Saturday, April 20, 2013

Evo Psych: the worst?

My plans for the day had included going to a football scrimmage with friends. Unfortunately, I woke up with a cold so I'm spending the day on the couch instead. So I'm writing a blog post, which hopefully doesn't sound too delirious!

Just to warn you in advance, I have Opinions on evolutionary psychology. Mainly that it is, by and large, a bunch of bull. Sorry I'm not sorry, but humans are influenced way too much by culture to make most of the conclusions that EvoPsych papers try to make. So that's my disclaimer. I'm skeptical from the start of papers that try to draw conclusions about biological gender differences between humans, and when you try to account for those differences by saying, "Because evolution!" I usually just roll my eyes.

A few days ago a coworker posted a link on Facebook to this article, "Why Don't Men Understand Women? Altered Neural Networks for Reading the Language of Male and Female Eyes." I was intrigued, because of my aforementioned skepticism about gender-based science, so I clicked through to read the article. (Side note: I really do appreciate open-access journals!)

First, I noticed they have a really limited sample of subjects. Only men. All of whom were single. And right-handed. Hardly a representative sample of a population. They did describe some interesting phenomena regarding these men's ability to recognize gender and emotion just from looking at eyes, and what sort of brain activity occurs during those tasks. But that's all they did - describe phenomena observed in a particular subset of a particular gender. What sort of differences might be found if comparing single men and married men? Straight men and gay men? Cis- and transgender men? Or (imagine!) men and women (of various categories)?

My major issue with this paper came up when I read their discussion, which included this: "From an evolutionary point of view, accurate interpretations of other men’s rather than women’s thoughts and intentions, especially threatening cues... may have been a factor contributing to survival in ancient times. As men were more involved in hunting and territory fights, it would have been important for them to be able to predict and foresee the intentions and actions of their male rivals." I kind of wish this was like Wikipedia so I could flag this with a little [citation needed]. Based on my (admittedly limited) knowledge of modern hunter-gatherer tribes (who are typically raised as the best example we have of early, pre-agricultural human society), there's not much in the way of defending territory that goes on. And I'm pretty sure hunting would actually involve more cooperative communication - running down antelope and other large game isn't what I would call a solo activity.

See, human behavior is... complicated. It isn't a result of simple cause-effect relationships. It's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, culturey-naturey... stuff. (H/t to Steven Moffat for writing "Blink") Which is to say, untangling which behaviors are largely "natural" and biologically based from those that are mostly influenced by culture is incredibly difficult, if not impossible. On top of that, to make conclusions about gender differences, it would help to actually compare the genders. Which, as far as I'm concerned, is where all the really interesting questions arise (and maybe, if you're lucky, get a bit of an answer). Do women's reactions parallel those of men - are they better at identifying a) members of their own gender and b) the emotions of their own gender? Or are they the opposite - are women also better at identifying men and men's emotions? Once you know that, you can actually start making guesses about why you got those results. Perhaps there is some biological basis to emotional recognition, such that it's easier within your own gender. Or perhaps there are cultural factors at work - men and women might tend to have more friends of their own gender and thus more experience interpreting emotions of their own gender. Maybe men and women both get more practice empathizing with men because the majority of authority figures in business and protagonists in media are male. The "default hero" figure is generally male; media focused on female protagonists is often marketed mostly or exclusively to females (see: every "chick-flick" and romantic comedy, Disney princess movies), while media focused on male protagonists is viewed as accessible to men and women.

Even if you want to limit your sample to men, you could try throwing in a little variety by including married men (or left-handers?). Again, once you expand your sample you can actually make comparisons and try to draw conclusions somewhat legitimately. Alright, realistically, you'll probably only generate more questions with no answers. But at least you'll have something actually interesting to discuss! Are married men better at reading women's emotions than single men? Is that a causal relationship (men who are better at understanding women are more likely to get married) or a result (being married gives men more practice at interpreting women's emotions)? Or are all men, regardless of marital status, better at reading men's emotions than women's emotions?

As is, this paper does nothing more than describe particular neurological phenomena related to emotion recognition by men. Once you actually compare different samples (e.g., men vs. women, single vs. married), you can start to make some valuable, legitimate conclusions about how modern human behavior works. Not necessarily about how humans evolved. Making evolutionary conclusions requires actually demonstrating selective pressures and how they impact trait expression, which this paper very obviously does not do. (And, all things considered, most human studies can't hope to do, which is why EvoPsych is a bunch of malarkey.)

In conclusion: Science - you're doing it poorly.

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