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Tits on a Peacock

Evolutionary Psychology week continues … I’d note in this context that I don’t have a complete knock-down argument against evolutionary psychology, mainly because if I did, it would also presumably be a knock-down argument against ethology, which would be damn close to a knock-down argument against evolution. More or less everyone agrees that behaviour can be subject to natural selection, and that’s all you need to believe in before you’re committed to *some* sort of belief in *some* kinds of explanation of psychological phenomena as evolved responses. What I’m most concerned with arguing against is “Neo-Darwinian Sociology”, a close cousin of evolutionary psychology, and one which has repeatedly interbred with its less reputable cousin, with predictable results1.

In honest fact, using the phrase “Neo-Darwinian Sociology” is actually an act of extreme politeness on my part, because the more concise phrase would be “Social Darwinism”, the age-old and known horrible theory without a shit-eating, disingenuous and self-consciously pious denunciation of which, no pop EP book is complete. (Matt Ridley, I’m looking at you. Daniel Dennet, you can wipe that smile off your face too). It’s kind of like the paramilitary wing of evolutionary psychology; the default position of a serious ethologist when confronted with the possibility of earning a quick two hundred quid for 400 words on some current issue in the Sunday papers (Richard Dawkins, I’m looking at you, and pointing at you). Basically, in so far as these pieces have any message which doesn’t consist of laughing at people more intelligent than the author for believing in God, the message boils down to:

  • Psychology of individuals is sociology; there is nothing to be understood about social phenomena other than individual behaviour. (The main argument for this proposition is that sociology is carried out by sociologists. The secondary argument is that some sociologists vote for left-wing political parties. Don’t ask me, I’m only here for the beer)
  • Genetic explanations are the most important kind of explanations. If something could have come about through sexual selection of a gene, then it is overwhelmingly likely did come about in that way. Any other kind of explanation is very much second-best, and is probably about to be proved false by the discovery of a “proper” explanation. (The argument for this is rarely spelt out; as far as I can tell, it is some degenerate version of Occam’s Razor)
  • Although just-so stories about hypothesised past development are no more than indicative initial hypotheses when we’re doing proper rigorous ethology, they’re strong enough that you can draw massive overarching social policy conclusions from them when you’re talking to the plebs. (There is no argument for this at all, but I’m guessing it’s part of the organisational pathology which gets these things into print)

Push them on any of these points, however, and they immediately retreat to vastly more defensible ground, only talking about specific results, qualifying all their statements and pretending that their sentences should never be (could never possibly have been) taken to imply things which they quite obviously say. Of course, given that we’re dealing with Dawkins, Pinker, and arseholes of similar magnitude here, they tend to carry out this retreat with the full pomp and circumstance of a Roman triumphal parade, insulting people’s intelligence, taking every opportunity to revive assertions they’ve walked away from and if at all possible, trying to imply that their interlocutor is either a sociologist or a believer in God. I see that it will take a separate post on the roots of this behaviour in philosophy of science to drain away all my bitterness.

But anyway, that’s “Neo-Darwinian Sociology”, and I actually believe that I do have a knock-down argument against that, which I will outline in the next-but-one post in this series. For the time being, just note that I think I can support the claims that

a) if it wasn’t for their occasional forays into N-DS, the EP crowd would be a very obscure bunch of scientists indeed.

b) NeoDarwinian Sociology is on a much weaker scientific footing than the rest of EP; those parts of EP which have impinged on the public consciousness are in general pieces of research which are distinctly suspect as works of science

and therefore

c) The entire existence of evolutionary psychology as a fact of public life rather than an obscure academic discipline depends on the willingness of some scientists to drop all their scientific standards at crucial moments. (In particular, I find it quite scandalous that Richard Dawkins is quite so unconcerned about the distortions of scientific method which are regularly indulged in by people he regards as his allies. Despite what he thinks, he is Oxford University’s Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, not the Public Proselytisation of Atheism).

and am also prepared to argue for

d) The fact that it’s the evolutionary psychologists who have achieved such prominence through such means is, as they say, no coincidence; the entire method of inquiry of EP tends to inculcate habits of mind which are too quick to latch onto hypotheses and call them explanations, and which discourage rigorous system thinking in favour of particular anecdotes. In their professional work, practitioners seem to recognise these dangers and guard against them; in their popular work and their policy advocacy, they drop their guard. As you can tell, I’m working toward a theory of how a book as bad as “Blank Slates” by Stephen Pinker came to be written.

It’s in support of d) that I am currently working. As with yesterday’s post on symmetry and beauty, I want to provide an example not so much of questions answered wrongly, but of questions never asked in the first place; of theories adopted for a particular case because of the attractive story, but which were not applied to other cases, because they didn’t fit the story being told. If I can establish that there are cases when, working near the borders of ethology and sociology but on the scientific side, evolutionary psychologists lost their critical faculties, I think I’ll have supported my case that when they move closer to politics, they tend to be even worse. Tomorrow’s example is going to be just a freaking doozy (Randy Thornhill’s theory of rape), but for the time being, let’s take a look at womens’ breasts and peacocks’ tails.

