Not an Odalisque

Myth Number Two: I’m a Neanderthal

with 15 comments

Special thanks to Daisy for bringing this to my attention.

Apparently it’s all very simple. I am trying to use my beauty to seduce a mate who will father my children. I’ll judge him by his strength, status and power. I’ll try to remain captivating for as long as I can, so that he will provide for my children, rather than pursue his goal of promiscuous, indiscriminate sex with younger women (probably secretaries). I should really stop writing and pluck my eyebrows.

This is what evolutionary psychology tells me, anyway. The thesis is that I am pre-programmed to act in this way, because I inherited the genes from ancestors who did it and survived. As objections clamour in my mind to be heard, the one that shouts the loudest is “if that’s true, then how, after all these years of men choosing beautiful women, do we still have so many utterly ugly women?”, but I’ll put that to one side for now.

What I find interesting is the time which they choose to fix on, when men killed hairy mammoths and women dusted the cave. It’s the same one fantasised by both Hobbes and Rousseau, a ‘state of Nature’ before culture got its grubby hands on us and bent us to its will. It’s the one early anthropologists thought they had discovered in Africa and the colonies when they were trying to prove that white people are better because they are ‘more civilised’. The idea of a time before culture is very appealing; in it we can find an image of our purer selves freed from the mores of society, freed even from morality.

Another thing I find interesting is how terminally useless we are at understanding other societies. Even today, in a globalised society with better communication technology than has ever been known, British Islamophobia has reached such fevered levels that I sometimes wonder if we’ve moved far beyond maps with “Here Be Dragons!” written on them. When European artists went east they came back with paintings of hordes of scantily clad sexually available women. Few of them bothered mentioning that they hadn’t actually been allowed inside the harem, and the women’s more accurate paintings strangely didn’t prove as popular. When anthropologists went to Africa they told tales of animalistic, super-sexed women. The kind who leave scratch marks on your back.

Henriette Brownie, A Visit: Harem Interior, Constantinople, 1860,

Are you noticing a theme here? Yes, when men don’t know the answer, they fantasise about sex. Reporting on cultures, they fantasise one in which the women are sexually available. It’s hardly a new discovery, Homer represented it pretty well with Odysseus’ sexual exploits. To be fair, I’m prone to the occasional fantasy about sexually available women myself. It gets dangerous, however, when you call it science. Well respected men published studies about the sexual voracity of African races; black women still have a reputation for animal lust and are constantly depicted that way in pornography. Harem images, I’m sure, have influenced our understanding of relationships in the Muslim world and fed into our burka panic.

So what does this tell us about evolutionary psychology? It tells us to be wary of conclusions drawn from examination of another society, because we may well be mistaken about the nature of that society. It tells us to be suspicious if the tale we are being told is one of the candy-shop of girls variety. And is it? I’m afraid so. Evolutionary psychologists envision a society in which women did their utmost to be pleasing and men slept around, so we do it, too. I do wonder what their wives think.

I think we can learn more from the fact of evolutionary psychology’s speculation than we can from its contents. Men like to envision a world in which they get to shag pretty women. Hang on, we already knew that. So why go to all the effort of putting the label of science on it? Because most people believe that there is objective truth to be found in science. If you take the long view, most science, most of the time, has been wrong, but we are positive about its potential. Often we find what we want to find. So why do we want to find that men are promiscuous and women clingy?

I suspect that it is because you can do a lot of things with the word “natural.” It sells everything from face cream to potatoes. Being a vegetarian, I hear the argument “it’s only natural” often from defensive meat-eaters. I usually suppress the retort that I could name any number of natural things they wouldn’t do in front of me. So when we fantasise about a prehistoric time when we did what was natural, what is our response to it? A bit of philandering only natural. So’s rape, too, when you come to think of it.

I’m not saying that there’s a mass conspiracy of evolutionary psychologists advocating rape. I’m not even saying that even a significant proportion of the population would think like that. I’m just pointing out that when we dip into science, we should recall its tendency to disguise mass communal fantasies. We should keep in mind the Black and Asian women still fighting inaccurate perceptions today. We should remember that these are real people, including the gays, lesbians, childless, promiscuous women and, God love them, the monogamous men.

