If I was the late Andy Rooney, I’d say “You know what really bothers me? When science shows some facts about nature, and then someone rejects those facts because they’re inconvenient or uncomfortable for their ideology.”
Indeed, when people ignore such inconvenient truths, it not only makes their cause look bad, but can produce palpable harm. Case in point: the damage that the Russian charlatan-agronomist Lysenko did to Soviet agriculture under Stalin. Rejecting both natural selection and modern genetics, Lysenko made all sorts of wild promises about improving Soviet agriculture based on bogus treatment of plants that would supposedly change their genetics. It not only didn’t work, failing to relieve Russia of its chronic famines, but Lyesnko’s Stalin-supported resistance to modern (“Western”) genetics led to the imprisonment and even the execution of really good geneticists and agronomists like Niklolia Vavilov. The ideological embrace of an unevidenced but politically amenable view of science set back Russian genetics for decades.
Other cases in point: the denial of evolution by creationists, and of anthropogenic global warming by conservatives. I needn’t belabor these.
We see this in other areas, too—especially with issues like differences between the sexes, ethnic groups, and evolutionary psychology. The assumption here is that any research on these areas could only serve to reinforce sexism and bigotry, so not only is that research denigrated, but there is an a priori ideological assumption that all groups are genetically equal for areas like behavior, mentation, and so on. The error of this viewpoint is that whatever the truth is, it shouldn’t—and largely doesn’t—matter in the modern world. Society has advanced to the point where we recognize that equality of treatment and opportunity is the proper way to treat men, women, those of different ethnicities, the transgendered, and so on. There’s no need to assume that a biological “is” translates into a societal “ought”. As Steve Pinker has emphasized many times, we’re well past that view.
But the opposition to research on group and sex differences continues. One of its big exponents is the author Cordelia Fine, who has written two books with the explicit aim of showing that there are no reliably accepted evolved and biological differences in behavior between men and women. I read her first book, Delusions of Gender, and found it a mixed bag: some of her targets did indeed do bad science, and she properly called them out; but the book was also tendentious, and wasn’t objective about other studies. I’m now about to read her second book, Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society. Judging from the reviews, which have been positive, it’s just as much a polemic as the first book, and has an ideological aim.
Because I haven’t finished it, I won’t judge it as a whole, but I do want to concentrate on one argument Fine makes that reviewers have found congenial. That is her supposed debunking of the claim that men have often evolved to be promiscuous, and women to be more choosy, because of the potentially greater reproductive payoff for multiply-mating males compared to multiply-mating females. Lots of psychological studies have supported this difference in human sexual behavior, and of course it holds widely across the animal kingdom as well (there are exceptions exactly where we expect: when the reproductive payoff for multiple matings is greater for females than for males, as in seahorses). This difference between the sexes is in fact the evolutionary basis for sexual selection, and for the consequent observation of males courting females with behavior, ornaments, calls, and the like, with females choosing among displaying males. This is so common in animals as to constitute almost a biological “law”, with the exceptions proving the rule.
Fine denies this evolutionary basis, leaving her unable, of course, to explain sexual dimorphism in humans or any species. Her denial appears to be based on an early flawed experiment of Angus Bateman in fruit flies, which indeed turned out upon reanalysis to be inconclusive. I’ve discussed this whole issue before, and you can read about it here, and how Sarah Ditum, the Guardian’s reviewer of Fine’s new book, was taken in by Fine’s bogus arguments. (Ditum is not a scientist.)
In my earlier post I pointed out the pervasive biological evidence that in both humans and other species, the conditions for sexual selection hold—a greater variance in male than in female reproductive output—probably explaining why men are bigger and stronger than women, and have beards and other secondary sexual differences. It also explains why male peacocks have showy tails, why male sage grouse do “jumping displays” to attract females, why male insects have weapons and ornaments, and so on. (See my bullet-point list of biological facts in that post.) Further, though Bateman’s experiments were flawed, they have been repeated properly in other species and have shown that, yes, males in general have the potential to have many more offspring than females: a higher variance in offspring number).
