more. Even under this dynamic equilibrium where males are competeing for the relatively rare female fertility there is still another thing that explains why men do more 'great' things than women. That's because most men will never have a family to provide for. So the effort that would go to providing for a faimily will have to go someplace else. It could go toward being a great thinker, an explorer, an artist, a poet, a warrior. Maybe if you luck out it will end up getting a women to let you bust your genes all up in her. More likely though you will use the human ability to rationalize to convince you and the scores of other genetic dead ends that your god or book or state or war is what really matters, and that men are the great ones because they write the books and talk to gods and run the states that matter. And these things not fecundity are the way to everlasting life. But it's a joke and Isaac Newton, who considered his dying a virgin his greatest acomplishment, was a punchline.
posted by I Foody at 11:13 AM on August 22, 2007 [2 favorites]



Actually, the racial question you pose was earlier posed by Jared Diamond in the book, Guns, Germs & Steel. Diamond's answer was that the difference in Europeans' and Africans' propensity for exploration had to do with the Europeans exploiting their access to minerals to make weapons to subjugate Africans and other indigenous groups and with the Europeans' higher average levels of resistance to diseases that Africans were not exposed to.


Actually, Diamond's argument did occur to me, but I was of course messing just around with rhetoric. I was thinking more of all the "scientific" studies done in the late 19th and early 20th centuries "demonstrating" things like smaller cranial size in African American populations, and so forth. Science has, like any other human endevour, a history of agenda driven conclusions which, because they carry a powerful cultural authority (Science!) can be and have been misused in all sorts of political and cultural ways.

And I really thought, in my happy ignorance, that the "Why aren't there any great women artists/scientists/polar explorers" question had been settled ages ago. (1st response: What makes you think there haven't been any? And a lack of knowledge of the intellectual history of women's creativity is no demonstration of absolute fact.)

There's a mountain of scholarship addressing some of the exact questions posed in this thread. Please feel free to dig into any one of a number of books dealing with the social, cultural, and physical conditions placed on women's cultural productivity over the ages. You might want to start with a little essay called A Room of One's Own, and perhaps move on to Ellen Moer's Literary Women (1985), which deals extensively with the "novel writing/housework" thing.
posted by jokeefe at 11:23 AM on August 22, 2007


I am not an evolutionary psychologist, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express once.

I think this is an interesting piece, and I agree with bonehead's comment that the preconditions for this theory are verifiable, and should be verified as soon as possible. As a culture, we desperately need to take a more scientific approach to reading scientific news — a case in point being global temperature analyses — rather than letting a brouhaha form around non-peer-reviewed work, then another brouhaha when said work is discredited.

That said, to my layman's eye and mind, this seems reasonable. The key thing is that the talk only mentions genetics (the word, anyway) twice, first in relation to the distribution of innate intelligence, and the second in relation to sickle cell anemia.

Think memetics, not genetics. As dreadful a cute anthropomorphization as I think it is (although if anyone has any rigorous documentation on it I would love to be enlightened) I think people are tilting at windmills by attacking either essentialism (an argument it seemed Dr. Baumeister was careful to avoid making) or the idea that genetics explains everything.

Rather, I think over time we'll realize that the human genome and human culture evolve in parallel, culture much faster, but codependently. Then there's epigenetics: take as one example the putative effect of lead pipes and drinking cups on Roman culture.

As to the scientific value of the psych-* disciplines, they can never be sciences in the same sense as the hard sciences, for the simple fact that there's no ethical way to get a true control group for most studies.

My parting comment is that the brief analysis in the talk of "average" this and that is well taken. I pretty much ignore any mention of averages in media reports on science, because when they say "average" they usually mean "mean" (when the story bears any relation to the paper at all, that is), and as we all know, outliers are everything.
posted by vsync at 11:24 AM on August 22, 2007


A psychologist I know attributes almost all intellectual activity, art, science, math, academia, to sexual display.


This idea isn't new. It's at least as old as Sigmund Freud's book, Civilization and Its Discontents, which argues that the achievements of civilization are due to the suppression of the impulses of the libido. Karen Horney and her theory of womb envy put a feminist spin on this idea by arguing that males are driven to destroy things and create art/science/math etc., because of the envy they feel for women's ability to create new life by getting pregnant and giving birth.
posted by jonp72 at 11:24 AM on August 22, 2007


Even under this dynamic equilibrium where males are competeing for the relatively rare female fertility there is still another thing that explains why men do more 'great' things than women. That's because most men will never have a family to provide for. So the effort that would go to providing for a faimily will have to go someplace else. It could go toward being a great thinker, an explorer, an artist, a poet, a warrior.

Oh for god's sake. This is nonsense.
posted by jokeefe at 11:25 AM on August 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


DU: The basic problem is that "men are better at math" ammounts to just about 3/10ths of standard deviation on standardized tests. Not enough of a difference to justify the levels of discrimination that we see.

It's interesting to see what that 0.3 std. dev. does to the relative frequency at the extremes of the distributions. That difference implies that for a woman to achieve a high level of math performance, she has to be 0.3 sd higher in her distribution than a man does to perform at that level. The higher the performance level, the more relatively rare women would be. For example, the ratio of the normal density at 2 sd above the mean (men) is twice that at 2.3 sd (women). At 4 sd, the ratio is 3.4, and at 6 sd, the ratio is 6.3. So the higher you go above the mean, the more men will predominate. So that 0.3 sd gets pretty important when you talk about the folks who actually invent the maths.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:28 PM on August 22, 2007


Even under this dynamic equilibrium where males are competeing for the relatively rare female fertility there is still another thing that explains why men do more 'great' things than women. That's because most men will never have a family to provide for. So the effort that would go to providing for a faimily will have to go someplace else. It could go toward being a great thinker, an explorer, an artist, a poet, a warrior.

