Wisdom teeth: Evolutionary psychology and gender

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology is an area of psychology which views many psychological traits as evolutionary adaptations; for example, having a good memory is an adaptation, and organisms which do, tend to survive better.

I have no quibble with this general thesis; I do not subscribe to the tabula rasa view, and I am sure, despite what Steven Pinker believes, that very few do.

There are, however, some examples of very shaky science in evolutionary psychology, particularly in regards to controversial work surrounding gender and gender roles. I myself am particularly interested in what the discipline says about gender, having studied it previously and being a massive raving feminazi.

Evolutionary psychology considers traditional gender roles, i.e. the dominant, aggressive man and the submissive, nurturing woman, to be adaptations. Much of this essentially comes down to sex and childcare: women need to be gentle and empathic to raise children, while it is necessary for men to be agressive and strong to protect their offspring.  In and of itself, this is vastly contestable: using a comparative approach, as is often used in evolutionary psychology, it is evident that there is a plethora of childrearing strategies in the animal kingdom.

Evolutionary psychology has been used to explain a variety of gender differences and gendered behaviours. For example, this article entitled “Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature” outlines a few: beauty standards are hardwired, men are not naturally inclined to monogamy and will cheat, male sexual harassment of women is perfectly natural, and, my personal favourite, Muslims become suicide bombers because polygynous culture means that they cannot get laid. Really.

These claims have a vague intuitive appeal, and yet, for the most part, they are largely built on hypothesising about how such behaviours can be hardwired, with very little empirical investigation as to how this can be the case. Often these claims come from popular science books which theorise, such as Pinker’s Blank Slate. This “storytelling” that behaviours are adaptations is particularly noticeable in theories such as the suicide bombers idea: polygyny is not particularly common in Islam, and therefore it cannot possibly explain the prevalence of Muslim suicide bombers. Another example of this is the infamous evolutionary psychology paper which claimed that girls’ preference for pink was an adaptation, while cheerily ignoring the idea that a hundred years ago, pink was the colour for boys while blue was the colour for girls.

Such data-free just-so stories are worryingly popular in the media: google “girls prefer pink evolution”, and there are many gushing newspaper articles reporting uncritically the girls’ preference for pink myth.

Not all evolutionary psychology is quite so evidence-free. Sometimes hypotheses are tested, although often with small sample sizes, or findings which go against the general big-strong-dominant-man-is-sexy dogma. In the media, though, empirical studies are treated with the same weight as hypothesising: both are seen to be painting the status quo with science.

With the ease with which one can hypothesise an evolutionary basis for a trait, it is no surprise that so many become armchair evolutionary psychologists, theorising after having once read Blank Slate. For example, this rather silly blog seems to suggest that there is an adaptive, innate reason that little girls want to be princesses when they grow up. In the comments, the blogger rather unparsimoniously tries to defend this view by suggesting that advertisers capitalise upon girls’ innate lust for princess-based paraphernalia. Such lay theorising and justification of behaviour is common: the man who cheats  may say “it’s in my genes”; the woman pregnant by another man may say “his sperm looked stronger”, the plastic surgeon will declare there’s a valid evolutionary reason that you should have a nose job, or you’ll never find a mate. Evolutionary psychology has even been used to justify the existence of rape, adding a pseudoscientific sheen to the myths that men can’t help themselves and women should stop wearing short skirts.

The science behind evolutionary psychology is not as strong as many appear to think, and it is an area to which many professed-sceptics show a distinct lack of critical thinking. I advise caution in interpreting evolutionary studies: many are not actually studies, but stories. The remainder are often poorly-conducted, as it is very hard to empirically test evolution without a fossil record of thoughts.

Suppose, though, that all or some of the claims made by evolutionary psychology are true: perhaps, that men are indeed, genetically, big hairy dominant hunters, while women are nice pink mummies, and these roles are hardwired as adaptations to the environment in which humans evolved.

The human body is rather imperfectly designed. We have a lot of various things that we don’t really need, for example, the appendix. Once, we needed our appendix to digest grass. These days, it sits there, until suddenly it might fancy getting blocked and exploding everywhere. Or, more often, it’ll just sit there, doing nothing at all. The appendix, though, was never really used by humans. It is just a vestige.

