The Descent of Scientific American

Fenster writes:

There has been a dust-up over a Scientific American column about evolution and male-female behavioral differences.  The author, John Horgan, drew first blood by arguing that “evolutionary psychology, a modern instantiation of Darwinian theory, still provides justification for female inequality.”  Horgan acknowledges the claim that “natural selection made males more aggressive in their pursuit of status than females”.  But as a rejoinder he makes several arguments, including that “anthropological research has revealed that hunter-gatherer societies were remarkably egalitarian.”

The article triggered various Neanderthals like Steve Sailer, Jordan Peterson, Michael Shermer and Charles Murray, who didn’t bother to waste a lot of ink on what they thought was a ridiculously anti-scientific article, dismissing it bluntly and with dispatch.

Horgan could have reconsidered his adaptive strategy but opted instead to double down, and is back in Scientific American with a defense of his first column.  If there was any doubt at all about whether his first article was preposterous he gives the lie to that claim in the second article.  This one goes there, all the way.

Let’s say you were an archeologist with the single aim of proving the presence of gender equality in prehistory.  If you found no evidence of your claim in your excavation your most prudent move might be to stop digging.  Horgan should have considered that option.   Here, in the follow-up article, he digs the hole deeper.

His defense is in two parts.  The first part reiterates the scientific argument:

 . . . the theory is poorly supported by anthropological evidence. Studies suggest that our pre-civilization ancestors, who were nomadic hunter-gatherers, were relatively peaceful and egalitarian.

This is something that Sailer took on in his response to the first article.

Except for that whole hunter-gatherer part of the hunter-gatherer societies, but otherwise …

Additionally, even if such societies were egalitarian about how they divided work by gender how would that insight be all that relevant to the societies that have developed since prehistory?   That amount of time is more than enough to allow for the development of behavioral differences not rooted in the male cultural power of the moment.

But let’s give Horgan the benefit of the doubt here that his critics have fallen for a just-so story.


The problem is where he goes next, which is to detour completely away from science and to counter an allegedly problematic just-so story with a just-not-so story of his own.

Another problem with the sexual-selection theory of male dominance is that it suggests women have been complicit in their own oppression.

And we can’t have that, can we?

We live in a hyper-competitive, male-dominated culture because women prefer the “tough guy” to the “self-effacing” guy. Women are bullied into submission by loud-mouthed, domineering men because, historically, women have “selected” men who are loud-mouthed and domineering, thus propagating these traits. Women dig mansplainers.

And remember that women’s preference for domineering men is supposedly instinctual, rather than a rational response to a male-dominated world. The sexual-selection theory of male dominance is a form of victim-blaming. It is an especially insidious just-so story, because it feeds the male fantasy that women want to be dominated.

Proponents of biological theories of sexual inequality accuse their critics of being “blank slaters,” who deny any innate psychological tendencies between the sexes. This is a straw man. I am not a blank-slater, nor do I know any critic of evolutionary psychology who is. But I fear that biological theorizing about these tendencies, in our still-sexist world, does more harm than good. It empowers the social injustice warriors, and that is the last thing our world needs.

Talk about a straw man argument!  Horgan gives better than gets.  He says he is being accused of being a blank-slater but he is not, and the straw man here is the bogus blank slate charge.  But having delivered this bogus argument with the appearance of moral force I guess we are expected to slide right over the totally specious conclusion: we should not think these things because they do “more harm than good”.

I would not mind this sentiment in, say, the Journal of Right Thinking Ideas but this is . . . .ummmm . . . .a science magazine.

Look, there is nothing wrong with arguing that our morality need not flow from our biology.  “Is” and “ought” are separate, but related, things. Put in terms of natural selection, what is seemingly true need not bear any direct relationship to what is adaptive.

And so I have a tiny bit of sympathy for Horgan’s plea.  It is indeed odd that the defense of Darwinian logic in all things, favoring the science of the matter, glosses over the fact that the very theory being advanced suggests that people will naturally defend non-true ideas.  Some of these ideas will be adaptive and worth holding on to in the face of compelling claims to truth.  An article exploring that conundrum might be worthy of a publication entitled Scientific American.  Horgan’s article is not.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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4 Responses to The Descent of Scientific American

  1. Brian Gardam says:

    Having just learned from my DNA analysis that I am 1.5% Neanderthal, I object to you using that term to characterize the anti-sex equity scholars. Who knows, Neanderthal guys might have been really sensitive types.


    Sent from my iPad



  2. Faze says:

    Male and female roles are continually negotiated, from generation to generation. The result of these negotiations is that neither sex gets everything it wants, but both get a great deal of what they want. This worked satisfactorily for millennia. The invention of birth control should have been the occasion of a major renegotiation. But some upper class women, possibly impressed by the success of intransigent racial militants, stopped negotiating and started demanding. This caught on and so we have this tedious sex war going on at the highest levels of the culture. (Lower down, the old negotiations still take place, and something resembling the immemorial preferences still hold.)


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