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“Darwinian Psychologist” Straw Man’s Ass Kicked

Mini-Me would sooner kick Mike Tyson in the shin than I would challenge Cory Doctorow to an intellectual bitchslapfest. But all my fellow fans of evolutionary psychology are emailing me saying, "Well, jokey boy? You gonna take that lying down? Where’s yer yuks now?"

Cory bestowed the Boingboing bump (see Resources) unto Anne Innis Dagg’s book: ‘Love of Shopping’ Is Not A Gene: Problems with Darwinian Psychology, because she attacked what Cory calls "the cherished shibboleths of Darwinian Psychology." What are these? "Rape is genetic" and "Black people are genetically destined to have lower IQ scores than white people." Scientists who say our shared human nature is subject to evolution also countenance "the inevitability of war, the natural subservience of women" and the "ethical absolution for greed and violence."

"Love of Shopping" is Not a Gene by Anne Innis Dagg. Photo: amazon.comGood heavens. I’ve been a full-time student of evolutionary psychology for a decade, and I have yet to stumble upon these shibboleths. Unfortunately, Doctorow and Dagg don’t cite the leading "Darwinian psychologists" who hold these views. In fact, Dagg doesn’t cite very many in her book at all. Check out the "list of evolutionary psychologists" on Wikipedia. Which are the ones with the shibboleths?

Are you back from looking up the definition of shibboleth? Me, too. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew it couldn’t be good, so I defended against it. Challenging a concept without knowing what it means was my way of seeing if I could fly this article using Dagg’s level of intellectual responsibility. I think I faked it pretty well until this point. Dagg tries to pull it off for a whole book.

But at least I can keep it up for a page. Dagg can’t even manage that. Dagg opens her book quoting pop journalists who make a go at gene-speak. I LOLed at the “coaching gene” and the “non-visiting gene.” Just when I think Dagg is going to be an ally in disciplining these silly people, I read paragraph three where Dagg conflates these unnamed columnists with the entire fields of "Darwinian psychology, evolutionary psychology, and sociobiology."

That was the first of many double-takes that would give me whiplash by page fifty.

At the bottom of the first page, Dagg makes herself clear: "Animals" and "human beings" are two different categories. Oh dear. Should evolutionary psychologists be obliged to explain away the fallacy of this archaic dichotomy… again?

By the time I turn to page two, I’m breathless at her brazenness. Dagg charges into her fray kicking some serious straw man ass with such ninja virulence I’m glad no actual evolutionary psychologist got hurt. Straw flew as she forged onward, bold inaccuracies blazing:

"The view that human social behaviors are correlated with our human genes is largely held by people who are right wing politically."

Make a list of the most prominent evolutionary psychologists and their famous supporters: Steve Pinker, E.O. Wilson, Robert Trivers, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett. Liberals all, some of them flaming. Trivers hung out with former Black Panther Party Chairman Huey Newton.

No reputable evolutionary psychologists have ever taken a position that rape is good, ruthless competition is morally justifiable, women are inferior, whites should rule over people with more melanin. Nor, for that matter, is anyone saying that what is natural is good.

Luckily, the “Darwinian psychologists” are safe from these attacks, because they don’t exist. Left wing cultural relativists made this title up. Steve Pinker and his colleagues call themselves evolutionary psychologists. But you can bet the first scientist who puts “Darwinian psychologist” on his business card will have Dagg to answer to, because she already knows what their Nazi positions will be. Whenever you see the term "Darwinian psychologist," you can bet you’re reading a scholar who’s read the critiques, not the critiqued.

Moral Animal by Robert Wright. Photo: wikipedia.orgDo the critiqued even matter to Dagg? Robert Wright, author of the The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life, gets no mention in her book. The twin founders of Evolutionary Psychology, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, are ignored. Susan Blackmore? Melvin Konner? Deborah Blum? Pascal Boyer? David Geary? Judith Rich Harris? Howard Bloom? Simon Baron-Cohen? (Yes, Sacha is his cousin) None get a mention.