Wisdom teeth, though, were highly useful to humans when we first evolved. Humans were still a long way off inventing dental hygiene, and, so, tended to die once all of their teeth had rotted away and they could no longer eat. Wisdom teeth, emerging in the mid-twenties, gave an extra few years of life: four more teeth meant more time being able to eat. With the advent of dental hygiene, we no longer lose all of our teeth to decay, and wisdom teeth have become an annoyance. When a wisdom tooth grows into a mouth full of healthy teeth, there is often not enough room, and the new tooth impacts. I had a wisdom tooth that solved the lack-of-space problem by growing horizonally. Each time I bit down, it would take a chunk out of the inside of my cheek. I had it removed.

Wisdom teeth, then, are a solution to a problem that no longer exists, and when the tooth becomes a problem we have it yanked out.

If one were to assume that claims regarding gender made by evolutionary psychology were true, these gender roles are as irrelevant to modern life as wisdom teeth. They are a solution to a problem that no longer exists: we shop in supermarkets now; we have modern health care; our children are sent off to school; we have DNA testing for identification of fathers; we can have sex for pleasure with a very low risk of reproduction. The adaptations we developed to childrearing and mating problems no longer exist.

Why, then, would we cling on to the notion that it’s perfectly natural to rape, to cheat, to subscribe to the idea that male and female minds are inherently different, and so such things are inevitable?

We can overcome wisdom teeth, and, if any of the shaky claims of evolutionary psychology regarding gender turn out to be true, we can yank that out of our society, too.

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8 responses to “Wisdom teeth: Evolutionary psychology and gender

  • Heresiarch

    Maybe you ought to re-read Pinker, especially his section on rape.

    If one were to assume that claims regarding gender made by evolutionary psychology were true, these gender roles are as irrelevant to modern life as wisdom teeth.

    Well yes obviously. That’s the whole point. Biology is not destiny. Nature is what we’re put on this earth to rise above.

    There is, for example, a quite staggering level of basic confusion in these sentences:

    The adaptations we developed to childrearing and mating problems no longer exist.

    Why, then, would we cling on to the notion that it’s perfectly natural to rape, to cheat, to subscribe to the idea that male and female minds are inherently different, and so such things are inevitable?

    The first sentence is just plain wrong (I’m playing your game of accepting the premise of evolutionary psychology, by the way). The adaptations still exist: it’s the problems that the adaptations were designed to address that no longer exist. That’s why the way these adaptations express themselves in modern society can create problems. And why recognising that the adaptations are there is important if you want to find a solution to, eg, male violence.

    That answers the question raised in the second sentence: we should “cling to” the view that some dispositions are “natural” – if they are – because it happens to be true. And you don’t solve the problems caused by such dispositions by putting your fingers in your ears and chanting la la la.

    Natural does not mean good. Natural does not mean right. Natural does not mean morally acceptable. Natural does not mean that we should approve of something or not have laws against it. Rape is no less evil if it happens to be in some sense “natural”, and rapists are no less deserving of long prison sentences if their behaviour is genetically driven.

    Can you really not grasp this?

    And you call my blog silly.

    • stavvers

      More of a critique of writing style than content, this comment is.

      The views on rape I cited were Thornhill and Palmer’s, though Pinker’s idea (that it is low-status men trying to reproduce) is equally evidence-free.

      So, we agree that we shouldn’t lie down and accept ‘human nature’? Jolly good. Substantial chunk of nasty folk don’t.

      • Quiet Riot Girl

        I don’t know where I stand with regards to ev psychology except that a lot of it I do find troublesome the way it presents gender, without much grasp of how contemporary society has/does contribute to forming gender identities.

        But I agree that calling Heresiarch’s piece ‘silly’ was…well, silly.

        The issue of rape is a very pertinent one to use to discuss the nature/nurture debate. I expect that rape is based on some primal urges, after all it is as old as the species.

        One thing I know for sure, though, is that what is a social construct of recent making is the term ‘rape’ itself. And this deserves a LOT more unpacking than feminists will ever be prepared to carry out.

        • stavvers

          Interestingly, was having that conversation earlier: it represents a tension between two views:
          1. Rape as an analogy to coercive mating strategies in other animals (e.g. ducks, dolphins) (primal urges) or
          2. Rape as a violation of consent. (social construct)

          Naturally, view 2 is only possible in humans, as humans are the only species with the level of cognitive function necessary to give consent. Naturally, I fall closer to this view, and thus would indeed view rape as culturally constructed. It certainly is an interesting question.

  • Quiet Riot Girl

    I meant the word ‘rape’ and its legal and social definitions which are definitely ‘constructed’.

    I think feminism uses ‘rape’ to mean more than just coerced/non-consenting sex. It takes on a symbolic value that feminism would be lost without.

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