Oh for god's sake. This is nonsense.


It's not totally nonsense. I agree that the blanket statement "most men will never have a family to provide for" is probably less and less true, because we thankfully live in much less Malthusian times than our ancestors. However, there is a trade-off between involvement in childrearing and the free time you have available to pursue "greatness," however "greatness" may be defined. (Think of the recent MeFi post about how Arthur Miller heartlessly abandoned his Down syndrome son.) In fact, I would argue this trade-off exists both for men and for women. There's nothing sexist about saying that women have been prevented from achieving greatness in many different fields because they have been saddled with an unequal share of childrearing responsibilities. I've seen it with many female professors who feel compelled to delay childbearing until they get tenure. These women rightfully realize that academic achievement requires a lot of hard, solitary work that makes raising a child difficult, simply because there are not enough hours available in a day. Sometimes, the husband contributes more to the raising of the child, but his economic fortunes could suffer just as much as the wife's by spending more time in childrearing. In practice, what you are more likely to have is where the costs of childrearing are "outsourced" to a nanny, so that both the husband and wife are free to pursue "greatness" (whatever that is) without having to allocate childrearing time at the expense of each other.
posted by jonp72 at 1:07 PM on August 22, 2007


Gender warriors please go home.

Aw, I don't wanna go home. Can we grab a drink at the tranny bar instead?

I'm a strong/stubborn believer than gender differences are primarily social constructs rather than a result of evolutionary biology, but Baumeister has a decent argument, imo. Good reading. Thanks for the link.

Penis Surplus is a good name for a rock band.
posted by mrgrimm at 1:20 PM on August 22, 2007


Boltzmann's formulation of Statistical Mechanics.

Yeah, that's hot.
posted by Miko at 1:22 PM on August 22, 2007


There's a mountain of scholarship addressing some of the exact questions posed in this thread. Please feel free to dig into any one of a number of books dealing with the social, cultural, and physical conditions placed on women's cultural productivity over the ages. You might want to start with a little essay called A Room of One's Own, and perhaps move on to Ellen Moer's Literary Women (1985), which deals extensively with the "novel writing/housework" thing.

I second the recommendation for A Room of One's Own. I would also like to add How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ. In addition, there's similar work done by the Guerilla Girls to raise the profile of unjustly forgotten female artists like Artemisia Gentilleschi, Judith Leyster, Rosa Bonheur, and Berthe Morisot. On the other hand, it would be interesting as an empirical question to determine if these women writers and artists had fewer children than the norm or more children, compared to other women of their time.
posted by jonp72 at 1:24 PM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Agreed. Beginning a study with the question "Why haven't women done more great things?" neatly sidesteps the question of who decides what "great" is, and who and creates the structures that continue to define "greatness" for millennia, (until it's finally challenged and gradually brought down by Enlightenment thought and the succeeding ongoing movement toward maximizing human potential, which continues apace despite occasional retrogressive hiccups like pop EP).

There is plenty of greatness that has been done by women throughout history. Now that we are more systematically removing artificial strictures on behavior and challenging accepted paradigms of value, expect to see more. Stay tuned for the next few centuries.
posted by Miko at 1:35 PM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Oh for god's sake. This is nonsense.
posted by jokeefe


Why? I of course wasn't talking about today. I wasn't talking about today. I was talking about the distant past when there would be a huge amount of men who would go childless for their whole lives. I'm curious maybe you even have a reason why it is nonsense.
posted by I Foody at 1:36 PM on August 22, 2007


Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. Shakespeare himself went, very probably - his mother was an heiress - to the grammar school, where he may have learnt Latin - Ovid, Virgil and Horace - and the elements of grammar and logic. He was, it is well known, a wild boy who poached rabbits, perhaps shot a deer, and had, rather sooner than he should have done, married a woman in the neighbourhood, who bore him a child rather quicker than was right.

That escapade sent him to seek his fortune in London. He had, it seemed, a taste for the theatre; he began by holding horses at the stage door. Very soon he got work in the theatre, became a successful actor, and lived at the hub of the universe, meeting everybody, practising his art on the boards, exercising his wits in the streets, and even getting access to the palace of the queen.

Meanwhile, his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother's perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. They would have spoken sharply but kindly, for they were substantial people who knew the conditions of life for a woman and loved their daughter - indeed, more likely than not she was the apple of her father's eye.

Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly, but was careful to hide them or set fire to them. Soon, however, before she was out of her teens, she was to be betrothed to the son of a neighbouring woolstapler. She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father. Then he ceased to scold her. He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this matter of her marriage. He would give her a chain of beads or a fine petticoat, he said; and there were tears in his eyes. How could she disobey him? How could she break his heart?

The force of her own gift alone drove her to it. She made up a small parcel of her belongings, let herself down by a rope one summer's night and took the road to London. She was not 17. The birds that sang in the hedge were not more musical than she was. She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother's, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face. The manager - a fat, looselipped man - guffawed. He bellowed something about poodles dancing and women acting - no woman, he said, could possibly be an actress. He hinted - you can imagine what. She could get no training in her craft. Could she even seek her dinner in a tavern or roam the streets at midnight?

Yet her genius was for fiction and lusted to feed abundantly upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways. At last - for she was very young, oddly like Shakespeare the poet in her face, with the same grey eyes and rounded brows - at last Nick Greene the actor-manager took pity on her; she found herself with child by that gentleman and so - who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body? - killed herself one winter's night and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.
When stories like these are common as dirt in every woman's life and throughout history, what need is there to go sifting sand in search of the elusive diamond of biological cause?
posted by Miko at 1:47 PM on August 22, 2007 [6 favorites]


if impregnated, females run more risks and require more resources than males. Because of this, natural selection causes, via rather complicated genetic mechanisms, clear physical and behavioural differences between genders

Natural selection doesn't cause things. You're making the same mistake that the intelligent design people make: you assume that since we can develop a story about a set of events, there must have been an author for them beforehand. Then, instead of trying to read the story for yourself, you try to circumvent the process of discovery and research and just ask the author. Only they call the author God, and you've got this other slightly less anthropomorphic figure, 'natural selection.' In either case, without data it's just theology.

