Why Does It Always Have to Be Cavemen?
Heading to SXSW, so blogging will be light to non-existent, depending on what other obligations crowd up my mornings. On my trip, however, I will be trying to fill downtime with this new book Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live, a debunking of evolutionary psychology by biologist Marlene Zuk. She was mostly inspired by people who have an obsession with eating like they imagine “cavemen” did, but there’s some other stuff in there—I’m, of course, particularly interested in the evo psych obsession with proving that sexism is written into our genes and therefore something we have to accept instead of resist. (There’s two major flaws in this assumption. See if you can find them!) She was interviewed by Salon, and had some interesting things to say:
Although she writes, “I would not dream of denying the evolutionary heritage present in our bodies,” Zuk briskly dismisses as simply “wrong” many common notions about that heritage. These errors fall into two large categories: misunderstandings about how evolution works and unfounded assumptions about how paleolithic humans lived.
This is a common accusation thrown by the mostly-men who are obsessed with the claim that our gender roles are fixed in our genes and not really prone to social pressures or cultural teachings, that skeptics are denying that humans are evolved. I often get called a “creationist”, in fact. This isn’t true. Most of us skeptics totally believe that plenty of human behavior has its roots in evolution, but mostly it’s stuff that’s so obvious and unsexy it doesn’t have much of a hook. For instance, there’s no disputing that we’re social animals, so much so that we even end up extending our sociability beyond our own species so that we own pets. No one denies this. We just point out, and I think the observable evidence is on our side, that one of our major evolutionary advantages is our flexibility. We are remarkable creatures at taking in our environment and adjusting our behavior to suit it. That’s how we managed to spread out all over the planet, instead of remaining in a single environment, as less flexible species have to do. Too cold? We put on clothes. Too hot? We invent air conditioning. We aren’t the stubborn creatures whose instincts fly in the face of civilization that evo psych adherents want to believe. How could we be, since we invented civilization?
This adaptability goes double for social conditioning. The available evidence suggests what humans evolved to do is to monitor social cues carefully and adapt our behavior to suit them. So much so that people who can’t do this as well are considered mentally ill. This suggests gender is more a construction than an instinct. In fact, it’s easy to notice that a lot of effort is put into “teaching” gender. Kids pick up complex languages simply by being around people speaking them, but when it comes to gender, we present a more focused teaching environment, closer to what we do when teaching kids to read, which doesn’t come as easily. We even employ heavy-handed strategies like shame to make sure they conform to their assigned gender roles.
Why are we so intent on establishing how paleolithic people ate, exercised, coupled up and raised their kids? That’s a question Zuk considers only in passing, but she hits the nail pretty solidly on the head: “We have a regrettable tendency to see what we want to see and rationalize what we already want to do. That often means that if we can think of a way in which a behavior, whether it is eating junk food or having an affair, might have been beneficial in an ancestral environment, we feel vindicated, or at least justified.” Even if we wanted to live like cavemen, Zuk points out (noting that the desire to do so somehow never seems to extend to moving into mud huts), we couldn’t. In reality, we don’t have their bodies, and don’t live in their world. Even the animals and plants we eat have changed beyond recognition from their paleolithic ancestors. It turns out we’re stuck being us.
In a lot of ways, evo psych is a kind of post-religion form of ancestor worship, a way for people who would have been priests in the past to assert their desires without actually invoking supernatural forces. The same idea is in play: This is how our gods/savior/ancestors wanted us to be, so that’s how it should be. There’s a lot of silliness rationalized with this line of thinking, as Zuk notes, but as with religion, a lot of focus is on controlling female sexuality. You can see how so in the evolution that happened within decades when it came to evo psych claims about female sexuality. It used to be, during the 70s when feminists were first really riling people up about sexual double standards, that sociobiologists would try to shore up the double standard by asserting men evolved to be promiscuous and women to be monogamous. That’s still around, but nowadays, there’s more interest in finding excuses for men who don’t get laid as much as they believe they’re entitled to. Thus the claim that women are “hypergamous” and only interested in “alpha” males. What sexist men need to believe of women at any point in time is what evolution “makes” women do.
The question that always crops up for me is why does it have to be cavemen? For people rationalizing the patriarchy particularly, it would make more sense to look to early agricultural periods. After all, that’s how patriarchy as we know it—with its obsession with lines of parentage and inheritance and controlling women’s fertility—really was developed. You could easily claim that sexism was written into our genes during that period, and it would be at least more plausible a claim. I think what’s going on is that evo psych devotees think of the paleolithic era as a kind of pre-civilization, as a big part of their argument is to claim that civilization halts evolution. (In this sense, they are far closer to creationists that evo psych skeptics, because they, like creationists, cannot accept that modern humans are, like the animals we actually are, continuously evolving.) Agriculture feels too civilization-like, I guess. But that sort of thinking is very much a sort of bigotry, because being civilized is, unlike, say, the desire to wear high heels, built into our genetic code, and hunter-gatherers are not any less civilized than people living in high rises.