OK, I didn’t get many takers for peacocks’ tails. But let’s start off with them. There’s a fairly common theory about why peacocks have tails; it’s not the only one in the literature, but’s it’s pretty well supported and it is frequently used by the EP crowd when they want to make an analogy to certain kinds of male behaviour. The theory is basically, that the male peacock’s tail is so big not in spite of its inconvenience to the bird, but because of that incovenience. The idea is that it’s a sexual signalling device; the peacock is signalling “Look at me, I’m so big and strong and genetically ace that I can carry around this huge great fucking ridiculous tail and still live a relatively normal avian life”. So, the selfish genes of the peahen latch onto that signal, because they want to hitch a ride on this unstoppable Range Rover of peacock genetic goodness. It’s quite a clever little theory; controversial as hell among bird biologists, but certainly not without supporters.

So anyway, a theory like that is too good to waste on peacocks, so it gets brought into service in explaining otherwise damnably stupid behaviour by human males with “peacock” tendencies. Bungee jumping, driving cars quickly, etc, etc. Jared Diamond (in an uncharacteristic slip; a terrible chapter of an otherwise good book called The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee) claimed that kung fu experts in Indonesia drink paraffin. The idea being presumably, to show off to any females present “HEY, LOOK AT ME! I’M ACTING LIKE AN IDIOT! I MUST HAVE GREAT GENES TO HAVE SURVIVED TO ADULTHOOD, I’M SO FUCKING STUPID! IT’S A MIRACLE I’M NOT EATING THROUGH A STRAW, BUT I’M NOT, SO THERE MUST BE SOMETHING SPECIAL ABOUT ME! COME ON AND GET ME YOU KNOW YOU WANT IT!”. Obviously, the questions a) has there ever really been an “evolutionary adaptive environment” in which purposefully endangering your own life for no reason hasn’t been a gene that sensible selfish maximisers would want to avoid like the plague? and b) does it not strike people who advance this “hazard theory” as perhaps surprising that much of the very most stupid and show-offish male behaviour in the world is channelled into initiation rituals of exclusively male secret societies of one kind or another? are quibbles and prove that the person asking them is a sociologist and probably believes in God.

Anyway, I sense that my audience is getting bored at this point, so on to the more popular topic of womens’ breasts. As everyone knows, men like women with big, prominent breasts because they indicate that the woman upon whom they are located will be really good at feeding a child, thus propagating their genes to the next generation. Unfortunately, the bust size of a woman who has never given birth bears more or less no relationship whatever to the size at the end of pregnancy (breasts of nonlactating women are made mostly of fat, and it takes about eight months to properly shape them up to serve drinks), and this has been the case for a very long time in human evolution. This immediately rules out a lot of the “sub-pop” science commentators who use this kind of cargo-cult science theory of female pulchritude when they want to make some sort of point about sexual harassment in the workplace or the appeal of Pamela Anderson or whatever needs half a col. written about it by two-thirty prompt, but that’s hardly a body blow to the EP crowd; most of these people are either editorial writers half-remembering the last pop science book they read, or people like Eric Raymond who are so damnably ignorant on every single subject except computers that it can’t be blamed purely on “The Selfish Gene”.

On the other hand, there are a lot of commentators who know better, who still basically come up with theories of the breast which involve some sort of signalling about fertility (not all; here’s a list of theories on this issue, not all of which are vulnerable to the current critique). And here, we come to a conundrum.

If the theory of doing dangerous things in order to show how genetically fit you are is generally applicable, perhaps it could be applied to women as well as men? So, let’s think … what would be an extremely physically demanding and dangerous thing that a woman could do, which would work well to demonstrate her fertility? Well … perhaps it’s a bit off-the-wall, but here’s one suggestion … how about … giving birth to a baby?!

Think about it. Some women are infertile, and can never give birth. Some women are not physically up to the rigours of childbirth, and this must have been even more true “out on the plains of Africa”, to use the hackneyed and racially loaded catchphrase. One way, as a woman, of proving that this isn’t true of you, is to actually step up to the plate and walk the talk. So, on this reasoning, men should be really turned on by single mothers … is that your experience? Furthermore, if we extend this theory to go back to our original question about fashions in bust shapes, we can note that the stresses and strains of feeding the first child will certainly, pre the invention of the brasiere, have taken their toll on a maidenly chest. So, one could construct a convincing argument on evolutionary psychology grounds, that a female human equivalent to the display of the peacock’s tail would be a large bust which drooped to somewhere south of the navel area. By putting on the Gossard Wonderbra and its competitor products, women appear to be attempting to signal to men that their fertility is a completely unknown property, and so is their vulnerability to death in parturition.

There is something decidedly funny about a grab-bag of intellectual tools which puports to explain the reason why things are the way they are, but which could simultaneously be used (as above) to explain why they were the way they were even if they were some other way. And there is something funny about a group of people who talk nine yards to Sunday week about the “intellectual rigour” they are bringing to a discipline like sociology, but who never seem to bother to generalise propositions, or to explain why mechanisms work in one case but not another. And there is something extremely funny about the way that a bunch of male commentators have been so quick to jump on board with a theory that, if it were not for the fact that it helps to bolster a number of propositions about sexual morality which they wanted to assert anyway, would be recognised as being about as likely and as useful, as tits on a peacock.


1Yes I know, I know. That was invective. In actual face, most medical opinion appears to be that the marginal risk of deformed offspring from copulation between first cousins is actually pretty negligible. So go for it if that’s what you want, but don’t tell the judge I told you to.

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