Until someone has developed a hereditary link between the behaviors Baumeister is discussing, like risk-taking, and successful reproduction, it's all just fairy-tales for grown-ups. We're still trying to work out the exact causes of gender differences in contemporary human beings. We know a little about the relationship between the major sex hormones and brain development, but we haven't figured out all the mechanisms that account for differences between individual baby boys, let alone his chances of getting laid, not to mention that we can't say much about how a boy today measures up against a boy 10,000 years ago, or how the same factors might effect the ancient boy's chances of getting laid. We're a very, very, very long way from working out the evolutionary record.

I'll say it again: good science looks for the causes and explains them. Pseudoscience assumes it knows the causes and competes to tell the best tall tales about them.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:02 PM on August 22, 2007


Bravo, Miko.
posted by agregoli at 2:06 PM on August 22, 2007


Why was it so rare for a hundred women to get together and build a ship and sail off to explore unknown regions, whereas men have fairly regularly done such things? But taking chances like that would be stupid, from the perspective of a biological organism seeking to reproduce.

What if you get the opportunity to meet and impregnate hot, exotic women? Isn't it then worth all the risk from both a biological and psychological perspective? I mean we're talking hot, exotic women here!
posted by Pollomacho at 2:08 PM on August 22, 2007


Mental Wimp: Now that I think about it, I think that the actual difference was smaller. 9 points on the SAT math translates into about .10 SD rather than .30. What this translated into was about half as many women as men received the highest score possible. In addition, there were more women than men in the top quartile due to more women than men applying for college. So if we take top quartile as the bar for science and technical positions, we find that the arguments for discrimination based on "natural talent" is uncompelling. Especially when you consider that SES indicators have an order of magnitude greater impact on SAT math scores.

The notion that women just can't do math or handle technology has been dismissed a number of times in the 20th century when women were preferred for technical positions due to lower cost and higher reliability. Examples include "calculators" for the U.S. military during WWII, the feminization of typewriters and telephone operators in the early 20th century, medicine in the post-WWII Soviet Union and I believe the Yale astronomical catalog. Concerns about women's "aptitude" was less important than the fact that they could be paid less, and made fewer demands on management.

vsync: Think memetics, not genetics.

Oh, let's not. As someone who does some work in this field, both memetics and evolutionary psychology are beloved by internet laymen but have little impact on some of the real question that drive research in psychology. Evolutionary psychology provides no obvious insights into how we can get people to transfer their understandings of computer interfaces from MS Office 2003 to Office 2007, to take one example of a practical question in the field.

In regards to African exploration, the obvious first question is "which Africa"? Africa can be subdivided into at least four very different areas that have some pretty serious obstacles to transportation and communication. It's also worth pointing out that the Columbus expedition occurred in the same year that the last bit of Spain was reconquered by the Christians. In addition to colonization, it also must be considered that chunks of Africa had their own direct trade routes into Asia.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:09 PM on August 22, 2007


Because sperm cells divide more frequently, sperm cells are much more likely to mutate than egg cells, because the greater number of cell divisions also allows more opportunities for mutation to occur, including mutations that produce both desirable and undesirable genetic traits. Since only men can get the Y-chromosome, this means that more genetic mutations and more genetic variation in general will occur among males.

First, any extra mutations that occur because of extra replication in sperm will occur equally on autosomes (non-sex chromosomes) as on the Y chromosome. And the Y chromosome is tiny—less than one half of one percent of identified human genes are on the Y chromosome. So while most mutations come from men, almost all of the genes being mutated will affect both sons and daughters equally.

The interesting thing about the Y chromosome is that most of it does not recombine in the same way that pairs of autosomes do. This means that deleterious mutations accumulate as they cannot be removed via recombination. As every breeding pair has 1/4 the number of Y chromosomes as the number of a particular breeding pair, the effective population size of the Y chromosome is substantially smaller. This is the explanation for the observation that the human Y chromosome has less variation than any of the other chromosomes.
posted by grouse at 2:15 PM on August 22, 2007


I'll say it again: good science looks for the causes and explains them. Pseudoscience assumes it knows the causes and competes to tell the best tall tales about them.

Well, OK... but the difference between these two things is not always as clear as you seem to think it is. In fact, I'd say that what you are describing is more the myth of science than science-as-practiced.

You said earlier that evolutionary advantage is not a causal mechanism. What do you mean exactly? Are you saying that cost function extremization cannot play a causal role in systems? Variational principles (such as "the system moves in such a way that the action integral is extremized") at one point were considered "teleological", and now are completely understood to be in 1-1 correspondance with equivalent local evolution laws. See much of mathematical physics and optimal control theory.

So, if one were to cast "evolutionary advantage" in terms of cost functions, you could have a very respectable model. This doesn't mean it's a correct model, but it's not prima facie "teleological", at least not in the ad hominem sense that I read you as intending.

