Is Evolution a Pop Psychological God?

I was reading an article in The Good Men Project about the difference in how women’s beach volley ball players are depicted (with lots of butt shots) compared to how other athletes are shown.  One of the comments on the article brought to mind an issue I’ve been trying to articulate for a while.  One of the commentors posted a link to an article in a scientific publication that says that both men and women process images of men as whole people and images of women as a collection of body parts.  He suggested that the fact that we have adapted to thinking in these ways means that there must be a good reason.

This, of course, is an individual comment on a blog, so I don’t want to focus too much on it.  It did, however, get me to thinking about a genre of articles that I see regularly.  They begin with a study that identifies some difference in behavior or thought processes between males and females.  I have, for example, seen this style of reporting in articles on differences in how men and women shop.

The scientific method should dictate that a researcher does a test, observes a result and reports only what can be said of the results. In the case of the shopping study all they tested for, and therefore all they should be able to say is that men and women shop differently. Period.

Yet this is not where they stop.  They go on from here and speculate as to why this would be and they posit that the difference must be the result of evolutionary forces and go back to our hunter gatherer roots. 

You see in these articles a common set of assumptions.  1. Gender differences must be the result of evolution.  2. If something evolved, there must be a purpose behind it. 

In pre-modern times, when people observed something in the world that they could not explain, they assumed it was the work of gods.  Today when we observe something, we seem to be equally uncomfortable with leaving it unexplained.  In this way evolution is like a god.  It provides an explanation as to why everything had to be as it is. 

If researchers identified a difference in the way men and women process information, and they wanted to know if this was the result of nature or nurture they should have to devise a new test of their hypothesis, not make up a Just So Story about men hunting bison and women carrying babies. 

Recently I have read many stories about differences in how people from Asian countries process information compared to people in the West.  Asian children tend to learn verbs first whereas Western children learn nouns.  Asians tend to give great importance to background and context.  These are different ways of thinking, and as children learn we develop different neural pathways based on what is reinforced.  As many studies as I have read that discuss these differences in perspective, I have never read one that attributed the differences to evolution.  It is always assumed that these things can be explained by culture.  Yet when it comes to gender, evolution is generally the first explanation.

This has never made great sense to me.  Admittedly, I am a non-scientist.  Yet everyone has seen this situation:  The stocky, strong football star marries the cute, charming ballerina.  They expect that they will have girls with her legs and poise and boys with his strong arms, but they end up with stocky athletic girls and skinny boys who like to dance.  Genes aren’t that accommodating when it comes to passing along the traits that are beneficial in a woman to the female offspring and the ones that are beneficial to a man only to the males.

There is also a backwards quality to a lot of the evolutionary explanations.  It tends to go like this “women developed breasts because they were attractive to men.”  Doesn’t it seem rather more likely that males and females would adapt to be attracted to what their complementary gender was rather than the genders adapting their bodies and minds to some pre-existing notion of attractiveness that didn’t correspond to the way people were?

I am not arguing here that evolution does not exist, nor that there are no biological differences between men and women and that everything is the result of culture.  It seems clear that many aspects of how we think and behave, including gender roles, are a combination of biology and culture. And scientific consensus and fossil records support the idea of natural selection.

It is still a leap, though, to assume if something evolved as it did there must be a reason for it.  I think of the film Clockwork Orange where the authorities tried to induce and aversion to violence in the main character and they set their brainwashing films to music by Beethoven and inadvertently triggered an aversion to classical music as well.  Some traits surely evolved because it kept us from being eaten by big animals but some probably came along for the ride.

I suppose the real question when reading one of these studies is not how the difference came to be, but what do we do with this information now?  What do our explanations reveal about our assumptions?  When we figure that out, what do we do with that information?

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