Written by Not an Odalisque

January 10, 2010 at 5:26 pm

15 Responses

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  1. Many thanks I’ve enjoyed the myriad of points you’ve brought into focus.


    January 11, 2010 at 3:28 pm

  2. thanks for sharing, learned from it.

    pallet racking

    January 11, 2010 at 3:41 pm

  3. Interesting & informative post w/ a dash of humor. I like.

    Denyse O’Leary has a few related articles, two of which I thought you might find of particular interest:




    January 11, 2010 at 7:20 pm

  4. interesting article indeed. I have heard this kinds of stereotypes and myths but had never heard about the african lust.


    January 11, 2010 at 7:22 pm

  5. This was really interesting and I enjoyed it. I have studied anthropolgy and psychology and you are so very correct about how we all have the subconcious desire to be with a quality mate, and I liked hearing your view on it. Ever noticed how the stars we tend to drool over usually have very symetrical faces?


    January 11, 2010 at 8:12 pm

  6. I’m not sure the gays like to be referred to as “the gays”.

    Luis Felipe De Siqueira

    January 11, 2010 at 10:19 pm

  7. Very interesting post, attractively illustrated and well written. Thanks. Ask an anthropologist the difference between a human and the lower animals, and he may say humans use tools. Even some birds use straws to get at worms. Or the anthropologist may point to speech as uniquely human. Parrots talk. So what is it? Humans have been given some divine breath, some inclination to look for God. That is evident even in art of the caves of Lascaux. Evolution? Look around. Civilization is headed back to the dark forests of paganism.


    January 11, 2010 at 11:17 pm

  8. You had some really interesting points here. Everyone has to be weary of science’s nature to be corrupted by the very scientists administering it – this is not to say that its deliberate on their part, just that it happens anyway.

    However, when discussing science, I think it is important to remember that it might not give us the answers we want. If through thorough research scientists discover something that is against our sensibilities – like for instance that its true that men are breeders and women are clingy – we shouldn’t really revolt against the finding because it doesn’t please us either.

    I suspect that it is because you can do a lot of things with the word “natural.” It sells everything from face cream to potatoes. Being a vegetarian, I hear the argument “it’s only natural” often from defensive meat-eaters. I usually suppress the retort that I could name any number of natural things they wouldn’t do in front of me.

    This made me really laugh and I agree with you. I’ve heard the ‘but its natural’ argument used so many times to cover up ‘but I really think its good for me, so it should be good for everyone!’. Whenever someone says that to me, I say ‘well modern transport, medicine, the pill and hairdye aren’t natural, are you in favour of giving them up to preserve your values of ‘naturalness’?’

    For instance, I’m a meat eater because I want to eat meat. I wouldn’t use the ‘but its natural’ argument in a discussion because it stinks of hypocrisy.


    January 12, 2010 at 2:38 am

  9. Actually when referred to as “the gays” in a defensive manor I don’t mind being called “the gays”. Referring to me as a real person makes up for it.

    Love this post, well said, great job.

    Matthew Name

    January 12, 2010 at 5:47 am

  10. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I must confess to being ignorant about many of the comments made in your post.But what I would like to point out is that ignorance is the basis of our perception about things. For example we don’t know much about the muslim society. So we make assumptions and consider them to be inferior. Most of the ‘facts’ we read in history books today were written down by a man. A man who maybe was as ignorant as any person. So where the truths end and myths begin? We do not really know


    January 12, 2010 at 7:27 am

  11. There’s nothing wrong with eating meat, and I’m not sure why people shouldn’t do it in front of you.

    Also, some things are natural because of biological necessity, and something things are “natural” because humans tend to do them.


    January 12, 2010 at 12:45 pm

  12. Very interesting. It is true our perception is often skewed by our experience coupled with our desires.


    January 12, 2010 at 4:50 pm

  13. Thank you all for your comments, it was good of you to take the time to write something here.

    For those of you who hadn’t heard about the racial stereotypes I will put up a post exploring them soon. I think you might be surprised to what extent they are perpetuated in popular culture, but overlooked.

    Goldnsilver, you are entirely right that science often yields conclusions we don’t want and won’t accept, and we should be aware of that. I would argue that it is much more common, however, for science to be presented, at least, as proving what we did believe. I would encourage anyone who enjoyed my post to read this, a paper which examines things like the research methods of evolutionary psychologists, which I didn’t feel qualified to take on.

