Fools for science

Does nature make men brutes and women sluts?

Published January 21, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

"Patriotism," according to Dr. Johnson, "is the last refuge of the scoundrel." Nowadays, scoundrels have a better one: sociobiology, the theory that human behavior is mostly determined by biology. The dictates of evolution and "the selfish gene" neatly explain why our societies are the unfair way they are, and how, really, we can't expect them to change much, any more than we can expect pigs to fly. As a protective wrapping for prejudice, injustice and routine inhumanity, the lab coat beats the flag, hands down. Who, after all, can argue with science?

Actually, history can. Critic Bram Dijkstra, in his new book, "Evil Sisters: The Threat of Female Sexuality and the Cult of Manhood," proves as much. Dijkstra is primarily a cultural critic who concerns himself with images from popular books, art and film with the intention of exposing the misogyny therein. In "Evil Sisters," his tone is hectoring and doggedly sarcastic, a step down from the supple, evocative writing of his justly praised "Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Sihcle Culture." But the same fevered indignation that makes Dijkstra's voice a bit tiresome in this book has inspired him to amass a prodigious amount of research into "scientific" and popular theories about gender, race and evolution in the early 20th century. If Dijkstra's appetite for outrage is enormous, here he has found plenty to feed on.

The early chapters of "Evil Sisters" describe a catalog of bizarre sexual paranoias masquerading as sober fact. The social evolutionists of the turn of the century observed the principle of natural selection unfolding in human society, but, interestingly, they chose different interpretations from the ones that prevail among sociobiologists today. Here, in short, are the widely accepted tenets of that era:

  • The brain, which is the summit of humanity's evolutionary triumphs, is made of a powerful vital essence that's basically the same stuff as semen.

  • This is why men possess superior intelligence and the drive toward excellence that has led to civilization.

  • To foster further evolution of the race, Man must conserve this vital essence and resist the natural tendency of Woman to drag him back down the ladder.

  • Women, propelled by the mindless biological imperative to reproduce, will sap the vital essence of men by demanding sex, feeding off men's vitality in the form of semen, and reducing men to weak, passive slaves of sensuality.

  • If these vampire women had their way, we'd be reduced to a degraded, do-nothing society of self-indulgence, androgyny, promiscuity, communalism, and racial and gender equality.

  • A meek, dependent, asexual woman  like those produced by superior cultures  is the only wise choice for the man who wished to conserve his masculinity for the arenas where truly evolved individuals proved themselves: the battlefield and the free marketplace.

every one of these preposterous notions had several credentialed, respected and authoritative scientists as its mouthpieces. They included William Graham Sumner, considered the father of American sociology, who championed the male invention of monogamy, which spared men from the terrible fate of the Iroquois under "woman-rule," where "a husband had to satisfy not only his wife, but all of her female relatives if he was to be in peace and comfort." The writer Remy de Gourmont collected from biological studies countless lurid examples of mate-devouring female insects and observed that "superior human specimens are nearly always sterile, or capable of only mediocre posterity," because they had diverted all their vital juices to their crania. Prominent physicians A. Gould and Dr. Franklin L. Dubois warned against any unnecessary ejaculation because "This important fluid, a true elixir of life, should never be wasted, but allowed to be reabsorbed by the system."

The belief that "women absorb from the seminal fluid of the man some substance ... in such a way as to benefit and nourish their whole system," as contraception advocate Marie Stopes put it, was so prevalent that scientists squabbled over who first discovered the fact. Charles-Edouard Brown-Séquard, endocrinologist and professor at the Collège de France, gained international renown for "restoring the powers of the aged by injection of testicular extracts" from dogs and guinea pigs. The French surgeon Serge Voronoff grafted monkey testes onto men in order to boost their "creative energy," and the patients all testified to improvements in their memory, concentration and "intellectual effort" — all considered to be masculine skills at that time.

Today, people who take doses of testosterone swear up and down that they feel less loving, more angry and even less likely to ask for directions — all traits currently stereotyped as "male," despite the fact that large numbers of men are nearly free of them. There are always authorities prepared to back this up with studies and other scientific "proof" that testosterone causes masculine behavior, just as the pioneer sexologist Havelock Ellis avowed that research categorically demonstrated that testicular "elixirs" improved the condition of the heart "even when all influences or mental suggestion have been excluded." Sure, we believe that our science is superior to that of the past, and that our scientists speak with a well-earned authority. But that's exactly what people believed about the scientists of the past. If they misplaced their trust so easily, perhaps we have too.

Dijkstra traces these early evolutionary theories as they later cropped up in pulp novels, high literature, movies, posters, self-help manuals and eventually the ravings of Hitler himself. He's irked that people now see these "superstitions" as "archetypal" symbolism, instead of self-justifications for capitalist ruthlessness. But what's most memorable about "Evil Sisters" aren't the predictably outrageous prejudices displayed in pop culture; it's the spectacular potency of bogus science. "Propaganda that disguises itself as 'scientific truth' is hard to counter," Dijkstra understates. Very acutely, he locates the point where science goes bad — in this case where it begins to make conclusions about human beings on the basis of animal behavior. "As soon as science resorts to metaphor, it acknowledges the unreliability of its speculations."

