June 13, 2006

"From an evolutionary perspective, the potential for physical threat from a male is greater than that from a female."

Here's another one of those articles about the difference between men and women:
Trying to get someone's attention? Looking angry may be the key. The face most likely to stand out in a crowd is an irate one, according to a new study, and men are better than women at picking up the anger that a face conveys.

On the other hand, women are more adept at detecting more socially relevant expressions that communicate happiness, sadness, surprise and disgust....

Detecting the angry man in a sea of faces, the authors say, has a survival advantage for both sexes.

"From an evolutionary perspective," [postdoctoral fellow Mark A. Williams and psychology professor Jason B. Mattingley] write, "the potential for physical threat from a male is greater than that from a female."

So any perceptual system that helps detect an angry man is an advantage.
That seems rather glib and over-committed to evolutionary biology. One could just as well crank out a theory that women today have learned to blunt their perception of anger in faces so that they can form and preserve relationships with men. Even within the evolutionary theorizing: Why is it more helpful to a man to see anger? If the man is more able to fight, and the woman needs to rely more on fleeing, then the woman has the greater advantage in quickly perceiving anger.

I don't like the way sociobiologists observe something and then generate a reason why it would have had a survival advantage. If they'd observed the opposite, they'd have been able to generate a reason to support it too. The fixed point is their belief that the quality they've discovered exists at a biological level, and it's easy enough to make everything fit.

(People who think everything is socially constructed are at least as irritating.)

17 comments:

Goesh said...

I've known more than one pistol-packing momma in my day and some huge, powerful farm women who could cuss like sailors and do brute labor all day long, the type of women most men wouldn't dare mess with. I'm not so sure of the veracity of such statements.

Al Maviva said...

The plural of anecdotes, Goesh, is anecdotes.

Data sometimes shows otherwise.

Pogo said...

The evolutionary psychology thesis is non-scientific, because it is irrefutable. Every behavior that exists, exists because it meets the evolutionary need X. And the proof is that the behavior exists.

The problem is, as Ann points out, huge gaps remain unaccounted for. Such views are overly simplistic and deterministic, describing people not as humans, but small-brained primates, or even dogs or cats.

It's all pretty silly, if they weren't so earnest.

HaloJonesFan said...

It isn't surprising to me that a man is more likely to pick an "angry" face out of a crowd, because ten thousand years of evolutionary biology have conditioned men to key on challenges and threats.

Humans are primates. Our salvation is not that we have evolved past instinctual responses, but that we have evolved to the point where we can recognize them and suppress them. But we'd be kidding ourselves to pretend that they don't exist.

"Even within the evolutionary theorizing: Why is it more helpful to a man to see anger?"

It isn't, necessarily. It has more to do with evolved social responses than anything else. Obviously I don't think that the tiger wants to eat me because she's angry; but another male of the tribe looking that way means that it's time to throw down.

Normally I agree with Ann regarding inappropriate sexual-role analysis of social situations, but I differ here; this article is relevant, accurate, and in keeping with my own experience.

The Drill SGT said...

This stuff is mostly BS, having said that I'll contribute to more of the same.

Ann sez:

Even within the evolutionary theorizing: Why is it more helpful to a man to see anger? If the man is more able to fight, and the woman needs to rely more on fleeing, then the woman has the greater advantage in quickly perceiving anger.


Back in the days when we were beating each other with elephant femurs, and frankly until 400-500 years ago in the West, smart women (here we go back to the Duke rape case), ran whenever they met strange men down at the waterhole.

There was no advantage or premium to be had in quickly perceiving anger. Strange men = flee. end of story. The men of the tribe however in their travels came across other hunting parties. For them the hunting parties could be either peaceful or warlike. The ability to tell mattered.

Goesh said...

Hogwash and fiddlesticks! Child Protection service data shows about an equal propensity for women to abuse children as much as men and more and more men are coming forth to report spousal abuse.These numbers will increase too once men get over the notion that only girly men report such things. Sexual abuse of boys by women will show a great increase too once men quit regarding such things as mere rites of passage. So to make this notion a real self-fulling prophecy, they can shove this research up their asses! Tally that stat, Buster!

Sloanasaurus said...

Women are still a lot more moody than men. Maybe they don't get as angry as men, they are just in bad moods more often.

Eddie said...

Pogo said:

"The evolutionary psychology thesis is non-scientific, because it is irrefutable. Every behavior that exists, exists because it meets the evolutionary need X. And the proof is that the behavior exists.