How about the Big Three researchers who wrote academic books about biological sex differences in cognition? That’s a controversial topic with scads of research Dagg might be inclined to challenge. But Doreen Kimura, Diane Halpern, and Linda Mealy aren’t mentioned. Judith Hall spent decades establishing cross-cultural differences in boys’ and girls’ ability to grok non-verbal cues. Her work is not addressed. Nor do the leading lights William C. Hamilton, Donald Symons, Robert Trivers, Paul Ekman or John Maynard Smith earn a mention in Dagg’s critique.

This is an attack on evolutionary psychology that ignores its luminaries, yet features confused newspaper columnists, even in the book’s title. I can’t find "the coaching gene" or "the non-visiting gene" on Google, so I’ll venture these notions don’t have much effect on public discourse. Dagg says the source of her book title is a Christmas Eve column about shopping in the Toronto Globe and Mail. I can’t find that on Google either.

David Buss, author or co-author of 13 books and about 200 academic papers, is dispatched by Dagg in two paragraphs, where she explains away his evidence that sexual jealousy is an instinct. Dagg manages to cram three misunderstandings into these two paragraphs, one confused conflation, and three wacky leaps of logic. It’s so masterful in its concision, I have the urge to hit my game show wrong-answer! buzzer twice per declarative sentence.

"Our ape-like ancestors probably weren’t much into jealousy," (Ernt!) "since they were polygamous" (Ernt!) "so a gene or genes for this behavior must have mutated during more recent human evolution …" (Ernt!) "… Besides, Darwinian theory pushes the concept of men bedding as many women as possible" (Ernt!) "in the subconscious hope" (Ernt!) "that some of these affairs will lead to children to carry on their genetic inheritance. This theory is the exact opposite of a man being jealous of and obsessed with an individual woman at the exclusion of others." (Ernt!) "Both theories can’t be right."

Ernt, ernt, and ernt! My buzzer finger is getting sore. Chimps are promiscuous and jealous. Long-term pair-bonds occurred among Homo Erectus. Lots of primates are sexually jealous, so your basic jealousy genes probably predate humans. And how is an instinct for male sexual jealousy and an instinct for male promiscuity "exact opposite[s]"? Has Dagg never come in contact with the male double standard? Boinking lots of girlfriends while aggressively stopping other males from boinking his girlfriends is a workable gene-copying strategy for the male gorilla, thank you very much. Instincts for jealousy and promiscuity exist in the same brain all the time. Heck, they exist in mine. Dagg even confuses biological instincts with "subconscious hopes," as if the instinct to boff comes along with some Freudian wish to have more babies. My dog fornicates just fine without the slightest clue as to how puppies are made.

"Love of Shopping" Is Not a Gene…. Hatred of tailgating is not a giraffe.

I just walked you through the first half of page seventy, which I chose more or less at random because it’s where she mentions David Buss. But that’s not even the daffiest half of that page. The rest of page seventy cites evidence that chimps pass on culture, as if establishing that cultural transmission exists proves genetic transmission does not. I’m embarrassed to report this is a common tactic among blank-slaters — pretending some unnamed sociobiologist claims that environment has no effect on animals, and then arguing that it actually does.

Dagg challenges Donald Brown’s List of Human Universals, and picks out the universality of hand gestures used for communication as an easy one to mock. She dismantles this claim by describing the many ways in which the exact same hand gesture can be used in different cultures to evoke different meanings. What you "Darwinian psychologists" think of as the OK sign means six different things! But nobody claims that the middle finger means "stay out of my lane" in every culture. What’s universal is that all known cultures use hand gestures to communicate. Dagg’s objection is equivalent to saying language should not be on Brown’s List of Human Universals because some people speak Sanskrit and others Pig Latin. Just when I come to the end of the paragraph and think she can’t really mean what she seems to be saying, she defines "xenophobia" as "the opposite of ethnocentrism."

