As a sign, perhaps, that society does move forward, nobody uses the phrase “the war between the sexes” anymore. Instead, we are flooded with scientific data about why men and women think and behave differently. Much credibility is given to this kind of research. The results are couched in cool, objective language. Yet if you look beneath the surface, I’m afraid that sexual politics is undermining the cause of women. Much of this research is dubious at best, and its premise tends to reinforce two bogus notions. 1. The two sexes are naturally unequal. 2. The reason for inequality is rooted in biology and evolution.
I know this sound abstract, but there is a strong tendency to believe certain “facts” that are little more than scientific fads and superstitions. At a more basic, everyday level, popular culture depends on “guy things” and “girl things” that advertisers manipulate. The following are guy things: beer, binge drinking, a mania for professional sports, great abs, being controlled by your penis, competitiveness, aggression, physical prowess, and selfishness. The following are girl things: dieting, endless worry over body image, a great butt, a mania for cosmetics, the urge to nest, free-floating anxiety, acting on impulse, being childish or hysterical, giving in to emotions, and unpredictability. It doesn’t take a sleuth to see that a wedge is being driven between the two sexes at a time when what we desperately need is a path back to reconciliation between them. Men need to be wise about women, and vice versa.
The scientific support for gender differences should be examined with deep skepticism. For example, geneticists over the past decade have promoted the notion that specific genes promote specific behavior patterns and make men and women susceptible to disease in their own unique ways. These claims are part of the general belief that “your genes made you do it,” with “it” being outlandishly open-ended. Your genes made you believe in God, choose who to be sexually attracted to, become depressed, act extroverted on introverted. No such claims have borne fruit. Genes are not fixed switches that dictate behavior. Even the hope that a single gene or a fixed group of genes can explain behavior has turned out to be unfounded. So any notion that genes make women behave or feel a certain way must be greeted with extreme skepticism. There was a fad for linking genes with susceptibility to disease. Yet leaving aside those rare disorders like sickle-cell anemia for which there are specific genetic causes, the diseases that are most prevalent — heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s — have not been successfully mapped genetically and certainly not assigned to men and women.
Second, there is a fad for evolutionary psychology, which attempts to explain our behavior as the product of Darwinian forces gong back hundreds of thousands of years. An example I recently read attempted to say why women are more cautious than men about falling in love with “the right one.” The evolutionary explanation centers on breeding advantages. Darwinism depends on inequality in mating, the central idea being that males who defeat their rivals, or females who choose stronger mates, pass on their genes and thus play a part in the evolution of a species. Extending this to behavior, evolutionary psychology suggests that prehistoric men could afford to fight it out for immediate access to a desirable mate, while prehistoric women, because they needed the long-term protection and hunting skills of men in order to survive, developed more hesitancy and caution about picking a mate.
The problem with this kind of explanation — and it’s a fatal one — is that modern humans beings are not subject to survival of the fittest. We cure disease, take care of the infirm, and make sure that the weak are tended to. All kinds of genes are passed along in situations where the male doesn’t have to fight, hunt, gather food, or build a shelter. Women choose men for reasons completely outside physical evolution, like their sense of humor or compassion. The truth is that human beings escaped Darwinian forces thousands of years ago, and any attempt to root modern behavior in prehistoric causes is highly suspect, if not absurd. Science depends on experiments that can be replicated, but we can’t run experiments on Paleolithic man; there are no control groups; results don’t even exist except as pet theories that are, in essence, unprovable.
My argument is heading in a positive direction, so allow me for a moment to point to other areas where attempts are being made to reduce men and women to pawns of biology. We live in an era where the brain and its “hard wiring” are used to explain behavior. Impressive brain scans reveal which areas light up whenever we have certain thoughts, emotions, and drives. Thus someone who is in love will exhibit some characteristic patterns of activity in the limbic region, the amygdala, and elsewhere, providing us with a “signature,” so to speak, of what love looks like beneath the skull. This is very interesting, and it leads to many fascinating possibilities. But one of the possibilities that needs to be ruled out is the crude notion that “my brain made me do it,” which is just as suspect as “my genes made me do it,” and for the same reason. The brain is not a fixed dictator of behavior. We can go into philosophical reasons for why the mind is more important than the brain, but that tends to be dismissed as metaphysics; anyway, nobody wants to spoil the brain game, which is the big game in town so far as science is concerned right now.
What I object to is the underlying assumption that we are largely unconscious beings, directed by evolution, genes, or the brain to be who we are. Freud’s unconscious mind has suddenly found a mechanical representation that is given huge credit. On the surface we don’t know why we suddenly love someone else, so science runs in to say that our choice was based on pheromones (in one study, women liked the smell of men’s underarms better if they also had symmetrical faces), imprints of desirable facial structures, and other hidden factors beyond our conscious knowledge. Similarly, men are supposed to favor women with a certain ratio of waist to hip size.
I hope the reader can see that as intriguing as this may sound, it all tends to remove free will, choice, and the growth of individual consciousness. After all, if there is a vast area known as the unconscious where invisible forces inherited from our ancestors are plying us with genetic and brain signals, what’s the use of resisting? Again, this may sound abstract, but no subject is more vital than the relations between men and women. I’ll talk about a different way to view the sexes, a way that promotes love and wisdom, in the next two posts.
(To be cont.)
Published by The San Francisco Chronicle