The Author’s Response to the Review of The Caveman Mystique Published in Evolutionary Psychology

     In their review for Evolutionary Psychology( , Farnaz Kaighobadi and Todd K. Shackelford suggest that my book, The Caveman Mystique: Pop-Darwinism and the Debates Over Sex, Violence, and Science, portrays evolutionary science applied to human beings in a light that is not only unfair but inaccurate. They position me as “anti-science” and, moreover, don’t like my “distasteful” writing style, which seems flippant and reveals a “disdain for science in general.”
     Let me defend my cheeky writing style first. In the introduction of my book, I tell readers that I intentionally write in a style apposite the popular magazines and other everyday sources of “knowledge” about our evolutionary past.  Indeed, my main focus is pop-Darwinism, the popular versions of evolutionary science conveyed throughout popular culture—however simplified or distorted they become when enthusiasts tell the masses about evolutionary science. I focus on the popular story of the caveman because it’s an account of men’s boorishness in particular that is, for reasons that I go over in the first chapter, of popular interest (there is no similarly ubiquitous story of the cavewoman).  In chapter 1 I examine the social and political climate in which regular American guys find themselves, and argue that the combination of a moral disdain for men combined with men’s slipping economic status led to the caveman story’s rather widespread appeal. 
     The aim of my book is to contribute to science studies, as much work here has focused on “science as culture,” without, however, emphasizing science as embodied culture; and to masculinity studies, as much work in this interdisciplinary area has emphasized the significance of the media, military, and other social institutions—but not science—in shaping men’s self-understandings.  The Caveman Mystique highlights the significance of a popularized scientific discourse in shaping men’s identities. I also thought it would be nice if my book would prompt regular guys to proceed with some caution in the face of caveman narratives in the popular media, and if evolutionary scholars researching human beings would be more concerned about how and why their work is appropriated.
    The discourse of men’s evolutionary heritage is conveyed to most people through popular media.  Average American guys don’t read Evolutionary Psychology, but they do read Men’s Health, watch TV news shows, and even read popular books about the significance of evolution for understanding human nature written by evolutionary psychology’s enthusiasts. These popular cultural narratives about evolution and male sexuality--and not academic claims coming from human behavior and evolution scholars—are the focus of chapter 3 of The Caveman Mystique
     However, Kaighobadi and Shackelford argue that this very chapter claims that the theories in their field have been tested only with data collected from white, single, heterosexual men. In that chapter I point out that popular nature shows often depict American college spring break culture and other scenes of heterosexual white Americans to illustrate points about evolution.  Of course, the scholars applying evolutionary theory to human behaviors are not so naïve.  But the popular presentation of evolutionary ideas deserves the criticism I level against it. And the consumers of such simplistic ideas need to consider that criticism so as to be able to read and watch them more carefully.
     As I hope it’s becoming clear, Kaighobadi and Shackelford’s understandable desire to defend their academic field led to some serious misinterpretations of my main points, so let me state briefly the main point of two particular chapters that I believe make points worth the consideration of academic evolutionary psychologists.  Chapter 2 situates the theory of evolution in a social climate of anxieties over the moral implications of the theory from the 19th Century to the present, showing how what in Darwin’s day seemed to threaten the idea of a divine basis for ethical rules has turned today into an extension of Judeo-Christian myth—an “evolutionary fundamentalist” cure for the very anxieties that Darwin’s theory originally fueled.  Kaighobadi and Shackelford tell you I argue that “modern science aspires to replace religion as a source of morality and a foundation for ethics.”  No, I do not suggest this.  I do, however, suggest that, over a century's time, evolution came to be seen as a moral answer to the very crisis evolutionary thinking instigated, and by extension a moral answer about men’s bad behaviors. Just as Darwinism was “read” for social, ethical, and political implications in the late 1700s, today people mine the latest claims emanating from evolutionary psychology for implications relating to the battle of the sexes. And, while many non-scholars are engaged in this mining of evolutionary theory for moral meaning, my book also shows that some evolutionary scholars as well as their enthusiasts proselytize with the conviction that knowledge of our evolved tendencies is the truth that will set us free.
     As mentioned earlier, Chapter 3 highlights the ways in which evolutionary discourse about human male sexuality and the differences between men and women circulates in popular culture—however unlike evolutionary scholars’ work such discourse is.  The caveman identity, then, is not promulgated by evolutionary scientists; nor are evolutionary scientists largely responsible for its widespread popularity. (Sorry folks, but your books aren’t that interesting.)
     Evolutionary scientists are responsible for the ideological biases in their own research, and, I would hope, at least concerned about the skewed presentations of their work by their enthusiasts. (Clearly they are more than concerned about any skewed presentations of their work by feminist scholars like me.) My fourth chapter looks at the heterocentrist bias in much of the popular as well as the formal academic claims about male sexuality. For rhetorical purposes, I make an argument that bisexuality is an adaptation in human males.  My point is to reveal the value-laden background assumptions that are behind any such research questions, hetero- or homo-centric. I mention some specific evolutionary psychologists here, too.  For instance, David Buss blows off any serious evolutionary theoretical consideration of homosexuality by saying that “the origins of homosexuality remain a mystery.”  Jared Diamond wrote Why is Sex Fun? about the evolutionary basis of human sexuality and does not ever mention homosexual behaviors, let alone why they might be fun in the evolutionary (or any other) sense. 