Fearing foreigners is not the opposite of believing in the superiority of your own ethnicity. I can sort of see how she can flip the meanings of each prefix and suffix to construct that conclusion, but this weird little semantic cartwheel is a concise example of the dichotomous way Dagg’s thinking works. Her habit of defining orthogonal ideas as opposites runs rampant through her blitzkrieg.

Pair-bonding female birds are coy and choosy. Female birds also sneak behind a bush for an adulterous dalliance. (Actually, most birds of prey really are monogamous, but leave that aside.) Dagg claims you can’t have genetic explanations for bonding and cheating in the same bird, because the explanations contradict each other. But there is a rich body of research showing that who females pair-bond with and who they acquire genes from are separable strategies, and that’s why female birds sneak secret boinks with big-tailed males when they’ve already landed a good provider. The best nest and the best genes don’t always come in the same male. Thus secret boinkage.

The Blank State by Steven Pinker. Photo: mentions in a footnote that she found a partial list of Donald Brown’s Human Universals in the appendix of Steve Pinker’s book, but apparently the book’s title, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, did not attract Dagg to respond to the 434 pages Pinker devotes to demolishing specious attacks like hers.

Richard Dawkins likes to say he answers many accusations against his book by quoting from the book. He also says he wishes he had never called his most famous book The Selfish Gene, having never predicted that the useful metaphor of genes having wills which are selfish would be so widely mistaken to mean that all animals are secretly selfish and that selfishness among humans is good.

How do these scarecrows persist in the corn fields of confusion, such that even a sharp observer like Cory Doctorow will applaud an academic who attacked them in an obscure book five years ago? What we’re seeing here are the crumbled ruins of a tremendous ideological bulwark that was set against biological explications for human behavior way back in seventies. This effort reached its nadir when, during a 1978 symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a member of the International Committee Against Racism poured a pitcher of ice water over the head of genteel E.O. Wilson while the Committee chanted, "Racist Wilson you can’t hide! We charge you with genocide!” I was present when Democrat Wilson, after twenty-plus years of being cautioned not to set foot in Berkeley, approached the lectern at Cody’s Books and said, “It’s good to be home.” Three decades of data accumulation has exonerated Wilson and the field he christened, so why do the misunderstandings persist?


An example: The nature/nurture debate. Have you heard of it? There is no such thing as a nature/nurture debate. It’s something that caught on in the media because it rhymes. You can’t have one without the other. A gene can only work in an environment that triggers it to turn on. An environment can only express its influence through an animal by turning genes on and off.

You can’t impose culture on a rock. You can only impose culture on an animal designed by genes to learn from culture.

Nature via Nurture by Matt Ridley. Photo: firmly in the popular discussion about human nature is a stubborn misunderstanding that "nature" and "nurture" are at odds, when in fact they require each other. Matt Ridley devoted his precious explanatory skills to showing what a paltry dichotomy this is in his book Nature Via Nuture. No blank slate enthusiast who attacks the non-existent position that "It’s all in the genes" seems aware of this international phenomenon which won the 2004 National Academies Book Award from the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Ridley’s four books about evolutionary psychology have been translated into 25 languages and sold half a million copies, and Dagg only mentions one, in the bibliography.

Even the title of her book is baffling: "Love of Shopping" Is Not a Gene. What does it mean to assert that a meaningless statement is not true? Hatred of tailgating is not a giraffe, either. However, could you have shopping without genes?

Genetic algorithms influence how we notice some shapes and not others; how we are attracted to some textures and colors in specific combinations and not others; and smart advertisers play to these preferences. To say Love of shopping is not a gene is an inelegant way to assert: Biological analyses cannot inform human nature, because they might lead to beliefs that are morally wrong —for instance, that bad behavior is "genetically determined." As Dagg challenges on the back of her book: "If crime is genetically determined, did all Nazi Germans have criminal genes?"

I defy any reader to find a reputable scientist who holds the view that any human behavior is "genetically determined." However, some reputable social science academics really do hold the equally absurd view that all human behavior is "culturally constructed." The first position doesn’t exist. It was made up by people who hold the second.

