Thoughts on ‘Toxic Femininity’

A blogger named ‘femgoggles’ has been kind enough to read and like some of my blog posts and I’ve tried to return the favour whenever he has posted content I particularly enjoyed. Through his blog I learnt about an article written on the website ‘Aero’ by Freya India Ager which explores the idea of ‘toxic femininity’ as a counterpoint to ‘toxic masculinity’. femgoggles has also written about toxic femininity here and here in response to Ms. Ager’s article and also Jordan Peterson’s view of the subject.

In this post, I mainly want to express where I (respectfully) disagree with Freya Ager’s article and my own thoughts on the idea of toxic femininity.

Since I’m just a random guy writing a blog barely anyone has read, I don’t presume to be any kind of expert in this area so people are free to agree or disagree with me as they wish. I don’t particularly like either ‘toxic masculinity’ or ‘toxic femininity’ as a term but since the former has now passed into common usage, it’s important to discuss what these terms mean and how they affect debates on the differences between men and women.

Overview of the article ‘Social Justice Culture and Toxic Femininity’

The central idea of Freya India Ager’s article is that the current social justice culture that is pervasive in college/university campuses and increasingly across society is directly linked with the predominance of women in the education system and consequently in other institutions. This is because social justice has many features that correlate with “typically female psychopathologies.” Three of the main features described are:

  • ‘Cancelling’ others – i.e. cancel culture
  • Valuing ’emotional reasoning’ and ‘lived experience’ over rational thinking and empiricism.
  • Being overly protective and prioritising safety.

These traits are said to be more predominant in women than in men.

There is certainly a lot of truth in this. ‘Cancel culture’ involves expelling those who are deemed incompatible or threatening to the group whilst avoiding any kind of physical risk or exertion. This reflects women’s tendency to avoid physical conflict and instead engage in ‘reputational destruction’ and social exclusion which is more costly and psychologically upsetting for women than men.

Additionally, the promotion of ‘lived experience’ and personal narratives reflects a female tendency to prioritise feelings and emotions to a greater extent than men. The psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has suggested that women, on average, have an ’empathising brain’ whereas men have, on average, a ‘systematising brain’ which reflects this difference. Ms. Ager notes that the problem with personal narratives is that “faulty conclusions are drawn from subjective experience.”

Finally, over-protectiveness and ‘safetyism’ is rampant across society with the ubiquity of political correctness, ‘trigger warnings’ and the over-emphasis of victimhood and concern for people’s mental health. This, according to Ms. Ager, is reflective of women reacting more strongly to negative experiences and scoring high on personality traits like neuroticism and agreeableness.

Since women are said to be more empathetic than men, it is claimed that these behaviours are an extreme expression of altruism and empathy that has emerged due to women having more power and influence in politics and culture. At these extremes, they do more harm than good and thus can be labelled as ‘toxic femininity’:

“While toxic masculinity may involve caring too little about how others feel, toxic femininity seems to involve caring too much.”

‘Social Justice Culture and Toxic Femininity’ – Freya India Ager

My View

While I agree with Freya India Ager’s observation that social justice culture has many similarities with feminine behaviour, I have some disagreements with what motivates that behaviour and what can be defined as ‘toxic femininity’. It seems to be automatically assumed that social justice warriors are driven chiefly by empathy and compassion as if it is inevitable that if you are high in these traits, you will become a supporter of social justice and political correctness. On the other hand, if you criticise it, then you must be lacking in these traits and must be a less caring person as a result.

Freya Ager ends her article saying:

“Healthy discourse should not put the genders against each other or present women as morally superior, but recognise that we’re all fallible, and need to work together to eradicate all kinds of issues from sexual assault to safetyism.”

‘Social Justice Culture and Toxic Femininity’

This is a fair point, but although she states that we should not “present women as morally superior”, the issues of ‘sexual assault’ and ‘safetyism’ she cites as ones that need addressing by society are presumably meant to represent ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘toxic femininity’. However, sexual assault is clearly worse than safetyism so it comes across in my mind as a little imbalanced. This is especially true if ‘safetyism’ really comes from a place of compassion. It’s a little like saying “we need to work together to eradicate all kinds of issues from murder to talking about other people behind their backs”. Any moral person would agree that, in this example, one is much worse than the other. In short, toxic masculinity comes across as worse than toxic femininity so women could still be perceived as being morally superior.

Similarly, the quote about toxic femininity involving “caring too much” seems to conclude that the negative outcomes of social justice are simply the result of social justice warriors, and women as a group, being too nice for their own good. “Caring too much” is not always a positive trait, of course, as it can mean being hypersensitive and easily offended. In this context though, it’s presented as a good trait gone wrong. It’s as if the argument is: ‘toxic femininity is bad, but at least it comes from a good place’.

I’m not targeting Ms. Ager directly for this view as she has obviously been influenced by other thinkers like Jordan Peterson who has made similar comments. While I agree with a lot of what Jordan Peterson has to say and have definitely being influenced by him, I don’t completely share his view on this which comes down to other disagreements I have with him, and other psychologists, on differences between men and women.

I should make clear that I absolutely believe that there are biological and psychological differences between men and women and most of the research that has been carried out to show this. When it comes to some areas of psychology, however, I believe that some differences between the sexes are more complicated than they are often presented.

Empathy

If we take empathy as an example, it is widely stated that women are more empathetic than men, reflecting Simon Baron-Cohen’s theories of a distinctive male and female brain. Ager herself writes:

“they’re (MM: women) better at feeling what someone else is going through. For example, when watching others in pain, women show higher activation in a sensory area correlated with pain than men.”

‘Social Justice Culture and Toxic Femininity’

This could be due to women having more pain receptors than men but may also be an evolutionary function relating to caring for infants who can’t communicate what they are feeling verbally. Whatever the reason, empathy is often automatically assumed to be a good thing so there is an assumption that women are generally more selfless and caring than men are.

From my point of view, which is admittedly from a non-psychologist, lay-person perspective, empathy is more complicated than we think. The definition of empathy presented on Wikipedia states that it is “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.” While Wikipedia isn’t always the most accurate source of information, in this case this is a suitable summary of how the word is widely understood.

However, if the general idea of empathy is to put yourself in another’s position, does this necessarily mean you need to ‘feel’ what someone else is feeling? Consider that you can ‘think’ about what someone else is going through as well as ‘feel’ it. In order to see someone else’s perspective, you have to detach yourself from your own thoughts and feelings and try to take on someone else’s. This is different to “feeling what someone is going through”. Moreover, the Wikipedia article describes different types of empathy such as cognitive, emotional and spiritual. This suggests that empathy is not wholly tied to feelings.

Thus, even though men don’t feel the pain – or other emotions – of others as readily as women seem to do, they can certainly imagine the experience of being in pain in their mind. This could be the difference between ‘feeling’ and ‘thinking about feeling’. After all, the common phrase to express understanding is ‘I know how you feel’, not ‘I feel how you feel’.

Furthermore, women may very well be better at “feeling what someone else is going through” but does this mean they will inevitably be compassionate and have solidarity with the person they are empathising with? Or could this type of empathy be simply an ability to ‘detect feelings by feeling them ourselves.’ This can definitely lead to sympathy (note that sympathy is a different word) towards a person who is suffering, but could it not also generate an indifferent or, even worse, a malevolent response from other women?

Our ability to understand other people has dark underpinnings as well as virtuous ones. Jordan Peterson has noted, when talking about the story of Adam and Eve, the significance of their covering themselves up after they have eaten the fruit in the Garden of Eden and obtained the knowledge of good and evil. Through this newfound knowledge, they become aware of their nakedness and vulnerability. The ability to feel vulnerable, such as the potential to experience pain, means also recognising the vulnerability of other people. As Peterson puts it: “If I know what hurts me, I know what hurts you too.” In essence, people are aware of suffering which makes them capable of inflicting suffering onto others. In terms of empathy, the ability to feel the pain of others could lead to a positive reaction – i. e. wanting to help and alleviate the pain – but also a negative one – wanting to cause or increase the pain, depending on the individual.

It’s possible that men and women simply have a different way of empathising, although this is just speculation on my part. The important point here though is that empathy is not necessarily just about feelings and compassion; it may primarily be a means to ‘read’ other people by how they feel and then act on it.

Political correctness as a form of compassion and agreeableness

Freya Ager also writes that ‘excessive political correctness’ is a result of the personality trait agreeableness:

“Political correctness is best predicted by the trait agreeableness. In an influential 2003 study, in which over 23,000 men and women from 26 cultures completed personality questionnaires, women scored consistently higher in the traits agreeableness and openness to feelings, whereas men scored higher in assertiveness and openness to ideas.”

‘Social Justice Culture and Toxic Femininity’

Again, whilst speaking as a non-psychologist, I have some disagreements with the conclusions drawn here, which is largely due to my reservations about personality tests in general. It would take me too long here to explain in detail my mixed feelings on personality tests such as the ‘Big 5’ or ‘five factor model’ but I may do one day in the future. I’ll just say that, while there are obviously personality differences between individuals and between men and women, I also believe personality tests are highly subjective which skews their results.

It’s important to note that the argument that ‘political correctness is just compassion’ is also put forward by proponents of it. The same can be said for people who identify as ‘woke’. Like I mentioned before, one of the assumptions made through this argument is that people who oppose political correctness and ‘wokeness’ are therefore lacking in compassion for supposedly disadvantaged groups. In reality, critics of political correctness can be sympathetic and empathetic to less fortunate groups but simply disagree with how to help them.

Also, the idea that certain racial groups, or women and LGBT people, are helpless and inevitably disadvantaged could be said to be very demeaning and patronising. Similarly, the people who support political correctness could be viewed as arrogant and self-satisfied for believing it is necessary for them to protect and rescue groups they’ve designated as disadvantaged or oppressed. Bernard Chapin, on his YouTube channel, used to sometimes do an impression of social justice warriors by patting himself on the back and saying: “I care! You don’t! I care! You don’t!”

It’s not very surprising when we consider this to find that people who support political correctness score themselves highly on wanting to help people and being caring – traits associated with agreeableness. There’s a big difference though with ‘thinking’ you’re agreeable and ‘being’ agreeable. In much the same way, the fact that some people believe themselves to be intelligent doesn’t mean they actually ARE intelligent.

The academics Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young note in their excellent book Spreading Misandry the tendency to conflate political correctness with compassion or kindness but argue against this assumption; comparing it negatively against other qualities like courtesy and etiquette:

“Far from fostering genuine courtesy, it (MM: political correctness) actually fosters nothing more than outward signs of respect for those deemed on political grounds to be worthy of them. Not all human beings, in other words, are deemed worthy. The term “political correctness” has thus come to imply not only smugness and self-righteousness but hypocrisy as well. Unlike etiquette, which fosters harmony, political correctness fosters disharmony and even polarisation.”

