Here we go again with the evolutionary psychologists.
There’s no denying that evolutionary psychology has a sort of hip cachet — the general idea goes that we humans act the way we do because of the way we evolved on the African savanna millions of years ago, even if those inherited behaviors no longer make a lot of sense.
But evolutionary psychology — once known as sociobiology — just can’t seem to help wading into ridiculous territory, and it sometimes ends up saying more about the people who practice it than the subject they’re studying.
Nine years ago I wrote about an evolutionary psychologist, Kevin MacDonald, who tried to prove that antisemitism is a natural byproduct of evolution. Until that article came out, MacDonald had been laboring in relative obscurity at Cal State Long Beach. His own colleagues really weren’t aware of what he was doing, and the only people who were following his work were white supremacists who considered him a genius. After the piece exposed him, MacDonald at first denied vehemently that his work was antisemitic. By 2004, however, he was openly accepting an award from a racist publication. (For a good overview of the whole mess, go here.)
In the wake of my 2000 story, other evolutionary psychologists criticized MacDonald’s work and distanced themselves from him. But I never forgot the lesson that it’s important to keep an eye on these so-called scientists, who have a tendency to “find” scientific explanations for their own prejudices…
Naturally, it’s human sexual behavior that really seems to obsess evolutionary psychologists, and it’s hard not to conclude that some of these guys (and they’re always guys) are hell-bent on using evolution to excuse the worst possible behavior by males. It was a couple of evolutionary psychologists, for example, who created a furor by proposing that rape is a natural result of evolution.
In 2006, I assigned a writer to look into what evolutionary psychologists were up to at another local college. By that time I was in South Florida, and the school was Florida Atlantic University (FAU). The writer, Julia Reischel, did a wonderful job with a story on a professor, Jesse Bering, who had actually done some intriguing work. Bering had used interviews with young children to suggest that religious notions about an afterlife were innate, not learned — and further concluded that God himself was a byproduct of evolution.
It was interesting and harmless stuff.
But Reischel followed that story up with something really astounding. She found that a couple of other FAU professors were jamming rubber penises into rubber vaginas with a homemade recipe for artificial spunk in order to prove that men fuck their girlfriends harder if they think their women have been unfaithful.
Citing something called “sperm displacement theory,” these evolutionary psychologists were once again taking an uncontroversial idea — that in the animal world, males compete to create offspring by trying to displace another male’s sperm — and were taking it in ridiculous directions.
Combining their rubber penis experiments with interviews of undergraduates, these jokers concluded that men fuck their girlfriends or wives with deeper thrusts after they develop some sort of question in their minds about the whereabouts of their women. In other words, the theory proposed, men unconsciously thrust deeper to shove out of the way any sperm left behind if their woman has been unfaithful.
This theory was based on the flimsiest of evidence (what guy can remember which night of the week he thrust deeper, and whether in the days before he had questions about his wife’s whereabouts?), and it was only one bizarre direction these ‘scientists’ were going. They also proposed to measure the nutsack size of individual undergraduates to test an idea that men with bigger balls were more promiscuous. (This was based on the nutty idea that somehow individual variations in sack size would for some reason echo species-level variations in behavior. That’s just really bad science.)
Reischel, meanwhile, did some great science of her own: she interviewed the lead investigator to find out what sort of background he was bringing to the experiment. And sure enough, what did she find? The guy had ruined a marriage by being unfaithful, and he’d never recovered from it.
Must be some kind of solace, I guess, to come up with experiments involving rubber dildo action to prove that evolution made you do it, (or whatever).
Unfortunately, three years later, Scientific American magazine’s website — of all places — is now taking that lousy science seriously. In a new column by Jesse Bering (remember him, the one who proved evolution created God, and not the other way around?) has a column I’m sure his editors thought was very funny, which ponders the shape of the human penis.
Over the course of his story, he brings up the fake-penis deep-thrusting research of his former colleagues, but he doesn’t mention some of the more ridiculous aspects of it, like measuring the circumference of ball sacks.
Ahhh. Evolutionary psychologists. So entertaining. And so worthy of ignoring altogether.