Wednesday, April 09, 2003

WHAT EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY DOES AND DOES NOT DO: Steve Sailer, Man Without Permalinks, uses evpsych to explain the public fascination with Private Lynch:

Despite the advanced views on gender equality put forward in that Gallup Poll, this week's age-old tale of gallant knights rescuing a damsel in distress touched American heartstrings like nothing else in the war.

The great storm of joy and protectiveness that the photos of the West Virginia beauty contestant elicited highlight a general shortcoming of opinion polls. While calling 1,000 people on the phone and asking them questions about whether women should serve in high-risk military situations is a useful tool, it's worth bearing in mind that respondents can't fully anticipate how they'll actually feel about a novel situation until it actually arises.


Nonetheless, the remarkable reaction all across America to the pictures of the girl-next-door from Hometown, USA, is a reminder that polling often fails to plumb the deepest human passions. And, fortunately, on this occasion, these passions include joy and relief at her deliverance.

However, he is on shakier ground here:

From a traditional perspective -- supported in recent years by the new science of evolutionary psychology -- it makes sense for many men to risk their lives to try to free a beautiful young woman. Humans evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in small bands. Fertile females were the critical resource. Even if all the males in the band but one died, he could still face up to his tribal duty and impregnate all the women in the band.

But if too many younger females were killed or stolen by an enemy group, the band's survival was in doubt. As University of Florida zoologist Laura A. Higgins wrote in 1988, "Because fewer of them are needed to produce and maintain offspring, from a population maintenance perspective, males are more expendable than females."

On the other hand, this primordial instinct can get in the way of rational war fighting. In the opening months of the 1947-1948 Israeli War of Independence, women were fully integrated into frontline ranks, but later in the war, the government began withdrawing women from combat. City College of New York sociologist Steven Goldberg pointed out, "The argument that clinched Israel's decision to not use women in combat was the experience of male soldiers taking militarily unwarranted risks to save female soldiers in trouble." Israeli women were then banned from combat roles until a 1996 Israeli Supreme Court ruling.

Lynch's rescue was extremely well planned and executed, and the risks were kept to a minimum. But risks there were. And the political bonanza it reaped shows the pressures and temptations commanders face regarding the fate of nice-looking female soldiers.

I mean--there are indications that this rescue was attempted because the Marines knew a female soldier was involved (via Virginia Postrel):

Mohammed was taking a chance, not only in defying Iraqi authorities but in approaching the Marines. Saddam's Fedayeen and their allies had been dressing in civilian clothes to get close to U.S. troops, sometimes even faking surrender, only to open fire at short range. U.S. troops have also fired on civilians at checkpoints.

But with the mention of a woman soldier, Mohammed got the Marines' attention, and he was quickly ushered in to talk with officers who began grilling him about the hospital and the soldier inside. At the same time, Mohammed instructed his wife to go stay with their family -- and none too soon. That night, friends told him later, the Fedayeen showed up at his house and ransacked the place, searching for something.

It was not enough to simply tell the Americans that one of their own was at Saddam Hospital. Twice over the next two days, he said, they sent him back to the hospital to gather more information. Just to get to the hospital was perilous, he said, because of the U.S. bombs that seemed to be falling all around Nasiriyah. Once in the hospital, he had to make sure he was not spotted by anyone who would inform on him to the Fedayeen.

But it seems more like if anyone was taking a huge, greater-than-average risk out of protective male feelings for women, it was Mohammed--the Iraqi lawyer above who gave up her whereabouts--and not the U.S. Marines. On the other hand, the idea that Private Lynch is a much bigger deal than Private Johnson or Private Piestawa because she's the cutest of the three of them--I mean, it's an ugly idea, but it is probably true. I really hope it isn't because she's the whitest of the three of them.

My non-war question is: how does evolutionary psychology explain away female infanticide in Asia? If women are so precious in evpsych terms, it shouldn't happen at all. So evpsych either has to come up with a reproductive fitness explanation for female infanticide that is still being unconsciously followed to this day--or it has to say that Asian people evolved in a slightly different environment from non-Asian people--or maybe it has to say both, that the latter caused the former or something. Right?

Anyhoo, I guess I think that evolutionary psychology is better at explaining why things--images and ideas; I refuse to use the godawful term "meme"--spread the way that they do within a culture than at explaining why cultures themselves exist and develop. That's where it has more explanatory power for me, anywar. Right, then.

Of related interest: Is Evolution a Secular Religion? Via Charles Murtaugh. That post also explains Charlie's self-defined elitism, which I found interesting.

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