02.07.2008  BY EM & LO

Photo via Splash

You've heard it before: "Men are hardwired to be skirt-chasing, commitment-phobic, aggressive brutes...There's no arguing with science: it's just in a guy's genes." Well, Professor Martha McCaughey is arguing. In her recent book, The Caveman Mystique: Pop-Darwinism and the Debates Over Sex, Violence, and Science, this Director of Women's Studies at Appalachian State University in North Carolina proproses that evolutionary psychology is not much more than a pseudo-science adopted by a lazy pop culture to defend the bad behavior of boys. We talked with McCaughey about lad mags, Mitchum men, and the appeal of the Geico ads. It's a decent-sized interview, but well worth your read--she's got some fascinating ideas that are sure to make for heated debate at your next dinner party. 

Em & Lo: So, can you give us the CliffsNotes version of your book's thesis?

Martha McCaughey: Over the past two decades an increasingly popular story about men has emerged: that because of evolutionary pressures on their forefathers, modern men carry in their brains the desires that their cavemen ancestors evolved to have. Some of the typical and even offensive behaviors of the harrier sex (wanderlust, an obsession with breasts, and an inability to be monogamous for any length of time) can thus be explained. The relatively new field of evolutionary psychology offers evolutionary answers to familiar battle-of-the-sexes questions.

I argue that the caveman narrative caught on not because it's so compelling scientifically--in fact, some would not consider it science at all because it is so speculative--but because it came along just when great economic and political changes began affecting men's identities. American men's work and earning opportunities have drastically changed, and not for the better. Moreover, men have been criticized by liberals and conservatives alike for antisocial behavior in general and sexual violence in particular. Men have felt squeezed and bashed.

American women in the 1950s were supposed to take comfort and pride in their feminine figures and Tupperware collections. Today American men, who for better or worse have lost the opportunities to provide for families, to do productive work that helped make America run, and who have been taken to task for sexual assault and other forms of violence against women, have been offered a way to think of themselves as powerful, productive, and even aggressive. Because the new economic and political climate of the past 20 years has offered few real opportunities for men to be rewarded for such traits (indeed, masculinity is increasingly "service-sector" and "metrosexualized"), the idea that men are rugged cavemen has become increasingly popular.  

But just as 1950s women suffered what Betty Friedan famously called the "feminine mystique," American men today who buy into the discourse that they are really innately powerful and aggressive are embracing an ultimately empty fiction of their masculinity that I call the caveman mystique.

E&L: Why do you think it's so appealing for men to think of themselves as cavemen?

MM: I think the caveman narrative is tempting because it provides an explanation for patterns of behavior and for feelings that we do see in many men today. After all, many men do lust after beautiful women, many men do feel reluctant to commit to one woman and raise children with her, and many men who did commit fantasize about straying if they don't actually do so. The idea that men have evolved to be this way--that this is just man's caveman nature expressing itself--is a story that carries the authority of science. It can be fun to think of your feelings as rooted in your ancestors' struggle to survive a hostile environment back in the Pleistocene. Plus, it's easier to think of your complex feelings as rooted in your caveman brain than to understand your feelings as fueled by a complex combination of shifts in our economic, political, and family lives. For example, far more men today find it hard (if not impossible) to support a woman and children on their individual incomes. The evolutionary story that men are hardwired to seek sex with multiple partners allows men to explain their flight from commitment and their inability to be breadwinners. But it is the economic and political shifts that, I argue, influences men's feelings more than any caveman psychological predisposition.

E&L: But it's not just men, right? Aren't plenty of women are kind of attached to the caveman mystique, too?

MM: Sure, lots of women believe men are schmucks and that their biology makes them that way. I myself like to give men more credit than that. Some say this makes me an idealist. I say it makes me a feminist.

E&L: And this is a trend that's really increased over the last 15-20 years? Why now?

MM: The economic and political changes of the past 15-20 years coincided with the development of the field of evolutionary theory applied to human behavior, which made the theory as related to men's desires and behaviors quite popular.

E&L: Where does metrosexuality fit into the caveman mystique?

MM: Metrosexuality--men buying properly fitting clothes, using moisturizers, and grooming themselves to look attractive--is what caveman masculinity reacts against. So while some men spent the late 1990s and early 2000s embracing the role of consumers and becoming creatures of ornamentation (metrosexuals), other men revolted against this, embracing a can-do virility that Sara Stewart in the New York Post referred to as retrosexuality. Stewart describes retrosexuality as that "cringe-inducing backlash of beers and leers." We see this retrosexual attitude embraced not only in the caveman mystique but also in the 2006 Burger King ad campaign for the Double Whopper. These men say they're sick of "chick food" and in the ad push a van over a bridge. That attitude is also in the Mitchum ads. One Mitchum ad in a subway train stated: "If you're pretty sure you could kick out the window in the event of an emergency, you're a Mitchum Man." So in this context, the caveman ideology, with its focus on men's irrepressible heterosexuality and natural vigor, seems to appeal or just feel right to many men. The caveman mystique is a form of retrosexuality.