The problem is, as Ann points out, huge gaps remain unaccounted for. Such views are overly simplistic and deterministic, describing people not as humans, but small-brained primates, or even dogs or cats."

Pogo, I think you've contradicted yourself. I don't see how an account can be irrefutable and also leave stuff out, be overly simplistic, and be overly deterministic.

It may be the case, as Ann points out, that evolutionary psychology routinely overreaches. This does not mean, however, that its hypotheses are fundamentally unfalsifiable.

Pogo said...

Re: "I don't see how an account can be irrefutable and also leave stuff out, be overly simplistic, and be overly deterministic."

I've read enough on EP to recognize its failings, I think. According to its tenets, all behaviors can be explained through evolutionary psychology. If a behavior exists at all, it is because of EP. No gaps are admitted to exist.

As for deterministic, I mean EP suggests/believes all behaviors are foregone conclusions, and human choice is absent.

In unscientific writing, it's quite possible, and not infrequent, that someone can be simultaneously irrefutable, incomplete, simplistic, and deterministic. That is precisely why the EP theory is unscientific.

Meade said...

"Physical threat from a male is greater than that from a female."

Statistically, this is true, right? What I want to know is - which sex is more adept at psychological threat? And is there any correlation to the diminishing Y chromosome in human evolution?

Simon said...

Ann,
Apologies if I've mentioned this before, but have you ever read a book by Barbara & Allan Pease called Why men don't listen and women can't read maps?

Henry said...

In line with Pogo's comment (and Ann's "enough with the evolutionary theorizing"), I offer this brutal takedown of evolutionary psychology by Leon Wieseltier (in a NY Times review of Daniel Dennet's 'Breaking the Spell):

The orthodoxies of evolutionary psychology are all here, its tiresome way of roaming widely but never leaving its house, its legendary curiosity that somehow always discovers the same thing.

There may be something to evolutionary psychology, but every account in the popular press seems to reaffirm Wieseltier's disdain.

Slocum said...

I don't like the way sociobiologists observe something and then generate a reason why it would have had a survival advantage. If they'd observed the opposite, they'd have been able to generate a reason to support it too.

Yep, "Just So Stories" are the well-known bane of Evolutionary Psychology.

Another problem is the knee-jerk attribution of any observed differences to innate qualities. Adult men and women have, on average, had different life experiences and these can be expected, on average, to produce various kinds of disparities.

That's not to say there are no innate psychological differences between the sexes--only that when you find behaviorial differences, both nature and nurture have to be considered as likely sources.

AlaskaJack said...

The explanatory technique used by the EP people is exactly the same that is used by all evolutionaary theorists: they "observe something and then generate a reason why it would have had a survival advantage." The whole thing is circular. Why does x have characteristic "a"? Answer: x has characteristic "a" because "a" has a survival value for x. How do we know "a" has a survival value for x? Answer: x survived and has characteristic "a".

37383938393839383938383 said...

"If the man is more able to fight, and the woman needs to rely more on fleeing, then the woman has the greater advantage in quickly perceiving anger."

Bad assumption. Pregnant women don't flee well.

Mike said...

Ann said: I don't like the way sociobiologists observe something and then generate a reason why it would have had a survival advantage. If they'd observed the opposite, they'd have been able to generate a reason to support it too.

This is generally true in all science. There's a physics joke about an experimentalist and a theoretician who are working on a problem together. The experimentalist walks into the theoretician's office with a graph of his new data. The theoretician is not there, so he lays the graph on his desk and walks away. Sometime later, the theoretician walks up the the experimentalist in the hallway saying, "I can explain this". Holding the graph out in front of him, he excitedly explains the reason the results came out the way they did. The experimentalist listens patiently until the theoretician is finished. Then he takes the graph from the theoretician's hands, turns it 180-degrees, and hands it back to him. The theoretician ponders the now right-side-up graph for a monent and then says, "I can explain this".

Human beings are very imaginative. We can "explain" anything. The difference between physics and evolutionary biology is that physicists can say, "well, if your explanation is correct, then the result of a new experiment will be X". Evolutionary biologists can't do that, so we shouldn't be to hard on them. On the other hand, it also means that we shouldn't put too much stock in their theories, since they can't be tested. Speaking as a physicist, I can't imagine why anyone would want to work in such a field.

altoids1306 said...

If they'd observed the opposite, they'd have been able to generate a reason to support it too.

Bingo. Which is why science depends on experiment, and why evolutionary psychology is not science.