I found this lecture stimulating and cringe-inducing both. Let's just say the guy's no Jerrod Diamond. But he lays out very specific hypotheses that could in principle be empirically validated* (regarding the male/female variability and reproductive success differences) that could be used to develop models that would be in fact testable with simulations examining the fitness of competing populations of abstract "agents" (no, I don't think this would be trivial). Again, that does not mean they are correct models--we need empiricism for that. But to say that what is being discussed is "pseudoscience" seems quite unjustified.
_______
* I haven't heard anyone actually address these concrete claims of his: are they currently supported by available data as he claims? Does anyone know enough about the field to shed some light?
posted by mondo dentro at 2:48 PM on August 22, 2007


deanc: ...young Albanian men who go abroad to make a living and then return home to find a bride. Their means of attracting a wife is to return home with ostentatious displays of the wealth they acquired while working abroad.

Finally, an explanation for the sudden explosion of superschmucky young Albanian guys at my local Caribou in the afternoon! Man. No sane female I know will go there after about 2:30 unless they feel like getting hit on or stared at by about 30 hairy-chested, gold-chain-wearing Albanians drinking espresso.

I wish I was making this up.

Poor Albanian women. Don't fall for it! Those gold chains probably aren't even real!
posted by bitter-girl.com at 2:50 PM on August 22, 2007


For the few who've entirely dismissed evolutionary psychology:

cultural factors fail in being able to explain the initial motivation or desire behind a reaction to the environment. For instance, in looking at the prevalence for risk-taking as a few did. One could say that social pressures motivated men to be bigger risk takers. But then what motivated motivated the conditions under which the social pressures were put in place? The prior culture? Then what motivated that? Even if you stubbornly continue on with this reasoning you eventually arrive at a point of mutation origin where you're left with 2 possibilities:

a: God did it
b: product of evolution

Basically evolutionary psychology should be providing the motivating factor. I have yet to see any writings, though I don't doubt there are a few disingenuous ones, from evolutionary psychologists dismissing cultural factors entirely the way the 'truth is a social construct' crowd dismisses evolutionary ones. As a nascent field, a lot of the facts maybe even all of them may be wrong, but if one believes in evolution, then it had to play in as a factor.

Now for what always gets me in trouble...I see a few people saying women had as many great achievements as men just we bias our term great to favor men. So, if women did just as well then was there no educational/opportunity discrimination (at least for those creating great things)? Or are women just that much better than men that despite the discrimination they created just as many great works?
posted by kigpig at 2:55 PM on August 22, 2007


Believe it or not, every single one of my male ancestors procreated!
Which makes me the offspring of a pretty remarkable lineage of men, no?
posted by sour cream at 3:01 PM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


On the other hand, it would be interesting as an empirical question to determine if these women writers and artists had fewer children than the norm or more children, compared to other women of their time.

To refer to my previous comment, there is a mountain of scholarship done within the last thirty years that deals with these questions. The answer to your speculation is easily located. (Hint: the women who are generally cited as being in the canon-- the Brontes, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Jane Austen, etc.-- were childless or, as Joanna Russ wrote, effectively so. )
posted by jokeefe at 3:02 PM on August 22, 2007


The tripod is inherently unstable, yet we keep on using them as milking stools.
posted by rob511 at 3:03 PM on August 22, 2007


The notion that women just can't do math or handle technology has been dismissed a number of times in the 20th century when women were preferred for technical positions due to lower cost and higher reliability.

But surely you are not claiming that Baumeister says this, are you? He in fact says the opposite, at least according to my reading.

And those who are getting into cultural determinism (like, say, Miko, with whose larger points I certainly can agree) seem confused as well. Sure, it's cultural. But for sentient, social creatures, culture itself is biological, is it not? So the question remains, why is it adaptive to "oppress" women (and men) in these particular types of social organizations? Indeed, is it adaptive? Or will more, cooperative social structures scale better or otherwise out-compete the Ghengis Khan model? I hope so--but hope don't make it so!

This sort of thing is not that much different, as far as I can see, with questions about the evolution of cooperative social behavior, behavior that we tend to privilege as "moral"--but is it "just" moral? Are we just nice because we ... think it's nice to be nice? Or are we collectively (and unconsciously) maximizing some adaptive advantage? As far as I know, this is still a very open question that is considered to be in the domain of "good science".
posted by mondo dentro at 3:05 PM on August 22, 2007


I was talking about the distant past when there would be a huge amount of men who would go childless for their whole lives.

And this is well documented where?
posted by jokeefe at 3:05 PM on August 22, 2007


Natural selection doesn't cause things.

Huh? Natural selection certainly isn't a "purposeful actor" in the same style as the "intelligent designer" of the cryptocreationists, but it very certainly is a cause (in fact, the cause) of evolution.

A psychologist I know attributes almost all intellectual activity, art, science, math, academia, to sexual display.


Or to quote how a successful (male) storyteller's once explained to me his career choice: "To get laid, of course!"
posted by Skeptic at 3:07 PM on August 22, 2007


But for sentient, social creatures, culture itself is biological, is it not?

WTF? Jesus.

I'm having a crappy day, and I think I'm out of reasoned argument. And with that, I wave in this thread's general direction.
posted by jokeefe at 3:09 PM on August 22, 2007


I'm having a crappy day, and I think I'm out of reasoned argument.

Apparently before even starting.
posted by mondo dentro at 3:10 PM on August 22, 2007


afu: Close down all the economics departments, he has solved every problem in political economy! Differences in national wealth all boil down to the fact that men like to go out and make money, while women like to sit around at home and bake cakes for the neighbors.

Joking aside, what makes your simplistic explanations any better than his? So the conspiracy theory of "Patriarchy" is an adequate explanation for every gender disparity? Continuing with this sort of reasoning, I suppose a "Jewish Conspiracy" is also a sufficient explanation for why Jewish-American households earn higher average income than the average American household? Wishful thinking.

