• On PZ Myers versus Evopsych

    A few weeks ago, I invited Ed Rybicki, a Professor of Microbiology at the University of Cape Town, to write a guest article about the firestorm that erupted one year ago around a much-maligned short story of his, published in Nature in September 2011.  I asked him particularly to write about the aftermath of this ballyhoo and the actions that were taken against him in meatspace; his retrospective was pretty disturbing.  The response to his article was generally positive on this network, though he apparently received a few unpleasant visitors on his own blogsite.

    Reaction in certain other predictable places was, of course, less than positive.  Notably, PZ Myers on Pharyngula launched into the kind of snarky deconstruction that has become his trademark, sideswiping Jeremy Stangroom and evolutionary psychology in the process.  My impression: meh.  Same old, same old.  Myers made me want to call in the Straw Man Protection League (SMPL), so mercilessly did he torment those helpless creatures.  The main burden of the article was that Rybicki was a terrible scientist as well as a terrible person, and anyway he hadn’t suffered any permanent damage from the savaging last year.

    The facts: Rybicki is a respected, productive scientist, active in research, and published extensively in peer-reviewed places.  People who know him saw no resemblance between the actual man and the vile woman-oppressing misogynistic caricature generated on the net.  That his career in science was not permanently damaged does credit to his gumption and the good sense of his colleagues – it does not mean it was perfectly okay to slander and malign him for tight-lipped ideological reasons.  The dogs bark, the caravan moves on.  Thanks, Ed, and best wishes to you and yours.

    But the post on Rybicki and Stangroom seemed to set Pharyngula off on an evopsych rampage, with no less than three more posts on that topic in the next nine hours.   I’ll take them in reverse order.    The final “slash at evolutionary psychology”, authored by Myers, concerned a nauseating article written by one Heartiste, a “floridly batty pick-up artist trying to claim that evopsych supports his hatred of women.”  And Myers was correct – the article was sexist, misogynistic, and loathsome in every way.  But, as even Myers admitted in his title, it was an abuse of evopsych.  Blaming evolutionary psychology for Heartiste would be like blaming Darwin for twentieth-century dictators; yet Myers left the impression that Heartiste’s hateful maunderings had something to do with mainstream evopsych research.  A bit devious, that.

    The penultimate post was a parody on evopych studies, republished by Chris Clarke from his Coyote Crossing blog, and it certainly was witty and pointed; but the fact that something can be parodied does not invalidate it.  The message from these two posts, however, was clear: evolutionary psychology is a joke, ripe for mocking, so there is no need to apply reasoned critical analysis to it.  With a couple of gutsy exceptions, the commentariat ate it up.

    But wait.  In the first and second of the four posts, Myers did in fact apply reasoned critical analysis – of a sort.  Critical, anyway.  At least, he made a clear statement as to why he characterizes all evopsych studies of gender differences as bullshit, with particular reference to hypothetical male hunters vs female gatherers:

     Now here’s the part that infuriates me when reading these sex difference papers. They almost always act as if they’re discussing two independent breeding populations facing different selection pressures. 


    Every hunting man had a gatherer mother; every gathering woman had a hunting father.

    Seriously, it’s this feeling that I have to remind them that they’re not dealing with two species, Man and Woman, or even two populations, the man-tribe and the woman-tribe, but one goddamned species, obligately breeding within themselves. If there is a ‘spatial navigating gene’, both men and women have it. If there is a gene that grants us the color sensitivity to distinguish puce from plum, we all carry it. With the exception of a minuscule number of genes involved in sex-specific trait determination on the Y chromosome, we’re sharing everything.

    Seriously, that is what Myers said.  The scenario that he set up and then declared to be impossible involved treating some complex cognitive abilities as if they were Mendelian traits.  And since both parents share everything except a few genes on the Y chromosome, natural selection could not possibly operate differentially on mums and dads.  He went on:

    Wait, the naive among you are wondering, does that mean men are carrying genes for large breasts, wide hips, and ovaries, while women are carrying genes for baldness, baggy scrotums, and testicles? Yes, we are. All shared. But these genes are also regulated so that they are expressed or repressed differently in the different sexes. You have to think of each one as a Gene Plus: a gene plus an added switch to turn it on or off differently in different sexes (commonly, they’re regulated differently by the presence or absence of testosterone.)

    …You can’t simply have a just-so story that Woman evolved ability X to cope with gathering berries; you have to also have a just-so story that explains why Man evolved a repressor to shut off X for better hunting. And vice-versa for ability Y that aids in hunting.

