Why Men Won’t Ask for Directions

Richard C. Francis’ Why Men Won’t Ask for Directions is a powerful critique of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology that makes its points almost entirely in carefully worked-out scientific terms. That is to say, it doesn’t spend much time asking why, for instance, the evolutionary psychologists are so obsessed with tracking down supposed gender differences that are allegedly “in the genes”, as opposed to many other equally plausible research programs and subjects of interest. (This is an important question, but one that cultural critics can handle well enough by themselves). Instead, Francis gives a detailed and devastating critique of the (pseudo-)science behind all too many sociobiological claims.
Francis spends most of the book considering instances of sexual differentiation in vertebrate species other than human beings; this establishes a baseline for considering claims about the “innate” differences between men and women. He compares cases in which the differences between the males and females of a given species can convincingly be argued to be a direct result of natural selection and/or sexual selection, from those in which other, more proximate, explanations seem to fit the facts better.
Francis’ real target is extreme adaptationism: the doctrine that every observable characteristic of any organism needs to be understood as a direct adaptation of some sort. Of course, Richard Lewontin and the late Stephen Jay Gould started criticizing adaptationism way back in the 1960s. They introduced the ideas of exaptation (the transfer of a characteristic that evolved for one purpose, or in one context, to another context or purpose) and spandrels (features that have no adaptive purpose of their own, but exist as unavoidable side-effects of other features that did arise adaptively). Gould also famously criticized sociobiologists for their “just-so stories”: their tendency to argue on the basis of narratives of what primordial human conditions might or should have been like, even in the absence of any hard evidence for the truth of these narratives.
But Francis goes beyond Lewontin and Gould, to mount a more general attack on the teleological bias of adaptationist explanations: in asking “why-questions” (what is a particular feature of an organism for? what purposes does it serve?) at the expense of “how-questions” (how could a particular feature actually have arisen historically? what role does it have, given the previously-existing constraints that the organism faces?), adaptationist biology (and even more, its offshoot evolutionary psychology) has in effect reinstated the “argument from design” of pre-Darwinian “natural theology.”
In ignoring “how-questions,” adaptationists assert meaning and purpose without any ability to explain in causal and material terms how such meanings and purposes could possibly have come about. They separate the logic of adaptation from its material causation, just as cognitive scientists divorce “information” from its physical instantiation. For all their talk about “optimization” under ecological “constraints,” adaptationists ignore how the contingencies of history, and the constraints arising from how organisms are already “locked-in” to particular mechanisms and patterns of development, limit and channel evolutionary possibilities. (A parallel could be made, as well, to the way “free-market” economists ignore history, not to mention patterns of unequal power and distribution, in their quest to reduce everything to “efficiency”).
If extreme adaptationism is so problematic when it comes to discussing spotted hyenas and marsh tits and cichlids, how much more so is it when we come to consider human beings? Unlike certain “humanist”, idealizing opponents of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, Francis doesn’t make his argument depend upon the supposed uniqueness of the human species. It is precisely on the grounds of recognizing human beings as biological organisms that we have to reject all this simplistic “biologizing.” Francis is devastating, for instance, in discussing how evolutionary psychologists make so much of sexual dimorphisms between men and women that are minute (if they exist at all) in comparison to such dimorphisms in other vertebrate species. And he underscores the importance of looking for social causes of physiological and psychological differences, not in defiance of biology, but precisely because of it. The largest irony here is that, not only do the adaptationists in effect replace Darwin with theology; they also ignore the basic facts of neurophysiology and endocrinology, in their efforts to proclaim essential, “hard-wired”, and transhistorical differences between men and women.

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