‘Spreading Misandry’ by Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young

Political correctness is also useful in smearing certain groups as bad – the most obvious being heterosexual ‘cisgender’ white men. Despite their overwhelming compassion, it appears supporters of PC don’t extend it to this particular group of people.

Nathanson and Young also note:

“What all this amounts to is a very convenient way of silencing potential enemies. Some people are given permission to say anything they want about their real or perceived enemies; the latter are not given permission to respond in kind or even to defend themselves.”

‘Spreading Misandry’

This suggests there’s a controlling and belligerent aspect to PC, but this doesn’t fit in with the conventional view of femininity and social justice advocates.

This hostility towards ‘privileged’ groups like straight white men nonetheless has been argued to come from a place of compassion by Jordan Peterson who has labelled it ‘maternal outrage’. The idea here is that this anger towards the designated ‘oppressor’ groups is equivalent to the classic idea of the ‘mother bear protecting her cubs from predators’. There could be something to this but it’s worth noticing how behaviour deemed as negative can be viewed as actually positive and compassionate depending on how you perceive it. In other words, if you view political correctness as compassion taken too far, any examples of it can be labelled as compassion even though it doesn’t appear that way. In this way, you can reason that any disagreeable acts by agreeable people are actually agreeable. Therefore, political correctness can be justified.

‘Safetyism’

As pointed out in the article, the focus on personal safety and avoiding harm as much as possible – safetyism – in social justice culture is a clear example of its similarities to femininity. One of the most distinctive differences between men and women is their contrasting attitudes to risk taking, with men being more willing to take risks and women being more risk averse. This can also be seen in how mothers and fathers relate to their children. Typically, fathers take a more encouraging and risk-taking approach to their children whilst mothers take a more comforting and risk averse approach. Because of this, the rise of safetyism can be connected to greater female participation in society.

Nevertheless, like political correctness, the emphasis on safety above other considerations is often perceived to come from a place of caring and compassion when, in actuality, it may be motivated by a variety of emotions.

We can relate the motivations of safetyism to what Nathanson and Young outlined in their analysis of political correctness because both can be presented as largely driven by compassion and empathy to certain groups that are labelled ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘oppressed’. However, if you happen to belong to a group considered ‘privileged’, then you may not be considered worthy of social justice warriors’ concerns for safety and protection. To put it another way, if you are ‘in with the in-crowd’ – i.e. you are a woman, or gay/lesbian, or trans, or a racial minority, then you are viewed as needing protection from harm and criticism. Conversely, if you’re not, then you’re on your own. We could call this ‘selective safetyism’.

Speaking as somebody who has had problems with anxiety and risk-aversion in the past, I also think there’s a misconception about the psychology of risk-taking and risk-averse people. There’s an idea that risk aversion is related to a lack of self confidence, self-belief or a small ego compared to risk-takers who can be characterised as being very confident or having a big ego. This can certainly be true but risk aversion can also be motivated by having a big ego – or at least a fragile one. This is because taking risks does not just expose somebody to life-threatening dangers, but smaller dangers that can ‘bruise’ somebody’s ego and self-image.

For instance, somebody may be wary of saying or doing something that might make them appear stupid or incompetent. This is a fear that can be shared by someone who is shy and timid but also someone who can’t bare people disagreeing with them or criticising them. The person who can’t handle the risk of being proven wrong might find safetyism appealing to cushion their large, unhealthy egos. Risk-takers, alternatively, may have a healthy ego and be willing to be proven wrong.

In my own case, my risk-aversion stemmed from both a lack of self-confidence but also not wanting to ‘look bad’ and be looked down on by others. This isn’t always a bad thing to be concerned about, but it does show that self-interest is a factor in risk-aversion and safetyism.

Social justice as a product of more female influence

Elsewhere, the article argues that social justice culture is a result of greater female influence in politics and society, again echoing some of Dr, Peterson’s ideas. Peterson has argued that men prioritise ‘production’ whereas women prioritise ‘distribution’ as a result of their different personality traits. Women’s increased involvement in politics is said to have influenced social justice because of this. This is plausible, but again I have some disagreements here.

This argument seems to imply that the only genuine power that is possible is direct power. In other words, since men have predominantly wielded power throughout history, only ‘masculine’ versions of it, whatever that may mean, have proliferated. This in itself has shades of feminist thinking in it. Effectively, women have never had direct power, at least in relation to men, therefore they have never had any means to influence society as a whole. This ignores other forms of power like the ability to influence others or ‘indirect power’. A classic example would be Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play. Therefore, we cannot assume that women have never had any power just because they’ve rarely been in positions to directly wield it like men have.

If we look at any cult or dictatorship that existed in the past, even though they were almost always headed by men, both men and women were equally swayed by their influence and often their destructive and damaging tendencies. Whatever social justice tendencies women have, it clearly wasn’t enough to topple these systems, so it’s important to draw a distinction between ‘feminine thinking’ and ‘feminist thinking’.

This raises some interesting questions: if feminism had never occurred, would women have gradually moved into the public sphere anyway? The advance of technology meant that women were no longer as disadvantaged physically from participating in outside endeavours as they once were and breakthroughs in medical science meant that dangers that mostly affected women like death in childbirth and unwanted pregnancies were alleviated. It’s no surprise, then, that women began to advance outside their traditional environment of the home and into greater society. This had been occurring more strongly during the 19th Century onwards before feminism, as we understand it today, had taken hold. Women could have done all this without assuming they were victims and men had historically oppressed them. Of course, feminist thinking advanced whilst this was going on so you could argue that you can’t have one phenomenon without the other.

To reiterate, Freya Ager does make a valid point that social justice culture has feminine traits, but this has been enhanced by turning women in a victim group in need of social justice. In essence, social justice and femininity, toxic or otherwise, have fed into each other so it’s no surprise that social justice culture has developed in this way.

Does ‘toxic’ mean ‘too much’ or just ‘bad’?

At the heart of Freya Ager’s article is the idea that ‘toxic femininity’ means ‘too much femininity’ which is presumed to mean ‘excessive empathy and compassion.’ Essentially, femininity is naturally good but you can always have too much of a good thing. Contrast this with ‘toxic masculinity’ which seems to mean ‘bad masculinity’ as it is associated with too much aggression and violence which, understandably, can be considered bad male qualities. Notice how there’s never an assumption that toxic masculinity could mean ‘too much of a good thing’. A possible positive example of ‘toxic masculinity’ would be a man who works himself so hard that he becomes exhausted and physically unwell which is something that I’ve observed myself. Another example would be a man who risks his own life to try and save someone else’s even though the act is futile.

Something that I’ve noticed is how people assume ‘too much masculinity’ is inevitably a bad thing. Words like ‘hypermasculinity’ or ‘ultramasculinity’ are used to conjure up images of violence, exploitation and destruction. In this way, ‘toxic’ can mean both ‘too much’ and ‘bad’. These terms seem to imply the idea: masculinity is bad – taken too far it’s even worse! Contrastingly, phrases like ‘tonic masculinity’ and ‘healthy masculinity’ suggest that masculinity is only good if it’s presented in a certain way. The word ‘masculinity’ on its own now has so many negative connotations that it has to be prefixed by positive words to soften some of its supposed ‘badness’ and you can no longer assume that there is anything positive about masculinity without them.

This reminds me of a sketch by the comedians Mitchell and Webb whereby Jesus is telling the story of the Good Samaritan to a group of his followers and stresses the goodness of the Samaritan, as if this is uncharacteristic of Samaritans as a group: “He was a GOOD Samaritan, if you can imagine such a thing.” One of his followers takes exception to this and argues that Jesus is reflecting a clichĂ© that “all Samaritans are wankers” and “implying the fact that he was good is worth a story in itself.” I know that isn’t the point of the actual story, and the sketch could also be a parody of people who are easily ‘triggered’ by such things, but to me it also shows how some people view masculinity.

So what is ‘toxic femininity’?

If we have to use the term ‘toxic femininity’ then I think it should be the female equivalent of ‘toxic masculinity’ in that it should be defined as feminine behaviour that society considers to be bad and which should be discouraged. Defining the term as something like ‘excessive compassion and empathy’ simply presents femininity as universally good and selfless. It’s true that anything good taken too far can be a bad thing but that’s not the same as identifying something as distinctively bad.

Here are some examples of what I would consider to be toxic femininity:

  • Falsely accusing a man of rape, sexual harassment and/or misogyny/sexism
  • Lying to a man by telling him that he’s the father of her child and expecting payments from him when he isn’t (paternity fraud)
  • Denying a man access to his children even though he is not a danger to them
  • Playing the victim and not taking responsibility for her actions
  • Engaging in psychological and physical violence
  • Being vindictive and duplicitious
  • Highly manipulative
  • Using sex and appearance as a way to exploit men

No doubt a woman would complain about the examples I’ve presented here and say: “men do them too!” For some of these, she would be right, but the point is that there are behaviours that women need to be aware of as a group that should be discouraged in the same way that men need to be aware of their own flaws too. Pretending they don’t exist doesn’t do anybody any favours.

Conclusion

Ultimately, I was interested in what Ms. Ager had written and was glad the article came to my attention (thanks femgoggles) but my understanding of toxic femininity and the psychology of social justice and political correctness differs from hers. I hope I’ve expressed my own position clearly here.

R.I.P. Vention MGTOW

I was very saddened to hear that the YouTuber Vention MGTOW died from cancer on 25th September 2021. I subscribed to his channel a few years ago as he was friendly with some other YouTube channels I followed that primarily explored men issues and identity politics. As his name suggested, Vention identified with ‘Men Going Their Own Way’ and most of his videos were focussed on MGTOW but also his life as a mechanic and his other interests like permaculture. MGTOWs are men who choose to avoid marriage and relationships due to society’s bias towards women in countries like the US and UK. Vention always ended his videos saying: “Don’t get married!”

I don’t identify as ‘MGTOW’ myself as part of me does want to get married and have children even though I’m aware of the dangers that can befall men who are in that situation. As a Millennial, I’m at the age when most men, nowadays at least, tend to marry and start a family so I do think about it from time to time. Nevertheless, being a bit of a loner, I don’t think I’d be too upset if I ended up being single and childless when I’m older as I think I would still be able to lead a productive and fulfilling life. I’d regret not being a father more than I would regret not being a husband in any case! However, I have no problem with other men who choose to go their own way so I consider myself to be ‘MGTOW friendly’ or a ‘potential MGTOW’. At the same time, I have no issue with men who are married, if they are happily married at least.

