Why Men Won't Ask for Directions: The Seductions of Sociobiology

By Meisenberg, Gerhard | Mankind Quarterly, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Why Men Won't Ask for Directions: The Seductions of Sociobiology


Meisenberg, Gerhard, Mankind Quarterly


Why Men Won't Ask for Directions: The Seductions of Sociobiology

Richard C. Frauds

Princeton University Press, 2004

In their famous 1979 article The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme, Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin attacked the belief that all biological features arose as adaptations by way of natural selection. Many or most biological structures, the authors claimed, rather evolved as the inevitable consequences of developmental constraints. Gould and Lewontin offered little in the way of meaningful evidence for their critique of adaptation by natural selection, but their views remained popular especially among students of human behavior. Evidently, much of human behavior is blatantly maladaptive from the biological point of view. Or do you really believe that the reading of book reviews increases your inclusive fitness? Your genes would be far better off if you spent your time chasing after fertile females instead, making as many as possible pregnant!

In Why Men Won't Ask for Directions, Richard C. Francis set out to provide the missing evidence against the adaptationist paradigm. In the introductory chapter he expounds the fundamental distinction between how biology and why biology. How biology is the way scientists study the living world; and why biology is the way fuzzy-thinking adaptationists tell their evolutionary just-so stories. So, we know up front who the good guys and the bad guys are. Evolutionary neurobiologists are the good guys, and behavioral ecologists and brain ecologists, and especially sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, are the bad guys. Behold, tribalism is not confined to the social sciences! Biologists have it, too. Could it be that tribalism is so widespread in our species because it evolved as a biological adaptation to inter-group competition in ancestral environments?

According to Francis, why biology derives its appeal from a universal human tendency for ideological thinking: seeing purpose in the works of nature. To him, the 20th-century evolutionary biologists Richard Dawkins and John Maynard Smith are the intellectual heirs of the 19th-century natural theologian and arch-teleologist William Paley.

Where he got this idea from, I don't know. William Paley did see purpose in nature for sure, but Dawkins and Maynard Smith?? Being somewhat familiar with the evolutionary science of Dawkins & Co., I can't see a shred of teleology in their reasoning. As a devout atheist, Dawkins more than anyone else has insisted on the pointlessness and purposelessness of the evolutionary game. Francis is setting up a straw man, and he has to. Every high-level book needs an astonishing thesis (a.k.a. sales hook) to entice the wannabe intellectuals at whom it is targeted.

Never mind, we all know that by and large, academic debates are a waste of time. The second chapter reveals that the author is a sex researcher, which bodes well for the entertainment value of the book. His first examples of non-selected, non-adaptive traits are wet dreams and the female orgasm. Wet dreams don't make babies and therefore cannot have been created by natural selection. Nor do they prevent babies, and therefore there was no selective pressure to get rid of them. They are merely byproducts of the way the brain is wired. The female orgasm is equally useless. It exists merely because men need orgasms for the greater good of their genes. And for purely ontogenetic reasons women have their own little penis, called the clitoris, with its own little penis-like innervation, and thanks to this innervation they have their own little orgasm.

Fair enough. Humans are crudely programmed robots, and we must expect that the programs that lead to adaptive outcomes also produce some pesky little side effects. The evolved circuitry for sex produces unnecessary orgasms; and the evolved circuitry for novelty seeking and exploratory behavior causes people to read books and book reviews. …

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