Kathryn Joyce sent me this article from Alternet as an exercise in laughing at the Internet Tough Guys who tend to go apeshit whenever anyone questions the toxic masculinity that holds their allegiance, and believe me, the comments on it went from hilarious to just sickening. Because we’re talking about the myth of “man as caveman” (which tends to pair of neatly with the illogical myth that women are somehow more civilized, as if one half of the species could evolve without the other half)—which is used to defend everything from rape to male cheating (as if female cheating doesn’t exist) to, and I suspect this is most important to myth proponents, making your wife feel bad for daring to be older than 16—the internet hooligans went bananas. I think this Nice Guy® whining is my favorite:
I’d just like to remind the devotees of The Lady of Eternal Victimhood, that despite all the hate and condemnation thrown at modern-man for the resemblances he may hold to proto-man, Woman created Man through sexual selection to fill a set of survival needs.
In case that was unclear, he’s arguing that men are born as rapist cheating machines, and women have ourselves to blame.
Anyway, for all that this article caused a delicious uproar from guys with massive masculinity issues,* I found it really disappointing. The author Martha McCaughey approaches the problem of the armchair evo psych masculinity myth by attacking the authority of science. I doubt she intended it squarely as an attack, but more of an “asking questions” thing, but these exercises in treating science like it’s another cultural construct without any qualitative difference from cultural constructs like, say, reality TV shows tend to backfire.
Learning evolution’s significance for male sexuality can enable men to rationalize sexist double standards and wallow in their loutishness, as they do in guyland. Alternatively, it can serve to encourage men to control their caveman natures by becoming self-conscious, enlightened cavemen. But either way, the popular versions of man-as-caveman never question men’s putatively natural shortcomings or innate aggressive heterosexuality. The caveman is certainly not the only form of masculine identity in our times. But the emergence of a caveman masculinity tells us much about the authority of science, the flow of scientific ideas in our culture, and the embodiment of those ideas. We live in a culture attached to scientific authority and explication. The popularity of the scientific story of men’s evolved desires — however distorted the science becomes as enthusiasts popularize it — can tell us something about the appeal and influence of that story.
It’s not that it’s untrue, it’s just that by critiquing the justification by looking askance at science is the sort of thing that causes otherwise reasonable science backers to go crazy on the whole concept of post-modernism, and that’s about the least productive warfare imaginable. Really, I was listening to an episode of “The Skeptic’s Guide To The Universe” the other day, and some people on the show are so angry with post-modernists who they see as refuting the entire possibility of making real world claims that can be tested that they drifted into making fun of the study of literature, as if it was impossible to read poetry symbolically. I shit you not—you can listen to it here. (And Rebecca Watson realizing how offensive they were getting and trying to be a peace-maker.) And I like this podcast 99% of the time.
It’s absolutely true that chauvinist pigs like to argue that certain male behaviors are innate and that women should simply accept them and our second class status, presumably, as long-suffering wives or sexual harassment/assault victims, and that said pigs wrap themselves in the mantle of science to give themselves authority. And failing that, they’ll use religion. In fact, I’d say you still have more religious misogynists than evo psych ones (though a lot of misogynists double dip), not because our culture values religion more, but because religion doesn’t have a self-correcting mechanism or a habit of valuing evidence over what you wish were true. McCaughey seems to accept the claims of evo psych sexists to scientific accuracy at face value, and argues instead that we can draw on science’s role as just another part of our culture to push back. I disagree. I think the best way to tackle these claims is to point out how many pop science claims about innate male behaviors are made up, evidence-free bullshit that ignores that much more pressing scientific reality that our very flexibility and civilization is our evolutionary survival strategy. The evidence suggests not that men are “programmmed” to rape and cheat, but that human beings are equipped with large brains and an ability to weigh a series of options, and that the choice to rape or cheat is made by a creature that evolved precisely to be reactive to its environment in complex ways.
Fight pseudo-science with science, in other words, instead of taking pseudo-science claims to be science at face value. I can’t blame scientists and science supporters when they get frustrated with this sort of discourse that treats scientific authority as if it’s exactly the same as religious authority or sentimental forms of discourse. When you’re dealing with creationists or anti-vaccination nuts who weigh what they want to believe with more authority than what science and evidence tells us, you get a tad defensive is all I’m saying. The problem with evo pysch claims—and I do think that McCaughey hints strongly at this—is that, at best, they miss the forest for the trees. Fans of armchair evo psych are so busy trying to justify men’s most boorish behavior that they fail to consider the mountains of evidence that suggest it’s a direct reaction to social pressures and that is evidence for a genuine, evidence-based, scientific claim, that we are social animals who, like other primates, survive in a group with changeable, complex political hierarchies.
*Always funny, because they never seem to clue into the cure for their massive problems, which is to give up worshiping masculinity and instead become full human beings.