Friday, July 06, 2007

Junk science, right-wing stylee

A hat-tip, first, to She Who Must Be Uncriticised. And from her place we receive this stern injunction:

To the people who reject this article: have you considered joining the Liberal Party of Canada? Because you are not conservative, nor libertarian. You are a left wing socialist, probably a careerist too. So embrace your true socialist politically correct careerist nature, stop trying to fool yourself and others and proudly display your Trudeaupian colours. In the long run, everyone will be better off.

In fairness, a couple of rock-ribbed conservatives over there are unimpressed by the article in question, entitled "Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature," but show no signs of embracing their inner Trudeau.

Anyway, folks, to the article itself. It's all about sex--and an immutable "human nature" that can be deduced from just about anything. And we're not talking, here, about falsifiable hypotheses--that's for the timid. What we have here are Truths. Note, bye the bye, that there are ten of them.

Let me declare my own position first. I don't like sociobiology, the genre in which the authors have chosen to write. It's reductionist, it makes enormous leaps to fit observed data to the theory, and it lends itself to fascism and racism. But I will deal as best I might with the Truths on their own merits, which I believe to be slight. Discussion is welcome.

Truth One: Men like blond bombshells (and women want to look like them).

One can only imagine the futile hunt for the woman of one's dreams in Africa or Asia. The vast majority of the human race is--out of the race. (This reminds me of Louis MacNeice on astrology: he asserted that Scorpios are blond. Imagine: no births between October 24 and November 22 in most of the world. Why has this never been reported?)

The authors segue--no, they don't, they veer wildly--from blondness to general concern about body image in Iran, and then back. Men like younger women because the latter can procreate. Blond hair is equated to youthfulness and long blond hair to health. And the firm big breasts that all men supposedly adore are an indicator of youth and fertility: they sag more as women age than do small breasts, so men know to steer clear. Gray hair and wrinkles, it seems, won't do the trick.

As for blue eyes, the authors allege that "preference for [them] seems both universal and undeniable—in males as well as females." They suggest that this is because of pupil dilation, which happens when people see something they like
. Allegedly this is more easily seen in blue-eyed folks: we like blue eyes because it's easier to tell when someone is sexually interested in us. Once again, the poor Africans and Asians must settle for guesswork.

Truth Two: Humans are naturally polygamous. (Read "males" here, the unmarked gender.) We know men like to fool around, and it's because they're bigger than women. And we know this because that's the way things work in the animal kingdom. Women put up with it because they'd rather have a piece of a powerful and successful man than the whole of a second-rate one. Powerful and successful women, we are told, do not organize male harems for themselves: but no doubt this is due to their hard-wired inferiority. "Hoggamus, higgamus, men are polygamous, Higgamus hoggamus, women monogamous."

And yet, almost
in the same breath, the authors assert that monogamy is a result of men being generally equal in their resources [!] in an industrialized society. Accepting, for a moment, this specious claim, we must now find that somehow "human nature" managed to give rise to a social formation that is antithetical to it. The authors fail to draw the obvious conclusion about the validity of their sociobiology. (Puritanical Frederick Engels thought that monogamy was the highest stage of man-woman conduct, although in bourgeois society it is invariably "supplemented by adultery and prostitution." In his view, when capitalism is abolished both men and women will be happier with monogamy, because "sexual love is by its nature exclusive." Ah, a reference to a different but equally immutable nature, where one might least expect to find it.)

Truth Three: Most women benefit from polygyny [one man, several women], while most men benefit from monogamy. At this point, the authors' boat is coming unmoored. Their assumption all along has been that some men, and men alone, have wealth and power (never mind the contradictory "equal resources" claim that the authors introduce briefly to explain away the rise of monogamy): women, therefore, have a shot at getting a chunk of a wealthy and powerful man, and passing his superior genes onto the children, because the man isn't monogamous. But for men in general, this won't work, because the less-well-endowed will end up with no wives. Monogamy ensures that most men will get themselves a woman. So much for an evolutionary reproductive strategy that supposedly favours the fittest.

In any case, all this ignores the possibility that a desirable woman, with independence, wealth and power of her own, might indeed choose to keep stables of young men, each of whom is pleased enough to get his share of her attentions (or, conversely, she might opt for mutual monogamy, and have the clout to enforce it). Polyandry, the authors state, is "rare," but it is by no means unheard of. Obviously in such cases, Truth Three must be reversed.

Truth Four: Most suicide bombers are Muslim. Right you are. And, during the Second World War, most suicide bombers were Japanese. The authors claim that most of the Muslim suicide bombers are single, competing in a marriage sweepstakes made far more difficult by the prevalence of polygyny in Muslim societies. The authors concede that blowing themselves up renders them unmarriageable, and that other more polygynous societies don't have suicide bombers, but they get around this difficulty by referencing the "72 virgins" (who may turn out to be, in fact, white or chilled raisins--or worse) that martyrs are allegedly promised upon their ascent into Paradise.

Now, it is true that suicide can be an option for young people with bleak prospects on the marriage front. Jared Diamond, in his recent book Collapse, raises the case of Tikopia, a small and successful South Pacific society, in which suicide appears to be a de facto means of population control, practised by young women as well as young men. It is not surprising, but commonsensical, that suicide is more likely to be performed in any case by single rather than married individuals. But it simply strains credulity that young Muslim men are blowing themselves up to get laid--particularly when the 72 virgins, as it turns out, are promised to every Muslim man anyway:

"The Prophet Muhammad was heard saying: 'The smallest reward for the people of paradise is an abode where there are 80,000 servants and 72 wives, over which stands a dome decorated with pearls, aquamarine, and ruby, as wide as the distance from Al-Jabiyyah [a Damascus suburb] to Sana'a [Yemen]'." --Hadith 2562, Sunan al-Tirmidhi.