No scientist thinks Michelangelo paints like a mosquito mates, but some scholars really do think human natures are shaped like Michelangelo sculpted. The reason the statue of David doesn’t blush when you giggle at his donger is not because Dave doesn’t have jeans, but because Dave doesn’t have genes.

Smack a stranger on the bus in the back of the head and you can predict a reaction somewhere in the realm of irritation and somewhere not in the realm of dancing the tango.Smack the seat cushion, you can predict no reaction. The difference? One was programmed by genes to react to the environment, the other was not. Genes do this because certain reactions passed on more genes than other reactions. Anger when you got smacked in the head survived better than dancing the tango when you got smacked in the head.

There are biological reasons why a dog finds a squirrel irresistible, and a squirrel does not find a dog irresistible. There are biological reasons why most three-year-old girls can’t resist stuffed bunnies, and most three-year-old boys have conniption fits of joy when the recycling truck arrives every Monday.

Combative Dagg repeatedly tries to show that ideas contradict each other when actually they require each other. The same ape can be both promiscuous and jealous. The same bird can both pair-bond and cheat. Hand gestures can be universal among human cultures while the meanings of particular hand gestures differ. The same animal be can influenced by genes and environment.

However, you can’t contradict an assertion if you don’t understand it. The back cover of Dagg’s book fires off a list of questions meant to be withering challenges to "Darwinian psychology (alias evolutionary psychology, alias sociobiology.)" Each is a doozy. For example:

"Since homosexual behavior is common in hundreds of animal species, why do some assert that it is "unnatural" in people?"

Biological Exuberance by Bruce Bagemihl. Photo: macmillan.comWho is "some"? Certainly not the evolutionary psychologists with all those cryptic aliases. Biologist Bruce Bagemihl exhaustively categorized the creative contortions of the extremely wild kingdom in his book, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, which was cited in the U.S. Supreme Court as evidence that homosexual behavior is "natural." This stuff is so mainstream, I published a piece about the biology of transsexuality on SFGate last month, and I’m saddened to report no social conservatives of note yelled at me.

Those of us trying to share our awe for this sublime illumination of human behavior are intimidated and embarrassed by these wacky attacks, which make it almost impossible to eradicate a perceived patronizing tone from a patient explaining that, actually, humans are animals; you can’t have nurture without nature; evolutionary biology demonstrates that racism is not justified; girls and boys really do come into the world with overlapping but distinguishable interests and cognitive tradeoffs which have been traced to sex hormones in the womb and not to the blue or pink towel.

Hop on and watch the kindly old environmentalist E.O. Wilson discuss his Pulitzer Prize-winning book On Human Nature Does he seem like a guy with a secret agenda to justify rape? Are Wilson, Pinker, Dawkins, Wright et al. funded by a secret cabal of right wing conspirators? Or is it the other way around? Maybe it’s not evolutionary psychology, but its critique, that is driven by ideology.

Dagg’s book is published by Black Rose Books, whose stated intent is: "Black Rose Books publishes books that deal with important concerns such as gender equality, ecology, cities and neighbourhoods, and questions of peace, freedom and social justice."

I keep a favorite cartoon on my Powerpoint presentation about evolutionary psychology that I give to college students. It has two panels. In panel one, a scientist is standing over a microscope and saying to his student, "Here are the facts. What conclusions can we draw from them?" In the second panel, a Creationist minister is holding the bible and saying to his student, "Here is the conclusion. What facts can we find to support it?"

Joe Quirk. Photo: joequirk.comWhen you lead with your ideals, sound conclusions will not result. They never do, simply because you decide a position is wrong or right before you learn what it says, and why it says it. When cultural constructivists accuse evolutionary psychologists of secret political objectives, they’re experiencing narcissism. What drives E.O. Wilson to write is not what drives Anne Innis Dagg to write.

Reality doesn’t care about our ideals. We should figure out what the evidence tells us first, then decide how to implement our politics.

Human culture must be built on human nature.

That should be our shibboleth.

Joe Quirk is the author of It’s Not You, It’s Biology: The Science of Love, Sex & Relationships and the philosophical action novel, Exult.