MGTOWs, which I explored a little bit in this previous post, are controversial not just to feminists but also to a lot of anti-feminists for a number of reasons. For feminists, MGTOWs are often accused of being angry and bitter misogynists who may want to oppress and harm women in some way. Alternatively, anti-feminists sometimes accuse MGTOWs of being weak and immature for, in their mind, giving up their purpose as men in society in order to lead a selfish, hedonistic and unproductive lifestyle. Vention didn’t fit into either stereotype of a MGTOW as he came across as a nice, cheerful guy who worked hard and was productive. Prior to his cancer, he had been working and saving money in order to retire early and live off his earnings. It shows you how cruel life can be that he only got to enjoy his retirement for a short time. Vention’s own reasons for never marrying was, I believe, due to observing when he was younger what happened to other men in his life going through divorce and also his own family background. In a sense, he was ‘MGTOW’ before the word was invented.

Vention had stage 4 colon cancer for a couple of years and continued making videos up to his final days when he uploaded his last video lying in a hospital bed. Whether it was the medication he was on or just his own personality, Vention frankly stated to his YouTube audience that he was about to die. I found this quite upsetting as it was hard to see him weakened and debilitated by his illness from the man he once was. As an aside, it’s strange how interconnected we all are now that we can be a witness to someone we vaguely know thousands of miles away at the very end of their life. Vention at least knew there were people out there who cared about him.

Instead of undergoing chemotherapy and operations, Vention chose to undergo fasting and alternative methods to try and treat his cancer. I once commented on one of his videos that I didn’t know if he was doing the right thing but that I admired his courage. He replied back saying that he believed his chances of surviving stage 4 cancer were the same regardless of if he had the standard treatment or not so he wasn’t doing anything courageous. I don’t know enough about cancer treatment to comment on if he would have lived longer had he gone through the conventional route but I still admired the stoic way he dealt with his situation. He could have easily despaired at what had happened to him.

There’s a scene in an early episode of the TV series Breaking Bad where Walter and his family are discussing whether he should receive treatment for his cancer. His sister-in-law Marie says he should do whatever he wants to do much to the shock of her sister and Walter’s wife Skyler. Marie says at the hospital she works in she sees cancer patients who are completely miserable and that some people don’t want to end their life being “picked at by doctors.” Walter also states he doesn’t want to spend his final days too weak to do anything because of cancer treatment although, in the end, he decides to go through with it. I imagine Vention had the same thought process with his illness. Again, I’m no expert on cancer and I believe sufferers should decide for themselves how they want to deal with it.

I’ll end this post with a link to one of Vention’s videos. Now that he’s gone I don’t know what will happen to his channel but I’ll link to one anyway. Instead of focussing on Vention’s cancer battle and his final videos, I want to show a video that I think shows Vention as he was and which resonated with me personally.

In this video, Vention talks about keeping a journal which I try to do as well. Vention said the purpose of his journal was to write to his future self and how, when you’re young, you don’t know who you’re going to become in the future. He noted that, now that he’s older, he doesn’t write as much because he has become the person he will be until he dies. Being younger than him, this felt like I was given a profound perspective from an older relative. In my journal I think I’m writing to the person I will become as well. It’s a little sad when he talks about his plans for the future now we know what happened to him but Vention kept smiling until the end.

You can watch the video here.

Rest in peace Vention.

MMM#3: Can you be phone-free?

If you’ve read my most recent posts, you will have noticed that I’ve been thinking a lot about technology and how it affects our lives. The most prominent piece of technology that many people possess is the mobile phone as it is either close by or on our person whether we are inside or outside our homes. It might even be in your pocket or within eyeshot as you read this.

The advantages to this are obviously the conveniences that a phone can provide. If you are in some kind of trouble, or lost, or need to be reached for whatever reason you can just call someone or somebody can call you. With a smart phone, you can look on the internet if you need to find something, learn about something or if you need to call somebody.

On the other hand, the disadvantages of always having a mobile phone at hand include being over-reliant on them and being consumed and distracted by their abundant features. This is particularly true with smart phones as access to the internet and apps are incredibly affective at drawing our attention. I was once so fixated on something that I was looking at on my phone that I didn’t realise someone was trying to talk to me. Although they were more amused than annoyed, I didn’t like the fact that I was so distracted and not focussed on my surroundings. Almost everybody looks stupid when they’re looking down and staring at a screen!

I’ve heard some people bemoaning the fact that they can always be reached and the lack of privacy that always having a phone at hand can bring with it. It doesn’t surprise me that some people have opted to have a so-called ‘dumb phone’ – i.e. a more traditional mobile phone that lacks the many entrancing features of a smart phone – as a way to avoid some of the downsides of new phones.

At the place I work, I often see everyone else staring at their phone screens during their breaks possibly looking at the news, websites or just going through their messages. There’s nothing wrong with doing this in moderation but I do wonder if it is detrimental if it’s done all the time.

Like I wrote in my other post about not worshipping comfort, being dependent on our phones
means that we can struggle to function without them. Always having your phone with you is another form of comfort which can inhibit your independence. To try and lessen my own dependence on my phone, I’ve started to be ‘phone-free’ by leaving it in my coat or locker on my breaks at work just to be away from it for half an hour or an hour. This is also the furthest distance I can get from it. It means I can at least attempt to find other ways to occupy my time and be ‘off-grid’ even just for a little bit.

The point isn’t to renounce phones entirely but just to manage how much time you spend on it. What initially put me off leaving my phone where I couldn’t immediately reach it was the risk of getting a missed call. I remember going out one time without taking my phone with me and then coming back to find a number of missed calls from my parents who were worried because I wasn’t answering their calls! I had only been out for a brief period but after that I took my phone everywhere with me. However, if people know your work times, I think you can afford to be phone-free for a little bit without much trouble.

There’s no denying that smart phones are an amazing technological achievement but we should appreciate the benefits and drawbacks of them more than we do. As U2 might have sung, I can’t live with or without my phone but I can least try to. I suggest you do as well.

MMM#2: Twitter is what you make of it

Although I have a Twitter account – if you’re interested, you can view it here – I try not to go on it that much and I’ve found that I don’t really miss it much when I avoid looking at it. Twitter can be interesting when there’s a big event happening such as the recent debacle in Afghanistan or the US election in 2020 and the fallout from that. You can learn a lot of things if you follow people from a variety of professions and backgrounds. Most of the people I follow are from the right-leaning or ‘anti-woke’ perspective but I also try to follow people who have the opposite point of view as it makes it more interesting.

I also have what could be called a ‘normie’ Twitter account which I keep non-political and just follow people I’m interested in outside of politics. I’ve discovered, predictably you might say, that a lot of those people have the fashionable ‘woke’ viewpoints so I’ve ended up unintentionally having two Twitter accounts reacting to events from opposite sides of the political spectrum. This was particularly fascinating during the end of last year with the controversial election loss of Donald Trump to Joe Biden. One Twitter was furious at what had happened and the other was elated at the end of Trump’s presidency. The latter is curiously silent about Joe Biden’s actions in Afghanistan though! It’s sort of like having the ability to occupy two parallel universes that experience the exact same events.

I’ve tried not to comment too much on there as you can get sucked into having debates and arguments with people who in most cases are not worth debating with. A lot of people have accused Twitter and other social media sites of causing the breakdown in nuance and civilised debate in political discourse as well as the increasing polarisation.

There is some truth in this but people also have the choice whether or not they want to engage with it in the way that they do. I’ve been tempted to comment on someone else’s tweet on many occasions but then decided against it to avoid getting into a conversation I didn’t want to have. Some things are better being done face to face or, alternatively, on a video streaming site like YouTube where you can communicate with the person directly.

Recently, I’ve taken to looking at my Twitter account on a day to day basis but I’m trying to avoid doing this so that I don’t get too obsessed with politics. On my other account, I’ve noticed that people use Twitter for things other than political discourse in ways that don’t make you angry at the state of the world – for a brief time at least – and show that there is a life outside wokeness and the ‘culture war’.

It is hard to avoid it all of course when politics is creeping into every other aspect of our life even when we want to escape from it. Maybe the answer is to just not have a Twitter account but if you do happen to have one that you use for political engagement, I recommend you use another one for non-political purposes. If nothing else, it will remind you that there are other things in life to occupy your time with.

Twitter, like life, is what you make of it.

MMM#1: Comfort is a false God

Possibly, like me, you’re reading this in a warm, safe place and are free from any kind of danger or hazardous conditions. If so, you’re probably fortunate to live in a society that is safe and secure where you don’t have to worry about finding enough food, warmth or shelter. This is a very good thing as it enables us to do things other than fight and struggle for our survival.

However, like many things, this comes with its drawbacks. The availability of food has led to most wealthy nations having problems with obesity and the development of highly sophisticated technology such as streaming services, the internet and video games has contributed to a decline in many people’s attention spans and participation in physical activity.

The portrayal of humans as fat, round blobs that move around on levitating seats and are entirely dependent on machines in the Pixar film WALL-E could be an accurate prediction of the future of humanity.

This is probably one key factor in why the quality of men’s sperm count has declined over the past few decades. These developments may also explain our obsession with safety which has contributed to the hypersensitivity that is prevalent in political debates and the ubiquity of political correctness. Direct conflict is avoided in favour of indirect conflict and the constant policing of language.

The connection between our modern, technological age and the so-called ‘crisis of masculinity’ has been explored regularly in the past few decades such as the book and film Fight Club and Jack Donovan’s description of the ‘bonobo masturbation society’ in his book The Way of Men. In The Ape That Understood the Universe, Steve Stewart-Williams also mentions how more dependent we’re becoming on technology and how it’s made us much more weaker than other animals like chimpanzees.

How do men thrive in a society that no longer values distinctive male qualities like physical strength? In the past, the comforts that were available to most people were often only possible if humans, usually male humans, used their physicality to provide them. But technology has taken the place in being the source of most of our comforts, so the question remains: how do we find value in human physicality?

One answer is to not place too much importance on comfort and being comfortable. Things may seem good now but catastrophe can strike and societies can suddenly collapse. The Covid-19 pandemic, whether or not you think that the response to it has been largely an overreaction, shows how something out of nowhere can derail societies and undermine the comfort and safety people take for granted. Being comfortable has its benefits but it can also make us unprepared and unhealthy not just physically but mentality. You can be a fat blob like in WALL-E or asleep and oblivious to reality like in The Matrix. Stepping out of your comfort zone helps you to prepare for potential dangers in the future.

Some things that may help you from getting too comfortable include:

  • Exposing yourself to cold water by having cold showers/baths rather than hot ones.
  • Walking/cycling to get around – instead of or alongside – driving.
  • Fasting on occasion to decrease over-dependency on food.
  • Exercising to maintain and improve physical health.

