Big Peeve

These days, women not only struggle against sexism, they must also struggle against the putative scientific basis of sexist behaviour provided by popular evolutionary psychology.    I often hear men and, sometimes, to my dismay, women, rationalizing male sexual aggression on the basis of some vaguely defined but nevertheless, operational “caveman psychology”, a sort of “boys will be boys”, “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” pseudo-scientific understanding of male sexuality and female roles.

In that context, I’m lovin’ this article by Martha McCaughey in American Sexuality Magazine.  Here are some bits:

Popularized evolutionary discourse, or pop-Darwinism, offers men a scientifically authorized way to think about — and live out — their sexuality. Indeed, popular attention to the evolution of human male sexuality has increasingly lodged American manhood in an evolutionary logic. Pop-Darwinism has become a sort of cultural consensus about who men are. Average American guys don’t read academic evolutionary science, but many do read about science in popular magazines and in bestselling books written by enthusiasts of evolutionary psychology. Popular culture is a political Petri dish for Darwinian ideas about sex. As such, it is worth examining — even when magazine writers and television producers intentionally “dumb down” or distort more sophisticated or modest academic claims.

An issue of Men’s Health magazine explains “the sex science facts” to male readers interested in “the biology of attraction.” We follow the steps of a mating dance, but don’t quite understand that’s what we’re doing. Indeed, we must learn the evolutionary history of sex to see why men feel the way they do when they notice a beautiful woman walking down the street:


Of course, out there in the street, you have no thoughts about genetic compatibility or childbearing. Probably the farthest thing from your mind is having a child with that beautiful woman. But that doesn’t matter. What you think counts for almost nothing. In the environment that crafted your brain and body, an environment in which you might be dead within minutes of spotting this beauty, the only thing that counted was that your clever neocortex — your seat of higher reason — be turned off so that you could quickly select a suitable mate, impregnate her, and succeed in passing on your genes to the next generation.

The article, “The Biology of Attraction” by Laurence Gonzales, proceeds to identify the signals of fertility that attract men: youth, beauty, big breasts, and a small waistline. Focusing on the desire for youth in women, the article tells men that “the reason men of any age continue to like young girls is that we were designed to get them pregnant and dominate their fertile years by keeping them that way … When your first wife has lost the overt signals of reproductive viability, you desire a younger woman who still has them all.” And, of course, male readers are reminded that “your genes don’t care about your wife or girlfriend or what the neighbors will say.”


The influence of the evolutionary story cuts right to men’s physically felt dispositions. In his book, Cultural Boundaries of Science, Thomas Gieryn comments on the cultural authority of science, suggesting that “if ‘science’ says so, we are more often than not inclined to believe it or act on it—and to prefer it to claims lacking this epistemic seal of approval.” To his observation I would add that we are also more likely to live it. Ideas that count as scientific, regardless of their truth value, become lived ideologies. In this way, a heterosexist form of male sexuality is naturalized. In her discussion of naturalizing male power, sociologist Raewyn Connell states:

The physical sense of maleness is not a simple thing. It involves size and shape, habits of posture and movement, particular physical skills and the lack of others, the image of one’s own body, the way it is presented to other people and the ways they respond to it, the way it operates at work and in sexual relations. In no sense is all this a consequence of XY chromosomes, or even of the possession on which discussions of masculinity have so lovingly dwelt, the penis. The physical sense of maleness grows through a personal history of social practice, a life-history-in-society. (Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics)

We see and believe that men’s power over women is the order of nature because, as Connell puts it, “power is translated not only into mental body-images and fantasies, but into muscle tensions, posture, the feel and texture of the body.” The caveman becomes an imaginative projection that is experienced and lived as real biological truth.

We must challenge the convenient innocence with which men invoke science to understand and experience their bodies. The caveman mystique is, after all, a contemporary male counterpart of the feminine mystique so famously described by Betty Friedan in 1963. Women had to challenge the popular idea that they found fulfillment in keeping house and rearing children. It’s time now to challenge the idea that men find true self-expression in boorish behaviors, sexual aggression, and chance sexual encounters. Indeed, it’s time for men to take a great leap forward to develop a more sociological understanding of both science and their own sexuality.

Read the whole thing here

I’m going to place an order for McCaughey’s book, The Caveman Mystique: Pop-Darwinism and the Debates over Sex, Violence and Science right now!  I’ll get mine at a Canadian site, here.  In the States, you can place your order here and in UK, here.

Here’s an interview with Martha McCaughey at Daily Bedpost

Reviews at Goodreads

Here’s where two evolutionary psychologists (male) jump all over McCaughey

Echidne wrote a review of the book in the Winter issue of Ms Magazine.  See her blog archives, here, about half way down the page and buy your back issue of Ms, here

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