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and evolutionary psychology
J Michael Bailey is a psychology professor at Northwestern University who has written a highly defamatory book on transsexualism called The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism. It is an extension of his belief in biological determinism, as expressed in the school of thought called evolutionary psychology.
Below is an interesting article on biological determinism, specifically evolutionary
Social Darwinism, take two
Charles Darwin may have been the greatest natural scientist of the modern era.
Unfortunately, the subsequent perversion of Darwin's ideas under the name of
Social Darwinism quickly emerged, constituting the intellectual backdrop for
a regime of racism and sexism in the western world for more than fifty years.
It once seemed the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, with Hitler's claims of innate
biological superiority and his scientists' blood-curdling eugenics experiments,
cast permanent skepticism on claims of biological superiority and evolutionary
divides between human beings. After all, these claims did facilitate genocide.
However, Social Darwinism is back, and it can be found in a university classroom
near you. It lurked about in popular social theory for most of the twentieth
century without enjoying much academic or popular sway. But by the 1970s a new
brand of biologist emerged: the sociobiologist. These writers, notably Harvard's
E. O. Wilson and Oxford's Richard Dawkins, once again took up the line of biological
determinism. However, the sociobiologists mostly steered clear of the social
implications of their work. The true legacy of the Social Darwinists re-emerged
more recently, finding purchase in psychology departments in England and the
United States. The new Social Darwinists are now called "evolutionary psychologists".
In the relatively slow-moving academic world, evolutionary psychologists emerged with lightning speed. Even more surprisingly, their ideas reach audiences far beyond those typically interested in psychology experiments. By 1995, an academic discipline that was discredited to the point of non-existence for much of the twentieth century mustered enough influence to have a news special on ABC called "Boys and Girls are Different". The program announced evidence for the highly contestable claims of evolutionary psychology, such as the existence of innate differences between men and women; claiming that women, for example, are better nurturers but inferior at mathematics. A torrent of books has arrived during the last two decades, treating complicated social issues such as sexuality, family structure, and even rape from an "evolutionary" perspective. How did these seemingly dead issues re-emerge so quickly? What accounts for the seemingly intuitive applicability of Darwinian concepts to contemporary social relations? How do the "scientific" claims of psychologists so easily trump work on the same topics by cultural theorists, sociologists, historians, and others? These are questions that need answering in order to understand the meaning and potential impact of the newly styled brand of Social Darwinism known as evolutionary psychology.
The greatest difference between evolutionary psychology and the outmoded Social
Darwinist outlook lies in the new tool of genetics. Science and technology played
a major part in evolutionary psychology's Darwinian project by uncovering the
mechanics of the gene. The gene and DNA provide evolutionary psychologists with
a seemingly immutable and uncontestable basis for human behavior. The answer
to every question can be answered for the evolutionary psychologist with a quick
reference to the tangled band of sugar molecules found in every cell. The gene
provides a scientific basis for claims about each individual's destiny. It is
a tool that the Social Darwinists lacked, and one that the evolutionary psychologists
have eagerly latched on to. Unlike most scientific concepts and theories, genes
provide a strong basis for human behavior. From this scientific basis, one can
make claims about meaning that once belonged squarely within the realm of philosophy,
religion, literature, or the "softer" social sciences. Genes give
scientists their own metaphysics, an ultimate ground of nature. How were humans
meant to interact? Well, it's all right there in the gene. Evolutionary "fitness"
can now explain every question that needs answering.
Evolutionary psychologists have even recently published books giving a genetic
basis for successful business practices and warfare (is Osama bin Laden genetically
superior to his pursuers?), in addition to the standard topics of sexuality,
race, and gender. And the often vexing questions of social organization are
now well within the purview of science: organizations that work are those that
put people in their proper, genetically determined capacity.
Even the rhetoric of evolutionary psychology has assumed the pseudoreligious
self-importance gained from the "revelation" of the gene. Assured
that the tale of the gene will finally put human uncertainty about their place
in the world on sound, scientific footing, they lash out at unbelievers with
hostility reminiscent of earlier Darwinist battles. Those unwilling to accept
the preeminent importance of the gene are, as prominent evolutionary psychologist
Steven Pinker claimed, guilty of a "tribal devotion to past masters and
ideological commitments" with a "left wing political axe to grind."
With such harsh rhetoric, one might expect Pinker to be defending a theory
that enjoyed widespread acceptance and ample documentation. Yet Evolutionary
psychology has neither of these. The evidence for behavioral genetics is scarce
and highly conjectural, and the flagship studies in evolutionary psychology
face numerous critics from across the academic spectrum. Instead, all that the
evolutionary psychologist offers is a narrative of human evolution that even
E. O. Wilson admits suffers from "a scarcity of information." It is
a narrative that does a poor job of describing the vast and complicated landscape
of human social evolution and interaction. But why is this story so compelling?
One charitable answer to this question is that people desire fixity in the world.
The shifting identities found in post-modern theorizing do not assure people
of their place in the world. Once everything becomes contingent, everything
also becomes uncomfortable. But the gene offers a secure basis, a rock on which
to build an understanding of human interaction. Scientific rationality offers
evolutionary "fitness" as the supreme test and the gene as the supreme
basis. This view of the world offers comfort and definitive answers for people
at a time (in the United States at least) when religion and politics are becoming
increasingly compromised and losing their explanatory power.
