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Nature or Nurture? August 4, 2009

Posted by Onely in Food for Thought, Heteronormativity.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I’m always intrigued by the relationship between “nature” and “culture” — how much of what we do and think in a particular place and time has to do with “straight” biology (pardon the pun), and how much has to do with the power of cultural values? This, of course, is the driving question that motivates a lot of what we do here at Onely, and so when I came across this article, which seeks to explain male/female mating habits according to evolutionary and biological “facts,” I found myself wondering, how much of this “makes sense” because of cultural norms/values, and how much is actually viable, scientific reasoning?

Take, for example, the following — which seems totally logical:

In young men, the selfish gene seeks to spread itself far and wide, mostly because it often can (and with minimal investment of resources) — hence, the rakish male tendency to love ’em and leave ’em. Women, on other hand, tend to be more discriminating. They’re the ones who have to carry the baby around for nine months, then nurse it to independence. In women, the selfish gene prefers a mate with both the wherewithal and the resources to stick around and raise the kid.

Okay, I thought. There’s not much to dispute here. But then, I read the “translation”:

“Men will be looking for short-term uncommitted relationships, women will be looking for relationship commitment,” said Kruger. “These are the things that have driven evolution. … Because of different interests, women offer a sexual relationship in exchange for commitment, and men offer commitment in exchange for sex.”

See, the thing is, while this explanation makes “logical” sense, it also seems to perpetuate a stereotype about the seemingly “inherent” differences between women and men. But perhaps more importantly, this explanation doesn’t take into account the “fact” of what I would call cultural evolution — that is, how do Kruger and other public health scientists account for the mass availability of birth control for women in the United States, which would ostensibly reduce the biological concerns for women and therefore change their mating behaviors? And how would these scientists account for many of the readers on this and other singles blogs who identify themselves as asexual and/or voluntarily or involuntarily celibate? How can/do scientists account for the outliers (who seem, based on the readers who comment on Onely, to be not so unusual these days) who challenge these norms: What about all the single females who desire sex, but no commitment? What about the single men who value strong interpersonal relationships but see sex not as a necessity but maybe just a “bonus”?

And why, when research shows that a near-majority of the American population is single, do we assume 1) that all of these single people have coupling on their minds, and 2) that the only coupling trends that matter are heterosexual?

Copious Readers, am I being unfair? Should we just assume we’ll be made invisible by scientific research in cases like these? What other questions does this article raise for you?

— Lisa



1. Singlutionary - August 5, 2009

Lisa, I don’t know. I am fascinated by the nature vs nurture debate as well. But, say that this scenario is true. That men want to spread their seed and women want a man who is going to help out.

Why would we have institutionalized marriage? Men have been in charge for a long long time so why would they create something that prevents them from “legitimately” spreading their seed far and wide?

And, now that times are changing and people can see themselves being passed onto another generation through their art or writing or invention and not solely through their prodigy, how does that change things?

I think that most people have an inherent desire to replicate themselves. And I think that smart people realize that raising a mini-me isn’t a walk in the park and that the mini-me is going to (hopefully) end up being a fully evolved person with their own opinions and ideals and dreams.

If all the responsible, thoughtful people are reluctant to breed . . . what does that say about evolution?

2. Alan - August 5, 2009

Over at the blog Tapped, Gabriel Arana addressed a similar article dealing with women in the workplace:

“…they are simply a reflection of our prejudices. The fact that one has many exceptions to these gender stereotypes — emotional men and strong women — should give pause. These counterexamples show that these traits are not an immutable feature of “man” or “woman”-hood, but are in a large part socially ingrained”

3. Rachel - August 5, 2009

Okay, now that I got my irritants out of my system (see below), I can write an intro to this comment! No, you’re not being unfair, Lisa, not at all. You are raising some very important questions that should be addressed by scientists who claim that they’re explaining how we evolved the way we did. The fact that they are not, speaks volumes, imo. Now onto my rant:

Two red flags right at the top (aside from the source; I’ve come to view Miller-McCune articles suspiciously period): Evolutionary psychology in its popularized version is rather, uhm, unscientific (see http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=four-fallacies). In particular, the claim that we know why our ancestors did what is highly questionable. And then there is their misinterpretation of “selfish gene.” The “selfish gene” is a gene that is selfish, i.e., does what is in its best interest. It is not a gene that makes us selfish, which is what the article seems to imply. Also, if you read the first quote, it sounds like we’re basically on the hook of a selfish gene that drags us around doing whatever it wants. That’s giving genes an awful lot of power! Finally, the idea that a gene acts differently in a man than in a woman seems a bit contrived. As far as I know, genes act the same – it is the interaction with other factors (including the environment!) that creates variance. To put all this more bluntly: This is attempting to cloak our sexist role division into something that is “natural.” So, Lisa, I have to disagree that “There’s not much to dispute here,” which you also do after the “translation” ;-).

