Evolutionary psychology has offered a way of thinking about gender differences in sex, desire, and romance that has been tremendously influential. The standard narrative has infiltrated some of the most popular self-help books (such as John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus) and has been perpetrated so relentlessly that it has become part of the conventional wisdom of our time.
Mari Ruti, a professor of critical theory at the University of Toronto, isn’t buying it. In The Age of Scientific Sexism: How Evolutionary Psychology Promotes Gender Profiling and Fans the Battle of the Sexes, she explains why.
The standard narrative, Ruti reminds us, “relies on the imagery of promiscuous men in their prime seeking to impregnate blushing young women in order to ensure the survival of their genes.” She quotes the eminent evolutionary psychologist David Buss, who claimed that “at this point in history, we can no longer doubt that men and women differ in their preferences for a mate: primarily for youth and physical attractiveness in one case, and for status, maturity, and economic resources in the other.”
When academics talk to each other in prestigious journals such as Behavioral and Brain Sciences, they are cautious and careful, preferring qualified offerings to bold statements. Ruti takes a look at some of those articles, but her primary concern is with the writings of academic evolutionary psychologists that are addressed to audiences beyond the academy. In those popularized versions of their arguments, scholars drop nuance and instead serve up Mars and Venus profiles of men and women. They present these characterizations as scientific truths rather than the ideologically driven stereotypes that Ruti believes they are.
In successive chapters, Ruti takes on each of four popular books about evolutionary psychology. She begins with the one seen as the most conservative and ideologically driven, Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal. The next most objectionable book is David Buss’s The Evolution of Desire. Ruti finds much more to like in the last two books, especially Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha’s Sex at Dawn, but also Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind. Both books challenge the standard narrative in significant ways, but “still do not address the narrative’s fundamental problems.”
So what are those problems?
Ruti’s critiques come in many varieties. Here are some examples:
- She blows giant holes in some of the most influential studies academics cite in support of the standard narrative. These include the 37-nation study that supposedly shows that men and women look for very different characteristics in potential partners, and the research purporting to demonstrate that men care more about sexual fidelity and women about emotional fidelity.
- She shows readers what is exaggerated in the standard narrative and what is marginalized or ignored. For example, the writing she analyzes tends to underscore the differences between men and women while downplaying the similarities, even when the similarities are greater than the differences. Also, the biological underpinnings of male and female behavior take center stage, while social and cultural influences get swept over to the side — again, even when there is evidence to suggest that the latter may actually be the more powerful.
- She spells out some of the consequences of the standard narrative for the ways men and women interact with each other. For example, when we too readily accept the “battle of the sexes” mentality, men and women see each other as stereotypes instead of unique individuals, and as adversaries instead of partners with common interests and goals.
- In a bravura analysis, Ruti shows how the stereotyping and stigmatizing of single people (including single parents) is part of the package of evolutionary psychology and its standard narrative. So is the glorifying of traditional marriage. Both the singlism and the matrimania are powerful ways of maintaining the status quo. “By offering us a very specific blueprint for happiness — for what the good life is supposed to look like — it makes it hard for us to even begin to envision different ways of living and loving.”
The Age of Scientific Sexism is a smart, compelling, thoughtful read. I do have some quibbles, though. First, in pushing back against the claim in the standard narrative that women just aren’t all that interested in sex, Ruti perhaps takes her argument too far in the other direction (“I believe that all of us — men and women alike — are prone to promiscuity”), seemingly disallowing the possibility that some people truly are asexual. Second, despite how strong and effective Ruti is at undercutting myths about the superiority of married people, she does make the claim that they are the more responsible workers. (They aren’t.)
Finally, Ruti does effectively take apart some of the research used in support of the standard narrative. But the scholarly journals are stuffed with relevant studies, and a deeper reach into those archives would have strengthened her case.
The Age of Scientific Sexism: How Evolutionary Psychology Promotes Gender Profiling and Fans the Battle of the Sexes
Bloomsbury, July 2015
Paperback, 224 pages