    So apparently, we can thank fetal testosterone for either our tits or our goolies, but not much else.  But how accurate or honest is Myers being here?  There is a large body of solid research into how fetal testosterone affects the differential development of male and female (and, for that matter, other-gendered) brain architecture, resulting in measurable, mappable sexual dimorphism inside our skulls.  It is perfectly reasonable to relate this to measurable differences in perceptual talents, right across the sensory board – visual, auditory, olfactory – where males are better at some things, and females at others.  It is also reasonable to wonder whether these differing talents might be related to differing behavioral strategies.  All of this is crucially relevant, but Myers mentions none of it – which is particularly surprising from an evo devo guy.  Instead, he sets up the straw man of a crude Mendelian toggle between hunting and gathering, which he can then ridicule.  Time again to call in the SMPL. 

    There is also a curious form of sexism in operation here.  Implicit in the criticisms by Myers and others – Rebecca Watson, for example – is the value judgment that hunting is somehow superior to gathering.  Therefore, weirdly, it is considered derogatory, even misogynistic, to suggest that women might have been hard-wired to be better foragers than men, and grossly insulting to bring shopping skills into the mix – as if “shopping” equates with “hanging out at the mall.”

    But hunting and gathering are not mutually exclusive activities – they are complementary, with a fair amount of overlap, and it is actually gathering that brings home the majority of the calories in tropical and subtropical environments.  It is unlikely our foremothers were helpless, dependent shrinking violets, nibbling on grubs and berries while waiting for the mighty hunters to bring home the bacon.  Rather, their skills were crucial to the survival of their children, their men, and themselves.  As for “different selection pressures,” how about the fact that only one gender paid the physical expenses of getting pregnant, lactating, and hauling around heavy infants in the eras before baby bottles were invented?  Myself, I’d go for gathering every time. 

    Moreover, some of the gendered-brain differences mentioned above are shared with our fellow mammals, among whom varying degrees of gendered behavior are observed – and yet none of these differences, if I am understanding Myers correctly, can possibly have anything to do with the hominin evolutionary legacy, much less the human present.  Even asking questions about them (aka generating hypotheses) is evidently bad science:

    If it’s a paper that presumes to tell you the evolutionary basis of differences between the sexes or races, it’s bullshit. That means the author is going to trot out some prejudice about how sexes or races differ before building some feeble case from a collection of poorly designed surveys or sloppily analyzed statistics to make up a story. Unsurprisingly, those differences always fit some bigoted preconception, and always have, from Galton’s determination of the ‘objective’ degrees of feminine beauty between races to Kanazawa’s, ummm, determination of the ‘objective’ degrees of feminine beauty between races. There really hasn’t been a lot of creativity in this subfield.

    If it’s a paper that compares the behavioral psychology or cognitive abilities of different species, there’s a chance it might have something interesting to say. At least there’s a possibility that the crude kinds of essays for examining the workings of the brain might be able to detect a difference of that magnitude. But don’t forget that 90% of everything is crap, so don’t assume that just because the author is discussing chimpanzees vs. humans that it’s necessarily good work.

    Prejudiced…bigoted…90% crap.  Myers is patently directing those sweeping condemnations at mainstream evolutionary psychology, not at its misuse in the pop media or the lunatic fringe.  It also appears that he buys into the canard of evopsych being part of a grand conspiracy to perpetuate bigotry and oppression along gender and race lines.  But how is it “prejudice” to notice and interrogate behavioural differences observable in the present, and try to tease out nature from nurture, biology from socialization?  Contrast Myers’ facile dismissal of an entire area of scientific endeavour as bigoted bullshit, quoted above, with this statement:

    We are optimistic that the historically uneasy relationship between feminism and evolutionary psychology can be bridged.  We share the view that the mate preferences of one gender can inflict psychological damage on the other, whether it is women being treated as “sex objects” or men being treated as “success objects.” We share the view that gender discrimination in the workplace is morally wrong. We share the view that rape is abhorrent, and policy, anchored in accurate scientific understanding, should be directed at eliminating its occurrence. We share the view that men’s historical control of power and resources, a core component of patriarchy, can be damaging to women in domains ranging from being forced to endure a bad marriage to suffering crimes such as genital mutilation and “honor killings” for perceived sexual infractions.

    The paper from which this quote is taken, published in the peer-reviewed feminist journal Sex Roles, is worth a look.  Authored by two prominent evolutionary psychologists, it begins with a nuanced history of the relationship between feminism and evopsych, and ends with suggestions as to how the findings of evolutionary psychology may be (and have already been) used to further the ends of social justice.

    Some bigotry.  Some bullshit.

    It’s a little sad for those of us who used to enjoy Pharyngula.  PZ Myers has built himself a nice internet gig as a self-appointed arbiter of science, but he is looking more like a demagogue than an educator these days.

    Category: ArchaeologyAtheismMessiahs


    Article by: Rebecca Bradley