     I’m not suggesting that homosexuality discredits the theory of the evolution of human sexuality. But I do suggest that by ignoring homosexual desires and behaviors, some evolutionary scholars and their enthusiasts have inadvertently helped solidify the perception that only heterosexual desires are adaptive or “natural.”  With an unacknowledged heterocentrist bias, those evolutionary scholars offer theories that hardly fit the objectivity touted by the scholars themselves.  Interestingly enough, Kaighobadi and Shackelford’s review exposes their anger at my criticism but never does explain how the claims in their field are not heterocentrist.  I would hope that, at least, evolutionary scholars might take seriously the possibility that their studies might have a bias that needs correcting, since they pride themselves on “objectivity.”     
     Given my stated aims, and my explicit acknowledgment that popular versions of men-as-cavemen do not accurately reflect the subtlety and sophistication of academic work in human behavior and evolution, it is surprising—no, revealing—that Kaighobadi and Shackelford never express any shared concern over the popular distortions of evolutionary science in the popular media.  Nor do they share my concern over a man’s rationalizing violence against women with reference to “the caveman times.”
     In fact, they even suggest that my book calling attention to popular versions of evolutionary science is “anti-science.”  I would think that evolutionary scientists could actually share a concern about the distortions of their work.  After all, they seem quite concerned about the way academics outside their field, such as science studies scholars, misunderstand their field.
     For example, when I said that there is no gene for big breasts, they immediately took this as evidence that I don’t understand their theory and began attempting to discredit me.  Um, guys, I get it: you don’t say there is a gene responsible for such a specific desire.  My point was to share this with a general reader who might not yet get it. Indeed, my intended audience is average American guys whose understanding of evolution and of themselves comes not from journals like Evolutionary Psychology or Human Nature but from Men’s Health magazine. 
     Precisely because of my book’s aims, my final chapter urges guys to proceed with caution when they read popular stories about men’s sexual behaviors and desires rooted in evolution.  I argue that evolutionary theory applied to human sexual desires remains speculative.  Does the following comment about the large human male penis from Jared Diamond seem speculative? Diamond argues that penis size is a trade-off with brain size; therefore the human male penis announces, according to Diamond, “I’m already so smart and superior that I don’t need to devote more ounces of protoplasm to my brain, but I can instead afford the handicap of packing the ounces uselessly into my penis.”[i]  I would think evolutionary scholars could readily admit that some of the work in their field is speculative.  When I was a student in Richard Alexander’s evolutionary biology course, he enjoyed such speculation and even labeled it playfully “so-so biology.”
     I used the example of Buss’s oft-cited cross-cultural mate selection study to show my regular-guy readers that the scholarly accounts are more modest than the claims they read in the popular press.  For, as I state in my book, Buss himself readily admitted to the limitations of that study—as any good scholar does.  My hope is that regular guys would not embrace so simplistically and fully an identity as aggressive caveman were they to stop swallowing whole the claims made by enthusiasts in the popular media. 
     In that chapter I also attempt to tell average Joes that they don’t need to see their masculinity as an objective truth—in fact, identity is far more complicated than this.  It is, I argue, ideological, value-laden, or a story we tell about who we are. Since I have always disliked academic books that critique something without offering a hopeful vision of how things could improve, I made a point to conclude The Caveman Mystique with an alternative way to think about masculinity, which I call “Homo Textual.” Here Kaighobadi and Shackelford pride themselves on catching me in a contradiction: I criticize the story of the caveman as ideological whilst peddling my own way to think of manhood that is admittedly ideological. 
     Apparently I need to explain. No contradiction, fellas.  I know my view is ideological—but the idea is that men embracing my “Homo Textual” identity would be self-consciously embracing an identity that acknowledges identities are stories and the impossibility of universalizing identity.  My problem with the caveman discourse as it circulates throughout our culture is that it’s ideological pretending to be objective biological truth.
     Kaighobadi and Shackelford do not seem interested in any of my points about how average guys consume work they consider to be scientific evolutionary theory, nor do they share these with their readers in Evolutionary Psychology. As I mention in my book, Richard Dawkins was clearly irritated when he was asked by an interviewer about his theories possibly being in bed with conservative political agendas.  His response was to explain the naturalistic fallacy (like Kaighobadi and Shackelford do in response to my book).  Dawkins said:

. . . [T]he opponents of sociobiology are too stupid to understand the distinction between what one says about the way the world is, scientifically, and the way it ought to be politically.  They look at what we say about natural selection, as a scientific theory for what is, and they assume that anybody who says that so and so is the case, must therefore be advocating that it ought to be the case in human politics.  They cannot see that it is possible to separate one’s scientific beliefs about what is the case in nature from one’s political beliefs about what ought to be in human society.[ii]
     Notice that Dawkins described the opponents of sociobiology as too stupid to distinguish descriptions of the world from prescriptions for the world. Yet the proponents of sociobiology are often equally incapable of making this distinction as well. Why isn’t Dawkins, and why aren’t Kaighobadi and Shackelford, willing to point out the stupidity of their proponents?  The popularizers of evolutionary theories of human behavior are themselves often flippant and disrespectful of science.  Naïve but enthusiastic appropriations of evolutionary claims about male sexuality, and their consequences, should concern or at least interest evolutionary scholars.

--Martha McCaughey, December, 2008


[i] Jared Diamond, Why Is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality (New York: BasicBooks, 1997), 144-5.

[ii] Dawkins 1997, quoted in Ullica Segerstråle, Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000), 374.