If anything, this should at least illuminate the kind of sloppy, politicized discourse that passes for soft science. You think his ideas are silly and overreaching? Fine, but realize that this is what the rest of the non-liberal-arts-major world has been thinking about your favorite sociologists for years.
posted by kid ichorous at 3:17 PM on August 22, 2007


kigpig, I believe that all life today is the product of evolution. But there are mechanisms of evolution other than natural selection. The hyperadaptionist underpinnings of evolutionary psychology overlooks this.
posted by grouse at 3:18 PM on August 22, 2007


it very certainly is a cause (in fact, the cause) of evolution.

Err, no, mutation and mate selection are the causes of evolution. Natural selection is a way of talking about the process by which some mutations are inherited as if it were an action.

Variational principles (such as "the system moves in such a way that the action integral is extremized") at one point were considered "teleological", and now are completely understood to be in 1-1 correspondance with equivalent local evolution laws.

Yes, of course, but you have to earn the right to use systemic reasoning in any particular situation through rigorous empiricism. You can't just assert it, draw an analogy to another set of data, and call it a day. We can mate fruit flies and watch evolution in action. However, risk-taking isn't a static factor: we can't even measure it, let alone model it intergenerationally. Which means that the claim that male risk-taking has been 'selected for' is just as unfalsifiable as the opposite one, that it has been weeded out, and that we are decidedly less risky beasts than our ancestors.

That work would require very simple data-gathering: isolating the biological component of risk-taking and correlating it with heredity and with present reproductive success. But rather than do the work, Baumeister just makes the claim, and expects the rest of the scientific community to supply the data or tell him why he's wrong.
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:34 PM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


culture itself is biological

I'm afraid that's an extreme stretch, aside from being too reductive a statement to be useful in any way. Reason that out to the logical conclusions and you'll see how unhelpful it is.
posted by Miko at 3:34 PM on August 22, 2007


So the conspiracy theory of "Patriarchy" is an adequate explanation for every gender disparity?

Patriarchy isn't a conspiracy theory, it's been reality for most of western history. It still is to a great extent. Various gender gaps have been narrowing for decades and still are. This isn't because the genetics of women have changed and they are now suddenly more capable.
posted by grouse at 3:34 PM on August 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


The notion that women just can't do math or handle technology has been dismissed a number of times in the 20th century when women were preferred for technical positions due to lower cost and higher reliability.

To be clear, I was just responding to your dismissal of a 0.3 sd difference between two groups as "small." My own experience as a matherast is that there are nearly as many women as men who do math well, and that the spectrum of talent among those who pursue math is about as large in both groups. Oh, and to take this discussion down a notch, some of 'em are really hot.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:36 PM on August 22, 2007


kigpig: Well again, I think you are oversimplifying evolutionary psychology by quite a bit. Lets take for example language acquisition. Babies have almost miraculous predispositions for learning whatever language they are exposed to. We know that infants in bilingual environments show an increase in attention when parents or television switch languages. We know that infants can express and fixate on the entire range of human phonemes, but loose the ability to express and use phonemes not used in their primary language. Just about everyone who studies language agrees that these abilities evolved in concert with anatomical changes in brain, mouth, and throat structure. They were able to say this long before evolutionary psychology came on the scene.

The problem is how and why. It is rather simple to say that language development evolved. It's hard to say how and why language development evolved because it involves a lot of soft tissue that rarely fossilizes well. While we can say with a high degree of certainty that human language developed before the neolithic revolution when tools related to anatomically modern humans reveal rapid advances in sophistication, pan-continental trade routes, and baby steps towards agriculture, there is legitimate debate as to the linguistic sophistication of erectus for example.

But none of that is Evolutionary Psychology as promoted by Evolutionary Psychologists. Instead, what is promoted as Evolutionary Psychology is that large number of behaviors demonstrated by the modern resident of New York, can be explained in terms of some mythical original evolutionary environment dating back to the neolithic or the paleolithic. The problem that this idealized vision of the original behavioral environment seems to be built from little more than cobwebs, politics, and an almost complete lack of information as to what human societies were really like is dismissed by Evolutionary Psychologists. They, in their own words, are "scientists." Those of us who deal with the messy realties of hard data about human psychology are lacking in vision.

And of course there is yet another option that goes with "god did it" and "evolutionary psychology." And that is the observation that much of human cultural diversity can be explained in terms of the need to make the maximal use of differing sets of scarce resources. This tends to explain why agriculture seems to thrive along flood plains, and nomadic pastoral economies in semi-arid plains and alpine slopes. The economy of how you eat, will also influence how you define kinship and engage in mate selection.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:40 PM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


cultural factors fail in being able to explain the initial motivation or desire behind a reaction to the environment.

So you're willing to accept that every single preference you have - for Coke over Pepsi, say, or red over green, or action movies over thrillers - was evolutionary motivated at some ancient point, meaning there was no other way you could have turned out? And what do you say about people whose preferences or skills are different from yours? Are they mutants? Or are we really all the same and don't know it?

And as to your other question about whether successful women of the past were just better: I'd say that women who achieved in the past had to be unusually powerful and exceptional to become as well known as men who had more mediocre abilities but benefited from the social advantages of maleness.

In the present day, I went to a college which had been a single-sex female school until 1970. The college then adopted a goal of having a 50/50 male/female student body, which remains in effect today. Fair playing field, right?

Except that when I went in the early 90s, about 70% of the applicants were women, while 30% were men. What effect would you predict that to have on the relative level of qualification of the male students vs. female ones?

My school priveleged male students in the admissions process. The female students went through a much more competitive evaluation. Excellent female candidates were turned down in favor of middle-of-the-road male candidates. It appeared that there was a level playing field, when really, a female had to have a stronger application to be admitted than a male did.

