Thursday, December 9, 2010

Feminists' selective science phobia

Evolutionary psychology gets a lot of flack from both inside and outside science. And to be honest, a lot of it is well deserved criticism - too much of evolutionary psychology is arm chair philosophizing and overly optimistic adaptationism, rather than hard data.

But I still assert that's no reason to write off the field as a whole. For one, there are plenty of good studies out there, and it's often the media that warps results into broad conclusions, not the scientists themselves. Two, it's a baby field that's still learning quality control - give it another ten years to refine its standards and come up with improved ways to make measurements, such as advanced brain activity imaging technology. And three, it is completely unreasonable to insist that the brain is magically not under selective pressure like every other thing in nature.

Unless it doesn't mesh with your philosophy, of course.

Sometimes I hate calling myself a feminist because of who it associates me with. For example, this latest example of feminist sciencephobia from Jill at I Blame The Patriarchy:

Evolutionary psychology rests on the shaky (often enpornulated) hypothesis that modern human social behaviors are actually species-preserving adaptations.

No, it rests on the very strong hypothesis that the brain evolves like any other organ.

Because evolutionary psychology, like all psuedoscience, is administered by jackasses who are heavily invested in patriarchy, the behaviors in question just happen to be the very same behaviors commonly observed to be beloved of patriarchyists. And also of sexists, misogynists, horndogs, militarists, straight people, politicians, consumers of pornography, consumers of “beauty,” racists, godbags, liberal men, Hollywoodists, homophobes, matrimonialists, and other cogs in the megatheocorporatocratic machine. Everybody who loves the current world order loves the romantic myth that it is the result of the random interaction of mindless genes, or biological “design.” Sadly, the world order is actually the result of something way more sinister: the completely arbitrary social construct of the culture of domination and submission.

I should have stopped reading here, but I was impressed. I didn't think someone could fit so many straw men and ad hominems in a single paragraph! But I know Jill thinks this is her "snarky" "style," so I kept reading to see her views on the science.

Annie Murphy Paul uses revelations facilitated by evolutionary psychology to make the (tired old) case that women are pretty much prisoners of biology, or, more specifically, of the menstrual cycle. Her apparent thesis: ovulating women are constrained by biological impulse to go to bars, wear tight dresses, and emit musical, magical laughter, whereupon they become attracted to male lantern-jawed superheroes. Non-ovulating women, on the other hand, are practically a different species. They are drab and dull and fail to effervesce or mate, and prefer pansy-ass dudes.
As an evolutionary biologist, I've yet to hear an evolutionary biologist who claims people are prisoners of biology. We are, however, not immune to our biology. It's not insane to suggest that some of our behavior is innate - humans just have the special ability to consciously choose to overcome some of it. That may be difficult for behaviors that are really ingrained in us for evolutionary reasons.

For example, we've evolved to crave sugary food because thousands of years ago, that craving would have kept us alive. It's subconscious - we don't think, "Gee, I really want that cookie because I may not be able to eat for another week." It explains why people are inclined to eat too much sugary food now that it's abundant, but it by no means says we are prisoners to that behavior and that we must eat sugary food until we're diabetic.

Many feminists would have no problem with that example, but they still proceed to freak out when the same thought process is applied to behavior between the sexes. Even if we did find some difference between the sexes, that doesn't mean there's a value difference between those behaviors, nor does it mean we even have to do them.

But no. Jill and feminists like her are just content imagining a world where Big Bad Male Scientists are out to get them:

Paul cites research conducted, unfortunately, by psychologists and “dating advisers,” since who else would know from this shit? One researcher dude juxtaposed menstrual cycle data with the nightly revenues of (a whopping) 18 lap dancers. Awesome.

Research dude: Hmm. I wonder where we could conduct some research on ovulating women?

Grad student dude: How about a strip club? We can totally multitask by working and abusing the sex class at the same time.

Research dude: It’s pure genius! I’ll take full credit.

In this case research dude concluded that not only do strip club clientele discern whether lap dancers are ovulating, but that pervs lavish more cash on ovulating lap dancers than they do on dull old non-ovulating ones. Paul calls this “one of the most arresting studies of male responses to female fertility cues.”

She goes on to miss the point so badly that I'm inclined to believe she's misrepresenting Geoffrey Miller's study on purpose to fulfill her paranoid fantasies. As someone who's actually read the paper in question, allow me to correct Jill (or you know, you could be a good scientist and go read it yourself.):

Female fertility cues! Apparently women who work in strip clubs are not, contrary to what spinster aunts have maintained through the ages, just trying to make the best of their fucked-up sex class status by working themselves through law school or a drug habit or a musician boyfriend. These hotsy-totsy babes are in fact sending their slavering clients “female fertility cues.”
Jill tries to spin it so it seems like the study is saying women become strippers just to send "female fertility clues." The study says no such thing about the motivation for becoming a stripper: It looks at women who already are strippers, and sees if there's any differences in the tips they get depending on where they are during their menstrual cycle. They found that men are more likely to tip when women are ovulating. They don't have a mechanism for the interaction, but speculate on what sort of cues could clue men in. Do the women behave differently? Is there some sort of physical difference men subconsciously notice? Is is a pheromone or other sort of chemical signal? They don't make any conclusions.

