May 1, 2005

Is Sharon Begley as Dim As She Sounds?

Or does feminist ideology just get in the way? From La Begley's "Science Journal" column "Evolutionary Psych May Not Help Explain Our Behavior After All" in the April 29 Wall Street Journal (online only for subscribers)

But as Prof. Buller, a professor of philosophy at Northern Illinois University, dug deeper, he concluded that the claims of evo psych are "wrong in almost every detail" because the data underlying them are deeply flawed. His book "Adapting Minds," from MIT Press, is the most persuasive critique of evo psych I have encountered...

On a lighter note, evolutionary psychology claims that men prefer fertile, nubile young women because men wired for this preference came out ahead in the contest for survival of the fittest. The key study here asked 10,047 people in 33 countries what age mate they would prefer. The men's answer: a 25-year-old.

But the men were, on average, in their late 20s. One of the most robust findings about human behavior is that people prefer a mate who matches them in education, class and religious background, ethnicity -- and age. The rule that "likes attract" is enough to explain why young men prefer young women. Besides, if you scrutinize the data, you find that 50-ish men prefer 40-something women, not 25-year-olds, undermining a core claim of evo psych.

So that's why 45 year old strippers make so much more money than 25 year old strippers!

No, Sharon, if you scrutinize the data, or just read People magazine, you'll find that rich older men are much more likely to marry much younger women than rich older women are likely to marry much younger men.

The argument that Stone Age women preferred good providers, and that today's women are therefore wired to see a big bankroll as the ultimate aphrodisiac, is also shaky. Among some hunter-gatherers today, young mothers receive more food from their mothers than from their husbands. That makes even the theoretical basis for the claim -- that women who sought good providers had an evolutionary edge -- problematic.

No, but the more food they receive from their husbands, the more ahead of the game they are. Anyway, grandmother-provisioning only can take the place of husband-provisioning where women can gather food year round (e.g., in the wet tropics), but not in cold climates where plant food disappears under the snow every winter or in an extremely seasonal desert like the Kalahari. In more difficult climates, men must hunt part of the year or everybody starves.

The big problem with evolutionary psychology is something that has never occurred to the Sharon Begleys: it is terrified of admitting the existence of human biodiversity.

The empirical basis is no better. On average, 25-year-old women say they prefer 28-year-old men, even though 50-year-old men have much more of the high status and resources that evo psych says they are wired to lust after. Again, likes attract more than "good providers" do.

They are also wired to lust after muscles that can protect them and their children from other men and catch game for them. Anyway, raise status and resources of the 50-year-old man high enough and see how he does with young women compared to a 50 year old woman with equal status and resources.

Begley's fundamental problems with thinking are starkest in her conclusion:

Evolutionary psychology has a more fundamental problem than the shakiness of its data and the fact that the data can be interpreted in more than one way. Why, if child abuse by stepfathers is such a great evolutionary strategy, do many more stepdads love and care for their stepchildren than abuse them? And why, if rape is "such an advantageous reproductive strategy, [is it that] there are so many more men who do not rape than who do," asks primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University, Atlanta.

No, it's saying that life is very complicated, but that evolutionary psychologists have identified one set of influences that account for some limited but positive fraction of all behavior.

This kind of thinking is like saying that because the majority of males under 30 don't commit rape, that it isn't true to say that being male and under 30 makes one more likely to commit rape than being female or over 30. Or that because the majority of big league hitters aren't left-handers that being left handed couldn't give you an advantage at hitting a baseball (which it does).

I see the same kind of Begleyesque thinking all the time in people announcing that race can't possibly have any influence on human behavior because, according to Richard Lewontin, 85% of the human genetic variety is within racial groups and 15% between them.

No, that's like saying that human population genetics is like a casino where the roulette croupiers are either black or Native American, and 85% of the spins of the roulette wheel are random, but the other 15% of the time the ball winds up in the black when there is a black croupier and in the red when there is an Indian croupier. Kind of useful info, no?

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

rplibI think Begley is an absolute moron. Here views are not backed by science...especially her environmental views. This is an excellent case of the blind leading the well as the ignorant leading the ignorant. Way to go, Steve.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for creating yet more ill will toward the so-called "neoconservatives." I love these quasi-fascist articles posing as scientific critiques. Of course we should go to People magazine, rather than a Wall Street Journal writer and author, for our "scientific" data. After all, People magazine sells more copies than WSJ. Q.E.D.

Well, this is one comment the blog author will not approve. Cool, I like that.

Anonymous said...

Hmm . . . she says different things and is called names because the name-callers do not have the mental acumen to disprove her thoughts. And we must rely on "science" that once thougth the world was flat, and that one could cure people by bleeding them with leeches? "Curiouser and curiouser...!"