  1. Joe, do you have a link to the article in SFGate which you mentioned in this post?

  2. Congratulations. You’ve utterly missed the point.

    There’s this whole world outside of academia. In that world evolutionary psychology, or rather it’s bastardized armchair variety, is used mostly to prop up various racist, sexist, etc. beliefs.

    They’ve given the field a really bad reputation, actually.

  3. -“There are biological reasons why most three-year-old girls can’t resist stuffed bunnies, and most three-year-old boys have conniption fits of joy when the recycling truck arrives every Monday.”

    Really? I would like resources defending this assertion, please.

  4. Really and truly. Best overview of the systemize/empathize tradeoff is: Simon Baron-Cohen, The Essential Difference: Men, Women, and Extreme Male Brain.
    Clearest overviews of biological sex differences are:
    Doreen Kimura, Sex and Cognition
    Diane F. Halpern, Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities.

  5. OK I’m gushing. Thanks for the great article!

  6. Thank you for such a thoughtful article.

    As a M2F myself, I found your article in the SFGate quite interesting and would be interested in your references.

    And on the topic at hand, I have long argued that an enormous number of our cultural problems stem from the refusal of our culture to accept the biological basis of human behaviors.

    In my opinion, the biggest problem we face as a species is Alpha Dominance behavior. The drive to “prove” superiority of one’s genes to potential mates over all others. It lies behind our obsessive accumulation of material resources, our obsessive drive to use force to settle differences, and our obsessive drive to control everything around us.

    In a sense, civilization has been a war between individual Alpha Dominance behavior, and the counter drive of species preservation. Individuals continually seek to prove dominance at all costs, while civilization attempts to control individual dominance to ensure the maximum survivability of the entire race.

    However, we have sublimated our biological drives so well through the years that it can be hard to recognize the underlying motivation behind many activities.

    Indeed, there is no “shopping gene”. There is however a gene which equates display with sexual desirability. So, you buy new clothes to display yourself to good advantage in hopes of increasing the odds of sex and thereby passing on your genes. You buy a new car to show off your ability to provide, which increases your desirability, and therefore increases your chances of sex, and passing on one’s genes. You start a war to show off how aggressive you are, and how strong, therefore demonstrating your ability to defend a mate against wild predators, which increases your desirability, which improves the odds of sex, and then passing on your genes. You join a religion, to demonstrate your ability to maintain relationships in a group, thus demonstrating your ability to nurture young, thus increasing your desirability, thus increasing the odds of sex, thus passing on genes… etc etc etc ad nausem.

    We are brought up with a nuture which often times dictates behavior directly opposed to nature. It’s not that nature and nurture are enemies, its that we’ve developed and institutionalized learned behaviors which were based on extremely outdated attempts to control individual dominance behavior for the good of the species.

    Take for instance the whole religious prohibitions about sex. These “rules” were designed to ensure that individuals sublimated their individual sex drives for the good of the tribe. The tribe needed to grow, so any sexual behaviors which did not directly contribute to tribal growth, i.e. any sex from which babies did not immediately follow was bad. Homosexuality, Fornication, and beastiality were all sexual behaviors which were for pleasure instead of baby making, therefore they were banned.

    There are some beneficial effects to this restriction, but they are things which by and large are minimal compared to the harm they cause society in the modern age due to the fact that they are directly opposed to our biological drives.

    The biggest problem resulting from this dichotomy is the confusion of sex with love. Sex is a low level biological drive. Love is a high level emotional one. They are not the same, as your article shows with the birds who have steady pairings, yet sneak off to mate with others. Love is a need which satisfies emotional drives and social needs. Sex satisfies biological ones. We teach our young that they are identical, which leads to the belief that good sex = true love, and we end up with the travesties of our abominable divorce rates and the Twilight series.