On February 23 the New York Times also reviewed Testosterone Rex, and the reviewer, the journalist Annie Murphy Paul, also fell for the bogus no-difference-in-reproductive-variance argument (she’s not a scientist). As she said:
Well, then, what about the even more entrenched idea that evolution has primed men to desire many and varied sex partners? Here Fine quotes the Bradley University psychologist David Schmitt: “Consider that one man can produce as many as 100 offspring by indiscriminately mating with 100 women in a given year, whereas a man who is monogamous will tend to have only one child with his partner during that same time period.” Fine expertly fillets this familiar premise, noting, among other inconvenient facts, that “the probability of a woman becoming pregnant from a single randomly timed act of intercourse is about 3 percent,” and that in historical and traditional societies, as many as 80 to 90 percent of women of reproductive age at any one time might already be pregnant, or infertile while they were breast-feeding. “The theoretical possibility that a male could produce dozens of offspring if he mated with dozens of females is of little consequence if, in reality, there are few females available to fertilize,” Fine comments. Think about it: For every man on the prowl, there simply aren’t a hundred women available to bear his child. For all men not named Genghis Khan, monogamy must have started to look like a pretty smart bet.
This is someone who doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Humans in Western society are now socially monogamous, but in effect many are polygamous, committing adultery. Men have been shown, time after time, to be less discriminating and more promiscuous than females. And many of those women who were pregnant were not pregnant by their social mate—if indeed our early ancestors had social mates—but by “alpha” males who got more than their share of offspring, or by those who mate with other males’ mates on the sly—what John Maynard Smith called “sneaky fuckers”. Most species of birds that look socially monogamous, for instance, pairing up in the nest and cooperating in brood care, have been found by DNA analysis to actually be committing adultery all over the place, so that the appearance of pairing gives a false idea of who’s really producing the chicks.
Such is the invidious result of having a non-scientist judge a scientific argument; and yes, the Times screwed up big time. But someone who should know better is the evolutionary biologist and blogger P. Z. Myers, who bought into Fine’s bogus argument and fallacious mathematics in a post called “Cordelia Fine is doing the math.” Myers accepts Fine’s contention that promiscuous males don’t really have more offspring than do choosy human females—females who are prevented from getting fertilized when they’re pregnant. Her arguments are wrong—for one thing, she sets unrealistic error limits for promiscuous males to outdo monogamous ones—but Myers has always rejected biology that is ideologically unpalatable to him.
In a rare occurrence at his site, the commenters, usually a choir of osculatory praise, gave him pushback. In fact one, “Charly”, did the math correctly and showed that males in relationships with multiple females (bigamous or polygamous) have the potential to have more offspring than do monogamous males, supporting the ideas that men are selected to compete for women. (Duh!) Charly ended his calculations with this statement: “But maybe my reasoning and math is wrong, I am sure someone will point flaws out.”
In the next comment, Myers admitted that Charly’s math was actually right—math that invalidates Fine’s argument—but then he said this:
And there we have it, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters: an admission that the biology is right, at least in theory, but the person who did the calculations is immoral. What better example can we find of someone who opposes the truth because it’s ideologically repugnant? Even Myers’s regular commenters couldn’t live with that pronouncement, with one even asking if he was all right. I won’t speculate on his state of mind, but I will say that he’s on the wrong side in this argument.
Well, be that as it may, we have two lessons from this kerfuffle.
a). Magazines and newspapers should get scientists, or at least journalists who are scientifically educated, to review books about science. Science journalists without training in math and evolution are unqualified to review Fine’s book.
b). It’s always better to accept a scientific fact than to reject it on ideological grounds. For people will know the truth, and when they see it rejected because of confirmation bias, they can see what’s going on.
It always hurts your cause to behave that way. If science finds that men and women behave differently for evolutionary and genetic reasons, or that humans have behaviors that are holdovers from selection in our ancestors, we can deal with that. Such findings do not inexorably lead to racism, sexism, or bigotry, and there’s no reason why they should. Sure, there may be a few misguided individuals who mistake an “is” for an “ought,” but society no longer works that way. Rejecting the facts because you don’t like them, or because they go counter to your political leanings, is a sure recipe for sinking your cause. First apprehend the facts, and then just deal with them.