Truth Five: Having sons reduces the likelihood of divorce. This one is a gimme--sort of. I don't necessarily quarrel with the observation (although I would like to see a little cross-cultural data), only with the construction placed upon it. The authors make the essentially trivial point that in a patriarchal society, sons are more valued, and that fathers are more likely to stay in a marriage to ensure that the son(s) will inherit their wealth. But the implication is that only fathers divorce, that only fathers have the wealth to bestow (these days matrimonial property legislation in numerous jurisdictions confer an equal right to that wealth upon the wife), and that only mothers retain custody of the sons. Moreover, once the son leaves the ménage and the wills are drawn up, what prevents an unhappy couple from splitting up? Some further investigation of the finding, it seems to me, is necessary.*

Truth Six: Beautiful people have more daughters. The authors begin with the Trivers-Willard hypothesis, somewhat misstated. Trivers and Willard (Science, v.179 [1973] 90-92) argued that the physical condition a mammalian mother is in affects the sex ratio of her young. If she is in good condition, she'll produce more male offspring, because a healthy male can sire more offspring than a female can birth them. If she's in poor condition, she'll produce offspring in poor condition: and she'll have more daughters, because a female offspring in poor condition will out-reproduce a male offspring in poor condition.

One can quarrel with the explanation for these observations, and the biological mystery persists as to how sex-selection of this kind is achieved. Trivers and Willard go on to claim that their model, developed through the study of animal populations, applies to humans, differentiated on a socioeconomic scale. Presumably, women higher on that scale are in better physical shape than those beneath.

But the hypothesis has become generalized in the hands of others. Any parental trait good for the reproductive success of sons, the Truth authors claim, will lead to more male offspring, while a trait good for the reproductive success of daughters will lead to more female offspring. Physical attractiveness contributes to women's reproductive success more than men's: hence, physically attractive parents will tend to have daughters. "Americans who are rated 'very attractive' have a 56 percent chance of having a daughter for their first child," the authors state, "compared with 48 percent for everyone else."

Once again, leaving aside the matter of who rates couples as "very attractive," and the relation between the sex of the first-born and the total numbers of daughters vs. sons born to these couples, there remains a fundamental problem. Why would physical attractiveness win out over, say, intelligence, aggression, creativity or other traits that might, in the patriarchal universe of the authors, be more of an advantage for boys? Are the "beautiful people" devoid of any of these other positive traits whatsoever? If not, how are they weighed in the scales of reproductive success?

Truth Seven: What Bill Gates and Paul McCartney have in common with criminals. Both crime and genius, the authors assert, are aspects of youthful competition (male, of course), as the ancestral struggle for reproductive success is played out. Once children are born, the emphasis shifts to protection, stability and so on. The costs of competition at that stage outweigh the advantages.

Again, however, there is a serious problem. Some brilliant creative achievements--in physics, for example, or mathematics--are certainly the province of the young. But, contrary to what the authors claim (citing J.D. Salinger as their only example), this is not necessarily the case for writers, or visual artists. Michelangelo is a solid counter-example in the arts; and I would challenge the authors to find a single long-lived major poet (other than William Wordsworth) whose work declined in quality over time.

The sheer complexity of genius and its variable trajectory is set out by D.K. Simonton in his article "Emergence and Realization of Genius: The Lives and Works of 120 Classical Composers" (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, v.61, no.5 [November, 1991] pp.829-840. Here is what he says at the outset:

Anyone familiar with the lives of the notable contributors to a given discipline probably has been impressed with the tremendous variation that can be observed in the course of their respective careers. Some are child prodigies, and others late bloomers; some peak early and others late; some seem over the hill at a disreputably youthful age, whereas others seem to save their magnum opus for the swan song of their life and career…

The authors' claim is simply preposterous, not remotely borne out by the facts, and indicates the lengths to which they are prepared to go to select data to defend a theory.

Truth Eight: The mid-life crisis is a myth--sort of. The authors state that a man goes through a mid-life crisis only when his wife does, running out to buy a red sports car or whatever because he is trying to attract younger women to further his reproductive destiny. This Truth, of course, flatly contradicts Truth Seven. Or do we see sudden new peaks in creativity and productivity when a scientist or artist's wife goes into menopause?

Truth Nine: It's natural for politicians to risk everything for an affair--but only if they're male. It's natural, in fact, for any high achiever, male or female, to take risks, sexual or otherwise. One counter-example to the "only if they're male" claim? Catherine the Great. Another? Our own Belinda Stronach.

Truth Ten: Men sexually harass women because they're not sexist. Here we enter the realm of the utterly surreal. A psychologist is cited who claims that men in a workplace (which he calls a "competitive situation," although that hardly describes the average workplace) are abusive and intimidating towards each other.
Women are just being treated in the same fashion. No discrimination there. As for the boss who demands sexual favours from his subordinates, he's just engaging in a male mating strategy....

Enough, already. Junk science, like junk food, can make you queasy if you eat too much of it. And that's the truth.

*[UPDATE] In fact one of the brighter commenters over at SDA has tracked down two recent studies that challenge this Truth. The first indicates that, at least for whites, having sons actually increases the likelihood of divorce; the other, a large cross-national one published in 2004, finds nothing to bear out the hypothesis that sons provide marital stability.

So the investigation has been done, and some self-criticism on my part becomes necessary. A rash assumption of my own--that the alleged finding could be explained by patriarchy--permitted me to believe that the authors got something right. In other words, I fell, heavily, into the same trap as they did, letting theory determine investigation.
Mea maxima culpa, and I hope I have learned something from this.

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