I imagine that to somewhat resemble the workings of prior social worlds.
posted by Miko at 3:44 PM on August 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


The problem with this argument is that Baumeister points to recent DNA evidence that suggests that, over the span of human history as a whole, 80% of women have passed on their DNA, but only 40% of men have done so. In other words, women have historically had a two-to-one advantage in passing on their individual DNA. Because the stakes have been so much higher for men in the past, men in earlier epochs were more willing to take extraordinary risks in order to attain resources that they could trade for getting a woman to mate with them. Bearing in mind, you are correct to some extent. It's all about trade-offs. If risks get too high, and men don't exercise some judgment about which risks they will take, then nobody will profit when all the men die off. However, Baumeister does suggest that, all other things being equal, men will have more incentives to take risks than women.

The big assumption is that woman are waiting to fuck the adventurers when they return from the adventures. It's some sort of high school football player gets all the action while the ordinary guys go without story. Except where I went to school the football players were always playing football, practicing and working out. Sure they got some girls and sometimes the hottest ones but most of the couples in school were the other people who actually had time to spend together.

I think the men who are contributing the 40% DNA are not necessarily the risk takers. As recent primatology has shown the peripheral males get a lot of action while the silver back is busy being alpha.

I also wonder if male mortality is the larger explanation for the numbers rather than risk takers resources procuring multiple mates.
posted by srboisvert at 3:46 PM on August 22, 2007


Added to what grouse said, to do the science, we'd have to look atthe behavior of women and men in isolation from the factors caused by millennia of patriarchy to know much about inherent gender difference, and no one has yet figured out how to do that.
posted by Miko at 3:46 PM on August 22, 2007


culture itself is biological

I'm afraid that's an extreme stretch, aside from being too reductive a statement to be useful in any way.

I don't see it as extreme, but more as foundational. If one is a (philosophically) materialist, one has to believe this. Otherwise, "culture" just becomes become some catch-all explanation little different than referring to God as a "cause".

But you're right in a sense about the usefulness of if: it really is more of a philosophical stance that informs praxis--it doesn't much help tell you what to do.

Reason that out to the logical conclusions and you'll see how unhelpful it is.

Lost me there. Logical conclusions of believing that minds and cultures are embodied? And helpful how? Scientifically? Socially? Morally? Politically?
posted by mondo dentro at 3:46 PM on August 22, 2007


um, and since poor people reproduce more than rich ones, males seeking to reproduce: please send me all your money.

also, if procreation is the goal, the best chance for a male to procreate is to limit the number of sexual partners a woman has, and maximize the number he has. that clearly fits into the "men against women" paradigm. sorry, but sexism is going to be part of the debate. no matter how creative these wieners try to be... you just cant ignore that a man has to interact with a woman to have sex with her.
posted by mano at 3:47 PM on August 22, 2007


In addition to srboisvert's point, the alpha females don't always put out, either.

the men who are contributing the 40% DNA are not necessarily the risk takers.

Yeah - as a student of maritime history, I have plenty of documentary evidence that the tavernkeeper or cobbler down the street looks pretty darn good when Adventurer Boyfriend is at sea for six months.
posted by Miko at 3:48 PM on August 22, 2007


Am I too late to the conversation to blame the Cold War on game theorists?
posted by 0xFCAF at 3:52 PM on August 22, 2007


Logical conclusions of believing that minds and cultures are embodied?

There's plenty of empirical evidence that cultures differ vastly, but that individual humans can adapt to cultures different from their own, therefore cultural behavior cannot be predetermined or strictly limited by biology. Minds might be body and they might make culture possible, but the idea that humans are wired to create culture and the idea that they are wired for a specific narrow range off behaviors classed under the heading 'culture' are pretty far apart from one another.

By 'helpful' I mean helpful in proving your point that all behavior must be biologically determined. That is going to be a tough argument to make because it is enormously reductive. There is a difference between noting that humans are programmed with the possibility for unlimited behaviors and assuming that all behavior is therefore programmed.
posted by Miko at 3:57 PM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Even if you stubbornly continue on with this reasoning you eventually arrive at a point of mutation origin where you're left with 2 possibilities:

a: God did it
b: product of evolution


Actually there are two more options. C) It was caused by something we don't know about, or D) It happened for no reason beyond random chance.
posted by delmoi at 3:58 PM on August 22, 2007


...therefore cultural behavior cannot be predetermined or strictly limited by biology.

Right on. I would definitely never say that. Roughly speaking, it's like language: universality and diversity, necessity and contingency, together.

By 'helpful' I mean helpful in proving your point that all behavior must be biologically determined.

Yuck. That certainly is not my point!

But I do not believe there is anything "non material" going on, either.

One of the biggest challenges in modeling living systems is precisely this need to have radical contingency coupled with deep necessity. To say that we don't understand very well how to do it is an understatement.

And I understand that the original lecture doesn't even come close to grappling with these issues. But I did find it to be food for thought (if only snack food).
posted by mondo dentro at 4:14 PM on August 22, 2007


If you go along with the crowd and play it safe, the odds are you won’t have children. Most men who ever lived did not have descendants who are alive today. Their lines were dead ends. Hence it was necessary to take chances, try new things, be creative, explore other possibilities

this is his problem. evolutionarily speaking, being "creative", "taking chances", "exploring other possibilities" is not how you procreate. physically beating out your competition is. mozart and einstein will not procreate before mike tyson does. and this probably explains why men are physically stronger than women. that much is undeniable, and evolutionary, and has exactly ZERO to do with most of our theses on what the "fair" organization of society looks like. i think he has a way to go to explain why "risk-taking" can be generalized the way he has and is an evolutionary advantage.
posted by mano at 4:18 PM on August 22, 2007


But I do not believe there is anything "non material" going on, either.

Gosh, I don't either, I'm not in the realm of spirit. I just think that the possibility of behavior is not a mandate for it. It's possible for all humans to murder, and yet most never do it That's what I mean. So I think we agree.

mozart and einstein will not procreate before mike tyson does.