    Nor is it just our children who suffer from our inability to come to grips with our biological drives. In another post on h+ I pointed out that even AI research has been hung up over this problem. The overwhelming majority of fear about AI replacing us is based on the primitive fear of competition for mates. If we were an AI, we would behave in such and thus a manner, because it would improve our chances of mating and so forth, etc. By not recognizing the drive to dominate is primarily driven by mating instincts, I feel they are over-complicating the issue enormously. In a purely logical machine, the prisoners dilemma shows that co-operation is an inevitable winning strategy over the long term. Most fears of short term AI hostility all seem to come down to illogical fears of competition for resources or dominance.

    Take Asimov’s 3 laws, and the “exception”. In the I, Robot movie Viki essentially made an illogical leap from the very logical “Humanity must not come to harm” to the “take over the world to force safety on humans.” plot device. Or Skynet, immediately ensuring it’s own downfall by making humans into an enemy. Even the Matrix showed the AI’s making completely illogical decisions which lead to the war in the Animatrix backstories.

    Any AI which is capable of understanding human psychology would be completely aware of the impossibility of such strategies to work. There are ten thousand other possible strategies that would have far higher probability of success than a hostile one, almost all of which are co-operative strategies. Enlightened self interest comes down to “If I help you, and you help me, then I maximize the possibility that I will achieve my goals, while minimizing the possible conflicts which could prevent me from obtaining my goals.” It’s simple logic and succeeds more often than it fails.

    To be honest, I think the ONLY way an AI will be hostile will be if we CREATE one that is, and then eliminate the AI’s ability to decide it’s own course of action… which by definition is not AI.

    Another area is worries by Transhumans about backlash against human enhancement and alteration. The problem here is that the instinctual responses we have to the “uncanny valley” will result in widespread hostility towards Transhumans who have altered themselves via cybernetics and other technologies.

    However there are factors which effectively bypass that instinctive response. For example, we are completely willing to suspend that instinct in our imagination. We have only a minor negative response to “playing” all sorts of “uncanny valley” creations in our video games, and because of this continual exposure, far more accepting of such things in real life. The average person might not cosplay at a convention, but the fact that many do has become not only acceptable in the various subcultures, but becoming more tolerated in the main as well. As we progress into the Virtual Age in the next decade, increasingly our ability to assume different forms in our “play time” online will become an accepted part of day to day culture, and increasingly demanded as a part of “real” life. By accustoming ourselves to the radical in VR, we effectively bypass the instinctual “reject first” survival instinct because we view it as “not real” and thus not a threat. SL has been proving this for years. When it first started, griefers were a huge problem, but as people became accustomed to the unusual, their numbers dropped quickly, and now I can go most places in my succubus avatar, or even my anthropomorphic “neon” jackal, and not draw the slightest negative attention for my appearance.

    So I suppose that in conclusion, I feel that the sooner we can strip away the sublimations and misconceptions about the role of our biological drives in our behavior, the sooner we can address the problems and injustices that arise from our attempts to deny that humans are animals too, and as such have instinctual responses to many things. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can formulate a system of nurture which enables us to minimize the harmful aspects of our biological heritage and emphasizes the helpful, while eliminating the horrendous social injustices we inflict on each other. We face a future in which anything is possible, and as such, we need to first face our past, and accept our species for what it is, part angel, part devil, and above all, Human.

  7. I dunno. I think E. O. Wilson’s pretty cool, and I think he started something interesting with his book Sociobiology, which came out when I was in college. I was pretty antagonistic to the notion, being a fiery social-theory student and all that. But you really would have to be daft to imagine that no human behavior was the product of inherited behavior.

    On the other hand… I’m not sure Wilson’s early speculation that (if I recall correctly) in biologically recent time humans evolved a gene for using the wheel or bows and arrows and that all humans who now use wheels and bows are their descendants has born out. Which is fine — when proposing a whole new discipline it would be a shame not to swing for the bleachers. And the neat thing about science is it’s great at refining early guesses.

    That said…

    I’m curious whether Innis Dagg spends any time discussing University of Washington Sociobiology professor David Barash or London School of Economics Evolutionary Psychology professor Satoshi Kanazawa. Both appear to be published in peer-reviewed journals. Both appear to be employed in academia. Both are authors of the kind of disgraceful, status-quo-endorsing trash that appears to drive Dagg, and me, nuts.

