Gender, Debunking, and Scienceblogging: Part III with Martha McCaughey

Pt. I | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3

Part 3 with Martha McCaughey, discussing her book The Caveman Mystique, follows below. All entries in the author-meets-blogger series can be found here.

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WF: So how is the use of evolutionary psychology to explain masculine actions not just quackery? Evolutionary biologists, and many who read science blogs, rightly announce and discredit the quackery of creationists or, more broadly, those who "deny" scientific truths. But, for the sake of argumentative symmetry, can one put that lens back onto evolutionary psychology? Besides the caveman issue, does that field of study elsewhere ignore cultural context?

MM: Well, I didn't set out to discredit evolutionary psychology. It's a fun academic field and has made some important contributions. But it is still speculative because, after all, it's not like there is evidence in the fossil record of a human male desire for big breasts. The reason I studied the popularization of the discourse is because I think it helps tell us why so many people, especially guys, have become so enthusiastic about evolutionary psychology, and apt to dismiss feminist deconstructionist claims as quackery.

We know from science studies research on past eras that racist scientific claims were not often dismissed as quackery given the cultural context of Eugenics, etc.

WF: Have you ever seen any discussions here at about gender and science? One positive move Seed seems to have made over the past few years was to provide a more diverse view of gender at scienceblogs -it isn't just that there are now more female bloggers, but that the conversations do a much better job of challenging assumptions about science and gender and pushing the public conversation along. Yet, in almost any flare up, you still always find the knee-jerk responses from men that seem to replicate the cavemen mystique you're writing about. Given your expertise on the subject, how would you intervene in those debates?

MM: I find this to be a fascinating and revealing dynamic. And you've just given me an idea for a follow-up article!

I think calling people on what you point to--an over-reliance on flimsy "scientific" claims--is the best way to intervene in those debates. Maybe we ought to name it, to make it easier to call people out on it. So we could make a come-back on those blogs by saying something like, "There you go again playing the evolutionary-psychology card" or "Now you're charging me with biological self-refutation" or how about just mocking the claim that "evolution tells me so" with "the Bible tells me so, too."

WF: Was The Caveman Mystique a fluid follow-up to your prior research?

MM: It was not really a follow-up but my first book, Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women's Self-Defense, looked at the embodiment of femininity (and how women's self-defense training challenged that). In the course of discussing women's learning to be strong and aggressive in self-defense courses, several people casually remarked that scientists had already proven that men were naturally aggressive and could not be stopped. So I see The Caveman Mystique as having been the next logical step after analyzing the culture that tells women they are naturally helpless and easily victimized by men. The Caveman Mystique asks, where do we get the idea that men are naturally predatory and can't help but ogle, harass, and rape women?

WF: Are you working on new research that's related to this book? Or, at the same time, have you begun a project in a different direction?

MM: I'm actually working on a semi-autobiographical book about the field of women's studies and academic freedom, Sexy Knowledge. My critique of evolutionary psychology is related to this because the far right groups that work to denounce women's studies actually tend to invoke both neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, as though the "scientific truth" in these latter two fields discredits--indeed, renders totally moot--the scholarship in women's and gender studies. I find it fascinating and troubling that women's studies is labeled "ideological" and "not factual" by these groups--and that a field I show to be ideological, evolutionary psychology, is held up as the research that makes feminist scholars wrong.

WF: Can I ask, is it worse for men to be pigs or cavemen?

MM: In the 1970s when a woman referred to a man as a M.C.P. (male chauvinist pig) she was most likely referring to an attitude he held about women's proper place vis-à-vis men in society. I'd say that being a caveman is more clearly a demeanor--which is why in my book I have a chapter called Homo Habitus, using Pierre Bourdieu's theory of habitus, or the account of how cultural ideas are taken up in the form of bodily habits and tastes that reinforce behavioral norms and social inequality, I suggest that scientific theories find their way into both popular culture and men's corporeal habits and attitudes. The work of Pierre Bourdieu provides a tool for understanding how power is organized at the level of unconscious embodiment of cultural forces. I suggest that popular manifestations of scientific evolutionary narratives about men's sexuality have a real material effect on many men.

WF: Viagra. You have six lines to reply.

MM: I am not against medical technologies that assist sexual pleasure per se, but the widespread use of Viagra reveals that men aren't as "virile" as they want to and think they should be. Of course if you're 70 and popping Viagra you can still imagine our evolutionary ancestors who were male to be studly cavemen; you just have to remind yourself that caveman would have been dead long before 70.

Pt. I | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3

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