Although I find the field interesting, I have some suspicions about evolutionary psychology, and Satoshi Kanazawa is doing little to allay those reservations with his recent post on what evolutionary theory tells us about happiness (hat tip to BCC’s side bar). The crux of his argument seems to be: do whatever you want, because that will make you happy. And since you, the lay reader, unschooled in the intricacies of baboon behavior and therefore not qualified to serve as an authority on your own desires, probably don’t know what you want, let me pronounce authoritatively on what will make you happy: you want status if you’re a man and children if you’re a woman.
Happiness can in fact apparently be distilled into this simple gender-differentiated formula:
Money, promotions, the corner office, social status, and political power are what make men happy (as long as they win, of course, but then dropping out is by definition a defeat). Spending time with children is what makes women happy.
That’s all there is to it? Give birth (if you’re female) and your happiness is assured? It’s hard for me to take seriously conclusions that are this facile and reductive and defy the complexity of my own experience and observations. Besides its glibness, I’m suspicious of a maxim assuming desires for children and status are mutually exclusive. Unless there’s technology I’m unaware of, women are not acquiring those joy-inducing offspring from a stork catalogue; men are having children too, and if they abandon the project entirely in order to pursue status singlemindedly as per his suggestion, it’s not clear to me where the women are going to get the children.
In addition, his system has no coping mechanism for women who are exhausted by childcare or men who find the rat race distasteful, except perhaps to suppose they are not sufficiently in touch with their “inner apes.” Apparently he’s under the impression that your inner ape, should you successfully locate such a creature, will speak in a voice strikingly redolent of his own:
Forget what feminist, hippies, and liberals have told you in the last half century. They are all lies based on political ideology and conviction, not on science.
In other words, gorillas are a higher authority on what makes people happy than certain people are–specifically, people who disagree with him. Other people advocate Ideology (which is bad). In contrast, he, seemingly by observing a chimpanzee community or the like, has found the Unadulterated Truth about humankind.
Remarkably, he concludes his post with the following dictum:
Live as you feel like, not as you think you should live like. Your feelings are seldom wrong, because you are designed to feel certain way [sic] by millions of years of evolution. Decades of feminism can’t stop that. You are seldom wrong if you follow your feelings; you are seldom right if you follow feminism or any other political ideology.
Setting aside the fact that Mr. Kanazawa just stepped into the rabbit hole leading to the wonderland of political ideology himself (how did he miss the slogan “the personal is political”?), if he genuinely believed what he wrote here the rest of the post would have been unnecessary. The very fact that he felt compelled to spell out explicitly earlier in the post what is “natural” and appropriate behavior vitiates his own argument. By definition, we shouldn’t need the expertise of an evolutionary pyschologist or primatologist to tell us how we “naturally” behave and feel. If boys and girls really are different (as I believe they are), why are we obligated to teach them to be different?
What follows is my wishlist for discussions invoking evolutionary psychology:
(a) A better explication of the relationship between the descriptive and the prescriptive. Evolutionary theory might provide us with (generally equivocal) data about our tendencies and dispositions, but it does not thereby provide us directly with moral imperatives. Considerably more theoretical elaboration is needed to get from the point “apes do x” to the conclusion “so should we.”
(b) Open acknowledgment of complexities and variations in behavior. Bonobos, our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom, are matriarchal (and in addition, they have a lot of gay sex). Following his own implicit methodology, what’s to prevent me from concluding that women (we are after all supposedly more like those female bonobos than we are like men, he believes) are happiest in a matriarchal, lesbian society, and advancing such a theory under the imprimatur of Science?
(c) Avoidance of false dichotomies, such as that what men and women want necessarily has no overlap.
(d) A clear exposition indicating that circular reasoning, the bugbear of such discussions, has been avoided. For example, since he doesn’t provide data I’m not sure how his conclusions were reached. Does he believe women are like female chimpanzees because they, too, are invested in childcare, and simultaneously that women should invest in childcare because they’re like female chimpanzees? I’m left wondering.
In conclusion, thank you for those pearls of wisdom, Mr. Kanazawa. I will indeed be doing whatever I personally think will make me happy. Just please don’t be surprised if it doesn’t quite fit your model for female gorilla behavior.
- 14 December 2008