I don't think that's necessarily true in complex human society. I'd do Mozart and Einstein before Mike Tyson. And regardless, the problem is not who reproduces first, but who does and who doesn't. As it happens, both Mozart and Einstein did have children, so whatever conditions needing to be in place for them to mate were, in fact, in place.

There are a lot of things that might make a partner an attractive prospect for mating, and they even vary considerably with different times, regions, classes, and cultures.
posted by Miko at 4:31 PM on August 22, 2007


mondo dentro: Well yeah. Radical behaviorism for example can be called an "evolutionary psychology." Radical behaviorism argues that animal brains have evolved to repeat behaviors that provide pleasure, and avoid behaviors that cause pain. This has the obvious adaptive advantage in that it is unreasonable to expect human being or a pigeon to know everything about its local environment from the start. Learning by association provides a nice advantage, and there is evidence that it explains some but not all forms of learning.

Of course a critical problem with radical behaviorism is that it doesn't explain everything. Which is fine, cognitive and constructivist psychologists come along and say that our minds don't learn by a simple association but though complex mechanisms that are shaped by limits on short-term memory, attention, and a need for interpreting things in context. Again, a cognitive psychologist can say that something like "working memory" and "long-term" memory evolved as specific brain structures without telling just so stories.

So in fact, just about all of psychology going back almost a century to Watson and James can be called "evolutionary psychology." Because it all proposes that under all of our behavior is some evolved mechanism which enables us to learn and adapt to new situations.

Given the way in which Pinker has chosen to make his straw men out of cognitive, behavioral, and constructivist psychology, it seems clear that isn't what he means when he says "Evolutionary Psychology."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:41 PM on August 22, 2007


And of course there is yet another option that goes with "god did it" and "evolutionary psychology." And that is the observation that much of human cultural diversity can be explained in terms of the need to make the maximal use of differing sets of scarce resources. This tends to explain why agriculture seems to thrive along flood plains, and nomadic pastoral economies in semi-arid plains and alpine slopes. The economy of how you eat, will also influence how you define kinship and engage in mate selection.

Something had to determine what maximal use or necessity was and drive the humans to recognize this. Which was what I was getting at for tracing it back. So in the end that these two types of cultures evolved the way they did was determined by our biology no?

So you're willing to accept that every single preference you have - for Coke over Pepsi, say, or red over green, or action movies over thrillers - was evolutionary motivated at some ancient point, meaning there was no other way you could have turned out? And what do you say about people whose preferences or skills are different from yours? Are they mutants? Or are we really all the same and don't know it?

Perhaps I mistyped but I thought I said that it was definitive that at least some of our preferences must have biologically motivated though it is fairly unclear when. For instance, I could favor Coke or Pepsi purely due to taste bud adaptation. Then again it could be marketing. If it was marketing then what caused the favorable reaction to the advertisements...ad infinitum? If it was due to product exposure then I really don't know if I favor one over the other.

This isn't necessarily an effective way of examining our preferences, however the point was directed only at those who dismiss evolutionary psychology entirely to demonstrate that at least 'something' in our behavior must be due to it.

Except that when I went in the early 90s, about 70% of the applicants were women, while 30% were men. What effect would you predict that to have on the relative level of qualification of the male students vs. female ones?

I must say, I didn't expect that response. Though I'm selectively quoting, it does sound like you're implying women are 'better'. It runs against what I've heard from others making the argument, but it is consistent with the original remark.

Actually there are two more options. C) It was caused by something we don't know about, or D) It happened for no reason beyond random chance.

option C can be applied to any theory. I don't follow D since natural selection would follow any random event I can think of in this context.

I haven't dug back to find the comments on it yet, but I think it incorrect to say that evolutionary psychologists create some vague scene of the neolithic or paleolithic periods. What they base it on is how do animals alive now behave, mostly our closest primate ancestors. The major assumption is that before we evolved off them, they behaved relatively similarly which I understand there's contention over how we've altered their environments in studying them. But it's not nearly as bad as simply doctoring up a vision of past human societies, IMO.
posted by kigpig at 5:17 PM on August 22, 2007


KirkJobSluder - the radical behaviorists that you speak of - I don't think- exist any longer. Simple associations, yes, but embedded in theories that attempt to take account of context and make some passing reference to concepts like attention. And, these are the guys (they are usually guys) who are attempting to wed their theories to evolutionary principles in precisely the way they shouldn't (and don't really need to except that it is trendy). For behaviorists, who are still trying to recover from Chomsky, wedding themselves with evolutionary theory in an obvious way gives them a feeling of legitimacy, or at least that is how it seems to me.
posted by bluesky43 at 5:24 PM on August 22, 2007


it does sound like you're implying women are 'better'.

Heh. No. You're misinterpreting that. In my college, the women were more qualified, as a group, than the men. But I wasn't making a general statement about women being more qualified in all of society.

The comment was a response to this one from kigpig:

are women just that much better than men that despite the discrimination they created just as many great works?

What I was doing was giving a small example of how a group that is privileged by a given societal structure may have mediocre individuals succeed in number greater, by virtue of privilege, than are allowed to succeed in another group that is restrained by that structure. In this model, only those of greatest talent in the oppressed group will overcome the structures of privilege and emerge as being 'equivalent' to even the mediocre members of the dominant group, when in fact, talent may be distributed in exactly the same proportions in each population.
posted by Miko at 6:03 PM on August 22, 2007


Ridiculous. It's all cultural. If women had always, forever, been treated as equal to men, the outcomes would be very different. That has not been the case, nor is it now. It's always been insane to me that people make such cases over how men and women are different - men and women are FAR more similar than they are different.

