Tuesday, November 05, 2013

And More on Evolutionarily Mean Girls

I wrote about the summary of that study earlier.

Now Washington Post has a very critical piece on the same study. 

But it gets a few things wrong, I think.  The problem with these kinds of studies is not, in itself, the fact that they reinforce the worst types of gender stereotypes (at least on women), but that the science underlying them is inherently flawed, as in the sense that we cannot go back and prove an evolutionary sexual adaptation of cattiness in women.  Neither do most such theories consider the alternative explanations (for example, that all humans can be aggressive towards each other but that men and women may use different weapons, based on their comparative advantage, in that aggression, or that such aggression can affect all fields in life, not just the competition for mates).

Consider the kind of proof that would be needed to prove an evolutionary argument of the type this study suggests.  At a minimum, we should be able to show that catty women have had more reproductive success than non-catty women.  Note, also, that all through the written history women have been expected to act obedient, chaste and silent, at least in Europe, and that such expectations leave very few avenues for the innate aggression of all people to crop up.  Except, perhaps, in the form of indirect gossip and cattiness.

So that's the first point I want to make:  It's not the conclusions that worry me but how people get to those conclusions.  And that is far too often JustSo stories, or theoretical speculation within a very narrow basic framework, one which excludes alternative explanations and often ignores all societal reasons for certain types of behavior.  Then we get comments on how "science" has proven the cattiness of women as a form of reproductive competition.

My second point is linked to the first one:  That this study is a meta-analysis is not what makes it unimportant or non-scientific.  That it is a meta-analysis of studies based on the same basic explanatory theory, that's what the problem is.   If I went through a bunch of the worst Evolutionary Psychology pieces (the kind Kanazawa creates, for instance), I could obviously get a meta-analysis which demonstrates that those pieces agree on the perfidy of women or whatever.  A proper meta-analysis of this topic would need to enlarge its scope far beyond evolutionary psychology.

Though I think studying gossip is very difficult in the first place.  Certain stuff, such as having a jaw over a beer or two, about the baseball team and that guy in the corner office, is not labeled as gossip.  Talking about the new lover of the woman next door, that is.