I do enjoy a good evolutionary psychology take-down in the morning


I read a brilliant review of what may be a brilliant book (I’ll have to read it to find out), Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature” by David Buller. He dismantles a ubiquitous myth among evolutionary psychologists: the idea that women crave wealthy, high-status men, that they’re using a peculiar kind of capitalist economic reasoning when they make significant life-choices about marriage and pregnancy. This appeals to certain kinds of people — incels and “alpha” males and MRAs — who love the idea of the “sexual marketplace” and the notion that with great profit comes great desirability, and the corollary that hey, if you’ve got a girlfriend, you must be a superior Chad.

The evidence, say the evolutionary psychologists like David Buss, is that if you look at polygamous societies where women’s mate choice is freed from at least one artificial constraint, that men can marry as many women as want them, they all come flocking to the highest status males, and high status males have the most offspring. The existence of harems is proof that status is what women are all seeking, and that men with harems are sexually desirable.

(I’ll give you a moment to see the obvious flaw in the reasoning before you read the book’s explanation.)

He criticizes the methodology of David Buss and confirms what I suspected but hadn’t yet researched – that David Buss ignores cultural restrictions on female choice of mates. As Buller says:

…in a well-documented study, the anthropologist William Irons found that, among the Turkmen of Persia, males in the wealthier half of the population left 75 percent more offspring than males in the poorer half of the population. Buss cites several studies like this as indicating that “high status in men leads directly to increased sexual access to a larger number of women,” and he implies that this is due to the greater desirability of high-status men (David Buss 1999 “Evolutionary Psychology the New Science of the Mind”).

But, among the Turkmen, women were sold by their families into marriage. The reason that higher-status males enjoyed greater reproductive success among the Turkmen is that they were able to buy wives earlier and more often than lower-status males. Other studies that clearly demonstrate a reproductive advantage for high-status males are also studies of societies or circumstances in which males “traded” in women. This isn’t evidence that high-status males enjoy greater reproductive success because women find them more desirable. Indeed, it isn’t evidence of female preference at all, just as the fact that many harem-holding despots produced remarkable numbers of offspring is no evidence of their desirability to women. It is only evidence that when men have power they will use it to promote their reproductive success, among other things (and that women, under such circumstances, will prefer entering a harem to suffering the dire consequences of refusal).

The fact that Buss can’t be bothered to account for virtual female slavery when proclaiming female choice is typical of the Evolutionary Psychologist approach. Their belief in the power of biology to control human behavior is so reflexive that they can’t be bothered to consider even the most glaringly obvious cultural factors impacting their claims.

It’s so typical of evolutionary psychologists that they would overlook trivial details like sexual slavery that might interfere with their thesis.

Comments

  1. says

    That seems to be a trend with evolutionary psychologists: They find one isolated fact that maybe looks relevant if you squint a bit… and then they immediately stop looking for further facts and skip straight to the conclusion.

    I mean, he’s trying to make an argument about how women select partners and then he uses an example where the women never really get to have an opinion. It’s so ridiculous, it’s hard to even describe. He’s failing to address his own point and he doesn’t even notice. That’s beyond sloppy, but sadly on brand.

  2. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    [tangent] interesting that Chad is the name of Veronica’s ex(2B)husband in Riverdale, the CW adaptation of Archie comics.
    Chad, there, is a real exploitative jerkwad badguy, selling PONZI schemes, etc.
    Veronica took him down in some flamboyant style last night.
    — excuse me being incited by the coincidental name Chad.

  3. PaulBC says

    Phil Robertson (Duck Dynasty) has explicitly advocating marrying 15 year old girls so you can force them to pluck feathers off your ducks. He’s aware enough to realize that a woman of 20 with the confidence to follow her preference isn’t going to put up with that kind of shit. He’s just following an ancient tradition of forced marriages and smart enough to acknowledge it. You have to be pretty clueless to look at harems and try to conclude anything about the motivations of the women.

  4. consciousness razor says

    Why does putting the word “evolutionary” in front of it mean that they get to be so incredibly fucking ignorant of actual psychology (and sociology, anthropology, history, economics, political science, etc.)? Where do they come from? And who’s funding all of that crap?

  5. says

    “It is only evidence that when men have power they will use it to promote their reproductive success, …”

    Well yes, but that would seem to be a prediction of (wait for it) evolutionary psychology. Buss just misinterpreted the phenomenon.