Don’t get me wrong, I prefer to live in a society where I can be comfortable to a certain degree. Nobody, if given the choice, would choose to live in a cave wearing minimal clothing and with no source of warmth or other resources necessary for survival. I’m just as guilty as a lot of other people in eating food that I know isn’t good for me in the long run and spending too much time watching TV or playing video games. Time I spent being comfortable could have been spent doing other more productive things.

What I’ve suggested isn’t dangerous or heroic and might seem mundane but I believe it’s helped me at least to shake off being too complacent and docile. I’ve fallen back into getting too comfortable from time to time but I’ve been trying to practice what I’m preaching here more often as well.

I recommend that others do the same and don’t worship comfort too much.

Coming soon…

It’s coming up to two years since I started this blog and in that time I’ve made just over 10 blog posts! A remarkable achievement I think you will agree.

I have wanted to write more on here but I’ve had issues with finding the time to write and also trying not to write too much on an individual post – something I think I’ve failed here most of the time!

I have also wanted to try and make videos to complement this blog but at the moment I probably won’t have any video content to upload any time soon.

To try and give this blog a few more signs of life, however, I thought I’d try and upload more often by writing shorter posts which I’m calling my ‘mini Mystery Man’ (MMM) posts. These will be less political and more to do with whatever’s on my mind. Ideally, I’d like there to be, at most, a couple of weeks between each post but I don’t want to make any promises.

Since I don’t have an audience to speak of, I can’t imagine anybody will be really bothered regardless of what I do although I do like doing this even if nobody else does!

More posts coming soon.

Book Review: ‘The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve’ by Steve Stewart-Williams (Part 3)

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This is the third and final part of my review of this book. Believe it or not this was supposed to be just one post! The first and second part can be read by following the links.

Chapter 6 (continued): More About Memes

I ended the second part of this review questioning what determines which memes will be the ‘fittest’; which memes will survive and be circulated in a culture. Dr. Stewart-Williams cites Susan Blackmore’s book The Meme Machine to offer one explanation. Memes, according to Blackmore, need to be able to increase their ‘market share’ by first, being able to get into people’s minds and then secondly, being able to influence people’s behaviour.

In Part 2 I mentioned E. O. Wilson’s theory that memes which improve an organism’s fitness will be more successful than other kinds because organisms have evolved to latch onto fitness-enhancing memes. This is explored further here in the book with the notion that memes relating to sex, relationships, kinship, threats and status do particularly well as they are evolutionary relevant. This may explain why many cultures share similar types of customs such as religions, rituals, traditions, ceremonies etc. as they relate to biological realities.

Since human beings are incredibly varied, the circulation of memes is even more complicated as intelligence and personality type can affect which memes are spread by an individual. This suggests a relationship between genes and memes as intelligence and personality are partially heritable. An individual who spreads memes, or a ‘meme vector’ also has an impact as a highly prestigious individual can influence the behaviour of a large group of people. Stewart-Williams gives celebrities and the Pope as examples of ‘meme vectors’ who have the power to spread certain memes amongst their followers.

This brings us to the subject of cultural phenomenons like religion and monogamous marriage. It is said that memes that increase reproductive success have a good chance of surviving as there will be more individuals who can spread this particular meme. This in turn would help the group who possess the meme to survive over a long period of time. This may explain why religions tend to preach a message of ‘go forth and multiply’.

In contrast, the book describes the religious sect called the ‘Shakers’ who preached total celibacy for its members and eventually died out as a result. These examples can be described as ‘good memes’ and ‘bad memes’ as they are cultural practices that diverge in how good they are for the meme and the groups spreading the meme. In short, the ‘go forth and multiply’ meme is good for the group and good for itself, whereas the ‘total celibacy’ meme isn’t.

Monogamous marriage as a meme is another example presented in the book as one that is good for the group and good for itself. Steve Stewart-Williams points out that in many earlier civilisations with disparities in wealth, it was not uncommon for wealthy, high-status men to have many wives and that this situation may have benefitted women as well in terms of reproductive success. This meant of course that many low status men had no wives at all. This is contrasted with modern societies which, despite having similar gaps between the rich and poor, has not resulted in billionaire men having multiple wives with poorer men having none. The author gives Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos as examples of such men which is interesting since both have divorced their wives since the book’s publication! The reason given for this disparity is the cultural practice or meme of monogamy. This meme may have caught on because monogamous societies became more productive and less unstable than polygynous societies. Polygynous societies were less stable according to the author because of the greater surplus of young unmarried men who would cause more violence and crime.

There is logic to this suggestion but for me this seems like a ‘chicken and egg’ situation. What differentiates modern societies from past ones is the greater availability of resources and technology that protects most people from harm and the need to fight for survival. Poor people obviously exist today, but compared to those who lived in poverty in the past, the living standards of the poor – in Western countries at least – is far superior. It wouldn’t surprise me, therefore, if polygynous societies developed in places with limited resources and high levels of risk which meant there was already a lot of instability whilst monogamy developed in less extreme conditions. Not surprisingly, in a harsh environment there would be a great deal of competition amongst men and thus the high status men would have a monopoly on resources and subsequently women. The young unmarried men would have to fight amongst themselves for whatever was left over. In a stable society with security and plentiful resources, there would be less need for men to compete against each other and more opportunity for them to invest in creating families with low paternal uncertainty. Monogamy, then, could be a product of stability as well as the cause of it.

Many religions are known to promote the ‘memes’ of reproductive success and monogamous marriage which has enabled them to survive and spread over long periods of time. Religion is presented here as being a type of ‘memeplex’ which are memes that exist in clusters like genes in a genome. Since memes are designed primarily to spread themselves, it is argued here that many memes found in religions are designed chiefly to be good for themselves rather than to simply benefit believers. Religious practices like proselytising or ‘spreading the word’ were ways to spread the meme(s) of religion according to this argument.

There is also discussion here over whether memes are ‘parasites’ that occupy our minds and take over them or if memes simply adapt to our minds like an organism to an environment. Religion is suggested as a possible ‘parasitic mind virus’ as certain religious practices are good for its followers but not in all cases. An extreme example is a suicide bomber who sacrifices their life and others for their beliefs. In other words, memes that benefit the religion may not benefit the practitioners of that religion.

Although I consider myself to be agnostic, I have some disagreements here with how religion is conveyed in this chapter. Stewart-Williams writes:

“Most religions involve complex and time-consuming rituals and practices. Time spent praying, proselytising, or worrying how many angels can dance on the head of a pin is time that could have been spent looking for food and mates, or keeping an eye out for predators. Religious memes burn up precious fuel without any obvious countervailing advantage.”

But if this is the case with religion, then why haven’t these so-called religious memes died out? And don’t ‘time-consuming’ rituals and practices give people a sense of meaning and purpose? What doesn’t seem to be considered here is the existential problems that humans uniquely deal with which such activities may have evolved to satisfy. Think also how much time some people have wasted obsessing over a man or woman they can never have or some resource or property they may never own. Hence, it’s not necessarily an advantage for humans to spend too much time “looking for food and mates.”

Additionally, the vow of celibacy and other prohibitions relating to sex that is expected in certain religions are described here as memes that “sterilises the people who hold them.” Similarly, the author writes that the taboos of masturbation, sex before marriage and sex purely for pleasure in many religions is, according to the psychologist Darrel Ray, a way of making people feel guilty and thus redoubling their religiosity:

“the fact that these religious rules are hard to follow is not a bug, it’s a feature.”

Essentially, the stricter the religion, the more its followers will try to adhere to its rules and ultimately spread its memes.

This, for me, doesn’t take into account how people may have benefitted from these practices. If we take the vow of celibacy to start with, it’s true that practitioners of this command deliberately prevented themselves from reproducing, but in doing so they may have had more time to spend doing other worthwhile things. For example, although monks and nuns have traditionally expected to be celibate, they have made many contributions to human knowledge throughout history such as studying, teaching and other activities. Had they being allowed to reproduce, they may not have devoted as much of their time and effort towards these areas.

Furthermore, while it’s true that it is difficult for most people (particularly men) to avoid masturbating or sex before marriage or just for pleasure, indulging in any of these things can come with its own difficulties. Some of these include sexual frustration, unwanted pregnancies, possible sexual exploitation of either men or women, jealousy, heartbreak or some other kind of trauma. You could still argue that total prohibition of these things is an extreme position to take, but the downsides may have been far more costly in the past which could be why many religions proscribed them.

It is clear that Steve Stewart-Williams’ thinking has been influenced by ‘New Atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett who I’ve mentioned in other parts of this review. Steven Pinker is another prominent atheist thinker whose work is referenced a few times in the book. While I think all these men have worthwhile things to say in certain cases, I don’t share their general view of religion even though I’m not a particularly religious person myself.

The idea of God as a ‘meme’ is presented here and the author questions why it has persisted throughout human history :

“No one has any trouble shaking off their belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. The God meme, on the other hand, is almost impossible to dislodge from some minds, regardless of evidence or arguments.”

I think framing the question in this way comes across as a little arrogant and reductionist personally as it implies that religious people are simply foolish and irrational, even if Stewart-Williams didn’t intend it be so. It reminds me of militant atheists calling God an ‘invisible friend’ or a ‘sky fairy’ as a way to sneer at religious believers. Obviously, atheists don’t all think the same way and people are welcome to disbelieve in God if they wish, but believers presumably don’t consider God to be a ‘meme’ even though others like Stewart-Williams and Dawkins do. I’ve read arguments against this theory which point out that atheist thinking, at least as described by people such as Richard Dawkins, could be considered as a group of memes as well.

Faith is also presented as simply a meme to help religion:

“As Dawkins points out, if you wanted to find a way to insulate a memeplex from rational criticism, you couldn’t do much better than the idea that accepting that memeplex on blind faith in the highest virtue – and doubting is a terrible sin.”

This implies though that faith is simply ‘irrational belief’ rather than the ‘consideration of things beyond that which we can fully understand or rationalise’. Some believers may have blind faith in a religion, but it’s possible for a religious person to be perfectly rational and still have faith. I’m not a theologian and I’m probably not intelligent enough to get too deep into this topic, but it seems to be me that faith is a different way of conceptualising something that cannot be described in a rational or scientific way. I’ll move on to avoid devoting too much time to this one area of the book.

In the final analysis, I think there’s definitely something to the idea of memes but it probably needs to be developed further in the future.