A very, very good book that I can highly recommend is Carol Tavris’ “Mismeasure of Woman.” She goes into a lot of the supposed claims that men and women are just so different. It turns out that there are just as many differences between two women than there are between a man and a woman! So, we’re more alike than the “women are from Venus, men are from Mars” mentality allows. And anybody who is trying to tell us that biology is destiny like that Kruger guy, for example, is simply try to back-justify patriarchy.

“How can/do scientists account for the outliers?” Yes! That’s where all the “juicy” stuff is – totally scientifically speaking now. I mean: It’s easy to explain the “normal” behavior, the behavior most people follow. But how do you fit exceptions into that? There are a couple of scientists who argue that the theory of sexual selection falls apart because of those exceptions: Sarah Hrdy still thinks the theory can be expanded; Joan Roughgarden wants to replace it with a theory of cooperation. Both ideas are highly contested, of course, but science happens on the borders to the unknown or when we start looking at exceptions…

4. onely - August 5, 2009

All our readers are so smart and articulate. I feel as if I’m taking the SAT essay comprehension section here. = )


5. Lauri - August 6, 2009

These explanations are often disputed, even from an evolutionary standpoint. Women are less likely to seek “commitment” than once thought. Not from cultural changes, mind you, but we have always been that way.

6. Lauri - August 6, 2009

Oh I also wanted to add that I have never understood the claim that women are the choosier sex. To me it’s always seemed like men are the ones who pick and choose who they want to mate with. Traditionally they’re the ones that “go after” women. If men aren’t picky, why are women constantly struggling to look perfect, etc? It seems like our job is to just sit there looking pretty and wait for men to pick us (like at speed dating!)

Rachel - August 6, 2009

And they take forever in the bathroom getting ready in the morning!

onely - August 8, 2009

Tell it like it is, Rachel! = ) CC

onely - August 8, 2009

Agreed. (Though I do want to give a shout out to speed dating, which I found so interesting and amusing the one time I did it.) However, I think maybe women are choosy about behavior and men are choosy about looks? Generally speaking? I don’t think this is necessarily innate, but more it’s what society teaches us to be.

7. specialkphd - August 6, 2009

I do believe that there are biological differences in the sexes as well as each individual in utero that impact temperament. But the stereotypes in what people want in relationships are less robust as they used to be. However, I do think that men and women’s response to SEX is very different and thus, may influence appetites, but not necessarily behavior.

onely - August 8, 2009

RIght SKP, because we’ve evolved enough culturally that we should be able to intellectually and morally override some of our more reptilian-brain appetites.

8. Rachel - August 9, 2009

Over at Feminist Philosophers is a new post on evolutionary psychology and feminism. It starts with

Have you ever suspected that evolutionary psychology – or at least some of its practitioners – are resolutely battling on the behalf of what they see as a status quo that privileges men? If so, Satoshi Kanazawa’s piece in his Psychology Today blog provides some confirming evidence. Entitled “Why modern feminism is illogical, unnecessary, and evil,” it might be meant tongue-in-cheek, but I don’t think so.

And then, of course, they take the piece apart…

9. Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles - August 11, 2009

ITA with what everyone has said so far. See, this is why I don’t put a lot of stock in evolutionary psychology! It tries to reduce us to barely sentient masses of hormones. Even if we accept that everything we think, feel, and do represents a 50-50 split between biology and cultural conditioning, that still leaves plenty of room for non-genetic influences.

Outliers in any area are usually explained as evolutionary flukes who survived and passed on their genes because they were able to make their unique genetic makeups work for them. For example, some evo. psychologists see sociopaths as individuals with certain neurological abnormalities who are able to take advantage of our system and make it work for them because they’re NOT the norm. If our society was composed of JUST sociopaths, it would implode. But a proportionately small group of sociopaths can survive by working the system. I suspect similar arguments would be used to explain sexual outliers.

Also, my guess is that evo. psychs would explain seemingly incongruous sexual behavior as the result of a mismatch between biology and our current environment. In other words, as society continues to modernize and depart from the conditions under which we evolved, new, perhaps unsuccessful behavioral patterns will arise as we try to adapt, while old patterns will become increasingly problematic and eventually obsolete.

My biggest problem with evo. psych. is that it never takes emotion into account when explaining relationships. People feel affection for each other. They grow close. They like to be with each other. Experientially, THIS is the reason most couples end up together. Regular sex for the man and an on-call baby daddy for the woman are really only perks in comparison. If you ask most couples why they’re together, that’s usually what they’ll say. They’ll talk about how much fun they have together, how much they admire each other, etc. Evo. psych. assumes that people are actually just driven by babies, babies, babies all the time but have no idea that that’s what drives them. Sounds a little like assuming that singles can’t REALLY be happy to me. 😉

10. Singlism? Feminism? What Gives? (Part Two) « Onely: Single and Happy - December 15, 2009

[…] is easy to do, especially when one (such as myself) identifies as heterosexual. Take, for example, this post, which I wrote several months ago, in which I attacked research in evolutionary biology that sought […]

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