Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Barbie the Mammoth-Slayer

Fashions come and go in social sciences as in popular culture. Fashion is broadly cyclical, but is best pictured as a wheel in motion rather than as one spinning on an axle in a fixed location, because nothing ever returns to exactly the same spot it was before. Hemlines may rise and fall, lapels widen and narrow, hair lengthen and shorten, trouser leg bottoms balloon into bells and straighten to tight openings, but the total look is never quite identical to the earlier one.

In social sciences the cycle is largely between the ascendency of cultural determinists (nurture is everything) and of biological determinists (nature is everything). In truth, few people are entirely one or the other. Nearly all acknowledge that both nature and nurture are something. However, the mostly-nurturists and the mostly-naturists alternate in their dominance very much according to fashion. It is hard not to see a political dimension to the swings, though leftists and rightists can be found in each camp. Once again, the turns of the wheel never return us exactly to where we were, so social sciences do manage to evolve over time.

The mostly-nurturists, who argue the newborn human mind is largely a blank slate that can be acculturated in almost any imaginable way, have dominated academia for quite some time. In the past decade the mostly-naturists have made a comeback, at least in the published literature. This time around they call themselves evolutionary psychologists.

One of the pop stars of evolutionary psychology is Satoshi Kanazawa, who teaches at, of all places, The London School of Economics. He co-authored with Alan Miller the book Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters and blogs as The Scientific Fundamentalist. His basic point is that humans have instincts that evolved to suit our ancestors 10,000 years ago, and these continue to motivate us today, regardless of our particular cultural milieu. He calls it the Savanna Principle.

Much of what he has to say is not only obvious to an average reader, but blindingly obvious. For example, he tells us most men find attractive a woman who approximates a Barbie doll and most women would like to look like one. He tells us the economic burdens of parenthood, which now last for two or more decades instead of just one, often make people unhappy. He tells us men are motivated by sex. He tells us women are more selective than men in their choice of sexual partners and that they take social and economic status into account. (Zsa Zsa Gabor: “I want a man who’s kind and understanding. Is that too much to ask of a millionaire?”) This hardly is startling stuff. He stirs controversy when he attributes these preferences to evolution instead of childhood training.

Take Barbie dolls and the exaggerated muscular physiques of action figures, often criticized for indoctrinating kids to desire unrealistic body types. Kanazawa specifically argues that Barbie did not create an impossible ideal, but merely embodied an impossible ideal that existed long before Ruth Handler designed the doll for Mattel in 1959. The ideal came first and is rooted in instincts suitable for the reproductive success of cavepeople.

Momentum is currently on the naturist side, and Kanazawa and his colleagues definitely are worth a read. We can be sure, however, that the nurturists will be back. After all, once again, training may not be everything, but it certainly is something.

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