Not an Odalisque

Posts Tagged ‘evolutionary psychology

Myth Number Two: I’m a Neanderthal

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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