Here are some other interesting things explored in this chapter:

  • ‘The ratchet effect’ – the progression of knowledge goes in one direction: ‘the cultural ratchet’ – this is not necessarily restricted to humans as several animals have been observed adopting cultural practices. Examples include chimps using sticks to fish for termites and using leaves as napkins which they can learn from copying each other. Other chimp groups may not have developed these practices but can learn them. Orang-utans have been observed using leaves as gloves and apparently riding on falling trees for fun. Animal culture can also include whale or birdsong. Of course, no other animal has been able to accumulate ideas and develop a culture in the way that humans have.
  • Ideas tend to be a combination of previous ideas or what Matt Ridley calls ‘ideas having sex.’ The internet to Ridley is a combination of the computer and the phone. Great ideas are rarely ‘Eureka!’ moments but the product of many smaller ideas.
  • Cultural adaptations such as reading rewired parts of the brain that were involved in visual perception. Obtaining the ability to recognise and interpret words changed the function of that region of the brain. This is an example of a meme ‘parasitising’ the mind.
  • Lactose intolerance is actually not an unusual disorder. Most mammals become intolerant to milk after weaning as they no longer drink it so stop producing the enzyme lactase which breaks it down. Humans are the exception in this case but not all humans are lactose tolerant even though we often assume they are. Humans in areas such as Northern Europe and the Arabian Peninsula began producing lactase throughout their lifespan after we started herding milk-producing animals and consuming their milk. This is an example of memes and genes influencing each other.
  • Cultural innovations such as being able to make a fire and use tools help us but can also kill us. The IQ researcher Linda Gottfredson has argued that intelligence in human beings developed not just to deal with dangers from nature but man-made dangers as well.
  • Technology has helped us in many ways but has probably made humans weaker as well, what Timothy Taylor calls ‘the survival of the weakest’. Compared to other apes, we are physically weaker and have conditions such as short-sightedness and myopia that would have probably died out if we were exposed to the same selection pressures we evolved from. To quote Stewart-Williams: “We simply have to recognise that the longer we live with technology, the more dependent on it we’ll inevitably become.” While not explored in this book, this is particularly relevant to the plight of men and explains some of the problems men are experiencing in society.

Conclusion and Appendix

Steve Stewart-Williams concludes his book by saying that human nature developed as a set of strategies for passing on the genes that created it. During this process memes also developed which started to shape human nature as well. Because of this, humans turned into ‘gene-meme hybrid creatures’ which simultaneously pass on genes and memes. The observations that confused the alien scientist at the beginning of the book can be explained by this theory.

What the future holds for humans, in the author’s opinion, is uncertain as we increasingly have the power to direct the evolution of ourselves and other organisms which can be used for good and bad purposes:

“This is an awesome responsibility, and one we may or may not be fit to carry.”

At the end of the book there are two appendices dedicated to answering criticisms of evolutionary psychology and memetics respectively. Stewart-Williams takes the time to frame the criticisms and then answer them in detail showing that he is thoughtful and contemplative in coming to his own conclusions about them.

In the first appendix, titled ‘How to win an argument with a blank slater’, it is argued that some people dislike biological and evolutionary explanations for human behaviour, a mentality that Martin Daly and Margo Wilson have called ‘biophobia’. One criticism of evolutionary psychology is that it is used to justify inequalities and gender roles and is ‘right-wing propaganda.’ In response, Stewart-Williams writes:

“leaving aside the automatic assumption that “right-wing” equals “bad”, most evolutionary
psychologists (like most academics in general) lean to the left politically.”

I find this quite telling as it explains what I thought was a favouritism shown towards women in this book. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t any truth to the theories of evolutionary psychology of course. Stewart-Williams believes this criticism is an example of the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ – the assumption that if something is natural then it is good:

“This assumption probably explains why the politically correct view on issues such as traditional
sex roles and violence is that they’re entirely due to nurture, whereas the politically correct
view of homosexuality is that it’s entirely due to nature.”

That latter part of the quote may get him in trouble in the future!

Other criticisms explored here include the idea that evolutionary theories are unfalsifiable as we cannot travel back in time to prove their origins. The author states that being false and unfalsifiable are not the same thing and also some theories in evolution have been proven wrong.

Another criticism is the fact that most of the theories in evolutionary psychology have only being tested in ‘WEIRD’ (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) nations which limits the veracity of their conclusions about human nature. Stewart-Williams concedes this point but notes that evolutionary psychology also draws from other fields like biology and anthropology. This, in my view, is usually where it is strongest.

A further criticism of the field is that it presents every aspect of human nature as a product of adaptation, which is something the biologist Stephen Jay Gould also accused evolutionary psychologists of doing. Stewart-Williams again believes this is a valid criticism but points out that evolutionary psychologists present non-adaptationist theories as well.

If I were to put forward a criticism of evolutionary psychology, it would be that is sometimes doesn’t differentiate enough between human and animal behaviour, particularly in areas like violence and sexuality. There’s a danger that you could project human behaviours onto animals or vice versa and make assumptions that may be inaccurate. Obviously, there is a connection in what underlies theses behaviours in any organism but for humans there is far more variation and complexity as well. There is certainly merit in observing how animals behave and relating it to humans though.

The second and final appendix deals with criticism of the theory of memes and memetics. The first criticism is the fact that memes are difficult to define. Susan Blackmore points out that the famous opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony could be considered a meme by itself or the whole composition could be considered a meme. Moreover, is the idea of a thing a meme or is the thing that is produced from the idea a meme? Stewart-Williams responds by saying that words like ‘idea’, ‘customs’, ‘norm’ and ‘ritual’ are not clearly defined either but are useful enough to explain cultural theories.

A second criticism of memes is that it is just another word for ‘idea’ or the simple observation that ‘good ideas spread.’ The counter argument presented here is that memes are not just ideas, but any feature of culture that could spread and be sustained within that culture. The central theory of memetics as previously mentioned is that memes can be considered ‘good’ if they are adept as spreading themselves regardless of if they are ‘good’ in the sense that they benefit the individuals who spread them. Religious belief is given as an example but I’ve already explained my disagreements about that. Nevertheless, the general theory of memes still makes sense as it is useful for them to be good for people to aid their spread.

Yet another criticism of memes is to what extent they are comparable to genes. Genes are replicated with high fidelity but memes are not. Also, unlike genes, memes have to be reconstructed in an individual’s mind. Furthermore, genes undergo random mutations whereas memes are generally created for a particular purpose. Steve Stewart-Williams answers these criticisms by pointing out that culture is recorded and passed on from generation to generation so memes can be accurate enough to be replicated across time. It’s true that memes have to exist in a person’s mind, but there are similarities in how human beings conceptualise certain things. A fascinating example given here is Pascal Boyer’s observation that many different cultures have similar ideas about ghosts – i.e. they are sentient beings so they sense things. Humans therefore may have certain psychological biases that mean certain memes take hold over others. This is similar to the point made previously about how memes relating to our biology tend to be successful. Memes don’t ‘mutate’ in the way that genes do but are often products of trial and error which was also discussed in the second part of this review. Memes may also be products of mistranslations or misconceptions.

As I said before, I believe there is something to the theory of memetics but it might need to be developed further by other thinkers in the future. However, because language is so complex and flexible, there may not ever be a sufficient way to concisely define the theory of memes.

Summary

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book despite some of my own criticisms of it. Steve Stewart-Williams seems like a good guy who wants to be objective about his findings, even though I may not always come to the same conclusions that he does. If you don’t know anything about evolutionary psychology and want to learn about it, I think this would be a good book to start with. It covers a broad range of topics and is concise and easy to read. If you’re looking for more ‘red-pilled’ content, however, I’d recommend looking beyond this book.

Thanks for reading if you managed to get through all three parts.

Book Review: ‘The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve’ by Steve Stewart-Williams (Part 2)

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This is the second part of my review of Steve Stewart-Williams’ book The Ape That Understood the Universe. The first part can be read here.

Chapter 4: Romance, Relationships and Reproduction

The fourth chapter continues the discussion on sex differences but more in the context of relationships. Relationships are important as they facilitate reproduction:

“humans are not machines designed to last forever; they’re machines designed to last long enough to reproduce.”

Attraction is obviously important if a relationship is to occur. The importance of symmetry in attractiveness is explained which I found very interesting. ‘Symmetrical’ individuals are not only healthier and more fertile but also tend to have more sexual partners. This is because symmetry is harder to create biologically than asymmetry and symmetry enhances beauty. Beauty here is described as ‘a certificate of good health’.

In terms of what men and women uniquely find attractive, it is noted that men typically desire women with an ‘hourglass’ body shape. This includes traits like a large bust, a thin waist and a low waist-to-hip ratio (WHR). Low WHR is an indicator of youthfulness and fertility. Older women have a high WHR and are obviously less fertile. ‘Facial femininity’ is also desired by men in women. This includes features such as large eyes, small nose, high cheek bones, full lips, etc. Again, these are all related to youthfulness.

What women desire in men appears to be more complicated. Some masculine traits such as having a deep voice or a beard may have evolved primarily to intimidate other men rather than attract women. Studies have apparently found that women prefer slightly feminine faces for long-term mating and more masculine features for flings. This might be linked to women’s ovulation cycle although this isn’t mentioned in the book. I’ve read elsewhere that women who are approaching ovulation can subconsciously dress in more revealing clothing and be more attracted to alpha, masculine men because of a higher sex drive which suggests a reproductive function. The desire women could have for more feminised faces in men may be more to do with decreased sex drive after ovulating.

Not to labour on this point too much, but again I noticed a slight favouritism shown towards women, or femininity at least, here. Steve Stewart-Williams argues that whilst femininity is always desired by men, masculinity may not always be desired by women:

“in the context of pair bonds and parenting, masculinity isn’t always a blessing.”

Why not? Is femininity always a blessing? It’s worth pointing out that men have traditionally been expected to protect their women and children from harm if necessary which is far more important in long-term relationships than flings. More masculine men would be better at doing this than less masculine men.

Similarly, is femininity always linked to long-term relationships? By this logic, same-sex female relationships should be the most stable and peaceful of all types of relationships yet not only are lesbian couples more likely to divorce, but violence is more prevalent in same-sex couples than heterosexual couples. I’ve read somewhere that lesbian couples are, on average, the most violent although I couldn’t find anything to confirm that. You could argue that lesbians may have more testosterone than most women but they still have less than most men.

At the end of this chapter it’s noted that men’s testosterone levels decline in pair-bonds and more so when they become fathers whilst bachelors apparently have more testosterone. This could be a built-in adaptation for pair-bonding as testosterone increases sex drive which, if committed men’s testosterone levels remained the same as when they were single, could make them more tempted to sleep with other women.

Even so, men who were husbands and fathers were traditionally expected to uphold masculine virtues that they could pass onto their sons or their families in general. Some online commentators have suggested that the problem with boys and young men today is not ‘toxic masculinity’ but a lack of masculinity from limited contact with fathers or male teachers. This shows that masculinity should be something that women desire in long-term relationships as well as flings.

I’ll shut up about this from now on.

