OK, so Darwinians want to know why it’s so hard for so many to take evolutionary materialism seriously. This article illustrates why perfectly. A professor of economics has written a book that proffers a solution to the supposed lingering inequities between the sexes in the workplace: compulsory male paternity leave.
Note the compulsory.
You’ll never understand how he arrived at that conclusion until you grasp the behavior patterns of the male bedbug, the water strider, and of course our friend the dance fly. Reviewer Michele Pridmore-Brown of the Times Literary Supplement helps us sort it all out:
In this species, males have increased their bargaining power by accumulating food, which they carry in little silken pouches, in order to bribe females for sex. But, it’s not quite a tidy deal: every so often, a male’s silken pouch looks full but is in fact empty; the female dance fly notices the rotten deal too late to backtrack. Naturally, the dancing female has her own wiles. Moving in a swarm of her peers, she tries to attract the best male by signalling greater fertility than she possesses. In fact, the diva or starlet of the swarm is likely to be able to increase her sexiness quotient relative to her peers by filling her abdominal cavity with air. A big abdomen signals a robust supply of eggs – but the most amplified abdomen is likely to be partly or mostly air, perhaps nothing but air.
Natural selection then necessarily selects mostly for enchantment (being responsive to sexual signals). It also, one might surmise, selects for suspicion. The suspicious dance fly would presumably have an edge, so long as she isn’t so suspicious as to put herself out of the game entirely. Seabright’s “war” or “game” can in a sense more felicitously be thought of as a “tango” of desire and suspicion – a dance-like thing of beauty (sometimes) and also of danger or violence. What distinguishes our species’ version of this tango is essentially this: our exceptionally long and resource-intensive childhood. We have colonized an evolutionary niche that requires a huge amount of cooperation to raise our children to adulthood. We know from work in anthropology – synthesized by the primatologist Sarah Hrdy and which Seabright rehearses in his book – that mothers in “pre-historic” contexts could not raise their children to adulthood without what Hrdy terms “helpers at the nest”. Mothers therefore had to corral fathers and probable fathers to share meat on a long-term basis. In general, mothers and their children are more likely to survive if part of an extended sharing network. Our long childhood most likely co-evolved with ever-bigger brains and the inter-subjective skills – the emotional IQ – that facilitate cooperation with kin and as-if kin. Our sexual tangos – or sexual bargains – are then especially fraught because they are so vital to our existence. If a mother mismanages the tango in the context of scarce resources, then her child is less likely to live to reproductive age and reproduce in its turn.
Regarding romance, Seabright argues that we have evolved to be “a socially monogamous species but surreptitiously promiscuous”. Sexual conflicts of interest need not compromise our long-term unions. “We are the species for whom life is about partnerships” – even if every partnership harbours sublimated conflicts of interest. For Seabright as for Freud, the sexual partnership is the template for all others. We can’t create, any more than we can procreate, without others. We exist only in the cocktail party-distracted gaze of the other. Charm is about monopolizing that gaze. Adolescent schoolgirls know this better than anyone. (Seabright reminds his reader that female “cunning” can be charming, even glamorous.) So do business tycoons. Being in the dumpster where no one wants to partner up or collaborate with us makes us physically ill. Fearing the dumpster makes us neurotic. Winning the Oscar or its equivalent gives us extra years of life (compared to also-rans), according to a now-famous study, because everyone wants to partner or cooperate with us. In other words, our emotions and health are intimately tied up with where we stand in the cooperative or partnering hierarchy – with our bargaining power in effect.
The more pragmatic point made by Seabright is that women are shaped by evolution to play the cooperatively competitive game differently – and these differences have implications today in the world of work. [emphasis emphasized]
We would never have known that women who are not abandoned by their husbands fare better in raising a family if it had not been proved by anthropologists studying primates. And that no self-respecting woman would, if given the choice, pair up with a hobo if they could have Steven Spielberg instead is, again, finally a matter of settled science.
And we can deduce from all this, after a severe blow to the head, presumably, that if men were forced to take paternity leave, and yet remained “CEO material,” the stigma attached to motherhood somehow detracting from being “CEO material” would be eradicated.
There is probably no arena where supposedly intelligent people sound so incredibly stupid than in evolutionary psychology.
The author will forgive us if we don’t also deduce from this very softest of soft sciences that its real purpose is political. Let’s cut to the chase here: you want more women CEOs? Then force companies to make women CEOs. Why all this horse manure about bed bugs and forced paternity leave?
Ah, that would be too unsubtle. Coercion is less onerous, I suppose, if it’s perceived to be rooted in the latest science.
Please keep an eye out for the Fall issue of MODERN AGE. (I am literally sitting with the proofs as I type this.) In its pages, Mark A. Signorelli has a brilliant piece entitled “What Moves a Man,” in which he examines materialist reductionism run amok as well as the nonsensical applications of evolutionary psychology to, for example, why a mother would grieve over a dead child. I will provide a link when it is available online at isi.org.
But so this post will not leave you with no hope in the future: Adele’s Skyfall has hit the airwaves.