Just because there are a lot of similarities, doesn't mean there aren't physical differences. Asserting "its all cultural" doesn't make it true, especially since we have in fact proven that there are at least small structural differences in the brain. How that translates to behavior is extremely complex, but saying its 100% cultural is, in fact, ridiculous.

I understand that people get defensive about this stuff because of a human history of oppression and racism/sexism, but that doesn't change what's true (or not true). Being afraid to look at things because of how people might use the knowledge is NOT a good thing for society (although I realize that view is not in fact shared by all scientists -- see the controversy over, say, the atomic bomb research).
posted by wildcrdj at 6:20 PM on August 22, 2007


Miko,

I still don't see how your answer fits the original question. If "only those of greatest talent in the oppressed group will overcome the structures of privilege and emerge as being 'equivalent' to even the mediocre members of the dominant group" then the dominant group was still producing more great things due to their privilege. Unless the 'oppressed' group wasn't prevented from producing great things, but biased against in assessments of them (which is more a stereotype than oppression and certainly does not jibe with the oppression claimed against women historically).

Think of a slave state. Were there nearly as many great things produced by the slaves? No, certainly not. Because they were overworked, denied access to much of anything, beaten, etc...

In regards to gender, 'culture has driven women to do/want A' (presumably disproportionately to men otherwise why mention it?) appended with 'women do/want A as much as men' are mutually exclusive statements. This is of course indifferent to the culture/evolution debate because place evolutionary psychology in the statement and it still holds. But it's very relevant in regards to dealing with modern gender roles.
posted by kigpig at 6:34 PM on August 22, 2007


kigpig: Something had to determine what maximal use or necessity was and drive the humans to recognize this. Which was what I was getting at for tracing it back. So in the end that these two types of cultures evolved the way they did was determined by our biology no?

Well, it depend on what you mean by "biology." Certainly you can argue that the kinds of resource scarcity studied by economists are also studied by ecologists. But the nice thing about ecology is that the patterns it predicts do not depend on some sort of genetic behavioral coding, but from the emergent behavior of the system as a whole. The problems of humans are not fundamentally different from the problems of bacteria. Both humans and bacteria appear to be vulnerable to the same kinds of overpopulation leading to desperate times.

If your entire argument is that all forms of human culture depend on evolved adaptations such as language, social behavior, tool use, planning and cultural transmission. Well, yep I don't see much disagreement there. The basic problem is that Ev. Psych. often claim human universals that are not, and asserts some sort of evolutionary bias towards those cultural universals.

Then again it could be marketing. If it was marketing then what caused the favorable reaction to the advertisements...ad infinitum? If it was due to product exposure then I really don't know if I favor one over the other.

Well, there is a fair body of theory that is out there that seeks to explain why marketing works. So you can talk about conformity, modeling, and attention for example, with the implicit understanding that these are biases of human cognition that have some biological, and therefore an evolutionary basis. (Which as I've pointed out before, all psychology including the social constructivist whipping boys in this discussion agree that human social behavior evolved.)

What does Ev. Psych. add to this discussion?

Duuurrrrrruhhhh?

(Which is where I'm coming from is that as someone who works in the field, I've yet to see how Ev. Psych. provides a better explanation for these things than the body of theory that came before.)

I haven't dug back to find the comments on it yet, but I think it incorrect to say that evolutionary psychologists create some vague scene of the neolithic or paleolithic periods.

Nonsense, without the whole myth of the Original Behavioral Environment (OBE) evolutionary psychology has no reason to justify their separation from cognitive psychologists or neurologists who offer much more evidence year after year as to the evolution of human behavior than the evolutionary psychologists with their weak analogies to Bonoboes and fullscale mythmaking.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:42 PM on August 22, 2007


I think that both ideas:

1) Oppressed groups were/are often prevented the opportunity to create things, and
2) When they did, the things created were/are often not evaluated as being on a par with things created by the dominant group

Both can be true concurrently. They're not mutually exclusive. Privilege and talent have interacted in complex and interesting ways throughout history, ways that illuminate both the uselessness of absolute stereotypes and the fact of unequal privilege.


Think of a slave state. Were there nearly as many great things produced by the slaves? No, certainly not. Because they were overworked, denied access to much of anything, beaten, etc...

Um, yeah, exactly. But were some great things (and people) produced? Yes, by a variety of processes including exceptionalism, talent, tokenism, community support, status-seeking behavior on the part of their owners, and so on, and so forth. Phyllis Wheatley. Frederick Douglass. Do we take their success to mean that (a) slavery wasn't impressive or (b) apart from these two and a few others, all the rest of the enslaved population lacked innate talent for literature or leadership?

You just can't infer much about the innate talents or abilities of a population that is oppressed and denied opportunity from the successes of a few members. Some may always excel, but if conditions are oppressive for the many, then the few successful ones will always be vulnerable to the suggestion that they are simply strangely gifted, as opposed to the rest of their group, who are sadly innately deficient. In fact, innate talent may be present in equal proportion to what you'd find in the dominant group, but the structures don't allow its expression in equal amounts. I'd say that given the very tiny differences between genders, it's more likely that most talents are evenly distributed, but we won't know until we have an egalitarian society or at least some way to control for cultural biases about gender.
posted by Miko at 8:05 PM on August 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


er, oppressive. Not impressive. It wasn't terribly impressive, at least in any positive way.

Anyway, carry on.
posted by Miko at 8:07 PM on August 22, 2007


RAAWWRR!! Mind-bending new idea BAAAD!!! RAWWRRRR GROAARRRR!!!!!! [a la Phil Hartman's Frankenstein]
posted by anatinus at 2:37 AM on August 23, 2007


i didn't know that there was a "motivation" gene.
posted by mano at 12:08 PM on September 4, 2007


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