There is another way to explain the appeal of evolutionary psychology. Like
Social Darwinism before it, evolutionary psychology serves to legitimate current
social formations by giving them a genetic basis. What is the consequence of
determining a genetic basis for male superiority in mathematics? Well, such
information can be used to justify inequalities in schools that give males an
advantage in learning mathematics.
Fortunately, it seems that race is no longer the primary target of evolutionary
psychology's conservative claims. Recently, gender and sexuality have emerged
as the most significant areas of inquiry in the field. While psychologists are
working out disturbing conclusions on a number of issues, looking deeper into
one recent book shows the potential danger of these studies. Randy Thornhill
and Craig T. Palmer's book titled A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases
of Sexual Coercion (2000) provides an alarming example of how evolutionary psychology
can function to stifle attempts to eliminate even something as ghastly as rape.
Thornhill's central claim is that rape is an evolutionary, adaptive strategy
to produce offspring. It follows that rape is an inevitable, indeed genetically
determined, part of human society and that attempts to eliminate it will prove
fruitless. Thornhill extrapolates this conclusion from studies on forced sex
among scorpion flies (apparently the evolutionary link to humans should be obvious).
And he ignores the obvious theoretical problem of rape victims that are either
too old or too young to reproduce, not to mention the numerous motives/pathologies
identified in more insightful inquiries into the social phenomenon of rape.
Other evolutionary psychology researchers, such as Northwestern's own associate
professor of psychology J. Michael Bailey, focus their genetic spotlight on
sexuality, trying to place it in an evolutionary context. This method depends
heavily on the almost singular influence of the genome on human development,
a practice long eschewed by theorists of sexuality from other fields. The trend
among other social researchers is an attempt to move beyond the cliched nature/nurture
debate. In sharp contrast, evolutionary psychologists address the question by
wholly collapsing nurture into nature. While the discipline of psychology has
never been kind to non-heterosexuals (in the í50s) shock treatment was
often employed by psychologists to "cure" gay people) the new approach
of evolutionary psychology is particularly dangerous. Locating sexuality in
the genome forces one to accept that there is such a thing as immutable sexuality.
This suggests that gay people, for example, are essentially or genetically different
from heterosexuals, laying fertile groundwork for discrimination, or worse.
In reality, genes do a very poor job of characterizing the behavior of homosexuals,
which drastically changes between cultures and is highly subject to the choices,
practices, and "performances" of individuals. Evolutionary psychology,
as a method, is hopelessly reductionist. It cannot account for the multiform
complexities that shape and reshape human interaction. The story it provides
is simple to the point of absurdity. It is a linear story of "fitness"
and "competition" that neatly lands us at a necessary present. Most
of our problems, the story goes, are not really problems. Instead they are the
result of evolution. The other problems, of course, are best addressed with
reference to the certainties of the genome.
The narrative also marshals an appealingly solid basis for social science,
especially if you find yourself at the top of the evolutionary pile. The story
finds easy acceptance and the complex critiques that poke holes in its theory
get lost in the simplified world of mass media and best-selling books. Evolutionary
psychology and its Social Darwinist undertones will not easily disappear. Its
very method supports the entrenchment of the dominant social structures, ensuring
its political support and applicability.
What is the alternative to the strictly evolutionary narrative of human history?
One possibility is to simply present a more nuanced version of our evolutionary
past. Biologists, beginning with Darwin himself, have consistently criticized
the reductionist view of evolution employed by evolutionary psychologists. Darwin
frequently emphasized that the changes in a species are not always determined
by selection. This realization helps account for the abundant diversity in the
human gene pool, most of which does not influence human survival (such as skin
color, height, or nose shape).
This puts the onus on evolutionary psychologists to provide compelling evidence
from the archaeological record as to how, specifically, biological attributes
resulted from, or influence, human evolution. In fact, they often base their
claims on extrapolations from other species or from limited observations of
social structures in the modern context.
In addition to complicating the picture of evolution, it is also helpful to
point out the significance of social structures in determining roles for people
based on gender, race, or sexuality. Comparative evaluations help demonstrate
how easily biological attributes can shift meaning in different social situations.
The meaning attached to being "gay" in the United States does not
correlate with the manifestations of homosexuality in other cultures.
The stereotype prominent in the United States that gay males naturally act
more effeminate is not a worldwide phenomenon. Researchers like NU's Bailey
(who is currently attempting to ground the effeminate gay identity in biological
fact) might be surprised to learn that the effeminate gay person cannot be found
in some other cultures. Instead, homosexuality is represented differently or
not represented at all. Even within the United States there are various gay
identities available, such as "macho" gay men, which contrast the
effeminate image. This evidence suggests that the society has enormous influence
over how biological traits manifest themselves. Evolutionary psychologists,
however, exaggerate the influence of socially constructed identities by giving
undue primacy to the gene. Other academic disciplines no longer treat issues
such as race, sexuality, or gender by grounding them in biology. Instead they
recognize the contingency of these categories and treat them as identities rather
than determined biological fact. Race, for example, does not exist as a biological
fact (which explains why "white" people can act "black",
or "gay" people can act "straight"). Instead, it is created
and mediated primarily by social interaction and identity formation. This explanation
for difference better fits the evidence, and does not rely on spotty evolutionary
speculation. Most importantly, we must work to break down the faulty claims
of evolutionary psychology and all forms of biological determinism, so that
individuals may be truly free to define their own selves.
created in 2002, copyright-free