Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Caveman Mystique

Interesting article on the spread of (watered-down) evolutionary psychology in popular culture from American Sexuality Magazine. Here is a key passage:
Men, the popular account of evolution tells us, are rampantly heterosexual skirt chasers. (Anyone who’s gay serves, at best, as evidence of the supposedly nonadaptive delights in which some humans indulge and, at worst, as evidence of what is unnatural and therefore immoral.) This understanding of male sexuality helps fuel a culture Michael Kimmel recently labeled “guyland,” the life stage and social space in which teenage and twenty-something men cultivate a rude-dude attitude, resenting anything intellectual, politically correct, or smacking of either responsibility or women’s authority. What better than the caveman narrative to help these guys avoiding the demands of adult life define themselves as, nevertheless, real men?
That doesn't sound like the men I know, but then I have strange friends. Most of the men I know are polite, considerate, and even compassionate. But maybe cavemen were, too?

Now read the whole article:

The Caveman Mystique

Finding an identity in pop-Darwinism

By Martha McCaughey

“You’ve got a great waist-to-hip ratio,” my date declared, after which he went on to explain that men have biologically evolved to respond to just the right womanly proportions and also to react to large breasts, since both of these signify fertility. My date was not an evolutionary scholar, or a scholar of any kind. He was just a regular guy who, like so many others, had been exposed to and internalized popular magazine articles and television news programs that champion the science of evolutionary psychology.

Evolutionary psychology uses contemporary Darwinian theory to explain, among other things, how human males and females evolved with different sexualities or, in the jargon of evolutionary psychologists, different “sexual psychologies.” Read: men and women want different things in a mate and have different sexual styles. While the fairer sex is choosey about her mates, more capable of a lasting bond with a lover, and dedicated to her role as a parent, the harrier sex is sexually promiscuous, places an enormous emphasis on women’s youth and beauty (which he ogles every chance he gets), either cheats on his wife or wants to, and can be sexually aggressive to the point of criminality.

Evolutionary theorists interested in human behavior reason that our human male ancestors were, back in the environment to which our bodies are adapted, constantly competing with one another for sexual access to fertile women. Evolution favored women who were picky about their mate choices, given the high level of parental investment required of the human female for reproduction—months of gestation, giving birth, and then years of lactation and care for a dependent child. The human male’s low level of parental investment required for reproduction—after all, he need only ejaculate into a fertile body to reproduce and could father hundreds of children—meant that human males evolved to be relatively sexually carefree or, less delicately, to be, by nature, wanton skirt chasers.

But having briefly outlined the evolutionary theoretical approach to sex differences in human sexual behavior, I want to talk about the popular spread of that theory, however distorted or watered down it winds up. For we find references to man’s evolutionary heritage throughout popular culture—in new science textbooks, pop psychology books on relationships, men’s magazine, and even on T-shirts. (Picture the frat dude chugging a beer in a shirt with a picture of a caveman clad in a fur pelt holding a club and with the statement “Me Find Woman.” You can actually buy these shirts on There are caveman fitness plans and caveman diets. Saturday Night Live’s hilarious “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer” and the affronted caveman of the Geico car insurance ads joke about the ubiquity of caveman narratives. More disturbingly, the Darwinian discourse also crops up when men need an excuse for antisocial behavior. One man, who was caught on amateur video participating in the Central Park group sexual assaults in the summer of 2000, can be heard on video telling his sobbing victim, “Welcome back to the caveman times.”

Popularized evolutionary discourse, or pop-Darwinism, offers men a scientifically authorized way to think about—and live out—their sexuality. Indeed, popular attention to the evolution of human male sexuality has increasingly lodged American manhood in an evolutionary logic. Pop-Darwinism has become a sort of cultural consensus about who men are. Average American guys don’t read academic evolutionary science, but many do read about science in popular magazines and in bestselling books written by enthusiasts of evolutionary psychology. Popular culture is a political Petri dish for Darwinian ideas about sex. As such, it is worth examining—even when magazine writers and television producers intentionally “dumb down” or distort more sophisticated or modest academic claims.

Read the rest of the article.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.