Thursday, April 26, 2007

Feminism and Evolutionary Psychology

Via Jane Galt, I find Todd Seavey’s lengthy diatribe against feminism. There’s too much there to sum it up with a simple “this is all true” or “this is all nonsense.” Some is right, some is wrong, some is confusing... but all of it is fun. I laughed out loud several times while reading it. Here’s my quick breakdown:

On charges #1 (feminists make a priori assertions about empirical matters) and #2 (feminism is vague and ill-defined), Seavey’s right on target.

Charges #8 (feminism justifies its existence using worst-case scenarios) and #9 (feminism is ideological cover for self-interested special pleading) also make a lot of sense, though Seavey overstates his case a bit.

Charges #6 and #7 (neither of which I can summarize easily) both come off, intentionally or not, as whining about the decline of traditional marriage and the emergence of more permissive social norms.

Charges #4 and #5 are the most fun, albeit very debatable. Seavey applies a stripped-down evolutionary psychology model to explain female behavior. I’ll strip it down further: Women seek to mix their genes with the best possible sperm sources, and that means flocking to the alpha males. If they can’t manage to snag one of those, they’ll settle for a regular schmoe instead (and maybe – Seavey might have added but didn’t – dupe that schmoe into providing for some alpha cad’s baby).

Simplistic, but probably not far off the mark. What’s odd is Seavey’s shorter, and less nuanced, characterization of male behavior:
And, yes, some small minority of men will calculate — or simply feel on a gut level, as a result of instincts produced by evolution’s mating calculus — that they have a better shot at flourishing in a competition to become the pimp-daddy themselves than in a culture that strongly encourages permanent pair-bonding. But most males, I think, simply want an acceptable, normal girlfriend.
In trying to draw the sharpest possible contrast between men and women, I think Seavey’s missing the symmetry here. Just as women seek the alpha males but settle for the regular guys, men seek pimphood but settle for the pair-bonding. Of course, Seavey’s right that only a small minority of men actively seek to maximize the number of women they bed. But cheating is widespread, not just a privilege of the alpha males.

Still, he’s correct to focus more on the asymmetry between male and female mating strategies: “Any honest examination of human life ought to start from this evolutionary psychology insight about the differential behavioral implications of wildly different sperm and egg production/usability rates.” The fact that men have virtually unlimited capacity to produce children, whereas women’s capacity for child-bearing is severely limited (one pregnancy at a time with substantial associated costs), creates a divide in reproductive strategies: men are r-selected while women are K-selected. That is, men’s reproductive fitness is maximized by spreading their seed far and wide, while women’s reproductive fitness is maximized by making substantial investment in a small number of offspring. A natural corollary is that women have to be more picky about their partners (if you’re only going to mix your genes with a handful of men, you gotta pick the best ones) whereas men don’t have to be as picky (mixing genes with a low-quality woman does not generally preclude mixing genes with a high-quality woman). Hence the tendency for women to be “hos” (Seavey’s terminology) by flocking to the highest-status males. But men are hos, too, just in a different way.

(And I should add, just for completeness, that these are all broad generalizations. Individual men and women vary substantially around the biologically-embedded norm, and culture certainly affects the expression of innate tendencies.)

Definitely fun material, and if feminism stifles this kind of discussion with a dogmatic insistence that all male-female differences are purely cultural in origin, then so much the worse for feminism. But I somehow think there’s room for a realistic feminism that admits the biological and psychological differences between men and women.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Spreading your seed far and wide only goes so far if the true cost is parental care. For evolutionary success, your sprogs still have to grow up to procreate themselves. This tends to limit the success of indiscriminate seed-spreaders, except rich ones.

Cold-hearted economists might in a related vein ask if the welfare state, by providing a substitute for parental care to male-deprived households, is another way for alpha males and their harems to free-ride on the labour of the beta males.

Ironically, in this modern scheme the beta male doesn't even get to have sex with the harem-member.

Okay, maybe that's enough of the bitter evolution-economy drinks for tonight.