T. Ryan Gregory makes an important point about how evolutionary biologists should approach problems.
I will avoid the political aspect of this discussion and focus on the science involved in the debate, because I think it highlights an important issue: namely, the need for evolutionary biologists to consider and test alternative hypotheses, even if they are not as intuitively plausible as the main hypothesis. This is one of the reasons that evolutionary biologists often take issue with claims from evolutionary psychology — because evo psych often tends to present a plausible hypothesis but does little to critically evaluate its underlying assumptions and even less to present and rule out alternatives. In particular, evolutionary biologists should know better than to restrict the list of hypotheses ones based on selection, because there are usually viable non-adaptive hypotheses as well. Natural selection is not the only mechanism of evolution.
And then he does precisely what we should do: he lays out a series of alternative explanation for size differences between males and females, and includes non-adaptive explanations. I know way too many boosters for evolutionary science whose brains would explode if you tried to tell them Trait X, which they think is important, doesn’t necessarily provide a selective advantage.
This is why I like to foist Elisabeth Llloyd’s book, The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution on my brighter students: each chapter lays out an evolutionary explanation for female orgasms, and shows the evidence pro and con…and often the evidence con is so strong you have to marvel at the psychological appeal of adaptive explanations, that people would advance and promote such poorly evidenced ideas.
Gregory also points to a good post by Jesse Singal that highlights these fallacious explanations. He highlights arguments made by Holly Dunsworth that are particularly good. She’s not very happy with the adaptive just-so stories that reinforce bogus ideas about male dominance.
…and it's as if women don't exist at all in these tales except as objects for males to fight over or to fuck but it's nice to have choice!
— Holly Dunsworth (@HollyDunsworth) December 16, 2016
They’re all criticizing a post by Jerry Coyne that makes a standard complaint from the conservative side of science.
After providing some more evidence that “the larger size and strength of males is reflected in their behavior … and was almost certainly promoted by sexual selection,” Coyne bemoans the fact that so many on the left refuse to acknowledge it. “To deny that the differences between human males and females in size and strength are evolved is to deny at the same time that differences in behavior between males and females is evolved,” he writes. “Only the blinkered ideologue would do that. Sadly, these ideologues continue to promote antiscientific ideas on the Internet.”
Apparently, the “blinkered ideologue” he’s sniping at is…me. Unfortunately for his case, I don’t deny evolved differences between men and women — it would be rather difficult to do so with the evidence in such plentiful supply. What I reject is the notion that a) these are all adaptive, and b) that all of the differences are biological. There is a tendency to extrapolate unwarrantedly from the fact that many women have distinctive lumps of fat on their chests, to a sweeping judgment that therefore, their brains must be completely different than those of men. Worse, they then abuse evolutionary biology to claim that these differences are necessary and intrinsic, and anybody who thinks differently is one of those awful “blank slaters”.
But you can’t do that!
It’s taking a statistical property of a group, which is the product of both biological predispositions and cultural influences, and saying that Trait X must be biological in nature because Trait X exists. It’s nonsense. It takes hard work, which usually hasn’t been done, to tease apart environmental and genetic influences, and too often we fail to appreciate that the trait under consideration is a product of both.
Unfortunately, Singal also makes a statement that annoys me.
There really are people who deny there are any innate, evolutionary driven differences between men and women, and as Coyne points out this belief tends to come out of certain political movements who don’t view such differences as compatible with feminist or progressive beliefs and goals.
Who are these people? I’ve read a fair bit of feminist and scientific literature, I’m friends with a number of people who are labeled as ‘weird feminist extremists’ (usually by the kind of ignorant people who think “cuck” is a cogent insult), and I don’t know any who hold this view. Most feminists start with the position that men and women have differences, but these are unfairly and inappropriately extended to apply to every behavioral property, and fairly consistently to the detriment of women.
What’s usually going on is that some anti-feminist has made a bizarre, unbelievable, and often incorrect claim about feminism (they hate men, they want to rule the world, they think my penis is tiny, etc.), and people agree — yes, that is crazy — without checking to see whether any one of them actually said that. I’ve got people ranting that I don’t believe genes or chromosomes or hormones have any effect on humans, for instance, which is flat out crazy talk. But hey, vilifying your ideological opponents with lies is fair game, right?