Evolutionary Psychology Is a Story (and Not a Good One)

Evolutionary Psychology Is a Story (and Not a Good One) July 29, 2017

All scientific knowledge is situated in cultural context, and people seem to forget this, especially when the topic relates to sex and who wants to bone whom.

Photo in public domain from Pixabay.
Photo in public domain from Pixabay.

In researching masculinity studies (and let’s be honest, quote-mining for the book chapter of doom), I came across an excellent essay by Martha McCaughey analyzing the image of the caveman promoted by fans of evolutionary psychology to act as a lens through which the view contemporary (cis, het) male sexuality. The caveman image is not a particularly flattering one, though it also holds appeal for reasons I don’t entirely understand but might be able to list (e.g. excusing rude behavior and rape culture).

Why people gravitate toward certain stories over others is always a topic of interest to me. While at AASECT 2017, I sat through David Buss’s plenary talk on evolutionary psychology and was puzzled as to why this is such a popular explanatory model. I don’t think there’s any more evidence for it than other ways of articulating the interrelationships between gender, sexuality, and culture.

Because here’s the thing: while we should promote those scientific models and attendant stories that have the best fit with empirical knowledge of the world around us, how we even understand the world around us, and ourselves, is incredibly subjective. This is why I dig feminist science studies: decades ago, these scholars (like Donna Haraway, Anne Fausto Sterling, and others) started pointing out that hey, the scientific method certainly gets results but the people using it are never as objective as they think they are.

I’d talk more about the folklore/science relationship but I have to admit I haven’t read IU folklorist Greg Schrempp’s book The Science of Myths and Vice Versa yet. It’s definitely on the to-do list, though.

The point here, however, is that popular narratives saying all men are essentially cavemen, and have license to act as such, is a constructed one.

As Martha McCaughey sums up this argument:

Evolutionary science doesn’t tell a flattering story about men. But more significantly, many people don’t understand that it’s a story. Evolution has become not only a grand narrative but also a lived ideology. Maleness and femaleness, like heterosexuality and homosexuality, are not simply identities but systems of knowledge. And those systems of knowledge inform thinking and acting. Bourdieu’s concept of habitus explains the ways in which culture and knowledge, including evolutionary knowledge, implant themselves at the level of the body, becoming a set of attitudes, tastes, perceptions, actions, and reactions. The status of science as objective, neutral knowledge helps make evolution a lived ideology because it feels truthful, natural, real. (12, italics in original)

I’m a huge fan of the Pervocracy blog post, The Myth of the Boner Werewolf (though of course as a folklorist I dislike using “myth” to mean anything other than sacred narrative about the origins of the world). The crux of the argument is:

There’s a pernicious myth out there that the male sex drive is unstoppable and irresistible–that once a man is aroused, he literally cannot control his actions.  We tell jokes about “thinking with the other head” and “all the blood went out of his brain” that aren’t entirely jokes.  We have a cultural narrative in which sexual arousal makes a man into a goddamn werewolf.

And we expect women to tiptoe around this uncontrollable male sexuality.  We tell them to watch how they dress, lest they wake the beast.  We tell them “some guys can’t control themselves”–not won’t, but can’t.  We tell them to be careful what they start, because they’ll be expected to finish it.  Hell, way too often we outright tell them that they have no right to withdraw consent once sex has started.

My response to myths like this, more and more, is “shit, if I believed that, I’d never have sex with a man again.”  I wonder if the story would change if more guys realized that saying “if a woman gets me turned on, she’d better be ready to go all the way” is the same as saying “getting me turned on is dangerous, better not take the risk.”

Then again, I wonder why more men aren’t just insulted by the whole concept.  If someone started telling stories about how my gender was controlled by our genitalia and sexual arousal turns us into rapist automatons, I would be outraged.  I would explain in very small, very loud words that I am a person and I can goddamn control myself.  I wish more men would speak up to say “actually, even when I can’t turn my erection off, I can sure as hell use the rest of my body to put it somewhere it won’t bother anyone.”

As Pervocracy articulates, the caveman metaphor dovetails neatly with rape culture, setting up an expectation that “because male sexuality is this way, women must act just so in order to avoid setting men off and the consequences thereof.” It’s not a nice story…but it’s one with a definite set of advantages conferred.

And anytime a story grants power to a certain population, and disempowers others, we should be paying close attention, whether the story is a pseudo-scientific model, or a fairy tale, or perhaps the point where both converge (which totally happens in my side project on masculinity and sexuality in contemporary fairy-tale literature, btw). Perhaps the more a story is deemed commonsense or trivial, the more we should be paying attention, which goes both for pop culture content and for scientific stories that have become so household-name and mundane as to be accepted without argument by many.

So, pay attention to those stories. Especially ones about gender and sexuality, and especially in the current political climate.


McCaughey, Martha. “Caveman Masculinity: Finding an Ethnicity in Evolutionary Science.” In Kimmel, Michael S., and Michael A. Messner, Men’s Lives. Eighth Edition. New York: Allyn & Bacon, 2010. 3-13.

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