Furthermore, strippers who take birth control pills are “’shooting [themselves] in the foot,’ since [they'll] miss out on the bountiful tips garnered by women in estrus.” That’s right. Sexploitation isn’t about male domination, it’s about human reproduction. Human reproduction is natural. Natural is good. Therefore sexploitation is good.

They are shooting themselves in the foot in terms of making tips. Since they don't ovulate, they don't receive the boost in tips. The researchers by no means imply that making tips is obviously the most important thing and birth control isn't important. Seriously, where the fuck does she even get the rest of that paragraph other than from an overactive imagination?

She goes on and on about how women can't possibly have any sort of innate behaviors, or as she calls it, a "primal urge to exude pornulated dudefantasy." Really, and we're supposed to take you seriously?

I about lost it when I hit the most glaring Biology Fail of the piece:

But isn’t this just a reiteration of the hysterical women stereotype? Not at all, says one of the kindly dude researchers.

“The traditional and rather patronizing male view was that women are fickle, that their preferences are random and arbitrary. Now it turns out that what looks like fickleness is actually deeply adaptive and is shared with the females of most animal species.”

OK, let’s get this out of the way first: does Dude even realize that ‘most animal species’ are either arthropods or nematodes, depending on which geek you’re talking to? Together they number in the millions. Here at Spinster HQ we were unable to locate any research on, for example, the fickleness of female flatworms. Maybe they like to sport around in spandex when it’s that time of the month, but published studies omit to mention it. So this guy, in his attempt to science-ize an enormously detrimental sexist stereotype, grossly mischaracterizes the scope of the planet’s animalian diversity to further his own anthrocentric worldview.

And also, do not speak to me, dude, of “the rather patronizing male view.” How fucking patronizing is it to argue that ‘fickleness’ is a fucking adaptation shared by all females everywhere? That women’s behavior is, in fact, irrational, only now this irrationality has scientifically proven reasons? This dude is killin’ me!

Spinster HQ didn't look very hard, nor did they read very closely. The "fickleness" this "dude researcher" is talking isn't about irrationality, it's about is Bateman's principle, which is "the theory that females almost always invest more energy into producing offspring than males invest, and therefore in most species females are a limiting resource over which the other sex will compete." It's called that because this "dude researcher" named Bateman first found this trend in fruit flies. You know, arthropods. It's been found across a wide range of taxa.

Also note how it says "almost." There are plenty of counter examples of males being the choosy sex. And while there's evidence going both ways in humans, the point is it doesn't matter. If science did prove, without a doubt, that female humans invested more energy into reproduction and that caused them to evolve with a specialized set of behaviors, it doesn't mean we are slaves to that behavior or that it justifies our actions, or the actions of others around us.

The cherry on top of the post was Jill's bullet point that claims evolutionary psychology cannot explain homosexuality. Even though there are multiple competing hypotheses about the persistence of homosexual behavior. Even if you're not familiar with evolutionary psychology, that was the second Google result. Way to do your research.

The a priori assumption that evolutionary psychologists are all evil dudes with an agenda to instill 50s era gender roles is frankly paranoid. Ironically, Jill wrote a great post about how feminists need to trust science more. Too bad she's a hypocrite - this isn't the first time I've called her out on it. "Supporting science" is not the same as "Supporting science only when it doesn't make you uncomfortable about your world views."

And you know what? Feminists get the "man hater" stereotype exactly because of posts like that*. I'm a feminist because I'm pro social equality for both sexes. Dismissing researchers because they're male isn't equality.

*I should clarify because of a comment below. Feminists will carry that stereotype no matter how rational our arguments are or polite we act just because feminism pisses a lot of people off, and they react harshly out of privilege. But there are too many people who basically are feminists except they still believe that stereotype, because there's one rotten apple that's particularly stinky and ruins the label.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this! It really burns me when people write the ev psych approach off because of 1) a few bad studies, 2) bad media coverage (combined with the fact they have a biased focus towards 1), and 3) the people in question don't understand how science works. So much naturalistic fallacy in how is it slagged off.

    It ranks up there in my "annoyed by how others talk about science" right with the popular politician trick of willful misinterpretation and misreporting of science studies and mocking them as a waste of money.

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  2. Nice to see there are actually level-headed people out there that aren't total femnazis.

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  3. That *was* a crappy study though... It's full of speculation and assumptions, which is painfully, painfully common in the ev psych field at the moment.

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