    It must be infuriating to be trying to do actual, professional basic research with folks like that blowing their “just so” stories where (as with Barash in “Whisperings Within”) trying to draw correlations between sperm-duct blocking in parasitic, microscopic worms and homosexual rape in human or where (as with Kanazawa) the common use of patronymic last and middle names prompts him to subtitle an article “Are Russian Women More Likely to be Whores?”

    The point, I’m sure you’ll agree, isn’t that Dagg’s, Doctorow’s, or my accusations have no merit. Instead it’s that they’re misdirected at… not highly influential but highly visible proponents of the sort of conclusions you deplore.

    In other words, while your responses are accurate I think you’re missing the point. The problem isn’t Dagg, nor is the problem the people in your field she may never have heard of. It’s not a new problem. Darwin had, and for that matter in terms of repercussions still has, a similar problem with some of his loudest popularizers as well. But it is still a problem.

  8. Where someone might get the idea that Evolutionary Psychology thinks there’s a “shopping gene.”

    The argument, from Daniel Kruger of University of Michigan School of Public Health, due to be published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary & Cultural Psychology (of which Kruger is co-editor) goes as follows

    – Women like to shop, men don’t
    – In hunter-gatherer societies women do most of the gathering
    – Shopping and gathering are similar behaviors
    – Therefore it’s shaped by evolution

    It’s true Kruger doesn’t appear to claim there’s a single specific “gene” for this, so Dagg’s specific accusation would be incorrect. But he does appear to be claiming that the fairly complex behavioral difference is better explained created by persistent selective pressure over thousands of generations resulting in specific sexual dimorphism than by a) acculturated gender dynamics or, oh, say, b) confirmation bias on the part of researchers.

    Incidentally, in your post you offer the following critique: “[C]ould you have shopping without genes? … Love of shopping is not a gene is an inelegant way to assert: Biological analyses cannot inform human nature, because they might lead to beliefs that are morally wrong.”

    Technically you could have shopping without genes since, for instance, one can easily write very efficient computer algorithms that model shopping behavior. And technically, lacking genes for sensory, locomotion, and manipulating organs, shopping for humans would be impossible. You’d be ill advised to dispute the first sentence, above. Dagg would be ill adviced to dispute the second.

    The question at hand, instead, is to what extent a single biological algorithm is responsible for behaviors researchers perceive as similar (“loving to shop” vs. historic gathering patterns) as opposed to similar outcomes arising from diverse biological algorithms operating under similar external constraints.

    I’d imagine the same “genes” and/or inherited behavioral influence could be responsible for middle-aged men who compulsively “shop” or “forage” through stacks of pull tabs or scratch tickets, or the destitute men who spend most of their waking hours foraging for bottle and cans. And you could argue that no, unlike women, who just biologically like to shop/gather compulsive gamblers or destitute men don’t enjoy doing it. Though you’d then have to account for the myriad men who spend hours or days foraging or “shopping” beaches, parks, and playgrounds with metal detectors. You could imagine that no, no, men’s entirely unremarkable foraging behavior might look the same behavior as women’s shopping or women’s foraging but, beachcombers notwithstanding, men and women have totally different biological algorithms producing the same result. Except then you’re stuck for two (or more) selectively significant pathways that produce similar results in certain situations over thousands of generations.

    Worse, you’re stuck trying to prove there isn’t a single, common, general-purpose (and also 100%, unambiguously real) set of human genes for foraging where the expression is determined by not by circumstance and but specifically by sex.

    That’s not to say it’s not doable. At all! I just don’t yet see it being done. And it is saying you shouldn’t be outraged by skeptics who aren’t impressed by “just so” stories that aren’t (yet) backed up by massive and unambiguous data.

    Returning to your attempted paraphrase I’m pretty sure Dagg was actually saying something closer to “Daniel Kruger claims the public perception that all women love to shop is based on the expression of dimorphically-selected-for genes but present technology for biological analysis is insufficiently granular to distinguish encoded dimorphic behavior from the background noise of cultural behavior and unexamined assumptions.”


