How can a criticism of evolutionary psychology come off sounding like apologetics? I found this article annoying because of its lack of awareness.
One of the more intriguing findings in the field of evolutionary psychology over the past two decades has been that ovulating women are more strongly attracted to men with faces that have pronounced masculine characteristics, such as wide jaws and heavy brows, than to men who do not have such traits. Other research suggests men with highly masculinised faces have strong immune systems, a desirable trait in children, but also tend to form weaker long-term bonds with romantic partners, and are thus more likely to desert and leave the mother, both literally and metaphorically, holding the baby. Logic therefore suggests that a woman’s ideal evolutionary strategy is to mate with such men in secrecy, while duping less masculine (but better bonded) males into believing that the resultant offspring are their own—thus garnering reliable help in raising them.
That is not intriguing. That’s actually a fundamental obsession of evolutionary psychology: there are so many tedious studies that try to map women’s sexual preferences onto some aspect of their endocrinology. There is no continuity of thought, they’re just flighty creatures who make decisions based on their menstrual cycle, and their entire life history involves cycling through hormonally dictated associations with men with chins vs. men without chins. And all of that is built on the premise that Natural Selection is so powerful that it oscillates irresistibly on a monthly basis.
There is something wrong with you if you can only think of women as bags containing varying titers of estrogen. Not intriguing, except that it does say something about the men who believe in that crap.
So this article gets into a moderately large study (584 women) that actually controlled for many of the problems that plague other EP studies. They actually measured hormone levels directly, rather than going by self-reporting. They did multiple sessions for each woman. They had a larger sample size to possibly overcome some of the statistical weakness of previous work.
Unfortunately, it still uses the same superficial sorts of criteria other studies have used. They show the subjects pairs of photos of digitally manipulated male faces, some “feminized”, others “masculinized”, and ask the subjects which they’d rather fuck, and which they’d rather marry (they missed an opportunity to include a third option, “kill”). That’s it. It’s a predictably shallow approach to complex life decisions, but hey, bags of estrogen don’t worry their pretty little heads with thoughtful interactions with other human beings.
The only surprise here is that they got a negative result — there was no correlation between the women’s choices and their menstrual cycle — and that it got published. At least that last bit surprised me. These kinds of studies are usually exercises in the file drawer effect, or p value fishing.
But the popular press summary still manages to polish up this turd in an aggravating way.
All told, Dr Jones found that women’s masculinity-preference scores were not related to their reproductive cycle. Specifically, he and his colleagues could not find any statistically significant relationship between the levels of any hormones and preferences for more masculine faces. The idea that evolution encourages women to engage in cyclical cuckoldry was certainly an intriguing one. But, as Benjamin Franklin put it, one of the greatest tragedies in life is the murder of a beautiful theory by a gang of brutal facts.
“Intriguing”. “Beautiful”. No, the premise was a heap of garbage that was sustained by years of sloppy studies and wishful thinking, and there was nothing beautiful about it. I’d like to imagine that some bad science was literally murdered, but I just know it’s going to be resurrected over and over again by evolutionary psychologists whose research is guided more by what they want to be true than any kind of valid understanding of evolution, or psychology, or human beings.