Can We Talk?

In her tribute to the late comedian Joan Rivers, Katha Pollitt wrote that “comedy had a big No Girls Allowed sign on the door for most of her career” [“Rivers Gets the Last Laugh,” Sept. 29]. But I remember, as a boy growing up during the late 1930s, ’40s and early ’50s, enjoying the excellent humor of funny ladies of radio, television, movies and live theater: Billie Burke, Eve Arden, Judy Canova, Ethel Waters, Shirley Booth, Kathleen Lockhart, Connie Brooks, Jane Ace of Easy Aces, Ann Sothern in Maisie, Myrtle Vail and Donna Damerel in Myrt & Marge, Cathy Lewis and Marie Wilson on the My Friend Irma show, Gale Storm in My Little Margie and Audrey Totter in Meet Millie.

There were many hilarious co-equal stars of male-female comedy teams: Fanny Brice in Baby Snooks, Marian Jordan of Fibber McGee & Molly fame, Ernestine Wade as Sapphire on Amos ‘n’ Andy, Gracie Allen with George Burns, Mary Livingstone with Jack Benny, Portland Hoffa with Fred Allen and Mary Tyler Moore with Dick Van Dyke. And, of course, there were the true greats: Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, with their incredibly funny sidekicks Vivian Vance and Vicki Lawrence. Joan Rivers, of course, ranks up there with the best of them.

John A. Moore
lansdowne, pa.

“Survival of the Sexiest”

Critiques of evolutionary approaches to human behavior often have a stereotyped form of describing a pedigree of error, from the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer, to the sociobiology of E.O. Wilson, to the evolutionary psychology of Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. Mal Ahern and Moira Weigel’s broadside against evolutionary psychology, “Survival of the Sexiest” [Sept. 29], conforms to the genre.

Spencer, we are told, “hailed natural selection as a force driving the improvement of the human species,” but Ahern and Weigel neglect to mention that Spencer was the author of The Inadequacy of “Natural Selection” and a staunch defender of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, in part because the malleability of human behavior was more compatible with his views on social progress.

The work of Margo Wilson and Martin Daly is ridiculed because they found that children are at greater risk of neglect or infanticide if they live in a household with a man who is not their biological father, but there is no pause to consider whether this might be true of a small subset of “stepfathers.” We are speaking of relative risk, and whether it might have implications for recognizing children at particular risk. I had the honor of giving the first Margo Wilson Memorial Lecture, and to say that Margo believed that such behaviors are “hard-coded into the brain” is a gross misrepresentation of her nuanced views. Sturgeon’s Law states that “90 percent of everything is crap,” and this is just as true of evolutionary psychology as of any other field, but it is the good stuff that deserves our attention.

David Haig
cambridge, mass.

As an evolutionary psychologist, let me address the question about the growing popularity of this field. Many college students find EP appealing because it documents and explains certain universal sex differences that other social sciences ignore or attribute to socialization alone. For example, students want to know why men tend to seek casual sex more than women. Categorically blaming “society” or “capitalism” is unsatisfying.

Too many leftists, like creationists, dismiss Darwinism on ideological, not empirical, grounds. The authors of this article cite no scientific data to refute the EP assertions they mock. Instead, they resort to misrepresentation and guilt by association—Social Darwinism, Nazism, etc. Interested people might read works by evolutionists themselves, such as David Buss’s Evolution of Desire.

EP uses data from neuroscience, animal behavior, archaeology, genetics, endocrinology and anthropology. Like any other science, EP self-critically tests hypotheses, rejects some, and progressively refines its claims. The field harbors no political agenda beyond pursuing a better understanding of human nature.

Glenn Weisfeld

The main insight that EP should bring us is that we are animals. The fact that we have moral lives and can discuss concepts such as evil or justice is unique in the animal kingdom. But it, like everything else about us, is evolved behavior. Our ability for cultural transmission is itself genetically determined. Instead of wondering whether current research offers people “excuses” for their behavior, marvel that you’re even capable of considering the question.
Paul Dirks

A proper view of human nature with respect to evolution should establish a kind of nature-and-nurture hierarchy—basically, a serenity prayer for the modern human: “God (or Darwin or the Flying Spaghetti Monster) give me the serenity to accept my nature, the ability to change my environment to best express said nature, and the wisdom to know that I will probably never really know what my nature is (but can make some educated guesses, provided I remain damn well skeptical).”

Ahern and Weigel Reply

Professors Haig and Weisfeld state that research in evolutionary psychology is far more nuanced than is our portrait of it. This misses our point somewhat. The primary motive behind our investigation was to discover why “clickbait” versions of EP scholarship have proven so appealing to nonspecialists. Like most people, we first encountered EP in contexts that favored simplified accounts of the discipline—in undergraduate lecture courses, newspapers, magazines, and the umpteen blogs and posts that regularly poach their stories. Upon investigating, we found that evolutionary psychology lends itself to pat explanations because of its frequent dismissal of social context in favor of a certain easy determinism. We cited neurobiologists and philosophers who have described the wide variety of factors involved in triggering gene expression specifically to highlight the importance of context as well as heredity in determining our behaviors. (We do not doubt that stepfathers may abuse stepchildren at a slightly higher rate than biological fathers abuse their biological children; we question only whether evolution is the most useful way of explaining why.)

Mr. Dirk observes that EP’s main insight is to remind humans that they are animals who should marvel at the fact that we are capable of asking questions at all. We would like to assure him, we find asking questions marvelous.

Mal Ahern and Moira Weigel
new haven; brooklyn