Friday, January 09, 2009

The gospel of testosterone (by Suzie)

       "Evolutionary psychology gives us a way of understanding our true nature."
       So says former church pastor Michael Dowd, who has written a book, “Thank God for Evolution.” His Web site proclaims him “one of the most inspiring speakers in America today,” and he tailors speeches to different groups, including men’s groups.
       He doesn't just promote evolution. He uses evolutionary psychology to assure men that it’s natural for them to take risks and want sex with lots of women. (Evol Psych often has been discussed on this blog. A newcomer might want to start with Echidne's “Penis Envy.”)
         Dowd writes that “a rise in status will boost baseline testosterone levels in humans and other primates.” I haven’t examined the studies, but it is unclear how long the rise in testosterone lasts, especially because it may depend on a man’s perception of his status. Studies have focused on men; we know less about women.
          Dowd goes on to say:
If we deny our evolutionary heritage, then promotion at work or election to public office will catch us by surprise — and possibly wreak havoc in our marriages and other relationships.
As it turns out, such had indeed been the case for the gentleman who pulled me aside after church. "I've never told anyone this before," he began. "Many years ago, when I was working for a large corporation, I got a big promotion. Immediately, my life began to fall apart. I couldn't understand it. Within a year, I had multiple affairs and my marriage was in ruins. It cost me my job, too." He grasped my hand and said, "Thank you for helping me understand how this could have happened."
          Did this guy really not know that men with money and power sometimes cheat? Or, was he now blaming testosterone? As a Catholic critic argues, “There is no denying that insight into one's psyche helps one make good choices.” But you don’t have to accept Dowd’s arguments to understand that hormones may influence thinking or behavior.
          In a Wired interview, Dowd continues his testimony on testosterone: "The more a person has, the more a person tends to take risks and think about sex."
          Science hasn’t proved a neat cause-and-effect correlation, especially when comparing men with women, as opposed to comparing a person before and after an increase in testosterone. Because men average 40 to 60 times more testosterone than women, someone might take that as proof that men were that much more likely to take risks and think about sex.
          Understanding our "true nature" will help us live more ethical lives, Dowd says. 
[Wired]: Couldn't someone just as easily argue that we ought to obey our base instincts, since we evolved that way?
Dowd: That's where it's important to understand the direction of evolution. When we look at the pre-human world, then at human cultural evolution, we see greater spheres of cooperation, of complexity and interdependence at an ever-wider scale. At first we cooperated with family and clan; then at the level of tribe; then, later on, at the level of the kingdom; and now, at a planetary level. Our list of enemies keeps shrinking, and the people for whom we have cooperation and compassion keeps expanding. Why don't we go act on base instincts? Because it goes counter to this trajectory.
           Many scientists would disagree with his idea of evolutionary progress. The Catholic critic  I cited above notes that belief in evolution does not guarantee that people will do good. Think of the eugenics movement, or all the people who have used biology to justify patriarchy.
          Asked about the risk of turning science into dogma, Dowd responds:
The scientific enterprise tends to nurture humility… it's always open to being corrected…
I hope Dowd will have the humility to consider how he may be wrong.
I’ll be gone for a few days. Please talk among yourselves.