    Luis Felipe De Siqueira, thank you for bringing up the issue of labelling. This is very tricky, especially in the cases of those who have had reason to fear labels. The only totally safe label is a personal name. As soon as you talk about groups of people, you’re in trouble. So we go through paroxysms. Is this person Black? Coloured? Afro-Caribbean? Of African or Caribbean origins? Black British? Ethnic minority? Minority ethnic? All of these are problematic in their own way, so we keep changing the terms, but that never quite solves the issue. That’s because the issue isn’t that “coloured” implies a dichotomy between white people and everyone else, or that “ethnic minority” changes its meaning depending on where you stand in the world, but that the person in question is subject to language in a way that I, for example, am not. As a white person, I’m a member of the group with more power, so not only is language formulated to suit me, but I’m in a much better position to not care. When I was in China people called me ‘guilou’, a rather offensive term which translates as “white ghost.” Since I was earning more than most of them, while less qualified, and could go home to the West anytime, a dream of many Chinese people I met, it was rather hard to be offended. When a white man in Britain called my ex-girlfriend “chink” on the other hand, I was livid. The best terms are always the subverted insults. The Suffragettes did it, so did the Quakers, and I notice that the term nigger is having a revival, although I don’t think I’d dare try that one myself. My preferred term is “pomosexual”, but I’ll identify as “queer” for the sake of being understood. As far as “the gays” go, a group of people that large will be hard pressed to agree on anything, but if anyone has any suggestions for better terminology, I’ll be happy to hear them.

    Thank you all again for your lovely comments.

    Not an Odalisque


    January 13, 2010 at 1:08 pm

  14. “[If] that’s true, then how, after all these years of men choosing beautiful women, do we still have so many utterly ugly women?”

    Well in this case relativity plays a big role. If a man is not that good looking then his chances of getting an attractive woman are most likely lowered However, as we’ll see later in my comments I do think woman value looks less so than males.

    So, an unattractive man will soon enough realise, after being rejected by beautiful woman and accepted by not so beautiful woman, that he is indeed not so beautiful. Sure sometimes men take a while to get the hint but no doubt sooner or later they will – at least on average I hope. (There are some notable exceptions fame and money can make ugly guys attractive)

    So finding a ‘beautiful’ woman will be relative to how ‘beautiful’ the man is. So I don’t think that law is broken. The man is going for the most beautiful woman but relative to his beauty (sooner or later he will have to come to terms with his inherit beauty).

    That said I believe our frontal lobes allow us to go beyond our animal instincts. In our modern society humans have partners to share their lives with not just to produce offspring. So personality clearly comes into play. Personally I have been with attractive woman who have become unattractive owing to their lack of personality and unattractive woman who have become very ‘attractive’ precisely because of their personality. So sometimes my initial urges to be with an attractive female breakdown in the long run. Where I come from I find some attractive woman suffer from a disorder I call ‘Pretty Girl Syndrome’ – I tend to notice this in the more superficial upmarket bars and clubs around town. This happens where pretty girls become bitchy because whether they are friendly or not they will always get attention because they are pretty and men often judge these books by their cover. Where as less attractive woman often have to try harder as they can’t fall back on their looks. In my experience this can end up resulting in very attractive unattractive woman.

    “Evolutionary psychologists envision a society in which women did their utmost to be pleasing and men slept around, so we do it, too. I do wonder what their wives think.”

    ‘Woman did their utmost to be pleasing’ – really?

    The way I understood it (evolutionary speaking) is that men are looking for attractive females as this is a proxy for healthy genes (think the peacock and the peahen but the other way round). While woman, needing a supportive male around to help raise the children, are looking for a strong supportive male and perhaps do not value looks as much as men (I bet you have seen far more attractive young woman with rich old men than the other way round?).

    Caveat: I cannot back up my statements with hard fact so this is not an argument this is just my point of view but I’m sure you can follow my logic.


    March 9, 2010 at 11:42 am

  15. Steven there are always variables that aren’t figured into evolutionary biology. Beer, beer can make someone appear much more attractive and talented than they are. When beer and dumb decisions are figured in, it all makes sense.


    March 9, 2010 at 11:50 pm

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