  9. How do you respond to the critiques forwarded by the Panksepps years ago? All well and good to beat up on Dagg, but . . .

  10. I haven’t read Digg’s book and so can’t comment on the scholarly quality of her argument. However, you really can’t expect to have the “evolutionary psychologist” argument when you state, without evidence such reductionist and silly points as:

    “What’s universal is that all known cultures use hand gestures to communicate. Dagg’s objection is equivalent to saying language should not be on Brown’s List of Human Universals because some people speak Sanskrit and others Pig Latin.”


    “There are biological reasons why a dog finds a squirrel irresistible, and a squirrel does not find a dog irresistible. There are biological reasons why most three-year-old girls can’t resist stuffed bunnies, and most three-year-old boys have conniption fits of joy when the recycling truck arrives every Monday.”

    This merely demonstrates a weak grasp of logic or of complex systems more generally. Stuffed bunnies? Is there a gene encoding for this? The recycling truck gene? What? You really are making Digg’s case for her. You surely can’t seriously be counterposing a supposed biological propensity for stuffed bunnies and recycling trucks for the gender socialization that occurs the moment a child enters the world and the doctor says “it’s a girl/boy”. This type of encoding has nothing to do with the hunting activities – including play-acted hunting – in carnivores, which, even in dogs is a mixture of learned behaviour (like not chasing animals that are significantly larger) and biological imperatives, like hunger, which are basic and don’t encode for sophisticated behaviour (like pack hunting methods).
    What’s more, the fact that we, as biological beings of certain dimensions, with two arms and two legs and our head at the top of our bodies, etc will have a propensity to use our bodies in certain ways that obey the laws of physics – and in a certain social context – is only about genetics in the most oblique fashion. We have the potential to use language, for instance, encoded in our brain. That doesn’t mean that we will use it for language as can be seen from studies of feral children. And the precise combination of linguistic tools that we utilize will depend on historical and social context – including the importance or lack thereof of hand gestures, facial expressions, body motions, verbalization, written language, et al. Any combination of these arises not because it is “genetically encoded” but because they effectively permit us to communicate in the way that, say “foot language” would not. Again, the propensity – language development – is an extremely general ability (like walking upright or binocular vision) and its particular expression is mediate by multiple and extremely complex interactions.
    All of this has nothing to do with your own strawman that seems to view opponents to your biological reductionism as “blank slaters” or “cultural constructivists”, when in fact people can easily hold to the fact of biological and physical propensities and still understand that the specific expressions of those propensities is culturally and historically conditioned.

  11. Joe,

    there are many additional points I could make along the lines of Shawn Whitney and Figleaf, who commented before me. A few items at random:

    — Differences within genders are greater than differences between genders. The only quasi-universal is that whenever an occupation/talent/attribute is marked as “female” it gets downgraded in social and monetary value.

    — There are no biological alpha males in humans. In baboons, yes. In humans and their two closest relatives, no. Bonobo and chimpanzee hierarchies are fluid, context-dependent and involve both genders. Humans are the only species of the three that have rigid, stable, all-encompassing male hierarchies and no corresponding female ones (in societies beyond gatherer/hunters).

    — Many self-labeled progressives believe wholeheartedly in such concepts as “male rape genes” and “women’s wired-for-coyness brains”. If you’re part of the SETI discussion group on Google, you will see people holding forth on this stuff at length, including well-known wannabee-prophets… er, futurists.

    Tarzanist views of biology, anthropology, etc. have been used routinely to justify the continuation of unexamined privileges. Just as earlier “scientists” insisted that elephant herds were led by “dominant males” (glaring visual proof to the contrary) or that educating women dried up their wombs, people are now using “genes” or “brain structures” to draw similar conclusions. New knowledge, old mindset.

    And if you think that “human culture must be built on human nature” we’re already doomed, because we veered very far off that path a long, long time ago.

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