In the early nineties Barkow, Tooby and Cosmides (two anthropologists and a psychologist, respectively) coined the phrase “Evolutionary Psychology” (I’ll refer to it hereafter as “EP”). Since then, modern layperson ideas about human sexuality and sexual psychology and behavior have been increasingly colored, and greatly misled, by its notions. Its success appears to be due to the way that its claims remarkably reflect our current experience, particularly the perplexing gender differences constantly chafing between the moving parts of heterosexual relationship. It just seems to help us make sense of the troublesome friction while offering the reassuring backdrop of s-c-i-e-n-c-e (ah, that’s how you spell relief!). Even if it doesn’t change anything tangible, there’s consolation in the regions of the mind that abhor the vacuum of uncertainty.
Maybe that’s why such a poor brand of science has gotten away with so much and traveled so far. Really. Digging into the substance of EP, one will find people with a decent grasp of the science of evolution. AND, you’ll find that, once they leap from the well-anchored springboard of evolutionary biology, all bets are off. Way off. Once they finish with impressive speeches on the hard science of evolution and begin to spin off their own psychological theories, they immediately exceed the sphere of influence of scientific gravity, as though the firmness of the launchpad can justify just about any projectile (vomit). Like we wouldn’t notice. And, unfortunately, we don’t. At first glance. Which is why we have to take a closer look.
EP proposes that human psychological evolution lags behind our genetics which encode our instinctual responses so that, in their words, “Our modern skulls house a stone age mind” (one that evolved during our hunter-gatherer days). Yet, in the domain of sexual psychology, their postulations actually do not reflect the likely conditions of the stone age (beginning roughly three and a half million years ago) as much as they reflect the social conditions developing since the agricultural revolution (beginning a mere ten thousand years ago). In earlier times, human survival depended upon tribal community while the agricultural movement favored the nuclear patriarchal family, at the heart of developed society today.
The basic assumption behind EP’s psycho-sexual Big Ideas is fundamentally flawed. EP says human males had to mate with as many females as possible to reproduce, while females had to be sexually persnickety, reserving her selection to the mate most likely to provide for her offspring– so that explains why men are just interested in sex while women are interested in devotion, commitment, security. But this conundrum of sex versus provision is only an issue in a situation where individuals function autonomously (i.e. modern-day, post-agricultural, nuclear-family economy) and a woman bearing children without someone around (to help bring home the bacon and change the diapers) is a tremendously weighty burden. In a tribal community, the whole tribe provides for its children, thus not depending solely on the paternal motivations of a dutiful father figure. This would actually help explain why men have not co-evolved along those lines and, most importantly, would point to a very different likelihood around the evolution of female sexuality, thus altering our debilitating, provincial assumptions about it.
So you can see how the evolutionary argument is all twisted up. Most of EP’s claims about sexual psychology stem from this erroneous position and, therefore, all its conclusions are highly suspicious. Designed by people with vision limited to the distorted data close at hand (observations of modern sexual behavior that’s been aggressively socialized for a few thousand years), the result is a highly distorted system of thought that reaches well beyond its grasp (extrapolating from those observations to reach conclusions about early human evolution). This ends up as nothing more than confirmation bias, which is also called very bad science.
This is a topic that brings me much distress, as I hope it will to you (sorry!), because such banter– and you see it everywhere: men’s journals, women’s mags, psychology publications, advice columns– perpetuates mistaken beliefs about the nature of our sexuality (particularly women) and who we are. Perpetuating these mistakes continues the heterosexual relational strife because, by sinking us deeper into the differences that divide, it prevents us from arriving at conclusions that reflect greater truth and, as a by-product, achieve greater harmony.