Reading "Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence" with "Evil Sisters" already under your belt is a bit like picking up a daily newspaper after a steady, skepticism-inducing diet of The Weekly World News. What you once might have swallowed as truth now seems manipulative, overstated and suspect. The authors, anthropologist Richard Wrangham and writer Dale Peterson, want to demonstrate that human beings — specifically men — must be innately violent because male chimpanzees, our nearest evolutionary relatives, are guilty of lethal raiding on neighboring troupes, rape, an obsession with dominance and "wife battering."

The authors take pains to establish their credibility and detachment. Wrangham has done his time in the jungle, watching and recording chimp behavior. Many field studies and lab experiments are cited and described. However, the aroma of bias, and even outright misrepresentation, is everywhere in "Demonic Males," beginning with a naively self-betraying description of primatologist discussions before and after a major discovery in 1984. Prior to this discovery — which indicates that humans separated from apes a mere 5 million years ago rather than 10 to 15 million — there was a "strange sense of frustration enveloping discussions of ape researchers ... The great apes were our closest kin all right. But they seemed too distantly related to tell us anything specific about our beginnings or our evolutionary journey." In other words, these scientists were already aching to attribute human behavior to our ape origins; all they needed was a good enough excuse to do it. And people, even scientists, have a remarkable tendency to find what they're looking for.

In what can only be a calculated attempt to craft an image of themselves as meticulous and objective, the authors insert an entire pointless chapter entitled "Roots" near the beginning of the book. In it, Wrangham and Peterson mince tediously toward a theory that our ancestors must have learned to eat roots, therefore adapting to changing weather conditions and setting off on the path to humanity. The argument is irrelevant to anything else in the book, but it is constructed with an exasperating caution that makes you want to scream, "Go ahead, say they ate roots, already!" We are men of science, the chapter whispers. We don't leap to rash conclusions.

But once the authors' front is in place, it's open season for wild conjecture. Theories on human behavior are boldly asserted, while the fact that they are contested is relegated to footnotes. Wrangham and Peterson play up the traits that chimps share with humans (warlike raids) and gloss over the ones that don't serve their cause (the promiscuity of chimp females). Lots of other species are dragged into the fray, including those cannibalistic female insects. Most of this gets delivered in either cool scientific language or the breathless reportorial style of nature documentaries and true crime paperbacks ("Watching the advancing killer, the cuddly [lion] cub, in a desperate attempt to save its life, rears, screams, and falls backward even while the male's head looms above.").

Wrangham and Peterson build various straw-man opponents to create the impression that they have considered all sides. They see as their primary enemies those who would insist that human beings are innately peaceful and that war and rape are byproducts of civilization. They lay into painter Paul Gauguin and novelist Herman Melville (how did those guys wind up at this party?) for indulging in self-serving pastoral fantasies about "noble savages." While they justly accuse Margaret Mead of allowing her preconceptions to pollute her studies of Samoan sexual culture, they also entered into their studies favoring certain results — and authors who so freely employ the word "demonic" and title a chapter "Paradise Lost" are clearly far from myth-free themselves.

Most of all, Wrangham and Peterson display the colossal, single-minded blindness of most evolutionary psychologists. They are just plain dumb. To "challenge" the premise that men are innately violent, they conduct a quick survey of history in search of comparable female violence and come up predictably empty-handed. But female violence is irrelevant. The antithesis to the idea of hard-wired male-violence is, simply, male non-violence, a shockingly common phenomenon.

For if every human being obeys certain irresistible laws of nature — we all must eat, drink and maintain a constant body temperature at the very least — the drive to hurt others is obviously not among those laws. Perhaps there are no societies entirely devoid of violence, but many, many men (in fact, the majority) manage to make it through their entire adult lives without physically assaulting anyone or committing rape or murder. Ultimately, it doesn't matter that much whether or not humans inherited aggressive tendencies from the ancestors we share with chimps, because we're each clearly quite capable of making a moral, personal choice not to be violent, even in the face of extreme provocation — and that separates us from the chimps.

But sociobiology, despite its cloak of reason, is uninterested in that particular fact. After a desultory stab in the direction of Hope for the Future (including some farfetched social engineering suggestions — a single world government and/or large gangs of armed women charged with suppressing "rowdy" men), the authors toss up their hands. We must resign ourselves to the fact that men "have been temperamentally shaped to use violence effectively, and that they will therefore find it hard to stop." Whoever heard of a demon who could just say no to evil?
When people insist that humans behave the way we do because Nature dictates it, they're also saying: Don't expect things to change. Not surprisingly, it's usually those who are already on top who say this.

As a metaphor, the hard science of evolution has been remarkably flexible. In the early 20th century, degenerate women tried to drag the valiant, striving male vanguard back into a primitive soup of peace, socialism and egalitarianism. Today, according to Wrangham and Peterson and much popular wisdom, women are trying to haul savage, dominance-seeking men up the ladder to a more fair society. But in either case the conclusion is the same: it ain't gonna work.

In fact, if we look around us, we can see myriad examples of male and female human beings defying the selfish genes and demonic violence that supposedly determine our every action. The very fact that we quarrel so passionately about these immaterial ideas shows that we inhabit a complex symbolic and moral world that often takes precedence over biology — except that, really, this must be part of our nature too. It sometimes seems that the only constant in human nature is our social malleability, our capacity for change. And change, after all, is the very essence of evolution.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

MORE FROM Laura Miller

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Science