Friday, July 6, 2007

Politically Correct Falsehoods About Human Nature

Sociobiology appears prominently in a Psychology Today article (somewhat ironically, in that a non-psychological theory is trumpeted in a publication supposedly concerned with psychology) entitled "Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature". Once again we hear how 'for evolutionary reasons, men are attracted to young women for their reproductive capabilities, and since blond hair is an indicator of youth, men are therefore attracted to blond women', and so forth.

Now, there may be quite a lot of truth in such theories. But the problem is that it is hard to discern the truth from the falsehoods. Indeed, much has been said regarding sociobiology being unfalsifiable. In a simpler type of argument, however, let us consider that sociobiology is always used on cases in which it appears to work well, ignoring those in which it doesn't. Here are some examples.

  • If being blond is indeed a factor that makes women more attractive, why is it not more prevalent? In fact, why isn't it ubiquitous? Some might say that it is because men are less attractive with blond hair, so the trait tends to reach a balance. Perhaps; yet I have never seen evidence for that claim, and in fact, sociobiological theory generally claims that appearance is more important for women (whereas power, authority and resources/money are more important for men). Given that, we would expect to see blond hair in more than half of the population - at least given enough time. Thus, the only defense left is that not enough time has passed for the trait to spread. Perhaps. Yet research seems to show people with blond hair appearing in sizable numbers 10,000 years ago in Europe - quite a long time indeed. Not enough?
  • Models are very tall; in fact significantly-above-average height is generally a prerequisite to work in that field. In addition, many women make themselves appear taller using high heels. But why is height attractive in women? Simple sociobiological reasoning seems to imply it should not be a cause of attraction: Tall women tend to have higher levels of testosterone, which implies lower reproductive fitness. Of course there are ways to reason for the opposite result: Height implies health during youth, for example.
  • Body fat is another questionable area. Why are thin women attractive now, whereas in the past fuller women were considered the ideal? There are competing ways to reason about this matter: Being thin is somewhat correlated with youth (people gain weight over time), yet being thin can also imply malnutrition or disease.
Clearly sociobiological theories have something to teach us about human beings. Yet, given a particular behavior, we cannot quantitatively say how much of it is due to sociobiological factors, and how much to other factors (cultural, psychological, etc.). Sociobiology will mature as a science only if and when it becomes a quantitative science, capable of measuring its successes as well as its limitations.

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