Saturday, September 19, 2009

Adventures in ev psych

In the spirit of intellectual adventurousness, I've started reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate. Pnin is tired of listening to my vexed inveighing against evolutionary psychology as the discipline is presented in the blogsophere.* So Pnin has encouraged me to start reading real, serious evo psych types, and Steven Pinker is apparently at the top of most people's such lists.

I made it through the first couple of chapters, which admittedly felt like a re-hash of Philosophy 3 at my college. A fair enough overview of a few centuries of Western thought, that is, but not especially juicy. So I skipped ahead to the chapter on gender. Pinker does concede that there is considerable variation within each gender, and that evolutionary psychology's findings don't justify the adoption of policies that constrain women's choices. All well and good. But I can't help but think that he didn't anticipate the full force with which reactionaries might seize on his findings.

He says in several places that he isn't aiming to be political. Again, well and good. But he then discusses divisions between "equity feminists" and "gender feminists" and explicitly takes sides for the former. Which is fine with me -- in many ways, my views are more similar to the equity feminists -- but it's a bit odd not to recognize that favoring one faction in this debate is a political statement. Secondly, I'm not sure Pinker correctly characterizes the cacophony of views within the gender feminist camp. But I'm really the wrong person to try to analyze them.

Then there's his discussion about rape, in which he makes light of gender feminists' notion that rape is not about sex, but rather about power. He's right to discredit some of the extraordinary closed-mindedness and shouting down of academics whom gender feminists have shouted down. At the same time, saying "Rape is about sex" makes it sound like consensual sex and rape are fungible experiences. Common sense and practical experience would dictate that they're not; plenty of my male friends in college kvetched about not getting laid enough. None ever just started ravishing women at gunpoint on the Hanover Green to alleviate a dry spell. It's fairer to say that rape is about the need for sex intertwined with something else -- individual pathology, the lack of self-restraint, the will to power, or what have you. I don't really think Pinker would disagree with me, but his chapter's not really clear on that point.

At another point, Pinker cites to equity feminist Wendy McElroy about questionably consensual sex on college campuses. McElroy mentions that women who drink heavily at fraternity parties and dress provocatively are, in effect, leaving keys on the hoods of a car parked in New York City and expecting it not to be stolen. Maybe, but I remember my friends' misadventures rather differently. I came to Dartmouth believing, full stop, that the female gender was divided between two castes of attractive and unattractive. The attractive women looked like models in magazines, or the sirens in movies, and there were few of them -- perhaps 10% of the population, maybe less. The other 90% were essentially relegated to spending lavish sums of money and time on the treadmill, formulating proper low-carb and low-fat diets, in the frantic hopes of breaking into the attractive caste. Members of the unattractive caste could break into the attractive caste-- sort of the way that a girl with my transcript could make Harvard University, but wasn't necessarily guaranteed to -- but it was by no means easy. In fact, the whole system of mating, as I imagined it, resembled the American upper-middle-class educational meritocracy much more closely than it resembled any actual system of mating I've ever observed. I was vastly unprepared to find that male desire worked quite differently than I'd imagined. I avoided being raped by the kind drunken frat boys described in McElroy's example, but I got myself into some unnecessarily embarrasssing minor scrapes nonetheless. Yet the problem wasn't gender feminism gone awry -- it was, rather, the outcome of exposure to not-especially-gender-feminist-friendly media culture.

Side note: someone ought to write an essay on the Game/bio-con movement as an example of meritocracy gone awry. The Gamers' obsession with scoring, ranking, and status all feels eerily familiar to anyone who's been through the upper-middle-class meritocratic competition. Moreover, most of Game's practictioners seem ex-nerds raised in that tradition. Ross Douthat probably has the comparative advantage here vis-a-vis me, seeing as how he is a)far more famous and b)generally more inclined to hate on American educational meritocracy than I am.

More thoughts on Pinker later...

*For the record, this is not a slur against Auster, who isn't even an evo psych proponent himself. It is a slur directed against some of the bloggers discussed in that thread, to whom I'd prefer not to link directly.

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