Other interesting topics explored in this chapter include:

  • A description of the ‘Westermarck effect’. Named after a Finnish sociologist, this is the phenomenon of ‘negative sexual imprinting’ – i.e. humans and animals who are raised together don’t find each other attractive. This is commonly seen in the revulsion people feel towards incest. To what extent animals follow this rule however has been debated. A old Chinese custom called ‘sim-pua’ whereby a boy and a girl in an arranged marriage were brought up together in the boy’s family led to marital difficulties like infidelities. Bizarrely, it is said that girls who reunited with their family found themselves attracted to their male relatives. Similarly, although siblings in the ruling families of Ancient Egypt married each other, this was mainly for political purposes. Cleopatra married two of her brothers but also had children with the famous Romans Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. Tutankhamun was the product of incest but had stillborn children with his half-sister and died at a very young age.
  • Romantic love or ‘passionate love’ leads to intense physical and psychological symptoms – obsession, high energy, mood swings, sexual desire, etc. but is also fleeting – ‘the sizzle often fizzles’. It is likely linked to reproduction as we often don’t know much about the person we may be ‘in love’ with at first so we project things onto them. Like sex, the intense feelings may disappear after we have interacted with the object of our affection! Ideally, romantic love should lead to ‘companionate love’ – there’s a nice quote from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin here – where sex isn’t the central component. Companionate love allows couples to stay together which is important for raising very dependent offspring which humans have.
  • Men and women tend to be jealous about different things regarding their partners. For men, sexual jealously is common as they fear paternity fraud if their wives cheat on them. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to feel emotional jealousy as they fear abandonment. Both men and women can feel sexual and emotional jealousy though as these are often interlinked.
  • The ‘Cinderella effect’ – children are more likely to be killed by a step-parent than a biological parent. Humans however commonly care for children who are not their own without harming them.
  • Humans are likely ‘mildly polygynous’ as, unlike in species like birds, males are slightly larger than females which is, according to David Barash, “one of the hallmarks” for a polygynous species. In many civilisations some men have had multiple wives although pair-bonding has always been common as well.
  • Animals that have promiscuous mating systems, such as chimps and bonobos, engage in ‘sperm competition’ as females can have many different males’ sperm in their reproductive tract. As a result,  males who produce the most sperm have a better chance of reproducing so these species have very large testicles relative to the size of their bodies. Males in monogamous/polygynous species like humans and gorillas have much smaller testicles.

Chapter 5: All About Altruism

In the penultimate chapter, the focus shifts from human relationships to the altruistic tendencies of humans and animals. Many organisms will risk and sacrifice their lives to save others – whether it’s a soldier diving on a live grenade to protect his fellow troops, a bird pretending to be injured to distract a predator away from its eggs or a bee using its stinger to protect its hive. How could such behaviours evolve if evolution is a brutal struggle for survival? Like in the other chapters, both biology and culture are considered.

It is pointed out that both humans and animals favour kin over non-kin, a key component of William D. Hamilton’s ‘kin selection theory’. People’s greater willingness to help their relatives over non-relatives is one evidence of this, particularly for a ‘high-cost’ altruistic act like donating an organ. Further evidence of this tendency can be seen in the fact that people leave most of their inheritance to their relatives and are also more likely to kill a non-relative than a relative – a call-back to the ‘Cinderella effect’ in Chapter 4. Kin altruism has even been observed in plants and bacteria. All this makes perfect sense from an evolutionary standpoint as kin share genes with each other so it is mutually beneficial for them to help each other.

One way in which humans differ from other organisms is our intense ‘groupishness’. For the most part, we have been able to live in large populations without killing each other and cooperated in building large, complex civilisations. We can be very generous to complete strangers and dislike those we feel are taking advantage of another person, even if we don’t know them. Humans have also fought and died for a particular group, such as a religion, an ideology or their own country. The downside of this group solidarity of course is there is often antagonism towards other groups, reflecting Jonathan Haidt’s point that groups make us team players but not saints.

It has been speculated by some that ‘group selection’ has overridden individual selection as ‘extreme altruism’ – acting for the good of the group, benefitted the group as a whole. Stewart-Williams, however, disagrees with ‘group selectionists’ and instead argues that humans are more individualistically minded. People generally have to be given incentives in order to cooperate and punishments to discourage destructive behaviour. He also points out that, whilst examples of ‘extreme altruism’ such as the aforementioned soldier sacrificing himself are admirable, they’re also rare. Our altruism towards others beyond our kin likely evolved from living among smaller groups where we would encounter the same people on multiple occasions and so would have to regularly cooperate with them. Large scale cooperation, then, may be an example of evolutionary mismatch.

The fact that altruism is motivated in part by self-interest has led to some people being upset by its implications. George R. Price, a colleague of Hamilton, was said to have been so depressed by the idea that altruism is primarily self-interest that he started performing random acts of kindness towards strangers. This depression may have contributed to his eventual suicide although that could have been chiefly motivated by his suffering from thyroid cancer. Steve Stewart-Williams notes the irony of humans being upset over our self-interested tendencies as this suggest humans aren’t so selfish after all. He argues that humans are likely a ‘grey area’ – somewhere between being selfish monsters and selfless angels which is my general feeling as well.

Whilst reading this chapter, I couldn’t help feeling it could have been a little shorter as a lot of this seems obvious and is briefly covered elsewhere in the book. Steve Stewart-Williams argues though that the most obvious tendencies need the most explaining.

There is still a lot of interesting information presented here. To summarise:

  • Hamilton’s rule: called the ‘E = mc2 of evolutionary psychology’ by Oliver Curry, this equation (br > c) states that the benefits of an altruistic act can be large enough to compensate any cost to the altruist, with ‘b’ being the benefit, ‘r’ the ‘degree of relatedness’ between an altruist and recipient and ‘c’ obviously being the cost of the act. The ‘degree of relatedness’ is the probability of 2 organisms sharing the same genes due to shared ancestry. Because offspring share 50% of their genes with each parent and each sibling, the degree of relatedness, r, would equal .5 between them. For grandparents and grandchildren, this would be .25, for cousins, .125 and so on. Essentially, the higher the value of ‘r’, the more the benefit of an altruistic act will outweigh any cost the act may cause. This explains partly why we’re more likely to help relatives, particularly close relatives, over non-relatives.
  • Humans and animals don’t necessarily favour kin naturally, but instead favour ‘kinship cues’ such as early life cohabitation or phenotypic similarity. Scientists who swapped around litters of squirrel pups found that the pups were still close to those they were nursed with even if they weren’t related.
  • Altruistic acts can be forms of delayed co-operation: a favour from one person to another can be returned in the future – Robert Trivers’ reciprocal altruism theory. Trivers argued that humans have emotional preferences that lead to us desiring reciprocal relationships. We get angry if we’ve been cheated and feel gratitude if we have received help. We’re also more concerned that non-relatives return favours more so than relatives as the costs will often be greater in these circumstances.
  • Reciprocal altruism has been tested using computer simulations. In one simulation, different computer programs interacted with each other and were programmed with unique strategies when they encountered another computer program – e.g. ‘Always co-operate’, ‘Always defect’. Points were awarded depending on how the programs responded in their encounters. For example, ‘free-riding’, whereby one program defected and the other co-operated, would give the defector 5 points and the co-operator 0. Mutual co-operation would give each 3 points and mutual defection would give each only 1 point. The program with the strategy ‘Tit-for-tat’ usually earned the most points as it co-operated in its first interaction and then copied the response it received from a program on a second encounter – i.e. if it got a defection from a particular program it would defect it next time, etc. More sophisticated strategies have been designed which have been more successful but ‘tit-for-tat’ is still reflective of how organisms tend to interact amongst themselves.
  • Vampire bats have been observed operating a ‘tit-for-tat’ strategy as they sometimes regurgitate blood taken from their prey for other bats who haven’t fed, especially if the recipient bats have shared blood with the altruistic bats previously. This is an interesting (albeit disgusting) example considering that we tend to think of vampires in general as predatory and exploitative.
  • Altruism may be ‘a peacock’s tail’ – a form of sexual selection. The evolutionary psychologist David Buss has found that, cross-culturally, both men and women desire kindness in a long-term mate. ‘Big game hunting’ in hunter-gatherer societies may also function more as a form of sexual selection rather than simply to obtain food as it would be easier and less dangerous for hunters to catch smaller prey. Hunters are also expected to share their spoils with the rest of the tribe rather than keep it for themselves. Culturally, it is a test of strength, skill and bravery and the best hunters tend to have more sexual partners.

Chapter 6: Memes on the Mind

The final chapter in the book focuses on culture and how cultural evolution affects human beings. Before I read the book, I skimmed through the chapters and wasn’t that interested in this one as much as the others. When I read through it properly, though, this chapter turned out to be one of my favourites.

The theory of ‘memetics’ is presented by the author as how the evolution of culture operates. Stewart-Williams believes this theory can act as a unifying framework even if it is not the one true answer to the question of how culture develops over time.

‘Memes’, which were mentioned in Chapter 2, are ‘units of culture’ that spread like genes and are subject to the same pressures such as nature selection. Memes can be trivial or of great importance. Intriguingly, ‘memes’ are themselves a meme as the word has passed into common usage and outcompeted similar terms like ‘cultural variant’ and ‘culturgen’.

Like the ‘gene’s eye view’, Steve Stewart-Williams believes that memes act ‘selfishly’ in order to spread and be passed on. In this way, memes don’t have to be good for people in order to thrive in culture but generally are as this works to their advantage. In short, memes are successful if they are good for themselves rather than good for people. Examples of memes that are disadvantageous to us are chain letters, hoax emails and cultural practices like smoking.

Memes can be established whether or not humans have deliberately created them. I really liked the section on ‘blind selection’ which explains how certain things can appear to be ‘intelligently designed’ but are in fact shaped by trial and error and experience. One example of this is Breton fishing boats. Boats that could withstand the unpredictable ebbs and flows of the sea were copied and those that failed and sunk were discarded. Effectively, a rule of ‘whatever works’ operated in ‘selecting’ what types of boats were produced. The French philosopher Alain noted that “the sea herself…fashioned the boats”.

Another example is the development of teddy bears. Over time, the toy bears gradually became cuter and more baby-like in response to market forces after initially being uglier and thinner. In both cases, nobody sat down and designed these successful products from scratch – they had to be developed over time by observation.

This reflects how we came to understand and influence human behaviour. Thinkers from Jordan Peterson to Nassim Nicholas Taleb have pointed out that first humans have to act and then observe themselves acting in order to figure out how we function in the world. Our understanding of ourselves is often ‘after the fact’. This is also evident in institutions that have been shaped by human nature such as the law: the American Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed that “the life of the law has not been logic but experience.”

Stewart-Williams summarises this phenomenon when he says:

“we’re swept along by currents we barely understand and over which we have little control.”