E&L: You take men's magazines to task for letting men think that the sperm wars of old are to blame for why men are boors, why they cheat, why they ogle, why they're visual creatures...what are the dangers of this kind of approach to advice-giving?

MM: A men's magazine is one of many places you'll find the evolutionary explanation of men being offered today. Advice columns, advice books, television shows, T-shirts, and books written by journalists and philosophers also popularize evolutionary psychology. As I point out in my book, great ideas have always had their popularizers. The ideas of Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Einstein, Marx, and Newton are familiar to so many not because many people read the work of those great intellectuals but because, more likely, people read about these ideas in the popular press. Many of those ideas get watered down or distorted by the enthusiasts who write about them. The danger of telling men that, for instance, "the desire to ogle is your biological destiny" (what one men's magazine told men in a report on evolutionary psychology) is that men will naively believe this story as if it were objective scientific fact and, further, that this story will inform men's behaviors and self-identities.

E&L: Do women's magazines do it, too?

MM: I did not conduct a study of women's magazines for The Caveman Mystique but I'll admit to reading them in doctors' waiting rooms and when I get a pedicure. From what I can tell, we don't see women's magazines reporting on men as evolutionarily inept partners or as biologically predisposed to rape women. Interestingly, we don't see women's magazines reporting on the ways women's desires and behaviors are shaped by evolution, either. The discourse of evolutionary psychology seems to be far more interesting to people when it's about men.

E&L: And what's wrong with using evolutionary psychology to explain the modern pick-up/dating/hook-up scene?

MM: Evolutionary psychology and its popularized versions would lead us to believe that men all want one thing, while women all want another. This erases the enormous differences among men and also marginalizes the many men who don't behave as evolutionary theory would predict. For example, there are gay men, there are men who are happily devoted to one woman, men who date women who are much older than they are, men who don't have casual sex, men who are turned on by extremely fat women, and men who don't care if they're bedding a B cup or a D cup. Further, while there are men who are sexually aggressive to the point of being criminals, there are also guys who call the police or otherwise intervene when their buddies try to rape a drunken woman. Evolutionary psychology does not tell us anything about such differences among men and in fact works to suppress those differences in our minds. Evolutionary psychology, furthermore, tells us nothing about the many sociological factors that shape the modern dating scene.

E&L: How can the average non-academic person tell the difference between what kind of behavior might actually be genetically determined, and what's just pseudo-science? Every week seems to bring a new study out of some university "explaining" why we screw the way we screw, why men like big boobs, why female strippers make more money when they're ovulating, etc.

MM: I don't think anyone--academic or non-academic--can actually tell which behaviors are genetically determined and which are not. That's because, as I argue in my book, evolutionary theory applied to human psychology and behavior is highly speculative. There is no scientific proof that, say, a desire for an hourglass figure is in any way connected to or located on a gene that can be passed on as a biological trait or genetically-based desire. We don't actually have any scientific evidence that there are genes for such things, that such desires are innate. Evolutionary theorists can only speculate that this is reasonable.

My goal in The Caveman Mystique is to encourage the average non-academic person to question the authority of science, particularly the "scientific" claims of evolutionary psychologists talking about human behavior and sexual desire and especially such claims discussed in the popular press. We must understand that those claims are loaded with values and are far from neutral and objective.

E&L: In what ways, if any, can it be actually helpful to look at the cavemen roots of modern masculinity?

MM: Some evolutionary psychologists have stated that they hope looking at the evolutionary roots of modern men's behaviors might help men become more conscientious (for example, become less likely to commit rape)--rather like overcoming your biological original sin through knowledge of it and the exercise of your free will. They also say that society might better address problems like rape by basing social policies on knowing the real causes of those problems. I argue, however, that this has not happened. Too many men end up creating a Darwinian defense of their antisocial behaviors, not curbing the behaviors to which evolution presumably predisposes them.

E&L: You describe in your book how even your own therapist spouted evo-psych theories to explain why you weren't interested in casual sex. And also, that your own sex and dating life seemed to back up these theories. If you can't escape it, what help is for the rest of us?! And what do you say to the person who says, "How can the caveman mystique be wrong if it explains so much so clearly?"

MM: Well, full disclosure: I did have, and enjoy, my share of casual sex--until my biological clock started ticking more loudly, at which point I started looking for something else. That's when my therapist invoked the evolutionary explanation to make sense of why it had been so much easier to find men looking for a good time than men interested in a committed relationship and children.

My dates with men showed me that men do often act in the ways that evolutionary theorists describe (extremely concerned with physical beauty in women, etc.). There is a pattern of male behavior that evolutionary theorists are describing--hence the appeal of the theory.