  6. Allison says

    Even in societies where women have in principle some choice in who to marry, in most cases, the women are utterly dependent upon men — father until marriage, husband afterwards — so her well-being (and the well-being of her children) and even survival depend upon choosing a good provider. This is BTW a plot point in much 19th and early 20th century fiction — a woman having to choose between a poor man whom she would prefer and an unwelcome or even repulsive man who is, however, wealthy enough that she need not worry about where her next meal will come from.

    So even there, her “mate choice” is not about her preference for this or that mate as such as it is about a preference for economic security.

    It would be interesting to do a similar study, but restricting the population to women of independent means, so that there is no economic pressure to choose the “higher status” = wealthier mate.

    Also, since the load and cost of child rearing falls mostly on women (which is why women are usually poorer after divorce whereas men are usually richer), even supposedly economically “indepedent” women have to consider whether a proposed mate is likely to be able and willing to provide at least until the children are grown.

  7. answersingenitals says

    But 2012 Missouri Republican senate candidate Todd Akin assures us that if a women is inseminated, she will only get pregnant if she wants to be. If she doesn’t want to get pregnant, for example because she doesn’t like her partner, she will automatically control her body chemistry to prevent pregnancy. This is why he argued that anti-abortion laws should not make exceptions for rape. So, high status and wealthy men who acquire wives against their will will not have better reproductive success. They will only produce more offspring if their wives/partners truly love and admire them. At least that’s what you believe if you’re a conservative Republican.

  8. says

    It would be interesting to do a similar study, but restricting the population to women of independent means, so that there is no economic pressure to choose the “higher status” = wealthier mate.

    Indeed. It would be fun to see a study focusing on women who:
    (1) are sterilized/infertile/unwilling to have children;
    (2) have stable jobs with good salary;
    (3) have no intention to ever get married or establish a joint household with their boyfriends.

    Basically, women who are looking for boyfriends with whom to spend their free time.

    Once a person is financially secure and looking for a fuckbuddy, they no longer have any incentive to seek somebody who is wealthy/has a high social status. Instead, they have an incentive to pick a partner whose company they enjoy.

  9. brucej says

    The fact that Buss can’t be bothered to account for virtual female slavery when proclaiming female choice is typical of the Evolutionary Psychologist approach. Their belief in the power of biology to control human behavior is so reflexive that they can’t be bothered to consider even the most glaringly obvious cultural factors impacting their claims.

    Honestly it’s kind of an extension of the old physics joke : “assume a spherical cow”

    It’s not just “the power of biology to control human behavior” is blinding them as that they think that’s the only thing that controls human behavior.

  10. dragon hunter says

    There is plenty of research showing that women do tend to favour high social and economic status when choosing a mate. However, research also shows that this is more pronounced if they are thinking of long term commitment. The difference here would appear to be that women prefer high status me for social partnerships, but not so much for sexual gratification. This is why I think Allison is very much correct. In fact, that study has been done, by showing that women with well paid high status professions tend to marry down (this is very much the case in Academia, for example).

    The problem is when someone tries to apply this mostly ecological observation, into an evolutionary reasoning. There are two difficulties I see here. One, is the double-pronged mistake many evolutionary psychologists make of not only assuming that this must have been what all women did for millenia (when biology is actually characterized by diversity), but also ignoring social context (like you rightly point out here of ignoring cases when women were not really free to choose). The second however, is ignoring that social context is also a factor in determining ecological choices with significant evolutionary outcomes. Think of elephant seals: females do aggregate around dominant bulls, and as a consequence those dominant bulls do sire more offspring than non-dominant bulls. However, studies have shown that for mating, females will chose non-dominant males, but only in a context where the dominant bull is not a factor (usually on the water edge while going out for feeding excursions).

    What I’m trying to say is, it is correct that female choice of partner can be detached from sexual preference, but it is not necessarily the case that women are always “forced” by society to choose a less attractive mate. In social animals, individuals quite often make choices that are sub-optimal individually as a trade-off to gain social benefits.

  11. birgerjohansson says

    Maybe we should make a survey about slovenian photo models?
    But it would need to take into account just how desperate or nausea-tolerant the bride is.

Leave a Reply