Religion, like the law, in another institution that deals with human nature but how much religion is a product of blind selection itself is one of intense debate. It is presented here as a collection of memes or a ‘memeplex’ but more on that later.

Language is a common example in this chapter of how a cultural product operates like an evolving gene or organism. Languages aren’t designed but develop across time and can go extinct if they are no longer used. Words are created and discarded and languages can be subdivided into dialects or eventually brand new languages. Like a family tree, languages can have a common ancestor – e.g. French and Spanish share a common ancestor in Latin. Language however is also a product of biological evolution as young children have evolved to pick up language very quickly.

Science is another example of a human invention that works like evolution. The science philosopher Karl Popper described scientific knowledge as being an evolutionary process as it involves variation and selection of theories. Tested theories that prove to be correct are ‘selected’ whereas theories that are unproven or disproven are discarded. A scientific theory can also ‘evolve’ to become more accurate.

Where memes and culture differ from genes and biology is how they are spread and passed down across generations as we are culturally influenced by many things whereas we are only genetically influenced by our families. We have been able to advance our technology and knowledge of the world by building on the work of those that lived before us – ‘cumulative culture’. Stewart-Williams points out that it would take one human millions of years to acquire all of the understanding of the world that many generations of humans have gathered and passed on to others. Whether we are great thinkers and innovators or just ordinary people, we are reliant on the knowledge of others to be able to function in society. This is increasingly the case as we become ever more technologically advanced.

“we’re surrounded by machines and technology whose inner workings we don’t understand and could never hope to understand. Humans are chimpanzees reciting Shakespeare – dunces with the technology of geniuses.”

This ability to build on existing knowledge is in large part due to our ability to imitate and copy others – ‘adaptive culture’. But which memes do humans copy and pass on? Like in Chapter 2, which deals with evolution from a biological perspective, here several hypotheses of cultural evolution are explored to explain its function, such as the idea that its primary purpose is to enhance inclusive fitness – boost survival and reproduction. Evolutionary theorists like E. O. Wilson state that people have evolved to latch onto ‘fitness-enhancing memes’ and ignore fitness-diminishing ones.

Culture nevertheless evolves independent of considerations of an organism’s ‘fitness’ as often what is good for the group takes precedence over what is good for the individual in many cultures. Individuals may suffer or benefit from memes designed to benefit the group. As has already been pointed out, some memes can also be circulated even though they have no apparent benefit to the group or individual – annoying scam emails, ‘earworms’, bad habits, etc.

This leads to the final hypothesis of what cultural evolution is about: the survival of the fittest memes. But what determines which memes are the ‘fittest?’

Come back soon for the third and final part of this review!

Book Review: ‘The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve’ by Steve Stewart-Williams (Part 1)

4/5 stars

Overview: A fascinating analysis of how evolution may have shaped the behaviour of humans and animals. I felt that the book was more favourable towards women though.

This is one of the few ‘first-hand’ books I’ve read about evolution and evolutionary psychology. Most of my knowledge of this subject has been from ‘second-hand’ sources, i. e., people outside the field writing about the findings of those who study evolution. The author, Dr. Steve Stewart-Williams, is a psychologist at the Malaysia site of the University of Nottingham. I first became aware of him whilst following Jordan Peterson on Twitter as Dr. Peterson has retweeted some of Stewart-Williams’ posts often about human sex differences. As I’m interested in men’s issues and anything to do with the sexes in general, I decided to buy his book to see what he had to say about the nature of men and women but also to broaden my knowledge of evolution.

The book has been widely praised by prominent figures in the field of evolutionary psychology such as Geoffrey Miller, David Buss, Helen Fisher and Matt Ridley along with Michael Shermer who wrote the foreword to the book. Shermer is the author of the book The Moral Arc which appears to have a similar theme to Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature as both books claim that societies are becoming progressively less violent and more rational and cooperative. While this claim is very debatable, I found what Shermer wrote in his foreword to be very sensible in terms of how people should think about societies and scientific enquiry.

Foreword

Shermer compares creationists – people who deny and/or criticise evolution – with what he labels ‘cognitive creationists’ which battle over “the nature of human nature”. Cognitive creationists are those who believe “evolution only applies from the neck down”. Thomas Sowell’s book A Conflict of Visions and Pinker’s The Blank Slate are cited as offering the ‘tragic’ or ‘realistic’ vision of human nature and reality as opposed to the ‘unconstrained’ and ‘utopian’ vision put forward by cognitive creationists. Michael Shermer promotes a ‘realistic vision’ whist states that human nature is constrained by biology and evolutionary history. The goal of political systems when taking this vision into account is to promote positive incentives over negative ones. Shermer essentially argues for a conservative/social democratic political philosophy:

“family, custom, law and traditional institutions should be the primary source of social harmony with government as a back-up alternative.”

Shermer, however, also takes a centrist position by comparing “conservative creationism” – i.e. promoting intelligent design theory and anti-evolution – with the post-modernism of academia – “the Far-left, regressive left, Alt-left” although he concedes that the latter is far more widespread. The centrist viewpoint is made more apparent by Shermer’s argument that adopting his realistic vision of human nature could help heal the widening political divisions in Western countries. I think this could be naively optimistic though because facts can always be presented in such a way as to serve whatever narrative post-modernists (and others) are promoting. Despite Ben Shapiro’s famous remark that “facts don’t care about feelings”, others have pointed out that feelings often  don’t care about facts.

Chapter 1: Humans from an alien’s point of view

Steve Stewart-Williams introduces his book by imagining how humans would appear to an outsider, specifically “an alien from Betelgeuse III” which is “gender-neutral, asexual, apolitical,” etc. This theoretical alien observes humans then presents its findings in a report to its fellow extra-terrestrial colleagues.

In its analysis, the alien takes a similar view to the singer Bjork in her song ‘Human Behaviour’: “if you ever get close to a human, and human behaviour, be ready be ready to get confused…” Unusual human characteristics are noted such as knowingly eating unhealthy food which to the alien is akin to “having an appetite for poison” to humans being afraid of animals such as snakes and spiders despite rarely encountering them.  Another trait that confuses the alien is humans using contraceptives during sexual intercourse to prevent pregnancy or “blocking their own fertility” as the alien describes it. The rest of the book after the alien’s report essentially describes the biological and cultural influences behind the observations that baffled the alien.

The alien also reports on human sex differences and wonders why some humans find them upsetting – a reference to the ‘blank slate’ vision of human nature prominent in certain progressive circles. Although, like Stewart-Williams, I don’t believe in the blank slate vision, I did find some issues with how he describes sex differences in this book. It could well be my own bias coming through, but I did roll my eyes a little at the way men and women are described in the alien’s report:

“the larger ones (males) tend to be more aggressive, more sexually reckless, and more willing to take life-threatening risks. The smaller ones (females) tend to be more selective about their sexual partners, more involved in childcare, and somewhat longer lived.”

While the differences described are valid, it does seem that women come across in a more favourable light than men. This is a pattern seen throughout the book which is overall my main criticism of it. Dr. Stewart-Williams even notes in the third chapter which explores sex differences:

“if the new theories painted an unflattering picture of either sex, it wasn’t women. As we’ll soon see, evolutionary psychologists argue that men are naturally more violent than women, more prone to infidelity and more prone to taking stupid, life-threatening risks.”

This should be music to feminists’ ears! Again, there is nothing necessarily incorrect about what is stated here, but to me the claim begs the question whether we would even be allowed to have an unflattering view of women. A big problem when talking about sex differences at present is that people have no fear of being negative or critical about men (nor should they) but are, conversely, reluctant to portray women in a negative light out of fear of being labelled sexist or misogynistic. While talking about sex differences might be controversial, having an unflattering view of men certainly isn’t.

If an objective alien did in fact arrive from another planet to observe men and women, it may draw more politically incorrect conclusions than the ones presented in this book. Imagine, for example, if the alien stated the following:

“The males appear to be less emotional and more independent. They also produce more exceptional individuals, both good and bad. The females, on the other hand, seem more emotional and dependent, and overall produce less exceptionally good or bad individuals.”

Had Steve Stewart-Williams written something along these lines, his book would have been far more provocative and controversial. To be fair, he has done research on pro-female bias: one of his studies suggested that people are generally more upset about differences that are favourable towards men than women which is explored in this article. Also, considering that sex differences are only one topic of many covered, I perhaps shouldn’t be too harsh about the book overall. That being said, I’ll return to this point a little bit later on.

With that little rant out of the way, I’ll return to the alien’s report. Stewart-Williams writes some rather lame jokes in the report which gives it a feel of a children’s science book. In fact, it reminded me of a children’s TV show I watched as a kid called Dr. Xargle (pronounced ‘zar-gull’) about an alien teacher who educates his pupils about human beings and planet Earth. An example of this is the alien writing “on the other tentacle…” – get it? The alien doesn’t have hands, but tentacles instead, because it’s an alien – LOL! It’s no doubt intended to make the book less dry and more light-hearted so I suppose I’m being a little harsh.

After presenting the alien’s report, Stewart-Williams explores how humans have evolved over time and produced the strange and sometimes contradictory behaviour that perplexed the alien anthropologist. The complexities of human beings are stated to be due to the evolution over time of both genes and culture. Richard Dawkins famously coined the word ‘meme’ to describe ideas, cultural practices, customs and traditions that spread and have passed from generation to generation like genes. The word of course is now more commonly used in relation to the internet. Daniel Dennett has additionally argued that humans are ‘gene-meme hybrids’.

Chapter 2: The nature and function of evolution

The second chapter goes further into the nature and function of evolution and what the author considers to be common misconceptions about it. One of those is the idea that evolution is about ‘survival of the fittest organisms’ or a violent struggle for dominance. Stewart-Williams insteads argues that evolution  is about ‘reproduction of the fittest’ and nature is ‘an orgy, not a bloodbath’. Sex organs are not designed for survival but for reproduction and one sex – typically the female – can choose to mate with the opposite sex depending on certain traits it may possess:

“the mind of one sex can help shape the body of the other.”

The peacock’s tail is described as a sex organ designed to attract females – it is compared to a Cuban cigar or some other indication of high status – even though it may hinder the peacock’s survival due to it advertising to predators or slowing it down.

[As an aside, while this is a common interpretation of the peacock’s tail, I’ve found an interesting, alternative theory about its function which differs to what is presented in this book. I’m planning on writing about it at some point in the future.]

Several definitions of evolution are put forward and explored until the author hones in on what he and other evolutionary psychologists believe to be the true definition of evolution: the survival of the fittest genes. Genes that survive and replicate across time are more successful or ‘fitter’ than genes that don’t. This explanation follows the ‘gene’s eye’ view of evolution put forward by William D. Hamilton and explored in Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene. This is said to explain why organisms such as ants will sacrifice themselves for other ants in their colony as collectively they are all siblings and share the same group of genes. Even though the sacrificed ant is being selfless, its genes are acting ‘selfishly’ in order to aid their own survival.