However, just because evolutionary theory can explain men's feelings or behaviors does not mean that there is any hard evidence supporting the explanation. We'd be wise to remember that many people believe that the Bible can "explain so much so clearly."

The point is that there are equally plausible alternative explanations for the same male behavior.

E&L: Everyone loves to talk about the appeal of "the bad boy." Do you think the propagation of the caveman mystique has made bad boy behavior even more common and even more appealing?

MM: Yes. It's always easier to act a certain way when you have an explanation or rationalization for acting that way. But it's important to remember that the caveman discourse did not start a trend of male sexual aggression; that social problem already existed. Many men have gone from thinking "the devil made me do it" to "the DNA made me do it."

E&L: You write that "the caveman ethos is Viagra for the masculine soul." What did you mean by this?

MM: Viagra helps men get and stay hard, but it also helps them have more of the kind of sex they want to and think they should be having. In a similar way, the idea that men are rampantly heterosexual, can't help but cheat on their partners, and maybe even can't help but rape helps men rationalize the kind of sex life they want and think they should be having. The caveman narrative helps men think of themselves as highly libidinous, virile animals on the prowl.

E&L: Someone online called your book a "take-down of evo-psych-style cave-masculinity." Did you intend your book to be a take-down? If so, of what?

MM: That's funny. I did want men to look more critically at caveman-style masculinity, at the science of evolutionary psychology, and at the media's often distorted reporting of scientific studies about men. So, yes, I did want to deconstruct the caveman narrative--I suppose "deconstruction" is just academic jargon for a "take-down."

E&L: So tell us a few things you learned about modern masculinity while researching this book...(and did any of it help improve your dating life?)

MM: In some ways writing this book made me more compassionate toward men. I came to realize--and I argue in the book--that American men have had it rough in the past 20 years. Though they still enjoy male privilege and our society can still accurately be characterized as male dominated, men have seen their privilege challenged and haven't quite known how to handle it. Women have been gaining on men economically and have been calling men on their sexist behaviors in interpersonal relationships, at work, and in public life more generally. Men used to be able to find jobs that made them feel like productive members of society; now many of those jobs have been lost to technology or cheaper labor sources in other countries. Men used to understand their role in sex, in the family, and in the workplace; now they face confusing demands by women to have totally different types of relationships.

All those social changes explain why so many men with only service-sector work opportunities and otherwise downsized, diminished, and detested masculinity would be drawn to the idea that deep down, inside, biologically they are virile, aggressive, manly cavemen.

I don't know if my book could improve the dating lives of women (including my own), but I do think my book could improve a man's dating life because it helps men question the common discourse of masculinity and offers men new, richer, more complex ways to think about manhood and sexuality. And men who are comfortable with the fluidity and complexity of sexuality are far sexier than men whose desires follow the narrow confines of popular cultural script.

E&L: What do you think about the Geico cavemen?

I love the Geico ads featuring the touchy, easily offended cavemen. Men's adopting the caveman identity biologizes identity, turning gender into an ethnicity. When masculinity is treated like an ethnicity it is treated as an identity that is not only difficult but offensive to change. I don't want gender to become a new ethnicity, because it would require that we defend--rather than change--masculinity as it is currently conceived. Many evolutionary scholars hope that men realizing the evolutionary roots of their desires will liberate them and/or allow society to change with the new knowledge of evolutionary roots of those desires. Ironically, though, the effect of evolutionary discourse has been to turn masculinity into an unchangeable, biological essence--providing men with a Darwinian defense of bad-boy behaviors.


Julian said:

There really is something silly about the use of "cave-masculinity" as justification for bad behavior. Even if it is true that there may be a real biological impulse to be a jerk, doesn't mean you have to act on it. Biological tendency has never meant you get to do everything you want.

What ever happened to the good old idea that, yes, everyone has a wandering eye, but that you don't have to act on it? And shouldn't all of this evolutionary theory be based on the idea of what is beneficial to the largest number of potential offspring? When did rapists get the biological advantage over good dads? Just by the numbers they could produce? If we took a larger view of society I suspect we might see a lot of biological advantages to civility, trustworthiness and washing your hair.

I mean really, if you want to breed and have your offspring survive and be healthy, what could work better than looking ok and not being a dick?

Wendell said:

Martha McCaughey--thank you! My "sociological imagination" is quite rusty as I haven't used it much since college, but this interview brings me some hope about the study of masculinities and the changing landscape of gender roles.

This also makes me feel more okay for not being a "player" even though more than one person has told me "you know, you could be such a ladies man," thinking it was a compliment. I am happy evo-psych is being taken to task for the intellectually (and experientially) lazy trash it is. But since your book doesn't fit into a narrative that upholds patriarchal notions of gender roles, it doesn't get the attention it deserves. Time to go make a purchase and type up a blog post!

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Em & Lo, more formally known as Emma Taylor and Lorelei Sharkey, are the self-proclaimed Emily Posts of the modern bedroom.

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