Hardwire This: Turning Evo Psych Upside Down

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Commentary Sexuality

Hardwire This: Turning Evo Psych Upside Down

Tori Rodriguez

Evolutionary psychologists specialize in coming up with primal, survival-related explanations for "The Way Men and Women Are." While some of their scenarios are thought-provoking, a closer look suggests some of their interpretations make them little more than Professional Guessers.

Evolutionary psychologists specialize in coming up with primal, survival-related explanations for The Way Men and Women Are, carelessly tossing around – not to mention way overusing – words like “hardwired.” (Translation: “That’s just the way it is – don’t dare dream of this changing any time soon! Abandon hope!”) Take this recent gem from psychologytoday.com: “Apparently, men’s bodies are hard-wired to compete with rival semen.” Alrighty, then. While some of their scenarios are thought-provoking, upon a closer peek, some of their interpretations make them little more than Professional Guessers. And most of them saddle men with the majority of the blame along with the glory (no fair for anyone) for most of humanity’s traits around mating and reproduction, and just about everything else besides “nurturing,” “empathy,” and “relationship-building.”

So it’s time we flip the speculation on its head and ask why other explanations couldn’t be at least as plausible as their male-centric ones, or even just considered as other possible explanations. I don’t claim to know either way; I personally prefer to evaluate each individual I meet based on their unique personhood and not through a pair of gender-filter glasses. My Female Intuition (couldn’t resist) tells me that men and women share the both the blame and the glory, so as long as we’re offering guesses a la pop evo psych, here are some alternatives to chew on:

The topic of procreation itself is rife with maybe/maybe-nots in the world of evo psych. Naturally, women’s reproductive capacity is more limited than men’s, both by length of pregnancy and lifetime fertility – no argument there. But evo psych experts tend to parlay these differences into advantages for men, while women’s sexuality is treated as secondary or non-existent, but of course always passive. But who’s to say fertility differences weren’t intended to favor both men and women – at least back in cavewoman days, before STDs? Let me count the ways:

1. Last time I checked, you can’t get pregnant while you’re pregnant, so… free bird! I know, I know – it may sound scandalous, but that doesn’t make it unlikely. As for that prized paternity certainty, it’s certainly not at risk in this scenario, making this an evo-psych win-win!

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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2. After menopause, you can’t get pregnant, so… freer bird!

3. It’s said that women’s desire for, competence in, and enjoyment of sex increases as they age, so essentially, as their fertility declines, they get hornier and better in the sack. Yet another win-win, I’d say.

4. Evo psych says men like to spread their seed (gag) while women hang back at home, being nurturing and empathetic. But if men were out doing all that hunting and gathering, without permanent residence, while the women maintained the hearth, who had sure access to a place to cozy up with a lover? Just saying.

5. Research has shown that our brains produce Phenylethylamine (PEA) in the beginning of a relationship, the phase which is said to be a “state of limerence,” giving us that intensely-in-love feeling (though I sometimes wonder if it isn’t more fear than exhilaration). Either way, the concentration of PEA apparently starts declining after nine months, which I heard one psychologist explain was just enough time for the evolving male to stick around until his baby was born before he felt that old familiar longing in his loins and had to answer the call of duty, bless his heart.

This plays very nicely into some theorists’ – and their believers’ – fantasy of jaunting from woman to woman every nine months or so, valiantly sharing prized sperm and kindly enduring the pregnancy before dashing off to fulfill his destiny by bestowing his badness upon the next waiting lass. But wait – wouldn’t that also mean that a woman having children with multiple partners would also be the norm rather than the exception? I don’t see why not. And, who’s to say the reason PEA lasts nine months isn’t so the woman will stay for the duration of the pregnancy, ensuring the baby’s chances of survival, before moving on to find another partner? Or, how about the same explanation for both men and women?

The point is, as long as we’re arbitrarily assigning gender-based explanations for human behavior and mating patterns and personalities and biology, let’s consider the other vantage point, too, and all possibilities in between. As illustrated above, we could paint a different scenario, but why paint one at all if we’re not sure? All that does is deepen the gender divide, which could stand to use some bridging.

Further reading:Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, by Cordelia Fine, PhD; and Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences, by Rebecca M. Jordan-Young, PhD.