Although genes have no thoughts or motivations, they act as if they want to be replicated and spread regardless of how this affects the organism that possesses them. I quite liked the quote that “a chicken is an egg’s way of creating other eggs” as a way to illustrate this point. Like most theories, the gene’s eye view of evolution has its detractors such as the biologist E. O. Wilson but I think it’s an interesting idea nonetheless.

Also explored here is how the mind and evolution are interconnected. The mind, according to Stewart-Williams, is “a mechanism designed to propagate its owner’s genes”. Fear, lust and other emotions and desires effectively act like spikes and shells in their function of protecting and sustaining an organism.

Some other interesting points made in this chapter include:

  • Human evolution may be accelerating due to technological advances as our culture is in a constant state of flux. Biologists like Stephen Jay Gould, however, believed that evolution had ground to a halt because the unstable and unpredictable environment we evolved from has largely disappeared.
  • ‘Evolutionary mismatch’ explains why we enjoy food we know is bad for us – like sweets and candy or “human-made superfruit” – as we never evolved in an environment where abundant amounts of very sweet food existed.
  • There are also ‘mismatch diseases’. For example, breast cancer is more common now because women spend less time pregnant or breast-feeding in their reproductive years and so have more menstrual cycles. This leads to more fluctuations in their hormones which can lead to cancer. Women are also now more likely to get post-partum depression as they are less likely to live near close relatives.
  • Some behaviours are by-products of adaptations or ‘spandrels’ which have no apparent function. One example is thumb-sucking – apparently also seen in elephants sucking their trunks – which is a by-product of suckling for milk. Other examples are the male nipple and, possibly and perhaps to the chagrin of feminists, the female orgasm.

Chapter 3: Sex differences in animals and humans

As mentioned before, Chapter 3 of the book explores differences between the sexes. This section of the book is what got me interested in reading it in the first place and, like I said, where I had some disagreements with the author. The controversy surrounding sex differences is noted, particularly within the social sciences, and common sex differences observed between humans and animals are also noted. Some of the most common are:

  • Males are generally larger than females. The difference in size varies among animals. For instance, male elephant seals and gorillas are much larger than their respective females. In humans, the size difference is not as striking. In many birds the sexes are roughly the same size – also called ‘sexual monomorphism’
  • Males have a higher sex drive and a greater desire for multiple sexual partners. The book describes the famous experiment whereby young men and women were approached by somebody of the opposite sex and asked if they wanted to go out with them and if they wanted to go to bed with them. Most of the young men said yes while none of the women did. Females are choosier than males.
  • Males are more ornamented than females and have more ‘built-in weapons’ – peacock’s tail, deer’s antlers, lion’s mane, narwhal’s horn, etc.
  • Males typically ‘pay’ for sex – “intercourse is often presented as a resource that women possess and men pursue.” Most prostitutes are women with male clientele whereas the opposite is far more rare. Pornography is consumed by more men than women.
  • Males are more aggressive and fight more. Men are more violent – at least physically – than women.
  • Females grow up faster than males – ‘sexual bimaturism’. In contrast to the greater size of male elephant seals and gorillas, the females reach reproductive maturity several years before them. Females also tend to live longer.
  • Females do most of the caring of the young. Male involvement in care across species is far more variable. This is reflected in children: girls tend to play with dolls whereas boys engage in rough and tumble play.

I have no issues here as many of these differences can be clearly seen in both humans and animals. After laying out these differences, Stewart-Williams explores the biology behind them.

Robert Trivers’ parental investment theory is described which states that the sex that invests more in their offspring is more selective in choosing a mate. In most cases, this will be the females. This difference stems from the distinctive sex cells possessed by males and females. Males produce the smaller sex cells, sperm, whilst women produce the large ones, eggs, and to a lesser degree.  This affects the number of offspring an individual male or female can potentially have.

Some men have fathered hundreds of children whereas the most children a woman has given birth to is 69 – this was a Russian peasant called Valentina Vassilyev. Stewart-Williams believes this has led to what he and his colleague Andrew Thomas call the ‘males compete/females choose’ pattern or MCFC. In some species there is a reversal – FCMC or ‘females compete/males choose’ such as in Gulf pipefish and ‘Jesus’ birds but the males in these species invest more in offspring than the females. Therefore, the differences in behaviour between the sexes can be best understood if we take into account these size disparities in sex cells. These size differences in sex cells are interestingly reflected in the size differences of spiders.

Also discussed is what men and women find attractive in the opposite sex. For men, it is youth and beauty and for women it is wealth and high status. Reinforcing this is the fact men are more visually stimulated than women are – e.g. pornography. Similarly, females of other species also prefer males that can provide food, resources, living space etc. To quote Stewart-Williams:

“men and women, in effect, selectively breed each other for the traits they most want in a partner.”

The author goes on to explore the prevalence of violence amongst men compared to women. In humans, men commit 90% of murders and are around 70% of murder victims, a phenomenon also seen among chimpanzees. This is especially concentrated within younger men leading to Margo Wilson and Martin Daly coining the term ‘young male syndrome’. This difference between the sexes is explained by the fact that violence pays off more for males than for females. In the animal kingdom, for example, elephant seals can obtain a harem of females by fighting off other males which can be seen in other species too.

The science and reasoning behind this is sound but it is in this section that I have some disagreements with Dr. Stewart-Williams. He notes that men get harsher sentences than women for the same crime but seems to suggest this is because men are more violent rather than possible favouritism towards women. There’s no denying that males are generally more violent than females in both humans and animals but for me this is where sex differences get a little bit more complicated. The author writes:

“the behavioral geneticist David Lykken summed up the situation well when he observed that, if we could cryogenically freeze all the males in this age bracket (MM: adolescents, young men) we would instantly eliminate most of the crime and violence that plagues human societies.”

True, but it could be argued that we would lose a lot of innovation and creativity as well. Notice how similar this quote is to current ideas about ‘toxic masculinity’. Increasingly, men are seen as a ‘problem’ that societies need to ‘fix’ in some way. One solution presumably is to make men more like women. What is rarely discussed, however, is how women relate to male violence, unless they are on the receiving end of it.

It has already been pointed out that women are attracted to men with wealth and high status. How could men achieve both these things, especially in the past? Through violence of course. This suggests that women, particularly younger ones, may have some attraction to men who behave violently, which explains some of men’s behaviour as a result. This is not to shift the blame of male violence onto women or trivialise female victims of it, but just to show that neither sex lives in a vacuum. Women being less violent does not necessarily mean they are ‘more peaceful’. If male violence needs to be controlled then certain features of female behaviour need to be controlled as well. As you can imagine, this is not something that is suggested in this book!

Stewart-Williams ends the chapter by stating:

“To the extent that men are naturally inclined towards violence, for instance, we should aim to dampen this male-typical behaviour, thereby reducing the size of the sex difference in violence.”

Are there any female-typical behaviours that need to be dampened? If so, what? The reader is left to think about that themselves – or not. I’ve suggested one thing that could be discouraged at least.

Another difference described in this chapter is the the greater amount of parental care of children done by women compared to men. A couple of suggestions are offered to explain why this is the case.

The first is paternal uncertainty, a problem that affects men but not women as a man could end up raising a child that is not his own if his wife has been unfaithful. Women can end up unknowingly raising another person’s child if there is a mix-up but every woman who has been pregnant and given birth knows that she’s a mother whereas a man could think he’s a father of a child when he isn’t. This is succinctly summarised by the phrase: ‘mummy’s baby, daddy’s maybe.’ Stewart-Williams notes that men invest more in their children if paternal uncertainty is lower. Men therefore do less childcare because they cannot be entirely sure that a child is truly theirs.

A second argument put forward is the idea of ‘mating opportunity cost’. Men who spend time raising children are sacrificing time that could be spent mating with other women so it is suggested that men are less involved in childcare because of this.

The author states on a few occasions that women are more ‘parental’ than men. Although I’m not a parent (Stewart-Williams, in fairness, is), I can imagine a lot of fathers – particularly divorced fathers struggling to gain access to their children – being irked by this statement. It is true that females care more for their young than males in both humans and animals but, again like with male violence, for me this is where sex differences become complicated.

Men generally do less childcare than women but will typically spend more time working to provide for their families. This is something acknowledged by Stewart-Williams in the fourth chapter but as ‘indirect care’. Nevertheless, providing for families is not trivial as it may determine if children are living in poverty or not, an important concern for responsible parents and society in general.

Other aspects of parenting should be considered as well. Parenting does not just mean childcare but also includes setting a good example and teaching a child about the right and wrong way to behave – things traditionally associated with fatherhood. It would have been useful if the author had talked about the negative consequences of fatherlessness on children, especially boys, as this would show that fathers are important – for humans at least. While I don’t think this is Stewart-William’s intention, I think certain people (feminists, for one) would use the argument that women are ‘more parental’ to argue for giving women exclusive custody of children or delegitimising fatherhood.

I’ve more to say about this chapter and I might do in a future post but to avoid getting bogged down in one section of the book I’ll move on.

Part 2 coming soon!

Mystery Man Speaks

As I mentioned in my introductory blog post, I have occasionally thought about making videos relating to what I’ve written about on here but had hitherto decided against it as I believed I could express myself better in words than I would be able to through speaking or appearing on camera. After I started writing on here, however, I began having ideas about videos that could complement this blog. Although I still had doubts about making and uploading videos via my Google account considering how censorious YouTube can be – and is increasingly becoming – I figured that life’s too short to spend wondering whether or not I should or should not do it so I’ve gone ahead and taken the plunge. I’ve uploaded a video onto YouTube where I read out my post about Laura Bates’ Men Who Hate Women book. I have ideas for videos in future that are a little bit more creative than this one although I’m not sure how often I’ll be able to post them.

Like I’ve found with writing posts on here, I probably won’t be able to create and upload content as much as I’d like to. I’m in the slightly frustrating position of having a lot of things I want to write/talk about but not having the time – nor sometimes the effort required – to spend writing and uploading posts which is why months can go by between one post and another on here. This is not a big deal obviously as I’m under no pressure to do anything and I don’t have an audience waiting for new content.

Moreover, I don’t think I would like to have a massive following as that brings with it its own pressures and stresses. It would be arrogant and presumptuous of course to think that I would be able to create such a following in the first place. I’ve always considered what I’ve been doing here as mainly for my own amusement so any response I get from it is a bonus and definitely appreciated. I don’t have much experience in making videos so I can’t promise high quality, expertly produced videos but hopefully what I upload will be of interest to someone.

If you want to watch the video in all its glory it can be found here.