Men and women are different.
These five words express one of the most controversial, yet tacitly obvious, ideas in the public discourse. The reasons why have been well articulated by many, perhaps best by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate. In a nutshell, we fear the idea that men and women are inherently different because purported differences were used in the past to justify repression of women (and of men, too). Carrying the illogic forward into moralistic fallacy-land, if gender* differences necessarily condemn us to repression, then they must be false, because repression is bad.
Fortunately, all of this is wrong. Men being psychologically distinct from women (from birth) does not condemn us to repression or misogyny any more than different groups of men or women holding different psychological features/traits condemns us to belittle one or another. Quite the contrary turns out to be the case. Repression is unduly culling freedom of choice or action. But this idea only makes sense if people are born with an inalienable desire for things like autonomy, liberty, and self-determination. That is, they must be born with a nature. A human nature, not bestowed by society. If they are blank slates and can be instilled with any values, including servitude to others, no argument for moral harm against them is coherent. Social justice can only matter if evolutionary psychology is right about innate psychology.
Blank slate ideology can, and has, supported fascistic repression. See Mussolini’s Italy or Pol Pot’s regime wherein programmable people could be made to serve the state as part of a utopian totalitarian order.
So denying innate psychological propensities nets us nothing, morally or politically. Worse, it may fray our friendship with reality. In April, psychologist David Schmitt wrote “Yes, but…” Answers to Ten Common Criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology for D.S. Wilson’s This View of Life website. He focused on sex differences in mate selection, but these criticisms come up when almost any controversial evolutionary psychology theory is mentioned. I invite you to read his extremely well-cited article there. I will whet your appetite with the list of the 10 “Yes, but…’s” Fantastic job, David Schmitt.
If you think these are great retorts, prepare to be surprised [Bolding mine].
1) Yes, but…that is just one study. One cannot trust the results of just one study. Evolutionary psychologists need to conduct many more studies before I am convinced these effects are legitimate, let alone evidence of evolved psychology. I’m sure many other studies wouldn’t find sex differences in mate preferences.
2) Yes, but…those studies are mostly with college students. People in the real world (e.g., representative samples of adults) won’t display these stereotypical sex differences of youth.
3) Yes, but…many of those findings are from decades ago. Sex differences in mate preferences are probably not historically stable. They may have existed many decades ago (in the era of Mad Men), but sex differences in mate preferences are surely not present in more recent times.
4) Yes, but…that is only when you have people self-report their ideal mate preferences from a pre-chosen list of traits given to them. If you ask them what they really want, say at a minimum, or maybe let them freely design their ideal potential partners, status-related traits aren’t emphasized by women more than men.
5) Yes, but…this is only because women are denied access to resources themselves. If women have higher status themselves, they would not prefer men with high status. It’s just basic rationality, not evolved psychology, causing these sex differences in mate preferences for status.
6) Yes, but…that is only true in the United States. Americans happen to live in a culture with conspicuous gender stereotypes about mate preferences that the rest of the world does not share. If you look at more gender egalitarian cultures, in Scandinavia for instance, sex differences in preferences for status-related attributes “disappear” (as claimed by Marks).
7) Yes, but…all these studies showing men and women want different things in potential partners are merely evidence of gendered narratives as measured by self-report surveys. If ever tested in the real world, women would not preferentially choose or be affected by a partner’s status-related attributes more than men.
8) Yes, but…even though evolutionary psychologists may study real life cognition, emotion, and behavior, they fail to study the most important Darwinian outcome…fertility. If women evolved mate preferences for status-related traits, then women who marry men of high status men should have more children. Evolutionary psychologists haven’t even bothered to look at these outcomes, lazy-headed daisies…
9) Yes, but…ancestral men were foragers and could not accumulate wealth, so these mate preferences for “good earning potential” are largely irrelevant to evolved mating psychology. Evolutionary psychology findings are extremely limited because they only apply to modern materialistic cultures.
10) Yes, but…I know so many people who strongly believe that sex differences in mate preferences simply cannot exist. The idea of evolved sexual desires of any kind are a theoretical impossibility from my point of view! Evolved sex differences in mate preferences have to be just a figment of the imagination of evolutionary psychologists bent on maintaining patriarchy. If the evidence is, on balance, supportive of women possessing long-term mate preferences for men with high status, why do so many post-modernists and social constructionists insist evolved sex differences are not, indeed cannot, be real?
* The title refers to sex differences and this line to gender. Sex and gender are different, however the difference is not necessarily relevant to all discussions.